Gotham’s Dynamic Duo | Al Toefield, Lou Maltese, and New York City Bike Racing

Originally I wrote this for the July 1986 issue of Bicycle Guide Magazine. This version is slightly different. It’s shorter. And better. You’re welcome.

I have not updated any time references. “Last year” means 1985, “four years ago” means 1982, etc. There was no internet or cable then, and the only bike racing on TV was the Tour de France. This story is based on personal interviews with Al Toefield and Lou Maltese conducted in 1986. They died in 1989 and never, ever got enough credit for what they contributed to the sport of bicycle racing. That’s why I’m posting this. Thank you Lou Maltese, Al Toefield, and Pete Senia.

Copyright ©2017 ©1986 SYDNEY SCHUSTER — All rights reserved

New York is a city of five boroughs and two cycling czars. In the battle of nerves that is Big Apple bicycle racing, Lou Maltese and Al Toefield never blink.

Lou Maltese and Al Toefield each have respected racing clubs in New York City. Both were track racing fiends in their youth, and both love to organize big-time racing events. Before there was ever a Coors Classic, before the Colorado World’s Championship was even a gleam in the USCF’s eye, Maltese and Toefield were showing Americans what a real race is all about. There the resemblance ends and the fireworks begin.

Lou Maltese. Photo © Ted Leyson

Lou Maltese. Photo © Ted Leyson

Depending on whom you ask, the reputation of Lou Maltese’s Century Road Club (CRC) Association ranges from Olympic cadet school to marauding band of rowdies. You can’t be the oldest and perhaps largest racing club in the country without developing a certain cachet. The CRC has been raising dust and more since it was founded in 1898 by Charles P. Staubach.

Central Park is the domain of Lou Maltese and the CRC, as it has been since 1963. Before that he ruled Grand Concourse in the Bronx and Harlem Speedway. When he set his sights on Central Park, it was a rough start.

His storied nemesis was legendary civic builder Robert Moses. A colossal asshole with an ego to match, Moses was the State Council of Parks chairman, Long Island State Parks Commission president, NYC Parks Commissioner, New York State Power Authority chairman, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman, president of — well, you get the picture. Moses championed a lot of causes. Bicycle racing wasn’t among them.

Says Maltese about Moses’ Central Park welcome wagon: “I used to run like an outlaw. Every once in a while the officials would catch up to us and chase us out of the park.” With time came shifts in city politics. Moses died in 1981 and Maltese holds court every Saturday at the Central Park Boathouse, the de facto CRC headquarters.

Maltese was born in 1907. In his halcyon days he was a record-breaker in 3-mile, 25-mile, and century time trials, holding the 100-mile record for more than 30 years. He first joined a club himself in 1922, qualified for the Olympics but missed selection by a hair, and turned pro in 1928. His specialty was motorpace racing, pedaling 55 mph behind motorcycles on board tracks.

The Great Depression and World War II caused the tracks to fold, and many pros returned to the amateur ranks. Maltese didn’t need to. He took up race promotion, developing a talent that served him as well as his racing skills had.

For 27 years he was Director of National Championships for the Amateur Bicycle League of America (ABLA was renamed the U.S. Cycling Federation in 1975, and USACycling in 1995), organizing thousands of races all over the country. He was responsible for the 1955 National Championships and Olympic qualification trials in 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972, all held in New York. He ran the monthly races at Astoria Park for years. In the 1930s he joined CRC and now runs the club’s weekly races in Central Park, as well as the annual Memorial Races and Mengoni Grand Prix.

While Central Park is certainly glamorous, he’ll be the first to tell you it’s no picnic running a sane event there. Educating parkgoers is about equivalent to informing a zombie horde they’re about to be flattened by a rabid pack of bombers. “They run down the middle of the road,” says Maltese in despair, “even with baby carriages! You learn how to ride your bike like a cat walks.”

Public use hours of the park are posted on signs all over. But problems exist despite a raft of precautions that include advance cars with loudspeakers, race marshals, road restrictions, and suspension of riders who drift out of the designated race path. And that’s just for training races.

To make things more lively, the southernmost end of the 6.25-mile race circuit is carpeted with emissions from police horses, carriage horses, and the riding academy horses. The racers call it Marlboro Country. And yet a CRC membership card is still the hot ticket in town. Maltese expects to log over 400 members this year.

Most CRC members are male. Female riders are especially difficult to attract to a club, and the CRC’s few are a point of pride for him. He has but one complaint. “Our women get better, then the other clubs steal them away.”

By “other clubs,” he could mean the Nassau Wheelmen way out on Long Island, or maybe Westchester Velo up north, or perhaps the Century Road Club of America over in Jersey (no relation, he’s quick to add). But all of them are virtually inaccessible to people who spend all their money on bikes instead of cars. What he probably means is the only other club whose races you can get to by bike: Kissena.

The monarch of that Queens domain is, of course, Al Toefield, who has a reputation for never forgetting a name, and for dispensing the same quality of advice to geeks as to stars.

Al Toefield. Photo © Peter Nye

Al Toefield. Photo © Peter Nye

From where Toefield stands, Maltese’s Central Park operation is more flash than substance, and the CRC serves but one useful purpose: prescreening.

“We turn down an awful lot of people,” he says, referring to CRC defectors. “We’ve found through experience that if they’re frustrated in that club, it means they’re looking for something unrealistic. Eventually they’ll be frustrated with us. We don’t want them.”

In a town where talk is cheap and poseurs are the rule, Toefield has become something of an icon to kids with a dream. His Kissena Cycling Club has a stellar rep for mentoring juniors, and the Kissena Bicycle Shop that he owns is about the only one where a serious racer of modest means can get a competitive bike. It also serves as executive HQ for the 200-member KCC.

A night person, Toefield can be found most evenings fielding phone calls in this tiny place that somehow holds a vast jungle of racing equipment. In a corner hangs one of his old wood-rimmed tires with “Toefield 1972” painted on it in script. It was a good-luck gift the year he went to Munich as chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee and manager of the Olympic cycling team.

Before that he was the ABLA’s president (1967-1971), and now is the USCF’s first vice president. For the last 12 years he’s been New York State and New York City regional chairman of cycling events for the prestigious Empire State Games. He also ran the Pepsi-Cola Marathon for 12 years, the 1985 Tour of Long Island, and the 1980s Lowenbrau Grand Prix cycling series.

Toefield was born in 1921. He scored his foundational chops during the Great Depression, working as a bicycle messenger for 15 cents an hour and joining school teams. All of them.

“I learned fund raising early by playing as many school sports as possible,” he says of his high school years. “Each coach dispensed lunch on practice days and 25 cents for car fare,” which Toefield squireled away for bicycle equipment purchases. It was a brilliant plan, he says, “except when different teams practiced on the same day.”

By World War II Toefield was burning up the board tracks at the Coney Island Velodrome, the old Madison Square Garden, and the velodrome in Nutley, New Jersey. He joined CRC in the 1950s. His last sprint was in the 1953 Race of Champions at the now-defunct Flushing Meadow track, a six-tenths-mile oval in Queens.

In 1958 he became president of the Eastern Cycling Federation. Now he runs his track races at the Kissena Velodrome in Queens and his road races in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

In the battle of nerves, Toefield is a front-liner and beloved folk hero. It serves him well in Prospect Park, a scaled-down version of Central Park bordered by rough neighborhoods and frequented by airheads shambling and biking where they shouldn’t. But it also has a world-class art museum, fine botanical gardens, a big zoo, a skating rink, and a famous ampitheater. Its picturesque race circuit measures three miles and change. Vehicles are prohibited all weekend, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily in the summer. But that doesn’t stop some folks.

There’s an oft-told anecdote about a car parked in the middle of the road during one of Toefield’s races. The driver had wormed past a police barricade, then proceeded to ignore warnings from club marshals to leave the park. Toefield, a retired police sergeant with 38 years on the force, approached the party pooper himself. Failing to persuade him to go home by being nice, Toefield produced a revolver. The pooper scrammed.

[Author’s note: Toefield famously tolerated no poopage of any kind in his races. Before motorcycles were commonplace in cycling events, he recruited me to run interference for him on mine. I was impressed at how effective it was to sneak up on hosers and bark in their faces, “Al says get out!” The one time it didn’t work, the perp (an unregistered rider who shouldn’t have been racing) threatened to kill me, which I duly reported. Toefield tore off after the f∪cker in his van. That guy never tried it again.]

Kissena Velodrome in 2005. Photo © City of NY

Kissena Velodrome in 2005. Photo © City of New York

The Kissena Velodrome saga

One of the few things on which the two kingpins agree is the circus surrounding construction of the Kissena Velodrome in Queens.

It was intended to replace the old flat track at Flushing Meadow, the one where Toefield rode his last Race of Champions in 1953. Maltese’s eternal nemesis Robert Moses, who demolished a children’s park to build a parking lot for Tavern on the Green and tried to demolish Greenwich Village to build a highway, now wanted to raze the Flushing track to build the 1964 World’s Fair.

“Many good events, starting in ’55 with the National Championships, were held there,” says Peter Senia Sr., a longtime partner of Toefield and Maltese who was a USCF board director and U.S. team coach for the Pan Am Games and Olympics.

So while the city was still feeling guilty about depriving the racers of their last velodrome, a deal was struck for a new one. The cycling clubs would raise enough cash to surface it and the city would donate building funds and land — if Toefield and Maltese came back with the money.

And raise cash they did — $10,000. And the Parks Department, who’d expected never to see them again, granted $90,000 and a site for the project after a lot of arm-twisting.

The Parks staff had never seen a banked track, so Maltese had to design the 400-meter Kissena Velodrome himself. The groundbreaking was delayed, however, by bureaucratic red tape; construction prices rose, and with them the cost projections. The city refused to allocate additional funds to meet rising estimates.

According to Toefield, Maltese, and Senia, the city forbade them from privately negotiating with the union contractors who originally bid for the job, and those contractors in turn leaned on other contractors to scare them away.

Pete Senia. Photo © Anthony Van Dunk

Pete Senia. Photo © Anthony Van Dunk

After years of government sidestepping and relentless perseverance by Toefield, Maltese, and Senia, the asphalt arena finally got built in 1963 — over a sewer pipeline in a swamp, thanks to the choice parcel donated by the city. Every year the track sinks a bit, requiring extensive repairs. Local racers affectionately call it The Track With A Hill.

To the surprise of no one, Robert Moses took credit for building Kissena Velodrome. It rests but three blocks away from the Kissena Bicycle Shop, and so Toefield assumed maintenance of it (helped by Senia, with the two often paying for and doing repairs themselves) after a falling-out with Maltese that led to the founding of KCC.

That spat started a few years earlier, driven by differences of opinion regarding CRC policy. U.S. junior national champion Perry Metzler, a racer from Brooklyn, was a CRC rider Maltese wouldn’t help. Toefield personally drove Metzler to the 1957 senior nats in Wisconsin, a trip Metzler couldn’t afford to make on his own. Metzler won, becoming the first African-American U.S. amateur national champion.

Rather than abandon CRC’s 1898 charter declaring it a club exclusively for white men, Maltese reportedly told everyone Metzler was a Mexican, a Puerto Rican, or an Indian. By 1963 Toefield and Senia had had enough. They started their own club in Queens, KCC, to develop talented young riders of all skintones while Maltese headed to Central Park to get pounded some more by Robert Moses.

Despite the city’s bad behavior and Maltese’s departure, Kissena Velodrome’s season still creaks to life every May, with the faithful arriving on Wednesday nights for racing at dusk.

Kissena Velodrome, National Championships in 1964. Photo © Untapped Cities NYC / Stepanie Geier

Kissena Velodrome, National Championships in 1964. Photo © Untapped Cities NYC / Stepanie Geier

Above: Kissena Velodrome in 1975, © Paul Sery. The “hill” is clearly visible at 0:55.

New York City club wars

Club membership in New York City is a microcosm of the general population: You’ve got your schoolkids, your banshees on gaspipe bikes, your affluent Baby Boomers scrounging around for lost youth, your Gen X-ers who are “serious,” at least until they acquire mortgages. The common fabric is racing fever and a unilateral resentment of joggers who think $150 shoes make them athletes.

The mere mention of the New York Road Runners Club is enough to foment a cyclist shitstorm. Founded in 1958 with 47 members, NYRR now has 25,000 members who also have races in Central Park on Saturday mornings, effectively inflating the club’s influence there as well as its sense of property rights.

CRCA Hincapie Classic in Memory of Lou Maltese, Central Park. © Bicycle Racing Pictures

CRCA Hincapie Classic in Memory of Lou Maltese, Central Park. © Bicycle Racing Pictures

It didn’t take long for the rift between runners and riders to become the biggest undeclared war since Vietnam.

Maltese, Toefield, and Senia were excited to be awarded the 1960 Olympic cycling trials, scheduled to be held in Central Park. They were unhappy when it took six months to get consent to close the park to cars for four hours. So they organized a coalition of clubs that lobbied the city into closing all parks to cars every weekend. What they had in mind was more bike races. What they got was quite different.

After the weekend car bans began in the late sixties, the Road Runners overran both Central Park and the city’s major events calendar. Says Senia, “They’re allowed to use the park as much as they want. We’re not allowed a permit except once a year, for the Mengoni race.”

[Author’s note: The CRCA was unable for years to obtain city permits for its Saturday morning races, which were held anyway. Maltese called them “training rides with a sprint finish.”]

The NYRR got pretty much the whole city shut down for the 1976 New York City Marathon, while the CRC was ordered to hold their weekend Central Park races at dawn, so as not to inconvenience any runners training for it.

Ask Toefield about the park wars, and he’ll tell you an epic combat story. “A certain corporate mogul and major political contributor likes to run off his hangovers in Central Park. He gets the finger from cyclists. He gets four-letter words shouted at him. They run him off the path — aim at him! And he calls up Eddie [Koch, the mayor]. He calls up Henry [Stern, the Parks Commissioner]. How are you going to fight that?”

Cyclist-versus-runner turf wars rage nonstop. The clubs hate each other, but Maltese denies it. “It’s not the Road Runners Club that gives us any problem. It’s the general public. The runners have one inside lane, and the riders have two outside lanes. The [rest of the] public thinks they own the park.”

Bill Noël, Executive Director of the Road Runners, agrees, explaining how a coalition of eight civic groups is trying to draft ceasefire guidelines and failing utterly. “It’s extremely slow going. It’s very complex. Things that are not very practical are being tossed out on the table.”

Meanwhile, during one particular CRC race, an errant yuppie was plodding in the cyclists’ lane instead of the runners’. The pack saw the jogger and parted like the Red Sea, all except for one novice at the back who did the unthinkable: He creamed what turned out to be a lawyer. The case went to court. The CRC won.

Politics & payola

Everyone agrees racing costs money, lots of it. It will always live in a financial Twilight Zone between municipal and corporate dependency.

For those who promote it, American bicycle racing at its best is a nightmare of permit applications, insurance hassles, and scheduling conflicts. Arguably the toughest problem is how to simultaneously satisfy sponsors, who mostly want love, and politicians, who mostly want… well, something else.

Sponsors, they’re easy. Anyone asks them for a donation, they’ll ask what they’re getting for it. Fair enough. Mainly they want uncritical publicity. If they’re into bike racing, they’re often good with whatever ya got for ’em.

Politicians, they’re different.

Witness the Apple Lap, an ambitious plan by Maltese and Toefield for a 75-mile race in which 300 riders would cut through all five boroughs. New York City initially said yes, due to the success of the first all-borough NYC Marathon that year. Also thanks to the Marathon, the city insisted on not 300 riders, but thousands.

Toefield says, “I finally convinced city fathers that there would be a massacre with 10,000 riders racing.” So it was on, again. But then the police didn’t like the idea of 600 cops guarding 300 riders. And with that, the 1976 Apple Lap was history before it even began.

[Author’s note: When Toefield and Maltese originally proposed the Apple Lap, the city rejected it. But there were in fact two successful Apple Lap races, in 1978 and 1979. Not for nothing are these guys legends; they managed to get nine highways and the Verrazano and Throgs Neck bridges closed to motor traffic.]

Given the logistics, it’s not hard to understand why corporate sponsors are more willing to commit time and money to lesser events in remote places; it’s just easier and cheaper. But Toefield believes big cities like his have unlimited superior talent reserves begging to be showcased.

“You could sell horseshit in New York City if you package it right,” he says, quoting his ad exec friend on Madison Avenue. “Why should they create markets when they’re already here?”

It’s a good question. And the answer is kind of sad. Access to Central Park — what little of it there is — goes mostly to Maltese, possession being nine-tenths of the law. The outer boroughs have many fine venues, but they suffer from a lack of recognition as commercial race sites for much the same reasons that cycling itself is slow to be recognized as national sport: They have a reputation of being dull, dangerous, and small-time.

Even though Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was designed by Central Park architects Olmsted and Vaux (and is widely considered more beautiful), racing sponsors always demand Central Park. Toefield says, “I forfeited a blank check from Cinzano because I couldn’t deliver Central Park for a Sunday afternoon race.”

Then there’s the other spoiler, which is way thornier.

According to Toefield, Bloomingdale’s agreed to sponsor a race four years ago. The bill from the Parks Department was $25,000 for the use of Central Park. That’s in addition to, you understand, salaries, security, equipment, insurance, prize money — the race itself. Bloomie’s was horrified. They coughed up the dough, but backed off from race sponsorship for the next three years.

“Anybody comes up with $100,000 for me to run a race, I’d gladly give Central Park $10,000,” maintains Toefield. “But if Central Park knew I had a $100,000 budget, they’d want $50,000.”

Toefield is one of the few promoters who will talk about payola. It isn’t pretty. [Read my story from Spy Magazine about the 1989 Tour de Trump, which also addresses this subject. — ss]

A few years ago he provided cyclists and technical advice for the film Key Exchange, which features footage of racers in Central Park. The producer agreed as payment to sponsor another, real race in Central Park. When Toefield filed the permit applications, the Parks Department discovered the film’s backer was Manufacturer Hanover’s Trust. They had a question. Just how generous a contribution to the Central Park Cultural Foundation were Kissena Cycling Club and the fourth largest bank in the country prepared to make?

MHT threatened to back out, but the movie did get made. And eventually Toefield had his real race, but in Prospect Park rather than Central Park. And MHT never sponsored a cycling event again.

It’s easy to argue that until cycling is considered mainstream in the U.S., getting sponsorship will be difficult. Getting sponsorship requires a guarantee of publicity, and getting publicity requires the guarantee of sponsorship. Cycling will never become mainstream without them. This is the Catch 22 of the sport’s future.

That said, it’s worth noting that when the Europeans showed up in Colorado last year for the Coors Classic and this year for the UCI World Championships, the national media lapped it up. And with Greg LeMond, Steve Bauer, and Andy Hampsten proving to the world that North Americans are fierce contenders, the international focus may shift as well. Whenever that happens, America is ready because Toefield and Maltese showed us just what to do. Catch 22 just slipped a toestrap.

Long Meadow, Prospect Park. Photo by Hua Chen (c) 2006

Long Meadow, Prospect Park. Photo by Hua Chen (c) 2006

Copyright © 2017 SYDNEY SCHUSTER — All rights reserved

Author’s note: Shortly after this piece was written in 1986, Century Road Club management was taken over by the membership. They created a board of directors, wrote new bylaws, officially renamed the club CRCA, and became the inclusive organization they are today. Lou Maltese remained CRCA chairman until his death in 1989. Al Toefield remained the head of KCC until his death in 1989. KCC incorporated as a nonprofit that year and is ongoing today. The club still manages the operation and maintenance of Kissena Velodrome.

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! (Also available in paperback.) Thanks.

 

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

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Celebs Behaving Badly: New York City Edition

This is the latest in an ongoing gossip marathon but I’m calling it a memoir, so bite me. Be sure to see Celebs Behaving Badly, Celebs Behaving Badly: CalArts Edition, and Celebs Behaving Badly: Burbank Edition.

Copyright © 2017 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Glorious Pile of Rubell

I used to go to Studio 54 with my pal David, the handsomest gay man in the world. (Sorry, also-rans. Is what it is.)

David, Copyright © 2017 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

David, Copyright © 2017 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Co-owner Steve Rubell was always out front, personally cherry picking who could go in. He’d be all “You, you, and you but not you.”

David and I breezed past the eternal line of bridge-and-tunnel losers. Well actually, David breezed by them and I got in too, because Date of Handsomest Gay Man. He coulda breezed into Fort Knox.

One night David and I spilled out of a cab in front of Studio and scrambled straight for the front door. Rubell stopped us.

Well actually, he stopped me. My outfit was something best described as Raquel Welch’s costume in One Million Years B.C. Or as David put it, “Ohmygod you’re not wearing anything!”

He got over it. But Steve, he no likey.

“C’mon!” I said to him. “You always let me in!” which he had no reason to remember. He was totally blasted on … something. He looked me up and down, all bug-eyed and weaving (him, not me). Finally he said okay because a fight was breaking out that he had to go supervise. I think that was the night David and I shared a couch with Lee Radziwill and Jay North.

West Side doorman Steve Rubell - Copyright © 2017 Robin Platzer/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

West Side doorman Steve Rubell – Copyright © 2017 Robin Platzer/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Lifecycle A-Go-Go

Way back when, I used to write for cycling magazines. They made me attend the annual ritual of mass consumption, Boogerbike or whatever it was called. It was a trade show held at a venue nobody misses now, the New York Coliseum. The Coliseum was less like a place where gladiators would’ve hung out and more like a dirigible hangar. (Later Biketastic moved to the Javits Center, then to Philly, then I stopped going.)

Tedious as these shows were, they did have their moments. I met his highness Eddy Merckx and the delightful Georgena Terry, from whom I bought a delicious custom frame. But mostly Bikegasm was endless displays of fredware and birdseed energy bars. One magazine I worked for wanted me to write up the launch of a stationary bike called Sit-N-Spin. I am not making this up.

As you might imagine, the swag in the vast crapscape that was Bikerteria generally sucked. So I was thrilled the time I scored a huge poster of Connie Carpenter.

She was all kinds of hot that year, having just won the Coors Classic and Nats, and gold medals at the Olympics and World Championships. She was a force of nature, that girl. Also really cute. (You young’uns might know her better as the mom of three-time national champ Taylor Phinney, a 2017 Tour de France rider for Cannondale.) Someone I knew who raced her told me, “When Connie makes up her mind to win, everyone else may as well go home because what the hell’s the point?”

Anyway, I was so excited to get this great poster with her on it that I had to pee. I ducked into the Bikerama can, and holy macaroni — there’s Connie Carpenter herself! In the flesh! By which I mean buck nekkid!

She’d been biking around town and was changing into street clothes, so she’d look less smelly at the booth of the company she repped. We’re not supposed to see superheroes out of costume. But sh!t happens, especially to me. I was so embarrassed, I spun outta there like a motorized dreidl.

Everything worked out okay, though. A little later I found her at the Cannondale booth, where she graciously autographed my poster and laughed at me for running away. She was adorable! And I still have her poster.

The magnificent Connie Carpenter - Copyright © 2017 Getty Images

The magnificent Connie Carpenter – Copyright © 2017 Getty Images

Haute Cloture

I used to design artsy fartsy fashions. (See Celebs Behaving Badly for a brutal play-by-play.) One of the first places I tried to sell them in New York was Julie: Artisans’ Gallery.

There really was a Julie — Julie Schafler — and there really was a colon in her store’s name. It was on Madison Avenue in the 60s. I don’t think it’s there anymore, but here’s a Groupon. Let me know.

Julie Artisans' Gallery - Photo Copyright Julie Artisan's Gallery

Julie: Artisans’ Gallery – Photo Copyright Julie: Artisans’ Gallery

The store was famous for wild one-of-a-kind artisanal clothes and accessories. I introduced Julie to my already-made stuff, which she liked but not enough to buy any. Instead, she wanted me to custom-make something just for her: patchwork leather gloves slathered with beads. Like an idiot I said okay.

Meanwhile, the only customer in Julie’s store did want to buy something I’d brought in: the fancy leather suit bag I’d made to transport samples to buyer meetings. I was happy to sell it to her. I was happy to sell anything.

I really wanted into this store. It got lots of publicity and the prices were crazy stupid high. Assuming Julie would double my wholesale price for her hapless customer as is customary in retail, I asked her for an economical $700. “That’s not enough,” Julie said and marched away.

Not enough? What the actual f⊔⊏k?

While she was off doing who knows what, I met the customer she’d been yapping at  through a curtain about her “jet-setting husband,” as if she had no money or identity of her own. Not that there weren’t shoppers like that in Manhattan. But blow me down! Out of the dressing room stepped Ann Turkel, one of the hotter-than-a-rope-burn supermodels of the late 1960s.

She was on the cover of every magazine I ever loved. She’d just begun acting (soon to star in one of my fave guilty pleasures, Humanoids from the Deep). And only tangentially interesting (to me, anyway) was that she’d recently married Richard Burton’s beer bro Richard Harris, who’d just won a Grammy and a Golden Globe.

Ann Turkel - photo Copyright © Conde Nast

Ann Turkel – photo Copyright © Conde Nast

I’ve seen lots of models in person, and way too many are totes skanky. Not Turkel. OMG, so gorgeous! And funny. And so not snobby. She said she had to attend a stuffy, old-money formal event for which she needed suitable attire. She wanted to look special, she said, “not like all those old ladies in their crappy chiffons.”

She tried on a boho frock that was… interesting, I guess. But in the end she left with nothing. As did I, with the exception of my assignment from Julie that I should’ve gotten a contract for but didn’t.

A month later I returned with exactly the unique, labor-intensive creation she’d requested. She greeted it with “No! Needs more beads! And feathers! And fringe! Go crazy with it!” Stylewise, she was still shaking off the brown acid at Woodstock.

I left with my gloves and never went back.

Art & photo Copyright © 2017 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Art & photo Copyright © 2017 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Steal This Suit

Back when Barney’s New York had just the one extraordinary store on 7th Avenue, I practically lived there. This was before it became McBarneys, moved uptown, and morphed into the Men’s Whorehouse franchise that went bankrupt.

Barney’s men’s suit department was the bomb. I got a lot of stuff there, because a) it fit me better than women’s clothes, b) Barney’s tailors were aces, and c) they never gave me any crap about being a girl and/or using the men’s dressing room. They were so utterly cool!

One day as I rapturously rifled Barney’s suit racks, a great commotion arose from the dressing room. I hadn’t gone in yet, so it wasn’t my fault this time.

Presently a disheveled old fart shambled out, ranting and confused, wearing a fine Italian suit with a hopelessly rumpled shirt and the pants around his ankles. A coterie of handlers hustled him off the sales floor, but not before the whole store recognized him. Even with the plastic surgery you could tell it was acquitted Chicago Seven superstar Abbie Hoffman.

Hoffman needed elegant attire for his upcoming coke trafficking trial. He was convicted for that one, but received a commuted sentence. See? Barney’s rules!

Abbie Hoffman makes a public appearance in his Barney's finery. Copyright © 1981 Ida Libby Dengrove

Abbie Hoffman makes a public appearance in his Barney’s finery. Copyright 1981 Ida Libby Dengrove

 

Another Kind of Suit

There was a club on Fifth Avenue at 13th Street that I liked a lot, the Lone Star Cafe. It hosted a steady parade of unrepentant Stetson-wearers and big music stars (Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Albert Collins, The Blues Brothers), plus a 40-foot iguana. The humans worked the inside; the lizard had the roof.

The Lone Star Cafe

The Lone Star Cafe

I once saw a performance there by The Suits, a rock band fronted by New York City slumlord Jay Weiss. Weiss owned the Happy Land Social Club, a Bronx venue burned down by an arsonist while 87 people were inside. In case you’re wondering: Yes, Weiss was as good a musician as he was a landlord.

Happy Land Social Club - copyright New York Daily News

Happy Land Social Club – copyright New York Daily News

Anyway, pre-show I ducked into the can. I was shocked to be competing for the vanity with Kathleen Turner. Yes, that Kathleen Turner.

Turned out she was The Suits’ singer. Also Weiss’s wife. Yes, she acts better than she sings. No, she wasn’t really bad, it’s just that I wouldn’t have paid to hear that. The Suits were the opening act for the band I actually did pay to see. They probably got the gig because they owned the building.

I was pretty sure the Lone Star had private facilities for the talent. Whatever. Dressed in her best rock chick outfit, Turner bounced off every hard bathroom surface — people included — while emitting a nonstop look-at-me rap. I fled the restroom mid-plea.

Sadly, the Lone Star burned down in 2006. Probably just a coincidence.

Kathleen Turner rocks out.

Kathleen Turner rocks out.

Copyright © 2017 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.

Celebs Behaving Badly | Burbank Edition

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

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

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

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?”

© 2015 patriotretort.com

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.

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.
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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.

Film Review | Road to Hell

road to hell title

The Long-Awaited Film by Albert Pyun

Movie Review Copyright ©2014 Sydney Schuster – All Rights Reserved

roadtohell_IMDB.43123343

I watch an awful lot of movies. I own very few. One of them is Streets of Fire, the 1984 cult rock drama by Walter Hill about a mercenary soldier, Tom Cody. Another is Cyborg, the 1989 martial arts horror extravaganza by Albert Pyun starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. So when I heard years ago that Pyun was making a sequel to Streets of Fire, it stayed on my radar like gum stuck to my shoe.

I finally got to see it this week. Let me just say this: It is stunning.

Road to Hell, as it’s called, certainly lives up to its name. A largely self-financed labor of love, it was in production for five years and survived many setbacks before finally making its maiden tour of film festivals in 2012. So far it’s won three Best Picture awards: Yellow Fever (Belfast), XIII Costa del Sol Fantasy Film Festival (Spain), and the PollyGrind UnderGround Film Festival (Las Vegas, where it also scored Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Song, and Best Visual Effects). It recently began general theatrical showings. At its first screening, Road to Hell grossed enough to make Indiewire’s box office chart, and was the only independently distributed film in the bunch.

If you get the chance to see it, do not hesitate. Go!

That said, Road to Hell is not what you’d expect. If you’re a Hill fan, keep in mind that it’s an homage, not an official sequel. If you’re a Pyun fan, you’ll love it no matter what. One viewing tip: If you never saw Streets of Fire, watch that first and you’ll appreciate Road to Hell even more. (Rent it. It’s $3 on Amazon.) For fans of both Streets of Fire and Pyun, Road to Hell is totally worth the interminable wait.

So what’s it about? Okay, first let’s review. When we last saw our hero Tom Cody (Michael Paré), it was 1984. He’d just rescued the toothsome Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) from rubber-clad kidnappers and was leaving to attend a war, apparently because he liked guns more than her. Go figure. And she was leaving their slummy ’hood, The Richmond, for rock superstardom. Fair enough.

MSDSTOF EC108

STREETS OF FIRE, Michael Pare, 1984, (c)Universal Pictures

Plotwise, Streets of Fire is your boilerplate morality play with the usual suspects. The only characters with any emotional depth are Cody and his sister Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). The rest are one-dimensional, almost cartoon-like. Or as Pyun explains it, “Cody was all about Ellen and Ellen was all about Ellen.” Which is perfect here, because anything more complex would just muddy an effort of this scale. Sort of the way Ben & Jerry’s flavors all have one too many ingredients so you buy Haagen-Dazs chocolate chip instead, just so your head won’t explode.

Why pay $3 to watch this? I hear you asking. Well, Streets of Fire has singing and dancing. It has brawls and car chases and motorcycles, and stuff exploding everywhere, and the obligatory mash scene is extra steamy. It has a huge cast of talent who became famous for doing something else. The action’s artily set against other-dimensional backdrops of garish 1950-ish tableaux mixed with 1980s hair and semiautomatic weapons.

You might guess a formula like that would never work. You’d be wrong. Not to mention the soundtrack is so bitchin, it had a life all its own. There are songs by Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Ry Cooder, Leiber and Stoller, Link Wray, Bob Seger, and Meat Loaf’s wife, Jim Steinman, produced by Jimmy Iovine. The Dan Hartman hit “I Can Dream About You” made Billboard‘s Top 10 chart. In 2007 Vanity Fair rated the film’s score Number 6 on its Best Soundtracks Ever list. Simply put, Streets of Fire is a pre-CG sensory feast.

A rock & roll fable, Hill called it. Others called Streets of Fire the first music video. MTV didn’t exist yet, and Hill famously said in interviews that he filmed all the concert scenes by the seat of his pants, having no precedent to follow.

“It’s cut in time with the music!” oozed viewers who’d never seen A Hard Day’s Night. “You can’t use my song!” snorted Bruce Springsteen when told Hill didn’t want him to sing it. “It wanted to be a comedy and it turned out to be a drama,” costar Rick Moranis groused to Empire magazine. “What is this crap?” said just about everyone at industry screenings.

Nobody got it. One reviewer picked on the stars’ noses. (“…the smallest noses in show business history; perhaps this is why, when their faces meet, so little happens.” — Susan Dworkin, Ms. Magazine, August 1984)

It opened the same week as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Doom being the operative term here, box office was half what the film cost to make. ($14.5 M cost, $8 M gross.) And so Streets of Fire bombed resoundingly, thus claiming its rightful place in the pantheon of Eye Candy Rock Movies We Love, Now.

According to Hill, Streets of Fire was to be the first film in a Tom Cody trilogy. When it tanked at the box office, The Bombers Strike Back and Return of the Sorels sank with it. (Paré claimed the sequels were abandoned because everyone involved left Universal, who owned the rights to the franchise and wouldn’t play nice.)

For three decades, Streets of Fire fans waited patiently for someone to salvage the wreckage. Albert Pyun is their Argo.

Pyun, for those who don’t know, apprenticed to Akira Kurosawa in the 1970s and debuted as a feature film director in 1982, with The Sword and the Sorcerer, one of the top-grossing indie films of all time. His 50-some movies include the horrorfests Nemesis (1992) and Infection (2005), which won best picture and best director awards at VI Semana Internacional de Cine Fantástico y de Terror de Estepona. In 2013 he received the Indie Genre Spirit Award at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival.

Pyun first met Paré in the 1990s. Both were making movies for Cannon Pictures then, albeit not together, and racking up industry cred — Paré was upcycling his image to action hero after a decade of mostly forgettable TV roles and romance films, while Pyun was establishing himself as a director who could quickly make profitable movies, often two at a time.

houston knights & women's club 3

Michael Pare in “Houston Knights” (left) and “The Women’s Club” (right)

“We discussed the Road to Hell movie with Paré in 2007, in Spain” at a film festival, says Pyun’s longtime collaborator, Cynthia Curnan. “Albert and Michael had wanted to work together for a long time.”

With Pyun directing, Curnan writing and producing, and the preternaturally handsome Paré in nearly every scene, they started shooting Road to Hell in 2008. The result is more a tribute to Streets of Fire than a followup: not so much singing and dancing, way more violence and blood, all of it set against staggeringly beautiful scenery.

But that’s Pyun’s forté. Shocking visual effects, coupled with edgy dialogue by Curnan that makes you believe ordinary people can triumph in extraordinary circumstances. Like Streets of Fire, Road to Hell is way, way ahead of its time.

Much of the film’s carnage is suggested rather than shown (probably as a result of budget constraints and lost footage — I’ll get to that). There’s a lot of outside-the-letterbox mayhem and sex. Personally, I like this approach. It leaves more room for the characters to develop and the plot to run on its own wheels. A great director is one who presents stories as well as he does entrails.

I don’t want to give away too much plot here. Me, I thought I knew what to expect and still had a visceral reaction at key moments, so I’ll let some other reviewer mess up that pleasure for you.

Suffice it to say that Road to Hell didn’t win PollyGrind’s best effects award for nothing. Much like Streets of Fire, many scenes have mesmerizing other-worldly backdrops. Every color-saturated shot is carefully framed, almost like a postcard — a picture postcard from Hell.

Hell Valley, that is. That’s where we hook up with Cody again, returning from his precious war with a bad case of post traumatic stress disorder. He still has too many weapons. Hell, he is a weapon.

Having had 29 years to reconsider his earlier poor decision, he’s now on his way back to The Richmond to reconnect with the hot girlfriend who got away. Along the way he meets two new characters: Caitlin (Clare Kramer) and Ash (Courtney Peldon), a pair of fetchingly underdressed misanthropes having car trouble on Route 666.

The women are luminous and electric, even while changing a tire that’s bigger than they are, and so reprehensible it’s hard to feel sorry for them. They’re loud and pottymouthed. They kill people for fun. Caitlin thinks she’s found her soul mate in Cody.

Kramer simmers in her role. She was my favorite villain — the mean, funny, fashion-victim god Glory — in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and she makes a good baddie here. Peldon cooks, too. Her best moments come when she realizes her use-by date has expired, and she utters barely a word. It’s all on her beautiful, horrified face.

Speaking of meaningful looks, one part I was compelled to rewatch several times is the scene where Cody meets Caitlin and Ash. Look carefully. You’ll see the face of a softer, younger Cody, the one who wants to believe in love, in a pitched battle with harder, older, no-bullshit Cody who’d rather just kill. Paré’s face actually changes, then changes back. It’s more than acting (bygones, Michael) and it’s not a digital manipulation.

The technical explanation? “A camera malfunction damaged all the shots,” says Curnan. “We had to wait for technology to advance to fix them. We couldn’t afford to rotoscope each frame.” Five years after they started, they were reshooting and repairing scenes. This sequence was among them. What you see is an epic Jekyll/Hyde duel between a 40-something Paré and a 50-something Paré, duking it out for realsies.

And it’s freakin’ awesome. There isn’t a makeup artist alive who could believably achieve what Pyun accomplished here. That he arrived at it while making lemonade out of lemons is the stuff of legends.

If you don’t understand what I mean, or think I’m full of crap, or both, I refer you to 1989’s Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!, in which a then-30ish Paré alternated between a 20ish Eddie and a 40ish one wholly via makeup, and succeeded at neither. Clare Kramer had an alter ego in Buffy who was more believable, and he was a guy. Not for nothing, but in 1977 Luis Buñuel ingeniously used two actors (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) to play one character, Conchita, in That Obscure Object of Desire. No makeup magic there and no one laughed, either, at least not when they weren’t supposed to.

My point is, there are ways to do this sort of thing believably and too often it isn’t, due more to lack of imagination than budget. Film history is littered with detritus from failed id-versus-ego slapdowns. (The Curse of the Werewolf? The ShiningMary Reilly? Sybil? Anyone?) I say do it right or go home, and Pyun nails it.

Among Road to Hell’s other visual treats are the spectacular Nevada desert, subbing for purgatory here with enhancements recalling a bad acid trip (and cleverly referencing Streets of Fire‘s original artwork).

Road to Hell

Streets of Fire posterAnother thing I liked immensely is the juxtaposition of multiple timelines in the present (Cody’s, Ellen Dream’s, and Reva’s) with the Ellen Aim flashbacks. The present-time scenes are all different styles: a graphic novel look for Tom Cody, a cinema verité one for Ellen Dream, and a documentary feel for Reva Cody. They’re knitted artfully with the happy-fuzzy uber-romanticized memories of Ellen Aim. When they all collide at the end, you know exactly where you are.

Anyway, Van Valkenburgh reliably reprises the role of Reva. She does a fine job of tethering the day-glo present to a noir past necessarily relegated to viewer memory. It’s good to see her again. Ellen Aim is played by the sexy Anita Leeman. Other characters from Streets of Fire are mentioned but never shown at all (except for Cody’s sidekick McCoy and arch enemy Raven, briefly and gorily). As always, Brick Bardo (Scott Paulin) is in the mix, too.

Michael Paré of course plays Tom Cody. Michael Paré rocks Tom Cody. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in that role, ever. If there’s ever a sequel to the sequel, they’ll just have to wheel Paré out and let him gum the scenery. That’s how much he owns the part.

The Cody in Road to Hell is disillusioned and surly, seeking some type of redemption while questioning whether he even deserves it. He’s so discombobulated, he even toys with the idea of badgirl Caitlin as a viable alternative to Ellen, I guess in case his childhood sweetheart who’s probably an altacocker now doesn’t work out. Caitlin’s hot. She’s there. She gives MRE new meaning. So what if she’s depraved?

Granted, it’s a lot of story packed into a compact space and I’ve only told you half of it, like I promised I wouldn’t. Pyun and Curnan cleverly manage to convey all this in terms of biblical allegory. Don’t worry. It’s fun, not preachy.

The unique concept gives an interesting spin to a plot that, in the hands of lesser storytellers, could easily be not so special. I dare you not to love the backstory exposition humorously offered by Gabriel, of all people — yes, the archangel given the unenviable job of telling the Virgin Mary that the rabbit died. Joei Fulco plays the part — yes, she’s a woman. Instead of a horn, this Gabriel wields a mean guitar and modern slang. Her mission: Snatch Cody from the jaws of hell. Woot!

One of many other scripty things Curnan does especially well is sandwich very funny quips in between body blows. Consider this one, delivered ominously by a grinning, up-to-no-good Cody: “I’ve hunted up here. I hunt wabbit. The two-legged breed.” And this, blurted by Ellen Aim’s eternally disappointed daughter (Roxy Gunn) during a confrontation about to turn postal: “I needed you my whole life, asshole!”

Streets of Fire fans will delight in the strategic reuse of signature lines throughout Road to Hell. There are slick cross references, too: a flat tire that changes everything; OTT bondage; Ellen suffers idiotic fan questions about her creative process. Her band sports the same name as Torchie’s band, the Blasters. Cody coldcocks chicks. He even mentions his “dark side,” a sly wink at another Paré cult musical, Eddie and the Cruisers.

Much to the relief of everyone except Springsteen, there’s finally an actual song called “Streets of Fire,” written for the movie by musical director Tony Riparetti and sung the hell out of by Fulco. The whole score is quite good. Two Jim Steinman songs from Streets of Fire were dusted off and performed again, this time by Gunn, and arguably better: “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young.” Gunn is a guitarist and vocalist who wrote and performed many of the film’s excellent tunes. Vegas Rocks! Magazine called Road to Hell “one of the best music-driven films of the year.”

I love Pyun’s willingness to take big chances on relative unknowns, a kind of artistic bravura that really pays off here. Newcomers Fulco and Gunn pull double duty supplying both pipes and pivotal character portrayals, and never miss a beat. Fulco, amazingly, is only about 15 here and has since moved on to leading roles in feature films. She’s going to be a huge star. Quadruple-threat Gunn also has a big career ahead. Her band The Roxy Gunn Project is a favorite on Vegas stages, with a rapidly growing fan base. Both Fulco’s and Gunn’s lungs should be gilded and enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Best of all, Road to Hell has a twist ending you’ll never expect. I foresee it winning a lot more awards. And fans. Go see it. You’re welcome.




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Content of this blog Copyright ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved.
Road to Hell material Copyright ©2014 Albert Pyun Movies and Curnan Pictures ★ Images used with permission
Streets of Fire photo of Michael Paré and film poster art © RKO Universal Pictures

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5 O’Clock World | Joyriding with the High Rollers

I used to be the nightlife columnist for a newspaper so dorky, I was the best thing in it. Here’s one of my club reviews from 2005.

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high rollers

Copyright © 2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

You sure wouldn’t know it to look at it, but the Narragansett Cafe in Jamestown (25 Narragansett Ave.) is one mighty interesting place.

On the face of it, it’s just another small-town bar. Except it’s a small-town bar that occasionally books national acts. We’ve got a few of those around here.

Anyway, that’s how I used to think of the Ganny, as the regulars call it. Unassuming. Low key. Sort of Ernie’s Garage-looking. Am I on the right block?

Then I went in. Many things make the Ganny special. First of all, the bartenders take no prisoners when out-of-towners get out of line. (“Martinis?! What kinda place you think this is?”) Plus there’s this resident angry mob that chased me — twice, actually — because they thought I was some dude invading the sanctity of the ladies’ can. One time a hysterical guy nearly kicked down my stall door. In the women’s room. I am not making this up.

Now, I’m assured by my loved ones that I do not (as Bunny Swan put it) looka like-a man, despite a propensity for motorcycle jackets and cowboy boots. It’s just that the Ganny, where the lights are atmospherically dim and the beer goggles extra thick, is a place where magic happens! Or something.

In other words, the Ganny is my kind of place. So forget that the outside looks like Mayberry Hardware. I’ve heard an awful lot of good music inside, the quality of which easily overshadows any cosmetic disadvantages by many orders of magnitude.

Last week I was overdue for some pixie dust, so I stopped in to catch Dave Howard and the High Rollers. Tommy Ferraro, the band’s guitarist, agrees that the Ganny looks deceptively laid back from the street. He should know. He’s played there for fifteen years.

“Most every night can be a crazy experience,” he says, recalling the old days when he’d perform atop the bar, dragging a long cord behind him. “I might’ve kicked over somebody’s drink once or twice.”

His favorite Ganny memory, though, is a birthday he’ll never forget. “The owner, Danny Alexander, and the manager, Lynnie Sisson, are great people. They brought out a big cake. I played a green Fender Stratocaster in those days, and the cake had a green guitar on it. It was really sweet!”

As it turned out, a bunch of my friends had had the same idea as me on this particular night. So I sat at a table full of jaded professional musicians whose idea of a fun night off is a date with the High Rollers.

Back in New York we called this a busman’s holiday. And let me just say, an evening off doesn’t get any better. We were all kinds of raucous, careening into the night with the High Rollers driving. It was like our own private party except with a killer band, someone to clean up our mess, and a bunch of other people we didn’t know.

Our bus never rolled in but the club was jammed anyway, because the High Rollers always draw a crowd. The dance floor was total chaos.

For the record, the only thing actually rolling here besides the band was a local guy in a wheelchair, who I’m told gets ejected regularly for groping distaff patrons. The vigilante mob? Not so much rolling as roiling. The band’s other fans range from gymnastic swing dancers to crusty jitterbuggers, to hardcore R&B and rock’n’roll purists who brook no shoddiness. This place is like dance school, with beer. And seething mobs and projectile wheelchairs.

The High Rollers’ bread and butter is blues, but they are chameleon-like, adapting seamlessly to the tastes of whichever town they’re in and whatever revelers drop by. They’re almost a different band every time, each incarnation flawless and irresistible. Whaddya like? Rockabilly? Honkey-tonk? Country? Stones? Ballads? You came to the right place. If you’re breathing, you’ll love them. There’s nothing they can’t play the hell out of.

If ya gotta ask why, then here ya go: Each band member is a monster in his own right. Ferraro is one slammin’ guitar wizard, perhaps one of the most underrated artists in the music industry. Paul Bondarovski of Midnight Special Blues Radio said: “Les Paul would stay open-mouthed having heard [Ferraro’s] solo in ‘Old But I Ain’t Dead.'” Ferraro’s been playing since he was eight, he explains, when his accordion teacher goaded him to “play an instrument you can make some money with.”

The rest of the line-up consists of Robillard alumnus John Packer on bass, ex-Radio King Bob Christina on drums, and of course Dave Howard on vocals and harp. He was one of the Vipers (as in Young Neal And The). Along with Ferraro, he’s also the High Rollers’ songwriter. Collectively the band has, like, 800 years of chops. They’ve cut three CDs that’ll blow your doors off: Sure Bet, Lonesome Tears In My Eyes, and Ride Past Midnight (the latter two are hard to find but worth the work).

The Providence Phoenix named the High Rollers “Best Blues Band” four freakin times. They play at the Ganny a lot. So ignore its Guido’s Pizza facade and go on in already. There’s plenty of room to dance and a stunning range of suds on draft. Just steer clear of the wheelchair perv and that lynch mob over by the restroom. Hell, there’s no cover. Whaddya want — everything?

Above: A killer solo by Tommy Ferraro.

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Copyright © 2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
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.