Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Apprenticeship Odyssey, Part One by Greg Dziawer

A young Ed Wood plays a sheriff onstage in The Blackguard Returns (1949).

"The theatre, when all is said and done, is not life in miniature, but life enormously magnified, life hideously exaggerated."
-H.L. Mencken
Ed Wood's Gateway to stardom in 1949?
Ed Wood's earliest years in Hollywood remain a murky period in his biography. After he was discharged from the Marines in 1946, he briefly returned to his hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY. That much, at least, is clear. From there, though, it depends whose version of the events you believe. Some accounts have him attending dance school with Martha Graham. Others have him traveling with a carnival or studying script writing.

The ambitious ex-jarhead finally landed in Hollywood by the end of the decade, of course, and it's there that the stories converge with a well-known and well-documented credit: Ed playing the Sheriff in an otherwise forgotten play called The Blackguard Returns at the Gateway Theatre in Los Angeles in 1949. Yet even this tidbit is problematic, as it contradicts the accepted timeline in the Ed Wood mythology. Wood is sometimes said to have met his first filmmaking partner, John Crawford Thomas—with whom he shot Crossroads of Laredo (aka The Streets of Laredo) and some primitive commercials—in either 1947 or 1948, during a staging of The Blackguard Returns.

Rudolph Grey's timeline in Nightmare of Ecstasy has Eddie making Crossroads of Laredo with Thomas in 1948, the same year he staged The Casual Company at the Village Playhouse in Hollywood. In 1949, according to Grey, Wood did "a long run" playing the Sheriff in The Blackguard Returns at the Gateway Theatre.

Leaving those nebulous chronological details aside, however, I decided to take a closer look at The Blackguard Returns itself. Here are my findings.

I. Definition

First things first, I decided to get a better grip on what constitutes a "blackguard." I found this to be a term with deep roots. Here is what The New American Cyclopædia (1859), edited by G. Ripley and C.A. Dana, has to say:
"BLACKGUARD, originally a semi-contemptuous, semi-jocular name given to the lowest menials of the court of Queen Elizabeth, the carriers of coals and woods, turnspits and laborers in the scullery... The term black garde was [also] applied in Ireland in those times to all abandoned women of violent character, and also both in Ireland and England to low ruffians." 

II. The Play Is the Thing
Las Floristas history.

Thanks to the providential survival of The Blackguard's Return's original program—still accessible on auction sites from the last few years—we have a wealth of details about the play, its characters and its cast. The cover of the program lists the play as being in its fifth year, which was reputedly 1949. Going back to June 1944, we find a blurb in The Los Angeles Times about The Blackguard Returns, stating that the play was being sponsored by Las Floristas and anticipating that it would be met with "hisses and boos," likely a reference to its ruffian antagonist(s). 

Beyond this program and a few between-the-lines surmises, however, the play remains invisible beyond its existence at the Gateway. The only reference I could find was a 1949 copyright notice for a play called The Blackguard Returns (aka The Blackguard and identified as "a play in four scenes") in the Library of Congress' Copyright Catalog, where it is credited to Alice Charlotte Newman and Leonard Charles Newman. Presumably husband and wife, the Newmans remain equally invisible today, with only one further title attributed to Leonard. But why would they have filed their play for copyright five years after it started running regularly? Perhaps, sensing its durability, they felt they had something special? And that's if we're even talking about the same play.

Whatever the case, the durability of The Blackguard Returns is evinced by another Times article from nearly a year later. On June 19, 1945, the paper reported that Las Floristas would once again sponsor a staging of the play at the Gateway, this time to benefit the King's Daughters Day Nursery. This, incidentally, was the oldest day nursery in Los Angeles, going all the way back to 1894, well over a decade before the movie colony began to settle the area. 

III. Las Floristas

A vintage news clipping from June 1945 about Las Floristas.

At this point, you are likely wondering: Who are Las Floristas? Well, those aforementioned Los Angeles Times articles depict the group as charitable sponsors and art matrons. Given the "serious" and "artistic" nature of the Gateway's usual fare, the venue's annual stagings of The Blackguard Returns—by all indications a lowbrow comedy—seem atypical. These performances were genuine local events that captured more publicity than the Gateway routinely generated.

Las Floristas continues to this day. On its own website, the charity describes itself as "an all-volunteer group of women" that has been "making a difference in lives since 1938."

IV. Freedom at Last

The Jail Cafe, a gimmicky theater from the 1920s.

"The word theatre comes from the Greeks," wrote Stella Adler (1901-1992), the renowned drama teacher whose students once included Dolores Fuller. "It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation. The theatre is a spiritual and social x-ray of its time. The theatre was created to tell people the truth about life and the social situation." 

By 1949, the Gateway Theatre had been in business nearly 20 years at 4212 Sunset Blvd. This historic venue had previously been known in the late 1920s as the Jail Cafe and had specialized in its own unique brand of theater that made its patrons a part of the story. Back then, the building's exterior was made to look like a jail. Inside, patrons were seated at tables located within cells. The waitstaff dressed in stripes. It was quite a gimmick, but in the early '30s stage performers Anne Murray and Francis Josef Hickson took over the place and renamed it the Gateway Theatre. There, they nurtured a steady stream of arty, "accepted" fare, those rowdy annual stagings of The Blackguard Returns in the late 1940s again being a seeming exception.

Dolores Fuller's autobiography
And, just to make an already complicated matter even more so, The Blackguard Returns actually merits a mention in Dolores Fuller's 2009 autobiography, A Fuller Life. In the book's fourth chapter, she describes her life with her new boyfriend Ed Wood, whom she'd met at a casting call in the early 1950s:
"At the time, Eddie was working on scripts for two or three films to star Bela Lugosi: The Ghoul Goes West, The Hidden Face and Bride of the Monster. Eddie assured me that I would have a starring role in The Hidden Face and even took out an ad in The Hollywood Reporter to announce it. Soon Eddie was directing, not a film...but a hackneyed old stage melodrama, The Blackguard Returns, at the Gateway Theatre on Cahuenga just north of Hollywood Boulevard. I soon learned there was nothing original about the production, including the fact that Eddie had done it several years earlier at a theatre on Sunset Boulevard."

It's possible that Dolores is referring here not to another Gateway Theatre, but rather to the Village Theater, which had been launched by Ed and some friends, including actors Don Nagel and Chuck La Berge. Dolores' remembrance is also interesting in noting that The Hidden Face—the working title for Ed's Jail Bait (1954)—was originally supposed to include Bela Lugosi. Bela's role was ultimately played by Herbert Rawlinson. Most interesting, this passage from A Fuller Life suggests that Ed went on to direct the play in which he had previously only performed a supporting role.

Dolores continues:
"Eddie had Chuck La Berge interview me for a part in the non-paying, non-equity play and I went along with it because, at that point, I would have done just about anything he wanted. Our 'pay' for participating in the production was pretzels (all we could eat) and beer (all we could drink, as long as we did not become inebriated and 'lessen the impact of the show')."

This anecdote could have occurred as recently as late 1953, which would mean an intersection of two significant women in Ed Wood's life, longtime girlfriend Dolores Fuller and first wife Norma McCarty, at the Village Theater. But that's another story for another day. Meanwhile, note that the perennially broke Eddie was already in his default "non-paying" mode, even with his significant other.

As for the Gateway Theatre on Sunset, it would eventually become the Cabaret Concert Theatre in 1950. Finally, in 1962, it became the El Cid, the name under which it still operates today.

V. Now

The El Cid as it appears today.

More than 20 years after Ed Wood's performance as a sheriff in The Blackguard Returns, the man's acting career would come full circle. He played representatives of the law—a jailer and a sheriff, respectively—in the infamous porn loop Prisoner Love Making (aka The Jailer, circa 1971) and Steven C. Apostolof's exploitation feature Fugitive Girls (1974). His days at the Gateway had not been in vain.

These were among Ed Wood's final appearances as an actor, but the stage upon which he performed all those years earlier lives on. Still called the El Cid, the name it has now carried for more than half a century, the former Gateway Theatre stage has played host to a variety of performers, including my good friend Mike Hickey back in 2004. Mike is as serious an Ed Wood obsessive as you'll ever meet, with a formidable yen for scouting out authentic Wood locations. And, yes, in this photo, he is wearing a Plan 9 from Outer Space T-shirt.

Mike Hickey onstage at the El Cid on Sunset Blvd.

Special thanks this week go to Mike Hickey, who has proven to be a special friend of Ed Wood Wednesdays, contributing greatly with photos you've seen previously and details yet to come. We are partnering on the upcoming Ed Wood Way Odyssey, a comprehensive tour of Wood locations in film and in life. In the meantime, I invite you to enjoy Mike's superb documentary about another outsider artist, musician Frederick Michael St. Jude.

BONUS: There is a slew of historic images from The Blackguard Returns at the Ed Wood Wednesdays Tumblr. Enjoy.