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Friday, September 17, 2010

Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts & Patsy Kelly - Girls Gone Wild, Thirties Edition

When Turner Classic Movies aired their annual "Sunmer Under The Stars" festival they did something unusual this year: among the 24 hour programming devoted to Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Gregory Peck they devoted an entire day's programming to Thelma Todd. A true testament to TCM's dedication to esoterica when it feels the inspiration, a marathon of shorts featuring Thelma and her partners ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly were aired, amply demonstrating what a great comedy team they were.

The Thelma Todd comedy shorts produced by Hal Roach were brilliant because the comedy was always feminine. The girls never butched it up to prove they can goof it up like the guys. Many of the comedic situations were as ladylike as they get: they played department store models, switchboard operators, maids, airline stewardesses, etc. Shit Dean & Jerry, Groucho, Harpo & Chico, etc. couldn't do. And there was no skimping on the sex appeal, either. In the short "Show Business" the big punch line was Thelma having her dress ripped off her - steamy stuff for its time. Because Hal Roach produced the shorts they had the same script and production quality that the Laurel & Hardy shorts had. A few of their regular support players like Billy Gilbert starred in them, too.

In "Bargain of The Century" the girls duke it out with old biddies at a department store fire sale with hilarious results. They fight over clothes they don't even want, crazy chicks. "Asleep In The Feet" is also a great short where Thelma and ZaSu play taxi dancers stuck with geeky guys that have all the dance tickets in the world. Yuck! "On The Loose" has the girls dating the biggest losers with the short ending them on a blind date with two new guys - Laurel and Hardy.

By mid-1933 ZaSu left the team and Patsy Kelly took her place. Kelly was the opposite of Pitts' character: where ZaSu was passive in a Stan Laurel-kind of way, Patsy was cast as a fiery Irish party girl who never turned down a drink. In "Beauty and The Bus" Thelma and Patsy win a car in a movie theater raffle and drive it recklessly down the road, driving traffic cops crazy. In "Babes In The Goods" the girls work in the lingerie section of a department store, Patsy barely maintaining her cool with obnoxious matronly customers.

Two years later Thelma Todd died mysteriously inside a car parked in a garage with the motor running, death from carbon monoxide poisoning. To this day no one knows who killed her, but the garage belonged to the ex-wife of the film director she was seeing. Sounds like murder to me. She was only 29 years old with over 120 movies and short features under her belt.

ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly both enjoyed long, successful careers after working in the 38 shorts they made with Thelma. ZaSu was a star even before she teamed up with Thelma, and ironically may have achieved cinema immortality in her only dramatic role playing McTeague's wife in Erich Von Stroheim's "Greed". Patsy also did her best work in drama (!) playing a nurse in Sam Fuller's "The Naked Kiss" and a witch in "Rosemary's Baby". Take it from me, the next time you see a TCM listing for a Thelma Todd-ZaSu Pitts or Thelma Todd-Patsy Kelly comedy don't pass it up. It's the best unknown slapstick you've ever seen.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The 1974 Creem Glam Rock Issue

The groupie phenomenon was still going strong in the 1970's, still colorful because the glitter rock scene gave it a strong fashion base to work with. No offense to the girls pictured above but I only recognize the first girl (Lori Mattix) and the third girl (don't know her name) from the Rodney's English Disco days. The other two don't look familiar at all. Maybe the other two spent more time at The Continental Hyatt House on Sunset Blvd. where all the big budget hyped bands (Led Zeppelin/Roxy Music/The Kinks) stayed. The bands that didn't get a big promo push (The Stooges/Suzi Quatro) stayed at The Tropicana on Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood.

Johnny Thunders' #1 girlfriend from Hollywood was Sable Starr. She was very cool and seemed pretty loyal to him at the time (1974). They got a lot of publicity together. David Johansen's girlfriend was Cyrinda Foxe, another colorful blonde. Leee (three e's) Black Childers used to photograph them quite a bit for Rock Scene Magazine and Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine.

Here's the glam spread for Creem Magazine: click on the image to see it closer. This was a four page report, but on this page you'll see Sparks, Roxy Music, Little Richard, Michael Des Barres, Bette Midler, Gary Glitter, David Bowie, The GTO's (last month's blog!), The Wackers, The Harlots of 42nd Street, William S. Burroughs, and four guys from England who look like Ted Koppel.

I remember seeing Silverhead at The Starwood in 1974. The singer was Michael Des Barres, a very attractive Nordic looking model-type. His band got a lot of flack for their album cover, "16 and Savaged". They were okay, nothing special. Mr. Des Barres married Miss Pamela from The GTO's, later joined Power Station, and then embarked on a great acting career, starring as a villain on "Melrose Place" and appearing in cool movies like "Sugar Town" and "Mulholland Drive".

Alice Cooper did a fabulous photo spread in Creem Magazine touring all the hot spots of Hollywood. Here he is pictured in front of The Classic Cat on the Sunset Strip, which was formerly Jerry Lewis' club which he opened to compete with his former partner Dean Martin who had the more successful Dino's Lodge. The Classic Cat later became a Tower Records Video Store. Not much to say about Alice Cooper, other than his best work was about to be behind him, just like this marquee.

I remember when The Dolls played a top-secret show at Rodney's English Disco: first Jerry Nolan came in and was very down-to-earth, no rock star attitude at all. Great guy. A half-hour later Arthur "Killer" Kane came in with his people and damn, he was tall. Sylvain Sylvain (Isaac Mizrahi's cousin!) came in a little bit later and giggled a lot. BUT - BUT - When *** Johnny *** came in all the groupies standing around the club dropped everything, stopped talking among themselves and primped like crazy as soon as they saw him. You could have heard a pin drop. He was clearly the star of the band.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Love It To Death

It’s ironic that a group of wholesome Catholic school boys from Arizona would form a band called Alice Cooper and manage to push every religious button possible. With song titles like “Second Coming”, “Hallowed Be My Name”, and “Dead Babies”, to this day they still render efforts from lesser talents like Marilyn Manson as ineffectual.

I caught Alice Cooper at The Hollywood Bowl on the “School’s Out” tour (1972) with the opening act being Flo & Eddie, the “200 Motels”-era Mothers without Frank Zappa. It was a great show and didn’t lack a milligram of drama, not always by the hand of Alice and his amazing friends. As my friend and I ran up the hill to get to the show there were scores of Jesus Freaks hanging around the not-so-pearly-gates of The Hollywood Bowl. Guys brandishing Bibles, grabbing you, “Please, I beg of you, DO NOT GO IN, Alice Cooper is Satan, an agent of evil, pray with me”.
“Gotta go! I wanna hear Under My Wheels!”

Next guy, this one with tears in his eyes, “Beware of false idols like Alice Cooper, you need Jesus Christ, The World’s Greatest Rock Star, as it is written in Corinthians 5:16, BLAHBLAHBLAH!”
“Let go, I wanna see Alice in a guillotine!”
“Jesus died for your sins, Alice Cooper will make you sin and sin again!”
“God bless Alice Cooper!”

The show was so not evil, in fact it was silly, the band did a goofy “West Side Story” routine on stage pantomiming a knife fight, almost as gay as Russ Tamblyn with his pants pulled down. But it was still priceless rock trash!

One of the highlights of the show was a helicopter flying over The Bowl dropping more of those crazy panties you got with the album (made of the same material as Handi-Wipes). Jesus Christ on a helicopter!


In the late Eighties/early Nineties all the rock drama took place at Hully Gully Rehearsal Studios in Silver Lake. No night club or rock star hangout could compete with the overall dementia that went down there. My band Trash Can School rehearsed every Sunday night in Room 1 with The Nymphs in Room 2 and The Cramps in Studio B. I remember one night when The Cramps rehearsed “Shortenin’ Bread” over and over again. You’d hear them playing just the intro for half an hour, then the full song for another 30 and then they’d take a much deserved break and back to that cycle again. I think they threw in “Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?” and a fast version of “Heartbreak Hotel” and boom! they were out of there. Lux in sunglasses paced the office snapping his fingers while Ivy, also in sunglasses paid for the room and set up the next rehearsal booking. This was around midnight, of course.

Sam Kinison was a regular there, too, coming in with his entourage, some of them genuine metal guys, some struggling comics, and others just drug flunkies. Since rehearsal time is paid for in blocks of three hours it was safe to say that perhaps thirty minutes of those three hours was spent with music coming out of the room and the other two-and-a-half with partying. Since Hully Gully was an anonymous, unmarked building straight off Interstate 5 it was probably easier to party at than at his home. The struggling comics that would hang out with him were by and large the angriest, most humorless fucks I’ve ever met. And fucking ugly, too.

But it got darker, too. A very famous metal band I can’t mention, here’s a clue, it rhymes with M*gaD*th booked Studio A. The leader of the band was prone to getting into knock-down, drag-out fights with the other band members. You could hear them screaming in the other room and these rooms were pretty sound-proofed. This band leader, we’ll call him MegaPoodle Hair, had a tendency to freebase and hang out in the room after rehearsals. One night a new attendant went in to clean up the room and lock up when MegaPoodle Hair nervously approached him with a gun aimed at his head. “Fuck you man, get out, you ain’t rippin’ us off I’ll blow your fuckin’ head off”. The poor kid freaked out and ran out letting MegaPoodle Hair twitch it out for the rest of the night.

Of course this drama was eclipsed by the even bigger drama that was Jabber Jaw, the little coffee house that became a night club. The second home to Courtney Love, The Dwarves and Kurt (“I’m famous leave me alone”) Cobain, Hully Gully’s drama couldn’t stand a chance.


Silent movies mean couples, and lots of them. When I attended the Silent Movie Theatre in 1981 I was always greeted by The Hamptons, an elderly couple that ran the theatre. Mrs. Hampton took tickets and sold candy, while Mr. Hampton ran the films in the projection booth and occasionally checked the facility while the movie was playing. Another couple I always ran into was John Doe and Exene of X, fresh from the popularity of their album “Wild Gift”. We attended the movies every Monday night and sometimes they would drag Billy Zoom or D.J. Bonebrake with them. It was cool.

The Silent Theatre was one of the most primitive theater-going experiences ever: A crudely painted sign on paint-peeling wood –black on white, natch with a panel missing – spelled THE SILENT THE- and that was it. The front didn’t have lobby cards but a simple ink drawing of Charlie Chaplin with a few quaint stills of The Keystone Cops, Laurel and Hardy and Tom Mix. The front door had a little booth, you walked through and a tiny wet bar served as a snack bar. The staircase leading upstairs had a locked door because the Hamptons lived upstairs. On a clear day you could see their apartment window from Fairfax High across the street. The theatre itself was fairly Spartan: hard wooden seats, minimal lighting, and canned hot Twenties jazz playing during the movies unless it was a class picture, then they’d pipe in some Tchaikovsky. The bathroom in the “lobby” was a tiny water closet, only big enough to fit one ass at a time.

The Silent Theatre played the same program all week long except Sundays (closed) and admission was only $2, a steal even back then. It didn’t help much to bolster business, though, because the theatre was pretty dead on Mondays. The Hamptons’ film library was healthy so there wasn’t much in the way of repetition: a few silent cartoons (Felix The Cat – he didn’t talk and had no magic bag), some comedy shorts and then the main feature, Chaplin, Keaton, Gish, Barrymore, not a lot of oaters (cowboy movies) and not a lot of foreign shit. They might have played “The Golem” a week before Rosh Hashanah, but that’s it. Right before Christmas they played “King of Kings” and come Halloween you could count on Lon Chaney ruling the roost.

A few years later a new guy, Laurence Austin, showed up at the theatre helping out and running things because Mr. Hampton was in the hospital, and I remember him as a pretty friendly guy. He was also instrumental in getting investors for the theatre for some way overdue upgrades and had the admission price raised ($5 – sacrilege!). Nobody minded paying more because the theatre was much loved. I stopped going there after awhile because better prints were being shown at LACMA, The New Beverly Theatre, etc. VHS and DVD made the scene, too. In 1996 Mr. Austin was shot to death inside the theatre by a hitman hired by Austin’s projectionist/lover who was allegedly promised a $1 million inheritance.

Nowadays if I want to see an awesome silent film I’ll catch it on Turner Classic Movies. The last one I saw was a film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Magician”, brilliant stuff and not available on DVD.