from my sketchbook: vincent price

these words he speaks are true/we're all humanary stew

Can you imagine my joy when, in 1975, I brought home a newly-released copy of Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare album, popped it onto my turntable and heard a deliciously creepy introduction by none other than the “King of Modern Macabre” — Vincent Price? It was (if I may borrow a word not particularly popular in 1975) awesome! I was a fan of both Alice Cooper, having been mesmerized by School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies years before, and Vincent Price, whose over-the-top mix of camp and horror was regularly offered at Saturday afternoon matinees. Plus, Mr. Price appeared as the villainous Egghead in a two-episode arc on my favorite childhood TV show Batman. And now, here were these two show-biz heavyweights joining forces for my personal entertainment.

I saw Alice Cooper on the Philadelphia stop of the subsequent Welcome to My Nightmare tour. When the Vincent Price intro to “Black Widow” blared from the speakers, as six-foot tall spiders pirouetted across the stage with a top-hatted Mr. Cooper, it was more that my 14-year old senses could take.

Seven years later, little Michael Jackson — all grown up and no longer the novelty frontman of a family pop band —released his epic masterpiece Thriller, an album that would go on to sell an estimated 51 million copies worldwide. And right there, in the middle of the title track, a spooky homage to the horror genre, was Vincent Price delivering a suitably chilling recitation (a “rap,” if you will) in his malevolent, yet cultured, voice.

Then, in what would be his final film role, Vincent Price once again lit up the screen in a cameo as the creator of the titular character in Edward Scissorhands. Looking genial in a dark smoking jacket, his white hair combed back in a dignified manner, Vincent imparted the secrets of etiquette and grace to a silent and naive (and unfinished) Johnny Depp. His performance was delightful — a perfect cap to a memorable career.

In March, I met Vincent’s daughter, Victoria. We are approximately the same age, just a few months apart. As I spoke with Victoria, my mind slipped back to my youth. I was that 14-year-old listening to that Alice Cooper album. I remembered how cool it was for me. I can only image how cool it was for Victoria.

IF: natural

let me die a woman

Doris Wishman was bored. As a recent widow, she refused to sit home and spend the rest of her life grieving. So she decided to make movies.

Doris, a New York native, skirted recently-passed nudity legislation. The new law permitted nudity in film in a documentary context. Doris borrowed $10,000 from her sister and produced and directed Hideout in the Sun, a blatant “nudie” film in the guise of a documentary. Acting as a modern-day Susan B. Anthony, Doris breached the all-male world of nudist film-making, releasing at least one film per year. She tried to disguise her efforts, first as “naturalist” films, then as “science-fiction” when she made Nude on the Moon in 1960. She knew nudity in film was a sure money maker, and despite a New York State ban, Doris was pretty successful.

In the middle 60s, Doris jumped on the sexplotation bandwagon. She produced low-budget, black & white shockers like Bad Girls Go to Hell and The Immoral Three. She made two films with cult actress Lillian Stello, professionally known as “Chesty Morgan.” Both films were played strictly for campy laughs and took full comedic advantage of Miss Morgan’s notorious 73 inch bust line. Doris gained respect and was considered a peer of genre heavyweights like Russ Meyer.

After shunning the genre for years, Doris reluctantly entered the world of pornography, teaming up with 70s porn actress/performance artist Annie Sprinkle (the former Ellen Steinberg). She directed the hardcore Satan Was a Lady and Come With Me, My Love. Doris, however, was uncomfortable with filming sex scenes and would leave the set, allowing her longtime cinematographer C. Davis Smith to direct.

In the 70s, Doris became intrigued by a new trend — slasher films. Inspired by John Carpenter’s groundbreaking Halloween and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, Doris produced and directed A Night to Dismember in 1983. It was a bomb.

Doris left the movie business and took a job in a lingerie store in Coral Gables, Florida. Public praise and admiration from cult film maker John Waters and critic Joe Bob Briggs sparked new interest in Doris’s motion pictures. She made a final film,  Each Time I Kill  while she battled lymphoma. Doris passed away in the summer of 2002 at the age of 90.

In 2007, the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival featured Each Time I Kill as part of its two-week program. Event organizers mistakenly believed the film included a lesbian story line.

from my sketchbook: rhea mitchell

Ginger, to her friends

While still a teenager, Rhea Mitchell performed on stages across the Pacific Northwest. It was during one performance in Vancouver, British Columbia, that she was noticed by a talent scout from Hollywood.

She began her film career – one that would span five decades – with a short subject called The Hidden Trail in 1912. From there, she added over 100 roles - mostly uncredited – to her resume. She willingly attempted dangerous maneuvers in scenes, earning her the nickname “The Little Stunt Girl.” Rhea took bit parts opposite  film heavyweights, like Western stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix. In later years, she was cast alongside Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr. Rhea’s starring roles were few, but she was content to play in the background.

In 1952, after a small role in Member of the Wedding, Rhea called it a career. She began managing several apartment buildings in Los Angeles. In September 1957, Rhea’s body was discovered by a houseboy at the La Brea District Apartments. As the investigation unfolded, the very same houseboy, Sonnie Hartford, Jr., confessed to strangling Rhea with the sash of her dressing gown. Sonnie stated that he wasn’t sure why he killed her. He had made an inappropriate remark to her and she was offended. Sonnie panicked and killed her in fear that she would tell the building’s owner, resulting in the possibility of him losing his job.

Rhea, long forgotten by Hollywood, was 66.

from my sketchbook: sean flynn

You know he heard the drums of warSean Flynn, the only child from the marriage of silver-screen swashbuckler Errol Flynn and French actress Lili Damita, seemed to be destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. A brief role in a segment of TV’s The Errol Flynn Theatre and a background part in his friend George Hamilton’s film Where The Boys Are in 1960, led to a contract to star in a big-screen sequel to his father’s adventure classic Captain Blood. After the release of Son of Captain Blood, Sean appeared in several more films until he grew bored with acting.

In 1964, Sean went to Africa to take a shot as a safari guide and big game hunter. Finding himself short on money, he reluctantly returned to the acting world, filming two quickie “spaghetti Westerns” back-to-back.  But Sean was anxious for more real-life adventure.

In 1966, he arrived in South Vietnam as a photojournalist for a French publication, then for Time-Life and eventually United Press International. Sean bravely entered combat, seeking realism in his photographs. After one last motion picture, he returned to Vietnam with a parachute jump with the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.  He also traveled to Israel to cover the Six Day War in 1967. He found himself back in Vietnam with plans for a documentary after the Tet offensive in 1968.

Traveling by motorcycle, Sean and fellow photographer Dana Stone entered Cambodia in April 1970. Along dangerous Highway One, the pair were captured by guerrillas, most likely part of the notorious Khmer Rouge, a military group led by ruthless Cambodian dictator Pol Pot.  That was the last time anyone saw Sean Flynn.

After years of searching and spending huge amounts of money, Lili Damita had Sean officially declared dead in 1984 — fourteen years after he disappeared.

from my sketchbook: ruth steinhagen

you always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn't hurt at all
Nineteen-year-old Ruth Steinhagen went to a Chicago Cubs game in 1947 and was never the same.

She became obsessed with Eddie Waitkus, the Cubs’ good looking, young first baseman. Ruth began to gather every bit of information she could on Waitkus. She sought out photos and newspaper clippings about him. Her room in her parents’ home became a shrine to the ball player. She insisted on setting a place for Waitkus at the family dinner table. When she learned that Waitkus was from Boston, she developed a taste for Boston baked beans. When she discovered that Waitkus was of Lithuanian descent, Ruth began studies to learn the Lithuanian language. Her worried parents sent her to a psychiatrist but her obsession did not diminish.

In the winter before the start of the 1949 season, Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.

On June 14, 1949, The Phillies came to Chicago to play the Cubs. Ruth booked a room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, where she knew visiting teams would stay. After the game, she gave a bellboy a note to deliver to Waitkus. The note read:

Mr. Waitkus–

It’s extremely important that I see you as soon as possible

We’re not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain to you

After insisting that she was leaving the hotel the next day and pressing the timeliness of the request, she concluded:

I realize this is a little out of the ordinary, but as I said, it’s rather important

Please, come soon. I won’t take up much of your time, I promise.

Waitkus found the note tacked to his 9th floor room when he returned from a dinner engagement. He read it and called Ruth’s room. She insisted that he come to her room and refused to discuss anything further on the phone. Waitkus thought he had a “hot honey” on the line and went right over to Ruth’s room.

He knocked on her 12th floor room and was invited in. Waitkus stood just inside the doorway and Ruth turned and opened a closet door, saying, “I have a surprise for you.” She spun around and pointed a .22 caliber rifle at Waitkus and shot him point-blank in the chest. She called the hotel’s front desk and reported, “I just shot a man.” She knelt by Waitkus, with his head cradled in her lap, until help arrived.

Ruth was arrested. When questioned, she said she “wanted to do something exciting” in her life. A medical evaluation found her mentally unstable and she was committed to the psychiatric facility at  Kankakee State Hospital. Waitkus, who survived the shooting and wished to forget the entire incident, did not press charges. He returned to baseball and, in 1950, he was named “AP Comeback Player of the Year.” However, he experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and retired from play after the 1955 season.

Ruth was declared cured in 1952 and released. She faded into obscurity. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 83. Her death was reported by the press nearly three months after it occurred.

Ruth’s obsession with Eddie Waitkus was the inspiration for Bernard Malamud’s novel (and subsequent film), The Natural.

from my sketchbook: daisy and violet hilton

she wore the dress and I stayed home
Many decades before another pair of namesake sisters were grabbing headlines, there was conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Born in the English coastal town of Brighton, Daisy and Violet were joined at the hips and buttocks. While they did share blood circulation, they shared no internal organs. Their mother, an unwed barmaid named Kate Skinner, sold her daughters to her employer, Mary Hilton, who saw exploitative dollar signs. Mary trained the girls to sing, dance and play musical instruments through a regimen of threats and physical abuse. Using the stage name “The United Twins,” Mary took the girls on tour through England, Germany, Australia, and eventually the United States, performing primarily in circus sideshows. Mary kept tight control on both the money and the sisters.

After Mary died, her husband continued the tour. In 1931, Daisy and Violet sued for their freedom and were awarded a settlement of $100,000. Soon afterwards, they were cast in Tod Browning‘s controversial film Freaks. They entered vaudeville, performing expertly on the saxophone and violin and often dressed differently to reflect their individuality. In 1951, they appeared in Chained for Life, a biopic loosely based on their lives.

They performed regularly into the 1960s. After a publicity appearance at a drive-in theater in Charlotte, North Carolina, they were abandoned by their tour manager. Left with no money or means of transportation, they were forced to find employment at a local grocery store.

In January 1969, they failed to report for work. Their boss at the grocery called the police. The sisters were discovered dead in their home, victims of Hong Kong flu, part of a pandemic that claimed over 33,000 lives in the United States. Investigation revealed that Daisy had died first and Violet passed several days later. They were 60 years old.