Thursday, December 31, 2020

A whole year's worth of comics parodies and mashups!

A gloomy year demands a gloomy header image.

As recently as 2019, comic parodies were a regular feature on this blog. Then, without warning, they vanished altogether. What happened? Well, it's like this. Up until about December of last year, I was an active participant in a Facebook forum devoted to newspaper comics. I shared my various mashups and parodies there and then collected them into occasional blog posts here at Dead 2 Rights. When I gave up on the Facebook forum, I stopped doing comics-related posts on this blog, too.

But I never stopped reading newspaper comics or doing parodies of them. I just don't do them in such great quantities as I used to. Now it's late December, and I have a folder on my hard drive full to bursting with comics, so I thought I'd share them all at once. Sound good to you? Let's go.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Plan 9 Odyssey, Part Four by Greg Dziawer

This is the week we compare Ed Wood with Fellini.

What a difference a decade makes. In the mid-1950s, Ed Wood would have had every reason to believe that ten years on he would still be racking up film credits as writer-producer-director. Still only 30 years old, he would soon shoot the film ultimately remembered as his magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and he already had three feature films under his belt: Glen or Glenda (1953), Jailbait (1954) and Bride of the Monster (1955). While none of those films had garnered much notice, it was reasonable for Ed to think he had laid a solid foundation for a career. 

Flash forward a decade. Whatever the reason, Ed's film work now consisted of the occasional screenplay. The dreams of being a world-renowned auteur must have started to become remote as the reality settled in. By then, he was also writing adult paperbacks. And though he would return to the director's chair by the decade's end, it would be in the arena of sex films. 

Although all of Ed's early films would continue to play drive-ins for years, one in particular would become a staple of early TV syndication: Plan 9 from Outer Space. By 1965, it was airing regularly across the country. At least one writer had concluded that Plan 9 was one of the greatest films ever made and penned a guest column to that effect for the Minneapolis Star Tribune on August 17, 1965. 

Forst Lowery has high praise for Plan 9 from Outer Space.

I don't know if Forst Edgar Lowery (1920-1989) was a media critic or a fan of Ed's. Could he have somehow known him? How would Lowery know, for instance, that Plan 9 was previously titled Graverobbers from Outer Space or that Eddie owed "a debt to Fellini"? Given the level of praise heaped upon Ed in the column, and his own capacity for ballyhoo, it would seem plausible that Ed himself wrote this, if not for the misspelling of his last name. 

Poster for Fellini's 8 1/2.
Forst is a real person for sure, born in Minnesota on April 22, 1920, according to his draft card. And he wrote more than this one column, too! This page aggregates some studies he wrote (or cowrote) in the 1970s, focused upon the subject of sobriety testing and drunk driving. He was, in fact, a lifelong public safety official in Minneapolis, and by the '80s, served as the alcohol coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. He could no doubt have made a case study of Ed Wood.

With Lowery's lofty comparisons to internationally acclaimed film directors like Fellini and Bergman, you'd be forgiven these days for thinking that the column was meant as parody or satire. But Lowery seems sincere, and his proposal for an "Edward D Woods Jr Film Festival" [sic] must have been one of the first of its kind. (I can find no evidence that any such festival took place.) He cites "a certain young critic," unnamed but writing in the Kansas Cinema Quarterly, who compared the film favorably to the arthouse classic Last Year at Marienbad (1961), so Mr. Lowery was not the only one to esteem Plan 9 so highly.

There's much more to savor in this piece, originally intended as program notes for the festival, but I'll leave it speak for itself. Do keep in mind one thing: Last Year at Marienbad was included in Harry Medved's The 50 Worst Films of All Time, the 1978 book that preceded (and made possible) The Golden Turkey Awards, which in turn was the book that made Ed Wood famous by declaring him the worst director of all time, a moniker that stuck.

There is, as they say, no accounting for taste.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 23 by Greg Dziawer

This week, we reflect on the career of actress Brandy Sanders, aka Brandi Saunders.

A few years ago, while completing the long-delayed post-production of the 1974 softcore sex film Dames & Dreams, I tried to identify as many members of the cast as I possibly could. Though some performers were instantly recognizable, there was one actress who seemed vaguely familiar but whom I couldn't exactly place. With her mane of vibrant red hair, arresting green eyes, freckled pale white skin, and formidable pout, she made quite an impression. She also sported a single tattoo: a plain outline of a small heart above her right pelvic bone. And while her role in Dames & Dreams was unlikely to earn her an Academy Award, she possessed solid comic timing and a wide range of evocative facial expressions. 

Brandy in The Swing Thing.
Flash forward a few months. I had identified much of the cast, but the name of this flame-haired actress still eluded me. By then, I was spending more and more of my time scanning through early '70s adult loops. I was (and still am) on a constant lookout for loops with subtitles and loops that were shot at cinematographer and talent agent Hal Guthu's small Hollywood studio, since such films are highly likely to have a connection to Edward D. Wood, Jr.

One day, as I quickly scanned through a very grainy black-and-white 8mm loop, I stopped and realized it was her, the actress from Dames & Dreams I had been trying to ID. That led me to a private forum where an astute expert identified her as one Brandy Sanders (aka Brandi or Brandy Saunders). Her scant IMDb page listed a mere three credits spread across the first half of the 1970s.

The hardcore feature The Swing Thing (1972) pairs her with, among others, the legendary John Holmes. She's credited there as Julia Mure, a possible hint to her real name. A softcore feature called Massage Parlor Wife (1975) pairs her, as does Dames & Dreams, with another adult film legend, Serena. Her final credit is another hardcore feature, Hollywood She-Wolves (1976), in which she essays the role of a mousy, voyeuristic secretary.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Loop Odyssey, Part 23 by Greg Dziawer

This week, we explore Ed Wood's "blue" period.

The standard cover for this series.
The color blue triggers calming hormones in the brain, especially conducive to relaxation and study. But that's not how the Blue Film series of adult 8mm loops released in 1974 got its name. In fact, that title is a nod to the history of adult films. The archaic term "blue movie" isn't used much nowadays to describe pornography, but 1970s consumers would have known exactly what to expect from a series with that name. With each 200-foot reel costing $50 (nearly $300 in today's money), they'd better know what they were getting.

Confusingly to modern day aficionados, this series was known as both Blue Film and Blue Movies. The standard front covers of the boxes use the title Blue Movies as a kind of generic descriptor, while the back covers and index numbers use the Blue Film moniker instead. For instance, the short "Joint Connection" is designated as Blue Film No. 4. In August 2017, I deconstructed a loop from this series called "Tammy and the Doctor" (Blue Film No. 5). Back then, I noted the many correspondences between this film and entries from other West Coast loop series produced by Noel Bloom, son of publisher Bernie Bloom. The Blooms were, as you know by now, Ed Wood's most frequent employers during the 1970s.

One common element uniting these films is that they are silent with subtitles. It's my contention that those subtitles were often -- and perhaps always -- penned by Edward D. Wood, Jr. himself. A host of artistic tropes, ranging from editing to camerawork, also mark these series as being the work of the same creative principles. Eddie is generally accepted to have been one of those principles, directing the first 19 loops in the long-running Swedish Erotica series and even cameoing in the 1971 loop Prisoners Lovemaking (aka The Jailer)

Another hallmark of the earliest subtitled loops, including such series as Pussycat and Danish International Films, is that they feature common sets and set decorations. The interiors for these films were largely shot at talent agent/cinematographer Hal Guthu's studio on Santa Monica Blvd. Many interiors in the earliest Swedish Erotica loops, produced in 1972 and possibly into 1973, were shot here as well. But by the time we arrive at the Blue Film series, which carries a 1974 copyright, interiors were being shot on actual locations rather than sets.

It is unknown if Ed Wood was involved in any way on set for the Blue Film series. But these films are subtitled, so it's safe to say Ed was a key contributor. He may have also written the box cover summaries. His textual signatures are at times noticeable across various loop series. This week, we present for your consideration all eleven Blue Film summaries. Eddie or not? You make the call.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 112: Ed Wood's death certificate

It's time to think about Ed Wood's death again.

December 10 is a date well known to Ed Wood's fans, since that's the anniversary of Eddie's untimely passing in 1978. Evicted from his grungy apartment at 6383 Yucca St. in Los Angeles, just weeks before Christmas, Ed and Kathy Wood hastily relocated to actor Peter Coe's apartment less than ten miles away at 5635 Laurel Canyon Blvd. in Valley Village, where Eddie expired in a back bedroom on a Sunday afternoon as the others were watching the Rams on TV. As with many celebrities who left this world too soon, Ed Wood's alcohol-fueled death at the age of 54 is a key part of his legend. Fans can't help but romanticize, sentimentalize, or even mythicize his tragic ending. The fact that he died penniless and obscure, only to become famous in death, makes him the Vincent Van Gogh of B-movies.

Eddie would have understood this phenomenon all too well. As I've written many times, death was one of Ed Wood's muses, possibly the main one, topping even sex, booze, and women's clothing. The Grim Reaper looms over Eddie's most famous movies, especially Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and Orgy of the Dead (1965), both of which largely take place in cemeteries. Eddie's short stories and books are likewise rife with graveyards, tombstones, coffins, and corpses. Through his writing, Ed Wood frequently pondered how we die, what happens to our bodies after we die, and how we are remembered by those still living. As a quick primer, I refer you to the stories "Into My Grave" and "Epitaph for the Village Drunk."

In the primitive days before the internet, it was not so easy to dig up personal information about other people, even public figures like movie directors. So it was rather eye-opening when author Rudolph Grey included Eddie's full death certificate in the patchwork biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992). With his truly morbid imagination, Eddie would likely approve of his fans studying this grim document in detail. 

Ed Wood's death certificate.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "Mork Gives Fonzie the Finger"

Robin Williams (left) challenges Henry Winkler as Ron Howard looks on.

It's not often that you get to see a performer's entire career change in a half hour, but that's exactly what happens in the classic Happy Days episode "My Favorite Orkan." First airing on February 28, 1978 as part of the sitcom's fifth season, "Orkan" made a national sensation of guest star Robin Williams (1951-2014). Within the year, Robin would have his own spinoff, Mork & Mindy, which in turn led to decades of phenomenal success as an actor and comedian, including an Oscar win for 1997's Good Will Hunting. This one sitcom appearance changed the course of Robin's entire life.

However, Robin Williams was not exactly a showbiz rookie when he signed on to play a wisecracking alien on Happy Days. Born in Chicago, Robin relocated to California in the 1970s and was already making a name for himself on the West Coast comedy scene before this episode aired. He was a finalist, for instance, in the San Francisco Comedy Competition in 1976 and was a regular at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles during the same era as David Letterman and Jay Leno. He'd even been a regular on two short-lived sketch comedy series: The Richard Pryor Show (1977) and a revival of Laugh-In (1977-78). Nothing really hit, though, until "My Favorite Orkan" came along.

The episode had a famously rocky production history. It's important to point out that "My Favorite Orkan" was not conceived as a vehicle for Robin Williams or as a pilot for a potential spinoff. It was just supposed to be a single, self-contained episode of Happy Days. The story goes that producer Garry Marshall wanted to do an episode about space aliens in order to please his Star Wars-obsessed son, Scotty. Space aliens on Happy Days? This may seem like a wild departure from the show's initial mission statement, but let's remember that America was obsessed with flying saucers and UFOs in the 1950s. The topic was bound to come up eventually.

Unfortunately, the initial script by Happy Days mainstay Joe Glauberg had not gone over well at the initial table read. Cast member Anson Williams in particular had doubts about whether the episode would work. Those doubts were compounded when the actor initially cast as Mork didn't pan out. Some sources say character actor Richard Dimitri was fired after one day; other sources say comedian John Byner quit after one day. Either way, the episode didn't truly click until Robin Williams was cast and made the character his own, even improvising much of Mork's dialogue.

It is our great honor this week to review "My Favorite Orkan" on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast. And we have a special guest, Tina Carleton from Welcome to the Uncharted Territories. We certainly hope you'll join us, too.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 22 by Greg Dziawer

After acting for Ed Wood, Conrad Brooks became a director.

There's no doubt that actor Conrad "Connie" Brooks (1931-2017) was a major player in the Ed Wood saga. Born Conrad Biedrzycki in Baltimore, he was a key member of the Wood repertory company in the 1950s, back when Eddie was making such classics as Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)Conrad's bald-pated brother, Henry Bederski (1910-2003), appeared in some of those familiar movies as well. As I wrote back in October, Eddie's very first directorial effort after moving to Hollywood might well have been 1948's Range Revenge, a modest Western vehicle for Conrad and Henry.

For decades, Conrad was skeptical about the value of those movies he made with Ed Wood in the '50s. But after attending some sold-out Plan 9 screenings in the wake of The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), Connie saw the light. He got back into acting in the 1980s and started writing and directing his own films in the 1990s, including titles like Blood Slaves of the Vampire Wolf (1996) and Jan-Gel: The Beast from the East (1999). He kept directing well into the new millennium and was acting right until the end of his life. He was not someone I ever really looked into, however, at least not until recently. I screened some of his '90s opuses a few weeks ago, and they were at times fun and even surreal. That is, if you enjoy that kind of garage cinema.

Some say that Conrad Brooks was shamelessly cashing in on his connection to Ed Wood, but I don't agree. Connie's enthusiasm for his work seemed genuine. He was a staple of the convention circuit in his later years, and the Ed Wood fans who got to know him personally found him to be fun, energetic, and gregarious. (Side note: I wish I'd been more into those conventions back in the '90s. I mean, Russ Meyer and Jesus Franco?!) And if Conrad was trying to "get rich quick" by riding Eddie's coattails, why did he eventually leave Hollywood and return home to live in his ex-wife's trailer?

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "The Falcon Menace"

Henry Winkler (right) threatens Ron Howard on Happy Days.

Admit it. You are not listening to These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast. Almost no one is. I know this because our podcast host, Libsyn, heartlessly forces me to look at our miserable download statistics every time I post a new episode. Considering how much time and effort goes into this podcast, those low numbers can be disheartening. Some weeks, our audience barely breaks double digits. When the podcast was new in 2018, we averaged about 30-40 listeners per episode. I naively thought we would grow from there as the show got better. We didn't. I mean, the show did improve, in my opinion, but our listenership didn't. Instead, the audience for These Days Are Ours has slowly but surely eroded. Eventually, I will be the only listener left. 

I suppose I have to decide whether I'm okay with that. I can take some comfort in the fact that I've done everything I can to make These Days Are Ours a well-produced, informative, entertaining show. And I've also done what I can to promote the show across social media and the blogosphere, including writing these weekly articles. The audience just isn't responding. Unfortunately, since we get little to no feedback, I don't know whether it's the topic (the ABC sitcom Happy Days) that people don't like or something about the podcast itself they don't like. As it is, it feels like I'm taking the episodes and dropping them down a deep, dark well where they make a very distant splash and are never heard from again.

That being said, we have a new episode this week, and it's another one I'm very proud of. It's a review of the Season 5 episode "Our Gang" from February 1978. Like so many sitcoms, ranging from The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Simpsons, Happy Days decided to do a prequel episode to show us what its characters were like before we got to know them. This script depicts the fateful first meeting of nerdy Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and tough guy Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler). It's a very entertaining episode, and we had a good time reviewing it. I hope our enthusiasm translates into an enjoyable podcast.

Here's the episode. Please, for the love of all that is decent and holy, listen to it. Literally all you have to do is press the play button. It's that triangle right there. Go ahead. Click that play button. Please. Please. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood/Dziawer Odyssey, Part 13 by Greg Dziawer

This week, we remember Niva Ruschell.

A few months back, I received an email informing me that my friend, actress Niva Ruschell, had passed away in early May of this year.

The wonderful Niva Ruschell.
My initial and spontaneous reaction to this news was profound sadness. I had by then known Niva for four years. We talked on the phone only infrequently, more often messaging privately on Facebook. For me, she was an endless source of encouragement. She always seemed genuinely tickled by my goofy ideas and damaged sense of humor. In time, we realized a shared love of classic American cartoons, agreeing that Chuck Jones' One Froggy Evening (1955) was the best cartoon ever made. Until I was reminded of it, I had not been on a cartoon kick in about a quarter of a century. I subsequently shared the film with my teenage daughter, and she likewise became a convert. One Froggy Evening binds us in uproarious laughter and philosophical truths.

And it binds me to Niva.

Fortuitously, she told me of her love of Ed Wood, viewing him as a genuine outsider artist and not a figure of derision. In my research, I found out that Niva had unwittingly collaborated with Ed! Back in 1976, she played the role of Candy in the pioneering blaxploitation adult film, Tongue. She was also the film's associate producer and co-writer. An excerpt from Tongue was turned into a silent 8mm loop called "Lube Job" as part of the Foxy series, with subtitles penned by Ed Wood! When I informed Niva of this, she was almost as ecstatic as I was.

Niva wrote about the making of Tongue in the closing chapters of her wonderful 2011 book And Hollywood Be Her Name: Basically a True Story. She also discussed the film with Peter Flash in a 2019 interview for the website Adult DVD Talk. I supplied some background information about Tongue's post-production for that article. But Niva's career was not limited to this one feature. She also appears in one of the foundational classics of blaxploitation cinema. As the prostitute who famously deflowers the title character in Melvin Van Peeble's watershed independent film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, she uttered a quintessential line that was also employed in the film's radio advertising: "You sure got a sweet sweetback!"

When Vinegar Syndrome released a new scan of Sweet Sweetback on Blu-ray in 2018, I was again looped in. Niva was interviewed as a bonus feature on the disc, and I wrote some of the questions. Although most of my queries fell outside the scope of the interview, I still received a Special Thanks credit. In the liner notes, I am credited right next to Niva. That may seem small to you, but it truly warms my heart.

Niva and Greg are thanked, side by side.

When Niva and I last spoke, I reminded her that the carousel on the Santa Monica pier—Sweetback's opening scene was shot upstairs above it—was also featured in the opening credits to the classic sitcom Three's Company. Niva roared with laughter. I neglected to mention that the pier was also the exterior location of Swedish Erotica loop #20, "Pier Passion," featuring subtitles by Ed Wood.

Tongue was Niva's perfect construct, a first-ever melding of blaxploitation and porn, with more than a hint of Fellini. When I pointed out to Niva that Quasi (Al Poe), the mute protagonist of Tongue, exclusively heard a frog's voice, she laughed. And when, during our last conversation, I said that I imagined Niva being guided by that same frog's voice throughout a "making of Tongue" feature, she burst into laughter again.

During the summer of 2015, my longstanding flirtation with Ed Wood became a full-fledged romance when I started reading the previous articles in this series. After pestering the author with some of my esoteric research, he invited me to write an article of my own. Five years on, the work remains for me a daily and satisfying highlight. From the jump, I suddenly found a new world of relationships opening to me; likeminded, like-directional people. In November 2015, for instance, I was brand new to Facebook, and it was Ed Wood who brought me there. A rather nebulous name, Jacques Descent, was associated with Ed Wood on a few films. I found him on Facebook and messaged him, asking about Ed Wood and the "lost" film Operation: Redlight

Jacques and I became fast friends, and he soon after told me that he had completed the post-production of Tongue. I then researched the film, and though Jack and Niva had never met, I contacted her. She remained duly proud of Tongue. In late 2019, after seeing the Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite Is My Name —penned by the same men, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994)—she emailed me and declared that the making of Tongue was not a documentary but a feature. 

Niva ended one of her first messages to me with 😎, and that smiling, sunglass-wearing emoji became de rigueur in our conversations. We dubbed it "SuperCool."

I hope I can one day succeed in telling the story behind the making of Tongue. I do feel some residual guilt, however. I went months without reaching out, oblivious through the summer that Niva had passed. In early May, she took ill with flu-like symptoms, dying in a mere two days. Although she was not tested, she was exposed to COVID-19 and it was the presumed cause of her death. Her last two text messages to me, dated April 25, 2020, end:
"I can breathe easier now..."
"We are safe and trust you and your family are as well."
May you rest in peace, Niva. No one else ever made me feel so smart or so funny. 😎

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "All Singing! All Dancing! Some Chachi!"

"Be My Valentine" features the entire cast of Happy Days in musical fantasy numbers.

It is now time to talk about musical episodes. You know, those surreal, often dreamlike TV episodes that break from a series' usual pattern and have the characters singing and dancing, Broadway-style, for our ostensible entertainment. As a viewer, you might consider them a delightful change of pace or an unforgivable violation of a show's own internal logic. I tend to enjoy them, but I have a pretty high tolerance for showtunes and production numbers. Your mileage may vary. Maybe you feel like animated shows (The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers, Family Guy) can get away with them, but you won't tolerate them from live-action shows. 

Either way, I think musical episodes exist for a number of good reasons. First of all, they give the cast and crew a chance to do something a little different for a week. Sitcoms especially can become very repetitive, utilizing the same characters and the same stock sets over and over. Why not have them do a musical episode now and again, just for the sake of variety? Secondly, the actors on these shows often have backgrounds in theater. They've probably done their share of singing and dancing in the past. Musical episodes give them a chance to show off their terpsichorean skills. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, musical episodes exist for the same reason that any musicals (on stage or screen) exist -- songs are a way of having your characters express their emotions in a very direct way that they might not do though normal dialogue.

"Be My Valentine" from February 1978 was Happy Days' first (but not last) musical episode. It certainly stands out from all the other Season 5 episodes! What did we think of it? Well, you can find out by listening to the latest installment of our podcast, These Days Are Ours

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 111: Where is Amzie Strickland in 'Glen or Glenda'?

Amzie Strickland may or may not have worked with Ed Wood.

Most long-time fans of Ed Wood have seen his debut feature Glen or Glenda (1953) dozens of times, perhaps even memorizing the dialogue. I've said on multiple occasions that this film is the Rosetta Stone for decoding most of Ed's later work, so it deserves to be studied by any serious Woodologist. But this seminal movie, clocking in at a mere 65 minutes, still has some secrets it's keeping from us all these decades later.

Amzie Strickland
Case in point: The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) listing for Glen or Glenda states that one Amzie Strickland (1919-2006) played an unspecified minor role in the film. This caught my attention because I recognized Amzie's name from my research for my weekly podcast These Days Are Ours. This prolific Oklahoma-born actress -- with a career in radio, TV, and film spanning more than six decades -- had played the Cunninghams' racist neighbor Mrs. Finley in a 1974 episode of Happy Days called "The Best Man." Somehow when we reviewed that episode back in December 2018, I failed to point out that she'd appeared in a Ed Wood movie. Shame on me.

A reliable character actress, Amzie started getting small, uncredited movie roles in the late 1930s, playing such memorable characters as Hotel Guest, Nightclub Patron, Churchgoer, and the unforgettable Girl at Table. That pretty much set the pace for her career. It wasn't the most glamorous work, but it was incredibly steady. I can find no significant gaps in her resume from 1937 to her retirement in 2001. Amzie was always there to play a maid, a receptionist, a salesclerk, a nosy neighbor, a schoolmarm, or whatever a producer might need. Along the way she appeared in iconic movies like Jezebel (1938), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Women (1939). Not in big roles, mind you, but still, she's in them. Somewhere. She even got to be in an Abbott & Costello movie (1945's Abbott & Costello in Hollywood)!

In the 1940s, with her excellent diction, Amzie started getting roles on radio shows like The Romance of Helen Trent and Our Gal Sunday, eventually appearing in over 3,000 radio episodes. In the mid-1950s, she started booking TV gigs as well, and this was when she finally started getting onscreen credits. She was a regular on the rural sitcom Carter Country in the late '70s, but couch potatoes remember her best for her many fleeting TV guest roles. She turned up as multiple characters on both The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show, while also putting appearances on I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, ER, ALF, Roseanne, The Golden Girls, and too many more to count. And we haven't even gotten to her work in TV commercials! This gal did it all.

But where is she in Glen or Glenda, if anywhere? I immediately eliminated those female characters whose performers were already known: Barbara (Dolores Fuller), Miss Stevens (Shirley Speril), and Sheila (Evelyn Wood). I eliminated, too, the burlesque dancers in Glen's nightmare since there is no evidence to suggest Amzie Strickland ever worked in this milieu. (The closest she came was this was playing an uncredited Ziegfield Girl in a 1941 movie of the same name.) Nevertheless, there is still a sea of unidentified female characters in Glen or Glenda. Let's examine some possible candidates.

The lovely uncredited ladies of Glen or Glenda.

Okay, we have: Lady Who's Just an Ear, Sitting Office Worker, Judgmental Saleslady, Johnny's Ex-Wife, Modern Woman, Standing Office Worker, Sheila's Coworker, around eight different Nightmare Ladies, and Sex Change Nurse. Could any of these be stalwart character actress Amzie Strickland? Keep in mind that, although Amzie played a lot of little old ladies in her career, she was only in her early 30s when Glen or Glenda was made. Even though she was often typecast as a dowdy Plain Jane type, she also played harem girls, chorus girls, and party girls. Then again, with her extensive radio resume, it's possible she merely did voiceover work on Glenda, since there are many characters in the film who exist only as voices, e.g. the disgruntled wives in the divorce court sequence.

If I had to wager a guess, I'd say Amzie is probably Modern Woman, presumably married to Henry Bederski's schlubby, bald Modern Man. I think she's a little too young to be the department store clerk who sells Glen the sheer nightie, though this is the kind of role she'd ace later in her career. She might also be one of the many (non-burlesque) women in Glen's final nightmare, the one that convinces him to confess everything to Barbara. Or maybe Amzie Strickland isn't in Glen or Glenda at all, and someone has uploaded faulty information to the IMDb. Wouldn't be the first time.

What do you think?

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "Mopey Dog"

Dr. Joyce Brothers guest stars on Happy Days.

Gary Cooper: man of few words.
The Fonz started out as a tough guy of few words. Producer Garry Marshall has said that one of the inspirations for the famous Happy Days mechanic (memorably played by Henry Winkler) was taciturn Western star Gary Cooper. In Fonzie's earliest appearances from the first season in 1974, he has an air of mystery and even danger around him. Maintaining an air of cool detachment at all times, he keeps his conversations with nerdy Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) short and to the point. You get the sense that Fonzie has more important things to be doing.

By Happy Days' fifth season, however, Fonzie had become an idol to children across America and was as much of a cheerful chatterbox as anyone else on the show. There was very little mystery and even less danger to the character by then. The gradual softening of Fonzie began with episodes like "Fonzie Drops In," "Fonzie's Getting Married," "A Star is Bored," and "Guess Who's Coming to Christmas," all of which exposed the character's vulnerable side. By 1978, with Fonziemania in full swing, the once-threatening greaser had become a veritable teddy bear in a leather jacket. He eats his veggies, pays his rent on time, gets his high school diploma, and even works with the police to stop a potential gang war in Milwaukee. The fourth season ends with Fonzie getting baptized as an adult into the Catholic church.

As all TV sitcom producers know, the surest way to soften a character is to have him interact with either kids or animals. Happy Days did both. Fonz became a mentor to his nephew Spike (Danny Butch) in the second season and cousin Chachi (Scott Baio) a few years later. The episode "Fonsillectomy" from October 1977, meanwhile, had Fonzie being stuck in the children's ward of the local hospital during Halloween and having to entertain a group of ailing tots. 

The March 1977 episode "Spunky Come Home" gave Fonzie the opportunity to interact with both kids and animals. The story concerns Fonz acquiring an adorable mutt named Spunky for "protection" from his many female admirers. Bumblers Potsie (Anson Williams) and Ralph (Don Most) promptly lose the dog, which is then found and adopted by a local kid named Wilbur (Erin Blunt). The finale has Fonz negotiating with Wilbur for Spunky's safe return. It's adorable... and a long way from where Fonzie started.

The prodigal pooch did not show up on Happy Days again for nearly a year. Spunky made his second and final appearance on the sitcom in Season 5's "Spunkless Spunky," which is the episode we're covering this week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast. The plot has Spunky falling into a deep depression, forcing Fonzie to seek help from famed pop psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers (appearing as herself). Once again, Fonzie is put into a quasi-parental role. He even refers to himself as Spunky's father!

What did we think of "Spunkless Spunky"? You can find out right here:

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "Richie Doesn't Die Because, I Mean, Come On"

Henry Winkler sits by Ron Howard's bedside on Happy Days.

Garry Marshall, unashamed populist.
Garry Marshall is generally thought of -- and correctly so -- as a populist. His TV shows and movies were aimed squarely at the mainstream with little thought of critical accolades or industry awards. As I've learned by perusing old newspaper articles from the '70s and '80s, Happy Days and especially Laverne & Shirley did not get a lot of glowing reviews from the press. At best, they were considered mindless but harmless fluff. At worst, they were cited as examples of America's declining IQ. The critical reaction to Laverne could be outright hostile at times. Marshall's high Nielsen ratings hopefully offered some consolation.

It's important to remember, though, that Garry Marshall had once labored on the other side of the critical tracks, so to speak. One of his first big breaks, for instance, came from writing on The Dick Van Dyke Show, a smart situation comedy that received critical accolades and Emmy awards. Marshall's subsequent series, The Odd Couple, was likewise lauded, and Marshall has said that he very much liked working on such prestigious, respectable shows. But Happy Days was never going to be all that respectable. It's not the type of show you watch so you can brag about it the next day at work and sound clever at the water cooler. It's light, breezy entertainment and little more.

Most of the time, that is.

We all know of the phenomenon of "very special episodes." These are sitcom episodes -- often maudlin and heavy-handed in nature -- that tackle more serious storylines or heavy social issues. "Very special episodes" are widely mocked and derided today for their cornball stories and over-the-top preaching. Why do these shows exist and why were they so beloved by the producers of frivolous comedies in the '70s, '80s, and '90s? I think it's because the producers of these shows know deep down that they're not making Great Art, but they secretly long to do something a bit more substantial and classy, even important. So we get occasional downer episodes of Full House or Growing Pains.

Garry Marshall was not immune to the allure of "very special episodes." This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we're covering a famous example of the phenomenon: Season 5's "Richie Almost Dies." What did we think of it? Listen and find out.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 110: The life and career of Ann Wilner

Ann Wilner: More than just a file clerk.

Toonerville's Katrinka: "I fix!"
She plays a memorable role in one of Ed Wood's most-seen movies, but very little has been written about character actress Ann Wilkins, aka Tillie the chatty file clerk in Bride of the Monster (1955). Even the exhaustive book Scripts from the Crypt: Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster (2019) by Gary Rhodes and Tom Weaver mentions Ann only in passing, saying that she gives a good performance. Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992) dutifully includes her in the cast list for Bride but misspells her name as "Anne" and gives no additional information about her. Eddie must've thought somewhat highly of Ann, since she's billed one notch higher than his own girlfriend Dolores Fuller in the opening credits.

Ann's first big scene in Bride of the Monster arrives about 18 minutes into the film. Crusading gal reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King) is investigating some mysterious disappearances around Lake Marsh and the old Willow mansion, but she's getting stonewalled by her cop boyfriend, Lt. Dick Craig (Tony McCoy), and his jovial boss, Capt. Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn). She thinks there's a monster on the loose; the cops say otherwise. Acting on a hunch, Janet visits the file room at the newspaper office, where Tillie sits behind a cluttered desk. She looks like she never leaves this rather dark, shadowy room. Maybe she doesn't. As she tells Janet, "Take your time. I ain't going anyplace." Tillie is like some eternal guardian of the newspaper files, doomed to watch over them for all time.

Janet asks Tillie if she remembers when the old Willow place was sold "against back taxes." Tillie answers that it was sometime in late 1948 and directs her toward a conveniently handy filing cabinet. One dissolve later, Janet finally finds the item she was seeking and takes off to do more investigative journalism. Before departing the file room for what could be a wild adventure, Janet asks Tillie to make excuses to both the editor-in-chief  and to Dick. Tillie doesn't mind. "Leave it to me," the file clerk says with a wink. "I fix!" This may sound like an odd turn of phrase to us, but "I fix" was the catchphrase of the character Katrinka in the then-popular comic strip Toonerville Folks. Katrinka and her catchphrase also appeared in the Toonerville Trolley series of cartoons. So this moment in Bride of the Monster is basically like someone in your office doing a Borat impression. ("My wife!") Tillie's very name is reminiscent of another comic strip, Russ Westover's Tillie the Toiler.

Tillie's second scene arrives about 47 minutes into the film. This time it's Capt. Robbins who comes to Tillie's desk in his quest to find the missing Janet. Ann Wilner and Harvey B. Dunn bicker comedically for a while, but eventually the file clerk tells the cop that Janet was investigating the old Willow place. Throughout this entire scene, a pencil behind Tillie's ear comes and goes between shots. This must be one of Ed Wood's most famous continuity errors. When Bride was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1993, Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu) made a little game of keeping track of the disappearing/reappearing pencil.

Ann Wilkins struck me as the kind of sturdy, reliable actress who would probably have a long list of credits, but her IMDb page is shockingly sparse -- just Bride of the Monster and two measly appearances on the long-running sitcom The Jack Benny Program. One of those appearances came in a 1954 episode entitled "Jack Dreams He's Married to Mary," which sounded too intriguing to pass up. That title also serves as a handy plot summary. In Jack's dream, he and Mary Livingstone have been married for 21 years and have a 19-year-old daughter. Mary still works as a sales clerk at the May Company, while Jack stays home and does the cooking. He is unmistakably feminized by his frilly striped apron.

Ann turns up at about the 14:10 mark as Jack and Mary's beleaguered neighbor. Her name, said only once, sounds something like "Mrs. Krasmire," but the audio is a little staticky. As Mary sits on the front stoop of her brownstone apartment, exhausted after a long day of work, Ann sticks her head out a nearby window and strikes up a conversation. It seems that ten of this neighbor lady's twelve children have colds, and only one is old enough to go to school. Mary and Ann do not discuss religious matters, but I'd say Ann's character is not so subtly coded as Jewish, judging by her speech cadences straight out of Yiddish theater and the fact that her children have names like Irving, Herman, Leonard, and Sophie. Benny himself was Jewish.

So Ann Wilner did Bride of the Monster, a couple of Jack Benny episodes, and nothing else? That didn't seem plausible. I decided to investigate a little further. As I soon learned, Ann Z. Wilner was born on October 11, 1904 in Ohio. She died at the age of 59 on January 21, 1964 in Los Angeles and was buried at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City. Her grave lists her as a "beloved wife, mother [and] grandmother." A modest death notice ran in the January 23, 1964 edition of The Los Angeles Times. It listed a husband (Jack), four children (Robert Wilner, Dr. Freeman Wilner, Joyce Stone, and Linda Wilner), four siblings (Ben Zimmerman, Manuel Zimmerman, Lilian Maerson, and Hilda Goldberg), and seven unnamed grandchildren. No mention is made of her acting career.

Ann Wilner's obituary (left) and grave.

Anything else? Well, according to her voter registration records, she was a registered Democrat in 1944. She was living at 4515 W. 29th St. in Los Angeles and gave her occupation as "housewife." Ann was living at 1784 Garth Avenue in Los Angeles and was a registered Republican by 1952. (Not surprising, since that was the year Dwight Eisenhower first ran for president.) This residence turns out to be a quaint, smallish ranch-style house with one of those ubiquitous Spanish tile roofs. By 1960, Ann was a registered Democrat again and was living at 1704 S. Ogden Drive, still in Los Angeles. A death notice offered up her Social Security number (563-36-5981) and her mother's maiden name (Blumenstein). Interestingly, her birth date there is given as October 12, 1904 rather than October 11.

Anything else about Ann's acting career? Her headshot ran in the October 12, 1951 edition of a Hollywood newspaper called The Los Angeles Citizen News and identified her as playing a "leading role" in a Moss Hart play called Light Up the Sky at the Sartu Theater. Long gone, the Sartu Theater once stood at 7080 Hollywood Blvd., now home to a high-rise office building with a yoga studio in the lobby. The venue is perhaps best remembered for having played host to dancer Thelma Johnson Streat in 1951. 

Ann Wilner's name was up in lights in 1951.

Ann Wilner was again mentioned in The Los Angeles Citizen News on December 13, 1951. According to a very brief blurb, this "well-known character actress recently completed an important role in a Boston Blackie film at California Studio." A popular fictional detective in the first half of the 20th century, Boston Blackie appeared in 25 movies between 1918 and 1949, the last 14 of them made at Columbia Pictures with Chester Morris in the lead role. This was in addition to the character's adventures in print and on the radio. If there were additional Boston Blackie movies after 1949, they have not survived into our time.

Then there is what we must classify as "the Florida stuff." Specifically, Ms. Wilner (or someone with the same name) attracted some attention in the Florida press in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There's a brief but nice little article about her career, for instance, in the April 5, 1959 edition of The Miami Herald. The story identifies her as "a Miami Beach resident" but says she was working as a stage actress in Pasadena, CA as well. The story makes it sound as though Ann Willner ("a specialist in dialects") divided her time between California and Florida. That may be true. The article states that Ann's past characters include "a salty-tongued busybody." That certainly sounds like the lady from Bride of the Monster.

An article about Ann Wilner from The Miami Herald, 1959.

A much bigger story about Ann, however, appeared in the March 11, 1962 edition of The Miami Herald. On that day, the newspaper ran a rather elaborate story -- complete with multiple photographs -- about a real estate kerfuffle involving Ann Wilner's Miami duplex. It seems, through some administrative error, she was living in one residence but paying the mortgage on the place next door. The article itself, reproduced below, is not outstandingly interesting. It does, however, describe Ms. Wilner as "a one-time actress and now part-time painter." Better yet, the article includes a photo of Ann, who certainly does look like our friendly file clerk from Bride of the Monster.

A legal nightmare unfolds for Ann Wilner in 1962.

So is this all the same Ann Wilner or are there two actresses or perhaps even three with the same name? That I will leave for you to decide. Before we go, however, let's make things even more confusing. Remember The Los Angeles Citizen News, the paper that ran two articles about Ann in 1951? They also ran this item on February 17, 1953. This little paragraph raises a number of issues. First, it suggests that Ann had four sons, one of whom was named Norman. The earlier obituary said she had two sons, two daughters, and no Normans whatsoever. Second, it describes her as a "radio-TV actress." The TV part I can vouch for, but I know nothing of her supposed radio work. And the Ann Wilner I've been documenting thus far seems to have been better known for her stage work.

Norman? Who the hell is Norman?

I started this journey wanting to know a little bit more about Tillie the file clerk, and I think I got there in the end. She was a stage actress of Jewish descent from Ohio who moved to California, got married, raised a family, voted in some presidential elections, acted in a few stage plays, and did a smattering of TV and film work before dying at the too-young age of 59. After that, the details get a little hazy. By appearing in an Ed Wood movie, however, her place in pop culture history is secure.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "Erotic Huey, Dewey and Louie Cosplay"

Marion Ross attempts to seduce Tom Bosley on  Happy Days.

In the middle of its highly rated fifth season, Happy Days decided to give some characters other than Fonzie (Henry Winkler) an opportunity to shine. That trend continued with "Marion's Misgivings" from January 24, 1978, which focuses on the marriage of middle-aged suburbanites Howard and Marion Cunningham (Tom Bosley and Marion Ross). I don't know if it was a creative decision on the part of the producers or simply an effort to mollify the other actors in the cast, but it made a nice change of pace from the sitcom's "all Fonzie, all the time" formula.

The plot of "Marion's Misgivings" has Marion worried that her husband Howard will grow tired of her and leave her for a younger woman. Of course, Howard's not going to do anything like that, but Marion can't help but be concerned after the same thing happens to another (unseen) couple in their social circle. Distraught, she turns to Fonzie for advice on spicing up her marriage. Fonzie tells Marion that the Hooper Triplets recently dressed up as Huey, Dewey, and Louie during a date with him. Marion isn't ready to dress up as a cartoon duckling quite yet, but she does attempt to dress up as Arabian Nights storyteller Scheherazade to please her husband. It both does and doesn't work.

Apart from putting the spotlight on its older characters, "Marion's Misgivings" also stands out because it includes one of my favorite Happy Days tropes: the dream sequence. How Happy Days loves its dream sequences! These moments allow the writers to break the normal rules of the show and have the characters act in ways they normally wouldn't. The actors seem to enjoy these sequences, too, which makes them extra fun to watch. In this case, Marion has a dream in which she is a little old lady while Howard remains youthful and vigorous, carrying on like a rowdy college boy at Arnold's. At one point, Howard even flirts with rocker chick Leather Tuscadero (Suzi Quatro). When is that going to happen on Happy Days, outside of a dream?

You can find out what we thought of "Marion's Misgivings" by tuning in to the latest episode of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast. If nothing else, it'll distract you from current events for a while.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 21 by Greg Dziawer (with Joe Blevins)

Theodora "Tedi" Thurman during her days as Monitor's weather girl.

Of all the performers to work with Ed Wood during his 1950s heyday, few are more intriguing than Theodora "Tedi" Thurman (1923-2012). She appears in just one of Eddie's movies, playing sultry gun moll Loretta opposite Timothy Farrell's grouchy gangster Vic Brady in 1954's Jail Bait. This eye-catching supporting role was Tedi's lone feature film credit, but it's not her only claim to fame by any means. A striking beauty from Georgia, Tedi Thurman worked as a model and radio personality, gaining acclaim for her husky voice and statuesque looks.

In Rudolph Grey's 1992 book Nightmare of Ecstasy, Thurman remembered Ed Wood as "a very nice, gentle person" and says that she turned down a movie offer from Columbia Pictures in order to model for Vogue in Europe. Ultimately, she decided to forego a film career altogether because she'd heard horror stories about Hollywood. Timothy Farrrell, for one, was quite impressed by Thurman, describing her as "a hell of a good actress" to Grey. Farrell also reported that Thurman attracted lots of attention on the Jail Bait set, which is understandable.

This Jail Bait ad from the April 12, 1955 edition of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram prominently lists Theodora Thurman alongside Dolores Fuller, Lyle Talbot, and Steve Reeves. Interestingly, the ad copy implies that the girls in the film are the titular jail bait, while in the context of the script, that term refers to guns. Note, too, that the woman pictured in the ad is Mona McKinnon instead of Fuller or Thurman.

A 1955 newspaper ad for Jail Bait.

After her brief but memorable experience with Ed Wood, Thurman gained nationwide popularity by delivering sultry, flirtatious weather reports on the radio show Monitor from 1955 to 1961. On that acclaimed series, she was known as "Miss Monitor" and temporarily shared a recording booth with the beloved comedy team of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. In the 2013 book Bob and Ray: Keener Than Most Persons by David Pollock, Thurman is described as "five-foot-seven, with cascading red hair." Elliott remembered that she had "a pleasant, slightly offbeat personality" and would sometimes bring in homemade hush puppies. The book also pointed out that Thurman pronounced the word "temperature" as "temper-toor" and was "an instant hit" with listeners. Her popularity extended to The Tonight Show, where she made several on-camera appearances during Jack Paar's troubled reign.

This October 11, 1957 article from The Boston Globe ruminates on Thurman's unusual fame.

Tedi Thurman was making $60,000 doing the weather in 1957.

Tedi Thurman never married, but the 1971 book Whatever Became Of... Third Series by Richard Lamparski states that "Miss Monitor" had "a stormy longtime relationship" with an older woman named Peggy Fears, who had performed in the Ziegfeld Follies in her youth and had eventually become a Broadway producer. Thurman fondly discussed her relationship with Fears in When Ocean Meets Sky, a 2003 documentary about the gay community at New York's Fire Island Pines.

Thurman and Fears had their share of difficult times, however, some of which wound up being reported by the press. The May 12, 1960 edition of New York's Daily News carried an article on page 4 about a violent argument between the lesbian lovers. Apparently in need of backup, Thurman called former college football player William Appel to the Park Ave. apartment she shared with Fears, and Appel ended up catching an assault charge from Fears. Notice how Theodora Thurman is euphemistically described as "a friend of Peggy's."

A domestic quarrel becomes a full-on brawl.

The Thurman/Fears clash must have been a major event in New York, because there was a longer, more elaborate story about it on page 32 of that same edition of the Daily News, this time with a byline by William Federici. In this article, Fears and Thurman are described as "girl roommates." The tone here is considerably more gossipy.

More information on the Fears/Thurman bout of 1960.

This was certainly an unusual and distressing episode in the memorable life of Theodora "Tedi" Thurman, probably one she wouldn't have wanted splashed across the pages of a newspaper. And the duo's wild days were far from over. The September 1, 1963 issue of The Fresno Bee reported that Thurman and Fears were arrested for drunk, disorderly conduct alongside openly gay comedienne Patsy Kelly, who first found fame in the 1930s as a sidekick to Thelma Todd.

Tedi and Peggy were arrested in 1963, alongside Patsy Kelly.

Before we leave our little scrapbook about Ms. Thurman, here's another item from the Daily News, this time the December 26, 1949 edition. Here, the "Manhattan fashion model" gives her thoughts on the wolfishness of married men.

Theodora gives her opinion on men.