Chapter I: Our Shameful Secrets
When I worked in educational television it was so embarrassing I could never tell anyone about it. Not my teachers, not my shrink (obviously) and none of the people I knew at school. No friends. No parents of friends. Good Lord, that would be scary, wouldn’t it? The conversation from hell. Don’t you hate people who talk to their parents?
And most definitely I could not tell the relative I lived with. This however was not a problem specific to educational television. Truth be told, it was generally a bad idea to tell Aunt Pudge anything.
You’d understand this immediately if you met Aunt Pudge. She was one of those unstable, unpredictable people. Had a mean streak, so you had to watch your step, because you never knew what would set her off. There was a mean old lady clerk like that down at McNulty’s Tea Shop on Christopher Street. She gave a hard time to anyone under the age of 40 who came through the door. You know, like she thought these 14-, 15-year-olds were going to make off with one of the Earl Grey gift sets. I was with my friend Kem. I believe we were getting her grandmother a birthday present. Can’t go wrong with assorted specialty teas for the Nana, right?
Anyway, after we’d browsed for about five minutes, reading all the tea labels and gift packages aloud, the old lady started banging a can of tea on the counter and barking at us. “Do you know what you want? C’mon, this isn’t the public library, you know!” So we got out of there and bought Granny von Schlafen a box of Li-Lac Chocolates instead.
That sort of people you need to avoid. Say nothing to them, don’t even give them the time of day. “It’s two pm,” you say . . . and just maybe they go la-di-dah and burst into song . . . or maybe they bash your head through the wall. Aunt Pudge did both, though as time went on head-bashing became the norm. She never exactly bashed my head through the wall—this was an old building with solid brick-and-plaster walls—but banged it pretty hard. Once she banged my head against one of the front windows, and some panes broke, and you could hear shards of glass falling down on the garbage cans out by the front stoop—tinka-tink–tink.
So mostly I stayed away from her, at least as far as I could in our three-room apartment. And kept my trap shut.
But I was telling you about the kiddie show. And how I never told Aunt Pudge. Once she was well out of the picture, and I hadn’t seen her in months and months, I’d think back to our time in that squalid, rugless flat on Perry Street, and think, oh how funny and poignant it all was. It was just too bad I couldn’t tell her about the sordid kiddie show. Because, to be honest, if there was one person with a rich and full appreciation of sordidness and debasement, it was Aunt Pudge. Humiliation and suffering were her mother’s milk, or bread of life, or whatever the expression is.
For many years she worked a dead-end job in a disreputable end of the publishing world. She’d always tell people she was struggling to break out and better herself. But of course she never did. She’d been in that hole for fifteen years. Maybe she was mesmerized by the awfulness of her job. Or she just drank too much, or was just a victim of her generation, where everybody thought that bettering yourself meant sleeping around with strange men you picked up at book parties and bars. I don’t know. I didn’t know then, and I know even less now.
But anyway, right around the time that I was deeply involved with the kiddie show, and planning and plotting my escape from Aunt Pudge, the weirdest thing happened. She met a guy who wasn’t weird at all. He was an advertising man, in fact. Like someone you’d see on TV. Very normal. His name was Bertram Paxton but I was supposed to call him Uncle Ted. I don’t know why. He’d been in advertising all his life, since right after the War. He’d known all kinds of famous people. Orson Welles, for example. And he once met Henry Kissinger at a movie premiere. But now he was getting on in years, maybe 53 or so, and he wanted to do something new. He and a business partner had a plan to open a chain of “American-style” eateries in London. Not real American, but fake, hokum American. The kind British people like. There would be old-timey saloon-like pubs with names like Judge Roy Bean’s, and touristy-sounding restaurants with names like The Chicago Deep-Dish Rib Shack.
They had a lot of names like that. They’d been working on this project for a long time, six months at least, maybe a year. The pubs and eateries were going to be high-class even though they’d mainly serve pizza and spareribs. Uncle Ted was hiring professional decorators to fit them out with dark-wood paneling and phony gaslights and framed pictures of Honus Wagner and Edward G. Robinson. Because, you know, this was the early 1970s, and “nostalgia” was still a big thing.
Uncle Ted would come by Perry Street and bring long cardboard tubes with decorator sketches inside. He would drink some scotch, and Aunt Pudge and I would ooh and aah over the drawings. These were done with colored Magic Markers in a scribbly-line style. The people in the drawings looked really ludicrous, a lot of hairy late-1960s men in tuxedos and Elliott Gould hair and mustaches, with women in hoop earrings and white boots. And they were sitting in this dark-wood bar/restaurant, daintily feasting on spareribs and pizza, with a lot of giant martinis.
I wanted to think of something complimentary to say but they were just too strange. So I asked if the food was good.
And Uncle Ted laughed—a mighty laugh! Haw haw haw! He said food was the least of his concerns. “What really matters,” he said, “is that decor and location are tip-top. Because what we’re selling is a total experience!”
“I see,” I lied.
“You shouldn’t think of this business as a restaurant (haw haw haw),” he went on. “You should think of it rather as an advertising/public relations outfit that owns its own client. And the client here happens to be a restaurant with a unique and exciting theme. No, cross that out. It’s actually a whole slew of restaurants with different imaginative themes. You see? Okay, maybe not. Theme restaurants are a new trend.”
I did not get that at all but I said yes, because Aunt Pudge was looking hard at me and I was starting to think she was going to hit me later. Though as things turned out she didn’t. Uncle Ted seemed to be having a mellowing effect on her. Him and the scotch.
Uncle Ted was one jolly ad man. He was always up, up and on, even when he was sober. He was full of stories about famous people, people like Henry Kissinger and Orson Welles, like I said. And he knew a baseball player by the name of Stan the Man. Mostly, though, he had stories about Orson Welles. How he was trying to get Mr. Welles to do TV commercials for a brand of wines, but Mr. Welles said he wouldn’t plug a wine unless it was something like Chateau Margaux.
When Ted told us Orson Welles was in town, I hoped he would bring Mr. Welles down here to Perry Street. So I put out my big copy of The Citizen Kane Book on the cocktail cart just in case, so I could have Mr. Welles autograph it. We had a big stack of those fancy picture books—Cole, and The Coffee Table Book of Astrology, and Parker Tyler and the Films of the Forties, and Our Bodies, Ourselves, and lots of others, usually in a big stack on the floor. Aunt Pudge got them free because people in the publishing industry get free books.
Anyway Mr. Welles never came by, but Ted and Pudge did announce they were getting married. So, at the start of 1974, Pudge chucked her horrible job at Time-Life Books and sailed off with Uncle Ted and five tons of restaurant equipment. This was all second-hand equipment, Uncle Ted said, but mainly stuff you couldn’t buy in England, like Hobart pizza-dough turners. They had it all loaded into a ship’s cargo hold and off they went, on one of the last tramp steamers ever to leave Hoboken.
I didn’t get to wave goodbye, because Uncle Ted had sent me to get a newspaper, and by the time the taxicab and I got back to the dock the ship was out in the North River. And so Uncle Ted and Aunt Pudge sailed away, never to be seen again, and I took the PATH tubes back home to Christopher Street.
A month or two later I got a postcard from Aunt Pudge, sent c/o my school, because she wouldn’t know where I was living. The card was ten or fifteen years old, dogeared. It had an English postage stamp and a blue Par Avion sticker, but the picture on the front was a Quality Courts motel in Vermont. The Green Mountaineer Motel. This postcard had sat at the bottom of Pudge’s purse since forever.
She didn’t say much:
“Food is awful. P.”
Chapter 2: The Return of Hornblower
Just before leaving town Aunt Pudge wrote up a press release—two pages, stapled—and handed it out to everyone. She even gave it to the dry cleaners. Or rather, one evening when she was stewed she bullied me into giving it to the dry cleaners. She imagined they’d hang it on the wall, the way they displayed autographed headshots of their celebrity customers. (To Vinnie, You’re the best, Michael J. Pollard.)
Pudge had a theory that dry cleaning people were naturally warm and exuberant Mediterranean types, so they regarded their clientele as extended family. Very emotional, always gushing. “Why you no come-a see me no more?” they’d say if you hadn’t come in for a month. And that’s why they kept those picture galleries.
And actually they did hang it on the wall. Pinned it up, that press release, under the framed 8×10 glossies of Bill Boggs and Pia Lindstrom. And it stayed there a long, long time, next to the business cards for the vocal coaches and rug shampooers. I’d walk into the dry cleaner’s every couple of weeks to see if was still there:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 22, 1973
Contact: C. P. Parker
PUDGE PARKER TAKES POSITION AS INTERNATIONAL PUBLICIST
“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” I’d say to myself when I saw it there.
Pudge wanted me to stick the press release into the mailboxes in our apartment building, too. This was pointless, and crazy, I thought. You had to fold the sheets five ways to stick them through that little slot. She wanted me to do this so the neighbors in the building wouldn’t be spreading the story that she had left publishing to go work in her husband’s restaurant. Which sounds pretty awful, let’s face it. But folded five ways it looked like the worst kind of junk flyer, so nobody was going to read it anyway.
I stuck one copy in the Dinkelspiels’ box, because that mailbox had a broken lock, and I didn’t have to squeeze it through the slot. The rest I deep-sixed a couple blocks away, in a trash barrel outside the laundromat at Waverly and Charles.
Through the window I recognized someone in the laundromat. I could only see the back of his head, but nobody else had a weird head shape like that. Wedge-shaped, it was. This was Mr. Hornblower, our producer extraordinaire, former writer for Cowboy Duke’s Science Show in Boston, and before that the What’s It All About Game in the NBC studios in Rockefeller Center. I didn’t want to talk to him now, but I was curious to know what had happened to him in the past few months. He’d abandoned us all up in Newport, Rhode Island last August, after our plans for the educational TV show went bust. What happened was, he fell in with a rich lady he knew who had a job with the production of The Great Gatsby. That was the movie they were making nearby, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Just about everybody in Newport, Rhode Island was working on the film, even if only as an extra. The rich lady had money, and Hornblower couldn’t go back to his little flat in the Village because he’d sublet it for six months. So Hornblower latched onto the lady and moved in with her, I think. I don’t believe it was a physical relationship. Hornblower was mainly interested in a 15-year-old boy from Pawtucket, named Rufus.
I say Hornblower abandoned us “all” but in reality there weren’t too many of us left in our traveling kiddie-show company by this point. When we were up in Boston, trying to sell the show, a couple of the swishy boys just walked off one afternoon and caught a bus for Provincetown. Then there was my best friend and classmate, Kem, who took the T with us from Harvard Square, then peeled off when we got to South Station. She didn’t get on the train. We never heard from her again. Her father had just been appointed chargé d’affaires for San Marino, so we assumed maybe she went there. So now there was me, and two or three others, and then there’d be Rufus down in Pawtucket, who had a rock ‘n’ roll combo. Rufus was sort of a blond version of David Cassidy, according to comments on his headshot, so Hornblower wanted him to be star of our show, though Hornblower wasn’t quite sure who David Cassidy was.
The reason we’d gone to Boston is that that’s where Cowboy Duke Elkhart had his TV program, on the educational channel up there. Supposedly Cowboy Duke had once told Hornblower that if Hornblower ever came up a good idea for an educational kiddie show, Cowboy Duke would put it on the educational TV channel. And now we had Teentime!, a real honey of a concept, thought Hornblower. Teentime! wasn’t its real name, more like a nickname because Hornblower changed the official name every month or so, and we tended to forget what the current one was supposed to be. He once called the show The Doppler Effect. He thought it sounded scientific and would impress the executives at the educational TV channels. More recently he was favoring Virgule, “virgule” being the technical name of the punctuation mark otherwise known as a “forward slash.”
“Why not just call the show Forward Slash, Hornblower?” said one of the sarcastic swishy boys.
“Ooh noo,” said Hornblower. “Bad choice. Scary and violent. Educational TV execs no like violence.”
Anyway, six or eight of us, and Hornblower, took the train up to Boston around the Fourth of July. It then became clear (if we hadn’t noticed already) that Hornblower wasn’t one for forward planning. Cowboy Duke was on vacation in Montana for all of July. We crashed with various distant acquaintances of Hornblower, first in Cambridge, then on Nantucket. When Cowboy Duke finally got back we all went to meet him at his office near the TV studio.
We showed him our little black-and-white video showreel, shot with a Sony Porta-Pak. It looked like a fuzzy old kinescope of What’s My Line?, only with awkward teenagers. And Cowboy Duke basically laughed us out of the office.
He did it nicely, I suppose, shaking his head in pity at us clueless adolescents. So sad! Sorry for you kids! Obviously Hornblower had suckered us all in.
We weren’t really clueless, not at this point, but that’s how it looked to Cowboy Duke. We’d pretty much figured out the Hornblower story by this point. Hornblower had been fired from the Cowboy Duke Science Show because his ideas were just too darn strange. That isn’t the way Hornblower told the story. According to Hornblower, Cowboy Duke fired him because Cowboy Duke thought he was actually too brilliant to write for television.
Oh, the stories people tell themselves!
Personally I suspected Hornblower was fired because he always seemed to be stoned. He’d been a heavy grass smoker for eight or ten years by this point, and the stuff had permanently eroded his behavior and judgment, if he’d ever had any in the first place. After college he’d briefly been in the Navy, as whatever rank you start off as—an ensign, I guess? And then because Hornblower seemed to be presentable and intelligent, they wanted to put him into Naval Intelligence, and promote him to Lieutenant Junior Grade. This being the height of the Vietnam era, Hornblower had the usual anti-military bias, and used this opportunity to make his escape. So when he went for interviews with Naval Intelligence up in Newport, he decided to let it all hang out. Even exaggerate a little. Go crazy! Pull out all stops! You know, like Arlo Guthrie being interviewed by the draft board in Alice’s Restaurant.
He told them he’d been a marijuana smoker, and these Lieutenant Commanders interviewing him, probably out of the Academy via San Diego, sort of winked at each other, and—giggled.
“We can let that pass,” they said. “A little backyard weed, what?”
So that wasn’t going to work. Next Hornblower dragged out the heavy artillery. He told them he’d been a homosexual all his life. Or at least since he was twelve, which would make it half his life.
“How many times?” asked the interviewers, mildly alarmed. Apparently with Naval Intelligence there was a maximum number of sodomite adventures you could admit to before you were disqualified. I gather Hornblower easily met that quota, as he promptly got himself dinged from this man’s Navy. Free as a bird now, he headed down to the Village and promptly rented a $165 per month wedge-shaped 120 sq. ft. ground-floor apartment in a whitewashed 1830 terrace tenement in Gay Street.
He told us that Navy story a couple of times, once when we were on the train up to Boston. Some of us keen teens shook our heads and looked crosseyed. The story didn’t seem to make sense. He could have had a career in Naval Intelligence, for Lordy’s sake, instead of being a pothead and failed kiddie-show writer.
But back to Hornblower and his departure from Cowboy Duke’s Science Show. He got the heave-ho when he’d only been there four weeks. “Creative differences,” you know.
“You have a great imagination!” Cowboy Duke said, according to Hornblower. “And you should do something worthwhile with it! Write a novel. Or something!” High praise indeed, Hornblower thought.
More than that, it was a promise! An assurance! Cowboy Duke was saying in effect that if Hornblower ever came up with his own kiddie-show proposal for educational television, Cowboy Duke himself would get it on the air!
But as I’ve already told you, Cowboy Duke had absolutely no interest in Teentime!, or as Hornblower called it now, Virgule.
“What? I don’t even know what that means! This isn’t another of your astrology ideas, is it?” Cowboy Duke said, very merrily. Hornblower began to explain what a Virgule was.
And Cowboy Duke said, “And you didn’t even consider calling it Forward Slash? That has pizzazz. Like Zoom! Though maybe the suits wouldn’t like it.”
Now Cowboy Duke slapped his palm on the conference table, grinned ferociously and said, “Honestly, if you have to explain the title, it’s no good! Now me, I always thought Cowboy Duke’s Science Show was dumb as a box of rocks, name-wise, but on the other hand, no one’s ever said, What’s it mean? Because they get it immediately. It’s got a cowboy”—here he counted off on his big thick fingers—”and it’s got some science-type stuff. Now, I could tell you about a kiddie show I did in the early days, back at KYW in the forties, it was decently popular but it started off with a real dog of a title. Chapparal Charley. That’s who I was, Chapparal Charley. Who the hell in Philadelphia knows what a chapparal is, or even knows how to pronounce it? ‘Chap-apparel,’ they would say. ‘Chap-apparel Charley, the cowboy dude!’ That’s what they called me.
“So that’s when I became Cowboy Duke Elkhart. Elkhart because that’s where I was born, Elkhart, Indiana; and it makes you think of elk and deer and nice wholesome heartwarming things like that. ‘Home, Home on the Range.’ Parents will trust a TV host called Cowboy Duke Elkhart, they know their kids aren’t watching garbage. Whereas Chapparal Charley…sounds like a conman!”
He stared at the ceiling for a moment and rubbed his eyes and then said:
“You know, I think they’re still doing weird titles down Philadelphia-way. For ages they had this Australian guy running a puppet show called Bertie the Bunyip. Now what the hell is that? What the hell’s a Bunyip?”
Cowboy Duke drummed his fingers on the table. “But your problem here isn’t just the title, it’s the whole idea. In fact, there really isn’t any idea there. It’s important to have at least an idea of an idea. You need a unique selling proposition. If you had an idea, what would it be that makes this educational TV kiddie program so different?”
He asked this question four or five times, and he and Hornblower kept going in circles, with Hornblower replying, “Well we’re better. We’re smarter. We’re older. Not aiming for eight-to-ten-year-olds. No sirree. We got 14, 15, 16-year-olds. Appealing to audience market not being served.”
At this cue Hornblower would take up his pressbook, basically a ring-binder with the Virgule logo ( / ) on the spine, and show Cowboy Duke the wonderful cast members he’s assembled. We didn’t all have headshots in there, but that didn’t matter, because Hornblower mostly wanted to show off the headshot of Rufus.
“Isn’t he darling? They say he’s like a blond David Cassidy. Noo, he not here today. Lives down in Pawtucket.”
This part of the meeting ran on for twenty, thirty minutes. We were very embarrassed for Hornblower. But he wasn’t fazed at all. When we left the office his mood was buoyant, or at least his delusions remained undamaged. He said we should all go to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and meet the “beautiful booy” he was trying to recruit for the kiddie show. “Rufus so beautiful. Has big house, I think. We can all stay. You want come with?”
Hornblower spaced out on a lot of things, but he did have resourcefulness, a seeming ability to live on air. This was a marvel to behold. He’d been supporting himself all summer by borrowing money from friends and strangers. He didn’t call it borrowing, he claimed to be selling “stock” in his production company, which he called Quack Quack Productions. If you asked him why he chose that name, he’d explain he had a Fisher-Price pull-toy duck when he was little, and it went “Quack-quack.” The stock certificates for Quack Quack Productions were as real as the company itself: handwritten IOUs torn from a yellow legal pad. I went with him and a couple of the others to some weekend parties in Dover and Nantucket. He brought along some potent marijuana he’d bought from a local radio personality he knew in Cambridge called Charles Laquidara, renowned for being the “head” DJ in the Boston area, and also for having the best dope.
The proto-tycoons Hornblower sold his “shares” to—corporate lawyers, managers of real estate investment trusts, a future governor—probably rationalized the scamminess of it all by telling themselves, “Well $200 isn’t that much, considering we smoked some pretty righteous stuff…”
* * *
So that was summer 1973. And now here we are, at the end of the year. Aunt Pudge has asked me to stuff her press release into all the building’s mailboxes, but I throw most of them away instead. And so I go back to Perry Street, where I’m going to lie to Aunt Pudge that I’d stuffed all the neighbors’ boxes.
Actually she never asks me. Uncle Ted is there, working through a bottle of Johnnie Black. Seeing my Citizen Kane Book reminds him of one of his many Orson Welles tales. I’ve heard most of them, including this one, which comes out a little different each time. It has to do with a time when Ted was living in Chicago, and working on the Studebaker account.
“No trouble at all selling this one in. Everyone’s interested in Orson Welles, whether they remember him for the scary aliens-are-invading broadcast, or Rita Hayworth or seeing him on the Dean Martin Show, or whatever. Even Old Man Studebaker’s heard of Orson Welles. So we’re doing a two-hour spectacular, sponsored by Studebaker, with Orson Welles.
“But then there’s a big mix-up . . .
“We were all told it was a two-hour biography with interviews and film-clips about Orson Welles and his rise and fall. And we plan to have him actually driving some Studebakers!
“But get this. It’s not Orson Welles.
“No! It’s Oscar Wilde! Do you know who Oscar Wilde was? Haw! Can you imagine! Nineteen Sixty-Two! A two-hour spectacular on Oscar Wilde, sponsored by Studebaker!” Uncle Ted had a good long laugh.
Aunt Pudge and I laugh a little too, though I felt I was missing something.
“But wasn’t Oscar Wilde dead?” asks Aunt Pudge.
“Yes, and that made the whole thing even worse,” says Uncle Ted. “Can’t drive a Studebaker if you’re dead. So I have to go explain it all personally to Old Man Studebaker and Sherwood Egbert, the company president. Fortunately they do not know who Oscar Wilde is, or was, and anyway Sherwood’s mind was on other things, because he had cancer and the company was going bankrupt . . . But at least you can’t blame us for killing Studebaker, haw haw!”
Now we hear screams and banging noises.
“Hmm, are your neighbors brawling or something?” Uncle Ted asks.
It’s just the male couple at the end of the hall, having another knock-down drag-out fight. It sounds like they’re beating a wall or floor with a chair. Someone’s shouting in a whiny voice. Something like, “You never gave me no antsy-pantsy.”
“I love local color!” Uncle Ted chuckles. “You are going to miss this all this excitement, Pudge.”
“Oh everybody in the building has fights. It’s nothing,” I say. I quickly correct myself. “Most of them anyway. There’s this old hippie couple downstairs, the Dinkelspiels? They have the absolute worst fights. She throws him out of the apartment and then she throws his clothes out the window. Except they live on the first floor so it’s only a few feet.”
“And Marty Dinkelspiel doesn’t own any clothes, really, just a couple pairs of jeans,” Pudge adds.
“Oh. So that’s why there was a pair of dungarees hanging on the rail out front,” said Ted.
“Yeah,” I say, “the Dinkelspiels were really going at it last night.”
“Must be Jews,” says Ted. “That is one of their traditions, the woman gets mad and throws the husband’s clothes out the window. I worked with a Jewish fellow for years and came to have an appreciation of their ways. The other interesting thing Jews do is call the cops in when they have a domestic quarrel.”
“I suppose you have to do that sometimes,” I say blandly, not looking at Aunt Pudge.
Chapter 3: Comet Kohoutek
Just before Christmas, Aunt Pudge dragooned me into filling out bills of lading for all those Hobart pizza-dough mixers and Smokee Joe BBQ sparerib ovens, and the other things Uncle Ted was shipping to England.
Note, we didn’t actually have these appliances sitting there in our living room. They were in a warehouse over in Jersey. That is, New Jersey. Uncle Ted had bought them really cheap, second-hand. Because restaurants are always going out of business, and most people never need more than one Smokee Joe BBQ sparerib oven. So they’re really a buyers’ market.
Aunt Pudge was so thrilled to be leaving, you could tell. As a reward she decided to take me out for a sundae at Schrafft’s, the sort of thing she’d never done before. It was all doubly weird because I didn’t think there were even any Schrafft’s around anymore. After walking a while we found one up on Fifth Avenue at 13th Street, but they were just about to close for the night. What sort of eatery closes at 9 pm?
“Well we tried,” I said.
“It’s the thought that counts,” said Aunt Pudge.
The other big thing that happened at the end of 1973 was that the West Side Highway fell down. The concrete pillars just shattered one December day, and down the roadway came in a pile of rebars and concrete rocks. After that the whole highway south of 34th Street was closed. Although we hardly noticed it, because most of us didn’t drive.
After a few months everyone got used to having this big pile of rubble and broken roadway over on the West Side, like it was always there. People got used to that sort of thing.
We’d all been told to expect some sort of disaster like this. Bigger disasters, actually. It was because of Kohoutek. Comet Kohoutek, dancing through the sky. Kohoutek would supposedly bring the fall of governments and civilizations. It’s true that President Nixon’s administration was getting wobbly, but it hadn’t toppled yet, and he’d been through some bad scrapes before.
To read the New York Times Op-Ed page, you’d get the idea that the anti-Nixon campaign was emanating entirely from this a bespectacled weenie from Wooster, Ohio, John Dean. John Dean had been Nixon’s lawyer or White House Counsel, and now apparently someone had offered him a plea bargain and maybe big bucks if he’d agree to tell nasty tales on his boss. Funny thing is that my teachers all seemed to think this little stinker Dean was a good guy. There’s just something about schoolteachers that makes them hate Nixon and applaud little rats like John Dean.
You know who else was like that? Hornblower. He was always making gratuitous slams against President Nixon, remarks that made no sense at all. I told you about our pointless excursion up to Boston in the summer, when Hornblower imagined he was going to seal a deal with his good friend Cowboy Duke. Well, when we were going up on the train we got some food at the snack bar. This train didn’t have a dining car. You were supposed to go three cars back, stand in line, and order stuff off a really crummy menu, then carry your kibble back to your seat in a cardboard holder. Disgraceful. I’d just seen North by Northwest at the Thalia.
Anyway, Hornblower gets a little plastic-wrapped ham-and-cheese sandwich and reads the label. “American Sandwich Company.” And this makes him really mad. And he shouts, “‘American Sandwich Company’? What kind of phony outfit is THIS? That’s gotta be some of Nixon’s boys. They got their hand in. Monopoly of Amtrak sandwiches.”
He went on like this for a while. People was turning around. They should have been laughing but they weren’t.
Anyhow, so far Kohoutek was a dud. No one could see the darn thing, not even with the big telescope we installed at school. I went out to the waterfront early one morning, out on the rotting dock where you could see the Maxwell House neon coffee cup dripping away over in Hoboken (“Good to the Last Drop!”). The comet was supposed to be right overhead, but there was nothing in view.
We should have been grateful that at least the West Side Highway fell down.
Where it mainly fell down was at Gansevoort Street, in a part of town you usually didn’t want to go to, old warehouses and abbatoirs near 14th Street, by the abandoned docks. “The Meat Market,” they called it. Streets paved with bumpy stones, and a subtle but unmissable scent of blood in the air.
We had friends in the area, a lesbian couple who lived in an old pickle warehouse on Little West 12th Street. There was a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in their downstairs “living room.” (Couldn’t park it on the sidewalk, you know.) I’d walk a neighbor’s dog through the area and sometimes stop off and see them. Shelley and Darryle, their names were. They’d offer me cocaine sometimes. They claimed it was the finest and purest in the world. However, it was wasted on me. Cocaine just had no effect on me when I was 14 or 15. I suppose it’s one of those things you have to grow into, like hard liquor.
Darryle and Shelley also had a sort of video and movie-editing lab on the ground floor of their “Pickle Factory” (as they called it). They made cheap late-night TV commercials. Once, grossly stoned on hashish, which I had never smoked before, I lay in their loft with them while they made persnickety comments about other commercials they were watching on their little black-and-white portable. “Oh we could do so much better than that,” Shelley said.
These were commercials of the “It slices! It dices!” variety, and I still wonder what contribution Darryle and Shelley made to that genre.
Darryle was a sort of former debutante who’d gone to a party school in Winter Park, Florida. She’d been engaged to a male student down at the college, a supercilious fellow named Charles Hoople III who would tell you in the first fifteen minutes that his grandmother had been Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria. I tried to reckon that one out. Maybe if Charles’s mother was 40 when she had him, and her mother was 40 when she had her, then maybe the Lady-in-Waiting in question could have been born about 1869, so got to hang out with Her Majesty around the time of the Diamond Jubilee. Like Darryle, Charles dropped out of Rollins College before graduating, later following her to the Pickle Factory. As now Darryle owned a Harley and sported a spiky haircut and a black leather jacket, ex-fiancé Charles decided he’d turn gay too, though he didn’t really know how to do it. It was just an idea, something to do in the future. But he brought a couple of male friends in there, including a screaming-queen aspiring costume designer who’d likewise dropped out of Rollins. With their resources pooled they brought in some carpenters and remodeled the Pickle Factory into a raw but livable loft dwelling with a semblance of separate rooms. It was a pretty big building, just mostly unlivable.
Shelley, Darryle’s girlfriend, was a former Broadway chorus dancer, originally from Texas. She’d danced in The Pajama Game, and someone told me she’d also been one of the original Two Ladies who sang and danced with Joel Grey in the original Broadway version of Cabaret. Now she was an occasional “adult movie” actress, though we didn’t talk about this at the time. She became semi-famous for big porn movie that played for two years in a movie house at 57th Street and Broadway. She used the pseudonym of Georgina Spelvin, so as yet I had no idea what a big star she was. When they explained it to me, I figured it all made sense. What if you want to go back to your dance career and everybody associates you with hard-core porn?
Shelley had a kind of fetish about the ballet movie The Red Shoes (1948), made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It is indeed a beautiful film, but perhaps not best screened for the first time on a black-and-white portable, up in a drafty upper floor where they kept warm with space heaters, big throw-rugs, and sleeping bags. Which is how I first saw it with Shelley and Darryle and Hornblower and a couple of other Teentime! kids. This would have been back around the end of 1972. Charles and his buddies weren’t there, as they’d gone down to the Caribbean while the carpenters finished their work. But Shelley and Darryle had party favors on hand and there was enough to go around. They had hash, and cocaine, and “a rare Bordeaux,” as Darryle called the sour red plonk we were drinking.
I was pretty bored by the film, which went on forever. But then I hadn’t once been an aspiring ballet dancer from Houston, Texas. And I was too intoxicated to follow it anyway. I went down to the toilet during what was supposed to be the climactic scene, when Moira Shearer throws herself from a balcony onto the railway tracks in Monte Carlo. Hornblower chewed me out afterwards for having walked out on that big scene. It was an insult to the hostess.
Chapter 4: Sacred Bubblegum; or, the Sal Mineo Story
It was one of those late nights at the Pickle Factory, when it was bitterly cold and yet wet out, and I wasn’t up for the long trek back to Fifth Avenue—I’d moved into Kem’s bedroom at Granny von Schlafen’s when Aunt Pudge moved away and I couldn’t live at Perry Street anymore—so I decided to crash on the floor in one of the spare sleeping bags. And then Darryle and Shelley, up making tea for themselves while working the movieola, asked me how the screenplay was coming along.
This was an old joke between them and me, about a tiny adventure I’d had last spring, a few weeks before that fateful excursion to Boston with Hornblower. Back then I told them the story about the screenplay, and it absolutely cracked them up. I’d overhear them retelling it with various improvements and embellishments, such as that David Cassidy, or rather the David Cassidy character in the script, was a sex-slave to a megalomaniac music promoter. That might well have been a subtext, although that particular aspect completely escaped me when I read it. All I got out of the script was that the teen idol was under the control of this Svengali named Bruno Sebastian, who wished to rule the world by turning all the teeny-boppers into zombies in thrall to the Bubblegum Idol.
Bruno, I figured, was going to be played by Sal Mineo, who ostensibly authored this screenplay himself. My first guess was that he didn’t really write it, because here he was asking around for someone to read it and write a synopsis. Which is how it came to me. I was told he needed a synopsis so that he could get a literary agent or producer interested. But how in hell can you write a screenplay and not know what it’s about? And not be able to write down a couple hundred words describing your story? Ergo, Sal didn’t write his own synopsis because he didn’t write the screenplay and probably hadn’t really read it either.
Later on I decided that probably Sal did write it, or some of it, and what he was really asking for is what screenwriters call a “treatment.” A treatment is a bit more full-bodied than a 200-word synopsis, though. It’s the screenplay story told in conventional narrative format, sort of like a short story. I would not have known that at the time, however. And it appears that neither did Sal.
Anyway, here I was, a few months shy of fifteen, and I’m being asked to write up some kind of description of a very weird screenplay called Sacred Bubblegum. It’s called that because the David Cassidy character is not just a “bubblegum” pop singer, he’s a guru to millions of youngsters, sort of like Guru Mahara-Ji, the 13-Year-Old Perfect Master. A couple of years back you’d see posters for Mahara-Ji all around Harvard Square and Washington Square. Then he was thirteen, now he’s fifteen, so on the posters he’s the 15-Year-Old Perfect Master.
Sal Mineo was evidently much taken by all the posters that went up for this “guru.” Mahara-Ji wasn’t much to look at, but Sal thought (and I’m guessing here), “What if you had a guru who was a pop idol and looked like David Cassidy? Then even if you laughed at him, you’d still watch him, and you’d come under his spell!”
From that nugget of a concept, Sal worked up a story where this guru-idol is himself the puppet of a Blofeld mastermind type, who sits in front of his closed-circuit TV monitors and watches all the goings-on at the teen idol’s estate. From his description (about 32 years old, Mediterranean-looking), this Bruno is clearly meant to be played by Sal himself (now about 34). The David Cassidy character, whose character name I forget, captures the attention of teeny-boppers not only in America, not only in the West, but all around the world. From his video cockpit Bruno watches pubescents cheer the great Bubblegum Idol in numerous languages. Presumably this is from some satellite feed, not worldwide closed-circuitry.
It galled me—no, make that amused me—to think that I was chosen for this special task because I was assumed to be part of the target audience for the screenplay, as well as being part of the age cohort doing all that raving in Minneapolis and Ibiza and Kathmandu. It’s very hard for adults to depict adolescents realistically en masse. Kids do not get crazed over bubblegum singers, any more than they would over Jerry Vale. When you see a crowd of Beatles fans screaming in Ed Sullivan’s audience back in 1964, or old newsreel clips of bobbysoxers yelling for Frank Sinatra at the Paramount twenty years earlier, those girls are not losing control, they’re playing a role. They’re doing their job, contributing to the performance.
That made for one of the funniest flubs I noticed in The Godfather movie. Instead of young, skinny, good-looking, bowtied Frank Sinatra singing at an outdoor wedding party in 1945, we get middle-aged, broad-beamed, pockmarked Al Martino pretending to be Johnny Fontane, idol of the bobbysoxers. And as he sings, the camera pans over a row of some very unattractive young women who are doing the prescribed behavior. Only they’re doing it for Al Martino, which is preposterous. Couldn’t Coppola have found a young, skinny, good-looking Johnny Fontane?
The Bubblegum Idol in the script does nothing to convince us of his overwhelming talent and charisma. Moreover he lacks plausible guru-wisdom, even of the vacuous-but-articulate sort you’d get from Alan Watts or J. Krishnamurti. We’re asked to take on faith the notion that he has psychic power; perhaps psychic power that’s being infused through him by Bruno Blofeld, sitting there in the control room. Meanwhile Bruno’s plot to rule the world through a Bubblegum Idol is never fully explained.
Since Sal chose to frame this story as a formulaic thriller rather than a farce (which would have been neat) its third-act resolution is predictable James Bond stuff. Bubblegum Boy rebels, tries to escape, and he or his fans (I truly forget) blow up the works in a huge explosion. Imagine what Sal could have done with this if he’d made it a comedy.
I suppose he wrote Sacred Bubblegum around 1971-72 (David Cassidy’s peak). In early 1973 Sal was in New York, co-producing a play with a friend. It was a somewhat kinky-bohemian drama called “The Children’s Mass,” more suited to the East Village’s Theatre La Mama Etc. than the respectable “Off-Broadway” Theatre de Lys on Christopher Street, where it opened and closed in the space of a week. It was written by Frederick Combs, an actor best remembered as the second lead in The Boys in the Band (movie and play). It starred, as a stunning blond transvestite junkie, their friend Courtney Burr, who wound up as a renowned acting teacher in L.A.
The stage manager for the production, Richard Flagg, lived downstairs from us on Perry Street. He seems to have volunteered my services when the play folded and Sal decided to flog his screenplay around. I guess I didn’t acquit myself very well because Sacred Bubblegum vanished without a trace, except for brief mention in a Sal Mineo biography.
Prior to this I’d always perceived Sal Mineo as a sort of mulatto. When I first saw him in Rebel Without a Cause, he was in a scene where he’s accompanied by his family’s housemaid. Well, I thought the colored maid was his mother. In the flesh and in his 30s, though, that broad touch of the tarbrush didn’t really show. He just looked like a normal Sicilian sort. I didn’t think he looked much his juvenile movie self at all, in fact he seemed almost middle-aged. Now I look at pictures of him from that time and decide I was wrong. He was still just a kid.
“The Children’s Mass” got a great sendoff when it wrapped: a slap-up dinner in Midtown for producers and company. Besides Richard and Frederick and Sal and costume/set designer Peter Harvey and the cast, they brought in Tennessee Williams, who happened to be in town because he was appearing on and off in one of his plays, “Small Craft Warnings.” I was not at the dinner (not being one of the boys in the band, so to speak) but Richard filled me in on some highlights. Apparently Tennessee was in his cups and offered an insightful postmortem about something that just might have saved the play, who knows:
“You should’ve had a dawg in the play, Fred. People lak dawgs.”
Chapter 5: Bubblegum and Peanut Butter
It now seems a mad coincidence that this Sal Mineo Sacred Bubblegum episode came along right in the middle of our Teentime! adventures. The two things had a lot in common. It’s not so much that they were both ill-conceived and futile ventures; at the time I expected both to come to reach some half-assed fruition. No, where they’re alike is more in the cockeyed outlook of their creators. Here you had two adult males in their early 30s, each believing he had a special gift for understanding the adolescent mind, and yet being utterly clueless. And then of course there’s that homosexual subtext, which Shelley and Darryle readily decoded when I described Sacred Bubblegum to them. Apparently there was an old rumor that Sal Mineo and David Cassidy had been an item.
That screenplay also occasioned one of the rare near-meetings of Hornblower and Aunt Pudge. This was something you had to be on guard for. He liked to imagine all his keen teens came from happy homes. He had an idealized notion of their home lives, which is odd, seeing as two or three of boys were tricks he’d picked up on the street or out on the docks. Occasionally he’d try to phone someone up at home, and get the mother or housekeeper, whereupon Hornblower would airily banter on about young Chrissy or Rodge or Kem, which infuriated and embarrassed Chrissy or Rodge or Kem when they heard about it from both ends. Chatting up your parents and servants: that is just so sick. There are things called boundaries, Hornblower! His parents were public school teachers, and people of that sort tend to think it’s perfectly fine to nose around in others’ personal business.
As for me, I think Hornblower had imagined Pudge to be a sort of Auntie Mame type. Because we lived in the Village, and I seemed to have an awful lot of license, and my aunt apparently didn’t get into my stuff. All those were positives in Hornblower’s book. He thought it was unusual, and maybe abnormal, but good. Hornblower’s vision of normality was having busybody parents who wanted to keep you under their thumb until you were an adult, and maybe even then. I don’t think he himself had an upbringing like that, it’s just some conventional wisdom he’d latched onto. Ersatz conventional wisdom, actually. It would come out in his commonplace utterances, such as, “By time kids get to college, all they know is what they learned at home.” Which is another way of saying that kids display the prejudices of their parents (and also that when Hornblower went away to college after public high school in Donkeyville, Arkansas he was struck by the vast variety of strong opinions expressed by his classmates).
That “all they know is what they learned at home” business struck me and Kem as being not just wrong, but unfathomably bizarre. I mean—what if you grew up in boarding schools? I was in boarding school for a while. Or, what if you seldom saw your parents? When I was little, my father was usually away and my mother was often in the nuthouse. Besides which, aren’t most kids somewhat rebellious or contrarian, at least by teenage years?
A similarly wacky misobservation came out of Hornblower on the subject of peanut butter. Kem and I wanted to do a Teentime! segment tracing the evolution of the Peter Pan Peanut Butter brand. Back in the 1930s it was called Derby’s Peter Pan Peanut Butter and came in a can. Then then they put it in a glass jar and dropped the Derby’s bit. But through all of this, and for years afterwards, the “Peter Pan” character was a woman. Not a woman dressed like an English pantomime “principal boy,” i.e. an obvious girl in britches, but rather a fairly mature woman in a forest-green dress, Robin Hood cap, and matching high heels. It could be your mother as a Girl Scout leader, circa 1940.
Later on they made her younger and perkier and cartoony, but here in the 1970s she was still undeniably female. Now what was the reasoning behind all this? Kem and I guessd that the Derby people or their ad agency started out using someone’s wife or mother as a model. They knew little and cared less about J. M. Barrie’s character, other than that on stage Peter was traditionally played by a female. And then as they modernized the brand and forgot about the original model, they still left the “Peter Pan” figure a woman or girl, perhaps because they thought a boy Peter Pan would be confusing and off-putting. I don’t know; people get strange ideas.
Regardless, this female Peter Pan continued long after the Walt Disney animation came out in 1953, with an unambiguous boy Peter Pan talking with the voice of Disney star Bobby Driscoll. The Disney version was on our mind because they were doing a 50-year Disney retrospective up at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. Kem and I went to see that and a couple of other Disney movies you can practically never see because they re-release them very infrequently. Like Pinocchio…half the world thinks they’ve seen Pinocchio, but they haven’t, because it came out in 1940 and now only appears briefly every eight or ten years, like a comet.
Anyway there was a hot, fascinating story behind this Peter Pan weirdness, Kem and I decided. We imagined ourselves making a mini-documentary using library footage of thousands of cans and jars of Peter Pan Peanut Butter coming off the assembly line. And man-in-the-street interviews asking people why Peter Pan was depicted as a female. I’m sure we’d get some really far-out answers.
But Hornblower was dismissive. He belittled our proposed project. Peter Pan was depicted as a woman on the peanut butter jar, he explained, because it’s mothers who do the grocery shopping.
“And ladies want a character they can identify with,” Hornblower said. Thereby offering us a theory that managed to be twice as bizarre as the basic facts themselves.
Here I’m reminded of those strange segments he said he proposed for Cowboy Duke’s Science Show. One week they wanted to do a piece about the Doppler Effect. Hornblower said they should illustrate it by making a film clip of a cat wearing little boxing gloves, and punching a big dog in the jaw. And the dog would reel backwards, with animated soundwaves coming off his head, along with sound effects: woo-woo-woo-wuhwuhwuhwuh.
After the other writers and producers screwed their eyes back into their heads, Hornblower proposed doing a segment on astrology. He’d invite an astrologer onto the program to show how it all worked. This horrified his midwit colleagues, because their high school teachers had taught them that astrology “wasn’t true” because “there are only twelve signs and there are more than twelve kinds of people.” A Jewish woman producer there actually said that, thinking it was a legitimate objection. Actually the only legitimate objection was that Hornblower was out of his gourd for imagining astrology would get a warm welcome from the Science Show!
Along the same lines, Hornblower wanted to bring General Patton’s daughter, Ruth Patton Totten, onto the show. Because, he said, he’d met her and she was a witch. Or at least she said she was a witch. Also she lived in Ipswich. Hornblower fought hard for this feature. “A Witch from Ipswich.” I think he’d probably promised Mrs. Totten he’d get her on TV—”on the Boston educational channel, in fact!” She’d be a surefire hit, Hornblower pleaded. And the kids at home would surely love to learn all about witchcraft.
Before long the Jewish woman went to Cowboy Duke and advised him they had a total lunatic on their hands and it was time to give him his walking papers.
But I was going to tell you about how Hornblower was going to ring up Aunt Pudge and warn her that I was moving in bad company. Bad company of course meant Sal Mineo, whom I’d barely met, outside the Theatre de Lys one day when I was with Richard Flagg. I happened to have the black-bound screenplay with me one afternoon when I went to the Teentime! meeting. I’d taken it to school to read between classes, and also I guess to show off. And then I took it out of my knapsack at Hornblower’s tiny, crowded, wedge-shaped flat, again probably to show off.
Most of the keen teens didn’t know who Sal Mineo was. In fifteen years he’d passed from being a leading juvenile, and even teenage heartthrob, to being a cipher so obscure that Richard Lamparski never even bothered to include him in his “Whatever Happened to” series on defunct celebs. But Hornblower assured us Sal was bad news all the way. Hornblower lived in L.A. briefly and heard bad stuff about him, probably in gay bars.
Hornblower once described a gay bar where they were always playing a Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs is in drag, performing Wagner, and he gets chased around by Elmer Fudd, who’s singing “Ki-ill da Wabbit! Ki-ill da Wabbit! Ki-ill da Wa-aa-a-a-bit!” to “Ride of the Valkyries.” I think this is where Hornblower said he met Doodles Weaver, the short-subject comedian. Doodles liked to bring strangers home with him, not for dirty stuff, but to make them watch his “A Day with Doodles” comedy series. Hornblower said Doodles was a very sad and lonely old man.
So I imagined nasty Sal Mineo stories being told, while in the background you’ve got Bugs Bunny and Elmer singing opera, and Doodles Weaver is inviting guys home with him to watch “A Day with Doodles.”
Hornblower thumbed through Sacred Bubblegum. He immediately detected that it seemed to be about a pederast Svengali and a beautiful boy much like David Cassidy, which of course made him think of Rufus. Hornblower decided it was all too too perverse. And not at all commercial. “No one’s going to make this garbage!” Hornblower declared.
“Don’t you dare!” I said when Hornblower made noises about calling my aunt. Of course if he did do that, there would no harm done because Pudge wouldn’t have a clue what he was talking about and would probably tell him to go stuff it. Only downside is that then Pudge would find out about Teentime!, which she must never ever know about.
She did find out about the screenplay, though, sort of. She saw me working on the “synopsis,” thought it was homework. Then around Memorial Day she passed Richard Flagg in the downstairs hall, and Richard gave her a cheery hello and asked how I was coming along with the screenplay.
“Oh. What. Don’t…know,” she replied.
Never brimming over with curiosity about my doings, she didn’t mention this for days. We didn’t talk much anyway. Then she suddenly asked me why Richard Flagg in 4D was asking about a screenplay.
“Oh that old thing,” I said. “I got rid of it.” Because I had indeed finished my little critique (as I called my “synopsis”) and would soon return the bound script to its owner.
“What was it about?”
“Really strange. About a 15-year-old perfect-master guru and teen idol, like David Cassidy, and his tyrannical manager, and how they try to take over the world by hypnotizing all the teeny-boppers to have group sex. Sal Mineo wrote it. You remember Sal Mineo. He’s an old friend of Cathleen Whittles. They were movie kids from the Fifties.” Aunt Pudge knew our neighbor Cathleen Whittles, now a soap opera actress, from the AA group at St. Luke’s.
“Yes yes Sal Mineo, disappeared without a trace. Sounds like some terribly perverted stuff.”
“It’s a comedy.”
“So I guess it’s all right then?”
Sal had a real PR problem, you can see.