(While Mark takes a breather, I offer, for amusement purposes only, this reminiscence of a day spent with my old man while he was still working the Hollywood beat, circa 1979. It concerns our encounter with the late Ted V Mikels, grind-house cineaste. I had hoped to post this on Father’s Day but life as I know it is not mine to control. I’ll cop to 90+% of this being “factual”. The rest is poor recall.)
GUYS AND DOLLS, ’79
Ext: wide aerial shot of downtown Los Angeles.
Cut to Grauman’s Chinese Theater exterior: Tourists and super heroes milling about, looking at the hand and footprints in the cement.
Voice over: This is the city. Los Angeles, California- Home to some of the most famous and creative talents anywhere in the world. On any given day, new hopefuls arrive from the four corners of the country, hoping to catch the eye of a producer and land a contract on their way to stardom.
Ext: Main bus terminal: A strawberry blonde girl, sixteen if a day, buoyantly hops off the Greyhound bus and is immediately followed by a swarthy looking man with a pencil thin mustache and tortoise shell glasses.
Voice over: It was Friday, unseasonably cool. My old man and I were having lunch at a Sambos in Eagle Rock. The coffee had gone cold. The waitress topped off my mug. It was now only half cold.
“I have to go to a screening,” Pop said. “It’s a piece of shit but I want to see what the director did with it.”
“Yeah, I’ll go if you’re asking,” I said, once I stopped chewing. “What’s this piece of shit about?”
“Tits”. He didn’t say it as an enticement, but with resignation as anything more complex than topless actresses would overshoot the comprehension of the intended audience. Today Pop has a listing in the IMDB where all of the films he got a credit for could be categorized more or less as Shit. Ambition and talent are not connected in any way. They are two different life forces and only by random happenstance do they ever reside in the same entity.
“Ever see The Corpse Grinders?” he asked, pouring a plastic thimble full of room temperature cream substitute into his coffee mug.
“Can’t say that I have.” The BLT needed more mayo.
“Cost forty five thousand dollars and made four million,” he said, his remaining teeth grinding. “In 1968 money.”
“Well, polish a turd hard enough and who knows…” There was no way the IRS saw figures like those, I thought. “This auteur you’ve been working for, is he the primary recipient of the discerning public’s largesse?”
“Where he buries his loot is the great mystery of the age,” Pop said, “but he never has the same investors twice, so I’ve heard. Make of that what you will.”
Pop’s director, Ted Vincent Mikels, nee: Mikacevich, lived in Alhambra, a hair over a dozen miles east of Hollywood, USA; another of the skunk towns in LA county that incorporated “Ellroyville”: A run off of Catholic families, protestant migrants from Germany via Iowa, assorted Pacific Rimnants, one group banging up against another, territories demarcated either by a dry creek, a freeway junction or demilitarized zones of welfare housing and incompatible migrant cultures, all infused with Latino spice and punishing heat.
“He likes being called TV,” Pop said. “He lives in a castle.”
There is a stretch of old affluence gone to seed up there amongst the grand adobe ruins refaced by the temporarily rich whose odd behavior even by show biz standards required a discreet distance from the power centers. The most notorious denizen of this enclave was Phil Spector whose pulsating hallucinations fired off in all directions, no one the wiser until one night one of his murder fantasies was made physically manifest.
In this overgrowth of warped ambition stood a tall castle of sorts, occupied by T V Mikels, King of the Sleaze, too celebrated today to be called just a B movie maker; rather a purveyor more than a visionary; an enabler would be too strong, a pornographer completely inaccurate, yet bad for your mental health, yes indeed, and unrepentantly so.
“He’s going to screen a rough cut for investors to get finishing funds,” Pop said as I wound the rental up a steep hill towards the castle. “Ten Violent Women is the title he’s hung on this brass turd.” Pop’s tone was one of aesthetic exhaustion, his taste in movies sandpapered to numbness by exposure to such toxic workings as The Astro Zombies and Blood Orgy of the She Devils where he not only hung the garish drapery as art director, but double dutied as a bull whip wielding sadist-in-waiting for the chief She-Devil, Mara, High Priestess of Satan himself. (Later reissued on VHS as Plasma Blood Suckers. There’s no business like it!)
“Be happy in your work,” I said, imitating Col. Saito from Bridge on the River Kwai, my accent getting no closer to Japan than an atoll in the South China Sea. That lifted him out of his funk and he started in whistling Colonel Bogey’s March.
Ten Violent Women, it would turn out, was the follow up to The Doll Squad, Mikels’ fever dream of pin up babes and hot to trot secretaries assembling, when so ordered, and revealing themselves to be a highly trained team of deadly assassins. This go round, they were tasked in taking down Michael Ansara’s spray-on tan and his private army hell bent on world domination while winos and flashers took a pause in their day to relax and reflect in a refrigerated theater just north of Hell.
“I have a bigger part in this than usual,” Pop said.
“No shit?” I laughed. “Are you the entire army more than just the soldiers who do the stunts like before?”
“No, I got lines, a whole character. I play an Arab chauffeur with a turban and late period Elvis shades.”
I laughed again. Right then I knew this day would never be forgotten.
“An Irishman playing an Arab,” I said. “I thought Jews always played ethnic. Cherokees, Italians, Asians in thick glasses.”
“There weren’t any available,” Pop said, laughing at the absurdity of the claim, apparently true. Thankfully he had stopped whistling.
Mikels loudly complained when Charlie’s Angels debuted after The Doll Squad had been released, claiming outright theft by Aaron Spelling, as far removed from Mikels in the Hollywood food chain as we are from the amoeba, if I have my Mr. Spock correct.
Of course Spelling likely had never heard of Mikels or his groundbreaking epic, though one of his writers might have. Either way, Mikels could use the weak comparison to promote himself, which was all the juice he knew he would ever get from the higher life forms on the other side of the valley. Actually, I didn’t really know that. A guy with TV’s moxie probably never gave a second thought to doubt. He was certain his shit stunk as bad as anyone else’s, no matter how many Emmys and Oscars the big cigars could purchase for their reputations and credit line extensions.
Pop had been the far-from-special effects guy for Doll Squad, multi tasking as art director, set designer, stunt coordinator and half of Ansara’s private army; if you knew what Pop looked like in his middle period, you could keep score of how many times he’s shot down in action. I’ve spotted four confirmed kills, but there were certainly more, most of the action taking place at night and not all of the faces can be identified with any accuracy.
“For Doll Squad we found this hacienda in Santa Ana to use as the villain’s lair,” Pop said, letting his voice drop and elongate as he said “laaaairrr” while wringing his hands. The man could not stop performing. “I set up this stunt where I rigged the biggest blood squib I could make and strapped it to my back. When one of the dolls shot me with a 12 gauge, I threw myself backwards and hit the wall as hard as I could, splattering the squib so when I slid slowly down the wall, all this red paint would smear on the white adobe. TV liked the mess but we ended up repainting the entire living room because we couldn’t match the white on the other walls. The owners sued.”
“Yeah, so did they win?”
“I don’t know. I was probably under a hedge or in the cage for a week.”
“You don’t decompress well after a wrap, do you.”
“‘Fraid not,” he said, pulling on his beard. “Work- I like hard work. Keeps me from thinking.”
We finally made it to the top of the hill where Dobermans behind a high chain link fence ringed with barbed wire, howled for our blood.
“I don’t know why you never wanted to work,” he said. “You’re smart.”
A few years earlier I might have blurted out something like ‘I only work hard on what I believe in’, but that wasn’t what he would have wanted to hear right then. He was two years dry and the edge was still right at his feet. I might as well have opened that fence and let the dogs tear him to pieces with my knee jerk dismissal of his artistic legacy.
“He likes to live with several women,” he said with caution. “Don’t assume any woman inside is Mrs. Mikels.”
“He thinks he’s Hugh Hefner?”
“He calls them his Castle Ladies. His goal is to keep ten women under the same roof simultaneously. His record is seven at once.”
We got out of the car. The fence was about twelve feet high but that did not deter the Dobermans from leaping anyway. Even if one caught a back draft, the barbed wire would gut the cur.
“Mikels should make an auto biopic,” I said, squinting up at the turrets stretching towards the sun. “He seems way crazier and interesting than anything John Carradine could come up with.”
“He’s gotten six kids out of his concubines over the years,” Pop said, piling on the weirdness of his benefactor’s resume. Relatively low yield, I thought.
“So it sounds like he’s one of these artists who can’t distinguish between his art and real life.”
“Yeah,” Pop said, smirking, “something like that.” He raised and lowered the huge brass ring, banging once and then twice on the ornate oak front door.
When we were let in to Castle Mikels, it was Sheri, one of his ladies, that greeted us. At the time, I found out later, there were only two ladies in residence. I was thinking the residential arrangements were largely contingent on whether there was a role for the “ladies” and when principal photography was completed, everyone’s status abruptly changed. For an epic producer/director like TV, a couch would not be enough. He needed a Casting Hostel.
“Mike!” Sheri squealed, giving him a head to toe bear hug. Seems they were closer than I would have thought possible. She was the nominal lead in TV’s pictures, but, since TV seemed to run his empire like a Tahitian chief, sharing the wealth was probably just common hospitality.
Mikels himself was on the phone in the main parlor, a slight man, muscular just the same, dressed all in white, a saber tooth hanging down from his neck and buried in graying fur curtained by the stirrups of a wife beater tee. He sported a blonde gray pompadour and van dyke beard which were fastened in place by a carefully waxed handlebar mustache. As we approached, this spectacle of short man’s resentful swagger was being swallowed whole by an oversized root beer colored leather couch as the miniature dynamo bellowed into the receiver about how three hundred thousand dollars would staunch the bleeding but never get the picture in question anywhere near an actual theater screen. The faint voice on the other end of the line repeated that at the tone the time would be three fourteen PM, pacific standard time.
“Hi, nice to meet you’s” followed, TV apologizing for having too many spinning plates in motion to host, such duties being passed to Sheri. What my astonished expression said to Mikels I can’t say but he unplugged the phone he had just slammed down and took it with him up the staircase.
“Ted has the screening scheduled for five,” Sheri said. “Why don’t you take your son on a grand tour and I’ll make some iced tea.” From psychopathic killer to congenial hostess; Sheri, like Pop, was a lifetime actor.
What had caught my intros in my throat was the interior of the parlor, specifically the low balcony above the couch along which a half dozen female mannequins dressed in Louis Quatorze finery stood awkwardly at a slant, pearl strands hanging from their necks, arms and wrists, just out of reach of an overfed calico lazing on the back of the couch, the cat’s bored expression suggested he had long ago conceded the pearl stands were to forever remain tauntingly out of reach.
“C’mon,” Pop said, waving me to follow before I let out a smirk that would sink his career as a reliable, often unpaid, factotum. He knew the layout well, having recently traded his efforts on the film for floor space and a sleeping bag, cheese sandwiches and coffee. He wasn’t the only down and outer Mikels used to forward the collapse of civilization, but it was another credit for his résumé and for Pop, as a trusted serf, he had steady work and shelter, plus “monkey points”*, whenever Mikels could convince some dentist or drug smuggler to hide a few bucks in his untraceable budgets.
“One of his sons lives here,” Pop said, warning that one half of the castle was strictly off limits. “He guards his privacy like a nuclear core.”
I had to let that analogy sink in. Opinions have varied over the years about what Pop was alluding to but there is general agreement that it had something to do with the son’s territorial prerogatives. I assumed the mother was not in regular contact but Pop assured me TV was a very attentive and forgiving father. Why that “forgiving” part rattled me so I was never in a position to clarify. Probably just as well.
The master bedroom was not spacious but it easily fit a four poster antique bed frame, draped across the top with a brown bear skin, the head of the slaughtered beast hanging over the edge, glaring at anyone who walked into the room. The bedspread was the fur pelt of a polar bear, the head detached and mounted above the door. At our feet was his counter part, a white furred tiger skin rug; that too with head intact and jaws opened in a silent snarl. At the foot of the bed sat a low round antique wooden table upon which were arranged a perfectly placed circle of antique iron knives, once sleeved in studded leather belts, ready as shivs to gut a rival musketeer, the points turned in to form a symmetrical starburst, the entire setting clearly a vetting process whereby the only females that would interest Mikels would find this temple to bloodlust an aphrodisiac.
“He has Hitchcock-like cameos in his films, doesn’t he,” I said, remaining in the doorway while Pop sat on the edge of the bed, passing his fingers through the bed spread fur. “Plays the uber bad guy, drug lord, gets all he can out of his villainous appearance?”
“Speaking of villainous looks, I was in a biker picture once,” he said, toeing the tiger’s head. “The producer liked my missing ear so he wrote me a part where I was named Vincent Van Go Go, carried an easel strapped to my back as we rode from town to town. He put his wife, third or forth I can’t remember, in the picture and I got to paint her and then she stabbed me in my good ear with the brush handle. I had rigged a plastic tube to shoot gouts of blood out like a shaken soda can. Tasty stuff”, he said, shaking his head and chuckling as he lightly set his heel on the tiger’s crown.
“These producers seem to cast their wives as killers. What are they driving at?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious, “Pop said. “Let the shrews act it out on screen and not in the bedroom”.
“Nepotism seems to be the coin of the realm, even on the grind house circuit.”
“They do everything here that the big boys do up town. The Scientologists are the only ones who don’t play favorites regarding status, as long as you join.”
“Don’t tell me you ever worked for them,” I said, incredulous. Now that would be desperation.
“Worse than that. I worked on four porn films, kid, and never again. Ted is the red carpet compared to those chicken hawks.”
“Let’s not spoil the mood,” I said, looking up at a stuffed eagle clutching a naked Barbie Doll in its talon. I couldn’t decide who would be the worse candidate for the castle’s interior decorator: TV, Sheri, the invisible other castle lady or the resident son. From the parlor balcony to the Fay Wray knock off, it was all of a piece, the work of one mind, skewed as it clearly was, and no one I’d want in my castle when time for bed.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “TV is busy and…” Just then Sheri turned a corner and approached with a tray of glasses and a pitcher of iced tea.
“Let’s go downstairs to the ball room,” she said, chipper and bright.
I am the issue of a romantic tragedian, but Pop was also a boulevardier, a man admittedly born a century too late, a Flâneur as the French styled it: A man who needed to be in the middle of a crowd and yet completely invisible as he observed, with detachment and a bemused comportment, the passing parade. Of all the character traits I’ve been allotted from my father, this aspect may be the most perfectly aligned. Believe me, though, I have no illusions about the preceding centuries and the romantic veneer historians have constructed to temper the terrors of the hygienically challenged Pop would have wished to live with. As for the fruit of the castle ladies’ wombs, I dare not give utterance to what character traits their children took with them from their father.
The Director’s Cut
Later in the day, we all reconvened at a screening room on Santa Monica Boulevard. Mikels had assembled potential investors who would provide finishing funds for Ten Violent Women, still in a rough cut of several reels the projectionist would have to splice together, hopefully in proper order.
“I won’t be able to stay for the whole thing,” Pop said, conspiratorially. “Tell TV I had other business. I actually have to go pick up some shirts at the dry cleaner.”
“Okay,” I said, only years later putting together the pieces: Like TV and the talking clock, Pop was putting on an act, appearing to be in demand and needing to be elsewhere. I was witness to this deception because he wanted to expose me to how the game was played, apparently thinking I would be interested in following him into the abyss.
Standing around in the dimly lit lobby, a couple of cast members were there with time on their hands, hoping against all odds and their own physical senses, that, just maybe, Mikels had actually made a profitable film. His track record was as sound as anyone’s, though, at least in getting what he started onto a screen, any screen; but it was certain, now that I type this, that the actors present were also hopeful of a return on their time and effort which would pay out in a percentage of the box office. An actual salary was never part of the contract negotiations. Monkeys at feeding time about to go hungry.
“I’d wish they’d get this show on the road, ” Pop suddenly said to no one in particular, “I’ve got another screening to go to.”
“Yeah, where?” asked someone behind me, his tone of the most clotted and freshly exhumed cynicism I had ever heard. I turned and beheld a pencil thin, museum grade relic of post war grind house hucksterism, his gaunt face pulled to a center vanishing point by terminal distrust, his eyes dilating behind thick lenses framed in turtle shell. Across his pointed dome was a comb over of glistening bacon strips, and the hedgerow of remaining hair running from behind one ear to the other, was faded to a copper rust that turned red in the bright sunshine this Nosferatu had difficulty, even at his late age, adjusting to.
Pop said nothing in response, arms akimbo, feet apart, ready for a fight or flight response to kick in. But he had said enough to establish potential value to any sucker in the room who may be hiring.
We sat down front of the fifty seat screening room and the picture rolled itself out in garish colors and canned action jazz. The long and short of it was that Mikels and his women had put together a porn grade action film without the money shots. The second half of the film was a women in prison lesbo love fest and even that was as limp as the saxophone on the stock sound track. Pop, on the other hand, stole his scenes as the chauffeur, just by standing in front of the camera.
Interior, Midday: The Ten Violent Women** have just robbed a suburban strip mall discount jewelry store of “millions” in rare gems. The Sheik has sent his chauffeur inside the store to get information on the heist. The factotum thus intones:
“It grieves me greatly to have to inform my master that
his sacred scarab has been stolen.”
Pop, slathered in dark grease paint to affect the look of authentic swarthiness, his head draped with a dish rag secured with a bungee cord, removes the afore mentioned Vegas-period Elvis shades and delivers his line with a pitch perfect Transylvanian accent.
“It’s a shame Mike couldn’t stick around,” TV said as I helped him load his reels into the trunk of his baby shit brown Cadillac after he had made a reasonable argument why the potential investors in attendance should pay for the rest of the freight. It took three more years for this cinematic treasure to face down an appalled public, but it made its costs back, I’m certain of that. There was no shortage of winos and perverts who needed to catch forty winks between bouts of the dry heaves and the matinee discount was priced especially for them. ***
For the life of me, though, I can’t remember if I spilled the beans about the shirts or not. To my knowledge, Ten Violent Women was the last time Pop and TV worked together and the screening may have been the last time Pop laid eyes on Ted V Mikels: All Too American Filmmaker, and no one I would want to serve.
That day I received more of a film education than three years in college. The lesson: Fame and fortune ain’t for everyone. Flâneur indeed.
*Monkey Points being money promised at a higher rate than a salary once the movie turned a profit and a percentage going to the naïve or desperate production assistant who agreed to such an arrangement. No more mythical phenomenon existed this side of industry awards won on merit than net profits on a film, any film.
**Once again, art mirrored life as TV was only able to fit seven violent women into the cast.
***Joe Bob Briggs gave the film three and a half ripped brassieres.