Celebs Behaving Badly | Burbank Edition

This is an installment in a series of personal memoirs. See Celebs Behaving Badly and Celebs Behaving Badly: CalArts Edition.

Copyright © 2016 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

The gate at The Burbank Studios in 1976.

The gate at The Burbank Studios in 1976. Copyright © 2011 Seeing-Stars.com

Have you ever been to Burbank? Yikes! I spent some quality time there, back in ye olden days before it was a place where anyone actually wanted to live.

Remember The Burbank Studios, the place owned by Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros.? Lotta big TV shows and movies shot there. Once upon a time you could just walk in there armed with nothing but attitude. I did, repeatedly. There’s no better entertainment for free.

Security was indifferent and that place was porn to me. Stars everywhere! I even talked to some without them running away.

Wally World

One time I went to The Burbank Studios with my friend Wendy when she visited me in L.A. Neither of us had any money and we were looking for some cheap fun, so we drove straight to The Burbank Studios.

We parked on the street and headed for the gate. Wendy, never the brightest bulb on the tree, was skeptical that two derps like us could just, you know, walk into a place like that. She was from East Saint Louis, where the only hot stuff was burning tenements. “Just act like you own the place,” I told her.

As if on cue, Buddy Hackett walked past us and we coolly annexed the ass end of his entourage. The guards looked up long enough to be unimpressed before going back to their crossword puzzles.

We were in! We wandered over to the Western town, rubbernecking and smacking into things all the way. A TV show was shooting on Laramie Street.

Laramie Street

Laramie Street

We stood on the wooden porch of a fake building, watching Blythe Danner pretend to have a Wild West snitty fit.

Danner was so adorable, the director felt bad about telling her she wasn’t acting petulant enough. There was laughter while they redid the scene a few times. When she finally got it right, the crew applauded. Where do I get a job like that?

So Wendy and I were intently watching this drama-within-a-drama when some guy sidled up to us on our fake porch and hit on us. Actually, he was pretty cute and very nice. He was actually Richard Thomas. Turns out the shoot we were watching was “The Waltons.”

Thomas tried really hard to befriend us. We kind of just went “uh huh, uh huh” and ignored him, being fixated on the bullshit happening across the fake street. I felt guilty about it later. But he made our trip. Thank you, John-Boy.

john-boy

Norm Alden

Norm Alden

The Girl From S.T.U.P.I.D.

Norm Alden was a prolific character actor in Hollywood. You’ve seen him a million times. He was in everything. Back to the Future, K-Pax, Ed Wood, They Live, Semi-Tough, Tora! Tora! Tora!, “Mod Squad,” “My Three Sons,” “Falcon Crest,” “Mary Hartman,” “The Streets of San Francisco,” even “Gunsmoke” and “Lassie” for chrissakes.

I was lucky that he was a family friend. He and my dad were old pals. They once trespassed on Rudy Vallee’s estate to pilfer grapefruits.

Norm was a sweetie pie who overpaid me to babysit his smart, well-behaved kids in the Beverly Hills house exquisitely decorated by his hot wife, Sharon. How does this even happen?

For some reason Norm liked taking me with him to The Burbank Studios to shmooze peeps for work when he was between jobs. He knew everyone. We always cruised right through the front gate without stopping.

One of the times we went there, Norm and I invaded the commissary. It was jam packed with celebrities. Norm saw someone he wanted to remind that he was alive, so he parked me with a friend while he waded into the abyss to do what he had to do. I was drinking age by then, almost, and really didn’t need protecting, but Norm figured my dad would blow a gasket if I was kidnapped on his watch by B-movie Martians or whatever.

blazing-saddles-pie-fight-1372273854567193_animate

Anyway, this fellow Norm left me with was just another one of his showbiz buds. No big deal. To Norm. But when he introduced me to Fred Koenekamp, my jaw fell on the ground and stayed there.

Fred Koenekamp is a god! He was the director of cinematography for “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” my favorite TV show (also the cinematographer for Patton, Papillon, Billy Jack, and The Amityville Horror). Me, I was his biggest fan.

He obviously didn’t think of himself as a superstar with fans. He spent our whole time together looking around uncomfortably, and I blew my once-in-a-lifetime opp by saying… absolutely nothing. I couldn’t even manage “U.N.C.L.E.’s my favorite show! I love your work!” As I said: Jaw. Floor. Fred was awfully happy when Norm returned to relieve him from guard duty.

Fred Koenekamp

Fred J. Koenekamp and Franklin J. Schaffner in Papillon (1973)
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images – © 2011 Getty Images

Fried Grasshopper to Go

Another time Norm took me to The Burbank Studios with my sister. She was a huge fan of the TV show “Kung Fu.” Norm knew all those guys, too. Next thing we know, we’re piling into a car with Norm and a show exec and David Carradine, the star.

Let me just clarify here that my sister would’ve cleaned Carradine’s shoes with her tongue. Also, it never occurred to her that Carradine (who tried to kill Gene Clark at Clark’s funeral) might in reality not be the uber-spiritual Kwai Chang Caine, he just played one on TV.

Okay. So we’re slaloming through legendary Hollywood backlots in a fancy car with my sister’s all-time number-one idol, David Fucking Carradine. While the adults sat in the front seat talking business, Carradine twisted all the way around to look at me and my sister in the back. By which I mean he nailed us with a horrifying, drug-fueled, crazyass bug-eyed stare that terrified my sister to her core. She never spoke of him again.

Caine finally gets some.

Caine finally gets some. Lionsgate © 2009

What’s in the Box of Sorrows, Jay?

Long ago, in a millennium far, far away, I was on the TV show “Let’s Make a Deal.” This happened because my broke friends and I imagined we could make money on game shows. Sure.

My chums Nancy and Don went with me to the NBC Burbank Studios (different facility from WB’s, same town), where we waited to be inspected on an endless line of idiots in dumb costumes. Of course ours were the best. I think Nancy was a clown and Don’s rig involved an appliance box. I did a Pippi Longstocking thing with my braids and a coat hanger.

Presently a guy walks up, points at me, and barks “You!” The security rope lifted and I ran gleefully down the long sidewalk to the studio door, thinking my friends were right behind me. They weren’t. Nancy and Don were still back behind the rope, making sad faces. I asked someone to let them in with me. He said, “No. Just you.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It was a live taping. I wasn’t chosen for The Big Deal but did score a Quickie Deal. In the last minutes Monty Hall walked straight up to me in the cheap seats. He was orange, which I won’t lie to you was scary. He asked me for my address book. (In ye olden days, people kept addies in little bound books. Everybody had one.) I won something like $5 for every entry in the “S” section. Monty handed me a huge wad of cash. I was thrilled!

As soon as he left, someone ran up and snatched the cash from my hand. “We’ll mail it to you,” he said and scrammed.

I was utterly deflated. And broke again. And now Nancy and Don were REALLY mad.

Eventually the show did mail me a check (it was maybe $60, but $60 bought a month’s groceries back then). Nancy and Don forgave me. And I saw myself on TV. And all I could think was “Ugh! I look like that?”

Ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille. © 2016 Sydney Schuster

Ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille. © 2016 Sydney Schuster

Burbank updates:

🐀 Norm Alden did get a part in “Kung Fu,” as Sheriff Crossman in the episode “The Praying Mantis Kills.”

🐀 A millennium later I tried to friend Fred Koenekamp on Facebook. He blew me off. In his defense, he’s about 120 years old.

🐀 Sadly, Laramie Street was razed in 1993 to build offices and a parking lot. “There’s really a squeeze on parking,” explained the supervisor of Warner’s studio tour.

🐀 David Carradine was arrested for assaulting a police officer in the 1950s, for shoplifting and pot possession in the 1960s, for burglary in the 1970s, and for pot possession and DUI in the 1980s. At Gene Clark’s funeral in 1991, Carradine drunkenly attacked Clark’s corpse and screamed at it before being dragged out. In 1994 he was arrested in Toronto for kicking down a door at a Rolling Stones concert. A woman he assaulted in 1974 while high on peyote sued him for $1.1 million. He died in 2009 from autoerotic asphyxiation.

Text and images not otherwise credited: Copyright © 2016 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! Thanks.

DEAD SPOT on AmazonSydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Jody Whitesides | Just Looking for Some Touch

Jody Whitesides

If you haven’t heard of Jody Whitesides yet, well, you have now. And you’ll be hearing more.

At first glance he could be one of those Renaissance multi-hyphenates you love to hate — artist-producer-athlete-businessman-Josh Hartnett stand-in — and then you can’t, because he’s just so damned talented and funny. Politically savvy, too. Plus he bakes. Bakes! Scratch bread, scratch brownies, scratch pizza. I am not making this up.

Yeah, the guy totally cooks. Whitesides is a musician who plays, sings, writes, and produces. He’s got some cool videos on his website, and publishes his music on Spotify and iTunes. He’s so into process, he even makes instructional tech vids for musicians. And posts crazy gifs and vines on Twitter. That’s where I discovered him. And unlike a lot of popular Tweeps who can’t be bothered, he actually interacts with followers. Which is how I ended up at his website, being impressed enough to write all this.

Whitesides prolifically generates fun music that’s infectiously danceable. And he markets all his product himself, making him kind of a poster child for DIY music career success.

Before roaring off on said music career, Whitesides was a nationally ranked freestyle skier and BMX racer. Swapping his earmuffs for earworms, he went on to lend his voice for backing vocals to the Swedish hard rock band Talisman fronted by Jeff Scott Soto, and played some guitar for NKOTB’s Danny Woods. Whitesides has his own studio where he produced recordings for the comedy rock band Throwing Toasters and bass master Seth Horan, among others.

Until recently his bread and butter was scoring video games and film trailers, and creating anthems for various sports (notably “Do You Want to Play,” for the NFL and NHL) and TV shows (“Nightwatch New Orleans,” “Top Golf,” and Dwayne Johnson’s documentary series, “Hard Corps”).

Sounds like a sensory smorgasbord, right? It kind of is, but the main theme of his musical style is this: Nobody sits. His repertoire is a lush and expansive romp covering a wide swath: techno-dance and retro pop, acoustic and power ballads, and high-energy modern rock.

“I take influences from everything around me,” says Whitesides. He credits his artistic open-mindedness to a music teacher who once told him: “Mediocre artists steal from one source. Great artists steal from many.”

“I’ve held to that maxim,” he says. “No two of my songs are ever exactly alike. And no two people will generally compare me to the same artist. That becomes a Catch 22, but I’m okay with it.”

Whitesides, who claims he didn’t start talking until he was two, has plenty to say on his latest single, “Touch.” I listened to it and it’s tasty; you should too. Then I read his bio. That’s where I learned he’s a New Yorker who’s into bikes. Yo — what’s not to like? So I asked if I could interview him. He said yeah. Here we go!

Touch shoot, from Twitter

Q What’s the story behind Google refusing to advertise “Touch”? Is that specifically “Touch (Explicit)”? That was the best version! I love the Borg dancers.
A The official response was that the content of the video was “Too Adult.” It was for the clean version. I didn’t even bother to try advertising the explicit version. The weird thing is, no one is naked.

Q Your newest song, “Thump Thump Thump” — is it out yet?
A It is not out yet, but will be soon. It will be on Spotify!

Q How many/what kinds of instruments do you play?
A Technically I play about six. But I can pretty much play any stringed instrument in some fashion. Guitar, vocals, bass, mandolin, ukulele, percussion. I futz around on piano, drums, and kazoo.

Q What’s the most memorable gig you ever played?
A One time a group of drunk lesbians jumped up on stage and proceeded to grind all the members of the band. This was after they formally announced themselves while jumping on the bar in the back of the venue. It caused quite a ruckus and was entertaining for the audience. I did have to get them offstage once one of them nearly broke my teeth when she knocked the mic stand into my mouth while I was singing.

Q When you were younger, did your parents believe you’d make a living with music, or did they unsubtly push you in other directions? (Can you tell I hang out with musicians too much?)
A My parents never initially questioned my desire to learn to play. Actually, they supported it, probably because they were both artists of their own right. Commercial illustrator, and interior decorator. The one requirement was to attend college and get a degree. So I did. Then I went to music school. [Berklee College of Music and Musicians Institute] While they’ve never come out against it, there have been times when my mom has questioned if I should continue. The typical subtle hint type of stuff.

Q Major influences?
A Anything and everything I’ve ever heard influences me, for good or bad. While learning to play, I did focus on guitar god-type players — Hendrix, Satriani, Vai, Tabor, Wylde, Bettencourt. Once I graduated from music school, I started concentrating more on song writing. That’s a whole different ballgame from being an awesome guitar player.

Q What’s the best advice you ever got?
A “Never quit.” However, there was a teacher at music school who did say: “Never get a day job! You’ll get too comfortable and music will become secondary.” Sure enough, many friends from music school did end up getting day jobs, got comfortable and quit. I took that to heart. Never got a day job.

Q Share some things on your bucket list.
A Win the WSOP Main Event. Mountain bike the Rockies from Canada to Mexico. Start an annual New Year’s Eve event. Tour all 50 states with my music, then tour the world. Restore an old car. Learn to fly a plane.

Q What kinds of bicycles do you own? Specifics, please. Bike junkies here.
A I have a Specialized mountain bike and a Cannondale EVO road bike. I also have a JMC Black Shadow BMX bike that I used to race as a little kid. The big kid in me still likes to ride it around now and then.

Q The skiing — were you on the national team? Pro sponsored? Spend any time at the Olympic Training Center? (The caf slop! Cement beds! Prisonish WCs… Asking for a wistful ex-USAC official.)
A As a skier I was nationally ranked but never on the U.S. team. I had some sponsors over the course of my competitive skiing career. I’ve been to the OTC, but not to train. I wish I had made that level — I missed it by 1/10th of a point, one place out of making the team.

Q What kinds of goodies do you bake besides brownies and bread? Where did your love of kitchen arts originate?
A My most famous dish would be pizza from scratch. I make the dough, the sauce, and on occasion the cheese as well. I’m much more into cooking. My mom had my sister and I fend for ourselves by having us use recipes out of a children’s cookbook. Mom is an excellent cook too, but wanted us to be self-sufficient in the kitchen. A skill that has certainly impressed members of the opposite sex.

Q Got any pets?
A I do have a dog. His name is Dorian. Many people think he’s named after The Picture of Dorian Gray. He’s really named after a mode of the major scale — Dorian.

Q Desert island, five entertainment must-haves, any media.
A:
1. A guitar, to allow me to entertain myself with writing songs.
2. An internet connection.
3. From #2, I’ll be able to watch movies.
4. From #2, I’ll be able to read books.
5. From #2, I’ll be able to listen to other people’s music. 🙂

photog: Brian Gerber

Jody spots the drone bringing his Amazon delivery.

Jody Whitesides’ website: JodyWhitesides.com
Jody Whitesides is on IMDB
Jody Whitesides on Twitter: @JodyWhitesides
Studio photographs © 2016 Brian Gerber
Twitter photograph © 2016 Jody Whitesides
Everything else here Copyright © 2016 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

guitars

I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! Thanks.

DEAD SPOT on AmazonSydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Celebs Behaving Badly | CalArts Edition

This is an installment in a series of inconsequential but entertaining dish. See Celebs Behaving Badly and Celebs Behaving Badly: Burbank Edition.

Copyright © 2016 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

I went to California Institute of the Arts. It’s an experience I can’t believe I survived. They really didn’t care what anyone did as long as no one got killed.

Giant penis graduates from CalArts. Copyright © 1976, © 2016 Brian Bailey

Monkey Business
My friend Diane Buckler was a raving beauty and inveterate people collector. (Also a damn fine photographer and barrel of fun. She once dragged me to a Holiday Inn disco in King of Prussia, which we turned inside out. They never recovered.)

One of Diane’s gazillion friends was kin of Groucho Marx — I forget which one, probably his grandnephew Gregg Marx (Gummo’s singer/actor grandson, he starred in “As The World Turns”).

One day this fella took Diane with him to visit Groucho. Old and sick by then, he was still a card-carrying letch. She was shocked when Groucho leered at her and wheezed, “Hey, little girl! Want a CHEESE SANDWICH?” But she laughed so hard about it later, his deathless invitation became her personal catchphrase.

Diane Buckler (right, as her alter ego Adrian) and one of her many friends, Craig (not Gregg). Photo Copyright © 2016 Diane Buckler

Diane Buckler (right, as her alter ego Adrian) and one of her many friends, Craig (not Gregg). Photo Copyright © 2016 Diane Buckler

Children of the Corn
I had the dubious honor of knowing too many children and siblings of famous people. Most were needy, narcissistic whiners accepted by the school because their parents paid cash. You could ignore them, but at your own peril.

Case in point: I was once the object of a masterful defamation campaign orchestrated by the otherwise talent-free spawn of an Oscar winner. Why? Because I made a funny joke about her friend/my roommate who always blabbed nonstop about sex (and was standing right there, btw, blabbing about sex). The joke? It was about how she was always blabbing about sex. Neither they nor any of their zombie pals ever spoke to me again, which was perfect.

Another one of “them” was autistic. By which I mean seriously-fucked-up-Adam-Lanza-autistic. Never spoke to anyone, ever. Except for that one time when a cadre of pompous Disney suits arrived to steal free ideas for DisneyWorld. They called a student assembly and they talked and begged, very self-importantly, to the sound of crickets. Until the autistic guy started yelling every word of the script of Escape to Witch Mountain.

Chris Lemmon was not one of “them.” He was fairly low-key about his lineage. You either knew who he was or you didn’t; Chris never shoved his genealogy in anyone’s face. He was sweet, cute, and unpretentious — all Oh, it’s time to toilet paper the provost’s car? Let’s go! And he could play a piano like he was born doing it.

We had a totally unlicensed bar on campus, Cafe Musique, where he would play and (yes!) read poetry with us generic types.

“We used to do all sorts of illicit things there, not the least of which was my piano playing and incessant yodeling and mauling of perfectly good music,” Chris recalls fondly.

One of Chris’ Cafe Musique partners in crime was my friend Tom Knechtel’s friend Jane Koch Gagle (she runs the Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre now). Tom often created crazyass costumes to use on his art models; he says that one day “I burst into Jane’s dorm room to show her an outfit I’d made,” and unexpectedly found Chris and a stranger standing there. All Tom saw of the stranger was his back, but he panicked. He knew it was Jack Lemmon, and Tom was dressed like a monk, so he fled.

Tom Knechtel became a celebrated West Coast painter and professor at Art Center College of Design. The L.A. Times said he commands “the draftsmanship of the Renaissance masters.” An understatement, IMHO. His wonderful work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco.

Chris Lemmon eventually went into the family business, even though he majored in classical music. It was preordained, I guess, considering he grew up all Hollywoody. I loved his TV show “Duet.” He’s been in tons of movies and TV shows, plus a stage production that he wrote (and composed the piano score for!) called A Twist of Lemmon. It’s based on his literary memoir about his father. Opening in London’s West End soon, too.

Good guys. Good stuff.

Tom Knechtel embraces the monastic life. Photo copyright © 1976 Don Booth

Tom Knechtel contemplates the monastic life. Photo copyright © 1976 2016 Don Booth/Tom Knechtel

Chris Lemmon and a friend. Photo copyright © 2016 Christopher Lemmon

The Fabulous Stains
My dorm suitemate was Megan Anderson, an actor (I think). Megan was constantly screaming at someone, “Don’t call me Meg-un! It’s Meeg-an!”

Don’t-Call-Me-Meg-un had a large collection of Jacques Brel records (quel bore) and a best friend, Randall Edwards (she’s a girl). Randall’s very good friend was Ed Harris (definitely not a girl).

Randall was a crazed Bruce Lee fan. She would frequently explode into my room, ranting passionate declarations of love for Bruce, who alas was unavailable. She was inconsolable when he died without her permission. I finally had to move out of the dorm. Randall became a soap star. Megan’s probably on a street corner, yelling at people.

But back to Ed. He and Randall had no place to go to run lines or whatever, so they often used Megan’s room that adjoined my bathroom, a raging vortex of inappropriate sounds. Ed was no Bruce Lee, but he was certainly one superfine hunk of manflesh. There must’ve been some chopsocky cosplay going on. A lot of weird noises emanated from that place. Also a lot of used condoms.

pollock-poster

Copyright 2000 Sony Pictures Classics

What’s That Smell?
For the six people who don’t already know, CalArts was the brainchild of Walt Disney. Walt, of course, was the Disney family’s visionary; his brother Roy, not so much, and he’s the one everyone got stuck with after Walt died in 1966. There was a terrifying rumor that Roy wanted to monetize CalArts by charging visitors to ride around in trams and watch the artists at work. And if that didn’t pay off, Plan B was to turn the campus into a shopping mall.

The territory was a sump of rich mythology. Like the Mickey Mouse pornos allegedly drawn by Walt himself (which turned out to be real; I saw them). The Holy Grail of CalArts myths, though, is also the creepiest, and in hindsight maybe the easiest to understand. It was rumored that Walt was cryonically preserved when he died, so that he could be revived in the future when a cure for cancer was found. We were always looking around for him. Where better to stash a body than a remote desert locale?

Officially there’s no forensic evidence that Walt’s on ice somewhere. However, there’s this

CalArtian Mark Edward is a professional mentalist, seance performer, and popular television consultant. He says that before Walt died, “there was a lot of conjecture among fans and my fellow magicians about why it was taking so long for Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion to be completed. [Twelve years to design, six more years to build.]

The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland

The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland

“I was going out with a girl whose father owned a top-of-the-line refrigeration company with a lot of government and scientific contracts. One night, when I was at dinner at their house, he took me into another room where he rolled open a blueprint of The Haunted Mansion. He pointed out an area that was curiously set aside from the rest of the ride and marked with a large X. He asked me what I thought of that. He further told me that this particular ‘room’ had its own independent self-sufficient power supply, so that even if the entire city of Anaheim’s power was cut off, this one room would continue to operate.

“Odd, to say the least. It was his job to deliver the tons of high-tech equipment to this site the next day. In one of the strangest dreamlike events I can remember in my ’60s experience, he asked me, ‘Why do you think they need this equipment I’m selling them?’

“I didn’t have a clue, other than maybe it was ‘cold spot’ technology to ‘haunt’ the house. Only years later did I learn from CalArts sources the myth about Walt being frozen. One wag said when I told him, ‘Why not? Walt Disney certainly had the money and the will to do it.'”

Illya-cracy
CalArts rents itself out to a lot of TV shows and movies as a set. Officially the reason is to impart firsthand knowledge to students about TV/film production, but really the school just wants money. One of the shows that shot there was “The Invisible Man” starring David McCallum.

Let me just say this: I adore David McCallum. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is one of my all-time favorite TV shows (I own the entire boxed set), and I never miss  “NCIS.” I watch The Great Escape every time it’s on TV. I’ll even watch that one “Sex And The City” with him in it. Love love loves me some David McCallum!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But back to CalArts. While the alleged purpose of whoring itself out to Hollywood is to provide students with filmcraft knowledge, we were nevertheless banned from “Invisible Man” sets. I guess they were trying to protect their super secret technology from people who were about to make Star Wars: Episode IV and “Star Trek: TNG.” Or maybe McCallum had suffered more than enough frothing teens during his U.N.C.L.E. tenure. Whatever. We never even saw him just walking around the place. I mean, everybody goes to the can sometime, right?

Anyway, one day I learned McCallum was secretly stashed in an empty conference room, secretly waiting to go onto his secret set.

A guerrilla paparazza even back then, I barged in with my Instamatic.

I was shocked to find McCallum alone in the room, sitting quietly in an old lounge chair, wearing the show’s “secret technology” — a Chromakey mummy suit. Basically the same “secret technology” that suffocated original Invisible Man Claude Rains in 1933.

I clicked away at my hapless idol. And then my mummy, David McCallum, spoke to me.

“Your pictures won’t come out without a flash.”

I was ecstatic! And then I fled before someone could throw me out. (And yes, my pictures came out black.)

Bonus points: I also got to meet the legendary Jackie Cooper, who was just walking around the place like a regular person. He played Walter Carlson on the show before Peter Gunn took over the role. Cooper was very kind and nice, although he did have a deer-in-the-headlights look, probably because everyone else wanted to meet him, too, all at the same time. Who wouldn’t?

NASA ain't got nothin' on this.

Above: David McCallum in “The Invisible Man.” Copyright © 1975 Dynamite Magazine

Illya Kuryakin on a mission.

Illya Kuryakin on a mission.

Go to the Head of the Class
New York painter Miriam Schapiro was a cofounder of the CalArts art school and its groundbreaking Feminist Art Program. She’s been called a figurehead of the art world, a feminist pioneer. Actually, her greatest talent was self-promotion.

Mimi definitely was a lot of things, but feminist wasn’t one of them. She was petty and vindictive, and wore her contempt like a mink stole. Her favorite students had parents rich enough to buy her paintings. She was cruel to others entrusted to her tutelage.

Part of her feminist art curriculum was something she called “consciousness raising groups.” In practice they were bully sessions during which entitled girls (they did a lot of self-portraits) brutalized less advantaged ones. Participants would break down in tears while Mimi sat there impassively.

When I was in the Feminist Art Program, I somehow got on Mimi’s shitlist. Without explanation she cut my contribution to the program’s Women’s Art Festival project. The companion book, Anonymous Was a Woman, contains letters from famous artists to Mimi’s students; my name appears in their salutations, otherwise I don’t exist. (The book, which Mimi edited, makes no sense whatsoever. It contains many self-portraits. Also many photographs without captions or proper attribution. Mimi copyrighted everything in her name. At the very end, for any readers still awake, there’s one page perfunctorily thanking everyone who did all the work.)

The project broke to lots of publicity. At the same time, Mimi publicly unveiled a new collection of her own artwork for sale entitled — shocker! —  “Anonymous Was a Woman.”

No one would tell me why I was disowned. I did make the mistake — fatal, in retrospect — of mentioning during group that I’d run out of money. Shortly thereafter Mimi saw me returning from a job interview and insulted my clothing. (Conservative skirt, blouse, low-heeled shoes. She called me a whore. WTF?)

Mimi also tried to keep me from graduating. My transcripts from another college mysteriously disappeared from my record file, and two weeks before graduation I was informed that I suddenly didn’t have enough credits.

To Mimi, her inexcusable behavior was normal and acceptable. No one ever interceded. The school’s president was Bob Fitzpatrick, who later mismanaged EuroDisney into bankruptcy; the dean of Mimi’s department was her husband, the abstract expressionist painter Paul Brach, whose lectures were self-aggrandizing extravaganzas of name dropping. Paul and Bob had other fish to fry.

I never complained formally about Mimi. But others did. A groundswell of unhappy campers easily explains her increasingly disturbing behavior.

There were some students who’d transferred to CalArts to study with artist Judy Chicago, the Feminist Art Program’s original codirector. Chicago had founded the very first Feminist Art Program, a thriving Cal State University enterprise that Mimi hijacked. After enticing Chicago to relocate her program from Fresno to Valencia, Mimi banished Chicago and continued the program solo. Chicago’s students were horrified.

You can read more takes on Mimi’s program here. One student dropped out because “there was too much emphasis placed on group projects and complications. One book was enough.” Another regretted joining because of all the “fights, disagreements, jealousy.” Another learned that “women can be just as exploitative of women as men.” Another said, “we could not get beyond personalities and create a lasting support system.” “It was clear to me,” deadpanned another, “‘artist’ is a dead profession.”

At least 25 percent of the group bailed. One casualty ended up in a sanitarium. Another ended up dead. (Connie Marsh. Google her.) Mimi knew a PR bonanza when she saw one. She invoked Connie’s memory at every opportunity, like a martyred saint. Connie’s photo appeared — right next to Mimi’s — on the cover of Anonymous Was a Woman. Listen, I knew Connie; I liked her. But there were non-dead group members who deserved to be on the cover and weren’t. They found out after the book came back from the printer.

Anonymous Was a Woman book cover

Anonymous Was a Woman book cover

I’m being charitable when I say it’s criminal to subject children to this kind of stress. CalArts must’ve agreed because Mimi and Paul soon hauled ass back to New York.

A couple of years later I ran into Mimi in SoHo. She pretended not to know me. I assumed it was because I wasn’t famous enough to impress her retinue. But later someone in the loop told me I was being punished for daring to quit her worthless program.

Oh. I didn’t reenlist for Part Two of Mimi’s dumb vanity project. Who needs a program about free expression that censors people?

I will say Mimi was a talented artist — also a con artist who hitched her wagon to any horse going in a lucrative direction.

Mimi Schapiro died last year, and some of us didn’t care.

Miriam Schapiro gives a lesson.

Miriam Schapiro gives a lesson.

CalArts extra credit points:

🐀 Judy Chicago retaliated by eclipsing the Feminist Art Program with her masterwork The Dinner Party, and redlining Mimi Schapiro out of documentation of their seminal Womanhouse project. Mimi was entirely edited out of the Womanhouse film by Johanna Demetrakas and completely ignored in Molly Haskell’s Village Voice review of it.

🐀 During a graduation party, CalArts president Bob Fitzpatrick was thrown fully clothed into a pool by the CalArts pottery teacher.

🐀 When Roy Disney died in 1971, the CalArts tourist trams and shopping mall mercifully died with him. Walt’s body is still MIA.

🐀 Bacon points! Ed Harris played Paul Brach’s best drunk friend in Pollock.

🐀 CalArts has a bookstore. I asked them to carry my book Dead Spot. Their response: “Fuck no! Please check the box indicating your donation of $50, $500, or $5000.”

🐀 Just before his death, Groucho Marx left instructions that he be buried on top of Marilyn Monroe.

Text Copyright © 2016 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
Zombie art © 2016 Gabriela Gonzalez/artescritorio.com

I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! Thanks.

DEAD SPOT on AmazonSydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Celebs Behaving Badly

Copyright © 2016 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

So you know how I always humblebrag about all the famous people I’ve met, and then instead of spilling I veer off into an Emily Litella-ish rant about Soviet jewelry? Thought you might enjoy some actual celebrity dirt, so here you go.

(This is part of a series. See Celebs Behaving Badly: CalArts Edition and Celebs Behaving Badly: Burbank Edition.)

Bridge Over Bongled Water

When I was 13 I was a rabid Simon and Garfunkel fan. They performed at my town’s convention center, back in ye olden days when concert security was one guy with a flashlight. If you knew where the stage door was, you could ambush the objects of your teenage lust. Which is exactly what I did after S&G’s concert.

At the time I had a business painting pictures of cute things on river rocks that I sold in boutiques. Most people used them for paperweights. So I painted Simon’s and Garfunkel’s portraits on two rocks, which I presented to them as they ran in terror to their waiting limo.

Simon was actually quite gracious about being handed a heavy blunt object. Of course he was confused and thought me insane, but he smiled a lot. Garfunkel was further away; I had to throw his rock to him. Apparently this sort of thing happens to him a lot. Perceiving that I was throwing a rock AT him, he picked it up from where he let it crash to the ground and nailed me with it. I’d never heard an adult curse like that before.

Bonus round: Years later, my mother-in-law reported seeing Garfunkel get into another limo with his wife. She was so clutzy (or hammered, your pick) that my MIL could see her tonsils from up her skirt. Along with everyone else on that well-lit, crowded Manhattan street. Stay classy, Art.

Art Garfunkel and Mrs. Garfunkel step out.

Art Garfunkel and Mrs. Garfunkel step out.

The Man Who Fell Into My Floorthru

Back when actor Candy Clark was still lukewarm from American Graffiti, I lived in Los Angeles. My boyfriend at the time was her brother. Her boyfriend at the time was Nick Roeg, the director. To give you an idea of how tight we were, she claims to not remember me even though I was her sister-in-law for, like, eight years.

Call that what you will. I call bullshit. In a 2015 interview about The Man Who Fell to Earth, Clark said this about one of her doubles: “They hired this older actress and I thought, wow, that David Bowie is pretty brave — he was making out with her and she was about 60 years old.” The older actress whose name Clark couldn’t remember was her mother.

So Candy invited herself and Roeg to my place one Thanksgiving. I was young and broke and lived in a modest apartment in West Hollywood, when WeHo was still a hellho. Lenny Bruce lived there too, but not at the same time. My landlord swore it wasn’t the apartment where Bruce died, but I think he just said that so tenants wouldn’t bug him about the angry ghost in the coat closet.

Anyway, there wasn’t enough food to go around at this party, or even chairs. Clark arrived wearing a dress that took up my whole living room and Roeg, who clearly wished he was someplace else. (He was directing Clark and David Bowie at the time in The Man Who Fell to Earth — a time Bowie called “singularly the darkest days of my life”* and this was yet another kind of activity Roeg didn’t enjoy.)

Apparently they had no place else to go. They hijacked my intimate party, holding court in my parlor with most of my guests crowded around them like a trash fire. I spent the evening with my besties on a couch as far away as we could get without leaving.

Bonus round 1: Around this same time, Clark reportedly also swapped fluids with David Bowie , Ed Ruscha, and Mikhail Barishnikov.

Bonus round 2: Clark subsequently was incinerated by a hack-phobic demon in Amityville 3-D (1983) and ingested by The Blob (1988). Somehow she survived to sell autographs at hot rod rallies.

Bonus round 3: When Clark was shooting The Man Who Fell to Earth, I visited the set and met the incomparable Rip Torn. He’s very nice, and handsome.

Schadenfreude Bacon points: Roeg directed Art Garfunkel in the awful Bad Timing (1980).

*Bowie said this on VH1 Storytellers, S4 E7, aired 10-18-99.

Candy Clark takes a meeting.

Candy Clark takes a meeting.

I Am Tootie Hear Me Roar

When I lived in L.A. I worked at a store in Hollywood. One day showbiz poobah Jeff Wald swaggered in and screamed at everyone for no reason. (Wald managed Sylvester Stallone, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, George Carlin, Donna Summer, Flip Wilson, and a mountain of nose candy — $100,000 of it per year, in 1980s dollars.) He was dressed like a pimp. Everyone ignored him.

Eventually he left. Not for nothing, but we were relieved. In 1983 he tried to kill his ex-wife’s fiancé with his Maserati, with their 10-year-old inside. Helen Reddy (the ex) trashed Wald’s car with a mop while Wald’s bodyguard encouraged him to shoot her with his .45 stashed in the glove. I was never a Reddy fan before that. Wald also broke into Reddy’s house (kid in tow), breaking doors and windows and fleeing with $35,000 worth of stuff, including a Chagall print and a shotgun.

The well-traveled Wald was arrested for shoving the shotgun into the mouth of a Sahara Tahoe picketer, and he knocked out Rod Stewart for making him wait for a hotel room in Hawaii.

When Wald ODed in 1986, the only hospital that would admit him was Cedars-Sinai, and only because he’d built them a clinic.

Schadenfreude Bacon points: Wald married Candy Clark.

Jeff Wald and Helen Reddy

Jeff Wald and Helen Reddy making friends.

Royal Pain

You remember Jane Powell, the MGM contract starlet from so many forgettable films of the ’50s. No? Probably the most famous were Royal Wedding and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and that’s not saying much.

She was about 50 when we met, and very tiny (her Wikipedia stats say 5’1″, but that’s wildly optimistic). I was an indie fashion designer at the time. One of my customers, Wanda, owned a boutique on Sunset Strip, and one of Wanda’s friends was Jane. Actually, it was more like Jane waddled in one day and started ordering Wanda around.

Anyway, I had made an awesome custom dress for Wanda, who was a size 4. Jane saw it and wanted it. Not one like it. She wanted the exact same dress, cut down to fit her size 0 frame. Understand that this dress was engineered without any straight-line seams, like a baseball, in two difficult fabrics (silk and suede), to fit someone much bigger.

Wanda and I got into a big fight about it. She said she’d never hawk my stuff again if I didn’t do this thing. So I did it. Rebuilt the custom dress for Wanda into a custom dress for Jane. There was no CAD then, and a lot of the work involved hand stitching. It was the most elegant pain in the ass I ever attempted.

Fast forward to the fitting. Jane hated it. One of her hips was higher than the other, causing the hem to hang unevenly. It could’ve been fixed easily, but she decided to use it as an excuse to throw a temper tantrum and storm out. Hey, when Hollywood stops calling, how else ya gonna get any attention?

There was no way to resize it to fit a normal human, or even Wanda. And that’s how she got stuck with a size 0 custom dress that would fit no one ever. She hung it up in her store, but I have no idea if she ever sold it because I never spoke to her again.

The dress I made for Wanda and Jane.

The dress I made for Wanda and Jane.

How Wanda saw Jane (left); How Jane saw Jane (right).

How Wanda saw Jane (left); How Jane saw Jane (right).

The skirt I made for Jane (left); Jane's skirt from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (right).

The skirt I made for Jane (left); Jane’s skirt from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (right).

Greatest American Hero

I used to be a USOC-licensed bicycle racing official. I worked many races where Lance Armstrong competed as a junior drug monkey, before he won 47 Tours de France. The officials would arrive at the race venues all excited to be there, for they loved their sport. Then they’d obtain the start list and see his name on it, and go “Ohmygod Lance is here ugh.”

Lance Armstrong smells a fart.

Doug McClure or Troy Donahue (I can’t tell those guys apart)

Okay, this isn’t really my story, it’s my friends’ story which makes it hearsay, but it’s true and too funny to leave out.

Couple of my friends in high school, Laurie and Susan, they were like twins. Creepy alien twins, but cuter. Went everywhere together, had secret codes only they knew, laughed hysterically at stuff nobody else thought was funny. They were adorable.

I don’t remember how the following situation came about, but one night they were in a bar, in a state where the drinking age is 21. It was a bowling alley or something. They were maybe 17 at the time.

Also darkening this bar was red-nosed ’60s icon Doug McClure, or Troy Donahue. (Google them.) Although his showbiz shelf life was long expired, he alas had not and was still inadvisedly hitting on jailbait. He badgered Laurie and Susan relentlessly. They thought this hilarious and blew him off, repeatedly. He was obstinate, and kind of angry. He kept sniffing them and they kept ignoring him until eventually their ride came and they split, laughing hysterically.

Doug McClure and Troy Donahue. You figure it out.

Doug McClure and Troy Donahue. You figure it out.

Grouch-In-Chief

There was a restaurant I loved in New York that I visited a lot. Felidia, on 58th Street. They serve Italian food. Not the spaghetti and red sauce kind. The other stuff.

One night I was there with the better half, quietly enjoying a fabulous meal until the party at the next table got out of hand. Damn, they were loud. Look-At-Me loud. Someone at the table would say something, and then someone else would crush any spontaneous social interaction by demanding (loudly), “What do you think, Morley?” And then famed Canadian newsreader Morley Safer would hold forth interminably about something nobody cared about. Very loudly. Then they’d start all over again.

We would’ve scrammed early but the food was too good to wolf down.

Above: In his 2009 60 Minutes interview with Vogue boss Anna Wintour, Safer called her a bitch four times.

Princess Boogedyboo

One day I was standing on a long line at a big post office in Manhattan. The woman in front of me was squirming and twisting relentlessly, slinging her bags around, dropping stuff and picking it up, and generally having shpilkes over absolutely nothing. While everyone else waited quietly, she looked around nervously, like she expected them to assault her. Nobody did. Nobody cared. In fact, few people have ever been ignored so definitively. At length I realized she was Phoebe Cates.

Related posts:
No Degrees of Separation | My Date with Kevin Bacon
End of the Eighties | Walter Monheit
Joan Jett, the Queen of Rock’n’Roll, Finally Gets Crowned
Memo from the Dead Zone | 1986 World Cycling Championships
Doesn’t Harley-Davidson Make Training Wheels?

Photo Credits:
Art & Kim Garfunkel © 2004 Mitchell Levy/Globe-Photos
Candy Clark © 1976 British Lion Film Corporation
Jeff Wald & Helen Reddy © Hollywood Reporter
Jane Powell’s uglyass skirt & Christmas photos © 1954 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 
Lance Armstrong © 2015 EPA/European Pressphoto Agency
Doug McClure © 1962 National Broadcasting Company
Troy Donahue © 1960 Warner Brothers Pictures
Phoebe Cates © 1994 Ardican Films

Text and all other photos Copyright © 2016 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! Thanks.

DEAD SPOT on Amazon

Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Joan Jett, The Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll, Finally Gets Crowned

joan jettThe only person happier than me that Joan Jett was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame on April 19 — finally! — is Joan Jett. The multitasking sex goddess is WAY overdue for this accolade.

Not for nothing, but Joan is an icon. For real. I’ve been an unapologetic fan since she was a Runaway.

Like every good Joanaholic, I’d always wanted to meet her, despite that old adage about meeting your idols being a bad idea. I have to admit, having met many of mine, that it’s kind of true. Joan eluded me, but we almost met many times. Ergo, I’m at a loss for how to calculate our degrees of separation. You decide!

When I lived in the West Village, a scarily reliable source (my busybody neighbor) insisted Joan lived on the next block. Never saw her. Then for three years she and I lived in the same suburban town, a few blocks apart. We even went to the same chiropractor. Somehow we never collided. I heard the local post office had one of her gold records, which they’d taken down during a renovation and not replaced, but I did ask them about it, and it is a thing — a thing I stood a few feet from in the dusty box where it was cavalierly abandoned by unworthy civil servants. Then we both moved back to civilization, she to a building not far from mine that I passed six days a week — before she moved in and I moved away. I did have one fun Joanless close encounter, when I shared a pizza at the beach with a woman whose brother wrote “Too Bad on Your Birthday.”

Ever the good Jettster, I’ve been to a gazillion Joan shows. I used to try to find out where she was signing autographs, but I was always too late or at the wrong place. At one show I had an in with the backline company, but all’s I got was an autographed CD from Kenny Laguna. I mean, he’s adorable and I appreciated it, but he’s not Joan.

So what’s that? Like, three degrees? Two? Whatever. We ain’t dead yet, me and Joan, so I guess it could still happen.

I sent Joan an email once, asking her advice on band marketing websites because she was one of the first to have one. I received an autoreply saying something like “Joan gets an awful lot of mail, she’ll get back to you.” She never did. That was seventeen years ago, but it’s okay. Joan was likely too busy fighting the good fight to wade through terabytes of gushing emails.

If all you know about her is how she fought with the Runaways and their cretinous manager Kim Fowley and rude industry execs (she had to sell “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” out of her car trunk after 23 record companies rejected it, and then it became No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 for 7 weeks and the number 3 song of 1982, neener neener), you’d have a pretty good idea about her scheduling issues. But Joan does USO shows and benefits, like for PETA and Farm Sanctuary. Plus she saved a 3-year-old from drowning in the ocean. I mean, how many people do all that in their spare time?

Joan Jett is a force of nature. She works incessantly. She made three platinum and gold records. In response to the “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” brouhaha, she founded Blackheart Records in 1980, making her among the first women ever to start a record company. That very elite group includes Vivian Carter (Vee-Jay, 1953), Sylvia Robinson (Sugar Hill, 1979), Florence Greenberg (Tiara, 1958), and Estelle Axton (Stax, 1958).

Joan also produced three movies, and many albums by The Germs, Bikini Kill, Circus Lupus, The Vacancies, and L7. She toured with The Police, Queen, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, the Ramones, Motörhead, Def Leppard, Green Day, Alice Cooper, Van Halen, Heart, and The Who.

She does some other stuff, too. If you didn’t see her awesome 2014 Hall of Fame performance with the surviving members of Nirvana, you must be dead.

It would’ve been enough for me had she stuck to music. But I was just agog at her star turn in the 1987 film Light of Day. She was luminous. Geez. If you ignore the secondary plot about the annoying mother, it’s a wonderful, painfully truthful depiction of gritty bar band life in the pre-Internet Midwest, with actual musicians (Joan, Michael J. Fox, Michael McKean, Trent Reznor, Paul Harkins, Jimmie Vaughan) playing the fictional ones. The soundtrack is bangin’, natch. Paul Schrader directed it (as well as some of my other favorite edgy flicks — Cat People, Auto Focus). Schrader said of Jett: “She’s phenomenal.” If you haven’t seen Light of Day (or even if you have), do it today.

light of day cast photoMany film reviewers expressed shock that The Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll can also act, but it should come as no surprise. (Did you see her on Walker, Texas Ranger? Holy shit!) She played Columbia for over a year on Broadway in The Rocky Horror Show. For cryin’ out loud, she was a professional performer before she could legally drink. She founded The Runaways in 1975, when she was a mere 16.

Since then Joan has faithfully, unflinchingly championed the empowerment of women. The guitar, the leather, the snarl — it’s all showbiz, baby. Yeah, she’s the queen of that, too. I’ll never forget one of her concerts years ago, where a bunch of JJ wannabes were picking fistfights with each other, trying to out-Joan Joan. Their mall gear and decal tattoos were no match for Joan’s divine glam punkness and couture S&M outfits, designed by the likes of Norma Kamali in the old days and Saint Laurent today. Those stupid girls didn’t get Joan, and never would.

Joan is not mean. She’s a true pioneer. She made it possible for female rockers who followed her to actually have careers in an industry that had been a male preserve. While clueless suburban debs were kicking each other in their tragic Riot Grrrl misinterpretation, Joan was kicking down doors for real women who totally got what she was about. And it changed everything.

At the induction ceremony, Miley Cyrus said, “all of us are going to experience people who try to tell us who to be and what to be. Fuck those people! Instead of changing for all those people, if you don’t like how the world is, change it yourself. [Joan] made the world evolve, her life and her success is proof that we can’t stop evolving.”

English translation: You da bomb, Joan! Congrats on your Hall of Fame induction. You’re my queen!

Joan Jett - The Kamali Years

Joan Jett – The Kamali Years

Joan Jett : Light of Day 1987DEAD SPOT on AmazonDEAD SPOT
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Text Copyright © 2015 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
Photo 1 Copyright © Corporal Steiner / corporalsteiner.tumblr.com
Photo 2 Copyright © TriStar Pictures
Photo 3 Copyright © Getty Images
Photo 4 Copyright © TAFT Entertainment Pictures/HBO

I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! Thanks.

Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party  advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard | Book Review

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The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard
by Peter Benjaminson
Book Review © 2014 Sydney Schuster – All Rights Reserved

Whether The Supremes are icons of your youth or a legend you’ve recently discovered, don’t miss The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard. Author Peter Benjaminson skips no juicy details in this splendid biography of the group’s founder and most gifted member.

 

A former investigative reporter and author of the books The Story of Motown and Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, Benjaminson delivers a seamless portrayal of the R&B luminary who zoomed from projects to stardom at 20, descended into alcoholism and poverty, then died tragically at 32 while attempting a comeback.

Benjaminson’s exhaustive research is impeccable. Every page of The Lost Supreme comes alive with intimate recollections from Ballard and the people who knew her best.

For lovers of showbiz backstory, The Lost Supreme has it all — Ballard’s harrowing rape by an NBA star; her manipulation by Berry Gordy and Diane Ross; the power struggle between the tinny-voiced singer and the throaty, sultry one; the ludicrous contracts; the catfights; the racist attacks; the bizarre meeting with the Beatles; Ballard’s ignominious ouster from the Supremes; the fortune stolen from her; and her unsuccessful $8.7 million lawsuit against Motown.

There are many wonderful quotes, too, like this gem from Ballard about the songs from the Supremes’ first single: “… both flops, but they were good flops.” And this zinger from Mary Wilson: “Whenever Diane would insist on a lead and then sing it, we would sort of look at each other and try not to laugh. She had this weird little whiny sound.”

There are other books about the Supremes, but only this one’s author has a musician’s understanding of R&B, a union spokesman’s understanding of contract law, and a Detroiter’s understanding of the inner city. All serve to illuminate the book’s narrative without overpowering it, as when Benjaminson describes the Motown sound: “This heavy beat was a natural connection between the African past and the mechanized present … African American tradition updated by the incessant pounding of the punch press and buffed to a shiny gloss by contact with an urban society.”

Benjaminson’s writing style is clean and direct but never boring, painting vivid images of civil rights-era America while elegantly putting Ballard’s successes and struggles into perspective. He takes great care to analyze the conflicting reports of certain pivotal events that, Rashomon-like, left fans and historians alike scratching their heads for decades. With a keen talent for juxtaposing quotes and events, he unveils interpersonal dynamics overlooked in other books on this subject.

The author’s wry wit keeps things lively. About Motown’s notorious owner who mixed and matched artists, writers, and producers with wild abandon, he writes: “Gordy hadn’t worked in a factory for nothing: he knew the value of interchangeable parts.”

In short, The Lost Supreme is can’t-put-it-down reading.

The exclusive input from Ballard is riveting. By allowing Flo to speak for herself (based on extensive one-on-one interviews just before her death), Benjaminson and Ballard distinguish fact from myth in the oft-romanticized central story of a beleaguered superstar who stood up to an exploitive recording industry. It all adds up to a remarkable history, brought to life by the people who lived it.

Available on Amazon.
guitars

Don’t miss Peter Benjaminson’s article in Rolling Stone about how The Lost Supreme got thisclose to becoming a movie!guitars

Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! Thanks.

DEAD SPOT on Amazon

Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

HELP WANTED | The Myth of the Mighty Bicycle Messenger

Back during The Great Bike Boom of the 1980s, I wrote for an assortment of cycling publications. Mostly I covered racing.

At that time there was this inexplicable American obsession with big-city bicycle messengers — or rather, the idiosyncratic romantic heroes Americans imagined they were.

I knew many New York City bike messengers and was mystified by the out-of-towner’s fascination with them. Romance, my ass. We were in a recession, and they were just a bunch of good kids making a bad living the hard way. In 1987 Cyclist magazine asked me for a report. Here it is. Enjoy!

HELP WANTED
Originally published in Cyclist Magazine, August 1987

Copyright ©1987 ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Let’s start this thing off with a fairy tale that came true. The prince is Nelson Vails — Olympian, film star, and officially New York City’s most famous ex-bicycle messenger.

Popular legend holds that Vails was snatched from obscurity by Fred Mengoni, the US Bicycling Hall of Famer who founded GS Mengoni USA. That’s the NYC farm team that produced international champions Alexi Grewal, Leonard Harvey Nitz, Mike McCarthy, Steve Bauer, and George Hincapie.

The story goes that one day Mengoni spotted the Harlem native chasing racers on a beater bike in Central Park. Profoundly impressed, Mengoni was moved to buy Vails his first good racing bike. The rest — Olympic stardom, product endorsement deals, film role, nice house in fancy neighborhood — it’s all history now. From ghetto to Gollywood on the express track.

Vails became the first African American to win an Olympic cycling medal (the silver), back in 1984. He also won a gold medal at the prestigious Pan Am Games in 1983. Not for nothing, but Vails’ messenger nickname was The Cheetah.

In the press, Vails’ story sold like ice water to bedouins. Hollywood couldn’t resist. So instead of making a movie about that, Columbia Pictures pandered to the appetites of drooling yahoos enraptured with idealized urban rebels (or the idea of them, anyway). The result was the fawning 1986 tribute to bicycle couriers, Quicksilver, about a fictional white stockbroker played by Kevin Bacon. Vails had a cameo. He played a bicycle messenger.

The best part of Quicksilver is the exciting opening action scene: a street race between Vails on a bike and Bacon in a cab. (Saw it or not, you know who won.) The movie goes downhill from there. New York Times reviewer Walter Goodman wrote: “Quicksilver is as much fun as a slow leak.”

No doubt about it. Bike messengers are hot stuff. But are the genuine items really the scruffy-yet-lovable street urchins portrayed in the media? Or are they slumming yuppies like Kevin Bacon, or sports champions in training, or something else? Who the heck becomes a bicycle messenger, anyway? And does the reality live up to the hype?

Nelson VailsNelson Vails delivering the bacon.

☆☆☆

At a spartan loft space one flight up from Park Avenue’s glitz, you’re welcomed into Amazing Racing Messengers by a scrawled Kilroy with a hole in the plaster instead of a nose. A crazy quilt of receipts, bike frames, posters and flags is the backdrop for Stella Buckwalter, a former racer. She looks like a fashion model, talks like a corporate executive and manages the business like an air traffic controller.

Most messengers, including Buckwalter’s, work part-time, furnish their own equipment and get a commission. Buckwalter’s are independent contractors who keep the standard 50 percent of what each trip nets, which is about $10. Buckwalter feels they don’t get compensated enough and loads them down with quarters out of her own pocket, she says, “to make sure they call for pick-ups.”

Not far away from Amazing Racing Messengers is its competitor, Born to Run. On the surface it seems antithetical to the standard courier company model. There are no random arrangements of tire tracks and chain grease. Floating amid glowing oak floors and pristine white walls is the only decoration: a landing strip of a desk covered with phones. Born to Run looks like an art gallery, sans the art.

“We just moved in,” apologizes owner Shelly Mossey, a former messenger with some great stories to tell.

While back office decor may differ, the function served by bicycle messengers stays the same. Or as Mossey puts it, couriers accommodate “anybody who can’t fax their package across town.”

Even with the proliferation of telecommunications and overnight air delivery, the cyclists’ immunity to gridlock and AT&T strikes makes them tough to beat.

Road to Riches! (Not)

Just so you know, messengers don’t get rich doing this. For 40 or so miles of daily riding, the average week’s messenger pay is a modest $250 to $300. A little ambition guarantees $450 to $600, and $1,000 weekly isn’t impossible for top earners.

But employee turnover is rapid — a messenger’s career is as spasmodic as a cabbie’s driving. And while they may have transformed communications, New York’s 3,000-plus messengers haven’t endeared themselves to the man on the street.

Despite superior bike-handling skills and a competitive attitude (plus any bull you’re asked to believe by Hollywood about stockbrokers-turned-messengers), these are not all middle-class bike racers.

The reality is that a relatively lucrative job with limited educational requirements is flypaper to immigrants and the underclasses. The racer look is often just vigorous posturing by wannabes with every reason to emulate athletes and no reason to take a driving test or learn vehicular law. Language comprehension and social graces are not givens, either.

The picture New Yorkers see frequently looks like this:

• A messenger zigzags the wrong way down a one-way street and then peels south on Madison Avenue, which goes north. He hits a pedestrian, who lies unconscious in the intersection. As a crowd gathers, he takes off without so much as a wave. Don’t want that pizza to be late!

• Joey is famous for his delivery uniform and style, which includes a hockey helmet complete with goalie’s mask. “He’ll ride the wrong way up Fifth Avenue, weaving in and out,” laughs Mossey. “At full speed. He’s totally crazed!”

• A non-English-speaking messenger drops off a package at the wrong address. The client is desperate. The frantic dispatcher tries to reconstruct the messenger’s trip. “Where did you come from?” he asks the messenger. The reply: “Cuba.”

• A messenger cuts off a bike commuter, hops a curb, scatters a gaggle of terrified pedestrians, and is stopped. A shouting match ensues. The messenger reaches into his pants as if to seize a weapon. Lycra doesn’t lie, clearly indicating the limitations of his defense options. Bewildered but relieved victims close in.

Despite the inherent chaos, it’s wrong to assume all messengers are guerillas. You’re just as likely to find gentle folk who can’t abide suits, or need flexible hours for auditions or classes. A cross-sampling of employees discloses lots of moonlighters from other trades: musicians, students, writers, artists, models — yes, even bike racers.

One of the latter is Craig Cook, a USCF-licensed junior racer. At 17 he’s more articulate and self-assured than your garden-variety teenager (or even your garden-variety racer). He looks like a choirboy from the waist up and a power sprinter from the waist down and doesn’t wear weird outfits.

Initially Cook was attracted to messengering by its mystique. That was before the pick-up that turned out to be a stack of dining chairs.

“But it also looked like a way to combine race training with a summer job,” he says. Now he finds that riding in fits and starts all day is stressful, and after-hours laps and Saturday races feel redundant. “By the end of the week,” Cook admits, “you’re sort of sick of bicycles.”

An interesting messenger subset is the small but growing contingent of women invading what’s considered male territory, because of the risks. One of them is Julia Ashcroft. Her purple locks are souvenirs from her last job, writing for a rock music publication in London. This American adventure junkie shifted to bike messenger mode, she says, “because the pay is better than a staff journalist’s, and I love riding.” She also loves the undeniable glamor of being a road warrior.

That last part, of course, comes with a downside.

Wild Kingdom

“It’s not an easy job, and it’s dangerous. It gets pretty wild for them out there,” insists Buckwalter. She estimates Amazing Racing Messengers’ crashes at one per week, “mostly minor. We try to get them to wear helmets.”

Trouble is a messenger’s shadow. Car doors open unexpectedly. Pedestrians cross against the light. One time a chicken-playing bus driver intentionally broadsided Mossey.

“Compare it to skydiving,” he suggests, remembering a messenger who lost two front teeth in an accident. “Take your eyes off the road for one second, you end up under a truck.”

Cook was prepared for bad surprises like oversized deliveries and rushes, but not certain others, like getting hit by a limousine that ran a light.

Casualties, which have doubled over the last five years, are a touchy subject. Sizable taxes and licensing fees are derived by the local government from commercial delivery activities, and the city doesn’t want the negatives publicized. But in 1986 there were 2,629 injuries and 7 fatalities in bike/motor vehicle accidents in New York. Pedestrians in the wrong place at the wrong time numbered 617, one of whom checked out permanently.

Who’s minding the store? The city claims courier services are responsible for insuring their messengers. Services claim their messengers are responsible for insuring themselves.

Just call it a free-for-all, because that’s what it is. Tired of dodging two-wheeled projectiles, irate citizens and businesses lobbied for citywide bike control several years back. City Council members and even Mayor Ed Koch jumped in, although Koch would jump into a vat of boiling Afrosheen if a camera was there. Steady streams of damning legal documents flowed between lobbyists and City Hall. Guess who was hired to deliver them.

The upshot was a toothless commercial regulation passed in 1984, Local Law 47. It requires company uniforms on messengers and identification plates on their equipment, so they can be more accurately fingered in the event of mishaps.

With messengers pretty much left to police themselves, compliance is unsurprisingly lax. Improvised head protection and comic book onesies rule. A courier named Juda authored and distributes a handout entitled Safe Cyclists Code [sic] in a sincere (if bone-headed) attempt at self-government. The Code dispenses jewels of advice like this one: “Don’t run red lights or ride against traffic without giving everyone else the right of way.”

So are couriers above the law, or what? Let’s just say they’re in a grey area of enforcement. This fact contributes substantially to their fearlessness, or foolhardiness, depending upon your vantage point.

One fellow sure to take the long view was standing on Wall Street recently, minding his own business, lost in thoughts of blind trusts and insider trading when one of Mercury’s own zoomed out of nowhere. Pedal and knee connected in a mighty crunch. David Stockman, former bad-boy budget director of the Reagan administration, went straight to the hospital. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Legends die hard, especially ones about blue-collar workers in day-glo Spandex. Andy Warhol said that in this, the Electronic Age, everyone will be a celebrity for 15 minutes. It’s been a long trip from anthropological footnote to media darling, but for better or worse, the bicycle messenger’s quarter-hour has arrived.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

New York City’s 1992 Team Breakaway Courier. From left to right: Craig Cook, architect; Mike McCarthy, 1992 World Pro Pursuit Champion; Kurt Gustafsson, competitive skier; and Rafe Diaz, MIA. Photo © 2014 Kevin Hatt

☆☆☆

Sydney Schuster rides bikes, lifts weights and battles computers in New York City. She was hit by a bike messenger once. He is expected to recover.

Text Copyright © 1987, © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
Photo of Nelson Vails © 2014 Nelson Vails
Photo of Team Breakaway Courier © 2014 Kevin Hatt
Photo & Video from Quicksilver © 2014 Columbia Pictures

Breaking: A new documentary about the life of Nelson Vails will premiere in New York City on February 15, 2014. It’s called Cheetah: The Nelson Vails Story. For tickets, go to Vails’ info page.

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