Monday, March 29, 2010

"I don't like reggae...I love it."

Playing The Fool #03

Wow! To think that it was 30 years ago when Space Pirate Radio presented reggae superstar Barb Wirey & The Maulers on April 1st at the Santa Barbara County Beach Men's Room. That was so exciting. For those who could actually see through the thick ganja clouds, it was truly an experience. As has been noted before, it was standing room only. Many in the audience were true believers, their hair knotted in breadlocks (pieces of Roman Meal braided into strands of hair). Reggae music was in full bloom on that spring day. Although Barb Wirey was the headliner, one must remember the incredible performance of support act Poops & The Midols.

Poops & his Midols opened the show. The songs in this set were comprised mostly from Poops' then current album "Culture Dreaded Gnats." The surprise of the set came when unbilled reggae artist Oy U-hoo joined Poops for an impromtu version of "Babylon's Forgotten Ashtrays." This was also followed by a short set from Truck Drivers Of Rhodesia. This powerful ensemble was inhibited by the horn section constantly being restricted by the nearby plumbing. Try to see them in a real club, preferably one with no cover charge (your clothes get in free).

The crowd was in a lather (thanks to a handy soap dispenser) when Barb & The Maulers took the stage. What charisma he had. Smoking a two and a half foot reef weed filled reefer! Fifteen minutes later he started to play. And play he did. Barb performed his entire recent album "Gastaman Vibrator," climaxing with the #1 hit single, "Hatahonkey." The crowd wanted an encore but Barb doesn't give them. He lit another reefer, flipped a thankful ash to the audience, used the facilities and split. It was the end of an experience.

Monday, March 22, 2010

"There was a young lady from Exeter."

Playing The Fool #02 and P.S. 101

Early 1980. Negotiations have been on-going. Everything has been set between all parties involved. Agents, press agents, personal assistants and the major parties...the date has been set. I am to meet Peter Sellers and his wife Lynne Frederick in their Studio City home on April 1st, 1980. There is much activity in the air. Peter is nominated for Best Actor for "Being There" and he is winding up production on the Goon Show-like film, "The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu." This has been a long time coming. But of course, not all is going to go to plan. Sellers will lose the Academy Award to Dustin Hoffman. And by April 1st, his marriage to Lynne Frederick is on the rocks. Sellers is in France and Lynne is in Hollywood.

10 years later to the day. April 1st, 1990. I am in the Westwood home of Lynne Frederick and her husband, heart specialist Dr. Barry Unger. Much has happened in that 10 year span. Sellers died in July of 1980. Lynne has since married and divorced David Frost. And now she is in a home with her third husband on the property that used to be the home of Gary Cooper.

I am here to meet with Peter Sellers' widow regarding the production of a documentary on his life that I have written called "Life Is A State Of Mind." After years of negotiations, we are ready to go. As an admirer of the work of Peter Sellers, this was the culmination of a total immersion into the work of this gifted comic artist. It was almost dream-like. I entered the gates of a home that included the archives of the man's total work and meeting the woman who was his last friend and companion.

Lynne and I became very good friends. She called me "Sir Guy Grand" after the Peter Sellers character in "The Magic Christian." I was thankful that she saw me as someone who completely understood what her husband had accomplished. She opened all of his possessions and memorabilia to my appreciative and historical eye. I was overwhelmed. I saw all the private home footage, personal photographs, private letters and creative writing, the ukulele that his father gave him supposedly from George Formby, and even (I shudder) his pacemaker, which had kept him alive. It seemed like being in "Citizen Kane."

Lynne and I were very close. She appreciated my script for "Life Is A State Of Mind." I was happy that she felt I was the only one who truly appreciated the ramifications of what Peter Sellers had done in his work. From the early days of The Goon Show on, she felt that I had an intuition and overview into what Peter was trying to do, which he felt most people did not understand--especially Americans. Peter didn't like Americans. He felt quite simply that they "didn't get it." He, however, was appreciative of my radio show and my playing his work on the air. I dedicated my Space Pirate Radio album to both Peter and Spike Milligan. I felt lucky to be on his wavelength. And this was the basis of our friendship.

So 10 years later in 1990, sad that Peter is no longer with us, it was my intention to keep the spirit of Peter's work alive in my overview "Life Is A State Of Mind: The Life And Work Of Peter Sellers." The project was intensive and exciting because I was in contact with everyone who had worked with Peter. With Lynne's blessings, I connected with everyone from all three remaining Beatles, Richard Lester, Yoko Ono, Alec Guinness and every actor, director or writer who had worked with Peter. It was always amazing to me how many people I could meet in the entertainment business who had some connection with Peter, even to the most obscure, and yet I would get an anecdote or two from that. Seriously, here is this idiot (me) talking to Shelley Winters, Bud Cort or Paul Mazursky about Peter Sellers. Obsessive or retarded (retardez-moi?)? Or both?

Lynne and I got along very well. She was nocturnal, like me, and would call after 12 midnight and be on the phone until 5:30am. I recorded all the calls with her permission, as she would recall all of her memories regarding Peter and her own film career. Lynne was a successful British actress in her own right, having appeared in "Voyage Of The Damned," Hammer's "Vampire Circus," "Nicholas And Alexandra" and "Phase IV," as well as many others. There were many, many showbiz stories and I was glad to hear them all.

Unfortunately, Lynne had sincere health issues and she was torn between a love/hate relationship with her mother. Iris Frederick was an English talent agent responsible for getting her daughter into show business. Initially, Iris was very friendly and supportive of my involvement with her daughter, but Iris certainly had mixed feelings regarding her ex-son-in-law, Peter Sellers. I had no problems with Lynne's husband, Dr. Barry Unger. I liked him and found him friendly and professional. As a man with my own heart problems, I appreciated his easy communication in the area of his expertise. I was unaware that perhaps mother was using daughter's friend as a wedge to separate husband.

Either way, after my years of friendship with Lynne, her health situation led her into being dependent upon her mother for all professional decisions. Iris gained Power of Attorney over the Sellers Estate and our planned tribute to Peter ceased. Iris, who never liked Peter's work, retained artistic control over the estate and deemed what should or should not be released in regards to his legacy.

Wow. Amazement never ceases.

Monday, March 8, 2010

"If you must go, wear this for your mother's sake."

As a crazed young man, my passions seemed to be divided between two points: horror and humour. Things that fueled the imagination and things that made me laugh. My love of comic books and magazines in general seemed to be defined by either of two major influences: MAD magazine and Famous Monsters Of Filmland. (Actually it could be three points: humour, horror and hedonism; as I was also obsessed with Playboy and any other adult magazines I could find lying in the trash, like Swank or Cavalier.) I intend to speak in upcoming thoughts regarding the influence of MAD on my world view, so at this point I will speak of the effect of the latter, Famous Monsters Of Filmland. The magazine led me in the very early 60s to discover a new organization called the Count Dracula Society. Founded by Dr. Donald A. Reed of Los Angeles, the society was made up of professionals in the horror and fantasy film business, as well as enthusiastic fans of the genre. It was a wonderful time, way before the commercialization of sci-fi fandom, for lovers of horror, sci-fi and fantasy films to get a chance to informally hobnob with the top professionals of the film world. It was totally unpretentious and non-commercialized. I was very lucky as a young boy to get into the Count Dracula Society and become one of its long time supporters.

Meetings for the Society would happen in multipurpose rec rooms at various parks and schools throughout the L.A. area. Each year an awards ceremony and banquet would be held in numerous Hollywood hotels and locations. It was amazing to discover who you would meet at any particular get-together. At my very first meeting, which my father had brought me to, I found myself sitting on a cheap folding chair next to a gentleman on my left who looked vaguely familiar, but to whom no one particularly acknowledged. Famous Monsters Of Filmland editor Forrest J Ackerman was the main speaker, followed by a make-up technician from the studios. After the meeting was over, the gentleman to my left who had been very gracious to me and my father, walked up to Forry and introduced himself by saying, "My name is George Kennedy. I just finished filming a horror movie written by Robert Bloch." Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, was represented by Forrest, as he was a literary agent. The film was William Castle's "Straight-Jacket," which would be released in 1964. This would be way before Kennedy would win an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in "Cool Hand Luke."

That was the beginning of meeting an incredible variety of actors, writers, directors and technicians in the film world. It was quite mind-boggling. Having dinner with Vincent Price or Robert Wise or Rouben Mamoulian or Rock Hudson or Strother Martin or John Agar or Ray Bradbury or Ray Harryhausen or Christopher Lee or...

Which leads me to the photo shown. That is the great character actor William Marshall. I love character actors. I'm going to ramble on about character actors for a long time to come. William Marshall was a standout. God was he good. Brought to a sort of fame for doing the "Blackula" films, he was an actor of sublime nuance prior to that. As a human being, he seemed a cut other than the typical Hollywood actor. As an actor, he was astounding. He had that voice. Oh, how the voice is so important. Perhaps like how the way you feel when you hear James Earl Jones. When William Marshall spoke to us at that dinner, we were transfixed by that voice. I loved his work in the very first episode of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." He also appeared opposite Patrick McGoohan in "Danger Man." I can't think of a finer stage and screen actor than William Marshall. And probably one of the most gentle people I have every met.

Monday, March 1, 2010

"What's the recipe today, Jim?"

Orson Welles said that having a motion picture studio at his disposal was the greatest electric train set a kid could have. I felt the same way with a radio station. Like an Erector set or chemistry kit, it was great fun to experiment with the tools of the audio trade: all analog, old school, reel-to-reel players, cartridge machines, cassette decks, and if you were lucky, three turntables. One experimented with them all. And a television set too. Perfect for recording the old Italian horror films that played at 2:30 in the morning, plus all those cheesy commercials on channel 13. Recorded with the pod for maximum or minimum echo effect. Many early mornings of fun, seeing what would come up in the mix. Cutting a piece of dialogue here; connecting to another piece of dialogue there. A new thought. Very Dada.

Continuing with the Green Neon Motel: I would come up with an idea for dialogue by front desk man Grungie Steinberg. In the background, dialogue from the ever-present "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Grungie answers the phone (almost immediately after a gunshot is heard from the film). He speaks with a customer. The audience only hears Grungie's side of the conversation. His conversation interacts with the dialogue of "Plan 9." It is meant to be subliminal. The conversation goes on to a certain point in the film when there is ultimately a knock at the door and it is someone. Many people knock at Grungie's door requesting certain accommodations or information, but more often than not, it is Chef Bruno Languini at the door. You can hear him far off in the background. The pounding on the door. Many doors, as there were many studio doors used over the years. Grungie would have to terminate the phone conversation and prepare himself for the far away but soon to be close entering sounds of the usually enthusiastic Chef. "Hello Grungie, how are you? Hello Grungue, how are youuuuuuuu?" This would be followed by the not visible, but incredibly oblique comment from Grungie saying "don't do that." Whereupon Chef would reply, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I tweaked your cheeks. How are you?" Then some inane bit of dialogue and conversation would continue.

The Orson Welles factor in all this was the fact that I was doing both voices at the same time. One pre-recorded, the other live. In almost all cases, Grungie was live. The Chef Bruno part was recorded, perhaps 10 minutes earlier in the other commercial production studio. The fun thing of cart machines was you could come up with a bit of dialogue, stop it, interact with it live, then punch the cart again, and if the Fates were working with you, all moved seamlessly, the timing could be ecstatic. Sometimes it crashed and burned. There could be technical problems with the carts. But for the most part, it was a form of audio improvisation that I enormously enjoyed week after week.

A thought or two about Chef Bruno: he was created pretty quickly after the idea of Green Neon Motel came to me initially. I had two images in my mind of the raspy voiced Chef. 1) That he would be Italian and an opera lover and I would physically base him on Luciano Pavarotti. 2) Being a chef, he derived from some early memory of Chef Boyardee. I knew I would name him after an Italian recipe. The name Bruno came first. Chef Bruno. I liked that. But what would his last name be? I had already used the word fettucini for famed I-talian director, Federico Fettucini (famous for his surrealist movie based on hat sizes "6 7/8"), so linguine became the Italian recipe of second choice. However, when I recorded the first bit, I accidentally called him Languini. Having put that out over the air live, Languini became his true name. And I think it's okay. I think he may have been related to the famous German-Italian director Fritz Languini.

Please note that this illustration and the previous one for the Green Neon Motel were executed by my artist friend, Mike Merenbach. These are his visual impressions of the characters as I created them, inflicting upon my audience the jokes you see. I am very fond that in the bottom panels, the dialogue from "Plan 9 From Outer Space" continues uninterrupted from the first cartoon to the second. I love "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Seriously. If the original "The Day The Earth Stood Still" was done in drag, this would be the result. Dudley Manlove or Michael Rennie? The decision is based on apparel.