Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "A Fonz and His Dog"

(from l to r) Henry Winkler, Scruffy, Ron Howard, and Erin Bunt.

"Never work with children or animals." That was supposedly the motto of legendary screen comedian W.C. Fields, though I can find no evidence that the famously misanthropic Fields ever said such a thing. The idea behind the saying is that children and animals tend to get all the laughs and attention from audiences, and they're notoriously unpredictable performers who don't stick to the script. Onscreen, Fields was occasionally paired with bratty children, since they tended to bring out the hilarious worst in him. One of his most memorably irritating foils, for instance, was child star Baby LeRoy.

Today, on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, my cohost and I look at "Spunky, Come Home," a 1977 episode in which Fonzie (Henry Winkler) shares the screen with both a child and a dog. The child in question is prolific '70s film and TV star Erin Blunt, probably best known today for his work in the Bad News Bears movie franchise, though he also turned up in everything from The Waltons to Get Christie Love! back then. The dog is Scruffy, a well-trained terrier who had previously starred on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and who would go on to shill for Chuck Wagon.

This is the first new podcast we recorded since the nationwide protests over police brutality, and the timing was either perfect or horrendous. In "Spunky, Come Home," Fonzie acquires and then quickly loses a dog named Spunky (played by Scruffy). Erin Blunt's character, a wisecracking black kid named Wilbur, is falsely accused of having stolen the dog and is arrested and nearly charged. Fortunately, Ralph (Donny Most) and Potsie (Anson Williams) reluctantly come forward and admit they accidentally let Spunky get away from them while building a pen for the animal. No charges are filed against Wilbur, and Fonzie even vows to get the child another dog as a reward. All's well that ends well.

Under the current circumstances, though, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that Wilbur was largely arrested because he was black. The episode's one policeman, Officer Porter (Tom Dever), seems very willing to believe the worst about Wilbur. Fortunately, a potential tragedy was averted in this case, but it shouldn't have even gotten this close. "Spunky, Come Home" is a very cute episode, but it has some disturbing subtext.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The strange but true saga of the 'What's My Line' intruder

This pleasant young man somehow wandered onto the set of What's My Line.

Game show host John Charles Daly
The appeal of live television has always been the possibility that something might go seriously wrong on the air in front of an audience of millions. Much of what we see on TV is carefully planned, rehearsed, and edited before it ever reaches us. It's no wonder, then, that we hunger for a little chaos amid all that control. Let's face it, this is the main justification for Saturday Night Live's continued existence. The long-running comedy-variety series could easily be pretaped, but it would lose its sense of danger and spontaneity.

We hunger for an element of risk in our entertainment. I can't help but think about Dave Chappelle's stand-up routine in which he discusses the infamous night in 2003 when magician Roy Horn was attacked by a tiger during a show in Las Vegas. "That's why we really go to the tiger show, right?" Chappelle says to the audience. "You don't go to see somebody be safe with tigers."

These days, pretaped shows are the norm and live broadcasts are considered special events. This was not so in the earliest days of the medium in the 1940s, when virtually everything on TV went out over the airwaves as it was being made and relatively little was saved for posterity via crude kinescopes. A major change arrived in 1951, when Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had the foresight to film their sitcom I Love Lucy on 35mm stock, thus ensuring the episodes would be preserved for future reruns.

Over the course of the 1950s, videotape technology improved and became more common in the industry, allowing shows to be shot in advance and edited. This was seen as a potential breakthrough for the medium. On his 1957 record "Tele-Vee-Shun," satirist (and stubborn TV skeptic) Stan Freberg begrudgingly admitted that "videotape may help somewhat." Freberg himself had been a puppeteer on the children's show Time for Beany (1949-1955) and had learned about the hazards of live television when he'd burned his hand during a sketch involving a clown. On a DVD commentary, Freberg recalled that the clown puppet made "a fast exit" from the scene after catching on fire.

By the 1960s, many shows were being filmed or taped in advance, but the venerable panel show What's My Line (1950-1967) was still being broadcast live every week from the CBS studio in New York City. Produced by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, What's My Line is the kind of stately, old-fashioned program that seems inconceivable to modern day audiences. The premise is very simple. The host introduces a contestant with an unusual occupation, and then four celebrity panelists—generally culled from the theater and publishing worlds—try to determine that occupation (or "line") via a series of yes/no questions. ("Do you work with animals?") The contestant's goal is to stump the panel for as long as possible.

For me, the highlight of each What's My Line episode is the appearance of a celebrity "mystery guest." During this round, the panelists wear blindfolds and attempt to guess the identity of the famous person, again through yes/no questions. ("Are you known for your work in the theater?") This is an exceedingly polite and genteel program, making it truly seem like a relic from a bygone age. The show's stuffiness is now, at least to me, its chief selling point.

On the evening of October 7, 1962, the What's My Line panel consisted of actress Arlene Francis, musician and comedian Victor Borge, journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, and publisher Bennett Cerf. The emcee was John Charles Daly. Francis, Kilgallen, Cerf, and Daly were all regulars on the program, while Borge made occasional appearances as both a panelist and a mystery guest. This would have been his ninth visit to What's My Line, so he was very familiar with the show by then. For the most part, the episode progresses normally. The first contestant is a baseball announcer. The second is a woman who tests razor blades. Typical What's My Line fare.

Things go off the rails only during the final round when Melina Mercouri, a glamorous Greek actress best known for Never on Sunday (1960), appears as the week's mystery guest. The panelists, having dutifully donned their blindfolds, start asking Ms. Mercouri about herself.  Dorothy Kilgallen asks the actress if she's in show business. So far, so good. Mercouri smiles broadly and answers yes, but the word has barely left her lips when she is interrupted by a young man in a dark suit who shuffles in front of the camera and describes himself as the show's "second mystery guest." Mercouri looks up at him and meets his gaze, but emcee Daly only gestures vaguely in the young man's direction while talking to someone off-screen.

"Just a moment," Daly says in that calm, measured way of his. "We have a small problem. Gil, will you get the relieving unit in? Schedule two."

A "schedule two" scenario on the set of What's My Line.
The mystery man is utterly undeterred. "The reason that I came here," he says to the audience, "is to talk about a dating service that we have." What's striking is that this interloper does not even seem that out of place here. His demeanor is pleasant. He is clean-cut and well-dressed. He looks like someone who actually belongs on the set of What's My Line.

By this point, the camera has pushed in on John Daly, who says, "Well, that's fine. You can talk some other time." He looks slightly impatient, like a man waiting for a slow-running elevator. If he's afraid, he doesn't show it.

Then, in what has to be one of the oddest TV moments of the early 1960s, bespectacled announcer  Johnny Olson (the man best known today for his "Come on down!" catchphrase from The Price Is Right) jogs onto the stage, zipping past the panelists and the logo of the show's sponsor, Geritol. The panelists, don't forget, are blindfolded and see none of this. Seconds later, Olson and another man escort the intruder off the set. Yet another man, this one wearing a grey suit, follows quickly behind them.

The camera returns to Mercouri and Daly. The actress repeats her previous answer to Kilgallen's question, but Daly interrupts: "Now, actually, panel, so that you will not be confused, we've had a bad-mannered visitor who has now been removed from the stage, and we can go on with what we were up to." He then restates the rules of the game, and the program continues as if nothing had happened. I'm struck here by Daly's description of the intruder as a "bad-mannered visitor." I've described What's My Line as  a polite show, which it is, so this incident is treated not as a breach of security but as a breach of etiquette.

Kilgallen, Cerf, and Francis all ask routine questions of Mercouri, with Daly rushing them along a little, perhaps eager to make up for wasted time. Finally, it's Victor Borge's turn to speak. "Are you alone on the stage?" he asks Mercouri.

Daly answers for her: "No, I'm here, too."

"I realize that, of course," Borge responds, "but they removed somebody." He chuckles, which makes everyone else on stage and in the audience laugh, and the tension is broken. Even Daly lets himself laugh. Borge and the three other panelists may have the least idea of what just happened because they couldn't see the intruder. All Borge knows is that "there are a lot of things going on." Presumably he, Kilgallen, Francis, and Cerf only learned the truth after the show was over.

Paul Jones chimes in.
The What's My Line episode attracted some press attention at the time. In a syndicated column that appeared in the October 8, 1962 edition of The El Paso Herald-Post, TV critic Harriet Van Horne (what a name!) called the previous night's show "bizarre" and said that the incident "will be regarded in some quarters as proof that the only safe shows are tape shows." This proved to be prophetic. Within a few years, Goodson-Todman would switch to videotaping its game shows. Indeed, 1970s episodes of Match Game were taped well in advance of airing. Ms. Van Horne was obviously not a game show fan and took great pleasure in seeing What's My Line interrupted. "Such mystery guests should pop in more often," she writes.

Van Horne identified the interloper as one Ronald Melstein and said that the delusional young man was under the mistaken impression that he was the night's mystery guest. The critic reported that she felt "a wave of sympathy" for Melstein, who was escorted to the police station after the show. As for Daly's actions, Van Horne writes: "With typical British sangfroid, he simply asked for volunteers to show the gentleman to the wings. The gentleman was shown—so quickly that the entire incident, observers said, took less than a minute of network time."

Two days later, in the October 10, 1962 edition of The Atlanta Constitution, columnist Paul Jones gave readers the show's official version of the debacle. According to CBS, the intruder was simply an audience member who "had a ticket to see the show" and "somehow slipped backstage." Jones' column points out that What's My Line was being simulcast on CBS radio and that "the radio portion of the show was cut off" when Melstein bounded onstage. Jones says that the intruder was removed from the set by "two burly stagehands." Considering that Johnny Olson was one of the bouncers, that description is a bit of a stretch.

Jones explains that the interloper was "handed over to New York City patrolmen stationed nearby" but that no charges were filed against him in this case. The man was written off as a mere prankster and given a verbal warning. Curiously, the columnist then scolds Daly for not giving the panelists or the audience the full story of who this man was and what happened to him. "This would have eased everybody's mind and it would in no way have detracted from the show."

In Daly's defense, I think he wanted to give Melstein as little satisfaction as possible, so as not to encourage him any further. As for Jones' suggestion that Melstein be brought back as a guest on What's My Line, I think this would have set a very dangerous and irresponsible example. My mind flashes to Robert De Niro as would-be comic Rupert Pupkin, who manages to worm his way onto network television through a berserk kidnapping scheme in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1982).

Further insight into this strange event is provided by the book Johnny Olson: A Voice in Time (2009) by Randy West. The biography describes the What's My Line episode as "disturbing," which shows how our thinking about such matters has changed over the years, especially since 9/11. According to West, the "Gil" whom Daly addressed during the episode was What's My Line producer Gil Fates. The book includes a quote about the episode from Fates:
"In the control room, [director] Frank Heller yelled, 'Who's that? What's he doing? Get him out of there!' Daly, spotting me bewildered in the wings, said, 'Gil Fates, will you please remove this man from the stage?' I signaled to our announcer, Johnny Olson, and together we moved in. Before 30 million people coast-to-coast, Johnny and I each grabbed an arm and eased the interloper —still into his plug—off the stage and into the custody of the stage doorman, who passed him on to the police."
West clarifies that the young man was promoting "a dating or escort service" and that "the audio engineers turned down the input from the on-stage microphones" while Fates and Olson were walking Melstein away from the set. In the episode, the sound only dips out for a few seconds. In retrospect, it's amazing how well What's My Line handles this interruption. No one seems flustered or frightened, just slightly inconvenienced. Apparently, they were prepared for such an occurrence. According to the IMDb, John Daly began using code words when it became clear something was seriously wrong. "Schedule two" was his signal to the crew to cut the microphones and change the focus of the camera.

Ronald Melstein's faculty picture.
And what of our merry intruder? The public records offer some interesting information about this strange but seemingly jovial fellow. The son of a Russian immigrant father, Nathan, and an American mother, Rose, Ronald L. Melstein was born in New York on January 26, 1930, making him 32 at the time of What's My Line. Ronald was the couple's first-born child. By the time of the 1940 census, he had two younger sisters, Joyce and Brenda, and they all lived together in an apartment at 2040 Bronxdale Ave. in the Bronx along with a 21-year-old maid named Mary Kalosky. Nathan Melstein listed his occupation as "executive" and his employer as "Wholesale Trimming," so he must have been doing alright for himself to afford a full-time domestic after a decade of economic depression in America.

In 1974, still living in the Bronx, Ronald married a woman named Wilma Sirota. In November 1977, he brought a civil suit against the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch at the Office of the Bronx County Clerk. At the same location, he brought another civil suit against the New York Telephone Co. in March 1978, so he may have been lawsuit-crazy for a time. Or maybe he was just plain crazy. Ronald and Wilma Melstein divorced in 1983, and there was some ugly disagreement over visitation rights and Ronald's sanity:
"Under the circumstances herein, defendant's refusal to submit to a psychiatric evaluation was a sufficient ground for denying him visitation rights. We note, however, that this is without prejudice to his moving for modification upon a showing of his willingness to submit to a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation."
Further documentation of the case is here. Ronald's ultimate fate is unknown, but he was still living in the Bronx as of 1999. His last-known address is 3017 Riverdale Ave., only 7 miles away from where he grew up.

As for what Ronald Melstein actually did for a living, it looks like he was a public school math teacher. In August 1957, The Herald News in Passaic, NJ reported that "Ronald Melstein of New York" had been hired by the Clifton (NJ) Board of Education to teach school for $3,700 a year. The article specified that he was one of the 20 new hires that year with a degree. (Seven more teachers were hired without a degree.) In September 1960, The Herald News further reported that Ronald Melstein was hired to teach mathematics at Lyndhurst High School at $4,600 a year. 

The 1961 Lyndhurst High School yearbook still exists, and there's a pictured faculty member named Ronald Melstein who looks very much like the man from What's My Line. His bio states that he's a resident of the Bronx, which checks out. He received his B.A. from Long Island University and his M.A. from New York University. The yearbook states that Melstein "is teaching General Math in his first year at L.H.S." His personal motto: "Do unto others as you would like others to do unto you."

How does the 1962 What's My Line incident fit into the bigger picture? It appears that Ronald Melstein grew up in relative comfort in the Bronx, became a math teacher, got married, sued some companies, had at least one child, got divorced, and stayed forever loyal to the borough where he was born. In 1962, a year after taking a job at Lyndhurst High School in New Jersey, he somehow bluffed his way onto a nationally-televised game show, claiming to represent a dating service. Did this service even exist or was this all part of a prank? Did he do this to impress his students? Was he actually delusional, as evidenced by his legal problems down the road? The world may never know.

POSTSCRIPT: Reader Victoria Todd informs me that Ronald Melstein's dating service was very real! In early 1971, New York State Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz began investigating numerous complaints into computer dating services, with an eye toward possible state regulation of the industry. 

Journalist Roger Mudd filed a report on this subject for The CBS Evening News on January 9, 1971. Among Mudd's interview subjects was one Ronald Melstein, president of Scientific Dating Service. It was Mr. Melstein's view that the investigation would make people afraid to use computer dating services. In a weird way, through this appearance, Ronald made a long-time dream come true. Namely, he got to talk about his dating service on national television -- on the CBS airwaves, no less!

Here's a January 11, 1971 article about the topic from The Times Record of Troy, NY. It doesn't mention Melstein or Scientific Dating Service specifically, but it shows what the computer dating industry was like back then. Frankly, it sounds a little shaky and scammy. And if Louis Lefkowitz investigated the background of Ronald Melstein, he might have been dismayed by what he found.

"Riff raff who don't belong." That's the story of my life.

I received another update from reader gunner4id, who emailed me a fascinating article from the February 23, 1987 edition of a Hackensack, NJ paper called The Record. Ronald Melstein was busted in 1987 by the Hackensack police. Melstein was apparently using his so-called "dating service" as the front for a prostitution ring. So the attorney general was right to be suspicious. This article, although brief, is packed with drama. It reads like a plot summary of a particularly good Dragnet episode.

A sad fate for Ronald Melstein.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 104: The search for Clancy Malone (aka Scott McCloud)

Care to help me solve a mystery this week? Tell me who this man was!

A credit for Scott McCloud in Glen or Glenda.
If there is one thing that this project has taught me, it's that Edward D. Wood, Jr. has the most knowledgeable and persistent fans in all of popular culture. I think that would have pleased him greatly. Though he kept plugging away as a writer and director, always hoping for some measure of success and fame (or at least a little respect), Eddie barely subsisted on the fringes of show business from the late 1940s to the late 1970s. Even though he got his own lavish biopic in 1994, his career is nowhere near as well-documented as that of other, more respectable filmmakers. And so, his loyal acolytes have largely taken it upon themselves to gather information about Ed Wood and his movies. This week, I am hoping that the Eddie experts of the world will come to my aid as I try to solve a mystery that has stumped me for years.

In Ed Wood's woozy, hellish crime drama Jail Bait from 1954, the central character of Don Gregor is played by a young man credited as Clancy Malone. While this is not necessarily a star-making performance, Malone brings a certain nervous, Anthony Perkins-esque intensity to the part. His skinny frame helps, since he always looks too small for his clothes. Don Gregory is a spoiled, immature boy lost in the very grown-up world of crime and death, and that's just how Clancy Malone plays him. If you think about it, this is really a dual role, since Malone also appears at the end of the film as the post-plastic-surgery version of gangster Vic Brady. Unfortunately, the Internet Movie Database says that Malone never played another role, not even for Ed Wood. So who was this guy, anyway?

The only full-length biography of Eddie, Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992), contains a few, fleeting references to Clancy Malone. The book does clarify, for instance, that Malone was also known as Scott McCloud and served under that name as Unit Director on Eddie's feature debut Glen or Glenda (1953). In fact, the book contains a remarkable snapshot (provided by Conrad Brooks) of the Glenda cast and crew posing in the doctor's office set. Clancy/Scott is front row center with a knowing smirk on his face. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was the director!

Scott McCloud (aka Clancy Malone) is the smirking guy in the front row with the script on his lap.

Other information about McCloud/Malone is difficult to come by. On the 2011 DVD collection Big Box of Wood, filmmaker Ted Newsom relates the following anecdote about him:
"The lead guy who plays the profligate son apparently was the guy who delivered groceries to Eddie Wood's apartment. He said he wanted to be an actor, and Eddie said, 'I've got the perfect role for you! Here it is!' And that was it. I don't think he ever acted again. He's okay."
This is very possible. The surest way to gain access to Eddie's entourage was to be in close physical proximity to him. In his later years, as detailed in Nightmare of Ecstasy, Eddie planned to use his neighbor Shannon Dolder in a film. It's not difficult to imagine a plucky delivery boy worming his way into a couple of Ed Wood movies. ("Gee, you're a real live movie maker? That's neat! I've always wanted to be in showbiz myself! Think you could use me?")

Ed Wood obviously took some pride in Mr. Malone's performance, giving the young thespian an "introducing" credit, complete with his character's name.

Prominent billing for Clancy Malone

For some reason, though, the actor was listed as Scott McCloud on the posters and lobby cards for Jail Bait. This particular example features a striking closeup of the newfound star.

This poster for Jail Bait lists Scott McCloud, not Clancy Malone.

So what happened to this guy? People don't just magically disappear. Clancy Malone/Scott McCloud must have had some kind of life before and after working with Ed Wood on Jail Bait and Glenda. Other than those two films, however, and that marvelous behind-the-scenes photo, there is very little to attest to the existence of this human being. If you have more information about him, let me know.

John Avery in Jail Bait.
UPDATE: After sharing this article with an Ed Wood discussion group on Facebook, a few readers have come forward with what they know about Clancy Malone. Ted Newsom, director of the documentary Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora (1994), said he had no more information about the actor and had even forgotten where he'd originally heard abut Malone delivering groceries to Eddie's apartment. "It was obviously someone who had spent time among the Woodites," Newsom speculates about his source.

Meanwhile, artist Stephen B. Whatley, whose work is featured in Dolores Fuller's 2008 autobiography A Fuller Life, shared a 1983 article from Fangoria magazine entitled "I Remember Eddie Wood" by Jail Bait coauthor Alex Gordon. In addition to being Wood's creative partner for a period in the 1950s, Gordon was also Eddie's roommate. In the article, Alex talks about those days with Ed Wood and how their paths crossed with Clancy Malone:
"I had kept up my friendship with Bela Lugosi and saw him several times a week and introduced Eddie to him, and Lugosi was eager to become involved. Eddie and I took a small apartment near Lugosi on Carlton Way [in Hollywood], with two small bedrooms and a kitchen, and two would-be actors, Clancy Malone and John Avery, to help considerably with the rent payments and supply of food."
This is interesting, as it suggests Malone was actually living with Ed Wood for a time. The "supply of food" detail may be the origin of the story about Clancy delivering groceries to Eddie's apartment. Perhaps Clancy was the one in charge of actually getting food and bringing it back to the Carlton Way apartment. John Avery, for the record, played a small role as a police doctor in Jail Bait, reciting his few lines ("Couldn't be any deader.") in a colorless monotone as his arms dangle lifelessly at his sides. Like Clancy, he never acted in a motion picture again. Throughout this research process, I've never been able to determine if this man's real name was "Clancy Malone" or "Scott McCloud." At least one of those is invented. The way Gordon tells the story, I'm beginning to think that the Malone moniker is genuine.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "Welding School Dropout"

No, that's not Richard Deacon. It's actually Ken Olfson getting a sales pitch from the Happy Days gang.

How, in this tumultuous year of 2020, can you possibly do a podcast about a lighthearted, silly show like Happy Days? What could be less relevant right now than an extremely Caucasian, nostalgia-driven sitcom that went off the air 36 years ago? The problems of Richie, Fonzie, and the gang at Arnold's seem awfully trivial compared to what's happening across America currently.

To be honest, it was difficult to stay interested in Happy Days as racial unrest and a global pandemic dominated the headlines. As a result, our weekly podcast, These Days Are Ours, went on a brief hiatus. We came back quietly last week, and we released another new episode earlier today. Both of these episodes were recorded shortly before the protests started. They now seem like relics of a more naive time.

For what it's worth, the episode we're reviewing, "Fonz-How, Inc." is an agreeable romp that teams up grouchy Howard Cunningham (Tom Bosley) and the ever-cool Fonzie (Henry Winkler) in a scheme to invent an in-home garbage compactor. Imagine every Family Matters episode that teams up Carl Winslow and Steve Urkel. It's basically that. You Mel Brooks fans might recognize one of the guest stars: Ken Olfson, who plays a small role in Spaceballs (1987). Also, Paul Thomas Anderson's mom Edwina is in there somewhere, too.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 103: "The Only House" (1972)

Ed Wood recycles the same story a third time in his 1972 novel The Only House.

Ed Wood's The Only House
If you're a fan of Star Wars (1977), you really owe it to yourself someday to listen to the official 1981 radio adaptation produced for NPR. While the film runs just over two hours, the radio series spans 13 half-hour episodes. The pace of the NPR version is obviously more leisurely, but you get to know the characters more intimately, certain plot points are explained in greater detail, and there is ample time for material that the movie simply had to skip for the sake of expediency. While Luke Skywalker's friend Biggs Darklighter is a fairly major character in the radio version, for instance, he's barely a blip in the film. Plus we actually get to hear from Princess Leia's adoptive father, who is only mentioned but not seen in the first movie.

I was reminded of that Star Wars radio drama while reading Ed Wood's neglected 1972 novel The Only House. This was Ed's third iteration of the same basic story. For reasons unknown, certainly not marketplace demand, he kept revisiting this material in different formats. In 1971, it had been both a short story called "Come Inn" and a feature film called Necromania. What could a third version of this material possibly have to offer? Well, it's a lot like that NPR Star Wars series. By reading Wood's novel, you get to spend much more time with the main characters, really learning what makes them tick, plus there are several added episodes that do not occur in the film at all.

Despite its historical interest, The Only House is not one of Ed's better-remembered paperbacks. It was issued by Little Library Press, the same publishing firm that released Ed's other novels To Make a Homo (1971) and Mary-Go-Round (1972). In a previous article for this series, Greg Dziawer described Little Library as an imprint of Bernie Bloom's Pendulum Publishing. An intriguing article in the July 20, 1971 edition of The Atlanta Constitution traces the company back to Atlanta, GA and the notorious criminal Michael Thevis. Apparently, Thevis was ripping off books from other publishers and re-releasing them under the Little Library Press name.

This article from 1971 mentions Little Library Press.

Books about Ed Wood haven't had too much to say about The Only House. Ed Wood's Sleaze Paperbacks (2013) by Michael Daley and Johan Kugelberg skips it entirely, while David C. Hayes' Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr.  (2001) mentions it briefly but does not offer a review or analysis. Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) actually contains a half-page excerpt from the novel, describing the first appearance of the mysterious, coffin-dwelling necromancer Madam Heles. In the bibliography section, Grey tries to sort out exactly what this book is, giving an accurate-enough summary of the plot and attempting to connect it to Wood's adult movies of the era. To be fair to Grey, those titles were far less accessible in 1992 than they are now. For the record, Ed's novel The Only House does have the same basic plot and characters as his film Necromania, but it is not connected in any noticeable way to the films The Young Marrieds (1972) or The Only House in Town (1970).

Grey's summary subtly points out the biggest difference between the novel and the film and short story that had preceded it. Namely, our main characters Danny and Shirley are actually married in this version. Their union has not been "fully consummated," however, due to their various sexual hangups. And so, as in the other two tellings, they visit the creepy mansion of Madam Heles for some supernatural assistance. (The spelling of the necromancer's name varies from "Madame" to "Madam," but Wood mostly uses the latter in this novel.) In the Necromania movie, the sorceress lives in what appears to be a very nice, upscale neighborhood in the Hollywood hills. In this novel, however, her home—designated 9 Devil Lane—is described as "a musty old mansion" situated "at the end of a cul-de-sac with no other houses... only wild brush, trees, and thickets of an extremely run down area."

Danny and Shirley reveal their pasts in this novel.
What really sets this novel apart from the previous movie and short story is Ed Wood's frequent use of flashbacks. The Only House is so heavy on remembrances that it practically qualifies as Eddie's answer to Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Just like Wood's previous novel Drag Trade (1967), The Only House can be seen as a book-length rumination on how our early experiences with sex affect our adult lives. We learn so much about these characters that isn't even hinted in the Necromania film. Right away, for example, we find out that Shirley grew up in a strict, puritanical household (shades of that other Shirley from Orgy of the Dead) and that she had lost her virginity to a young man named Tommy Kemper. She'd even gotten pregnant from that encounter and given the baby up as soon as it was born. This underlying trauma is at the heart of Shirley's current sexual frigidity.

We also learn about Shirley's predilection for voyeurism. As a teenager, she'd learned a lot about human sexuality by watching "two human creatures she knew as Billy Haney and Sheila Appperson." Billy and Sheila sneak off from a church picnic to hook up, and Shirley watches them with intense interest. Later, Shirley reveals that she learned about lesbianism while spying on two girls named Mona and Sally at the local "Lover's Lane" in her hometown. Ed Wood gives several pages of the novel over to Mona and Sally. It's almost as if he's trying to incorporate an entire short story about these random characters into his novel to pad the book to full length. Incidentally, these flashbacks reveal that Shirley came of age in upstate New York.

Danny's problem, meanwhile, is premature ejaculation. Wood explains that Danny, who is handsome and "built like a bull," climaxes so easily and quickly that he never even has the opportunity to have sex with his young bride. While staying at the abode of Madam Heles, Danny has ample opportunity to practice lovemaking with several beautiful women, including the luscious Tanya, but never demonstrates much staying power until the book's final passages, when (as in all previous iterations) Danny receives personal instruction from Madam Heles herself in her coffin.

Though his past isn't nearly as detailed as that of Shirley, Danny also gets his own flashback in The Only House. In Chapter Six, after he and Shirley fail to make love yet again, Danny remembers the sexual instructions he received as a child from an older boy named Bobby Hepper. Things get confusing, though, as Danny's name somehow changes to "Jimmy" for the duration of this flashback. The Bobby Hepper incident is also written in a pseudo-hayseed dialect and contains a few references to barns, suggesting that Danny grew up in a rural setting. This really feels like an unrelated short story that was shoehorned into the book.

Maria Arnold as Tanya in Necromania.
What was most surprising to me is that The Only House actually sketches in a backstory for Tanya, the alluring young woman who essentially runs Madam Heles' house while the mistress herself dozes in a coffin all day. In Necromania and "Come Inn," Tanya is a complete mystery, a blank slate. Not so in the novel. In this book, we learn about how Tanya lost her virginity at the age of 13 to a drifter named Gypsy Louie, described as "a handsome, olive skinned man with a beautifully trimmed mustache."

We also get to meet Tanya's constantly bickering parents, John and Daisy. They had a slew of children, of whom Tanya, originally known as Ruth, was the oldest. Tanya's parents have a volatile, violent relationship, and I couldn't help but think about the author's own marriage to Kathy Wood. This portion of the book also allows Ed to express his revulsion at the thought of having children, very similar to his 1971 short story, "Taking Off." And, like that story, The Only House includes a recommendation of using the soft drink 7-Up as a post-coital douche. A quote from the novel: "7-Up, you shake it up good and jam it right up the old pussy and it takes care of everything." Sure, Ed. Whatever you say.

The Only House is one of those novels that bears Ed Wood's own, real name on the front cover, and appropriately, it is highly indicative of his style as a writer. All the important Wood-ian tropes are in evidence here, right down to an obsession with death and maggots. Gypsy Louie improbably compares Tanya to a maggot and means it as a compliment. Only in an Ed Wood book! Again, we have the fixation on certain fabrics and textiles: silk, satin, nylon, angora, even marabou. Again, we have repeated descriptions of nighties and negligees, particularly of the see-through or sheer variety. Again, we have a comparison of "butch" and "fluff" lesbians. Again, we have characters experiencing sudden hot and cold sensations in their bodies. At one point, Wood even has Danny say, "I tried, honestly I tried," just like Glen in Glen or Glenda (1953). And let's not forget Eddie's trademark "pink clouds." They're here, too.

After one reading, I'm not sure that I would put The Only House in the top tier of Eddie's novels. If you're exploring his longer literary works, I'd definitely steer you toward Killer in Drag (1963) or Death of a Transvestite (1967) first. Those are much more cohesive and coherent. I continue to believe that the short story form was Ed's true forte as a writer. Very often, The Only House feels like Eddie has taken a short story's worth of plot and expanded it to an entire book by adding numerous other short stories that barely feel integrated into the overall narrative. The best part of this book is that it allows the reader to get to know some of the characters, particularly Shirley and Tanya, much better than the film does. When I rewatch Necromania, I will undoubtedly flash back to this book and the insights it contains about those women.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 102: Eddie Parker and 'Bride of the Monster'

Eddie Parker (maybe) wrestles a rubber octopus in Bride of the Monster.

Eddie Parker's name comes up exactly once in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992), and when it does, it's in square brackets. On page 87, in the midst of a chapter devoted to the making of Bride of the Monster (1955), Grey includes an anecdote from Ed Wood himself about the difficulty of matching shots of actor Bela Lugosi with footage of Lugosi's stunt double.

As usual in Nightmare, Rudolph Grey does not cite his source for this quote. Presumably, since Grey and Wood never met, it's from an archival interview with the director. The fact that Parker's name has been added in square brackets suggests that this detail was added by Grey rather than spoken aloud by Wood. Again, not another story in the book even mentions Parker. The laboriously researched book Scripts from the Crypt: Bride of the Monster (2015) by Gary D. Rhodes and Tom Weaver cautiously states: "Perhaps the double was Eddie Parker or Red Reagan, though no trustworthy evidence has surfaced to prove who exactly it was." Take note of the word "perhaps." The book never mentions Parker again.

The legendary Eddie Parker
Film critic and historian Tim Lucas must have been more confident in Eddie Parker's participation in Bride of the Monster. Issue #27 of Video Watchdog magazine from 1995 includes an elaborate, 15-page article by Lewis entitled "The Story Must Be Told: A Guide to Edward D. Wood, Jr. on Video." Released on the heels of Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), the article attempts to summarize and review all of the Wood-related material then available on VHS for home viewing. Lucas calls the biopic "highly fantasized" and offers as an example the scene in which Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi wrestles with a rubber octopus. The critic suggests that "incredulous Generation Xers" would be extremely "disappointed" to learn that "it was the frail Lugosi's double—Eddie Parker—who wrestled with himself in those lifeless tentacles!"

Rhodes and Weaver agree that it was not Lugosi wrestling the octopus. "Viewing the film makes it obvious that Wood used a double," they write, "just as a double was used for the lab scene when the Vornoff Monster (as the script calls the post-atomic doctor) struggles with his lumbering mute servant Lobo (Tor Johnson)." Wood's own story about Lugosi's double relates to that lab scene but does not mention the octopus battle. As for the scene in Ed Wood in which Lugosi himself wrestles the octopus, it seems to be a bit of wishful thinking on the part of screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. It's possible they drew inspiration from a quote in Nightmare of Ecstasy by actor and notorious fabulist John Andrews, who remembers a stoned, drunken Bela Lugosi trudging into the cold water to film the crucial octopus scene in Griffith Park.

Whether or not he actually doubled for Bela Lugosi on Bride of the Monster, Eddie Parker nevertheless had a hell of a career in Hollywood, working very steadily in films for nearly 30 years, usually on low-budget Westerns and crime pictures but occasionally on more high profile projects. The prolific actor and stuntman was born on December 12, 1900 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Wikipedia alleges that Parker was born in Waukegan, IL, but both the Internet Movie Database and The Old Corral website correctly list St. Paul as his birthplace. This is confirmed by Parker's own draft card from 1942 in which he lists his occupation as "freelance actor." He gives his employer as the Screen Actors Guild.

Eddie Parker's draft card.

To give you some idea of the scope of Parker's prodigious movie career, the IMDb says he worked on over 430 films and TV shows between 1931 and 1960. Unfortunately, he was only credited onscreen a handful of times. He's the epitome of the "unknown stuntman" that Lee Majors sang about in the '80s. Always in demand, Eddie played plenty of guards, henchmen, outlaws, and cops over the years. The Old Corral says that Parker's "specialty was fisticuffs [and] screen brawls." If you needed someone to take (or dish out) a convincing punch, Eddie Parker was your man.

In a career cluttered with cut-rate cowboy pictures, some of which put him in close proximity to John Wayne and Johnny Mack Brown, a few of Eddie Parker's more unusual assignments stand out. He was a detective in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), a cop in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959), and a slave in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960). He turns up in other places you wouldn't expect, too, like the Oscar-winning Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and the frothy Rock Hudson/Doris Day vehicle Pillow Talk (1959). He also doubled for Robert J. Wilke in the Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

Among comic book aficionados, Eddie Parker is known for his work on two different Batman serials of the 1940s. In Batman (1943), Parker doubled for lead actor Lewis Wilson in some of the Caped Crusader's fight scenes, showcasing his talent for brawling. In Batman and Robin (1949), Parker doubled for House Peters, Jr. in the role of Earl and occasionally played another character named Holt. The latter serial is of particular interest to Ed Wood fans as the cast includes Wood regular Lyle Talbot and Plan 9 morgue attendant Johnny Duncan. As for the first serial, Batman experts say they can always tell when it's Parker donning the cape and cowl.

But Parker's career in serials is hardly limited to Batman. As fan Bill Shute reported on Facebook:
"He's in a number of 1940s Columbia serials in acting roles besides the Batman ones, though that was probably because he was already on the set as a stunt man. Even when he is unbilled as an actor, as he often is, his distinctive voice always gives him away. When he gets a good amount of dialogue, he handles it well and has a natural screen presence. I was just watching him the other day in the 1947 serial The Vigilante with Ralph Byrd and Lyle Talbot."
To horror movie buffs, the most important aspect of Eddie Parker's career is his work in the famed Universal monster series. He was a mainstay of the Abbott and Costello franchise, playing the mummified Klaris in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), receiving a rare onscreen credit for the role! Before that, he'd done stuntwork in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953). Parker's other Universal horror credits include Tarantula (1955), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Werewolf of London (1935), Curse of the Undead (1959), and The Mummy's Tomb (1942).

Cynthia Patrick in the arms of a mole person.
According to the 2006 book Introducing Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man by Greg Roza, Parker "played the role of Frankenstein's Monster for the more active and strenuous parts" of the 1943 film and "can be seen playing both monsters in the final battle." So Bride of the Monster wouldn't have been Parker's only time doubling Lugosi. Parker doubled for Boris Karloff, too, performing as Mr. Hyde in the Abbott and Costello film.

Parker's association with Universal Pictures lasted for decades. The stalwart stuntman even donned an uncomfortable costume to portray one of the titular underground dwellers in The Mole People (1956). In this well-known Universal shocker, he fleetingly worked with actress Cynthia Patrick, who played the ingenue Adad. Throughout the film, the mole people reach up through the dirt and grab victims by the legs to pull them down into the darkness. In the 2009 book Screen Sirens Scream! by Paul Parla and Charles P. Mitchell, Patrick explains that this indelible effect was created through the use of "a hydraulic lift." The actress maintains she suffered "many cuts and bruises" from this process, despite the fact that Eddie Parker "was ever so gentle with me."

When asked if she "enjoyed working with the stuntmen," Patrick clarifies: "My relationship with Eddie Parker was brief. He was very caring and nice to me during filming. I had worked with Eddie on some other films and I knew him through another friend, Jock Mahoney." I can find no other instance of Patrick and Parker working together on any other films, but Mahoney was a famed stuntman and actor perhaps best known for playing the lead in two early '60s Tarzan films.

Edwin G. "Eddie" Parker died of a heart attack on January 20, 1960 in Sherman Oaks. He was 59. His body was interred at Cavalry Cemetery in Los Angeles, where his modest headstone denotes him only as "Beloved Son," though he did have a spouse named Bess. A wire service article by gossip columnist Harrison Carroll in the January 29, 1960 edition of The Wilkes-Barre Record stated that "Hollywood was saddened by the death of veteran stuntman Eddie Parker. He had come out of retirement to work on a TV show and complained of feeling bad. In the night, he died." I can find no significant gaps in the stuntman's resume, so I'm not sure if Parker truly "retired," but he did work on plenty of TV shows near the end of his life, including M Squad, Alcoa Theatre, Lassie, and The Untouchables.

Maybe there aren't more stories about Eddie Parker because he was the kind of competent professional who showed up, did what he was told, and went home, whether he was working on a Dick Tracy picture (he did at least three of those) or an episode of The Cisco Kid. For some actors, wrestling an octopus in an Ed Wood movie would be the most memorable moment of their careers. For Eddie Parker, if that truly was him in the swamp, it was barely a blip.