Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 18 by Greg Dziawer

Think you can name this mystery starlet?

High school days.
Let's play a game. I'll think of someone with a connection to Edward D. Wood, Jr., and you try to guess who it is. Sound good?

We have a wide variety of candidates to consider here. After all, among the multitude of creative talents who crossed paths with Eddie during his three tumultuous decades in Hollywood, some are instantly recognizable cult icons, including CriswellVampira, and Tor Johnson. Legends all. Most were like Ed, though, working on the fringes of the industry in near-anonymity. While Ed's obscurity evolved into a beyond-the-grave infamy, others in his orbit have been all but forgotten by time.

One of those obscure performers intrigued me, though her connection to Ed was both fleeting and speculative. We can safely say that "maybe" she worked with Ed. I happened to find her high school graduation photo, showing a pert, smiling brunette with a sensible hairdo and outfit. You wouldn't guess there was anything even vaguely scandalous in her future. Something about this rather benign image captured my imagination and made me want to know more.

Another photo revealed that this young lady was in her school's Spanish Club. It's a typical yearbook group shot: a lot of awkward Caucasian kids, some wearing sombreros, grinning for the camera. A couple of wisenheimers in the back row clutch a poster advertising the Plaza de Toros de Madrid. Our girl stands off to the right, looking perhaps a bit more self-satisfied and confident than her peers. Perhaps she did or said something noteworthy right before the photo was taken. Indeed, a few other members of the club seem to be looking her way. They, like me, want to know, "Who's that girl?"

One of the people in this Spanish Club will eventually work with Ed Wood.

Any ideas yet?

Well, I'm feeling charitable, so I'll give you a few additional hints about our mystery woman:
  • She stripped under a stage name, dubbed The Wow Girl.
  • Her sole feature film credit is a movie Ed is believed to have scripted.
  • She appeared in some explicit-for-their-era peepshow arcade shorts (or loops), as well as some skin mag photo features.

Do you know who she is?

Join us here in one week to find out. The next installment in this series will feature the first-ever published index of her work across various media.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

A Clown, for Christ's Sake: The curious career of Rev. Floyd T. Shaffer (UPDATED)

A tabloid article about Floyd Shaffer, the religious clown.

Floyd Shaffer's first book.
The Reverend Floyd T. Shaffer was looking for a new way to reach his congregation in 1969. How could he possibly get through to his practical, sensible flock during that tumultuous age of Vietnam, Woodstock, and Manson? The unlikely answer was by donning a fright wig, floppy shoes, and a round, red, rubber nose.

Though he may not have invented the form, Floyd Shaffer became, for a time, perhaps the most prominent and beloved proponent and practitioner of religious clowning in America. Born circa 1930 in the Detroit area, the kindly and gentle Shaffer was a devout, deeply sincere Lutheran minister whose career trajectory took him from Michigan to Maryland to Ohio. In fact, Shaffer experienced his greatest period of productivity and prominence in the Buckeye State during the Reagan-Bush years. But to appreciate this man's story in full, we must travel back to the Age of Aquarius.

Destined to become a literal Holy Fool, Floyd Shaffer started upon his unusual path in the late 1960s in Columbia, Maryland, where he preached God's word at the still-existent Abiding Savior Lutheran Church. It was at Abiding Savior that Shaffer first introduced costumed clowning into his ministry and encouraged others to follow his example. According to fellow religious clown John Garrett, Floyd was aligning himself with a liturgical tradition stretching back to the Middle Ages, when so-called "holy interrupters" would lighten the mood of formal services with their comedic outbursts. Although a keen student of clowning history, Shaffer was more likely influenced by the counterculture of his own time. Clowning and mime were art forms beloved by hippies, who also had a penchant for face-painting and the donning of colorful, garish clothing. Back in 1969, a preacher dressed as a clown could almost be considered edgy or hip.

In those early years, Shaffer and his ilk were not always welcome among mainstream Christians. The soft-voiced pastor related to his followers the story of his disastrous appearance at a 1970s youth conference held at Houston's famed Astrodome. There, Shaffer and his fellow beneficent buffoons were regarded with extreme skepticism. Thinking the clowns were blasphemous, the other conference attendees derided and, in some cases, attacked Shaffer's troupe. Arlene Trapp, an original acolyte of Shaffer, recalled being "treated like Jesus, kicked at, hit, and mocked."

Still in all, Shaffer's tomfoolery-based evangelism must have yielded positive results in those early days, because he kept at it. In 1974, still based in Columbia, he founded Faith and Fantasy, a nondenominational clown ministry popular enough to have lasted into the 1990s, though its alumni remember it as a loosely-affiliated "non-organization" whose members were never keen on rules. During these years, determined to spread the message of Christ through the techniques of Emmett Kelly and Marcel Marceau, Shaffer and his followers performed their wordless, mime-based act at weekly Lutheran services and also visited numerous hospitals and nursing homes, where they found an appreciative, if captive, audience for their antics.

By 1981, having relocated to Ohio, Floyd Shaffer was well-known enough to attract the attention of the popular press. In August of that year, the black-and-white tabloid Weekly World News ran a profile of Shaffer with the headline "Preacher clowns for God to fill the pews." While essentially flattering to the clown minister, the article also described him as "wacky" and "bizarre."

The Christian Science Monitor followed suit in September with a slightly more dignified article by Stewart McBride headlined "Holy fools rush in." More wide-ranging than the Weekly World News piece, McBride's article looks at different examples of clown ministry from across the United States. In this context, rather than the isolated kook portrayed in the tabloid, Floyd Shaffer is part of a vital, burgeoning movement. The Monitor still recognized Shaffer as a pioneer, however, calling him "one of the first clergymen to perform a Sunday service in whiteface and clown costume" and declaring that "hundreds have followed in his suit of many colors."

The cover of the infamous video.
A few years after these articles introduced the Christian clown phenomenon to a national audience, Floyd Shaffer began writing a series of guidebooks about the topic dearest to his heart. If I Were a Clown and Clown Ministry appeared in 1984. Clown Ministry Skits for All Seasons followed in 1990. Of these, it is Clown Ministry that brought Shaffer a sort of late-blooming, ironic notoriety. The book was accompanied by a 92-minute instructional video that, decades later, was widely excerpted and mocked (shades of the unhappy Astrodome experience!) on video-sharing sites like eBaum's World, Daily Motion, and YouTube.

That was how I first became acquainted with Floyd Shaffer and Clown Ministry. In February 2011, comedians and avid thrift store scavengers Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher used clips from Shaffer's 1984 video in a (now-missing) episode of their web series, The Found Footage Show, which they originally produced for the A.V. Club website. They said they found the VHS tape at a church rummage sale. "This one was intended for budding Christian clowns who wanted to start their own clown ministry," explained Prueher. "I've never understood the connection between Christianity and clowning, and this video certainly didn't help." To which Pickett added: "Really, this video is the best argument against putting your grandparents into a nursing home."

For those whose curiosity has been piqued, the entire Clown Ministry video is now available for viewing on YouTube. In these 92 minutes, Floyd Shaffer walks us through the history and purpose of Christian clowning, demonstrates how to properly apply clown makeup, and even lets us tag along on a typical nursing home visit. It is this last aspect of the video that has attracted the most attention and ridicule over the years, as the elderly patients here seem bewildered and frightened, rather than delighted, by the antics of Shaffer and company.

Floyd Shaffer today
"The clown has no age," Shaffer optimistically told the Weekly World News in 1981. Mankind, however, is not immune from the ravages of time. Now 85 years old and comfortably retired since at least 2006, Floyd Shaffer has returned to his home state of Michigan, where he lives with his wife in Saginaw. The couple have two grown children. Though no longer clowning, Floyd Shaffer is still a loyal follower of the Lutheran faith.

The man's longstanding influence on the world of Christian clowning remains undeniable. In a September 2013 article on the World Clown Association website, Janet "Jellybean" Tucker recalled how seeing Shaffer changed her life; "It was in 1979 or 1980 at a Clown, Mime, Puppet, Dance Ministry Workshop in Oberlin, Ohio, and I saw Floyd Shaffer do a bit on feeding the hungry where his clown ate gobs of popcorn but offered it to a hungry person one kernel at a time. I began reading the Bible through different eyes and began to see the Bible characters as real people."

Obviously, despite the snickering of the internet, Shaffer's message got through to some viewers. As recently as April 2015, Christine Fontaine, a religious-minded mime in Northfield, Massachusetts, contacted Floyd by phone to seek his advice and counsel on how to proceed with her work. The two talked for an hour. As always, Floyd Shaffer remained committed to clowning for Christ.

UPDATE FOR 2020: Amazingly, some more vintage footage of Floyd Shaffer has surfaced! In addition to touring with their collection of offbeat videos, Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher also have a weekly YouTube series called VCR Party Live. In a recent "quarantine" edition of the show, the hosts interviewed film archivist Skip Elsheimer, who specializes in educational and industrial films. One of the clips Elsheimer showed during this visit depicts Floyd, both as himself and in costume, doing some Christian clowning.

After Pickett described the clip as "clown communion," Elsheimer responded: "That one, I can't remember. The title just suddenly left my brain. That one I got recently, and that one I have not shown online anywhere." He went on to say he didn't know where this film was originally shown. "I think this is too scary for Sunday school class." Pickett and Prueher note that the film is dour and that the clowns in it do not seem happy.

Floyd Shaffer appears as himself and as a clown in a newly-discovered film from the 1970s.

Scored with incongruous ragtime piano, the footage seems to date back to the 1970s when Shaffer was working with the Faith and Fantasy troupe in Columbia, Maryland. It may have been made as a record of what their performances were like back then. The movie begins with shots of a congregation in a mid-sized church. Floyd himself, with a full head of curly hair, enters the room in traditional vestments. A slight smile passes over Floyd's face as he stands behind the altar, and through the magic of editing, he transforms into a clown, complete with a red nose and a derby hat. The parishioners are understandably shocked and confused, though some kids giggle.

Floyd opens a gift box and retrieves a card that says FOR THE CONGREGATION. (This may be the title of the film.) The box also contains a pile of severe-looking nails. Shaffer takes one of these nails and hands it to another clown who has joined him at the front of the church. He presses it firmly into the second clown's palm, as if this is communion, and the nail is a wafer. He performs this same service for a third clown, and a title card reading "Communion" appears onscreen.

Floyd pulls a heavy wooden crucifix from a red box, then places bread and wine on the altar. After that, he fills a metal bowl with water from a jar. He takes the bowl over to a small group of clowns and has them place their hands in the water. They dry their hands. Shaffer then solemnly raises the loaf of bread and the wooden crucifix in front of him.  He places the bread on the cross as if the bread itself were Jesus being crucified, but then he breaks off a hunk of it from the bottom. Shaffer then mimes pouring invisible blood from the crucifix into a bottle already filled with wine. He and the other clowns silently, seriously eat the bread and drink the wine as the film fades to black.

The relevant portion of the video begins at about the 28:25 mark. Enjoy.

        Suggested further reading:

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 99: "Bride of the Monster: The One-Act Play" (2002)

Tor Johnson and Bela Lugosi tread the boards in Bride of the Monster.

The movie that inspired a writing project.
I've been on the internet since before the internet was any good at all. In the mid-1990s, when I first started posting to Usenet newsgroups, there was no such thing as social media, and most of the platforms we use every day (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) were still years in the future. Even Google didn't start until 1998, leaving AltaVista as the search engine of choice. Back then, I had a dial-up modem, some rudimentary typing skills, and a lot of pop culture opinions.

If all this sounds achingly familiar, it's because I've written about this era of my life before when I posted my Glen or Glenda transcript from 1997 and my Orgy of the Dead script parody from 1998. Well, today, I'm going to share yet another vintage chunk of text from the olden days, though this one at least dates from the current millennium.

In the late 1990s, my online life revolved around a Mystery Science Theater 3000 newsgroup called The show was still airing new episodes back then on the Sci-Fi Channel, and fans would regularly post reviews on RATMM. In August 1998, when MST3K premiered its version of the 1961 monster movie Gorgo as part of its ninth season, I decided to upload a short script called Gorgo: The One-Act Play to the newsgroup. This was basically a little comedy sketch featuring characters from the original film, Sam and Joe, discussing the possible consequences of bringing a Godzilla-like monster to London. (Sample dialogue: "Say, Joe, you don't think they're made at us, do ya?")

The response to Gorgo; The One-Act Play was fairly positive on RATMM, so I kept writing comedy sketches based on other episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Thus was born The MST3K One-Act Play Project. Another RATMM regular, Craig J. Clark, started writing his own MST3K-based plays just a few months after I started. Craig eventually put together a now-dormant website collecting both his plays and mine. It looks like the last entry in The MST3K One-Act Play Project was posted by Craig in June 2004. Remarkable longevity for such a gimmicky idea.

What follows is the text of my one-act play based on Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster. It was originally posted just over 18 years ago on March 7, 2002. I was more than a decade into my Wood fandom at that point, but Ed Wood Wednesdays wasn't even a glimmer on the horizon. At the time, I was in my mid-20s and working as a junior high Spanish teacher in Joliet, IL. I can remember writing these plays during my lunch break and then emailing them from my school computer to my home computer. Good times.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this artifact from the semi-distant past.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 98: Some preliminary thoughts on the 'Plan 9' screenplay

An excerpt from the Plan 9 from Outer Space screenplay.

Pure, uncut Ed Wood.
Discovering the novels and short stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr. was a major turning point for me as a fan. Reading Eddie's words on the page, I felt as though I were one step closer to the man himself. Even at his most artistically inspired as a director, which I would say was his debut feature Glen or Glenda (1953), Ed was a perfunctory, awkward filmmaker at best. It's not like he was drowning in resources either. Props, sets, costumes, and makeup cost money. Perennially strapped for cash, Ed often had to improvise or do without these niceties.

Moreover, when making a film, Ed was always at the mercy of his actors. A performer might flub or forget a line, and Eddie would just have to leave it in because he couldn't afford to waste any scrap of footage. Operating on the fringe of show business for his entire career, Eddie had to take whatever actors he could get, skilled or otherwise. If his actors gave monotonous, inept, or unintelligible line readings, what was Eddie to do?

When you delve into Eddie's literary work, you can leave aside many of the limitations that plagued his motion pictures. There are no actors or technicians standing between you and Ed. I doubt if Eddie's manuscripts were even edited to any great extent. Publishers like Bernie Bloom simply ran whatever text he supplied without question. This was the pure stuff -- uncut.

To be sure, Eddie's novels, stories, and articles possess the same curious magic (or anti-magic) that infuses his films. The plots lurch forward nonsensically like dreams, the characters converse in a strangely stilted fashion, and the author seems obsessed with certain topics, especially angora, beyond all reason.  Several years ago, I said that "if you give [Ed Wood] a million-dollar budget, his films would still be strange. They have a weirdness that a low budget or inexperienced actors can’t explain away." That's the same feeling I got from his text-only work. The oddness is marrow-deep.

I have long wondered about the screenplays Ed wrote over the years, both the ones that were produced and the ones that never made it that far. Would reading these films be a drastically different experience than watching them? Would the films and scripts differ drastically? Were there things Ed wanted to do but couldn't afford to film?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Set Decoration Odyssey, Part 13 by Greg Dziawer

Neola Graf poses with a famous cobra statue.
"Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n."
-John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
I confess. As I've delved into early '70s West Coast sex films, including those made by Edward D. Wood, Jr., I've become obsessed with background decor. Specifically, I'm interested in the set decorations at a studio that once stood at 7428 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. It was here that Ed Wood shot interiors for three of his last four directorial efforts: Take It Out In Trade (1970), Necromania (1971) and The Young Marrieds (1972). This was also where hundreds of silent 8mm porn loops were shot. Eddie was surely there, in more ways than we may yet know.

The studio was run by talent agent and cinematographer Hal Guthu, a man best known for representing models and exotic dancers. The building housed a small set upstairs and another downstairs—multiple sets in one, really, as the walls, light fixtures, and paintings were reshuffled and rearranged from film to film. 

Among the most recognizable, striking, and ubiquitous set decorations at Guthu's studio are a pair of Chinese Guardian Lions and a black velvet painting of a panther descending a stone staircase. Certainly another star, albeit one not yet highlighted in this series of articles, is the bronze statuette of a King Cobra poised to strike. I've wondered at times if it's an ashtray, given its era, but likely not.

Here is the cobra, an obvious phallic symbol, in just some of its onscreen glory. Several of these films are directly connected to Ed Wood, while others exist in Eddie's professional orbit in the adult film industry of the late '60s and early '70s.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Why was Beast Man demoted from lead villain to sidekick? I have a theory.

Beast Man was almost the main villain in the Masters of the Universe franchise.

Beast Man was among the earliest MOTU figures.
Now poised to make a comeback on Netflix, Masters of the Universe (or MOTU) was one of the dominant multimedia franchises of the 1980s, with a successful toy line from Mattel and a hit syndicated cartoon series from Filmation. And the character of Beast Man—a bright orange, gorilla-like villain with dominion over the animal kingdom—has been a key part of the franchise since the very beginning. Beast Man was among the first four Mattel figures released in 1982, and he was a major character in the 1983 TV series, where he was voiced by John Erwin. As portrayed by Tony Carroll, he also turned up in the live-action 1987 movie from Cannon.

In all these forms, Beast Man has consistently been portrayed as the right-hand man of the franchise's main villain, the demonic sorcerer Skeletor, as the latter fights the heroic warrior He-Man for control of the far-away planet Eternia. Prominent as Beast Man is, he's always been a mere sidekick, deemed a "savage henchman" on Mattel's toy packaging. One early '80s document from Mattel describes Beast Man as the "number one stooge for Skeletor." That word "stooge" gives you some indication of the character's IQ.

But another internal document from Mattel shows that Beast Man was originally intended as MOTU's main antagonist. A wonderful MOTU site called Battle Ram: A He-Man Blog recently shared a fascinating early MOTU story treatment called "The Fighting Foe-Men" written by sci-fi/fantasy author Don Glut. Here is how Beast Man is described in that document:
Each of the villains is out for his own gain, usually to obtain the Power Gem for himself, but they occasionally accept one of them as their leader — Beast-Man 
BEAST-MAN — Another native of Eternia’s jungles whose tribe — or pack — has seemingly always been at war with their natural enemies, the human tribe of He-Man. Beast-Man has formidable strength, but it is his ferocity that makes him a natural leader. He has the agility of a gorilla. But when he dons his various costumes, he takes on the powers of other animals — the speed of a gazelle, the charging force of a rhino, etc. Beast-Man, though he despises He-Man’s tribe, yearns to take one or more of its females as a bride. He is totally evil and corrupt. His only redeeming quality is the “love” he bears for his own race, though it is actually more like instinct than any real emotion. His voice is guttural, almost a growl.
When I saw this passage, I was taken aback because it seemingly confirmed some suspicions I'd had while revisiting the Filmation Masters of the Universe TV series from the '80s. Namely, I began to wonder if Beast Man were being subtly (or not so subtly) coded as African, to serve as the opposite of the blond, Nordic-looking hero, He-Man. And "The Fighting Foe-Men" demonstrates that this was not merely my imagination. Note the terminology Don Glut uses in his description of Beast Man: "native," "jungle," "tribe," "race," etc. These can be neutral terms, but they are also the building blocks of hateful racist stereotypes. Note, too, that Beast Man is denied humanity and is likened to a gorilla. In particular, he is held apart from "the human tribe of He-Man."

Glut's story outline acknowledges Beast Man's athletic ability and brute strength but not his intellect. More alarming, though, is the detail that the villain "yearns to take one or more [human] females as a bride." Is this a reference to the stereotype about African men lusting after white women? Maybe the most disturbing sentence in this entire description is: "His only redeeming quality is the 'love' he bears for his own race, though it is actually more like instinct than any real emotion." Glut feels obligated to put quote marks around the word "love" and again makes it clear that Beast Man acts on mere "instinct." The message here is clear: Beast Man is not like us. He is apart from us, less than us. He is a thing to be hated and feared.

Here is my theory. Someone at Mattel recognized that the company could not possibly build its flagship toy line around a blond-haired white man battling a gorilla-like jungle denizen. The ugly implications of this match-up would be impossible to miss, and the company would be accused of spreading racist propaganda to children. Beast Man, therefore, was demoted to a subservient role. Is this, in a way, actually worse? This way, Skeletor and Beast-Man have a master/slave relationship, with Skeletor sitting in a throne, giving commands to his underlings like the interlocutor in a minstrel show. And still, on the other side of Eternia, you have a hero who looks like the poster child for the master race.

Perhaps, when I was playing with my Masters of the Universe action figures in the early-to-mid-1980s, I was also unknowingly getting a lesson in racial politics. And I haven't even started talking about Jitsu yet.