Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 75: The Mocambo (1941-1958)

A UFO hovers ominously over the Mocambo on Sunset Blvd.

The VHS release of Look Back in Angora.
There are several fine, lovingly made documentaries about Ed Wood. The three best known examples—Look Back in Angora, Flying Saucers Over Hollywood, and The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr.—were all released in the early-to-mid 1990s. That tracks. Rudolph Grey's book about Eddie came out in '92, Tim Burton's biopic followed two years later, and several of Ed's movies were either being issued or reissued on VHS back then. It was a good time to be an Ed Wood fan.

Perhaps the best documentaries about Edward D. Wood, Jr. are the man's own films. From his crude cowboy drama Crossroads of Laredo (1948) to the formulaic porn loops he worked on in the 1970s, these motion pictures truly capture Eddie's life and times. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that "film is truth 24 times a second," and Ed Wood's movies show how true that (slightly pretentious) maxim is.

Take Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) as an example. You want to see what Vampira, Tor Johnson, Bela Lugosi, and the rest of the Wood gang looked like back in the 1950s? They're all in Plan 9, alongside many other members of Eddie's oddball entourage. And you can't tour Quality Studios as it was during those years, but you can see the scenes Eddie filmed there, including that infamous cockpit aboard American Flight #812. You know, the one with the shower curtain and the circular slide rule.

Plan 9 is a treasure trove of detail about life in Eisenhower-era America. Here, you'll see examples of 1950s fashion, technology, social attitudes, architecture, and consumer products. Just look at the huge Fords, Dodges, and Buicks that zip across the screen. People didn't know what "fuel economy" even was back then. And check out the Coca-Cola bottles and the L&M cigarette package on the table outside Jeff and Paula's home during the scene in which the Trents are interviewed by Col. Edwards (Tom Keene) and Lt. Harper (Duke Moore). Nostalgic movies set in the 1950s, including Ed Wood (1994), scramble to get these kinds of period details correct. Plan 9 doesn't have to scramble. Eddie just used what was available in Los Angeles at the time.

Coke and cigarettes in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

One of the most remarkable passages of Plan 9 arrives at about the 17-minute mark. Much has already happened by this point in the movie. Vampira and Bela's characters have died, had their respective funerals, and risen from the dead. Pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott) has spotted a flying saucer and confessed this remarkable event to his supportive wife Paula (Mona McKinnon). Two bumbling gravediggers (J. Edward Reynolds and Hugh Thomas, Jr.) and lumbering Inspector Clay (Tor Johnson) have been killed by zombies. After all this, Reverend Lynn Lemon presides over Clay's funeral ("The bell has rung upon his great career.") with Vampira watching from the bushes and UFOs hovering overhead.

What follows is a remarkable, newsreel-esque montage lasting about a minute and a half, comprised of both stock footage and newly filmed pick-up shots, augmented with hyperbolic narration by Criswell and dramatic library music. The point of this montage is to show that the three saucers are brazenly flying over major American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, ultimately attracting the attention of the military. What had been a series of intimate, interconnected stories about a few characters (a grieving old man, a married couple, some police officers) is now a national phenomenon.

Unsurprisingly, most of the montage focuses on Eddie's adopted hometown of Hollywood. Criswell tells us that the three saucers were spotted "high over Hollywood Blvd." as we see amazed motorists pointing at the sky. A fictional newspaper called the Hollywood Chronicle is first seen coming off the printing press, then being read by a suit-wearing man (supposedly Ed Wood himself). Its banner headline reads: SAUCERS SEEN OVER HOLLYWOOD. A slightly crumpled copy of the Chronicle is laid out on a table at a diner, surrounded by various cups and silverware. Finally, a tubby drunk staggers through an alley and picks the paper up off the sidewalk before waddling out of frame.

Meanwhile, the saucers fly over the headquarters of CBS, NBC, and ABC. But then, for reasons known only to himself, Eddie has the aliens visit Sunset Boulevard, and we get a glimpse of what the glitzy Sunset Strip—a 1.5-mile stretch of road through West Hollywood cluttered with clubs, stores, and billboards—looked like 60 years ago. There's a shot in which a saucer soars over the Crescendo, a nitery that lasted from 1954 to 1964 and played host to top jazz, folk, and comedy acts of the day. Everyone from Louis Armstrong to Bob Newhart gigged there. The joint was named after the GNP Crescendo record label and was owned by GNP honcho Gene Norman. (The club is long, long gone, but the label is carried on today by Gene's son, Neil.)

On the night this footage was shot, "cool jazz" singer June Christy was performing there. An appreciative write-up in the June 10, 1957 edition of Billboard said that the chanteuse "seems to have reached full showbiz maturity." Soon-to-be-controversial comedian Lenny Bruce was also on the bill. A banner advertising cabaret singer Frances Faye is seen in the background. Faye's 1959 album Caught in the Act was recorded at the Crescendo.

Flying saucer over the Crescendo club. Inset: a Billboard review of June Christy's act.

Eddie cuts to another drunk (production assistant and future For Love and Money director Don Davis) staggering out of a cocktail lounge, a bottle of wine still in his hand. He shields his eyes, apparently from the brightness of the UFO, then looks down skeptically at the bottle. "There comes a time in each man's life," says Criswell, "when he can't even believe his own eyes." This bar, incidentally, seems to be a real location. The address over the door is clearly visible as 4092. If this is meant to be Sunset Blvd. as well, that address now corresponds to a parking lot.

Don Davis shields his eyes from the harsh light of truth.

The Mocrumbo in Slick Hare (1947).
When the film cuts back to the UFO, it's no longer dangling over the Crescendo but over the Mocambo, a plush night club that stood at 8588 Sunset Boulevard from 1941 to 1958. The place was demolished decades ago, barely outliving its co-founder Charlie Morrison; an H&M now stands in its approximate spot. Throughout most of the 1940s and 1950s, however, it was one of West Hollywood's true hot spots, attracting movie star customers and top-flight musical and comedy talent.

(Our poor Plan 9 drunk, incidentally, is so disoriented by this that he sets the bottle of wine down. It's a classic example of the "no more for me" trope.)

Abbott & Costello, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf, Bob Hope, and too many more to mention played the Mocambo. And the clientele? Everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Judy Garland went there. Practically every major movie star you can name from that era. Liz Taylor, Clark Gable, John Wayne. The list goes on and on. They came for the exotic, Latin-inspired decor (including many live birds!), the big band music, and the opportunity to dance the night away. This was a place to see and be seen.

For a club that lasted less than two decades, the Mocambo had a seismic impact on popular culture. Remember the Tropicana, where Ricky worked on I Love Lucy? Yeah, that was based on the Mocambo. Lucy and Desi were fans of the place. Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny spent a whole cartoon, Slick Hare (1947), at a parody of the Mocambo called "the Mocrumbo," where a flashing neon sign advises patrons that they'll have to make a "small down payment" on the $600 dinners offered within. In the cartoon, the restaurant is depicted as a star-studded but chaotic and disorganized place, where crates of vegetables are left to rot on the floor and the refrigerators are dripping with grease. This was supposedly based on writer Michael Maltese's real-life observations! But who cares when Bogey and Bacall are regulars?

Eartha Kitt is the purrrrrfect headliner for the Mocambo.

In the stock footage from Plan 9, seductive singer-actress Eartha Kitt is headlining at the Mocambo. This film might have been taken during Kitt's much-publicized 1953 stint at the club. How wonderful, then, that Ms. Kitt made a cameo in the Ed Wood-scripted I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998). Below is a blurb from the December 10, 1953 issue of Jet about Kitt's three-week stand at the Mocambo, plus a vintage photograph showing an alternate angle of the famous marquee. Apparently, Greece's King Paul and Queen Frederika had attended a Mocambo floor show, and Los Angeles mayor Norris Poulson was shocked by the lyrics of Miss Kitt's flirty songs like "C'est Si Bon" and "I Wanna Be Evil." The scandalous publicity only made her performances at the Mocambo more popular.

A press clipping about Eartha Kitt's appearance at the Mocambo in West Hollywood.

Broadcast pioneer Larry Finley.
You sharp-eyed viewers will have noted by now that there is another venue visible next door to the Mocambo. That's Larry Finley's Restaurant, located on the same premises and named after the New York-born radio and TV broadcaster. Larry was then appearing on radio station KFWB (980 on your AM dial). These days, KFWB plays all Mexican music, but from the 1920s to the 1950s, the station aired a variety of programming during radio's so-called "golden age." Stars like Bing Crosby and Ronald Reagan got their start on KFWB, in fact.

By the 1950s, the beefy, balding, gregarious Finley—said to have possessed "the voice with a smile"—was hosting his nightly, six-hour talk show, Larry Finley Time, from the Sunset Blvd. restaurant. That fact was advertised quite prominently on the sign outside. I guess the idea was that you could stop by for a meal or a drink and see a genuine radio show, complete with celebrity guests, being produced right in front of you. Good old Larry kept the party going until 4am every night. By the end of the 1950s, however, KFWB had switched over to playing rock & roll music and would become quite a powerhouse in that field.

Largely forgotten today, Larry Finley (1913-2000) was an interesting character in his own right. Over the course of his 86 years, he pursued a number of careers, including nightclub manager, with various degrees of success. His after-hours broadcasts made him one of the first late-night talk show hosts. He tried to start his own radio network but could never get it off the ground. On the plus side, though, he was one of the first to see the potential of video and audiotape and became a leader in that industry. When he died in April 2000, the Los Angeles Times eulogized him as such but also mentioned the radio shows and the Sunset Blvd. restaurant.

Had it not been for Plan 9 from Outer Space, I might never have heard of Finley, the Crescendo, or even the Mocambo. That's why I say that Ed Wood's movie, as outlandish as it is, serves as an incredible documentary of the 1950s.