Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Halloween Odyssey by Greg Dziawer

Vampira and Bela Lugosi get comfortable.
Red Skelton (left) and Bela Lugosi.
To celebrate the upcoming holiday, we're delving into a crevice of Woodology: the fabled (sometimes claimed nonexistent) TV episode of The Red Skelton Show featuring Bela Lugosi as a guest star in the feature skit "Dial 'B' for Brush." Airing on CBS from 8:30pm-9pm on July 15, 1954, the program also featured Lon Chaney, Jr. and Maila Nurmi, the latter unrecognizable from her Vampira persona, excepting the unmistakable, truly bloodcurdling scream, but billed as such in the spoken credits, in addition to the necessarily ubiquitous Red Skelton, again essaying his signature character, "wise fool" Clem Kadiddlehopper.

Let's assemble a brief annotated timeline around this episode:
  • Bela, spoofing his vampire persona, headlines a self-titled burlesque revue at the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas in February and March of 1954. Ed Wood is Bela's self-styled (and self-identified) "producer" at the time. His involvement in the revue is likely limited to self-interested promotion and assisting Bela with his dialogue, though Ed variously claims to have "designed" it, scripted it, or part of it, even directing the rehearsals. 
Maila Nurmi as herself.
  • The Vampira Show debuts on KABC-TV (ABC's Los Angeles affiliate) on April 30, 1954. A first of her kind, model Maila Nurmi stars as Vampira, a ghoulish hostess of vintage horror films. Vampira is an immediate sensation, featured in Time, Life and Newsweek. Darkly comic, clearly smarter than the rest of us, and strikingly beautiful, Nurmi's Vampira garnered her an Emmy nomination for 1954, despite the show being abruptly cancelled a little less than a year after it debuted. "Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood sat and watched The Vampira Show in Lugosi's modest suburban home. Lugosi thought that her appearance on the cultural radar screen meant that gothic horror had made a comeback." (Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror by W. Scott Poole). It's not hard to imagine them enraptured, watching Vampira hosting an airing of Bela's mad scientist programmer The Corpse Vanishes from 1939. 
  • In the summer of 1954, Lugosi guest stars on The Red Skelton Show alongside Skelton, Lon Chaney Jr. and Vampira. Not surprisingly, the sketch concentrates on horror comedy and includes everything from dancing skeletons to a musical quotation of J. Bodewalt Lampe’s "Misterioso Pizzicato." Along with standard horror jokes (Lugosi complains, "They don’t make girls like they used to. I know; I take them apart!"), the episode features topical humor, including allusions to Dial M for Murder (1954), Liberace, Ralph Edwards and – quite subtly, through Skelton selling a brush from Denmark that can be used for "either his or hers" – Christine Jorgensen, whose sex change story had partially inspired Wood’s Glen or Glenda
  • The episode of The Red Skelton Show featuring Bela airs in repeat on CBS later that year, fittingly for Halloween on October 29, 1954. Bride of the Monster, directed and written by Ed (with Alex Gordon) and starring Bela, had begun shooting earlier that week, on a Tuesday, October 26th.
Gary D. Rhodes and Tom Weaver describe the fateful Red Skelton episode in their highly recommended book, Bride Of The Monster: Scripts From The Crypt (Bear Manor Media, 2015):
"Once again, Wood insinuated himself in Lugosi’s history, later purporting to have acted as Lugosi’s dialogue coach. Perhaps he did; perhaps he didn’t. At any rate, the Skelton episode is curiously (even if coincidentally) prescient in terms of Bride of the Atom. 'Prof. Lugosi' wears a lab coat for two of its three key scenes. He orders about a dumb henchman. And on a threadbare lab set, Lugosi affixes a silly apparatus to Skelton’s head that – after Lugosi throws a switch – transforms Skelton into a monster. These plot points and props would be echoed in Wood’s film."
Red Skelton's film.
The "Dial 'B' for Brush" skit, inspired by Skelton's feature The Fuller Brush Man (1948) , is oft-claimed to feature Peter Lorre. We won't go into all of that now, but suffice it to say that Lorre is not present here. He did, though, appear frequently on Skelton's shows, both TV and radio. Perhaps the historical record has conflated an appearance as a mad scientist in one episode, and alongside a dead-ringer Vampira lookalike in another. Skelton's January 1955 spoof of The Honeymooners, for instance, affords us the priceless opportunity to see Lorre growl, "POW! Right in the kisser!" It also ladles on the requisite, one-note physical "comedy" by Skelton as Norton, more foolish Clem than graceful Carney.

Meanwhile, highlights of the "Brush" skit include Bela dancing off into the commercial break fadeout, and Maila Nurmi's mute (almost), near-motionless intensity throughout, a sharp counterpoint to all of the overacting by everyone else.

And I'll highlight one more moment from the show: At the 14:32 mark, there's this brief pitch from Clem: "This is a genuine Mohair bristle. This is Mohair bristle, and you should have heard Mo scream. This wood is imported from Denmark.This brush is either his or hers." 

Mohair garments, as any self-respecting Woodologist knows, are made from angora fur sourced from sheep. Angora garments are also made of angora fur. Angora from rabbits. This brings to mind a quote from an article called "From Birthday Suits To Shrouds," as published in Flesh & Fantasy, Vol. 4, No.4, 1971 (Pendulum Press):
"Furry sweaters such as angora, mohair and brushed wool are high on the list of fetishes which are desired, tremendously so with the male transvestites. The garments with any fetishist might be worn or they might amply be felt and rubbed or even looked at. It is at such times that the human partner becomes almost secondary as the sexual illusion and stimulation comes strictly from the fetish love-object. The partner is simply a receptacle."
Aggregating newspapers of the era, a site called TakeMeBack.To lists Dial M for Murder as among the most popular films of May 1954 and The Vampira Show as one of the most popular TV shows. Criswell, incidentally, wrote in one of his monumental books of predictions, 1969's Your Next Ten Years, that the top male star of the 20th century, whose fame would last, would be Red Skelton. His female pick? A fact: his friend and benefactor, Mae West. Alas, Criswell is another matter, one to be taken up in the future.

Happy Halloween from Ed Wood Wednesdays!

Bonus: You can catch a full (albeit reconstructed) episode of 1954's The Vampira Show streaming here, featuring The Corpse Vanishes, along with Vampira's intro ("Everyone knows EE-leck-triss-ity is for chairs.") and outro, plus original commercials from that era.

Friday, October 21, 2016

America could use another 'Mad Mad Mad Mad World'

Barrie Chase and Dick Shawn in Stanley Kramer's It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Sometimes, when I'm suffering from insomnia, I'll try to put myself to sleep by thinking about fantasy projects that I will never (and can never) possibly complete. Lately, I've been casting an imaginary, 21st century remake of Stanley Kramer's 1963 film, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. That epic, all-star comedy ran on TCM a few weeks ago, and for some reason, it caught my imagination like it never had before. Maybe it's because the title seems so true in 2016, or maybe because I can now relate to the middle-aged crankiness and desperation of the main characters. I've watched the movie all the way through about five or six times now, and I've been combing YouTube and Google for more information about it.

I don't know where this notion of mine came from. Maybe it's from this dodgy-looking IMDb entry for a supposed 2017 sequel. But I don't want to do a follow-up. I want to do a big-budget remake of the original, keeping the plot and characters mostly intact. I'd also keep the musical score by Ernest Gold intact, including the songs with lyrics by Mack David. I'd even set it in 1963, mainly because I prefer the clothes and cars of that time, plus I don't want the characters having access to Uber, smartphones, or GPS. The great thing is that, since most of the movie was set in the California desert, the original locations look pretty much the same today.

Milton Berle as J. Russell Finch
So who would be in my 2016 Mad World cast? The whole crux of this project is that I want to cast Louis CK as J. Russell Finch, the character played by Milton Berle in the original. Finch is a milquetoast, would-be entrepreneur who has suffered a nervous breakdown and is trying to soothe his nerves with a "relaxing" trip to Lake Mead with his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his fearsome, always-complaining mother-in-law, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman). That's before he and a bunch of greedy strangers get involved in a madcap treasure hunt for a dying gangster's stolen money. For the role of Algernon, the snooty Englishman that Finch encounters and with whom he forms a shaky partnership, I can only think of Ricky Gervais, with whom CK has worked several times. For Emmeline, who secretly dreams of running away to a convent, how about Amy Poehler?  For Mrs. Marcus... God, I don't know. Ethel Merman really owns that part. Maybe Meryl Streep could do something with it. Or Lily Tomlin or Susan Sarandon. Someone of that caliber. But for the role of Sylvester, Mrs. Marcus' whacked-out beach bum of a son (originally played by Dick Shawn), only one modern day actor will do: Will Ferrell. End of discussion. Non negotiable.

Arguably, the central character of Mad World is Captain Culpepper, a grizzled old lawman who has spent his life being an honest public servant and has nothing to show for it but a face full of wrinkles and a head full of white hair. It's Culpepper who is really orchestrating the whole film, using the treasure seekers to find the same money that he has been seeking without success for years. In the original, this top-billed character is played by an ailing, decrepit Spencer Tracy. For my version, I considered Clint Eastwood but decided instead that Nick Nolte would be perfect. For Culpepper's equally grizzled but less honest colleague Aloysius (originally William Demarest), maybe Billy Bob Thornton.

Some of the casting decisions were no-brainers. In the original, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett play Dingy and Benji, a couple of hipster doofuses on their way to Las Vegas. Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele would knock these roles out of the park. Dingy and Benji spend most of the movie aboard a small private plane with a drunken sot of a pilot who passes out cold while making an old-fashioned in mid-flight. In the original, this character is played by Jim Backus, but we don't really have a modern equivalent of that actor. I think Bill Murray could handle the assignment.

Carell and Fey, together again.
In the 1963 film, Sid Caesar and Edie Adams play the Crumps, a dentist and his wife who join the treasure hunt but find themselves locked in a hardware store basement and have to do crazy, dangerous things to escape. This was another easy one for me. Steve Carell and Tina Fey. Hey, I liked Date Night. They could even reprise their roles from that movie if they wanted.

One role that really stumps me is that of Lennie Pike, the burly truck driver played by Jonathan Winters. Lennie is a true force of nature, famously destroying an entire gas station without assistance, and Winters gives one of the film's best performances. We have no modern day equivalent of that comedian. I could go in completely the opposite direction and hire Larry the Cable Guy, but that would turn off the critics and comedy purists alike. So no to that. Instead, I'll give John C. Reilly a shot at the part. But what about Otto Meyer, the conman who takes advantage of Pike? We don't have a modern day Phil Silvers either, but I'll give Steve Martin another try at it. Remember his Sgt. Bilko movie? No? Well, this will be like that, but less of it.

I think that takes care of all the major parts. But the real fun of Mad World is spotting all the famous comedians in supporting and cameo roles. A list of comedians and actors I'd want to use includes (but is not limited to): Stephen Colbert, Jim Gaffigan, Sarah Silverman, the women of Broad City, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Bill Hader, Amy Schumer, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, Scharpling and Wurster, Christopher Guest (and members of his ensemble, like Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), Neil Hamburger, Dana Snyder, Marc Maron, Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman, and H. Jon Benjamin.

Only a handful of cast members from the original movie survive. Carl Reiner, Jerry Lewis, and Barrie Chase are still around, so they should all get cameos. I know that I said I wanted to set the movie in 1963 and avoid modern technology, but for Lewis' scene, I'd bend the rules a little. In the original movie, Lewis plays a man who drives over Captain Culpepper's hat just for fun.

So in my version, Culpepper would again throw his hat out the window, but this time it would land on the sidewalk. Lewis would come by on a mobility scooter and run it over, cackling to himself.  Culpepper would see him and yell, "Hey, you! Yeah, you! Get back here!" At which point, Lewis would throw his scooter into reverse and run over the hat again, still cackling. Culpepper would then give up in disgust and return to work. But a few minutes later, there would be a callback to the joke when a uniformed officer (played by Patton Oswalt) returns the ruined hat to Culpepper. I don't think mobility scooters existed back in 1963, but I couldn't resist referencing the 1963 film this way.

Speaking of which, could Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings be persuaded to cover "31 Flavors" by The Shirelles?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The 'Glen Or Glenda' Odyssey, Part One by Greg Dziawer

These posters weren't exactly subtle about what inspired Ed's movie.

"A lady is a lady, whatever the case may be."
-Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell) in Glen Or Glenda

Christine Jorgensen holds the Daily News.
Born just a year and half after Ed Wood, only in the Bronx instead of Poughkeepsie, George Williamson Jorgensen likewise enlisted in the military in his late teens, having been drafted shortly after graduating high school in 1945. By 1946, both discharged, Ed began pursuing the creative life while George began pursuing Christine.

Finally, after knocking around Hollywood for a half dozen years, Ed landed his big break. A feature. And even better, impossibly, a feature about a subject through which he could Trojan Horse his own story, a plea for transvestism. We all know that's Glen or Glenda, but the rapid-fire sequence of events in getting the film to market is worth mentioning. It's even worth opening a new Odyssey, and sharing a key document that, already in early 1953, months before Glen or Glenda was even released, reveals Ed's awareness as Outside Artist.

"EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY": That Daily News headline from December 1, 1952 started it all, launching Christine Jorgensen into the staid 1950s, where she remained celebrated and, owing to her class and wit, rarely derided. Her return to the United States from Sweden, landing at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in Queens—the busiest international air passenger gateway in the US at the time—was the largest press gathering to date. She was, for a spell, arguably the most famous woman in the world.

Beating just about everyone to the punch, low-budget exploitation film producer George Weiss hired a hungry young Ed Wood to write and direct Glen or Glenda, a film intended to cash in on the Christine Jorgensen case, in early 1953. Although Wood veered far from the nominal source, he turned the assignment quickly, which was all that mattered. Inside of a week from the time that Christine landed in the States, this newspaper article credited to UPI correspondent Aline Mosby was already in syndication. The following clipping originally appeared in the February 19, 1953 edition of the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah.

"A sort of Orson Welles of low-budget pictures."

As much as I'd like to comment
...on this unbelievably early tie of Ed to Orson Welles, as kindred maverick artists by implication, as well as this early recognition of Welles' ultimate place in film history
...on the "tiny studio"
...on Ed and Martha Graham
I'll try to stop and let it speak for itself. Weiss clearly managed quick placement of a promotional piece, the content clearly provided almost if not entirely by Ed. It makes it his first (perhaps only) nationally syndicated newspaper interview.

By April, Glen or Glenda premiered across drive-ins and hardtop fleapits, adopting different titles for different regions. It continued playing these venues for a full decade.

Christine Jorgensen remained a staple of the pop culture throughout the 1950s, appearing in men's adventure magazines (interesting to imagine the average joe's reaction), as spokesperson for the transgendered and belatedly as subject of her own movie bio. She died in 1989 at the age of 62, felled by bladder and lung cancer.

As for Ed, we'll explore more in future Ed Wood Wednesdays!

Special Thanks: The scan of the article above is from The Scene Of Screen 13, a blog where you will additionally find a ton of Ed-related movie ads in local papers, and a veritable mountain of ads from the world of ex- and sexploitation during Ed's era. And for more about Christine Jorgensen, make sure to check out the Ed Wood Wednesdays Tumblr.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Poughkeepsie Odyssey, Part One by Greg Dziawer

This week, we travel back to Ed Wood's hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY.

1 Fountain Place: Your Dreams Were Your Ticket Out

In this week's Ed Wood Wednesdays, two days after observing what would have been Ed's 92nd birthday on October 10, we're travelling back in time to his 17th birthday in 1941.

Less is doubtless more, and this brief snippet from The Poughkeepsie Journal (the second-oldest daily newspaper in the United States), dated October 13, 1941, is a picture-window on Ed, albeit a smudged one.

Note the discrepancy regarding Ed's age.

Ed was early into his sophomore year at Poughkeepsie High School at that time, and the Netco Theater Corporation (Paramount's northeast subsidiary) ran the Bardavon Theater on Market St in the the city's downtown district, where Ed worked as an usher. The usual record places Ed as usher at the Bardavon in the "late '30s," but this indicates he was still working there not long before joining the Marines. The Bardavon is still active (as the Bardavon Opera House), a performing arts venue now, as it was when it opened in 1869. During Ed's youth, it showed vaudeville acts (Burns and Allen played there) along with films. A few months before Ed's birthday party in 1941, a young Frank Sinatra performed there as vocalist for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. And it's worth noting that the Bardavon is haunted by Roger, once a stage-hand there.

Bet you never thought Ira Glass' name would come up in this series.

And here's a look at the Bardavon's entryway.

Ed would have been very familiar with these doors.

Ed grew up at 115 Franklin Street in Poughkeepsie, a multi-unit residence of over 4500 square feet, built in 1890. Until it was torn down recently, real estate listings as late as 2013 mention six units, pictures showing a boarded-up building.

Eddie's first home, 115 Franklin Street.

Today, with the house demolished, the location looks like this:

The lot where 115 Franklin Street used to be.

At some point, the Wood family moved into an apartment building at 1 Fountain Place, a mere four blocks from Poughkeepsie High.

1 Fountain Place as it looks today..

One of Eddie's classmates was George Keseg (last name spelled incorrectly in the birthday article, which also connects George to Ed as fellow employee at the Bardavon), who also lived in the same building as Ed at 1 Fountain Place. They must have been tight. The two enlisted into the military together on the same day.

A newspaper clipping about Ed Wood and his pal and neighbor, George Keseg.

It's worth mentioning—as always seems the case in Woodology, there's a wrinkle— that the birthday article has Ed turning 18 in 1941. Ed's birth year is everywhere listed and universally agreed to be 1924. While I'm no math expert, if he was born in 1924, his 17th birthday would have occurred in 1941. 

Expert Woodologist James Pontolillo speculates: "So far, that one newspaper clip about the party is the only source that doesn't add up. If nothing else turns up to support it, a typo is the most likely explanation."

Map of Poughkeepsie. Fountain Place is in in the upper right quadrant.

1 Fountain Place is the sort of brick apartment building you'll find on street corners in plenty of old northeastern industrial towns, of which Poughkeepsie is a prototype. I don't know why the Wood family moved there, but for whatever reason, they left their apartment on Franklin St. 

1 Fountain Place turned out to be Ed's final residence in Poughkeepsie. Once he left for the military, he never returned. 

But we'll return to 1 Fountain Place, and meet some of his neighbors, and we'll return to Poughkeepsie future episodes of Ed Wood Wednesdays!

Special thanks: To my friend James Pontolillo, whose amazing research into Ed's early life infuses this article throughout; and to Woodologist Stash Surowiec, who graciously shared photos of the now-empty lot at 115 Franklin St and the Bardavon from a trip he made to Poughkeepsie earlier this year, in February.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Happy 92nd Birthday, Ed Wood! by Greg Dziawer

It's in the public domain now. It belongs to all of us.

Please sing along in celebration of Ed Wood's 92nd birthday today! 
Happy Birthday, Ed and Shirlee!  
Ed celebrates birthdays, but Shirlee celebrates Christmas:

And here's a birthday card forwarded to us from keeper-of-the-flame Bob Blackburn and O/R Books:

Happy birthday, Eddie!

Just a friendly reminder: The excellent Blood Splatters Quickly The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr. can be ordered right here. If you don't own it already, please purchase it immediately. Then you can follow along with my story-by-story coverage here.

'Ed Wood: The Musical' needs your help!!

This time, we can make Ed Wood: The Musical a reality!

Back in 2014, I was only too happy to tell you about Rick Tell's Ed Wood: The Musical, a catchy and imaginative stage show detailing the incredible life and bizarre career of Edward Davis Wood, Jr. Packed with memorable songs and bizarre yet compelling characters, Rick's wonderful play has the potential to be another cult musical hit, like Little Shop Of Horrors or Repo! The Genetic Opera. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, it could be bigger than curly fries! All it needs is a little startup money to get off the ground.

Well, today, on what would have been Ed Wood's 92nd birthday, Rick Tell is launching a brand new Indiegogo campaign for Ed Wood: The MusicalThe flexible goal is to raise $50,000 in the next month. This will help mount a proper production of the show, complete with a full cast and all the sets and props mentioned in Rick's imaginative script, e.g. a giant, throbbing brain, plus plenty of plastic flying saucers and plywood graves. Rick brings his case to the public in this entertaining campaign video, also featuring the show's director, Michael Arabian. If you're new to Ed Wood: The Musical, you'll finally get to hear some excerpts of the best songs from the score.

This is the best opportunity yet to make Ed Wood: The Musical a reality. Full details about the campaign, including rewards for various levels of support, can be found right here. There can be no more fitting tribute to the legacy of Ed Wood.

Let's make it happen, America! As Rick puts it, "Pull the string!"

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Paperback Odyssey, Part Six by Greg Dziawer

Written by Ed Wood? Greg says no.

Practicing Peters

Some relevant copyright listings.
We've previously shared a chunk of poetically weird photo-captions from the series of adult paperbacks released by the Pendulum-family of publishers circa 1970-1972, from a deeply personal Holy Grail of mine, the fabled source by Dr. T.K. Peters. A comprehensive sex study rooted in his work as a marriage counselor in Atlanta after his "retirement" from Oglethorpe University—enjoying his sunset years with his wife Grace—at the Dunwoody Preserve, an effortlessly ahead-its-time endeavor per the usual for "Kim."

I must confess that I can't resist paging Dr. Peters yet again. In this week's Ed Wood Wednesdays, we're diving into one title from the T.K. Peters source, one of the most-legendary of them all. Did Ed even write it? (If you've been here before, that's a rhetorical question.)

Sexual Practices in Witchcraft and Black Magic Book 1 (SP 111, 1971, volume XVII of SECS Press' Sexual Encyclopedia for Adults), credited to Frank Lennon with Dr. T.K. Peters, is listed on Ed's resume, generally a reliable source. Leo Eaton was the sole author, and it reads nothing like Ed, densely laden with truly factual research and unusually serious for this milieu. Though not penned by Ed, it is, nonetheless, deservedly one of the most beloved of the series. If Ed had any involvement, perhaps it was in the photo-captions, the mind-altering sexual haiku that defined the distinctive Pendulum tone across hundreds of paperbacks and upwards of a thousand mags in less than a half dozen years. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

What Torgo does all day

Imagine what Torgo's resume must look like.

For the first day of October, I thought I'd revive an ancient internet meme with a a Manos twist. Enjoy. Or don't.