Austin Straus 8:30 a.m., April 23
New Grindhouse Movie Review Column, Last of the All Nighters, White Gold Seduces Tweens, more
San Diego Music Encyclopedia & Database Online Now
Press illo to play the Overheard song!
NEW COMPREHENSIVE LOCAL MUSIC DATABASE IS LAUNCHED
IT'S DONE!!!! And growing every hour....
If you wanna see a list of over 1,5000 San Diego bands, with links to full profiles, photos, discographies, articles, MP3s, etc, checkout http://www.sandiegoreader.com/bands/search/
Believe it or not, you can click on ANY LOCAL MUSICIAN'S NAME (around 4,500 musicos listed!) and bring up bios of every notable band they've ever been in! Try it here with Rob Crow ---
AND, if that wasn't cool 'nuff, click on an instrument, say like this here link to "Drums" - BAM, a list of EVERY DRUMMER IN SAN DIEGO!!!
We've been working on this massively cross-linked Local Music Database for over two years now, covering a century of San Diego history --- if you're a local performer who wants to add or edit a page, go to http://www.sandiegoreader.com/band/edit/
More anon!!!! JAS
HERE'S THIS WEEK'S NEW Overheard in San Diego
AND THE NEW Famous Former Neighbors
NEW COLUMN: GRINDHOUSE MOVIE REVIEWS
I've been asked to start a recurring Grindhouse Movie Review column, spotlighting exploitation cinema from the sixties thru the Tarrantino/Rodriguez double feature revival a coupla years ago, Grindhouse. Yeah, some of these movies are covered by our own Duncan, but as great a reviewer as he is, he's not exactly a fan of the genre. I guess I'm your more "lowbrow" movie guide -- think of this new column as the Tin Fork alternative to gourmet restaurant reviews...
I actually worked on downtown San Diego's grindhouse row in the late '70s and early '80s (see below article and related links), where I developed an affection - if not a lotta respect - for grindhouse cinema (think Last House on the Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, etc.)
Note that my own definition of "grindhouse" can include mainstream Hollywood exploitation, ala Straw Dogs, Midnight Cowboy, et al, but I'llmainly be covering smaller indie films, many of them very obscure (and often deservedly so) --
BLACK CAESAR, 1973: I've only seen a few vintage "blaxploitation" films, so tonight I'm watching Black Caesar, of interest to me because it was written, directed and produced by ol' Larry Cohen, just a couple years before his inexplicable masterpiece God Told Me To, with the outer space Jesus and the vagina on his chest...that Larry, madman with a camera...
Right from the start, the music is top notch! Mainly James Brown, but there's also a cool female-fronted song a girl performs while Fred Williamson shoots up a room fulla white folks. Williamson is probably the only good actor in the whole film, but who can read Larry Cohen's dialogue, in any movie, and come off sounding real. All his movies have such cartoony dialogue, but that's part of the charm of his stuff (other than Q and a coupla others just too awful to recall).
Most of the characters in Black Caesar are hollow and soul-less anyway, so the junior high acting doesn't distract. Williamson is good enough to make up for the others -
I really didn't know what to expect going into it, so it was pretty astonishing to see Williamson smear shoe polish on a guy and make him sing "Mammy"!! A Larry Cohen moment I'll certainly never forget ---
Despite all the grindhouse schlock - much of which I love! - there's a solid little story. The scenes with Williamson breaking his mom's heart and then facing off with his neglectful dad shows Cohen was going for more than machine guns and chase scenes. And, again, the music - wow! Even the most incidental bits of background music are smokin', and perfectly suited to the frequent NYC exteriors.
So now I've seen three or four blaxploitation flicks, and part of one other, Scream Blackula Scream, which was so bad that it caused me actual physical pain, so I shut it off...(for some reason, I can't handle anything with VooDoo, it freaks me out with all the animal mutilation and stuff, hence me never seeing Angel Heart, Serpent and the Rainbow, etc).
So far, Black Ceasar is the best I've seen of this genre ---
FORBIDDEN ZONE, 1982:
Forbidden Zone was an early ‘80s freakfest by the Brothers Elfman, then of the performance art musical group known as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (later taken over by Danny Elfman and converted to the Oingo Boingo rock band. Little Herve, soon to be cast in TV's Fantasy Island, stars, which alone should tell you bunches.....
It reminds me a lot of the early homemade movies by the 70s comedy troupe the Firesign Theatre. If you’re familiar with them, they were making the brainiest 70s comedy records (my faves being the sci-fi I Think We're All Bozos on the Bus and the late night TV spoof Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers). Less known are the Firesign homemade movies, like Eat of Be Eaten and Nick Danger: Third Eye (they also used to overdub comedy dialogue over old movie serials for an 80s Showtime series called Hot Shorts) - Zone was a
There was also an element of Sid & Marty Krofft to Zone, which seems about right since the Elfmans grew up on 70s TV shows like HR Pufnstuff, Lidsville, et al. And, funnily, just as I was thinking the B&W and golly-gee-whiz acting reminded me of an old Mickey Mouse Club ep - but on acid - the girl with the Mouse ears showed up ----
I bet anything, tho, that the Elfmans were MOST inspired by Frank Zappa's 200 Motels, for which Zone could practically serve as a sequel, if with more cabaret and less "classical" music. I especially liked Zone's Pythonesque animated sequences, and I'll never be able to hear the words "Pico" or "Sepulveda" without humming that bizarre little musical "Pico and Sepulveda" sequence.
When the flick ended, I felt like I'd just come off a dicey acid trip, but it was great fun to checkout! Somebody should make a stand-alone video for Danny Elfman's devil sequence (which meticulously recreated the hijinks of several classic cartoons, even using some sound samples from the 'toons) - they could screen it on MTV tomorrow, and I bet few would ever guess it's a quarter century old and not a brand new video by the Killers or My Chemical Romance....
COVER ME BABE, 1970:
Recently, FMC showed Cover Me Babe – released in 1970, it's got Robert Forster as a student filmmaker, who's obsessed with the idea that "reality" might be more interesting than scripted productions. Especially seedy, sordid reality. He's inspired by the Lee Harvey Oswald shooting that was broadcast live on TV - his big idea is, essentially, reality TV! He tells his film teacher about how someday people's real lives will be filmed, and viewers will come to prefer it over anything scripted - very prophetic! A better movie than I expected, and apparently rarely seen, especially on TV - this version seemed uncut, with nudity intact.
It's not worth any great expense or effort to seek, but fine as an easy diversion - interesting and prophetic, but by no mean a great movie. I can see why it was despised in 1970 - it's only value as a cinematic artifact is achieved by it being almost 40 years later now, and how eerily the film predicted the rise of "reality" entertainment. The very same things that Forster's lead character is hated for screening, those things now win awards and accolades and movie/TV career contracts. Forster's performance is metallic and makes him more unlikable than any film character I can think of outside the a-hole principal in Animal House - and at least HE was funny!
So it's a curios at best, but with out-there and ultimately accurate ideas about media and pop culture, the kind of thing film buffs can appreciate. And (very) young Sondra Locke really isn't bad as one of Forster's long-suffering girlfriends, even tho there's never the slightest indication why she'd put up with his vidiot/savant personality and ways ------
FINAL DESTINATION, 2000:
SPOILER ALERT, this is written with the presumption that readerss have seen the first two films - certain events and plot resolutions are openly discussed in various places.
In the grand tradition of vintage teen grindhouse cinema, along comes a version for the next century. I see strong resemblance in these FD films to the old B&W Carnival Of Souls film, where death is literally the entity catching up with someone, an ethereal woman, who mistakenly lived after an accident and is creating ripples of unrest in reality by surviving. Highly recommended - I have the DVD, Carnival Of Souls is now considered a sort of lost classic. I like the cheesy organ score, done one finger style on a cheap carnival organ by the director himself.
The Final Destination films have an interesting Rube Goldberg way of unfolding events, that is simple minded and amusing amidst the faux-philosophical conversations the otherwise clueless teens are engaging in. Each death is like the old Mousetrap game, obvious the moment the ball starts rolling down the chute, while the teens try to act like it's Rubik's cube unfathomable!
And gawd do I laff at that old coroner who suddenly hands them the answers to the universe between burning bodies, whenever they think to ask him (which has only been twice in two films, whereas you'd think they'd be sitting at his feet trying to pick the mystical genius' brain 24-7! Makes no sense, and is just tossed in as a way to "explain" what death is doing, and it's done so shamelessly cheesy that I like it!)
I take the FD films as a humorous twist on Carnival Of Souls and enjoy them as such. I found #2 very confusing to see first, especially the reintroduction of Bangs and the explanation of how the other survivor of the first film died (I still have no idea what the heck they were talking about). But the early multi-car/truck crash in #2 was riveting and I got sucked into the story, even if it was hard to pickup without even knowing I was watching a sequel (it was on TV for an hour before I looked up the title).
The teen actors themselves are all blah cyphers, meaningless and interchangeable other than Bangs herself, but the writing and situations are cool, especially the surreal dialogue at the most inappropriate times (I died laffing when, seconds after seeing their friend sliced in two next to the railroad track and his blood still dripping off them, the kid starts lecturing Bangs about his newest intricate theory of the progression of deaths, even before they start running away from the approaching sirens!!).
I like being pleasantly surprised by films I've never heard of. I thought Final Destination was the name of a video game or something. Instead they turn out to be amusing live-action horror variations on Carnival Of Souls Meets Mousetrap. Pretty cool idea!
WICKED WICKED, 1973:
TCM has been showing the weirdest 1973 psycho killer film, Wicked Wicked. It takes place at the historic (and reportedly haunted) Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, set up to be a residential hotel.
Almost the whole movie is done in split-screen. Not like the TV show 24 where they show different things happening at the same time - instead, the second screen illustrates backstory and foreshadowing with flashbacks, internal thoughts, and just weird little bits of the story - like, on one screen the creepy kid is telling a pretty girl he studied chemistry, and the other screen shows him young and reading a book on embalming.
The music is all soap opera organ (we even see the guy playing it on occasion?!) and the script seems to spoof slasher movies, but it's very well played. It's just so offbeat, I really enjoyed it - I had to stop what I was doing so I could watch closely and absorb the two different POVs running side by side. Never heard of it before - just saw the Hotel Del in the opening shots, and stayed on this channel ------
Aside from some interesting storytelling, it's a love letter to the Hotel Del - a bunch of exterior shots, from different angles, plus the Crown Room, the west bell lobby, the beachfront and fountain pools, and a lot of hall and interior shots that sher look like the Hotel itself.
The "Wicked Wicked" theme song is still stuck in my head - it's performed on stage I think 2 1/2 times, plus it runs over the credits, a schmaltzy James Bond lounge affair...the girl singer kind of gargles the lyrics, but in a creepy cool way that I THINK may have been intentional parody (she may have been doing Sammy Davis Jr) --
Just an odd, interesting little film -
LAST OF THE ALL-NIGHTERS - MY GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES
I spent my first night in San Diego sleeping in the back row of the Cabrillo Theater.
In that pre-Gaslamp, pre-multiplex downtown of 1979, half a dozen wonderfully eclectic – if mildly disreputable – late night movie houses operated within a few blocks of each other. Each grindhouses was a colorful oasis, plopped down in the middle of a seedy urban sprawl perfectly suited to the sailors on shore leave and porn aficionados that comprised much of its foot traffic.
A couple of bucks got you a double or triple bill, screened ‘round the clock in cavernous single-screen movie theaters harkening back to Hollywood’s golden age, rich in cinematic history and replete with big wide aisles and accommodating balconies.
At the time, the Cabrillo was one of two all-nighters (the Plaza being the other) facing Broadway from the south side of Horton Plaza park. I’d just arrived on the left coast courtesy of Greyhound, nineteen years old with armpit length dark hair, wearing a sleeveless Led Zep T-shirt and stone washed jeans and carrying a knapsack towards what looked to be the center of town.
I remember walking an unnerving gauntlet of middle aged men who pulled over in their cars to ask if I needed “a ride,” “something to eat,” “a place to stay” or “20 bucks.” When I reached the grassy plaza with its anachronistic fountain, street preachers and unspeakable restrooms, I encountered a Hare Krishna, head shaved except for a small ponytail, who told me in one long run-on sentence of the eternal glory of lord Krishna and about a nearby temple where I could sleep and eat for free if I wanted.
This sounded pretty good to a hungry kid fresh off the bus from rural New England with not a lotta duckets in my pockets and no idea where to go or what to do next.
But then I glanced past Zippy the Pinhead’s dandruff-free shoulder and spotted the Cabrillo, bathed in the flickering rainbow glow of a thousand faux-Vegas neon flashers, its facade plastered with multi-tiered film posters, the marquee fired up with enough candlepower to confuse planes landing at nearby Lindberg Field.
As if in a hazy dream of my own fancy and construction, I was inexorably drawn toward that oasis of hypnotic lights, spurred on to even greater haste by the chimerical promise emblazoned across the marquee - “Bruce Lee Triple Feature.”
This, I soon found, was typical fare at the Cabrillo and the Plaza. Same for the Aztec and Casino theaters a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue. Action, horror and softcore sexploitation movies, matched with two or three older films and sometimes packaged as theme-specific “marathons” - a day of Clint Eastwood westerns or four “Planet Of The Apes” films shown back to back, for instance, the sort of lowest common denominator marketing that still filled a lot of moviehouses back in the day.
All four businesses were operated by Walnut Properties, a company specializing in second-run theaters. During the early '80s, Walnut also ran the historic Balboa Theater on Fourth and E Street, as well as an X-rated moviehouse just down the same block, the Pussycat.
The day after my all-night kung fu-a-thon (some of which I slept through), I found a place to live at the Palms Hotel on 12th and Market, paying $70.00 a month for a leprechaun sized windowless room with barely enough square footage to fit a twin size mattress - I had to open my door and step into the hallway to get out of bed.
(I took these pics of the Palms Hotel 25 years apart – 1979 and 2004. In the late ‘70s, it was across from a DeTox center and thrift store – today, it’s across from condos and the trolley runs past it down 12th)
While ostensibly job-hunting downtown, I became a fixture at Walnut’s theaters, catching at least two or three triple-features a week. I mentioned to the manager of the Casino, a short Filipino guy named Freddie Bantug, that I was looking for a job and he hired me as an usher, ticket taker and snack bar clerk.
At first, I mainly worked the Casino, at 643 Fifth Avenue in the middle of the block, and at the Aztec, which rounded the southeast corner at G Street. Already a half-century old at the time, the Casino was in decent repair with only partially threadbare carpet in its spacious lobby and fresh paint covering what little wall space wasn’t taken up by posters of “coming attractions.”
In the auditorium, most of the seats, while oft-repaired, were intact, with seat cushions tenderized to perfection by decades of happily planted derrieres. It had a full-length single-balcony that was actually open most of the time, unlike at other all-nighters where they’d been declared unsafe by the city and/or where insurance failed to cover balcony-related claims.
Originally, the theater had a small restaurant built onto it as well, the Casino Café (see above).
However, by the late '70s, the adjoining enterprise was a porno emporium called the Foxy Theater where a guy behind mirrored glass slipped you a ticket to see X-rated 8mm and 16mm silent film loops continuously screened in an airless room full of folding chairs and several furtive men seated in a way that put as much distance between them as was physically possible in the confined space.
On the corner of Fifth and G, the 500-seat Aztec Theater was part of a structure originally called the Bancroft Building, opened in 1905 as a meat market but remodeled and rechristened “The California Theater” in 1919. In the thirties, the name was changed again, to the Fox Aztec and then eventually just Aztec. Its corner location afforded added space for multiple banks of movie posters, displayed in interconnected tiers of glass showcases wrapping around the building and lining the entranceway all the way up to the turnstyle at the door.
The posters promoted the current double or triple bill, next week’s coming attractions, “sometime in the future” attractions that may never actually play the Aztec (if the poster was particularly cool, like, with lots of blood or cleavage) and, just for the hell of it, maybe what’s playing down the street at the Casino, Plaza or Cabrillo. Permanent letters on the front of the marquee proclaimed "First Run Till You've Seen It."
Inside, there was no real lobby to speak of, the seats were decrepit and cramped and there were ascending layers of floor levels rather than a traditional balcony so it had a much less “old fashioned” feeling than the Casino. And it was more prone to trouble, for some reason. Perhaps something to do with the claustrophobic atmosphere and a tendency to specialize in back-to-back slasher flicks.
Not to mention endless screenings of Cheech And Chong’s “Up In Smoke,” which always brought out a crowd who, while doubling our snack bar sales, tended to change the air quality of the theater in a way that undercover police (but never fellow patrons!) objected to.
The same ticket takers and clerks worked all the downtown theaters, wore the same red uniform tops with black trim and dark pants, and some of us spent shifts covering each other’s breaks by walking from locale to locale. Management was identical at each place, we swapped the same prints between different theater projectors and all the Walnut-run operations shared the same aging, tacky, low rent, held-together-with-chicken-wire-and-glue porno vibe, whether you were trying to avoid sitting in someone’s ejaculate at the Pussycat or taking in a James Bond marathon up the street or around the corner at one of our (only slightly) more respectable theaters.
Movies screened around the clock, or at least nearly so. I soon noticed patrons who showed up just about every day – aimless, jobless and often homeless, seeming to subsist on little more than (real butter) popcorn, candy, coffee and soda or whatever they’d snuck in under their clothes, sleeping in the back rows and sometimes even bathing in the men’s room sink unless asked to leave or when the theater closed for cleaning.
They’d return a few hours later, with or without fresh clothes, to sit through the same movies again and again, day after day, often migrating from theater to theater. My boss Freddie called these guys “the regulars,” and by that he meant they were at the theater regularly, not that they were regular people, because there’s nothing regular about a guy like, say, “Wolfman.”
Wolfman (that’s what everyone called him, and what he called himself) was a little over six feet tall, pasty complexion, the front of his hair shaved into an Eddie Munster “widow’s peak” and hirsute to the point where it could be said he had a full-body beard.
As if he weren’t distinctive looking enough already, he filed all of his front teeth into sharp, spiky fangs, giving him a fierce demeanor that scared people, even – especially – when he smiled. Wolfman’s monthly SSI check never seemed to cover the rent at even the lowest priced flophouses. I don’t know what qualified him for SSI, he didn’t seem particularly disabled, physically or mentally. Well, maybe mentally, as things turned out.
I don’t think he drank, at least I never saw him drinking and he didn’t reek of Thunderbird like some regulars. I don’t know his real name or what he did and where he kept his belongings when he wasn’t spending days at a time living by the flickering light of the movie projector. It would seem that he just decided one day to live at the movies.
He especially loved horror flicks (duh, dude called himself Wolfman!), lived for them, lived WITH them, absorbing obscure minutia and memorizing endless trivia about the objects of his obsession which he’d spout at the slightest provocation. He frequently got into arguments with theater employees or other patrons, usually over something to do with the movies, sometimes becoming downright violent, but more on Wolfy in a moment.
There wasn’t much to the job itself, any drone could put on a red suit and sell tickets, fill containers with popcorn and soda, count money, sweep carpets. But everyone I met who worked there, day and night and overtime for a measly $3.50 to $4.50 an hour, seemed to really love their jobs.
In my case, I occasionally got to flirt with a pretty girl (sneaking her a free coke refill was a good opener). And there was, I guess you’d say, a mild and probably pathetic “power trip” involved, wearing a “uniform,” swinging around that big black flashlight, entrusted with the keys to the snack bar and money till, access to all the nooks and crannies in the projector booth, the back rooms, behind the screen.
And we were empowered to – if faced with an extreme situation – “refuse admittance,” just like it said we reserved the right to do on the cash register. We even had the power, if not always the ability, to eject customers from the premises, at least those patrons who weren’t doubled over with laughter from being asked to leave by a guy in a red suit waving around a big black flashlight.
The main thing we loved about the job was THE MOVIES! Walnut employees could sign in for free at any of the theaters to see any movie, any time, and were encouraged to do so, to be up on all the circulating features. Most all of us were devotional film buffs, the kind of JuJu Bead junkies seduced by the sound of mammoth Simplex movie projectors and its big spinning reels, who had no problem sitting through five, seven, ten or more features a week.
I think most of us genuinely felt we were “in the movie business” and it was a serious and solemn part of the job, to personally view every single new feature (or old feature, or feature we’ve already seen a buncha times but it’s just so doggone cool and maybe that girl I gave the free soda to will show up again, this time without her bitchy girlfriend…). Business was good, on weekends the house was often sold out, some decent movies were coming out in the late 70s and early 80s and all in all it was a pretty cool gig. Did I mention the big black flashlight?
Few things in my life can compare to the anticipation I used to feel on Thursday nights, in the middle of the a.m. - standing on a rickety ladder on 5th Avenue and putting up the Casino marquee letters announcing the new week’s lineup of features. Usually, I’d be back at the theater myself a few hours later, well off my shift, just to catch that first “virgin” showing, and most times there’d be half a dozen other Walnut staffers sprinkled in the crowd as well. By the end of the weekend, we’d pretty much all viewed the new flicks and were debating their merits or lack thereof in company quorums held behind the snack bars, between intermissions.
The mix of brand new films and older features was a cost effective way for Walnut to offer multiple bills, cheap and ‘round the clock, and even schlocky B-movies that had already been on TV were fun to see on a big screen, in that environment, with an audience. How can you say you’ve truly experienced “Planet Of The Apes” if you’ve never been deafened by a room full of people who erupt like socker hooligans when Charlton Heston growls “Get your sticking paws off me, you d*ed dirty ape!”
And not all the movies were 2nd run - we had a print of “Alien” on its first week of release that packed the Cabrillo to the rafters for fourteen days straight, circulating it between theaters after that as a guaranteed draw and selling out houses no matter where it played or what lame backup features it was paired with (“Buck Rogers In The 25th Century” and “Battlestar Galactica” for instance, two re-edited TV shows that cost the company almost nothing to rent).
Sometimes, the feature bills were totally unplanned, just randomly matched movies that by rights should never have run back to back –
“The Muppet Movie” with Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” comes to mind as one odd pairing. There always seemed to be a print of the 1979 sci-fi action film “Mad Max” floating around, a dependably popular bottom-of-the-bill backup feature that opened for the rape drama “The Accused” and the farcical “Airplane,” among others.
I liked the themed packages best, these often brought out a colorful cult crowd who showed up in big numbers and ate a lot of expensive snack bar crap. “Phantom Of The Paradise,” a rock and roll camp classic from 1974, played on a triple bill with Ken Russell’s “Tommy” and the Rocky Horror semi-sequel “Shock Treatment.”
Recycled older prints, long out of theater circulation but too new for TV, were also part of Walnut’s short-lived secret for success. The more violent, the more seats sold. Some prints were such audience favorites that they turned up every few months, always drawing repeat customers and big appreciative crowds. “Rolling Thunder” (1977) was one such perennial, kind of a sordid precursor to the “Rambo” movies with William Devane as a POW who comes home from Vietnam, witnesses his family brutally murdered and goes on a killing spree in search of vengeance.
“The Toolbox Murders” (1978) was another, about a handyman who savagely offs nekkid women with his claw-hammer, a screwdriver, a power drill and – gulp - a nail gun! “Dawn Of The Dead” (1978) sold out weekend AND weekday showings all the time, while “Friday The 13th” (1980) was so popular that, at one point, it was screening in three theaters at the same time.
The audience’s support and enthusiasm for such celluloid bloodbaths was disturbing, at least to me (certainly Walnut loved those customers, they kept us in business). From the lobby, we could hear them roar with applause at certain intervals and be able to say to ourselves “Oh, that’s the part where the guy burns the junkie’s balls off with a flamethrower” and then screams of delirious laughter where we’d know “that must be when he gives her the toothpick with the eyeball on it and says ‘beats a sharp stick in the eye.’”
When we screened Walter Hill’s surreal fantasy “The Warriors” (1979), about teenage gangs waging war in a fictionalized New York City underworld, everyone in the theater always chanted along with the villain when he taunts the “good guys,” ad infinitum in a nasal whine, “Warriors, come out and play! Warriors, come out and PLAY!!!”
When the Warriors finally did indeed come out to play, the brain-bashing was greeted with a collective cheer loud and sustained enough to nearly bring down the half-century old roof.
At first, talking to our customers and meeting so many fellow movie buffs was like finally finding myself a home on the island of misfit toys. That said, the sort of movies we usually showed attracted an oddball clientele and I didn’t always enjoy chatting up the patrons.
In 1980, we ran a cultish little flick called “Fade To Black,” with Dennis Christopher as a teenage movie fanatic who commits several murders by reenacting his favorite celluloid death scenes. It’s basically about being so obsessed with movies that you can’t distinguish them from reality. Christopher appears in one scene with half his face painted white as Dracula, his hair slicked back on one side only, while the other side of his face and hair is “normal,” just before he commits one of his most gruesome murders (wherein he drinks his female victim’s blood). The first time a customer arrived with his own face made up in exactly the same way, I considered invoking that “right to refuse admittance” sign on the register.
Then there was a guy at the Aztec, with a long beard and needle marks who I don’t think was a diabetic Hassidic, who got more and more amped up as he sat through something like twenty straight hours of “Blood Feast” (1963), “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) and “Color Me Blood Red” (1964), three infamously violent “splatter” films by the godfather of gore, H. Gordon Lewis. When he started shouting and swearing at the screen, and at other patrons, in some kind of increasingly deluded state, nobody wanted to be the one to ask him to leave, he seemed dangerous (though at least a dozen other customers ignored the commotion and kept watching the movies).
Someone called police but they never showed and the only way we got rid of the guy was to stop running film at 4am, announce we were closing, wait until he (and everyone else) left the theater, only to reopen an hour later with the films back on their posted, advertised schedule.
It sucked when all the movies on the bill were dogs. There were weeks I couldn’t stand the thought of walking through the auditorium one more time to be faced with scenes from, say, “The Awakening,” a really boring 1980 mummy flick where the only drama is trying to figure out what’s moving slower – the plot, the mummy or Charlton Heston.
“Prophecy” (1979) by director John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate”) was another one everyone hated - made out to be a horrific monster movie in ads and posters, it was instead a preachy tract on environmentalism where the audience never even got to see a BEM (Bug Eyed Monster).
Ditto for 1979’s “The Fog,” where the only monsters in the movie were bouncing around under Adrienne Barbeau’s sweater. And, despite my admiration for Bruce Lee’s prototypal oeuvre, it was hard to get into the badly dubbed copycat kung fu flicks we were usually saddled with (starring “Bruce Li” or “Bruce Le” or “Bruce Lei” or “Bruce L. Eee”). Still, there was always something different unspooling down the street and, even if all those movies sucked, the marquees would soon be changing again come Thursday night/Friday morning.
The Casino was my favorite place to work overnights. Up in the rear of the balcony was a door to a storage room where spare uniforms and “wet floor” signs were kept. The room had a small window facing outside the building, just over the top of the flashing marquee, and anyone paying attention could probably have spotted the evidence of how popular the spot was for clerks who liked to smoke a joint during their break, blowing the smoke out over 5th Avenue.
I got caught in there once, not smoking but making out with a teenage Hispanic girl I’d seduced with free Kit-Kats and Coke (in a cup, not on a mirror). The manager wasn’t so mad about the girl in the room, but I nearly got fired because I hadn’t paid for the candy yet (they counted inventory between shifts and we were responsible for every last nougat and bon-bon).
The Aztec at the end of the block always seemed to host more trouble than the Casino, as I speculated on before. In 1981, during a showing of “Pink Flamingos” (1973) and “Polyester” (new at the time and showing in “Oderama,” with scratch-and-sniff libretto), a group of well over a dozen flamboyantly dressed men, most in drag, weren’t even in the theater yet when a violent battle erupted between them on the sidewalk.
Freddie always referred to it after that as “the fifteen fggt fight,” barely able to control his laughter every time it came up. It was an astonishingly cartoon sight and sound, all these guys screeching insults and flaming at their hottest, slapping each other and crying and pulling their wigs off, whacking each other with strappy shoes…it went on forever while we waited for the cops to come break it up. The fifteen fggt fight is etched in my memory far more clearly than anything from “Pink Flamingos” or “Polyester.”
I never minded being sent to work the Horton Plaza theaters, which occasionally lucked into first-run A-list features like 1981’s summer biggie “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (albeit backed with yet another yellowish print of “Mad Max”). Usually, though, they were screening schlocky also-rans like “The Day After Halloween,” not a sequel to the John Carpenter hit “Halloween” but an unrelated Australian movie originally called “Snapshot” and later retitled in order to cash in on the other film’s fame. I remember fielding refund demands from angry customers over that one, which usually only happened when the films broke, didn’t screen on time or were shown with the reels in the wrong order (this happened more often than you might think).
Occasionally, I manned the snack bar at the Balboa, on the southwest corner of 4th Avenue and E street. This once-majestic 1,500 seat theater was built in 1924, designed for stage and screen with a single-balcony, ornate chandeliers, an orchestra pit and whimsical twenty-eight foot tall vertical fountains built into the walls on either side of the stage which used to operate at full force during intermissions.
The building housed vaudeville acts in the 1920s and then was used almost exclusively to screen movies after 1932, through Hollywood’s most golden era. Grandiose by any standards, the Balboa fell into hard times and disrepair in the fifties, until it was almost demolished for a parking lot in 1959. Russo Family Enterprises bought the building, remodeled it and the theater was run by the blue chip Fox chain until being leased to Walnut in the late 70s.
Many of us loved the moviegoing experience of going into that dusty, fantastical palace, though I realize not everyone can appreciate the guilty glory of stuffing popcorn down your esophagus beneath those monster sized chandeliers while grooving on a Blaxploitation triple feature of “Shaft,” “Cleopatra Jones” and the all-time baddest of afro-mofo badasses “Blacula” (played by William Marshall, who would one day become the King Of Cartoons on Pee Wee’s Playhouse).
The Balboa was seamlessly absorbed into the chain and the clerks wore the same red uniform tops and black pants as at the Cabrillo, the Plaza, the Aztec, the Casino - and just down the block, at the Pussycat Theatre.(4th Avenue Pussycat circa 1979)
The Pussycat was notorious for sidewalk posters that assaulted passersby with graphic (not quite explicit) images from triple-X features with titles like “Talk Dirty To Me,” “Taboo,” “The Budding Of Brie” and “A Scent Of Heather” (no, not in “Oderama”). The décor was immediately seedy, even seen from a distance - faded and cracked tile lit by flashing red and purple lights.
I didn’t like working at the Pussycat as much as I thought I would. The novelty of fifteen-foot tall genitalia wore thin after the first few hours and the non-stop moaning and groaning (usually listless overdubs recorded by bored, fully-clothed “thespians”) quickly grated on the nerves to the point where I could barely recall what actual, factual sex sounded like.
Plus, I hated handling money peeled from the sticky palms of sweaty looking men who smelled like a gangbang where nobody remembered to bring towels.
People literally hid their faces when they walked up to the Pussycat, and the first thing the manager said to me on my first night of training was “If you see someone you recognize, pretend they’re a complete stranger no matter how well you know them.” This was good advice and later that night, when I saw the guy who worked at a sandwich shop down the street, I resisted the urge to say “Hey, Scotty” even as I vowed never to eat a sandwich there again.
For awhile, the Pussycat had a swinger couple, in their early 30s maybe, good looking, who’d come in at least once or twice a week to watch a movie and then, well, put on a little show of their own. The clerks liked this couple and we found a lot of excuses to whip out our big black flashlight and do an auditorium walk-through.
Some things the other clerks told me about their own encounters with The Swinger Couple seemed even then to be the stuff of urban myth, but I did see the two of them in action, in the seats, and can attest that they were into public sex in a big way. They never talked to me, but I often saw them talking to other patrons, before or after (and at least once during) their private showtime, and usually the couple would leave with a patron or two exiting right behind, if not with, them.
This was not an aspect of social interaction I’d ever encountered before.
In the years since, I’ve spent an obsessive amount of time wondering what possible “pickup lines” were appropriate and effective in that particular situation –
“Excuse me, but it’d be a shame for that erection to go to waste.”
“The two of us are doing an in-depth survey on threesomes for the Kinsey Institute, can you help us out?”
“You know, my wife can do that with her hands tied behind her back.”
“Did you ever want to be in your own porno movie?”
Or perhaps, simply, “F*ck my wife…please.”
I only spent a few weeks at the Pussycat but, when I went back to the Aztec and Casino, the two 5th Avenue theaters were switching off showing X-rated features as well, serving a three-pack of porno at the Aztec one week and at the Casino the next.
Even the non-X features were getting increasingly nasty, as was the neighborhood at night – you can actually get a taste of this in the 1979 film “Hardcore.” One scene shows downtown San Diego at its Sodom & Gomorrha peak, with George C. Scott stumbling through wall-to-wall porno theaters and adult bookstores in search of information about his missing porn star daughter, barely concealing his disgust as he makes his way down 4th and 5th Avenues, dodging hunchbacked junkies and drooling perverts at every step. It wasn’t an unrealistic picture.
As things got sleazier, all the theaters, X and R, were closing earlier and opening later, even on weekends. Gang graffiti was becoming more common, as were altercations between patrons. Wolfman got taken out by police one night, along with a big bruiser he’d gotten into a fistfight with, and it took several weeks before he talked Freddie into letting him “move” back in. When he began coming around again, he was scary looking, even for him, strung out and hollow, like the denizens of the sidewalk exposed to the light in “Hardcore.”
One morning at the Casino, I was clearing out the auditorium for the cleaning crew and went to shake this bearded, homeless looking older guy, a regular who came around a lot, to wake him up. The guy slumped over, cold, blue and dead. It was some sort of seizure or attack I think, all I remember is someone saying later that he definitely died from “natural causes.”
Another night, Freddie and I had to bounce a drunk guy who dropped and smashed a liquor bottle on the cement floor under his seat – our bouncee showed up later, after we closed, standing outside the locked doors, swearing and waving a handgun around. Cops showed up within two minutes of us calling and he easily surrendered but these incidents were just two of many that had me wondering if I was really cut out to be “in the movie business.”
Things downtown were changing, getting more dicey, more dangerous. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the pay, which seemed to peak at $4.50 hourly for clerks and apparently little more for managers, judging from the high turnover.
Then there were rumors of the buildings being up for sale, or that the theaters were slated for closure as part of the new Gaslamp Quarter redevelopment plans (the entire district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980). A lot of longtime Walnut staffers were quitting to take jobs elsewhere, leaving barely enough employees to cover even the shortened hours. I was doing a lot of double shifts and overtime, so dead on my feet some nights that I was falling asleep in the seats on my breaks.
In summer ’81, the Aztec was screening this really dumb chop sock-y flick called “Kung Fu Of Eight Drunkards,” about martial artists who develop a method of kicking ass under the influence (I sh*t thee not…). Wolfman was there, he loved kung fu flicks, as were five karate students, fresh from class and still wearing their uniforms with (mostly dark colored) achievement belts. Who knows how or why, but Wolfy got into a fight with the karate guys.
I was behind the snack bar, I heard shouting and swearing and ran into the auditorium to find a scene straight out of the movie flashing up on the screen…call it “Wolfman Versus The Karate Kidz.” Wolfy was spinning around, kicking and throwing punches wildly in all directions while the karate kids were using their fists of fury to connect quite a few blows of their own, on each other as much as on Wolfman.
The rambunctious crowd egged them on, cheering like a prizefight, guys kept getting shoved into the seats and several chairs got broken up during the melee. I yelled and waved my big black flashlight, nobody listened, bodies kept flying, cops were summoned and Wolfy and his fellow combatants beat feat through the rear exit doors just as the sound of sirens reached the theater.
After that, we weren’t allowed to let Wolfman in any more. I don’t know who handed him the decree or when it happened – I never saw him again. The broken chairs remained busted for the remainder of my tenure on the downtown all-nighter circuit, which, though I didn’t realize it at the time, was drawing to a close.
My favorite place to take a meal break was in the basement of the Aztec, access to which meant you had to go outside, round the corner, unlock a gate and go down stairs to enter a long low-ceilinged room below the theater. On row after row of makeshift wooden shelves, tucked into manila envelopes and file folders, were literally thousands of movie posters, press kits, film stills and lobby cards.
The theater had been keeping and filing away all the film company promotional material since the sixties and the accumulation filled the entire basement, all stamped “Aztec” in big red letters on the back. You can imagine that, to even the most casual movie buff, this was a near magical place to hang out, to just pick up a few stacks of paper and unfold the posters to admire the brilliant marketing and carnival-barker hucksterism.
The ads for the movies ranged from Bob Hope’s “Call Me Bwana” (1963) through John Wayne triple features, the Beatles “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “American Graffiti” (1973) and “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978), 70s exploitation cheapies, comedies, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, westerns, martial arts, softcore porn – it was an amazing archive, chronicling the best and worst of two decades of cinema history.
My favorite posters were the ones with hyperbole heavy taglines –
“Astro Zombies” - “See brutal mutants menace beautiful girls!” (1969)
“The Pigkeeper’s Daughter” – “She brought a new meaning to the phrase ‘Driving A Hard Bargain’!” (1972)
“Invasion of the Bee Girls” - “They’ll love the very life out of your body!” (1973)
“Wham-Bam Thank You, Spaceman” – “He’s a UFO Romeo!” (1973)
And the graphics – how could anyone not appreciate the glorious stupidity of a poster like the one for “Green Slime” (1968), with a painting of a busty young woman floating around in outer space, wearing a skintight spacesuit, high heels, yes I said high heels – no gloves! - her glass bubble helmet UNATTACHED to her spacesuit, with a CUTAWAY in her spacesuit that exposes her CLEAVAGE and looking mildly displeased as one of the titular slime tries to slip its tentacles around her thigh.
(Sidewalk in front of the Casino and part of the marquee, as seen in the 1979 movie A Force of One, starring Chuck Norris)
In July 1981, the manager of the Aztec told us the theater was about to be sold and the new owners might want to remodel the building for something completely different, maybe a multiple-screen moviehouse. He recommended that we all put together our resumes because other theater sales and possible closures were imminent.
I asked what would happen to all the posters, stills, lobby cards and press kits in the Aztec basement and he said, so far as he knew, everything would probably be thrown out. I’ve often wondered what happened to that treasure trove of Hollywood memorabilia. Considering ever-rising collector’s prices, the mint-condition contents of that basement today would be worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars – conservatively.
With both my job satisfaction and job security in deep decline, I was walking home from work at about 5 a.m. when someone I couldn’t see clearly leapt out from behind a parked car and struck me on the back of my head with something hard and heavy. I woke up in an ambulance, my wallet still in my back pants pocket with some $40 or so tucked into it.
Earlier that evening, at the Casino, I’d bounced a surly teen customer, I forget over what but I’ve always assumed the guy was my assailant. After I took a few stitches to my head, I caught a cab back to the theater and gave the day manager my notice. He asked me to work one more week before quitting and I may have said yes but I don’t think I ever went back, not even to pick up my final paycheck.
I moved back to the east coast and took a job with a record store chain, staying a little over a year. By the time I finally made my way back downtown to get my ticket punched again at an all-nighter, it was too late.
They were all gone.
"Before It Was The Gaslamp: Balboa's Last Stand" - Cover story 6-21-07: In the late 70s/early 80s, I worked at downtown San Diego's grindhouse all-night movie theaters, for the owner of the Pussycat Theatre chain, Vince Miranda - this detailed feature recalls those dayz, the death of the Balboa Theatre, etc.
"Battle Of The Peeps" - feature article about a weird gig I had in the mid-'80s, running a strip club called Jolar, for the nation's second biggest pornographer, Harry Mohney (Deja Vu Showgirls founder).
"Field Of Screens" - Cover story 7-6-06: Complete theater-by-theater history of San Diego drive-ins thru the years, including a few which screened X-rated fare for awhile.
"Pussycat Theaters - When 'Cathouses Ruled California" -- for the first time, the detailed inside story of the west coast Pussycat Theater chain of adult moviehouses, which peaked in the '70s but later died out. Told by those who actually ran the theaters!
CHECKOUT SIX NEW SARA WATKINS TRACKS
Nickel Creek songwriter/fiddler Sara Watkins has released her debut self-titled solo album (Nonesuch Records), with six new tracks available for preview on her MySpace page. According to Watkins, "It’s an all-star recording start top finish, produced by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and featuring Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, and Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg."
Her album also features Nickel Creek bandmates Chris Thile and Sean Watkins. Cover songs on the album include tunes by Tom Waits ("Pony"), Jon Brion ("Same Mistakes"), Jimmie Rodgers ("Any Old Time"), and Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub.
So how weird is the John Paul Jones angle? "It’s a polar opposite connection," says local music historian Bart Mendoza, "but Jones has previously worked with another artist with San Diego connections, Diamanda Galás."
Watkins' new group the Scrolls includes her brother Sean, as well as Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), Davy Faragher (Cracker), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello’s Attractions), Greg Leisz, and Luke Bulla.
NEW INTERVIEW - WENDY BAILEY
Pop Rocks: Wendy Bailey is an old-fashioned pop songstress with a big splashy sound akin to, say, Carole King or Sheryl Crow. “Most of my songs are short, sweet, and full of jangly pop hooks,” says Bailey... ( More Pop Rocks )
ROCK 'N' ROLL COMICS: THE INSIDE STORY - In 1989, local Revolutionary Comics ("Unauthorized And Proud Of It") launched Rock 'N' Roll Comics, featuring unlicensed biographies of rock stars, most of which I wrote. Some performers, like Frank Zappa and Kiss, were supportive, while others like New Kids On The Block considered our comics akin to bootlegs and sued. In June 1992, publisher Todd Loren was found dead in his San Diego condo, brutally murdered...
THE KOMPLETE KISS KOMIX KRONICLES - Comprehensive collection of stuff I’ve done about working with Kiss on a comic book series, along with a bunch of never-before-seen artifacts from the Kiss Komix archives AND an article by Kiss comic author Spike Steffenhagen, offering his own very-different take, ala Rashomon, on the same events I describe in my essay...
WHITE GOLD VS MILEY AND THE JONAS BROTHERS
The most famous music act among local kids may not be the Jonas Brothers OR Miley Cyrus, but rather White Gold and the Calcium Twins.
The Spinal Tap-esque glam rockers, created for the iconic “Got Milk?” advertising campaign, are featured on over 750,000 school book covers being distributed free throughout local school systems, in hopes of keeping textbooks in good shape for future students. White Gold’s spandex-clad singer plays a milk-filled guitar and encourages milk consumption in a series of humorous ads, alongside two soulful female black singers.
So who is White Gold? The California Milk Processor Board (CMBP) declines to say, and there’s no hint on their website or on the White Gold site, whose url simply states “[www]WhiteGoldIsWhiteGold.” The CMPB is funded by a coalition of California milk processors, and administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
However, with the help of Dialed-In Rosie at
http://www.sddialedin.com , I managed to find the man behind the “luxurious white mane” himself, the elusive (and entirely fictional) White Gold ------
White Gold is played by Joe Hursley, vocalist for the Ringers. The raunchy L.A. rockers are known for songs like “Beaver Fever,” “Backseat Lover,” “Moan N' Bitch,” and “Tokyo Massage.”
White Gold’s music is performed by Detroit-based Electric Six, whose own tracks include “I Buy the Drugs,” “Feed My F-ckin’ Habit,” “Sexy Trash,” and “Gay Bar Pt. 2.”
Most San Diego public school administrators are likely unaware of those raunchy band connections to the massive book cover distribution.
“The students are really amused by White Gold,” said Heidi Anderberg, administrator at San Diego’s Sarah Anthony School. “The band is really funny, and it gets your attention. Plus, you can’t help but enjoy the group’s lyrics about the benefits to milk.”
In a phone interview, “White Gold,” aka Joe Hursley, said “I improvised almost all of the promos they recorded…I was saying stuff like ‘Yeah, I like to inject my balls with meth,’ and they were just shaking their heads, like, ‘no way can we use that.’”
“I’m actually an actor too, so that was part of what attracted me to the role of White Gold, but it’s not exactly what I want to be known for. I don’t think many people would just see me [as White Gold] and automatically recognize who I really am.”
So is that milk-filled guitar that he plays for real?
“Nah, that piece of sh-t was leaking milk all over the place. There weren’t any electronics hooked up to it or anything. But it looked pretty good, huh?”
The “Calcium Twins” who sing and pretend to play bass and drums in the White Gold spots are actually Sonya and Sabrina Millen, a soul duo known as the Millen Sisters. “We auditioned to a rock song singing and dancing,” the sisters said in an email interview. “We’re in talks now to shoot the second phase of the campaign, hopefully to be released in 2009.”
The schoolbook covers have brought the Millen Sisters a whole new fan base entirely unaware of their real-world act. “We do get recognized from the campaign. Teenagers love it, because it’s different and fun.”
The Millens and Hursley confirm that, in light of White Gold’s popularity, there have been talks of a concert tour in 2009. With millions of YouTube plays for their videos, it could be the most successful imaginary TV commercial band concert tour since The Archies (unless you count the current incarnation of Kiss, with imposters dressed as Peter and Ace).
That is, unless the Free Credit Report.Com band gets out on tour first -----
Me, I love the White Gold Videos – they remind me of both the worst ‘70s rock opera-inspired movies (The Apple, Lizstomania, 20th Century Oz) and the best (Tommy, Phantom of the Paradise), with hysterical Spinal Tap touches and some impressively produced anthem-like tunes. Think Zappa-Meets-Grand-Funk, as produced by Jim “Meat Loaf” Steinman ----
I give each vid a four-finger salute and recommendation ------ this first song, “Is It Me, Or Do You Love My Hair” is our profile song at http://www.myspace.com/sandiegoreadermusic.
The milk-filled guitar, “One Gallon Axe” – checkout the totally authentic Sly and the Family Stone groove, with Captain Beefheart-style vocals!
“Tame the White Tiger” – how can you beat a milk river, “provocative pumas,” and guitar licks played with bare feet! Note that he sings about how milk turns you into “a sexy beast” – if you check the lyrics at the White Gold website, the Milk Council wrote the lyric as “healthy beast,” so this version appears to be one of Hursely’s improvisations slipping thru the cracks. “Hey, kids, drink your milk and be a SEXY BEAST!” Yeah, I notice weird sh-t -----
THE DAY NIRVANA PLAYED OFF THE RECORD: 10-24-91 - Detailed feature on Nirvana playing a tiny local record store, just as their first album was hitting the charts, featuring interviews with OTR staffers, rare video footage of the event, and more... http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2007/sep/03/the-day-nirvana-played-at-off-the-record
THE DAY JIMI HENDRIX CAME TO TOWN - 5-24-69: From my extensive interviews with Hendrix bassist Noel Redding, here's the inside scoop on a legendary (and highly bootlegeed) local concert... http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2007/sep/03/the-day-jimi-hendrix-came-to-town
THE DAY BEACH BOY BRIAN WILSON GOT BUSTED IN BALBOA PARK: In June 1978, Brian Wilson - without telling his wife or fellow bandmembers - decided (inexplicably) to escape his life entirely and hitchhike to Mexico. He wound up in San Diego a few days later, mentally fogged, barefoot, and unwashed. “He was on a binge," according to Stephen Love, brother of Beach Boy Mike Love and sometime-band manager..... http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2007/sep/18/the-day-beach-boy-brian-wilson-got-busted
THE DAY THE MONKEES TURNED DEL MAR INTO CLARKSVILLE: 9-11-66 -
WHY MEXICANS HATED ELVIS: May 1959: While Elvis Presley’s popularity in the U.S. was arguably at its all-time peak, Mexico was in the midst of a huge anti-Elvis backlash. Tijuana tabloids called him a racist and homosexual, after the singer reportedly told gossip columnist Federico de León "I'd rather kiss three black girls than a Mexican." A Mexican woman in the same column was quoted saying "I'd rather kiss three dogs than one Elvis Presley”..... http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2007/sep/13/why-mexicans-hated-elvis-plus-celeb-sighting/
Like this blog? Here are some related links:
OVERHEARD IN SAN DIEGO - Several years' worth of this comic strip, which debuted in the Reader in 1996: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/overheard-san-diego/
FAMOUS FORMER NEIGHBORS - Over 100 comic strips online, with mini-bios of famous San Diegans: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/famous-former-neighbors/
SAN DIEGO READER MUSIC MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/sandiegoreadermusic
JAY ALLEN SANFORD MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/jayallensanford