MEYER MONTH – The Final War of Russ Meyer by David K. Frasier

21 Mar

In the July 18-August 1 1985 issue of Rolling Stone director John Waters contributed an article, “Trash Tour of Los Angeles”, which included the address of Russ Meyer’s home, 3121 Arrowhead Drive, in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles.  The “Pope of Trash”,  long an articulate champion of RM’s work, dubbed the director’s two-story chalet the “Russ Meyer Museum” because nearly every inch of available wall, ceiling, and kitchen cabinet space was festooned with posters, photos, and memorabilia chronicling his career, wartime experiences, and serial sexual liaisons.  Meyer never forgave Waters for this transgression even though JW had him on tape saying it was okay to include the address.  Russ reportedly roundly cursed Waters each time a covey of fans dropped by the manse expecting an impromptu tour.  I owe John Waters a personal debt not only because this kind and gracious man has supported my books on murder, entertainment industry suicide, and showbiz homicide, but more importantly without his Rolling Stone article I never would’ve met Russ Meyer.  John’s travelogue led to a close 15 year friendship with “The King of the Nudies” largely spent working on his mammoth three-volume autobiography, A Clean Breast.

I was a librarian at the Kinsey Institute (formerly the Institute for Sex Research) on the campus of Indiana University-Bloomington when I first saw the article.  Ever since seeing a double bill of Good Morning… and Goodbye! and Common-Law Cabin at the Sunset Drive-in in Evansville, Indiana, during the early 1970s I’d been hooked.  Sure the outsized breasts were great, but beyond that it was obvious these movies were the progeny of a one man film factory whose love of life and vital essence energized every frame of film.  Jump cut to August 1985.  Armed with the address from the Waters article I respectfully wrote RM to request that he donate copies of his videotapes for the collections of the Kinsey Institute library.  A few days later, I was stunned when the Institute’s secretary rang my office to say “a Russ Meyer” was on the line.  Long story short – Russ was thrilled to donate videos to the library, and when I told him I wanted to do a book length bibliography on published works about him he informed me that I must come to Los Angeles to incorporate the multi-volumes of material contained in the scrapbooks in his vast home archive.  RM was proud of his work and doggedly sought out every published mention of his name (both good and bad).

Russ cooperated fully in the project, but insisted my book NOT be a biography.  He was engaged in that endeavor and nothing must compete with what he portentously dubbed THE BOOK.  I assured him my effort was solely to collect material about him so fans and researchers could use the book to study his work.  Russ Meyer – The Life and Films was published by a small reference publisher in 1990 and featured a 25 page career essay (“Russ Meyer, American Auteur”), and annotated entries on 1,148 published items, as well as a detailed filmography.  Jimmy McDonough, best-selling author of Shakey:  Neil Young’s Biography (2002), fully realized my vision for the book when he used it to write his definitive 2005 biography of Russ, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws:  The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film.  If you haven’t done so, pick it up.  It’s a hell of a read particularly the tragic final years of “King Leer” filled as they were with equal measure of Shakespearean poignancy and perfidy.

Although John Waters briefly touched on RM’s manse in the Hills above the Lake Hollywood Reservoir it deserves closer scrutiny as a testament to the Great Man’s life.  Few houses, even in the Land of the Ravenous Ego, have ever been converted into a shrine to so fully chronicle the grandeur of its owner.  For a while it was painted a bilious combination of green and orange to mimic the color scheme of his Bosomania videocassette boxes.  Of course, the neighbors hated it (much to RM’s delight), and he was often at odds with them. On one kitchen cabinet, Russ had laminated a letter from a disgruntled neighbor unhappy with the trash (sets from Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens — much of it was shot in the house) strewn across the backyard.  She complained the space looked like “lower Tijuana”, and added that everyone in the neighborhood “would love to work from their homes, but as you know it’s illegal”.  “I had my attorney write a gorilla letter”, RM said, “and she backed off.”

Once while we were floating in the small pool on the side of the house I asked him if he ever had trouble with neighbors peeking in to catch glimpses of female guests like Francesca “Kitten” Natividad, Melissa Mounds, and many others.   Not a problem on Arrowhead (“my next door neighbors are Chinese”), but his second home in Palm Desert was in a neighborhood overrun with horny teen-aged boys.  The munificently endowed Melissa Mounds, his lover during the latter half of the 1990s, often swam nude and kids would either get on the roofs of their homes with binoculars, or, steal peeks over the wall.  Russ loved telling the story about how Mounds stormed after one sexually enflamed teen, knocked on the door of his dwelling, and when his mother answered, she pulled down her top exposing a brace of humongous bazooms and said, “Tell your son here they are if he’s still interested”.

For a Meyer fan the house on Arrowhead was a breast man’s Louvre.  Russ was deeply proud of his work and profoundly sentimental.  Photos of former lovers (one of a seductive Uschi Digard in a swimming pool playing a sousaphone) were everywhere and RM memorialized the fact of his couplings with a gold nameplate bearing the inscription, “To the mutual exchange of wondrous bodily fluids”.  The far wall of the kitchen was covered with priceless memorabilia from the films – Bill Teas’s straw hat from The Immoral Mr. Teas, Tura “Varla” Satana’s glove from Faster, Pussycat!  Kill!  Kill!, the ice tongs that spelled the end of Lorna Maitland in Lorna, even the wheel chair Meyer stock player Stuart Lancaster used in FPKK.  For me, however, one item in particular was just the best.  In the kitchen, RM had a framed ad from Daily Variety featuring a shot of Erica Gavin trumpeting both his greatness and the huge financial success of Vixen!.  It was one of those ads that asked a series of questions with only one obvious answer, in this case, “Russ Meyer”.  “Who is the man who gave us Vixen!?”, “Who is the man responsible for making a film that broke box office records in Chicago”, “Who is this visionary director…” etc., etc.  Under the final question, the late Eve Meyer (the beauty and brains behind Eve Productions) had written in bold ink, “Who gives a crap?”  Russ laughed it off remembering his voluptuous ex-wife never tired of “busting balls” especially when she controlled the budgets for the films produced under the Eve banner. What a woman.

Russ always said he never felt really close to someone until he’d been through a war with them.  His best friends remained his World War II army buddies, and Roger Ebert, their lifelong friendship initially forged in the trenches at 20th Century-Fox writing the classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  What follows is a free-form reminiscence of the “war” we shared, the seemingly endless working and re-working of A Clean Breast.  While illness ultimately left Russ unable to see the project through to its conclusion or to celebrate his achievement, THE BOOK stands as a remarkable document if not only for its thousands of photographs.  Readers shouldn’t go there expecting to find any great personal insights into the man.  Russ wasn’t that type of guy, and admitted he wasn’t particularly sensitive although he was strongly sentimental and attached to his friends.  RM once told me his autobiography was infinitely better than director David Lean’s because it was longer.

Over the years, ACB grew from one volume to three (as did its price from $70.00 to $350.00) as Russ refused to wrap the project.  RM first got the idea to write his own story after becoming disenchanted with German author Rolf Thissen’s book, Russ Meyer, der Konig des Sexfilms (1987).  Russ was so outraged by what he saw as the tome’s inaccuracies that he successfully sued to block the book’s distribution in America.  What ensued was a period of intense activity lasting years as Russ filled up seemingly inexhaustible reams of yellow legal pads with his story.  He combed his clippings archive and had an assistant obtain Permissions from various entities to reproduce complete articles (most often reviews) in the tomes.  On the strength of my book, Russ brought me in as an “associate editor,” a job that primarily consisted of proofreading, fact checking, and sizing photographs.

Russ, like most people with only a passing acquaintance with the university (his film festivals at Yale and Northwestern), was impressed with academia far beyond anyone who has actually ever had to work within their hallowed halls.  Russ would daily call the I.U. library where I worked (I left the Kinsey Institute in 1986) to ask how to spell certain words, but mostly just to talk.  He always referred to the library as “the Gutenberg” and my colleagues soon recognized his modulated FM radio voice.  After Russ decided only the printing presses of Hong Kong were cutting edge enough to reproduce the thousands of black-and-white duo-tone photos in ACB he compelled me to get a passport.  Never used it.  RM had a falling out with the printer and had all the work shipped to FB Productions, a commercial printer in Chatsworth, California that specialized in producing top quality stand-up movie advertising.  At first, Russ sent printer’s proofs to my home, but later he’d fly me out to Los Angeles annually for a week or so to work shoulder-to-shoulder and bunk with him at his Hollywood digs.  Russ always met me at the Los Angeles International Airport and, with the moxie gained in 40 plus years of navigating the traffic choked streets of Hell A, wended his way along a circuitous route of highways and surface streets.  Most often, he’d be driving his GMC Suburban, a veteran of several motion picture shoots. Once when we were stopped at a light a Mexican street vendor approached the truck and tried to sell Russ a dozen red roses. Without missing a beat, he pointed at me and told the guy, “No thanks, we’re not queer.” Classic Meyer.

A typical working day began with reveille around 5:30 A.M. with Russ eating a bowl of oatmeal seated at the editing machine in his garage in the shadow of shelves of boxed film cuts and a huge vault.  He always appreciated that I didn’t eat breakfast so I could immediately launch into work at a nearby table.  During work on ACB, RM was also cutting down his features for a planned 12 hour compilation film, The Breast of Russ Meyer, and later worked on two direct-to-video (then the format) films – one on then lover, Melissa Mounds, and the other on Pandora Peaks (eventually released on DVD, but finished by RM stalwart Jim “the Handyman” Ryan after his friend of 50 years became too ill to work).

While editing, Russ also fielded phone calls for RM Films and personally took orders for his videos.  After a big sale he’d hold up the completed invoice and exclaim, “Frasier, tonight we eat!”  Often during the day, Russ called me over to the editing machine to show off a particularly groin stirring scene.  “God, what a fucking evil look,” he’d marvel as footage of the hellishly configured Melissa Mounds clad only in a feathered mask coiled into a canvas film bin.  Their tempestuous relationship ended in May 1999 after the stripper attacked the sleeping director with a hammer.  Nothing kills sex quicker than a restraining order.  RM’s long-time film editor Richard Brummer was often at the house on Arrowhead doing sound editing on BRM. Once after Brummer left for the day, RM mused that while his friend and colleague was a superb editor he was incapable of editing a film without the Master’s supervision.  “You have to have this fetish, to adore the bosom vast in order to cut the breast just as it’s at its most perfect.  Brummer is married to a woman who’s built like a broom handle.  What can he know?”.

We’d knock off around 6:00 P.M., have a beer at the house (RM was in a Corona phase for a while), then the best times began.  Russ loved to eat and lived for the camaraderie of “cutting meat” with friends.  RM was a regular at the Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard and always entered through the kitchen.  Interestingly, he refused to pay the parking fee behind the restaurant, opting instead to give the Mexican attendant a few bucks (less than the rate) off the books.  Conversation during the dozens of meals we shared was unforgettable.  RM always started off with a stiff drink (“Bombay gin straight up and so cold it’ll hurt your teeth”), ordered, and for the next two hours or more over the meal discussed his movies, friends, women, and THE BOOK (which he considered to be one of the most important things he’d ever attempted).  Russ liked that I only drank beer (“it’s so much cheaper than liquor”) and spoke with contempt of picking up the bloated bar tab of an associate of ecdysiast Pandora Peaks who insisted on quaffing champagne cocktails at $15.00 bucks a throw at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Palm Desert.  Russ also appreciated my insistence on picking up the tab at least once during any visit.  To save me money he’d pronounce, “We’ll eat at the greasy spoon”, Meyerese for the Talleyrand restaurant, his standby eatery located at 1700 W. Olive Avenue in Burbank.

The aforementioned Jim Ryan (the “Handyman” in Eve and the Handyman), a wonderful guy who devoted most of his life to RM, was a frequent companion on these outings.  Booze flowed at a Russ Meyer repast and one drive back from a restaurant near RKO Studios (now part of Paramount) on the corner of Melrose and Gower in Hollywood was memorable.  We were discussing his troubled and checkered relationship with the Hollywood film establishment when he suddenly pulled his truck over next to the studio, walked over to building, unzipped, and pissed on the wall.  “There”, he said peeling away from the curb, “that’s what I think of the whole fucking lot of them.”

Once on the way to a steak joint, Russ said, “I want you to meet the woman who made me a millionaire”.  We drove over to Fred Segal’s, a trendy clothing store in West Hollywood, but Erica (Vixen) Gavin, the shop’s general manager, had already left for the day.  RM owed her big… and knew it.  Best meal ever with Russ?  Easy.  Cactus Jack’s on Highway 111 in Indio, California.  We’d just spent a grueling day on ACB, and Russ felt that it was finally done.  We spent the early evening photocopying the volumes at a local Xerox store then went off to savor the best prime rib in the world washed down with what he called “copious amounts of meaningful grog”. Work on ACB ground on for over a decade with Russ sending printer’s bluelines to my home, me visiting Los Angeles, and my fielding near daily phone calls about THE BOOK.  I probably should’ve noticed RM’s mental deterioration earlier, but when you’re in the middle of something as all-consuming as this project was for Russ it was easy not to see what in retrospect was obvious.  RM was a workaholic and recognizing this essential element in his character I just thought he didn’t want the book to end because he felt it would signal his death.

That said, he kept adding chapters and photos to the volumes like rooms in the Winchester House.  The project ultimately descended into chaos when Russ discovered his typesetter could adjust spaces between letters and words, a process in the printing biz known as kerning.  RM meticulously eyeballed every line to make certain the spaces between the words were exact.  He slept with a dog-eared thesaurus and readily sacrificed the use of an initially well-chosen word in order to use an inferior synonym containing just the right amount of letters to balance out a line.  This went on page after page, draft after draft, until he was unable to keep the corrected drafts in order.  Time and again I was sent the same version of a draft to correct that I had already proofread.  By mid-1999 it was apparent to those in the company that RM was unable to complete the project.  The attorney stepped in and informed the company’s office manager that RM was facing a huge tax bite were the project not completed and published by the end of 2000.  I was brought out in August 1999 for what I knew would be my final meeting with Russ.  I don’t wish to dwell on this unhappy time.  Anyone who has watched a beloved friend or family member fade slowly away fully understands the pain and cosmic injustice of this kind of loss.  It was particularly tough to watch helplessly as a man as vital and independent as Russ went slowly into that Good Night.

Again, Jimmy McDonough graphically chronicles this painful chapter of RM’s life.  With apologies, it’s just too sad to rehash here.  I wrapped the book for Russ and after it was printed in 2000 was sent a signed copy.  I have no reason to believe he even remembered who I was when he was prompted to sign it.  Flashback to August 1999 as I’m leaving the “Russ Meyer Museum” for the final time, the manuscript completed, our war nearly won.  Realizing I’d never see him alive again, I asked the Great Man if he’d be kind enough to sign the book I’d written on him in 1990.  Here’s what he wrote:

–David K. Frasier / 3-2-12

4 Responses to “MEYER MONTH – The Final War of Russ Meyer by David K. Frasier”

  1. rootriver March 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    Love you love your work!

  2. Jimmy McDonough March 21, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    Frasier outdoes himself once again. Fantastic!

  3. Paul Duane (@punkyscudmonkey) March 24, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    That is marvellous, just absolutely terrific stuff.

  4. Rob Branigin February 20, 2013 at 10:39 pm #

    wonderful article. thanks, dave!

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