Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Woodologist Odyssey, Part Four by Greg Dziawer

The infamous Circus Liquor sign in North Hollywood.

I confess that I've become obsessed with Ed Wood in recent years. It wasn't always so. Like a lot of other cultural omnivores with offbeat tastes, I was well aware and highly appreciative of Ed's work for decades. In fact, I'd long thought of Eddie's debut feature Glen or Glenda (1953) as one of the most unique and wonderful films ever made. Unexpectedly, almost five years ago, I found myself swept up into an obsession with Wood and his career. Over time, I'd learn a great deal more about Ed than is contained in the popular myth. I'd soon meet other dedicated Woodologists. I continue to find them an incredibly creative and talented bunch of genuinely great people. 

This week, it's my privilege to ask ten questions of cartoonist, animator, illustrator, and painter Milton Knight. An amazingly talented artist, Milt is also a certified Woodologist, one who is consumed by ephemeral details in Ed Wood's films and who delights in finding fresh insights into Ed and his work. Milton is exploring some heretofore unknown aspects of Woodology, and I wanted to know more about his process.

10 Questions With Milton Knight

Artist and Ed Wood fan Milton Knight.
1. Have you ever worn an angora sweater?

No. I like to wear turtlenecks, though, and love women in them.

2. You recently identified dancer/stripper/burlesque performer Bebe Hughes (aka Bebe Hughs, Bebe Barton, and several other names) in the alleged insert footage from Glen or Glenda reputed to have been shot by W. Merle Connell. She is ubiquitous in Something Weird Video's Nudie Cuties series. Tell us how you identified her and anything else you know about Bebe.

I’ve long followed cheesecake and pinup stuff, and she appeared [in] a lot [of it]. It might have been from Nightmare of Ecstasy that I learned her name. She’s in many of the Connell productions, the shorts, the burlesque and exploitation features. Also in some shorts produced for private viewing by William H. Door, credited by her first name. Never undressed; I've only seen one nude modeling shot of the "artistic" type. She was apparently regarded as the cute comedienne, always pulling faces and doing mincing little walks. I'm wondering if she had a connection because of her husband. Someone involved with Wood was quoted as saying he played the intruder who ravishes her on a couch in the nightmare sequence put into Glen or Glenda. By the way, she is [credited as] "Bebe Berto" in [Connell's] Test Tube Babies (1948).

3. I know you possess an affinity—to put it mildly—for the character Sheila the Fence in the Wood-scripted The Violent Years (1956). What's your attraction to her, and what else do you know about the actress who portrayed her, Lee Constant?

Wood had a thing for female criminals hanging around in their loungewear, waiting for the bell to ring with the next plot development, e.g. Jail Bait, The Violent Years, The Sinister Urge. It really was a lazy kind of storytelling, looking forward to television, but also sexy and incongruous. All the thrills of a criminal life, in ladylike leisure with a cocktail in her hand. So many questions left unanswered and unasked.

I know nothing about Lee Constant herself, whose only film this apparently was. It's possible she specialized in radio, as did Barbara Weeks, the portrayer of Paula’s mom. I was surprised to learn Constant was the wife of Timothy Farrell, the big bad in Wood’s Jail Bait. I like to imagine him in an onscreen criminal teaming with his real-life wife, baiting, berating, and out-"Shaddap!!"-ing each other. 
Author's note: I was also surprised to hear that Lee Constant was married to Timothy Farrell. When I expressed my happiness to Milt, he double-checked this factoid with other Woodologists and learned it was not so. But the truth is equally superb: Tim's wife Shirley appeared in The Violent Years!
4. Why Ed Wood?

It didn’t happen because I sought him out. In the '80s, I was familiar with the iconography of his horror films but had not been seduced. Friends introduced me to the series of Sleazemania tapes [from Rhino Video], and I kinda got hooked. There was something sinister about the exploitation films. I had doubted stuff so crude could be legally distributed as movies. 

Wood strikes me as a director guilelessly willing to drop his heart on the chopping block. Glen or Glenda was exploitation, but was obviously, even tragically, sincere. And, as has been noted by others, the extraterrestrial guy in Plan 9 is speaking the bitter truth regarding the arms race and "stupid minds," and it's the sterling example of the establishment that silences him with a fist. Wood's leads tend to be vulnerable, sensitive, and, when angered, even petulant. With Wood, there aren’t billions of dollars to hide behind. In many cases, [his characters] say things that people don't dare say.

"Athletic soft porn."
5. Scalli's Gym is a Quality Studios set we both know well, Quality being the cramped Santa Monica Blvd. soundstage where Ed Wood filmed parts of Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Please take us there.

A mainstay of W. Merle Connell productions was athletic soft porn—sturdy women bending and stretching, ogled from provocative camera angles. The dingy, chintzy gymnasium sets [at Quality] were used and reused for pseudo-educational cheesecake (The Body Beautiful), burlesque comedy (What Happened to Tom in the Ladies' Gym), and serving in crime features as wholesome fronts shielding evil activities [such as] bookmaking, sports "fixing," and drug pushing, as in The Devil's Sleep and Racket Girls, two films starring Timothy Farrell as the infamous hustler Umberto Scalli. (The third was Dance Hall Racket.) Farrell was probably the most charismatic of the exploitation regulars and always more personable as the villain than in his preachy, law-abiding doctor and reporter roles. 

Dens of crime such as Scalli's Gym and Scalli's Dance Hall were never convincing of menace, however, and were simply a device to provide audiences with the vicarious pleasure of watching characters drink, neck, and get stoned.

6. If there is one mystery about Ed Wood or his work that you would love to solve, what is it?

Not that it would make a major change in my life, but I'd like to know what happened in the lives of the minor players like Harry Keatan, and the actress who played Mary, the exploited Hollywood hopeful in The Sinister Urge.

7. You lived at 5637 Strohm Ave in Hollywood, a mere stone's throw away from two of Ed's residences. He and his wife Kathy were living at 5617 ½ Strohm in late 1972, and they'd lived at 1627 Strohm in 1964. Tell us about that location.

It was actually in North Hollywood, a then unglamorous city in the San Fernando Valley. The section was bland, industrial, but centrally located for film work. The main strip was Burbank Blvd., which had an array of staple businesses: restaurants, used car dealers, sound studios. Buildings over one story tall were few. There still is the "landmark" Circus Liquor [on Vineland Ave.], with its towering neon clown. On the side streets were small and probably inexpensive houses.

5617 Strohm Ave. as it looked in 2018.

From 1991 to 1998, I rented an apartment at the end of a block, near a power station. Dumpy, relaxed. Mostly families with kids. The downside was that it was right under the flight pattern of Burbank Airport. I was on the second floor, and the place shook every five minutes. A few houses down was what I only recently learned had been one of Wood's rentals in the 1970s. During my stay in the neighborhood, it was the pleasant, unobtrusive little place it had probably been twenty years earlier. It isn’t clear to me whether the Wood couple lived in the main or the rear house. Kathy remembered the landlord as living in the rear, but one of Ed's business letters claims that as his address. I believe it was the same house that had a little sale going in the front one afternoon. Didn't get much.

8. You are an accomplished artist and cartoonist, possessing a style rooted in early classic American animation. What's the connection to Ed Wood, and how has he influenced your work, if at all?

The kind of leering, "Pssst… hey!" storytelling. The softcore, high-heeled, red-lipped eroticism.

Two of Milton Knight's paintings. At right is his self-portrait.

9. I have come to believe that Ed was involved in burlesque films in the early '50s in ways we may never know. You know this milieu intimately. What's your take?

There was the W. Merle Connell/Quality Studios connection, and a majority of the burlesque features were photographed by Wood’s favorite [cinematographer], William C. Thompson. Wood may well have been lurking around, writing extra material, but wouldn't have made a great creative dent because these features were, by and large, filmed revues. Dancers and ready made comic bits. Few had plots or clever setups, and never anything as grandly esoteric as Orgy of the Dead.

10. Glen or Glenda?

Absolutely touching.

A poster for Milton Knight's show.
Many thanks to Milton Knight! Check out his incredible work here and here. And if you are in the vicinity of Bloomington, Indiana, his next gallery show Motion and Emotion is little more than a week away.