Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 15 by Greg Dziawer

(l to r) Maila Nurmi modeling in 1951; Maila as Vampira; Maila with Elvis Presley.

Much has already been written, including a full-length biography, about Maila Nurmi (1922-2008), the slinky actress who so memorably portrayed TV horror hostess Vampira and who—credited as Vampira— appeared briefly yet indelibly in Ed Wood's sci-fi/horror opus Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). While Nurmi's sadly short-lived program, known variously as Dig Me Later, Vampira and The Vampira Show, was strictly a mid-1950s Los Angeles phenomenon, the actress managed to garner national attention during her brief time in the spotlight. Global attention, as a matter of fact, reminding me that pop culture is one of America's chief exports.

Vampira's worldwide fame is evinced by an intriguing article I discovered in the July 17, 1954 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. Headlined "She Lives on Horror" and credited only to "our New York office," the article vividly describes Nurmi's then-outré show and its devoted following. The Vampira Show had only been airing on KABC-TV for a couple of months by that point, but the article already describes Nurmi as "the linkpin in a new American cult." The article is quite a keepsake, considering that it includes an exclusive interview with the hostess herself when she was at the peak of her powers. KABC would cancel the series the next year, and Nurmi would try without much success to duplicate her success at crosstown rival KHJ-TV.

A 1954 article about Vampira.

The Herald article surprised me with its relative depth. The fancifully written text is studded with colorful details about Nurmi and the show she hosted, serving as a reminder that Ed Wood's coterie of collaborators led fascinating lives of their own. Nurmi gives her surname as Syrjäniemi and even helpfully spells it out for the journalist. She lists her place of birth as Petsamo, Finland, a fact that biographer W. Scott Poole disputes, and describes herself as "about 30." Maila and Ed had not crossed paths yet, so there is no talk of Plan 9, but the actress does discuss working with Mae West as well as a gig in a 1946 spook show called Spook Scandals. "I was the hit of the show," she boasts.

Maybe the most noteworthy aspect of the article is that Nurmi begins the interview in character as Vampira before dropping the facade entirely. "She laid aside the act," the journalist writes, "and became herself." Part of the transformation is physical: Nurmi removes her false fingernails and long black wig, revealing "a crop of close-cut blonde curls." She also uncinches her famous 17-inch waist.

If this article intrigues you and you have Amazon Prime, you can watch the excellent 2012 documentary Vampira and Me right here. While you're at it, check out this 1988 interview with Maila, too.

Far more about Maila Nurmi and other Wood collaborators is in the works for this series, so stick around in 2019 as I dive into the lives and careers of Captain DeZita, Tom Keene, Nona Carver and more!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Revisiting a (bad) Christmas album from my childhood

This album was somehow a part of my family's Christmas tradition.

Built for comfort, not for speed.
The Winston Singers. They sound famous, right? You're pretty sure you've heard of them. They had that one song. Or was it an album? Or maybe it was a TV special with Jim Nabors and the Marine Corps Band. Whatever. They did something.

Didn't they?

The truth is that The Winston Singers were a bunch of uncredited session musicians who made two quickie cash-in Christmas albums for a low-budget record label in Pennsylvania called Wyncote in the mid-1960s. For the most part, their albums weren't even sold in real record stores. Instead, middlemen called "rack jobbers" would rent space in drug stores and department stores to hawk these inexpensive albums to people who were buying sweaters or talcum powder or lawnmowers.

One of those LPs, simply titled Christmas Carols (aka 14 Christmas Carols and released in 1964), found its way into my family's music collection, along with my dad's Joan Baez albums and the Sound of Music soundtrack. We used to bring it out every December, though the only thing we had to play it on was a Fisher-Price portable turntable that was designed to be sturdy rather than acoustically pleasing. Eleven months out of the year, this album was collecting dust in some hall closet.

In retrospect, that was probably for the best. I recently revisited The Winston Singers' album and found it to be mostly terrible. The jacket does not include any sort of credits or liner notes, just plugs for other holiday-themed Wyncote LPs like Organs and Chimes and Silent Night. No legitimate singers, musicians, or producers would want their names on an album like Christmas Carols. Wyncote may not have been at the absolute bottom of the American record industry, but it was in the lower third. The nicest thing I can say about the LP is that it's pressed on good quality, durable vinyl, much better than some of the flimsy compilation albums I've found from the '70s and '80s that are so wobbly they're almost like flexi-discs. (Even the sleeves on those are thin and cheap.)

The short-lived, low-budget Wyncote Records.
As its title suggests, Christmas Carols—which was available in both stereo and mono (our family splurged for the stereo)—consists of chintzy, rinky-dink choral renditions of Yuletide songs like "Jingle Bells," "I Saw Three Ships," and "Joy to the World." The stuff everyone knows, in other words. Of the 14 selections, there were only two titles I didn't immediately recognize: "Hail to Christmas" (from the Babes in Toyland operetta) and a somber number called "Christmas Hymn," which closes the album.

The music is best described as loud and shouty, with very little subtlety or nuance. Dynamics are not in evidence here. I can't quite tell how many Winston Singers there are. It sounds like maybe five to ten, both men and women. They are accompanied by an organist, whose shrill tones occasionally threaten to drown out the vocals. The mixing seems noticeably "off" somehow. I'm not sure if the singers could hear the organ at all, since they're never quite on pitch. Musically, Christmas Carols is just not of professional caliber. It's more like what you'd hear at a smallish church or school with limited resources.

The one track I remembered most vividly from my youth was "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." That's a carol I've always liked anyway because it has an eerie, spooky vibe to it. Plus it name checks Satan—rare for a holiday tune. And, sure enough, "God Rest Ye" is probably the strongest part of the entire Christmas Carols experience. The tinny organ and curdled vocals actually kind of work to the song's advantage.

"Go Tell It on the Mountain," on the other hand, is a disaster. I don't know why the very Caucasian Winston Singers thought they could tackle a spiritual, but they were misinformed. At least this rendition is brief. In fact, all 14 songs on this album are brief. I doubt anything goes past three minutes. A wise decision. Christ is merciful; albums recorded in his name should be, too.

Overall, despite its many technical shortcomings, Christmas Carols fulfills its destiny, which is to be generic, instantly recognizable holiday music. On that count, it succeeds where the bombastic Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra so often fail. The Winston Singers' LP is something (mostly) unobtrusive to have on in the background at a holiday party, for instance. My folks used to have big Christmas parties at our house every year, inviting mostly work friends, and I'm sure this record got some playtime there. You could also listen to the album while wrapping presents or trimming a tree. Maybe we used it for that, too.

The sophomore (and farewell) LP.
And so, this obscure, indifferently made Christmas album from 1964—probably the result of an afternoon's work by people who did not care how it turned out—became an integral part of my family's holiday traditions. It served in that capacity for at least a decade, maybe more. Because I associated this record with vacations and presents, I was even excited to see the ugly LP cover, which depicts some creepy, dead-eyed Dickensian caroler figurines in an unflattering close-up.

I'd say we got our $1.99's worth out of this LP.

No other Christmas album ever had quite the same importance in our household as the Wyncote budget record, but there were a few pretenders to the throne. My mother bought a copy of A Very Special Christmas in 1987, for instance, only to be horrified that it contained a newfangled rap song, "Christmas in Hollis" by Run-D.M.C. Even the offerings by Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, and Bruce Springsteen were too noisy for her liking. About the only track that met with her approval was "The Coventry Carol" by Alison Moyet.

Maybe The Winston Singers were on to something. They released a second album, Little Drummer Boy, in 1966. The title track was the only new recording on it; the other nine songs were borrowed directly from Christmas Carols. Neither "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" nor "Go Tell It on the Mountain" made the cut. Wyncote Records went under the next year.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Loop Orbit, Part 13 by Greg Dziawer

A creep in the early '70s loop Notorious Landlady.

A few months ago, I was screening some 8mm pornographic loops made on the West Coast in the early 1970s. Specifically, these were loops produced by second-generation smut peddler Noel Bloom and distributed by alleged mafioso Mickey Zaffarano. These include the early Swedish Erotica loops—the  first 19 of which are unchallenged as the work of Edward D. Wood, Jr.—plus dozens of other series, totaling hundreds of subtitled loops. One film in particular, Notorious Landlady, was released as the sixth entry in the VIP Series, which was produced in the wake of those first 19 Swedish Erotica loops and studded with remarkably similar attributes.

Like what, you ask? Well, for one, the subtitles, baby!  We can be confident that Eddie himself wrote at least some of the onscreen captions in these silent movies. Given their internal consistency, in fact, it's safe to say that he wrote lots, if not all of them, right until his passing in December 1978. Even then, some of those loops did not hit the market until 1979.

What follows is my transcription of Notorious Landlady. For you textual analysts, there are 26 lines of subtitles here, totaling 85 words, giving us a word-per-line average of 3.27. That's toward the mid-to-low end for loops in this family, but it's within the accepted range.

A sexy brunette returns to her apartment, walking into and away from the camera under the film's title card:  
A potential tenant meets his landlady.

Maria Arnold
yes, the actress who plays the beautiful and inscrutable Madame Heles in Ed Wood's feature Necromaniaenters a room and undresses. The first subtitle appears onscreen.
Girl: OHHH!!!!!!! 
This opening line is extremely common in Bloom-produced loops of the era, with only the number of H's and exclamation points varying. It's usually used to denote the moans of pleasure during sex, but here it's repurposed as the sound made by the girl as she stretches before beginning to undress.
And then, in an astonishingly superfluous moment the horny audience likely barely noticed, the camera pans away from the girl in mid-close-up as she removes her top. The shot then drifts off into the edge of the room where it blends into a shot beginning at the left-hand edge of the same room, finally uniting on a mid-close-up of the now-topless girl as she begins to remove her skirt. 
A split-screen edit reveals a close-up of a man's eyes, suggesting our heroine is being spied upon. There is another split-screen edit as the girl dons her slip at right, while a finger presses her doorbell in close-up on the left. The imagery, in this contextor perhaps only in my mindevokes the pad of a finger pressing against a clitoris. A preceding close-up indicates the leading lady is the MANAGER.
She answers the door wearing the slip. Her dwelling seems to be part-real apartment and part-movie set.


A man enters, looking distinctly unlike Jack Lemmon. I'll explain that reference in a moment.




Characteristically functional opening lines, as the pair settle on the inevitable couch against a completely curtained "wall" with a lamp on a small table in the corner. Guess what happens next?


As he spies her thighs, a dreamy dissolve manages to move the narrative forward while concurrently maintaining the guy's status as a creep. Nothing personal against this actor, but he looks the part.

Foreplay ensues, with a focus on eager tongue-kissing in close-up.

Girl: UN ZIP!

Apparently, "unzip" counts as two words in her sexual vocabulary.

She goes down, accompanied immediately by another trademark subtitle in these loops:

Girl: UMMMMM!!!!



"Lick it up!" and "comfy" are both common utterances in these loops.

The actors walk into the camera and a dissolve deposits them upon a bed.



Girl: OHHH!!!!!

More dissolve edits and the guy goes down on her.

Girl: AHHH!!!!!! 
Since that's three H's and six exclamation points, we can reasonably infer that she's quite excited. Our leading man must be doing a good job. 



Kudos to the couple for crystal-clear communication.

Girl: NOW!



Anal sex, of course.

The camera is now looking over the girl's shoulder in close-up. There is no sound, but she clearly mouths, "More! More!"

More close-ups come, indeed, for the literal climax.

Highly un-PC, I know, but this line has me wondering how many times the word "lick" has appeared in these subtitles.

The phenomenal ending sees the camera zoom in on the girl, ultimately into an extreme close-up right into her mouth, as she looks directly into the camera while the final subtitle appears in a larger font:

The other Notorious Landlady.
And thus ends Notorious Landlady. Apart from the subtitles, this loop features other stylistic tropes in common with the Swedish Erotica films and other related series of the time. It's a one-camera setup, for instance. The editing, too, is similar. Dissolves are a signature of this family of loops, and the use of split-screens is waaaaay over the top for low-budget '70s porn. Seriously, when it comes to split-screens, Brian De Palma had nothing on Eddie Wood!

That is, of course, if Ed really had a hand in the editing. It seems plausible to me. Could he have been on set, in some directorial capacity? Maybe. He did oversee earlier loops for Noel Bloom's inaugural loop series Cinema Classics circa 1971. Without a doubt, he often wrote the box cover summaries.

After I processed the loop, which I had seen before and decided was worth further scrutiny, I punched in the title on Google and was happily surprised to discover that The Notorious Landlady was a 1962 comedy starring Jack Lemmon, Fred Astaire, and Kim Novak, with a supporting turn by dotty old Estelle Winwood (The Producers, Murder by Death). I was quite the old Hollywood movie buff as a teenager back in the '80s, but this film was unfamiliar to me. Despite some good notices and a reputation that has improved with time, the film was not a box office hit and fell into relative obscurity. Perhaps it was Eddie the movie buff who recollected it a little over a decade later when the Notorious Landlady loop was produced and distributed as part of the VIP Series circa 1974. 

The 1962 film, for the record, was a comedy thriller based upon a short story by Marjery Sharp, published in the February 3, 1956 issue of Collier's Weekly. The 8mm loop is the realization of the implicit male fantasy frustratingly embedded into the opening of that film, in which dapper Jack Lemmon rings sexy Kim Novak's doorbell in hopes of renting a room from her. Little does he know, his life is about to become a lot more complicated.

Hollywood, here we come!

Note: Various scans of the Notorious Landlady loop are extant, in both color and black-and-white. Some stills feature subtitles, others do not, and some have the subs falling out of the bottom of the frame. The film itself is the next to last entry in the Blue Vanities Peepshow Loops #295 compilation and also appears in the Something Weird Video compilation Bucky Beaver's Stags, Loops and Peeps #64

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Wood/Dziawer Odyssey, Part Nine by Greg Dziawer

Joanne Cangi as Geraldine in The Violent Years (1956).

Joanne's big movie role.
Duluth, MN-born actress Joanne Cangi (1937-2014) had a brief TV and film career in the mid-1950s, notching a couple of appearances on a forgotten NBC sitcom called It's a Great Life (featuring a pre-Andy Griffith Frances Bavier) in 1955 and one low-budget juvenile delinquent picture for a small independent studio called Headliner Productions in 1956. But that Poverty Row JD picture was the Ed Wood-scripted masterpiece The Violent Years.

Joanne played Geraldine, a member of the all-girl gang headed by doomed debutante Paula Parkins (Jean Moorhead). Ed's script dishes out harsh punishments to its young miscreant characters; bad girl Geraldine, for instance, is gunned down by the cops after trashing a schoolroom as part of some subversive conspiracy. Those are the breaks, honey.

I'm currently mired in research for other, longer articles in this series, but in the meantime, I'd like to share with you some clippings about Joanne Cangi that I've recently discovered. The Cangi clan migrated from Minnesota to California when the actress was very young, so Joanne spent her adolescence in sunny, touristy Orange County, CA. Spurred on by her mother, she entered and won numerous local beauty contests. By 16, in fact, she was already chosen to be queen of the annual summer bacchanal known as the Orange County Fair. Her duties included posing with an ostrich, as seen in this whimsical newspaper clipping from 1953.

"Preparing for ostrich races." Aren't we all?

A statuesque blonde, Joanne seems to have attained some degree of renown in northern Orange County in the mid-1950s. She attended Garden Grove High School back then, and during her junior year, she was named queen of the Camp Pendleton Rodeo. A few years later, after having graduated from GGHS, Joanne graciously returned to her alma mater to crown a young woman named Pat Wood as the new "Miss Garden Grove." That event was documented in the school's yearbook, with Joanne all smiles in the accompanying photo.

Excerpt from the Garden Grove High School yearbook; Inset: a news clipping about the Camp Pendleton Rodeo.

Joanne Cangi's local celebrity status was such that she was even called upon to visit the sick and bedridden, as seen in the clipping below in which she "exchanges holiday greetings with iron lung patient Allen Conkwright." Note that the photo caption refers to Ms. Cangi as a "starlet," suggesting her film and TV career was already underway. The actress' address is supplied in the text as well. A quick Google search reveals a short dead-end street lined with modest one-story houses.

Mr. Conkwright in the iron lung.

The Violent Years aside, movie stardom was not in the cards for Joanne Cangi. She later married a man named Doug Nicholls, moved to Michigan in the early '60s, got into real estate, and had four children. Her 2014 obituary in the Orange County Register alludes to a "brief acting career" and an encounter with John Wayne but makes no mention of her role as a teenage nogoodnik in an Ed Wood movie.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Holiday Sampler by Greg Dziawer

Don't say we never got you anything. We got you this.

As the holidays approach and we gather with loved ones to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, let's whet our appetites with some vintage newspaper clippings related to Edward D. Wood, Jr. and his incredible cast of repertory players. These are just some interesting tidbits I've uncovered while doing research for upcoming articles.

Let's dig in, shall we?

I. Valda Hansen and her pollen pills

Valda's ad from 1984.
Although she appeared in only one of Ed Wood's films, playing the fraudulent White Ghost in 1959's Night of the Ghouls, flaxen-haired starlet Valda Hansen is still remembered fondly as one of Eddie's inner circle of performers. She's a memorable interview subject in Rudolph Gray's Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992) as well as the documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion (1992). Valda's disctinctive but sporadic appearances in exploitation films like Wam Bam Thank You Spaceman (1975) sputtered out by the mid-'70s, so I was suitably surprised when I stumbled upon her in a 1984 print ad for Pollitabs. This mysterious product, still available today, was a pollen-based (get it?) nutritional supplement endorsed by none other than Valda herself and superstar gymnast Mary Lou Retton, then America's sweetheart after her gold medal performance at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Julianne McNamara, another gold medal gymnast from the '84 games, is also cited in the ad copy.

The supplement ad is a fascinating little artifact of its era. Note, for instance, the North Hollywood address for ordering Pollitabs. This appears to be the same environs in which Valda resided throughout her adult life to the end, as well as the very same geography in which Ed Wood lived and an epicenter of the porn industry as it came into existence and flourished there in the 1970s.

Valda began modelling professionally right out of high school, perhaps even sooner, and appears to have continued doing so, at least locally, for decades. In the Pollitabs ad, which ran in the December 5, 1984 edition of the Indianapolis Jewish Post, she certainly appears to possess  the "energy" and "vitality" that the copy promises. Less than a decade later, however, still in her early 50s, Valda succumbed to cancer all too soon. 

II. Tor Johnson's tour of London

Tor Johnson in London, 1947.
Featured in three of Ed Wood's best-known films, including the aforementioned Night of the Ghouls, the bald, hulking professional-wrestler-cum-actor Tor Johnson remains one of the most beloved members of Ed's eccentric stock troupe. A Swedish immigrant, Tor began his wrestling career as a heavy, ironically dubbed "The Swedish Angel." In those early days, the wrestler did indeed possess hair, but it was long gone by the late 1940s. 

An odd little item from the June 28, 1947 edition of the Perth Mirror in Western Australia, depicts Tor wearing a comical beanie cap, plus a baggy suit, knee-length overcoat, and ludicrously undersized necktie. He towers over the gentleman standing next to him.

Headlined "Giant Goes To London," the clipping in question is a wire-service photo of the wrestler's visit to the British capital. The caption explains what he's doing there:
TOR JOHNSON, 30-stone [420-pound] "Man Mountain," who played the part of the great ape in the film "King Kong" 15 years ago, in playful mood on his arrival in London to take part in an International "catch-as-catch-can" wrestling contest at Harringay [sporting arena] next month. Johnson claims to be the strongest man in the world.
The caption writer has taken some liberty with the facts. According to the IMDb, Tor's known acting appearances date back only to 1934, the year after Kong Kong was released. Alas, though he may well have been "the strongest man in the world," Tor Johnson did not play the doomed ape in the RKO classic. The creature was instead bought to life through stop-motion animation.

Happily, Tor's 1947 appearance at Harringay was captured for posterity by newsreel cameras. The plummy Pathe narrator again refers to Tor as "King Kong" and repeats the wrestler's weight as 30-stone. The newsreel's claim that Tor was seven feet tall was an exaggeration of about nine inches. "The promoters [of the wrestling contest] evidently wanted to put over this farce as a serious sport," the narrator quips. "So far as we're concerned, it was one long series of laughs."

Tor did make an early, uncredited appearance in a 1936 Ronald Colman film called Under Two Flags, set amidst the French Foreign Legion. Glen or Glenda actor Captain DeZita, who was mostly going by the name Baron De Orgler at the time, would claim involvement in this same film as a consultant. DeZita frequently alleged—likely bullshit—to have been in the French Foreign Legion himself.

Tor Johnson died at the age 67 in 1971 and is buried in the San Fernando Valley, hub of the 1980s porn industry.

III. Dolores Fuller plays it safe

Ed Wood's live-in girlfriend as well as the co-star of his 1953 masterpiece Glen or Glenda, Dolores Fuller would break up with the idiosyncratic writer-director by the middle of the decade. Dolores' acting career, including occasional appearances in episodic television and films, had seemingly dried up by 1959. But she kept finding work as a print model, as in this ad sponsored by the National Safety Council. This picture ran in the Valentine's Day 1959 edition of the Boston Daily Record.

Dolores Fuller: "A cute Valentine herself."

"Valentine, I love you true—sure hope no one runs over you." True poetry. Appropriately, then, Dolores shifted careers shortly after this ad and became a professional songwriter herself. Within a few years, she was busy writing lyrics for hit songs by Elvis Presley. A frequent interviewee in documentaries and articles about Ed Wood, Dolores lived to be 88. She was buried in Las Vegas.

Happy Holidays, and don't choke on that Golden Turkey!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Here are two stories I couldn't sell! Enjoy!

"Can't be a winner every time, hon." - Edith Massey

What can I say, folks? Every once in a while, even a seasoned professional writer like myself comes up with a loser. A flop. A stink bomb. A turkey. It happens. I'm sure even Jackie Collins had the occasional bad day. Not everything can be Hollywood Wives. And when it happens, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on. Jackie knew it. I know it.

Some of the stuff I write is purely for my own amusement, but most of it is written to reach an audience, either through this blog or through some online platform that actually pays me. But what is funny or interesting to me is not always funny or interesting to other people. I have learned that lesson many times in the past, and I will learn it many times in the future.

With that said, here are two articles I wrote in hopes of making a sale. Neither one sold, and since they were both time-sensitive, they are no longer relevant or salable. Past their expiration date, both of them. Still in all, I hope that you will either enjoy them or at least learn from my mistakes.