Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Making of the Cult Classic "Jack-O" : A Truly Scary Tale for Halloween

A Guest Blog Post
Steve Latshaw

"We're going to make another movie. It's called Jack-O-Lantern."

My producing partner, Patrick Moran, clicked the line on the other end of the phone.

"OK. I'll bite,” he said. “Tell me more." Moran was my partner in crime. Together we'd been cranking out low budget horror movies in Orlando, Florida, shooting on weekends. Pat wrote, produced and acted. I co-produced and directed. Sometimes I helped write. These were real movies. Full length features, in color and in focus and available in your neighborhood video store.

It was the fall of 1994 and we'd done three since the summer of '91. The first, a horror comedy about a bulimic vampire, called Vampire Trailer Park, had finally been picked up by a Swedish distributor (only the Swedes, it seems, "got" the movie). The last two had been done for famed and prolific Hollywood independent producer Fred Olen Ray. Fred had gotten his start in Florida, too. And after directing a staggering number of movies, he'd become a sort of latter day Roger Corman, financing features for aspiring filmmakers, usually in the action, Sci Fi or horror field, and under his strict commercial guidelines.

It was like film school, plus he gave us the money to make movies! On actual motion picture film. And with real "name" Hollywood actors. All we had to do was turn in a finished movie.

"Oh, one more thing," Fred used to say. "The movies. They have to be good."

And so far, they had been. We'd made Dark Universe for Fred, with Joe Estevez. Joe was great. His name value was that he was a dead ringer for his brother, Martin Sheen. Dark Universe had originally been called Swamp Monster, and was about an astronaut in space who mutates into an alien-type creature, then crash-lands his shuttle in the Florida everglades, has flashbacks and kills a bunch of people.

We shot that one in twelve days (on weekends) plus a couple of second unit "pick-up" days, with what was becoming our Florida stock company of actors and crew: . Bentley Tittle, Paul Sanders, Blake Pickett, John Maynard, Tom Ferguson, Max "Bee Man" Beck (our Director of Photography and camera operator who was called “Bee Man" because he used to appear on the David Letterman show with a beard of bees) and Rich Davis, another Director of Photography/Steadicam Operator/Gaffer, who is now an Emmy Award-winning cameraman and a director, working steadily in network TV.

Curb Entertainment picked up Dark Universe for distribution and by the time the dust settled we'd grossed ten times our negative cost. This "little film that could" was released on video, laserdisc and played on Showtime, Cinemax and Turner. We had a hit.

We struck gold again with our next effort, Biohazard--The Alien Force. A little more money (not much more--these films were made for about 1% of the cost of an average TV movie) and a slightly longer shooting schedule resulting in what, for us, was an action-packed-mutated-creature-on-the-loose epic with locations as diverse as the fly-in airport community in Daytona Beach (where John Travolta lived at the time) and the Universal Studios back lot. We added more actors to our stock company--Susan Fronsoe, Steve Zurk, Maddisen Krowne—and secured the services of name actor Chris Mitchum to play the villain. I got the best producer notes I'd ever received from Fred on that one. His notes, after screening my first cut, always brief and to the point, were "Good job. Lock it." Which means no changes. And it was another hit.

So now we were back in business and this time, it would prove to be a major challenge. We were going to do Jack-O-Lantern, a supernatural horror thriller, new genre for us. And we'd be under the gun, forced to complete the film on a hard and fast deadline.

It was then November 1994 and the film had to be in video stories by Halloween 1995. And at that time, it took a minimum of six months for a film to hit stores. You had to edit the trailer, do the final sound mix, and in addition there was marketing, artwork, and much more, which meant we had to deliver the picture, finished, by spring 1995. It was going to take at least a month to develop the script, and another month to prep so we couldn't start shooting until February. Oh, and it was all talk show host Phil Donahue's fault.

Phil Donahue?

Exactly. For the 1994/95 season of his, then, highly successful show, Phil had decided to do something a little different. He would devote an entire hour to a "Scream Queen Contest." Celebrity judges (including our own Fred Olen Ray) would audition some young actresses for a part as a Jamie Lee Curtis-style "Scream Queen." The winner would be flown to Florida and appear in our movie. They would tape an "audition episode" then send a crew with her to film her filming with us, then do a follow-up taping where she talked about how it all went.

I was excited, despite the dangers. Fred's original concept for the film was a horror thriller about a little miniature pumpkin man who ran around rooms like a voodoo doll and killed his victims. I began suggesting animation effects, etc., until Fred gently reminded me that the budget would be very low. He confided that the only reason the film was being done was because of the Donahue show.

"If it wasn't for that, we wouldn't be making the movie."

Undaunted, I made the deal. This would be the movie that got Pat Moran and me, finally to Hollywood. And besides, Fred was providing something better than big money. He was providing big stars. Our little movie would have more stars than anything we'd done before.

So back to Pat. Always a realist, he asks me about the stars. I grinned. "Fred is going to fly down Linnea Quigley for three days!" Pat was excited. We loved Linnea, a genuine Scream Queen from such big hits as; Return of the Living Dead, Night of the Creeps, Creepazoids, Sorority Babes in the Slime Ball Bowl-a-Rama, Nightmare Sisters, and Fred's own Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. She was also a fine actress and light comedian. A nice girl. And gorgeous.

Our movie centered around an all-American family and their young boy, haunted by this century-old demonic, tiny, pumpkin man. My son Ryan would play the little boy. Linnea would play his babysitter. So he'd get to do most of his scenes with this talented beauty.

Pat grins. "And the other stars? Who are they?"

I puffed myself up, triumphantly. Pat and I were big fans of classic horror and old Hollywood. I announced the next two names. "John Carradine! And Cameron Mitchell!"

Pat didn't seem to be excited.

"Come on, Pat! John Carradine? He played in the Universal horror thrillers. He was better than Lugosi. He was the huntsman in Bride of Frankenstein. Worked for John Ford. Did all those great movies for Monogram and PRC. And Cameron Mitchell is an Academy Award-winning actor!"

Pat nods. "Yeah. But they're both dead."

Well, okay, so they were. Carradine had died in Spain, back in 1988. Mr. Mitchell had passed away in the summer of 1994, just a few months earlier. But both men had been close friends of Fred Ray and Fred would periodically bring them into the studio and pay them a tidy sum to shoot some isolated scenes.

Some of this footage would find its way into Fred movies like Star Slammer or Alien Within. We would be receiving the last of the footage. Mitchell's scenes consisted of him addressing the camera, smoking a cigarette and talking about "strange tales." So in our movie, which took place during Halloween, he would become a TV horror host, introducing a marathon of horror movies. My son Ryan's character was also a horror movie fan, so he would be watching Cameron Mitchell on screen, in effect, playing his scenes with the great actor.

As for John Carradine, Fred had leftover footage of this famous character actor from the mid 1980s. Originally filmed for an unfinished project called Judge Death, the Carradine footage consisted of some silent shots of the great old actor in a wizard outfit, sitting in a clearing, in the woods. We also had some isolated dialog scraps, called "wild lines," of Carradine spouting scary, menacing threats and ominous predictions. We'd make Carradine the reincarnated spirit of an old demon worshipper who has revived the evil Jack-O-Lantern. The family, and my son Ryan, would play all their scenes with him.

For reversals over Carradine's shoulder, shooting back at the live actors, we'd have to put an actor in a robe, dressed just like Mr. Carradine. We'd also double Carradine in the wide shots (since all we had were Carradine close-ups). We'd also pepper those wild lines through the film and put framed pictures of Carradine in various shots (and his portrait in the family Bible) just to keep reminding the audience he was in the movie.

Pat shook his head. "It's Ed Wood."

He was right. Director Ed Wood had done the same thing in Plan 9 From Outer Space--a production often called the worst film ever made. He had some old footage of Bela Lugosi and used it after Lugosi’s death in his movie, calling it: "Bela Lugosi's last and greatest film!" Wood then put his chiropractor--who looked nothing like Lugosi--in a robe to double Lugosi in the long shots. It was all immortalized in Tim Burton's movie Ed Wood. Now we were doing it, too. A point echoed some months later when Fred Ray, interviewed for a national horror movie magazine, referred to our movie as "Plan 9 From Out of State."

And so it began. Making a movie about Halloween in the winter and spring. In Florida. We'd need pumpkins. So we started buying, begging and borrowing, any pumpkins we could find. It was long past Halloween so they were tough to find. And most we found were either rotten or would be soon. But there was a cure for that. Somebody told me if you shellacked them, they'd hold. Just don't poke them or they explode. And rotten pumpkins smell really bad. Within weeks my garage began to fill up with old pumpkins. And yes, some of them blew.

Script-wise, we hit a wall. As I said, Fred had wanted a little tiny pumpkin man. But the first draft script didn't fit the bill. Fred now decided on a full-sized pumpkin man, something a bit easier to shoot than a midget demon. This would be a guy in a costume, with an outfit like the headless horseman: horrible, with claws and a scary pumpkin head with eyes that lit up.

This would be the latest new terror creation—the Jack-O-Lantern--a demonic, man-sized being who swirled a mean scythe and liked to lop peoples’ heads off. Pat went to work on the new draft of the script, probably not encouraged by the fact that he'd also have to play the Jack-O-Lantern, trying to see through those flashing eyes in the pumpkin head as he slashed at our actors and crew with that blood-soaked blade.

Pat's wife Cathy joined the cast. An extremely talented actress, she played a witch in our film--a "good" witch who has come to warn young Ryan about the impending arrival of the Jack-O-Lantern (which he is already aware of thanks to some scary dreams). Cathy struck the right balance of mystery and empathy with the part and, together with the comic skills of Maddisen Krowne, rounded out our cast.

February hit. Our first weekend was up and rolling. The Donohue crew had arrived with their contest winner, a New York actress named Kelly Lacy. And so, production began.

The shoot itself went surprisingly well, at first. Our crew always worked quickly, and we burned through the pages. And then things began to slow, as if we were swimming in molasses. Some of my memories:

--Donahue star Kelly Lacy was very good on screen. And quite the trooper. No complaints about this New Yorker, always eager to do anything we asked. Apparently she made a poor impression on our costume designer, who listed a series of complaints, from Kelly, about wardrobe. I sided with Kelly, which may be why I am now divorced all these years later. That costume designer was my wife, later to become my ex. As for Kelly, we lost touch. I hope she is well. She had to do the goriest death scene I ever shot: chased by the pumpkin man through a swamp, falling to her knees in twelve inches of cold water and getting her throat slashed by the creature's scythe.

--Our main lighting gaffer, Roy Webb, worked days for a major lighting company, supplying gear for various Florida productions and events. Most of our shoots were at night. I remember Roy working weekend after weekend, with no sleep, barely on his feet, sometimes in tears due to the stress. And Roy is a big tough guy.

--We shot most of the film in my neighborhood, in Apopka, Florida. We covered yards and sidewalks up and down the street with rotten pumpkins. Stole shots of our kid actors in front of a local school bus, and used my own home as the home (interior and exterior) of our movie family. By the end of too many night shoots, our neighbors were really mad at us, one night even forcing us to move the production indoors for interior scenes. Imagine that.

Steve Latshaw (at left) directs scenes for Jack-O in Apopka, Florida, 1995.

--The teddy bear clutched by Ryan as he falls asleep (only to be tormented by nightmares of John Carradine) was the same teddy bear I had as a child. This is not really relevant to the story, though perhaps its presence in the film is an indication of how deeply disturbed I might really be.

--A brutal battle between Jack-O-Lantern and Linnea Quigley (who was trying to save young Ryan from the creature) was shot at our neighborhood playground. A long, cold and windy night, with behind-the-scenes footage of same on our tenth anniversary DVD.

Ryan Latshaw, at right, with Linnea Quigley and the crew on the Jack-O set.

--Linnea Quigley was the greatest thing that ever happened to us. She was beautiful, friendly, always laughing, and kept the crew in very high spirits for the three days she worked. Part of the deal with Jack-O-Latern was that it had to have an "R" rating. So we had to do a nude shower scene with Linnea (only Linnea was nude: unfortunately we didn't all get naked with her). Apart from that, some other brief nudity of another character and some gore, this film is almost a family movie. And therein, I think, lies its charm. No pretension: just an old fashioned scary fable.

Happy memories.

--We have footage somewhere of actor Tom Ferguson, in robe, doubling for the late John Carradine, prancing around with a cape covering his face, just like Bela Lugosi's chiropractor in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

--We shot much of the film in the woods on the estate of actor James Best (Dukes of Hazzard's Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane), in Ocoee, Florida.

--Helen Keeling, playing the wife of a local neighbor in the film, was an extremely talented English actress and terrific in our film. Her character dies quite unusually--electrocuted by a toaster--while her husband is simultaneously gutted by the Jack-O-Lantern just outside. Recently, a horror movie web site called this sequence the "greatest death scene in Hollywood history."

--Late in their careers, both John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell were known for appearing in an endless array of low budget horror, Sci Fi, and action movies. Many of these movies were awful, with these two great actors hired to do cameos so the producers could take advantage of their name value. One day on our set, his wry smile perfectly in place, Pat Moran pulled me aside and showed me a book called The Guide to Splatter Films, Volume 2. In it was a list: "Top Ten Reasons You Know This Horror Film is a Piece of Sh-t." And in this book, near the bottom of this top ten list, reason three was: "One of the stars is John Carradine." Above it, reason five: "One of the stars is Cameron Mitchell." We had a two-fer. Hmmm. I'd like to think that means the negatives cancelled each other out.

--Son Ryan endured all sorts of trials and tribulations while making the film. But the toughest thing was crawling through dirt. In the film, the creature buries him. We rigged up a fake section of ground, mounted on painter's horses, a section of plastic covered by dirt with a hole in the middle that he could crawl up through. Easy and safe. But of all the stuff we asked him to do this was the one thing he wouldn't. Scared to death. And now he's a proud and tough Petty Officer (3rd Class) in the U.S. Coast Guard! I used to embarrass Ryan with the DVD: every time he had a new girlfriend, I'd wave the disc and ask the girl if she knew Ryan was a movie star. Of course, he'd have to show the movie to the girl, and it was always a hit. Now he's grown up and married and with a young son of his own. He asked me to send him a DVD. He thought his son might like to see it one day. That made me feel real good.

--Costume Designer Patricia McKiou had the unenviable task of manhandling Halloween street extras for the Halloween night scenes, as well as supplying and supervising all their costumes.

--The entire shoot seemed to go on forever, an unending series of two and three-day weekends, trying to fake Halloween in the cold winter and warm spring of 1995. And all the while, the LA office was pressing us to wrap because of the release schedule. And we were still far behind. And over budget. We had a set budget for the picture, per the contract. Anything else came out of our pockets. And it did. By the end of March we were quite a few thousand in the hole.

I turned in my cut to Fred in early April. The response was not: "Good job. Lock it." We had some problems: individual scenes were good but, overall, it didn't hold together as a film. Not enough suspense. Not enough murder and mayhem. Generously, Fred hired an editor back in Los Angeles to do a cut. It was better, but still missing a lot of stuff. And so we began a series of pickup days, shooting additional sequences, additional Jack-O-Lantern attacks, etc. We shot additional dialog and linking footage with Cathy Moran's character, Ryan's character and the family, trying to fill in missing plot points.

Everybody came back dutifully for reshoots, though in some cases hair styles had changed, actors who'd believed they were wrapped had gotten cuts or trims. This is particularly obvious in some of Gary Doles' scenes. Gary played Ryan's father.

One of the reshoot sequences involved a cable installer, out in a bucket truck at night, trying to repair some cable lines. We had a truck but no Cable Guy. So the director—that would be me—suited up, rode that bucket truck and tried to rescue fair maiden Rachel Carter from the Jack-O-Lantern. I get my throat cut for my trouble. But I worked cheap, so what the heck.

At long last the film was finished. I'd put $15,000 of my own money into the production but, I was lucky. I got it back. We ended up with another hit on our hands.

We made all the deadlines and our picture hit video stores in mid October 1995, with an all-star cast. In addition to Ryan, Cathy, Pat, Maddisen, Gary and Rachel, our little movie starred the great John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell in their final roles, plus Scream Queen Linnea Quigley and a special guest appearances from another famed Scream Queen Brinke Stevens, appearing in footage from an unfinised Fred Ray movie called The Coven. Brinke--herself an accomplished actress and marine biologist--came in and did some voice over dialog to expand her part. We also had a bit from Dawn Wildsmith, co-star of the David Carradine action thriller Warlords.

Andrew Stevens' company Royal Oaks handled distribution for Jack-O-Lantern as its first film. And, at a time when the U.S. home video market was collapsing, the movie sold over 15,000 units nationwide, unheard of video numbers for low budget horror in 1995. The film also had a title change, which, somehow, transformed it and helped to give it the cult status it has today.

During production, I was sending video dailies and rough scene edits back to Hollywood so Andrew Stevens' team could edit a promotional trailer. To save time, I labeled the tapes "Jack-O Dailies." Andrew loved the name Jack-O and that became the new title (except on pay TV and overseas, where it still plays as Jack-O-Lantern.)

It was the movie that started as an afterthought, a reason to do a special edition of the Phil Donahue Show. It was shot on an incredibly low budget--too low to make a "great" or even "really good" movie. Our only hope was to make something entertainining. It went over schedule and over budget and there were times when we never thought we'd finish.

But we did and the movie went on to cult status. It was one of the first movies to hit DVD--and a 2004 "10th Anniversary Edition" also did very well. If you can find it, that's the disc to get. It's packed with "rare footage", outtakes, behind-the-scenes video with Linnea and the cast and crew and a delightful commentary track (if I may say so) provided by Fred Ray and myself.

Like that crazy pumpkin Jack-O, the movie never seems to die, as it keeps getting rediscovered. I'm proud of the film and love the memories associated with making it. And except for that shower scene it's a nice little family picture. With gore, of course. Lots of that.

I went on Google Earth the other day to take another look at the quaint little Central Florida neighborhood where we shot the film. Nothing seems to have changed. The big oak tree is still in the backyard, towering over my old house. The small oak tree where Jack-O lops off the Biker Guy's head. If you find yourself in Central Florida someday, you can visit the location. The address, in Apopka, is 1764 Waterbeach Court. If you sit quietly you may be able to hear the Jack-O fable whispered on the wind:.

"... the pumpkin man will steal your soul... snatch it up... and swallow it whole!"

And, if you happen to see any of my old neighbors, don't tell them why you're there. I think they're still mad at me.

Steve Latshaw
Hollywood, California

More on Jack-O

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"I've Got News For You ... "

Old Blue Eyes, wearing a gown to match those azure orbs. Rumors of his demise have been exaggerated

I stopped by the hospital to see Dad, and after forty-eight hours of IV fluids and antibiotics he was a new man. Or anyway a new old man. He wanted to know what he was doing in the hospital because he didn't feel sick.

"You've been asleep for two days," I wrote him on his notebook. And then I did my pantomime of him coming into the hospital: I hung my tongue out of the side of my mouth and sunk my head into my chest and drooped my hands like a dead seal. When he is in a good mood, he loves it when I play pantomime with him, as he has no hearing left and must rely upon his eyes and his sense of humor.

"I'll bet you thought I was dead," he said. And then he paused, for effect, like the good comedian he is.

"I got news for you," he said. "I ain't dead yet."

And he ain't. He has grown mighty perky in the hospital during the last twenty-four hours, for a dead guy. You can see from the picture, he is still looking a bit ethereal. But he is happy and alert and eating all his meals with gusto.

He wants to see my Mom, but she has come down with the stomach flu and can't come to the hospital. If she loses any more weight, though, we'll have to get them a double room. Appropriate, since they've been married for sixty five years this month and haven't spent sixty-five minutes apart since World War II.

Dad has a "procedure" today to try and uncover what in his system keeps causing him to have infections. I wrote to him that they were going to put a camera down his gullet and he made a face.

"Sounds like fun," he said. I wrote that they wouldn't be feeding him breakfast and he shouldn't get mad about that.

"Mad? Me? I'm through being mad," he said.

But don't you believe it. He awoke in the night and started raising heck and asking for my Mom. Sounds like he's full of the old vinegar. He definitely ain't dead yet.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Standing By for Takeoff

Dad in the Hospital

A picture of Dad my sister took a few years ago. She caught him in motion as he tossed a toy glider at a local park. He was beginning to show his illness then, but he was still vertical and still, as he always had, loved airplanes of all kinds.

I know, now, why they make ghosts transparent in pictures. When you see someone who is leaving this life, he seems to be dissolving into the ether. Dwindling, a friend of mine calls it.

My Dad left the Big Fancy Nursing Home on the Hill late yesterday and is now in the hospital. Whatever it is we've been fighting--an infection?--within him for almost a month has laid him low again. A month ago, he was home, walking with a walker, sitting outside in the sun, and singing "Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here" every day when I walked in the door.

Now he is ethereal. At the local hospital he is in a private room, looking fragile and sleeping quietly. He was unresponsive almost all day yesterday, sick to his stomach, and sleeping all the time. That's why the nursing home sent him to the hospital.

Now he's getting hydrated and looks a little better. He awoke when my Mom and I walked in this morning, and when I wrote "We Love You" on a notepad, he read it and tried to clap his hands. I wrote to him that he was in El Camino Hospital and he said "I'm in a private room. That's nice." And, to see if I could get him to smile, I wrote: "No one else could stand you, so they put you in by yourself." He read this very slowly then he looked around to see my face and he cracked a smile. It's the first one I've seen from him in a couple of weeks.

He said before we had our reunion party--well, my Mom and I were there, and I guess he figured we must be having a party--he wanted to put on his shoes and use the bathroom. "I have to perform my natural functions, you know," he said, slurring his words but using the careful vocabulary he always uses in spite of his dementia. "I want to ascertain my condition," he said later. "The food here is superior. I plan to eat all day and night," and then he dozed off again, having eaten a crumb or two of a muffin and drinking a little juice.

The doctor had a long talk with me about resuscitation and extraordinary measures and I said I couldn't imagine it would come to that, yet. And he just looked at me and said Dad was very sick.

I'm trying to remember the days Dad loved when my sister and I were kids and he'd built a model plane and we took it up into the Stanford Hills and flew it all around us in the California sky, above the brown fields and oak trees. No one gave us permission. We just went up there and made sure we didn't annoy the cows. It was freedom of a kind you don't see much anymore and it involved engineering and planes and children and these were all things he loved.

Dad and me and a neighbor boy with the "Sparky K" in the Stanford Hills beyond Los Altos. The "Sparky K" was named for my sister and me, Sparky, because my grandad called me "Spark Plug" and "K" for my sister Kimberly. The "Sparky K" had a gasoline engine and we crashed it quite a lot. I guess we were lucky we didn't start any fires.

He was so happy then. Years later, when he had retired, he flew real planes for fun. He joined a flying club and he and his friends took up the Cessnas and flew from one local airport to another, had lunch, and flew home. He felt so free up there, and there were rules to it that he understood. Unlike life and people, which he almost always found annoying or frustrating.

I don't want him dissolving on me or becoming invisible, but that's what happens in life as we come to the end. In the midst of life we are in death. I just haven't wanted it. He's like a Star Trek crew member, being beamed somewhere that I can't follow. I know he'll be free then and somewhere much nicer than here.

And wherever it is, I know it will be filled with airplanes, for soaring.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Happy Birthday Screenwriter Latshaw

And Congrats to My Successful Movie Friends

Steve, looking like the big bear he is, and his friend RC.

Screenwriter Steve Latshaw marked his 50th birthday last night at a party in Sierra Madre, and a whole cadre of his friends, who had all made zero budget movies together with him back in the day, collected around this wonderful man to celebrate.

I knew them when I was an anchorwoman in Florida and liked them all because, like me, they loved the movies. However, since I was on my own functioning career track, I thought they were all crazy to imagine they could move to Hollywood and find careers in the movie/television/entertainment biz.

At right, Robin in her Florida anchorwoman decade. It was at WESH that she met all the characters surrounding the chairman of characterville, Steve Latshaw.

And boy did they prove me wrong. All of them, to a man and a woman, have found successful niches doing what they dreamed of doing: art directing (shows like "Scrubs" and "Mad TV") scriptwriting (shows like "Tonight" and "Monk"), cinematography (one is working on a new show called "Cougar Town" with Courtney Cox) and finally Steve, who has a long list of credits for writing and directing movies.

I was wowed by them all and proud as well. They are all still the funny, nutty, big-hearted, people I loved then and the reunion was a blast.
RC and BT at Steve's party. May he live long and prosper.

Beth, one of the group's most talented writers, is still a beauty and has a home full of art. She hosted the party with her writer husband Steve, and they did it with class and style and warmth in the little town of Sierra Madre where Beth truly is its treasure. (Look for her script on the October 30th episode of "Monk".)
Steve was quiet all evening. I think he was still stunned and surprised to find so many of us really cared about him. He is so self-deprecating I sometimes wonder how he has managed to do so much.

I don't want to say a lot of adult beverages were consumed. But my old friend Bentley, who took the picture at the top of this blog post, also snapped the one at the end. And it is the one I will leave you with. Happy Birthday screenwriter and all around good American gentleman Steve Latshaw, and cheers to his gang, a truly fabulous group of talented friends.

Amateur photographer BT took this picture and I don't want to say he was partying too hard ... let's just say it was dark and my little camera was new to him. The other pictures came out just great BT, you handsome devil.

Steve Latshaw on the Independent Movie Data Base

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Woman Who Almost Had it All

Santa Monica Remembers Movie Star Marion Davies

When I was getting my graduate degree at UCLA, my friends and I used to drive by this enormous, white colonial building that sat right on Santa Monica Beach and looked like a bedraggled bride--it was a white elephant from a previous era that had been badly weathered by wind and water. I read that it had been the beach house of actress Marion Davies, and it appeared to be only slightly smaller than Hearst Castle. The sea battered it and the Northridge earthquake finally did the rest. The big old mansion had to come down. But historic preservation in the 21st century has spared one of the guest houses and rescued the mansion's history. I was able to visit there with the help of a friend who worked on the committee to preserve this fascinating piece of film history.

Marion Davies (1897-1961) was a pretty, blonde, teenage chorus girl in New York when she met one of the richest men in America--publisher William Randolph Hearst.

Marion Davies in a photo probably taken in New York, when she was in her early twenties.

Hearst (1863-1951) inherited a fortune that his hardscrabble father made in the Nevada silver mines, and he spent his life turning this enormous fortune into a smaller one. By the time he met Marion Davies, Hearst had been married to another showgirl for 15 years and had five sons. But the family man in his fifties was still a stage-door Johnny, and that is how he met Marion. And though he did not divorce his wife, their romance would last the rest of his life.

He gave her everything: a film career for one thing. After he got her started in silent films in New York he took his own film company, Cosmopolitan, to Hollywood, where he moved the company (and her 18-room dressing room) onto the MGM lot. Louis B. Mayer was no fool. Having the most powerful newspaper man and his girlfriend working in association with MGM was good for business, even if the Marion Davies pictures didn't make a dime (which they might have if Hearst didn't overspend on every one of them).

One of Hearst's gifts to Marion was the house he built for her on Santa Monica beach in the 1920s, the biggest and fanciest house in Hollywoodland. Hearst and Marion gave hundreds of parties there for all the stars. Most of all they loved costume parties: as if the daily work of dressing up for the job wasn't enough! But Hearst and his newspapers were powerful, and when he sent an invitation, even the most important stars trembled and appeared at the appointed hour.

Girls gone wild: Gloria Swanson, Marion Davies, Constance Bennett, and Jean Harlow all dressed up for a costume party at the Marion Davies Beach House in the early 1930s. Harlow, for once, looks like the young kid she really was. Bennett was so chic, it appears she said phooey to the whole costume thing and wore her best silk evening gown and ermine cape.

Marion starred in both silents and talkies, but finally retired in 1937. She was forty by then and a little world weary. She had fourteen more years with Hearst before he died, in another of her homes in Beverly Hills, in 1951.

His sons had the body whisked away and Marion was not invited to the funeral. She sold the beach house, finally married one of the gents who had danced attendance 'round her, and died ten years later. She spent her last years using her considerable fortune to help others. She truly was the dame with the heart of gold. The girl who had it all--except the one thing she wanted most from Hearst--his name.

When the beach house had to come down, it appeared that Davies' life in Los Angeles would be virtually forgotten. But a committee of preservationists, the City of Santa Monica, and the Annenberg Foundation, stepped in and purchased the site, preserving one of the three guest houses on the beach as a memorial to this woman who led a truly remarkable life. The Annenbergs built a public beach facility on the location of the original home, and it can now be used for parties and events. During the day, the public can use its showers and other facilities for a small fee. They have even preserved Miss Davies' original swimming pool and that too is part of the new beach club. It is a terrific addition to the region and keeps more high-rise condos and other development from polluting the coast line.

The Annenberg Community Beach House on the site of Marion Davies' original home.

The Marion Davies Guest House sits adjacent to the new Annenberg facility. You can see on the hills beyond what development is like in the surrounding region.

Turner Classic Movies is working to revive interest in the films of Marion Davies. She was a wonderful comedienne and a truly charming hoofer. And now the City of Santa Monica, a group of volunteers, and the Annenberg family, have given her a place in Santa Monica and Los Angeles history. It is the least they can do for the beautiful, funny, and unsophisticated Marion, the Woman Who Almost Had it All.

Marion Davies, near the end of her film career, in the late 1930s.

Docents are available to give tours of the Guest House and though there isn't original furniture in the structure the bathroom tiles are really something to see--and this is just the guest house! To learn more:

Marion Davies Beach House Preservation and Tours

The Annenberg Community Beach House

Actress Marion Davies on IMDB

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Take It Easy: Heading for L.A. on One-Oh-One

I had a long drive today, from Los Altos, California down to Santa Monica, where I'm spending the weekend decompressing from the stress of getting my father settled in skilled nursing care. Fortunately, I have a great sister and she's taking over support duties in my absence, even though it means she'll miss some of her work back home in Denver.

I was up early and on my way by 6:30 a.m. I was well ahead of the commuters as I rolled through Gilroy, the Garlic Capital of the World, and Salinas, home of John Steinbeck. In spite of California's population boom, the fields in the Salinas Valley are still large and verdant. They are one of many reasons California has a GNP as large as the entire nation of France.

Sunrise near Salinas, California

I was almost eighty miles on my way when the sun began coming up. It's the first time I've seen a sunrise in quite a few years. I could say I used to see them more often when I, upon occasion, was on my way home at that hour. But that would be telling. When I stopped near a farm to take a picture of the dawn, I saw a man watching it too. He gave me a wave.

One of the nicest surprises of Highway 101 is coming down from the hills of San Luis Obispo, and suddenly descending upon the Pacific at Pismo Beach. I never have liked the name of that town--named after a type of clam--but the view from the highway above the cliffs is stunning.

A view of the Pacific, from U.S. Highway 101 in California. It's the route the padres took on their way from Mexico north, to set up their chain of missions. If you saw a view like this, you'd keep walking too.

My Google directions had me take a cutoff from Highway 101 that I've never used before. Not far from Pismo Beach, I turned off onto CA-154 and drove into the mountains over San Marcos Pass. It takes about 20 miles off the drive and puts you into the region of Ronald Reagan's old Rancho del Cielo--the Ranch in the Clouds. He's gone now. Taken by the same disease that is ravaging my father. When you reach the top of the pass, you are reminded of why our 40th president loved this country so much.

San Marcos Pass, near Lake Cachuma.

I arrived in Los Angeles before 2 p.m., found my friend Phyllis' house in Santa Monica, and was in my favorite Chinese robe when she arrived from Costco an hour later. I won't tell you how I got in. I've known Phyllis since we roomed together in college. What's a little breaking and entering between friends?

She's living less than a mile from our first apartment on Saltair, the place that was our launch pad into life. Now I'm splashing down again, and I've landed almost exactly where I began.

Next up, a visit with screenwriter Steve Latshaw, whom I haven't seen in at least a decade, though he is a contributor to my blog and we correspond regularly. For his big birthday party, he claims to have edited an "outtakes reel" that shows yours truly back when she was a real diva. Saints preserve us. I hope I survive.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Headed to Los Angeles

Robin and Phyllis amidst the snow of Mt. Lemon near Tuscon, Arizona some considerable years ago. She came to visit me in Tucson where I had my first job in television news.

I think I must feel a need to step back from the intensity of nurturing my ill father. We are now, I realize, preparing to say goodbye to him. He isn't with us the way he has been during this past year. I deny it and then I face it, then deny it again. So, my college friend Phyllis, who lives in L.A., has invited me down for a break. She and her husband John and I have been friends for many years.

Also on tap in the Southland: my long-time television/film buff/screenwriter friend Steve Latshaw is celebrating a landmark birthday and his move into grandfatherhood, all in the same year. Some friends and I are putting on a shebang for him. I'll be reporting from his party, which will be filled with a collection of Southern California people so strange, none of them even uses drugs. (Or at least that is what they tell me.)

Anyway, I'll be out on Highway 101 early Thursday. And I have hired some big burly guards for my home, so don't even think about using this as an opportunity to visit it while I'm away. Also, my sister is in residence and she is much more fearsome than any big burly guards. And several Old Boyfriends who Owe Me will be staying in all the guest rooms.

So don't touch that dial. Next we report from the land of Santana winds.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rainy Day People

Umbrellas on parade in downtown Redwood City, California.

The Internet is abuzz with news of the big storm that is inundating California. People being told to evacuate. Trees falling on roadways. Landslides everywhere. This is from the on-line site MSNBC:

"By midday Tuesday, more than 6 inches of rain had fallen in parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains and more than 4 inches in parts of Marin County, according to the National Weather Service. Santa Cruz County issued voluntary evacuation orders affecting about 60 homes near areas burned by the Lockheed Fire, a 7,800-acre blaze ignited in August."

It did rain a lot. But it is autumn and California hasn't had a drop of precipitation since June. And we do sit on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. I thought it was nice to see a little moisture for a change. And my windshield wipers, feeling out of shape from their summer vacation, had a chance to stretch their blades.

Windshield wipers fight to keep my windshield clear on El Camino Real, near Palo Alto, California.

My mother, who has been a real trooper this week, during Dad's first week in skilled nursing care, didn't let the storm keep her from her daily visit to the nursing home. She appeared at the back door, ready for the Swedish car to pick her up, sporting her rainy day shoes: a pair of brown-and-white oxfords that go back to World War II--at least--and thus, are even older than I am. They have terrific lug soles that have managed to survive all these decades and that make walking in rainy weather very safe. Ah for the days of American-made shoes with soles by U.S. Rubber that would last a lifetime.

The inches of rain swooshed down from the Santa Cruz Mountains and filled Adobe Creek in Los Altos, California. The little riverlet is dry all summer and it is the the place I caught my worst case of poison oak when I used the dry creek bed, one hot summer day, as a path to the grocery store.

Today, only a canoe would suffice on Adobe Creek. Like Mom, sporting her rainy days shoes, the little creek has donned its winter wardrobe. We won't be endangered by its poison oak again 'til the dry days of spring roll around again.

The water in Adobe Creek speeds its way into San Francisco Bay.

Residents Urged to Flee California Storm

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Patronizing the Pumpkin Patch

Robin, out standing in the field, near Half Moon Bay, California.

What is it about pumpkins that make a person smile? The color is wonderful and they are round as a harvest moon. But it is the season? The hint of Halloween? Whatever the answer the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Fest in Northern California has gained international acclaim for the size of its pumpkins and the prizes it awards each year. Farmers from all over the nation bring in their biggest pumpkins for the weigh-in, and crowds of visitors follow.

Pumpkins in crates near Highway 1 in Half Moon Bay, waiting to be set out for sale.

Local entrepreneurs bring in tons of pumpkins to sell. Pumpkins fill every inch of extra space in and around this tiny city on the Pacific, just south of San Francisco.

There is a big Pacific storm brewing off the California coast and today I dashed over to get a preview of the Half Moon Bay festivities. When the storm blows in it will be too wet to see much. And after that, little Half Moon Bay will be pretty crowded. Today, it was just a town full of pumpkins waiting for a festival to happen.

Early shoppers out purchasing pumpkins pre-festival and pre-storm.

The challenge visitors face is that narrow Highway 92 over the mountains from the Bay Area can only handle so much traffic and come festival weekend it will be slow going. In addition, merchants insist the festival's largest pumpkin (this year's winner is expected to weigh something close to 1,700 pounds) be displayed on Main Street, another choke point. So visitors are well advised to come early and park at a distance and be prepared for traffic jams and walking.

Pumpkins for sale along the highway.

I've mentioned before that my father caught the pumpkin-growing bug during the last years of his retirement before his illness set in. He began nurturing seeds he obtained from a Half Moon Bay contestant in Los Altos Hills. He grew some pretty big ones over the years--225 pounds was his record--and it always made us laugh when he would tell us the weight of his prize pumpkins. "Why is that so funny?" He would ask us in mock surprise, and we would laugh even harder.

Dad, with one of his last great pumpkins. That's his high-tech hearing aid around his neck, though now even that has ceased to work.

My father always had a large collection of curious hobbies. And they were almost always solo entertainments. Disney executives would have called him an IC--for "individual contributor"--and, not surprisingly I guess, that is just what they labeled me.

But, if you were going to make an individual contribution, a 225-pound pumpkin isn't a bad contribution to go out on. I just wish he had been with me today, to look for the 1,700 pound winner and to give me his sternest look when I showed any evidence that I might crack a smile as I ogled a pumpkin the size of a Volkswagon.

Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival Information

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Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival Information

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Engineer and the New Device

I mentioned in my previous post that at the skilled nursing home where we've been forced to place my father, there is a very cool device they use for transferring him from wheelchair to bed and from bed to bathroom. More news on that today:

Dad on the Sara 3000 with his CNA Thad doing the driving.

Enter the Sara 3000 lift. Produced by ArjoHuntleigh, a company founded in Sweden, it is the Volvo of chair lifts. Battery-powered, safe and very cool.

My father, the engineer, is not clear in his mind about much these days. But put him on the Sara 3000 and he's happy and calm as he watches the device operate. At the skilled nursing center we know he is safe and well cared for. Now we also know the Sara 3000 has a certain fascination for this mechanically minded person.

He has moments when he sleeps and awakens speaking about nothing that makes sense. "Did you fly here in the Cessna?" (We don't have a Cessna, but he must be dreaming about the years he belonged to the flying club at Moffet Field.) "Is your mother in the garden?" That's an understandable one, since he's lived with Mom and her garden for 65 years, this month.

Mom and Dad at a sing-along on this, his first week in skilled nursing care.

But there are moments of clarity: "The chow here is really good," he said yesterday. And at one point he asked if we had gotten references for the place. "Did Kimmy think this was a good idea?" he asked, referring to my practical-minded sister and added: "Now there's a conservative for you."

So we are plodding along with a father who is dwindling. I am trying to remember how lucky we are that he saved his money so he could afford to stay at the Ritz of nursing homes where the mother of one of Silicon Valley's most famous billionaire inventors is also staying.

And Dad still has a sweetness, when he isn't yelling at the nurses and telling them to get out of his house.

To me, late yesterday: "Oh you're all fixed up. You must be going somewhere." I was. I came to see him.

And to Mom, just a few minutes later, he said something that made her smile. "Faye you look gorgeous." He can barely form the words. His brain is failing him and his hands and eyes are so weak it is hard for him to eat. But he can take a minute from his misery to tell his wife she's gorgeous.

And he loves the Sara 3000. So it's not all bad out here in the land of elder care. I'm trying to stay optimistic.

About ArjoHuntleigh and the Sara 3000

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Third Time is the Charm: Dad Incarcerated

The last two weeks have been the most trying of times for those of us caring for my Dad. However, the good news is that both he and the Mother have turned into the Monsters That Ate Their Young, so keeping one's distance will now be easier. All part of the fledging process, as the mother bird said to her chick.

I've been increasingly stressed, as you know, seeing that Dad could no longer survive safely at home and seeing how hard it has been to convince the Mother of this.

These past ten days, all that changed as Dad grew lethargic, unable to walk, unable to feed himself, and uninterested in getting out of bed. After antibiotics for an infection made him bounce back for a couple of days, he was back into his lethargy again earlier this week.

The hospital wouldn't take him because the doctor said he wasn't sick enough. (Did you know ER physicians call patients Gomers, as in Get Out of My Emergency Room?) and I finally hired a private ambulance to take him to his doctor. His doctor had me spend the day wheeling my 89 father in his wheelchair from test to test, with my exhausted 88 year old mother in tow, and at the end of the day, said physician made this brilliant medical deduction: "He needs to be in a nursing home."
Well, duh.

Oh and he also has a compression fracture of his lumbar vertebrae and his infection has come back.

Fortunately, some smart person invented the cell phone, so in the middle of this all epic journey, I called my sister, who was trying to visit her grandchildren in Florida. "Help!" I said. "I'm being held captive by the health care system! Call that Big Fancy Nursing Home on the Hill and find out if they have a bed please! A bunk bed will do! Just Google the number."

I must be a slow week for sick old people up on the Hill. And my sister is resourceful, found the number, and from long distance in Florida, got Dad admitted. About 5:00 p.m. I was taking Dad by private ambulance to the BFNH (private ambulance: $375 each way). Wow. The BFNH is really nice. And my blood sugar was so low at this point any place would have looked good to me.

It is so much fun doing Good Deeds for one's elderly parents. After a full day of pushing an unresponsive Dad around in his wheelchair from test to test on Tuesday, I was pulling a blanket up around him so he wouldn't be cold, when he suddenly came to and said: "Oh Robin, your hands really look bad." Thank you muchly Dad, but schlepping you around for 12 hours has taking all the skin off my cuticles and broken all my nails.

Wednesday, when I took the Mother up to the BFNH, I sat for a minute in the garden with her and Dad and sighed, "I haven't even had time to go to the hairdresser, or eat or take a shower." And she looked at me and said, "Yes. Yes. And I liked your hair better when you first came. It was shorter and ... " I held up my hand to stop her. Thinking, perhaps, I might slug her she ceased her critique. I'm getting dangerous.

Oh and it gets better.

After four trips up there yesterday, I was exhausted. By nightfall, my father had become abusive. This is called sundowning but is no less fun for having a name. I've hired extra caregivers to help him make the transition, but even they couldn't calm him and when I walked in, the garbage really hit the generator blades. He called me names. He was sarcastic. He called for my mother. Repeatedly. He yelled. He refused to eat. He refused to take his medication. I considered smashing his dish of ice cream on his head. I decided that wouldn't be mature. I hid behind a curtain, which was much more mature, and let the on-duty nurse handle it.

Finally, like a little child having a tantrum, he wore out after about 90 minutes. Also, a male CNA seemed to bond with him and Dad began to be tired and hungry enough to take orders. He fell asleep. His once-favorite caregiver, Carmen, and I sneaked out the door. I vowed never to speak to him again.

Until the next day of course.

I called my sister and told her how much fun I was having. Besides needing a manicure and a new hairdo. We laughed and laughed.

I told her about this crane they have that lifts Dad up and rolls him into the toilet and then sets him down where it can do the most good. (I'm going to have to get a picture of this thing. It really is an interesting piece of equipment!)

I told my sister I wanted to suspend Dad from the crane for the night.

She and I were laughing so hard we were crying. Or we were laughing to keep from crying, I don't know which.

She'll be here next week to join in the party. I can hardly wait. Meanwhile, gotta go. Dad is at it again, and I'm going to have to go up there and learn how to use that crane-to-toilet machine. Just in case.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Missed it by That Much: Another Reprieve for Pop

I don't know if my angel friend the Patron Saint of Parking stepped in or what, but my father has made a miraculous recovery from his infection and yesterday was back on his feet. It appeared he had been to Lourdes, the difference was that great.

I didn't have the heart to okay his transfer to the nursing home when they called and said they had a space in a three-bed room. I asked them to put us on the wait list for a semi-private or a private room, and that's where we are today. He's still very rickety on his feet and is always one step away from disaster at every moment. But ...

... he missed Old People Jail by that much.

When I saw him yesterday, after two straight days of being unable to get out of a chair, he was standing in his underwear, getting ready for a shower! When he saw me peeking into his room, he took his hands off his walker and did a little dance. Later he was very funny and said; "You're my granddaughter and you should not see me nekked like that."

Well you weren't naked, I told him. Then later he told me, "Hey you're not my granddaughter. You're my daughter." Seems he's coming around in mind and body.

Also, today is his 65th wedding anniversary.

In the course of this latest crisis, I was feeling mighty low about putting him in the home (even though I still haven't done it), and, rooting through some old pictures of him, I found a baby picture taken in about 1920 in Birmingham, Alabama of my Dad as a toddler.

That big smile is so familiar, and now it is back again, for however long we have. Something else: my father is known for his big feet (which he managed to pass on to me) and I want you to take a look at that photo. Look at the size of that baby's shoe!

He's again walking around on those big feet, though it is more of a shuffle now than a walk. You have to give him a lot of credit for that. It is mostly his will to live that is keeping him upright. That and a very good-sized foundation.

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