Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
Lil' Paul Williams (who made Kensington history in 1983) is STILL ALIVE!
New documentary reminds that the tiny songwriter was a gigantic music AND movie star.
If you were around in the 1970s, and even if you weren't, you probably know Paul Williams. He wrote classic songs like “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Evergreen" and “The Rainbow Connection" and acted on countless TV shows (as well as playing himself on the Odd Couple), starring in (and often scoring for) perennial cult "classics" like Ishtar the Brian De Palma rock opera Phantom of the Paradise.
And then, he disappeared.
Quite by accident, lifelong Williams fan and director Stephen Kessler set out to make a documentary about his childhood idol, who he had assumed to be dead. Instead, he found Williams very much alive.
But when Kessler approached Williams with his plan, the reclusive songmaster wasn’t interested at all. With Kessler never giving up, and Williams always trying to get away from the camera and coaxing Kessler from behind the lens to become a part of the story, the results are a documentary that is more like a buddy comedy than a "whatever happened to," both funny and moving.
Paul Williams Still Alive is both a pop-culture flashback filled with great television and performance clips, and the humorous journey of an awkward documentarian and his reluctant -- and reflective -- subject.
It ultimately evolves into the touching tale of a man who has made peace with the beast that fame and celebrity awoke.
The hit songs that Williams wrote dominated the charts and became staples, including Three Dog Night’s “An Old Fashioned Love Song”; The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun”; "Evergreen" from the Barbra Streisand version of A Star is Born; and “Rainbow Connection,” performed by Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie.
This brand new song and video by Williams, "Still Alive" (which just debuted on YouTube this week) featured him reflecting back on his amazing career, set to a jaw-dropping collection of his TV and movie clips. It reminds of just how many productions Williams appeared in, from Smokey and the Bandit and Planet of the Apes through countless visits to game show land and Johhny Carson's couch, and even (forever cementing his pop culture cred) the Muppet Show.
Besides writing the still-popular scores for Bugsy Malone and other movies, he did music for the infamous Warren Beatty/Dustin Hoffman flop Ishtar, with the hapless duo playing failed songwriter-performers. For the score, Williams wrote songs that were intentionally awful, yet totally endearing.
“Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand. If you admit that you play the accordion, no one will hire you in a rock and roll band...”
Williams pulled off perhaps his most successful and memorable role as the villainous Swan in Phantom of the Paradise (which Williams also co- scored and sang in). The film merges The Phantom of the Opera and Faust into the world of glam rock while telling the story of a songwriter who seeks revenge on a malicious music mogul (Williams), gleefully spoofing the corporate world of the recording industry.
San Diego, it turns out, plays an important role in the story of this cult classic. On July 29, 1983, the Ken Cinema in Kensington hosted the first known “shadowcast” fan participation performance at a Paradise screening. Here's the actual Ken flyer from that month:
On July 29th, 1983, the Paul Williams rock musical played on a double bill with the Rocky Horror semi-sequel Shock Treatment. Later the same night at midnight, Rocky Horror screened, for quite a few of the same people who’d come for the earlier double feature ----
I saw this screening shortly after I moved to a place near the theater. There were people dressed as characters from both films, miming in front of the screen - I've always been under the impression several or most of them were also Rocky Horror "cast" members, as I recognized a few from the midnight shows.
There were more of them during Shock than Phantom, and there was more choreography for Shock, but their attempts to start audience chant-alongs were pitiful, as they seemed to be the only people there who'd seen the film (such as it was).
The Phantom phans had some good costuming but I think they only stood up and mimed during the musical numbers. I wish I could remember if their Phoenix did the Chicken Dance, but I wasn't paying much attention to them - the word that comes to mind is "halfhearted," that's what the performances seemed to be.
They weren't getting cheered or accompanied, so they just kind of awkwardly stood up once in awhile, acted odd, and either sat back down or wandered off. A few great costumes tho –
My most distinct memory of the evening is when my date and I first walked past the ticket booth and into the theater. We hadn't even got past the snack bar yet, and a guy dressed as Winslow/Phantom came swooping down the velvet trim staircase, leaping over the rail and making a spectacular entrance to oohs and ahhs, and then running off into the theater all squirrelly, as if being pursued.
I remember my date and I said "Whoa, this could be pretty cool!" But, inside the screening room, it never again hit that high, at least for the two of us -----
One of the local newpapers (and probably the Reader) had an ad for this screening that read "Come dressed as your favorite character" or something akin - big Rocky fans, that's what got our interest.
How do I KNOW the Ken screening was probably the world’s first Phantom shadowcast? Because that’s what I’m told by Ari, the ultimate Phantom of the Paradise fan, expert, archivist, and convention promoter ----
Ari runs a Phantom website, http://www.swanarchives.org , with an amazing collection of material including long-lost outtakes.
“What you witnessed,” he tells me, “may well have been the first - and possibly only - instance of anyone shadowcasting this particular film prior to 2007, when it was ill-advisedly done at a Rocky Horror convention of some kind, by people who -- apparently mistakenly -- believed themselves to have been the first to ruin the Phantom experience for onlookers in this manner.”
Ari is the first person to make me aware of the term “shadowcast.” “I didn't invent the term, though I may be responsible for (mis)using it as a verb. I think the Rocky Horror people describe their casts as ‘shadow casts,’ and I appreciate the double meaning there, that they cast shadows on the screen, as they shadow the movements of the authentic cast. It seems like a pretty good term to me.”
“In my experience,” says Ari, “while people often went to Phantom screenings in costume, Phantom shadowcasting Was Not Done. It makes sense, to a degree, for Rocky: They're going to the same film week after week, everybody there has seen it a hundred times, and you're not going to miss anything you haven't seen before if a bunch of narcissists are clomping around on the stage in their mothers' underwear blocking your view of the screen."
"But Phantom is shown theatrically so rarely - and, historically was shown so rarely - that I think people who went actually wanted to see the movie, and they would've been upset at the interference from the shadowcasters. I know I would…it seems rude, self-involved, and disrespectful to me, as well as alarmingly similar to mime.”
While theatrical screenings of Phantom are quite rare, this wasn’t always the case in San Diego. In fact, our city may well be the biggest hotbed of Phantom Phandom outside of Winnipeg, Canada (where the movie somewhat mysteriously sold out theaters for months, much later prompting the cast to attend Phan conventions there).
(Original poster art by comic book star Neal Adams and final version by Richard Corben, courtesy http://www.swanarchives.org)
Phantom of the Paradise made its theatrical premiere on Halloween, 1974.
One full year later, on 10-31-75, as seen in the above ad from the San Diego Union, Phantom was playing at downtown’s Balboa Theater, at the Vogue, at the Village, AND at the Clairemont Theater, as well as at no less than three area drive-ins: the Campus, the Harbor, and the Pacific! (ad courtesy http://www.myspace.com/sandiegocinerama) Seven different San Diego screens, a full year after it had been released!
“I'm amazed that it was playing simultaneously at so many theaters in one town!,” says Ari. “We did the Phantompalooza conventions in Winnipeg, but it sounds like maybe we should have chosen San Diego.”
When Ari and a few other folks put on the Phantompalooza events several years back, the second event was the first time the entire surviving cast had reunited.
“We screened the film; Paul Williams and his band put on a concert and played a bunch of the songs from Phantom, as well as others from Paul's catalog; Jessica Harper, backed by Paul's band, sang 'Old Souls,' the Juicy Fruits -- who had to re-learn their choreography the night before -- sang their three songs backed by a live band, and Gerrit Graham performed 'Life at Last,' which in the film had been dubbed by a guy named Ray Kennedy. We also had the world premiere of the Paradise Regained featurette, from the French special edition Phantom DVD, introduced by its director.”
“It was a blast! We had almost 2,000 in attendance, from all over the world, and the cast was flabbergasted to see that this work they had done 30 odd years ago, which they had thought was forgotten, has been held dear by so many for so long. It turns out that staging the event was the easy part. Much tougher was convincing the cast that we were for real, and not a bunch of nutcases who wanted them to fly to the middle of nowhere in Canada, and that they wouldn't be embarrassed to attend.”
“The most gratifying aspect of the whole thing is that the various cast members, who hadn't seen each other for about 35 years, got to hang out together for a few days, and renewed their friendships. They're now part of one another's lives on a regular basis; some are working on projects together, they're showing up at one another's (second or third!) weddings, socializing together, etc. It’s been very nice to watch, and feel in a small way a part of.”
"And it's slick as snot to be on a first name basis with all the icons of your childhood, too; can't forget that!”
There were three separate Phantompaloozas, each a year apart. “The first had Bill Finley (the Phantom) and Gerrit Graham (Beef),” says Ari. “The second had the entire cast; and the last, which was really intended just for locals, was essentially the DVD release party for the DVD-set.”
Recently added to the Swan Archives are bits of exclusive long-lost footage from the film, never before seen by the public, including deleted footage that had to be removed because of Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song record label threatening to sue over the movie’s villain Swan using the same name for his nefarious tune factory.
Amazing stuff - you can find it here:
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