Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Plan 9 Odyssey, Part 2 by Greg Dziawer

Plan 9 producer/gravedigger Hugh Thomas; (background) the Carlton Theatre.

It's time once again to delve into the hidden history of Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s most well-known film, the one that serves as the cornerstone of his cult stardom: the unique sci-fi/horror hodgepodge known as Plan 9 from Outer Space. Some might assume that everything worth saying about this patched-together 1957 film has already been said, especially since Plan 9 has inspired a documentary of its own (1992's Flying Saucers Over Hollywood) as well as countless articles and essays. The making of Plan 9 was also memorably dramatized in Tim Burton's fanciful biopic Ed Wood (1994). But even after all that, my research continues to turn up interesting little gems about this misunderstood classic.

In our first Plan 9 Odyssey, for instance, I shared a 1959 ad for the film that contained a statement from one of the film's associate producers, Hugh Thomas, Jr.

Well, it turns out that ad was for a showing at the Siesta Drive-In in Sarasota, Florida in 1959, and as this September 16, 1970 newspaper article indicates, Hugh Thomas himself had designed and fully engineered the Siesta years prior. 

In addition to the background information about the Siesta, this article brings to light many startling things. To wit:

1. Although it's often presumed that Hugh Thomas was a member of the Southern Baptist Convention of Beverly Hills, he makes no mention of it here. That particular religious institution looms large in the Plan 9 myth, as all Wood fans know. Thomas is said to have been a member in the 1950s, along with his Plan 9 producer and costar J. Edward Reynolds, who passed in early 1959 and was thus robbed of the gratification of what the film would become. Plan 9 associate producer Charles Burg was also alleged to have been part of this congregation. Interestingly, in this article, Thomas firmly places himself in roles working in and around managing movie theaters for his entire career. 
2. Given Thomas' pioneering and jubilant celebration of Plan 9 for its "bad" qualities in his statement in the ad in 1959, his estimation here over a decade later that the film was a "success" is either ballyhoo or bespeaks its financial ROI. The latter, never calculated to my knowledge, must be estimable, given the film's ubiquity in drive-ins and then TV syndication for more than two decades, only to rise again and remain so since as prototypical cult object. That said, it's apparent that Thomas was no more a financial benefactor of that "success" than Ed was. 
3. The Peacemaker (1956) appears to have been the only film into which the Southern Baptist Convention successfully trojan-horsed its religious views. Although he is not credited, and the IMDb claims the crew to be complete, Thomas mentions himself as producer both here and in the 1959 ad. In this article, he says that he co- produced it with Hal R. Makelim, the credited producer. And here, he claims that Plan 9 was another co-production by the pair. I can find no evidence of Makelim ever being involved in Plan 9 from Outer Space.  
4. Hal R. Makelim was, like Ed, another would-be entrepreneur trying to catch a big break in Hollywood. Beyond The Peacemaker, his scant credits include the forgotten programmer Man of Conflict from 1953—also his sole directorial credit—starring John Agar. Makelim served as Agar's manager at the time. Agar never appeared in a Wood film, though he likewise still gets his fair share of "worst actor" attributions owing to the bargain-basement run of schlock he indiscriminately appeared in throughout the '50s. By the early '70s, if not considerably earlier, Agar and Ed had become drinking buddies.  
5. Agar and Thomas were, like Eddie the Marine, WWII vets, John in the Navy and Hugh in the Army. This correspondence demonstrates, in the proverbial bigger picture, just how commonly that conflict was a doubtless crucial part of the lives of so many people, remaining so today. 
6. After his "failed" partnership with Makelim, Hugh Thomas bought the 1,200-seat Carlton Theatre in Los Angeles. If that name rings a bell, it was the venue for the world premiere of (then-titled) Grave Robbers from Outer Space, on Friday, March 15, 1957, then (per this article) under Thomas' ownership. A survey card from the premiere sold on Ebay for almost $1300 a little less than a year ago.  
7. The Carlton occupied 5411 South Western in Los Angeles from the '20s through its closure in 1959. The building was demolished by the early '70s, making way for a McDonald's. 

Besides serving as producers and financiers on Plan 9, Hugh Thomas and J. Edward Reynolds are best known and loved by Wood fans today for their memorable roles as the film's ill-fated gravediggers. These two bumblers die an offscreen death, dispatched violently by Vampira, but not before delivering this characteristically Woodian exchange:

Hugh (the tall and younger gentleman on the left): You hear anything? 
J. Edward: Thought I did. 
Hugh: Don't like hearing noises, especially when there ain't supposed to be any. 
J. Edward: Yeah, kinda spooky-like. 
Hugh: Maybe we're getting old. 
J. Edward: Well, whatever it is, it's gone now. 
Hugh: That's the best thing for us, too, gone. 
J. Edward: Yeah, let's go.

Incidentally, as the historical record indicates, these guys are not the narrow-minded, uptight autocrats as depicted in Tim Burton's Ed Wood. They are clearly regular joes, magically appearing in a soon-to-be and unbeknownst-to-them exalted circumstance.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Take away the characters, and 'Family Circus' becomes a haunting series of still-life images (UPDATED)

Disused Jungle Gym (2016)

Where have they gone, the lovable, melon-headed characters who normally populate The Family Circus? Where are rambunctious Billy, inquisitive Dolly, sensitive Jeffy, and dear, sweet, hopeless PJ? For that matter, where are their parents: long-suffering Thel and checked-out Bill? All of them seem to have mysteriously vanished. Were they raptured into Heaven to be with their dear departed Grandfather? It's unknown, but the world they inhabited -- at least the buildings, furniture, and other non-living objects -- seem to be just fine. Perfectly intact. It's a puzzler, this one. But aren't these images eerily beautiful?

The Lonely Ottoman (2016)
The Rack (2016)
Couch on the Edge of Oblivion (2016)

UPDATE: Just in case you followed a link from somewhere else to get here, I thought I'd add a couple more of these that I've done over the years. As always, enjoy.

Stille Nacht (2018)

Confusing Doors (2017)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Ed Wood Extra: To those we lost in 2017

Rance Howard, Martin Landau, Conrad Brooks, David Ward, and Steve Apostolof.

Before we get too far into 2018, I thought it only proper that we should acknowledge a few of those who died in 2017, specifically those whose lives intersected in some way with that of Ed Wood. Sadly, the number of people who knew Eddie or who worked with him directly is getting smaller and smaller each year. And even Tim Burton's Ed Wood is now 24 years old, if you can believe it, and a number of cast and crew members from that biopic have since died. In brief, 2017 took a hell of a toll on the Ed Wood community. It was nice, I suppose, to have some new books and BluRay releases, but they're a poor substitute for these extraordinary people.

Let's deal with the Burton film first. Two of the principal cast members of Ed Wood passed away in 2017. The one who got the lion's share of the headlines, naturally, was Martin Landau, who died at the advanced age of 89 on July 15 of last year. A native New Yorker whose career in film and television spanned an astonishing 64 years, Landau finally won an Oscar in 1995 for his portrayal of a cranky, crumbling Bela Lugosi, turning to Ed Wood for employment and companionship in his final years. Aided by Rick Baker's award-winning makeup, Landau managed to bring new insight and vulnerability to the much-imitated and caricatured Lugosi. Whenever I see Bela in a movie -- whether it's one of Wood's movies or not -- I think of Landau.

Departing our realm, too, was character actor Rance Howard, who played straight-shooting moneyman Donald McCoy in Ed Wood. (He wants Eddie's movie to end with a "sky full of smoke" and gazes up dreamily as he imagines the glorious destruction.) Father of Clint and Ron Howard, Rance was one of the most familiar faces in Hollywood, appearing in nearly 300 movies and television shows starting in the mid-1950s. He had an honest face and a slight Oklahoma drawl that served him well in dozens upon dozens of roles. Rance worked so often and with so many people, in fact, he comes much closer than Kevin Bacon to being the center of the Hollywood universe. Rance Howard died on November 25, 2017. He, too, was 89.

Perhaps the most significant Wood-related death of 2017 was of actor turned filmmaker Conrad "Connie" Brooks, who died just last month at the age of 86. An irreplaceable link to the past, Brooks was truly the last surviving member of Eddie's inner circle, having appeared in Glen or Glenda, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Bride of the Monster, The Sinister Urge, and Jail Bait. Since Eddie's personal and professional lives were so intricately intertwined, Conrad Brooks can safely be called one of Ed's cronies. Who knows how many more movies they would have made together if there were but world enough and time, not to mention cash? A staple of documentaries about Wood, always popping up to talk about his departed pal, Brooks was a B-movie lifer. Even without Eddie, the incorrigible, garrulous Connie appeared in dozens of low-budget flicks (as well as Burton's Ed Wood) and eventually wrote and directed a few of his own.

Attention should also be paid to the passing of stage and screen actor David Ward, who died in August at the age of 84. He'd been a resident of a Los Angeles nursing home for years, and Ed Wood superfan Bob Blackburn stayed in contact with him and visited him frequently until the end of his life. Ward was another of Wood's Hollywood cronies, especially during Eddie's boozy final years in the 1970s, though the two didn't really work on many movies together. Ward was also a personal friend of Bulgarian-born filmmaker Stephen C. Apostolof and made cameos in at least two of Apostolof's movies, The Cocktail Hostesses and Drop Out Wife, both scripted by Eddie. And Ed had other plans for David, including an adaptation of his short story "To Kill a Saturday Night," that never came to pass. The David Ward saga is an incredible one, inspiring the unproduced screenplay Edward Ford, which I thoroughly discussed here.

Speaking of Apostolof, the late filmmaker's oldest son Steve Apostolof died unexpectedly after a brief illness in Simi Valley, CA at the age of 60 on November 19, 2017. Like all of Apostolof's children, Steve made numerous visits to his father's sets and even made an onscreen appearance in 1978's Hot Ice, canonically the last film Ed Wood ever worked on. (Eddie was credited as an assistant director and was slated to make a cameo but was too drunk to do so.) In addition, Steve was one of the interviewees in Jordan Todorov's documentary Dad Made Dirty Movies. He took great amusement in his father's colorful career and helped keep the Wood-Apostolof legend alive by sharing his stories of those bygone days of the 1960s and '70s.

Rest in peace, one and all.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part Seven

She was only in one Ed Wood feature, but Valda Hansen casts a long shadow. Art by Drew Friedman.

Among the circle of fascinating personalities appearing prominently in Ed Wood's first half-dozen films—the work for which he is best and "worst" remembered—Valda Hansen (1932-1993) stands out as a fixture of the group despite making only one relatively brief appearance. As The White Ghost in Night of the Ghouls, moll to the scheming Dr. Acula (Kenne Duncan), she projects a delicate beauty and ethereal presence. That film also featured another key player in the Wood repertory company, Criswell, in one of his most memorable roles. In my research, I've discovered a fascinating old newspaper clipping that involves both Criswell and Ms. Hansen, and I'd like to share it with you this week.

The Long Beach Independent and Independent Press Telegram were Criswell's first homes as a regular newspaper columnist in 1949, as he laid the foundation for his persona. These papers covered him often, and it's not hard to imagine that his pull was largely responsible for a full page feature in the Telegram from December 7, 1958, featuring Valda and coverage of the "recently-released" (?) Night of the Ghouls ("...which carried her up to stardom"?). While there are no mentions of writer-director Ed Wood, there are priceless details about Valda that have gone unrecorded elsewhere. And then there's that photo of Cris as "Dead Man." (!) Enjoy.

We'll return to Valda Hansen, and to Night of the Ghouls, among a host of topics all related to Ed Wood, this coming year here at Ed Wood Wednesdays!
NOTE: The original layout for this vintage article can be seen here at the Ed Wood Wednesdays Tumblr.