Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Nudie Odyssey, An Introduction by Greg Dziawer

What was the connection between Ed and Elvis? Nudie Cohn, for one.

Kenne Duncan's colorful shirts.
When you think of Elvis Presley and Ed Wood and what, if anything, might connect these two men's careers, the obvious answer is Dolores Fuller. After spending a few years as Eddie's significant other and leading lady, including co-starring in his 1953 masterpiece Glen or Glenda, Dolores went on to success as a songwriter, penning lyrics for such Elvis Presley songs as "Spinout," "Rock-A-Hula Baby," and "I Got Lucky." 

But you probably knew that already. Does the Wood/Presley connection go deeper?

A few weeks ago, I was re-watching Trick Shooting, the early '60s short written and directed by Ed and starring his friend and associate, Western baddie Kenne Duncan. Just a few days earlier, I'd been surfing the internet, completely independent of Kenne or Eddie (or so I thought), when I came across a beautiful collection of photos of suits designed by Nudie Cohn for bluegrass musician Dale Berry. Shot by acclaimed cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Midnight in Paris), these images starkly capture Cohn's bold, otherworldly designs, which were somehow both richly ornate and elegantly simple. I realized immediately that I'd seen examples of custom-made "Nudie suits" all my life, but the existence of their common maker eluded me.

In his review of Trick Shooting, Joe Blevins remarked on the "rhinestone cowboy" outfits Kenne dons in the film. Although he didn't mention Nudie by name, he was right in recognizing the lineage. Nudie Cohn had, in fact, designed shirts, coats and suits for everyone from Roy Rogers to Sonny and Cher. And, yes, even Glen Campbell was a client. With his evocative, expressionistic embroidery, mixing the figurative and abstract seamlessly, Cohn dressed the cowboys and angels of Hollywood for decades.

Like Ed and Kenne, Nudie Cohn resided in North Hollywood at the peak of his career. But he'd been born Nuta Kotlyarenko some 10,000 miles away in Kiev in 1902. Before designing clothing for the stars, Nudie was making costumes and lingerie for burlesque performers.

All of this brings me back to Trick Shooting. A little over four minutes into the film, Kenne Duncan is seen wearing an embroidered, powder blue shirt with a hat to match! A minute and a half later, he's wearing another eye-catching shirt, this one beige and featuring a large embroidered image of a Native American with a feathered headdress. Even in the newsreel clips of Kenne's promotional trip to Japan in the early 1950s, the screen villain wears these fancifully decorated shirts.

As many dozens of times as I'd seen Trick Shooting, I'd never once thought about who might have designed those awesome garments! With Darius Khondji's pictorial still fresh in my mind, I knew instantly that they were the work of Nudie Cohn!

A man. A suit. A legend.
If you're still wondering about how this intersects with Elvis Presley, consider the following: Ed Wood wrote and directed a film featuring costumes by Nudie Cohn. Although these outfits were not created specifically for this project, they were unmistakably Cohn's work nevertheless. And Nudie also created the famous gold lamé suit worn by Elvis in 1957's Loving You. It's an outfit so closely associated with the singer that he wore it on the cover of his LP, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong (1959). Comedian Jerry Seinfeld even donned a faithful copy of the suit when he impersonated Elvis on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1994. 

In other words, Nudie Cohn created an indispensable part of the Elvis Presley legend.

In future installments of The Wood Nudie Odyssey, we'll return to the short film Trick Shooting, Ed's friend Kenne Duncan, the L.A. burlesque stages of the 1950s, and much more.