Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 79: The 10 Most Shocking Stories in 'Nightmare of Ecstasy'

Ed looks very pink on this book cover.

Lillian Wood and Rudolph Grey (1984).
Memories can be tricky bastards. Most of us can barely recall in precise detail what we were doing last week, let alone 10 or 20 years ago. Over time, our memories of the past get blurrier and blurrier. Plus, as we try to make sense of an often chaotic and unpredictable world, we tend to take the events of our lives and shape them into meaningful, coherent stories. Often, that means exaggerating, eliminating, or flat out inventing certain details. These stories may not bear much resemblance to the truth, but we tell them to others and to ourselves so often that they become somehow stronger than the truth.

Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) is truly a book of memories. In compiling the first (and still only) full-length biography of notorious filmmaker Ed Wood, Grey assembled the book largely out of quotes from Ed's friends, relatives, and professional associates. Though Grey does not annotate his sources whatsoever, most of these quotes presumably came from his own extensive interviews. Since Ed himself was already deceased by the time this book was being assembled, his quotes derive from old letters and vintage interviews. 

Nightmare is a great source of raw data and provided the foundation of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's script for the 1994 biopic Ed Wood. Some passages from the book made it directly into the movie, almost word for word. But none of this means that Grey's book is factually accurate. The author was more interested in compiling colorful anecdotes about Eddie than in curating the objective "truth" about the man.

Which is to say that some of Nightmare of Ecstasy is likely bullshit. But it's bullshit that I haven't tired of reading and rereading, even though I bought my copy 25 years ago. In fact, while scouring its pages, I keep finding stories that shock me even today. Ed Wood, let's not forget, was an emotionally volatile alcoholic operating on the fringe of the movie business, so a little seediness is expected in a story like this. But there are a few anecdotes that are sordid even by the standards of this book, and those are the ones I'd like to highlight. These are the ugly, uncomfortable stories that didn't make it into Ed Wood.

These are presented in no particular order. And, again, if I haven't made it clear already, I am not declaring these stories to be true or untrue. But I can verify that each one appears in Nightmare of Ecstasy. Let's dive in.

1. Eddie's alleged carnival days

Even though sideshows and carnivals are recurring motifs in his fiction, there is no physical or corroborating evidence that Ed Wood ever actually traveled with a carnival in his early days. But it's certainly a story he liked to tell others. Actor Chuck La Berge, who appeared in a production of The Casual Company as well as the aborted film Crossroads of Laredo, tells this colorful, anatomically dubious version of the tale on page 21. 

2. Some dirt on major Hollywood stars

Among Ed Wood's close friends and associates, perhaps only Bela Lugosi is widely known outside of cult movie circles. But Nightmare does name drop a few major Hollywood players along the way. On page 31, for instance, artist Phil Cambridge tells this odd story about Lou Costello making his chauffeur eat soap.

On that same page, Kathy Wood and Dolores Fuller allege that Ed's cross-dressing brought him into contact with Tony Curtis and Danny Kaye.

3. The unsavory side of Bunny Breckinridge

Most Ed Wood fans know John "Bunny" Breckinridge from his foppish portrayal of the Ruler in Plan 9 from Outer Space. As played by Bill Murray in Ed Wood, Bunny is another harmless kook in Eddie's entourage. The biopic does mention the fact that Bunny performed publicly in drag ("When I was a headliner in Paris, audiences always liked it when I sparkled!"), as well as his ill-fated trip to Mexico to get a sex change that ultimately never happened. But the movie steers clear of the fact that John Breckinridge was convicted of "sex perversion" in 1959 in a case involving two young boys and spent a year in Atascadero State Hospital for the criminally insane. On page 81, Jack Randall talks about the specifics of the case and what Bunny's time at Atascadero was like.

4. Tor Johnson and his trip to India

When I originally read Nightmare of Ecstasy in 1994, the passage that shocked me the most occurred on pages 112 and 113. This part of the book concerns bald, hulking Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, a personal friend of Ed's and an unmistakable member of the Wood repertory company. Because of his performances in Plan 9, Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls, and countless other B-movies for other directors, Tor has become an enduring favorite among cult cinema fans. The comics of Drew Friedman, furthermore, have contributed to Tor's image as an innocent, almost childlike giant who lumbers through life with oafish abandon.

A different, decidedly less whimsical Tor Johnson emerges in the stories told by Night of the Ghouls actor and associate producer Tony Cardoza, who discusses the wrestler's trip to India, with a sidebar about Tor's unacceptable behavior at a restaurant. Actor Henry Bederski (of Glen or Glenda fame) contributes more details to the story.

5. Ed masqueraded as Adolf Hitler... and Jesus

This story on pages 117-118 goes by so quickly that some readers might not even notice it. But, yes, actress Mona McKinnon -- you'll remember her as Paula Trent in Plan 9 -- suggests that Ed Wood dressed up as Hitler on multiple occasions. In some ways, I'm sorry that there are no photographs of this. In other ways, I'm glad there aren't.

We do have a picture of Ed Wood as Jesus Christ from his Christmas card, though.

6. Kenne Duncan's sexual harassment of Valda Hansen

Although actress Valda Hansen was probably about 26 when she appeared in Ed Wood's Night of the Ghouls (aka Revenge of the Dead), not "sweet 16 and innocent" as she claimed, there's still no excuse for the sexual harassment she endured from costar Kenne Duncan on the set of that film. Here are two passages from Nightmare of Ecstasy about that topic. The first comes from Valda herself and appears on page 90. The second quote is from page 93 and is spoken by Ghouls assistant director Ronnie Ashcroft.

Duncan's reputation as a supernaturally well-endowed "ladies man" is discussed by makeup artist Harry Thomas on page 114. Anthony Cardoza and Ronnie Ashcroft chime in as well. Nowhere in the book, however, does anyone mention the alleged brief affair between Kenne Duncan and Ed's wife Kathy.

7. Bela's hellish experience in rehab

One of the best-known episodes in the Ed Wood saga revolves around aged, drug-addled actor Bela Lugosi entering rehab in 1955 to kick his heroin habit. This is depicted in Ed Wood, as is the fact that Bela was unceremoniously kicked out of the hospital for failure to pay his bills. But what definitely didn't make it into the movie was Bela's assertion that his fellow patients "were trying to kiss him" or that they would "shit all over" him and "piss over" him as well. Note Ed's assertion that Bela was drinking paraldehyde. The Golden Turkey Awards alleges that Bela drank formaldehyde, an obvious fib that somehow made it into the Ed Wood script as well. ("What are you drinking?" "Formaldehyde." "Straight up or on the rocks?")

8. Life at Yucca Flats

Ed and Kathy Wood's last permanent residence together was an apartment at the intersection of Yucca and Cahuenga in Los Angeles. In the late 1970s, this was a violent, crime-ridden, and dangerous neighborhood, and the building itself was not well-maintained, earning it the nickname "Yucca Flats." Eddie was really destitute during these years, and his alcoholism was out of control. He made a very meager living from writing pornography, most of which he squandered at the Pla-Boy liquor store down the street. Some of the most hair-raising stories about this era come from Eddie's neighbor, Florence Dolder. This anecdote on pages 150-151 particularly haunted me for reasons that should be obvious.

Artist Phil Cambridge gives us, on page 148, perhaps the most pathetic image of Edward D. Wood, Jr. in the entire book, with Ed being mugged by African-American street gangs on the way to the liquor store. Because this story takes place on Friday, it almost becomes a ghoulish, ridiculous parody of the Stations of the Cross with Eddie as Christ and the unnamed, helpful "store keeper" as Simon of Cyrene.

If there is one machine most closely associated with Ed Wood, even more so than his camera, it is his trusty typewriter. He was absolutely reliant upon his typewriter to make a living in the 1970s. His survival literally depended upon it. And yet, on page 155, there are stories about how Ed would hock typewriters for booze money and how actor Dudley Manlove (Plan 9's Eros) tried to help him but couldn't. This is another emotional low point in Nightmare of Ecstasy, showcasing Eddie at his most desperate and pitiable.

Meanwhile, these passages from page 150 illuminate just how bad things became at Yucca Flats during Ed's final years. The commentators here are actor John Andrews (the werewolf from Orgy of the Dead) and Shannon Dolder, the punk rocker daughter of Florence. These passages give us new insight into Kathy Wood, too. In Ed Wood, she is depicted as demure and soft-spoken. Maybe she was that way in the 1950s when she and Eddie met. But that's clearly not how she behaved by the 1970s. Her marriage to Ed changed her in many ways. And then there is the issue of the ugly, hateful, racist language used by both Ed and Kathy. 

Read these words from Phil Cambridge on page 157 and try to imagine if your own existence were like this. Ed and Kathy were living in absolute terror at Yucca Flats. Note, too, that Phil admits to having ignored Eddie's obvious plea for help. I wonder if Eddie's leg problems were somehow related to the heart disease that killed him shortly thereafter.

I am including this quote from Shannon Dolder on page 151 because it reminds me so much of Ed's own short story, "Scene of the Crime" (1972). Apparently, Ed and Kathy became so inured to the sound of women screaming that they did not react to a double homicide. The sound of gunfire, too, became mere background noise to them.

9. Eddie's fearsome temper

Ed Wood does occasionally reference Eddie's chronic alcoholism, albeit in fairly benign ways. But never do viewers get a hint of the violent temper that came with his drinking. Sadly, the most frequent victim of Ed's booze-fueled rage was his own wife, Kathy, as reflected in these quotes from page 145.

On page 152, there is further commentary from John Andrews and Shannon Dolder about how tempestuous Ed and Kathy's marriage truly was. Even Criswell thought one would murder the other eventually, and those sentiments were echoed by actor-writer Mike Angel.

It's rarely discussed among Ed Wood fans, but there's a story on page 85 dealing with the making of Plan 9 from Outer Space that is rather upsetting. We all know how close Ed was with actor Paul Marco, who remained loyal to him even during the leanest years. Apparently, Paul was serving as the producer of Plan 9 before Ed Reynolds and the Baptists took over the film. This somehow led to an argument in which Ed knocked Paul down a flight of stairs. This is not remotely hinted at in Ed Wood, nor does it come up in any documentary about Ed. If someone knocked me down the stairs, I'd remember it.

10. Sad, squalid details of Ed Wood's death

I'll end this survey with two quotes from page 160 dealing with Ed Wood's death on December 10, 1978. The first is from Kathy Wood, the second from actor Peter Coe, who gave Eddie and Kathy a place to stay after they were evicted from Yucca Flats. Again for reasons that should be immediately apparent, both of these quotes have stuck with me for decades.