Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Apprenticeship Odyssey, Part 2 by Greg Dziawer

Ed Wood (top row, center) looks serious as he poses with his Casual Company cast.

"I look like a casual, laid-back guy, but it's like a circus in my head." 
-Steven Wright

Perhaps I've been unfair. Perhaps Casual Company, the comedic military play that Ed Wood co-wrote in 1945 with Harry J. Kone (and later novelized solo), is not merely juvenilia. Undoubtedly, after Eddie left Poughkeepsie for good in 1946, Casual Company was something of a calling card for him when he arrived in Hollywood. By then, it had been staged many times by Ed Wood and others, albeit on military bases or with military sponsorship. After the war, Ed even managed to stage it at Poughkeepsie High School, even though he'd dropped out to enlist at the tail end of his junior year in the spring of 1942.

Just how often and where Casual Company played is hard to say, but thanks to an enthusiastic reader who shared a passel of articles with me that I had never seen, I now have more information suggesting just how foundational Casual Company was to Ed's storming of Hollywood. Those articles led me to find a few others, nearly all of them from the Valley Times of North Hollywood.

Valley Times  - December 2, 1947

The years 1946 and 1947 remain a bit of mystery in Ed Wood's bio. There are numerous anecdotes about what he may have been doing after leaving Poughkeepsie, but little to no facts. Did he study with Martha Graham? Did he travel on the carny circuit? Did he attend school? What we do know is that by 1948, he had arrived in Hollywood and was already acquainting himself with performers and artists in the independent theater scene in Los Angeles. Two such actors, Burt Grovenor and Frank Argenio, appeared in the 1948 Hollywood debut of Eddie's Casual Company. According to this article, Burt and Frank had appeared in a staging of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones the previous year. Imagine having both Ed Wood and Eugene O'Neill on your resume!

This production of Emperor Jones featured two future stars of Casual Company.

Valley Times - October 18, 1948

By October 1948, Ed had secured an opening for Casual Company at the Village Theater in what still remains the NoHo Arts District, west of Burbank. Over the course of the next week, the Valley Times in North Hollywood would plug the play almost daily. (Did someone in the cast or crew have a connection at the paper?) 

In addition to including a cast list, the article also notes that the play had successful runs on both coasts. That's not entirely ballyhoo. "Success" is relative. The play was staged on military bases in SoCal and even Alaska; it had also been performed at Poughkeepsie High School in New York. The mention of Ed's character "hunting rabbits, using almost anything for ammunition" makes him sound a bit like Elmer Fudd. Of course, angora fur comes from rabbits, and the Casual Company novelization contains possibly the first reference to angora in any of Ed Wood's works. Eddie even gifted his cousin Ruth with an angora sweater during the war years or just after. (Could that sweater still exist?)

The Casual Company excitement builds!

Valley Times - October 20, 1948

There was also a laudatory Valley Times article about Suzi and Jeanne Stevens, two "talented stage, radio, and USO actresses" who had landed roles in Casual Company. A cursory search for the Stevens sisters doesn't turn up much today, though. The address for the Village theater is given as 5271 Bakman. The closest thing I can find today is the SGI-USA Buddhist Center at 5263 Bakman. The theater could have been at the corner of Wellington and Bakman. As noted here and in the previous story, the Village was formerly known as the Horseshoe. By the way, I wonder whose phone number that is at the end of the article?

Was this the Stevens sisters' big break?

Valley Times - October 23, 1948

This is another brief promo for the play, complete with a dashing Ed Wood headshot. Already a triple threat in show business, Eddie is listed as the play's "author, director and producer." 

The possible former site of the Village Theater. Insert: a headshot of Ed.

Valley Times - October 25, 1948

It's showtime! On October 25, the Valley Times promoted the play's opening night. I'm sure this must have been a big deal to Eddie, and legitimately so. This performance marked the launch of the Village Theater under its new name. Don Nagel, pictured at right in a nice pair of spats, would remain a collaborator of Eddie's for more than two decades. And is that a playbill at center? For his part, Ed looks a tad dour in his bowtie. Perhaps he sensed what was coming.

It's opening night! Let's plant a tree!

Valley Times - October 26, 1948

The reckoning. The day after the premiere of the play, Henry Arnsten of the Valley Times reviewed it with scant enthusiasm. This would likely be Eddie's very first Hollywood review, and though it's not a positive one, it's not an utter train wreck either. Arnsten declares the production "ho-hum" and says Eddie's performance is "uneven," while Nagel is "spotty." It's interesting that Arnsten questions the play having been performed on Broadway. (There is, obviously, no evidence that it ever was.) 

Casual Company was a "ho-hum production."

Incidentally, actor Henry Bederski remembered this review and quoted it in an interview from Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992).

"The review was real bad."

The News-Pilot (San Pedro, CA) - March 4, 1949

Would a single bad review torpedo Ed Wood? No way! By March 1949, Casual Company was opening in Glendale for a 26-week roadshow. Reputedly, that is. I've never seen any evidence of such a tour ever happening. This particular article focuses on actress Eda Martin, who had scored the coveted role of Ilene Sideways.

The show must go on... and on... and on.

What's clear from these articles is just how much opportunity Ed extracted from Casual Company. It's a key work whose distribution no doubt taught him a great deal, and we can only hope that somehow and someday, a copy of the play itself will turn up.
Special thanks to Robert G. Huffman for sharing many of these articles with me and igniting another dive into Eddie's foundational work, Casual Company.