Tag Archives: Jimmy McDonough

MEYER MONTH – ‘Russ Meyer’s Last Laugh’ by David K. Frasier

1 Apr

On September 18th 2004, I received the long-expected, but nevertheless painful, call from Jim “the HandyMan” Ryan. “Dave, Russ just passed and we’re having the memorial service at Forest Lawn-Hollywood on Friday. I know you wanna be there.” Ryan, RM’s most stalwart crony and factotum, had sacrificed more than half a century of his existence to the director and now summoned the faithful. On the flight out to Los Angeles I reflected on Russ and how lucky I was to have been able to number him as a cherished friend. I’d met “King Leer” in late 1985, published a reference book on him in 1990, and for many years worked shoulder-to-shoulder with The Master on his 3 volume autobiography A Clean Breast (2000), ultimately completing it when dementia made it impossible for him to continue. Upon arrival, I installed myself at the Safari Inn in Burbank, a motel Russ always pointed out as having been a popular trysting place for him. It was also memorably featured in the 1993 Tony Scott film True Romance scripted by Quentin Tarantino.

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More importantly (for a mourner seeking to immerse himself in memories of Russ) the motel was a couple of blocks from the Talleyrand Restaurant at 1700 W. Olive Avenue. Anyone who spent time with Russ ultimately ended up at what he affectionately called “the greasy spoon.” A short 15 minute drive from his home in the Hollywood Hills, the Talleyrand fulfilled most of the criterion Russ demanded in an eatery—comparatively cheap prices, studded leather horseshoe booths, warm bread slathered with butter, and Bombay gin served so cold it hurt your teeth to drink it. The first time Russ took me there for dinner in the mid-1980s we sat in a booth where in between bites of meat loaf  I interviewed him about the making of The Immoral Mr. Teas (the unpublished interview was recently included in the booklet I did for the Arrow Films release, The Russ Meyer Collection—19 Uplifting Classics).  For years afterward, often in the company of Jim Ryan, we’d consume massive amounts of food washed down with what Russ called “meaningful amounts of grog” as he waxed poetic about past sexual and filmic exploits as well as ambitious future plans. Nothing compared to sharing RM’s friendship at a groaning table of plenty after a grueling 12 hour workday.

tallyrand

I’ll save the account of the viewing of the Great Man’s body and his memorial service at Forest Lawn-Hollywood for another “Meyer Month.” Jimmy McDonough covers the service in vivid detail in Big Bosoms and Square Jaws:  The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film (2005), required reading for anyone interested in “King Leer.” I arose early on the morning of the service, September 24th, with the intention of eating one last time at the place Russ and I had shared so many memorable meals and memories together.  A short walk brought me to the Talleyrand at the height of their breakfast rush. The place was hopping and I waited 15 minutes before a harried waitress led me to a booth where, remarkably, Russ and I had sat the first time he ever took me there. The table was scattered with dirty dishes and as I waited for it to be bussed I thought back over the time I was privileged to have shared with Russ.  Sure, he had his share of faults (he could make a dollar bill scream, was serially unfaithful, and was blindingly egotistical), but he was also capable of great kindness, generosity, and supreme loyalty. He was the Great American Success Story–a rugged individual who through sheer perseverance, talent, and relentless hard work in the service of an all-compassing cockeyed fetish had produced a body of work destined to make him an enduring part of world cinematic history. Though I hadn’t seen or spoken to Russ for several years (his court-appointed caregivers thought best to limit nearly all his outside contact with friends, see McDonough), his loss still hurt like hell. Lost in such thoughts, my eyes rested on the stack of ones left as a tip by the last diner. The top bill was signed:

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Russ always had to have the last word.  R.I.P., old friend.

David K. Frasier 3/21/20013

MEYER MONTH – The Bodacious Babette Bardot

12 Mar

Once viewed, Babette Bardot is never forgotten. Tall, curvaceous, well stacked, a perfect red pout and inches of voluminous platinum blonde hair. Think of your typical hourglass-figured caricature and you’ve got Bardot, thick fluttering black eyelashes and all. She only starred in two of Russ Meyers films, Mondo Topless and Common Law Cabin, but she made one hell of an impression. And yet, I know very little about her, so tried to piece together as much as I could find to create some sort of rounded profile on the girl.

babette

Swedish-French Babette Bardot was born in Goteborg, Sweden in 1940. She’s quoted by Meyer biographer Jimmy McDonough in his book Big Bosoms and Square Jaws as being  ‘the fourth cousin of Brigette Bardot‘ although there seems to be some contention online as to whether or not this is actually true. Another fact up for questioning is whether or not she really did model for artist Pablo Picasso in her teens which she exclaims she did. At some point in the early 1960s she became a cheesecake model and was a regular in glamour and pin-up magazines, appearing in Fling, Adam and Escapade to name a few. Judging from earlier pictures of her she has at some point had a fair amount of cosmetic surgery. I didn’t know whether her breasts were real or not, and had yet to read anything that said either way, until it was confirmed for me by Diana Hart in her book Under The Mat that she’d had a boob job. Looking at early pictures and comparing them to her later look in Russ Meyers films, it’s also clear that she had some sort of nose surgery and maybe even lip fillers. You wonder whether her caricature look was one that she had intended to construct for a long time.

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In the early 1960s she apparently worked on two Swedish films but I have found nothing to establish whether or not this is actually true or, if it is, what the titles were. Sexploitation director extroadinaire Russ Meyer found Bardot at the infamous Pink Pussycat on Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, where she at one point had a headlining strip show (she previously used to dance before the legendary Tura Satana did her routine). Meyer asked her to appear in his mockumentary Mondo Topless and Bardot agreed, bringing some of her fellow co-workers along with her. There is no denying that Babette steals the show in Mondo, with Meyer even giving her assets pompous exaggeration; ‘French and Swedish, fifty-fifty where it counts!’. Once you see the images of her driving around San Francisco, topless, bouncing at every turn and bump, you’ll never be able to erase it from your memory. Even more so when you see her dancing and stripping off next to a train track, an oncoming locomotive in the distance and then roaring past. Only statuesque Babette would be discussing the intricacy of portraying a sexually mature woman with childlike innocence in her routines. Except that she manages to do it pretty easily, peeling off her stockings whilst sucking her thumb. My personal highlight is spotting the bruises up her thighs. Sign of a true pro, Bardot wasn’t once the highest paid stripper in the entire US for any old reason, reportedly earning a regular $2,500 a week.

babette

The following year in 1967 Bardot returned to play a character named after herself in Meyer’s Common Law Cabin. It’s here where Babette really shines, albeit in a glow of european campness. Every line is drooled in her thick French-Swedish accent making some words have an unintentional hilarious different meaning when in conversational context (‘rich’ ends up sounding more like ‘retch’). Having said that she does have some great scenes. I am a big fan of Common Law Cabin but if you’re not convinced, give it a watch just to see her in a tiny, push up bikini chopping fire wood with a machete. Then there’s her exotic fire dance atop a mountain, complete with wailing screams… Bardot plays off against her fellow leading lady Alaina Capri really well creating a memorable performance that stands out amongst those of other Meyer leading ladies. Capri herself said working with Bardot was ‘kind of wild’ which is hardly unsurprising. Accounts give the impression that this woman had a lot of energy, which director Russ would know all about. He claimed to have enjoyed a dalliance with Babette on set, with her frequently staying in his on-set accommodation. In true Meyer fashion, he blamed the films lack of success on the fact that there was too much extra-curricular action on set…

In 1967 she also appeared in I, Marquis de Sade in a minor role as one of de Sade’s girls. I can find very little about her brief role in this but it would again appear that she was hired based on her background of stripping and dancing. This and the two films she did with Russ Meyer appear to be her only film credits.

babette dancing

On the back of her appearances in Meyer’s films and under the guidance of her husband Bob Baker (her manager and leader of the small band that accompanied her act), she toured the US as a burlesque dancer in 1968,  having shows at the Gayety Theatre in New York City, the Town Theatre in Chicago (of which I managed to find a photo essay of one of her routines in which she looks gorgeous) and the Colony Club in Dallas. Bardot toured the burlesque circuit internationally until she set up a residence at the Majestic Inn in Calgary, Alberta. The liberal laws in Alberta allowed her to strip completely nude, although she would maintain her thong during performances. She performed there nightly for six months before heading to Las Vegas where she not only danced but also sung. She also managed time to fit in another night with Meyer… and none other than Uschi Digard. One can only imagine the amount of breast on show that night (Tura Satana once said she was knocked out when she bumped into Bardot in Vegas in the 70s having not seen her since her early Pink Pussycat days, her words ‘silicone does wonders’ pretty much sums up the interaction).

Whilst in Calgary she became friends with the legendary wrestling family The Harts through wrestler Andre The Giant, a regular at her shows. In the early 1970s Bardot and her family, which by this point included two children Bobby and Bianca, would travel to Calgary yearly to perform at the Majestic Inn where she would perform a lunchtime show and an evening show. During this month they would stay with the Hart’s in the big family home. In 1973 Stu Hart billed her as Miss Stampede Wrestling (the wrestling promotion he ran) after spotting her popularity with other wrestlers he worked with (she was also friends with Terry Funk and Dan Kroffat) but it was always Andre at every one of her shows sitting in the front show. Apparently he was reluctant to miss any of her performances and would sometimes turn up late to bookings that Stu had arranged for him because he’d been to see her. Word on the street was that he secretly held more than a flame for her. Bardot appeared at many of the Stampede parades, regularly riding with the wrestling clan on their float. One summer, the horse she was riding on buckled after the float in front of it stopped and Babette was thrown into the road. Apparently in tears in a heap on the floor, she still managed to let her bulging cleavage show to the crowds supposedly embarrassing a young Owen Hart. As Miss Stampede Wrestling Babette also had frequent appearances on the Stampede Wrestling TV show, handing out awards, title belts at wins and greeting big name stars to the ring.

The last known appearance I can find that she did was in 1981, where she headlined the Babette Bardot Review at the Kings Inn Motel in Daytona Beach. It would appear that she passed away at some point in the early 00s. Tura Satana herself suggests on one online forum that Bardot remarried at some point but that her new surname wasn’t known to many people, including her, which renders much information seeking redundant. It’s a real shame because I would have loved to know where this enigmatic woman found herself after 1981 and what she was up to at the time. By all reports she was a lovely lady and left an impression on all those she met, as well as all of us Russ Meyer fans.

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MEYER MONTH – ‘French Peep Show’ (1952)

1 Mar

The time; the early 1950s. The scene; the El Rey Burlesk Theater in Oakland, California. The situation; photographer Russ Meyer makes something of a living photographing burlesque dancers and strippers in cheesecake poses on black and white film. Meyer’s favourite is stripper Tempest Storm and one day he decides to shoot a two hundred foot roll of Kodachrome of the girl working her stuff after closing hours.

Meyer was playing with fire. Only Kodak itself could process the film stock and in those days, the subject matter would have alarm bells ringing. He might even have his film confiscated. But the director made sure that a pretty girl delivered it personally to the lab and gave the lab man a little something extra. Things would have been fine, had Meyer not handed in the roll in a tin that bore his employer’s sticker, Gene Walker Films (Meyer at this point was also working on industrial short films). One call from Kodak to Walker later and Meyer was read the riot whilst also, surprisingly, being given his reel of film back. Russ showed El Rey manager Pete DeCenzie the footage which made his eyes bulge. DeCenzie asked Meyer to shoot a filmed version of a typical El Rey show and so one night, Russ smuggled his bosses 16mm camera into the club and churned out French Peep Show. This would be the start of Meyer’s film career.

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Attributed to around 1952 but frequently to 1954, French Peep Show clocked in at an hour-long. Produced by Pete DeCenzie, the film plays host to Meyer’s first ‘directed by’ and ‘photographed by’ credits. Your standard El Rey show, he picture featured eight dancers, including Tempest Storm, and a host of comedians performing their acts. To accompany the production, a publication was also put together featuring Meyer’s pin-up photography and on-set production stills. According to Jimmy McDonough, Meyer told Fling magazine’s Arv Miller that the picture never got beyond pasties, which as McDonough notes would make some sense. It was the early 1950s and although nudity in film had been seen before, it’s hard to think that Meyer could have gotten away with showing topless burlesque dancers in the film. That said, I have no doubts that it was an exciting film none the less, a time capsule of entertainment that was once popular. If Meyer’s cheesecake photographs from this time are anything to go by, the picture would have been well executed, capturing well the routines of the strippers and dancers in all the seductive amusement.

Sadly, French Peep Show is no more. Out of circulation since its original theatrical run, it is now presumed lost. No one appears to have a copy, even Meyer himself didn’t hold on to one. According to him, once Pete died, his wife Yvonne burnt all remaining copies (Yvonne and Russ didn’t see eye to eye, especially when Russ wasn’t given his ten per cent of the profits that the picture saw). I remain optimistic that a remaining print still exists but doubt greatly that the Meyer estate hold a secret copy (otherwise it would have been a logical title to add to their recent release of Meyer’s early films that have never been publicly available before). Although The Immoral Mr.Teas was his first feature film and general success, I believe that had Meyer still had or had found a copy he would have released it whilst he was still alive. Always one to promote and publicise himself, even Russ would have understood French Peep Show’s significance for being the first example of all his cinematic career and style on celluloid (he openly admits that this is his first ‘proper’ film in a late 1990s interview for magazine Total Film) and as part of burlesque film history.

Russ Meyer’s Vintage Bodies – Early Films Finally Get Released

14 Nov

Christmas really has come early for Russ Meyer fans this year with news that the Russ Meyer Trust have finally released his early films on one DVD set. Not seen since original theatrical circulation and long believed by Meyer himself to be films of his that would never be available to fans,  Russ Meyer’s Vintage Bodies set see’s four of his early films collected together for the first time. The set includes 1960 short This Is My Body (attributed to 1959 by Jimmy McDonough in his superb biography Big Bosoms And Square Jaws), 1961 release Erotica and 1963 release and co-feature Heavenly Bodies and Skyscrapers and Brassieres.

This is a massive step for those in charge of the Russ Meyer estate, long considered by friends and fans to not really care about the directors work or the wealth of materials they inherited since his death. These four films provide the last batch of his catalogue that had never been released before and which fans presumed they would never be able to see. According to the Russ Meyer website, the Trust had the films digitally restored especially. A must-have for fans of the Nudie Cutie genre, sexploitation film genre and of Meyer himself, this box set will finally let audiences catch a glimpse of how the auteur developed his well distinguished cinematic style. Sadly, Meyer’s first real foray into filmmaking, The French Peep Show, isn’t included although one hopes that Meyer had a print somewhere that will eventually surface.

Reviews and features on the films included in the set will be included in this blog as part of next years ‘Meyer Month’.

MEYER MONTH – When Worlds Collide; Russ Meyer, the Sex Pistols & ‘Who Killed Bambi?’

18 May

One cannot deny that the idea of Russ Meyer working with the Sex Pistols is an interesting one. Meyer, the King of sexploitation filmmaking, and the Sex Pistols, the ‘first’ British punk rock band, were worlds apart. And yet in the 1970s, a collaboration between the two began and failed miserably.

Malcolm McLaren, manager and mastermind behind the Sex Pistols, decided that a good way to break the band into the US would be through a feature film. Intended to be released in 1978, the film was to be the punk version of A Hard Day’s Night. McLaren had reportedly already considered Peter Cook, Stephen Frears and Ken Loach for directing  before eventually settling on Meyer, who he described as ‘the epitome of American Fascism.’.  There are conflicting reports as to who suggested Meyer first, with one story being that the Sex Pistols themselves chose him after seeing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls at Screen On The Green (I’ve read the same story with McLaren in the watching role…). McLaren flew to Los Angeles to meet Meyer, who in turn brought Rene Daalder with him. Daalder was a Dutch filmmaker and script writer active in the LA punk scene. Unsurprisingly, Daalder and McLaren hit it off quite quickly, whereas Meyer and McLaren clashed.

A treatment for the film, which at that point had the working title of Anarchy in the U.K., was written by Daalder and McLaren, centering on the ‘actual story of the Sex Pistols’. Meyer hated it and trashed it immediately. Adamant that he didn’t want to make a ‘depressing’ film, Meyer bought screen writer and film critic Roger Ebert on board to write the script after their successful pairing on 1970 release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and 1976 release Up!. Ebert installed himself at the Sunset Marquis Hotel and in the June of 1977 wrote the script for the film, now titled Who Killed Bambi?. Although written by Ebert, McLaren had a great deal of input, giving Ebert and Meyer a crash course in punk rock.

With the script written, the group headed to London, although at this point warning signs should have been ringing for Meyer. A successful (practically) one-man filmmaker with studio experience behind him, Meyer at this point had no signed contract and was being paid weekly in cash. It would eventually be money that spelt the end of the project.

Once arriving in London, Meyer and Ebert finally met the band themselves. Ebert later wrote that he and Meyer were ‘a little non-plussed… to hear Johnny Rotten explain that he liked Beyond the Valley of the Dolls because it was so true to life’. Paul Cook and Steve Jones got on with and liked Meyer, the latter impressed that the sexploitation maestro had directed Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, although he had no idea who Meyer was until this fact was pointed out to him. Johnny Rotten and Meyer, however, did not get along. Rotten was rude, anti-American and boasted about the IRA which Meyer did not like. The director ended up calling him a ‘little shit’ over dinner. The sentiment was mutual. Rotten later wrote in his autobiography that he had hated Meyer from the first moment he met him; ‘this dirty old man… an overbearing, senile old git.’. Ebert has said that when Meyer rang him for the first time with the project he stated that the band went to see Dolls every weekend but other accounts I’ve read seem to contradict this. My main impression is that McLaren had more to do with choosing Meyer as the director then the band.

The premise of the film goes something like this. MJ (apparently a swipe at Mick Jagger), a decadent rocker, gets driven around the countryside looking for deer to shoot. He dumps his most recent kill on the doorstep of a family whose little girl opens the door to find the carcass and exclaims ‘Mummy, they’ve killed Bambi!’. MJ then attempts to corrupt the Sex Pistols, as does their manager, whilst other mad distractions happen along the way (including an encounter with a Scientology machine…). The little girl returns at the end to shoot MJ in the face and avenge Bambi’s death. All of this is taken from Jimmy McDonagh’s Meyer biography although Ebert did eventually post the screenplay he had written online in April 2010. Also included in the script was a scene for Sid Vicious in which he had sex with his mother and did heroin with her afterwards. Meyer had already cast Marianne Faithful for the role of his mother. Vicious was livid. Apparently he didn’t mind sleeping with her but he drew the line at the shooting up scene afterwards…

It was during filming, however, that everything began to fall apart. At this point in Pistols history, both Rotten and Vicious despised McLaren and Rotten particularly hated that he was playing a sex fiend in a Hollywood version of punk. Julien Temple, who later picked up Meyer’s pieces and made The Great Rock and Roll Swindle in 1980, claimed that it was during Bambi that McLaren really lost control of the band and that the film was a large part of the reason the group broke up.

It would have been interesting to have seen Meyer’s final project, if not just for his depiction of London as a city. He was determined to include NO shots of red double-decker buses and was obsessed and amused by some of the street signs around town, convinced that they depicted sex in some way. In October 77, the opening scene of the doorstep dumped deer was shot but three days into the shoot it became apparent that there was no money. Sets had already been built near Heathrow and crew was being assembled but McLaren had never finalised a deal. Legal documents and contacts had been produced by 20th Century Fox but McLaren had kept changing his mind. Concerns were also raised about the script’s content once it was actually read by the studio and Fox’s stockholders began to get cold feet. They decided to pull the plug, although rumour has it it was one particular stockholder that nailed the final nail in the coffin. According to Meyer associate Jim Ryan, him and Meyer ended up taking an elevator ride by chance years later with the people who had axed Bambi. According to them it was none other than stockholder Grace Kelly who eventually killed the project saying she ‘didn’t want another X picture from Meyer.’. Who’d have guessed?

Bambi was Meyer’s last hope of making it back into the big league after being released from his three picture deal with Fox after the critical and commercial failure of The Seven Minutes. Yet all he was left with were tangled lawsuits from all sides. Meyer even ended up suing Julien Temple and extracted a printed apology from him published in Screen International. Temple, during the promotional tour for the The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, told a reporter that Meyer had personally shot a deer during the shooting of Bambi, to which Meyer took some serious offense.

Bambi footage ended up being utilised into Rock and Roll Swindle,  including the deer shooting opening scene, with more footage emerging for the documentary The Filth and The Fury which was released in 2000. Ebert has claimed that only a day and a half’s worth of shooting was ever achieved, although this is contradicted by Julian Bray, who supplied location services to McLaren’s Matrixbest company. Other shot footage includes musician Sting as a leader of a pop group called The Blow-Waves that assaults drummer Paul Cook as he stops to ask for directions. One can only imagine what Meyer’s finished project would have looked like…


The video above is a small clip from the Meyer edition of The Incredibly Strange Film Show, an interesting half hour show on the director well worth watching to hear him talk about his own filmography.

Top 10 Russ Meyer Men

6 May

It would be an understatement to say that director Russ Meyer’s world was dominated by women, but it would also be a misconception to think that this was entirely the case. Just as much as there are women that shaped and characterised parts of Meyer’s life, in equal measure are the men that also coloured various points in his career. So, for once, lets forget about the big bosoms and celebrate those with the square jaws!

#10) German men
A big generalisation to start this countdown with but it’s well-known that Russ Meyer disliked Germans, probably as a reaction to his time spent in Europe during WWII. The director hated the Nazi regime that swept over Germany during the 1930s and 40s and frequently derided Adolf Hitler (yes, I know he was Austrian…) and Martin Bormann in his later pictures. Meyer’s long-absent father was also German, leaving his mother to raise him alone. Go figure.

#9) Harry Sledge
Mean. Ruthless. Vile. Murderous. Chilling. Impotent. Harry Sledge is the nastiest guy in the history of Russ Meyer’s career and the instigator of the most violent scene in the whole of the directors career, the infamous bath scene in the 1975 release Supervixens.

#8) Anthony James Ryan
Many of Meyer’s female stars stayed loyal to him until the very end but if there was ever a male counterpart to all of those combined it would be Anthony James Ryan. A friend since he toured with the sexploitation director in WWII, Ryan was the titular male star of Eve and the Handyman (1961), a producer and writer on several other Meyer projects and looked after the legend during his illness in his last years.

#7) The Old Man
Sleazy, creepy, deceitful and a family man?! Stuart Lancaster’s portrayal of The Old Man in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! ensured his infamy in Meyer-verse by creating one of the most popular villains in his filmography. Confined to a wheelchair, the bitter and twisted man looks after his two sons on an isolated ranch in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Traumatized by his wife’s death, hiding all his wealth in his chair and raising a disturbed and mute son into a muscular vegetable drive this man to eventual insanity and death at the hands of some dangerous and beautiful women. Camp, hilarious and vile. Perfect.

#6) David K. Frasier
Another personal friend of the director, Frasier helped Meyer archive his library for his autobiography A Clean Breast and again for Frasier’s reference book Russ Meyer: The Life and Films. Frasier’s opening chapter ‘Russ Meyer: American Auteur’ remains one of the most comprehensive and informative accounts of the directors career and filmography and Frasier recently wrote an excellent booklet to accompany Arrow Films re-release of their Russ Meyer box set. More must read literature for serous Meyer/sexploitation film fans and scholars.

#5) Charles Napier
The one and only square-jawed actor, Napier was to men what actress Tura Satana was to women in Meyer’s films. Napier was the epitome of the male, Meyer’s archetype for the sex and most loved character actor. Friends since they met on the set of 1970 release Cherry, Harry & Raquel!, Napier went on to star in a further three of Meyer’s pictures; Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, The Seven Minutes and Supervixens.

#4) Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell
One of Russ Meyer’s greatest male (or should that be female…?) creations, Z-Man is a legendary character within the world of cult film. Loosely based on music producer Phil Spector, Z-Man is the villainous producer at the heart of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; host of the best partes, full of theatrical antics and spouting some of the best quotes cinema has to offer with Shakespearean deftness.

#3) Jimmy McDonough
Succeeding where many failed, McDonough is the author of Meyer biography Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, currently being adapted for screen. Prior to becoming ill, Meyer had already stopped one writer from publishing a biography on him and no doubt had Meyer not been ill, he would have stopped Jimmy too. Big Bosoms is an honest and interesting account of the directors life, amplifying his legacy and illuminating light onto the mans character. A must have for fans.

#2) Roger Ebert
Life-long friend of the sexploitation director, legendary film critic Roger Ebert wrote the screenplay for Meyer’s studio masterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Not that the collaboration stopped there. Ebert, under a pseudonym, also went on to write a further two screenplays for the filmmaker, Up! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, whilst also writing the script for the ill fated Sex Pistols film Who Killed Bambi?. Script-writing aside, Ebert was also important for being one of the first film critics to publicly praise Meyer’s work, draw attention to it and describe him as an auteur, championing the director until hs death.

#1) Mr. Teas
The man who started it all, Mr. Teas was the titular character from Meyer’s feature debut The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959). A simple man who starts seeing women in various stages of undress after an anaesthetic, Mr. Teas was the voyeur that Meyer knew existed in most men and who Meyer decided to make films aimed at. Rather innocent in nature compared to later male Meyer specimens, Teas was almost scared, if not terrified, by the beautiful creatures he kept seeing before him, his surprise echoing the shock of the male audience who had never seen nude women in anything other than nudist documentaries or in illegal pornography. Certainly one of the most important male characters in the history of sexual depiction in Western film, without Teas there would have been no sexploitation genre and the later pornography market probably wouldn’t have flourished as quickly as it had.

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