Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 16 by Greg Dziawer

The life of Ray "Crash" Corrigan was not without scandal.

I. Serial Killers 

Ray Corrigan with his son Tommy.
Until I finally saw Ed Wood's 1970 feature Take It Out in Trade for the first time last week, I had never thought about that film too deeply. I'd already seen the outtakes many times over. They were originally released by Something Weird Video back in the '90s on VHS, and they're now included on the new DVD/Blu-ray edition of Take It Out in Trade. Poring over those silent outtakes, I'd recognized many pieces of set decoration from other Wood-related productions of the era, including a gold skull and a bronze king cobra. Wood biographer Rudolph Grey noted both of those items in his capsule review of the film in his book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. back in 1992. Grey also mentions the film's associate producer, Ray Corrigan

As it turns out, this is the same actor and stuntman Ray "Crash" Corrigan who starred as one of the Three Mesquiteers in dozens of B-Westerns in the mid-to-late 1930s, alongside actors like John Wayne, Robert Livingston, and Max Terhune. Ray also appeared in his share of Republic serials. In fact, he'd taken his screen name Corrigan from the character he played in one such production, 1936's The Undersea Kingdom, two chapters of which later wound up on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Corrigan also owned his own gorilla costumes and, for a time, was the go-to guy in low-budget films to play any gorilla characters a script might require. In addition, he ran the Corriganville Ranch—filming location for thousands of motion pictures and TV shows, mostly Westerns—for more than a quarter of a century. He sold the place in the mid-'70s to Bob Hope, who redubbed it Hopetown. By that time, the film industry in which Ray once flourished had been slowly killed off—first by television, then by movies that showed things you couldn't see on TV.

II. A Coincidence?

While I was digging around last week about Ray "Crash" Corrigan, a search result returned an obituary for a Don "Crash" Corrigan. The associated details seemed unrelated to Ray—I had not come across any mention that Ray had a son named Don—but I nonetheless obviously had to click on it to learn the truth.

The obituary for Don "Crash" Corrigan ultimately proved to have no relevance to my pursuit. Strangely, though—and I can say unreservedly that the most amazing aspect of researching Ed Wood has been for me these moments of seeming "agency"—Don Corrigan turned out to have grown up in the neighborhood where I now live, and he graduated in 1966 from the school my 15-year-old daughter now attends, four blocks down the street. Two instances of his obit were published in the local papers here in Wilkes-Barre, PA. 

III. Use Cases, or: What's It All About, Alfie?

"Crash" Corrigan's first starring role came in the 1936 Republic serial The Undersea Kingdom, influenced by Buster Crabbe's Flash Gordon. An ad from the December 25, 1936 Kansas City Star pairs the serial with an Our Gang short. 

Undersea Kingdom is paired with Our Gang.

A comic short series popular since the silent era, the Our Gang films were sold to television in 1955 under the better-known title The Little Rascals and enjoyed decades of success on the new medium. Our Gang's most famous alumnus must be the character of Alfalfa, the skinny, squeaky-voiced boy played by Carl Switzer. Tragically, just as his old films were finding a new audience, Swtizer died an untimely death in a violent dispute with a man named Moses "Bud" Stiltz in North Hollywood in 1959. Stiltz had been Ray's ranch foreman as Corriganville began to fade in popularity as a movie set.

Here's a write-up about the case from the January 22, 1959 edition of The Madera Tribune.

The sad end of Alfalfa.

IV. Spanky and Alfalfa

In 1958, The Bride and the Beast, a jungle melodrama written by Ed Wood, was released. The titular beast, an amorous gorilla who steals Charlotte Austin away from Lance Fuller, is widely reported to have been played by Ray "Crash" Corrigan, who'd portrayed many such beasts over the years. A 2007 DVD edition of the film maintains it was actually Ray's protege, Steve Calvert, inside the suit, but Drew Friedman's Ed Wood, Jr. Players trading card set (1995) credits Ray with the part, as does Nightmare of Ecstasy. Friedman suggests Ray and Steve were the same person.

Ray Corrigan's card in the Drew Friedman series.

Ray's second wife, Elaine DuPont, noted that her husband went often to the San Diego Zoo to watch the gorillas and study their movements.. Elaine performed for the public at the Corriganville Ranch, as a singer and Western trick rider. Like Ray, she sported embroidered Western wear designed by the legendary Nudie Cohn. Elaine also said that Ray had four gorilla costumes. 

The gorilla in Bride of the Beast, curiously, is named Spanky. Another Our Gang connection!

V. Disintegration

Corrigan's first marriage to Rita Jane Smeal, whom he met when she was an usherette in 1938, disintegrated in 1954. The couple had three children, the oldest of them named Tommy. And, according to the commentary track by Rudolph Grey and Frank Henenlotter on Take It Out in Trade, it was Tommy who supplied the gorgeous print of the film for the new special edition.

The Corrigans' divorce proceedings soon grew ugly, with Rita charging that Ray had threatened her life and the lives of their children with a loaded gun. Ray made a counter-charge of his own, accusing Rita of adultery with the aforementioned Bud Stiltz.

Here are some articles about Ray and Rita's divorce from the May 4 and June 4, 1954 editions of The San Bernadino Sun.

The Corrigans' marriage did not end well.

Rita would subsequently marry Stiltz. Five years into their union, Carl Switzer knocked on the door of Rita and Bud's place, reputedly demanding money owed him by Bud. Bud shot and killed him, under circumstances that remain mysterious. Although the incident was ultimately ruled to be self-defense, Tommy Corrigan has said, "It was more like murder." Moses "Bud" Stiltz died at the age of 62 on May 15, 1983 in San Bernadino, California. He's buried in Forest Lawn.

VI. A New Look

A newspaper interview with Ray Corrigan in late 1970 found him scouting film locations in Oregon. The article mentions Ray producing and appearing in a film titled The Ribald Robin Hood. He's surely referring to The Erotic Adventures of Robin Hood (1969). That film's IMDb page lists a clutch of producers, but Ray is not among them. In the credits, though, we find mention of a certain Raymond Renard. His own IMDb page includes French films we'll conclude were the work of a different Ray Renard. 

From The Oregonian, December 21, 1970.

A showing of Ed Wood's Trade.
At this point, I should explain that Ray "Crash" Corrigan's real name was Raymond Benitz. Before he took his famous screen name, he was billed as Ray Benard and, erroneously, Ray Bernard. So the Ray Renard from Robin Hood could just be Ray Corrigan under yet another pseudonym.

UPDATE: Bryin Abraham of the blog A Wasted Life  reported by e-mail from Berlin that he had screened The Erotic Adventures of Robin Hood in the process of compiling an article about Uschi Digard. The article mentions that Ray "Crash" Corrigan had indeed appeared in the film as Robin's dad. Ray's appearance in Robin Hood is confirmed by author Jerry L. Schneider in the 2016 book The True Story of Ray "Crash" Corrigan.

In the 1970 newspaper interview, Ray downplays the sexual content of Take It Out In Trade, with the article referring to it as a "new look" film.  This was a euphemism for the then-burgeoning softcore genre, which was about to be subsumed by hardcore sex films like Deep Throat (1972). The movie Ray was then said to be producing, Sex in America, appears to have never been completed, at least not under that title. 

And as the newspaper article notes, Ray had business interests in the northwestern United States, including the San Juan Islands, which remain a popular location from which to spot Orca whales. On the Take It Out in Trade commentary track, Frank Henenlotter repeatedly insists that the film never played theatrically. However, as vintage newspaper ads attest, the film did play the Pacific Northwest, including a stint at the Eros Theater in Portland, Oregon.

"Crash" passed away a few hundred miles south in Brookings, Oregon in August 1976. He was 74.