Saturday, September 12, 2015
#25. "Van Nuys Blvd," a barely baked idea, laid bare.
Many years ago, this project was taken up by Burt Sugarman, a well known hot music/TV executive with a whole floor of the 9000 building on Sunset. This was the same building in which former Monkee Michael Nesmith's mother sold a little product she invented called Liquid Paper (later White Out) which corrected typing mistakes. I used it for years; we all did. A secretary herself, she hawked it floor to floor. She later sold the company to Crane or someone for $47.5 million.
My story was to be called "Van Nuys Blvd." after a well-known teen-age cruising street out in LA's San Fernando Valley. I had a mob of half-baked characters. One guy had invented a gadget that would change stop lights to green. Another had a hotrod built around a WWII P-38 Allison V-1710 supercharged engine. There would be prom hijinks under clouds of marijuana smoke, you know, real high class stuff like that. The two lead narration characters were AM disc-jockeys, a perennial favorite, old and tired at 37, and the new hot babe from New Orleans who was eating his lunch in the ratings.
Burt Sugarman was the creator and executive producer of the long running network rock and roll show, "Midnight Special." He was married then to dynamite blonde actress Carol Wayne, a frequent guest/target on Johnny Carson's show. Burt knew the music of the day and the men and women who made it. His Rolodex was fat with all their names, addresses, and private lines. By itself, it would have made an excellent 'McGuffin' plot device.
Burt thought it would be a good idea if I spent some time with the hot DJs in L.A. All he had to do was make some calls (he was a maestro at Phone) and I was in with Humble Harve, B. Mitchel Reed, Emperor Hudson, the whole nine. I spent a few hours with Harve and then he just dropped out of sight. A week later it broke that he had murdered his cheating wife and was now wanted for more than personal appearances.
I did some shifts with other jocks and began to learn the system of record rotations, rack jobbers, under-the-table favors, cash and otherwise and, most importantly, how to keep talking long after you had anything interesting to say. I learned about radio's one unforgivable sin: silence...Dead Air (a title if I ever heard one). I learned that some jocks read aloud from a record's liner notes as if they had just thought of it themselves, that a lot of this hypnotic jabber was fueled by happy drug Dexamyl greenies. Thinner and a fast tongue, what's not to love? Babe.
I was always waiting to meet the actual rock and rollers but Burt kept me well away from them. They were his. The one celebrity he gave me turned out to be good enough. It was his "Midnight Special" singular voiced announcer, Wolfman Jack. Who had already starred in the kid movie of the decade, maybe ever, "American Graffiti."
Burt arranged for me to accompany the Wolfster on one of his many public appearances; this one, the New Jersey State Fair. We flew out early morning from LAX, first class and all, to Newark. Travel with the Wolfman was unique. Everyone loved him, they felt they knew him, and that he must know them, too. This was a part he played brilliantly. In just a couple of words, a sentence or two at most, he fulfilled them and kept them moving. I asked him how he did it. "We're bound by time and rock and roll. Besides, I like people," he said. "Kinda."
When we alit from the limo at the N.J. State Fairgrounds, we were met by a team of Clipboard People who had the whole day planned out, down to the minute. Wolfman plugged into them immediately and deep. He was theirs and he made sure they knew it. "They pay the freight, they get the goods," he whispered to me and we were off.
Wolfman announced the bake offs. Wolfman announced the rabbit and the chicken prizes. Wolfman hawked for the carny Side Shows. Wolfman announced the Any-And-All-Dog-Contest, Wolfman manned the 4H table, handed out the ribbons, got a standing-O when he left. With no script or notes, he announced everything they dragged him to, never at a loss for words or quips. It was a stunning performance. Then there was the looooonnng line at the Take A Picture With Wolfman Jack! And oh, God how they did. His charm and patience never flagged; he was he gravel-voiced Energizer Bunny.
When we got a little coffee break, I asked him how and why he did this. He smiled. "You'll see, Chow Puppy. You will see."
I think the highlight for both of us was when he got to present the headline act of the day: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, who for years had been New Jersey's own hard core white boy blues band. Until that pesky Bruce Springsteen came along. But it was early, Bruce wasn't quite The Boss yet and Southside Johnny was still cookin'. We had a great evening of music and Wolfie kept the show moving. The band and the huge audience loved it.
When the night was over and we were about to climb into the company limo for the airport, an official handed Wolfman a brown paper shopping bag. They said their goodbyes with a manly pelvis-held-safely-away hug and we got into the Lincoln. "I'll call them and tell them you're running a little late." Okay.
On the red eye flight home, Wolfie opened the paper bag and began to count his money: banded packets of well used tens and twenties. "You always want night flights," he said. "Half the seats are empty, they're grateful for the business so they treat you good." On this night, they actually held the plane for him. And when he boarded, me bringing up the rear, the whole plane broke into applause. As he talked, he never stopped counting. Until he did. "How much," I asked.
"I drifted off at thirty-five grand. There was more. For one day's work. I do ten or fifteen of these a year. Is this a great life or what?!" He reached into his hand-carry bag and pulled out a can of Lysol. He upended it into the paper sack, clamped the sack shut around his hand and sprayed for a full five seconds. "Germs," is all he said.
That task complete, he washed down a 'lude with some champagne, dropped to the floor on his knees -- what the fuck!? -- as he turned toward the seat, he draped an airlines blanket over his head and flopped down, asleep before I sat back down, relieved.
Okay, by now, you know the drill: way too often I go and see all these cool things and write the script about something else. We should've done a documentary about Wolfman. I should have written a movie about Michael Nesmith's mom and the White Out: Talk about a generous, inventive and empowered woman! And we probably could've gotten a Monkees soundtrack out of it. Hell, they made a whole movie about the guy who invented the intermittent car windshield wiper. Or at the very least, I should've done Humble Harve and his dead wife. We could've called it "Dead Air!'
But oh, noooo. I had to stick with my stupid idea about the kids and disc jockeys of Van Nuys Blvd. And folks, that script dead flat sucked. Even my cat hated it. Burt Sugarman, wherever you are in deep retirement and married to Mary Hart, you are still king of the machers. And I am utterly and forever sorry.
What makes a hit?
Oh, God, if they only knew. Every few years, certain movies break out; The Little Engines That Could. They come from nowhere, fighting through the shit storms of indifference, poverty, and fear. Yet somehow they get made, get a limited release, and find an audience. Some hits are bad, some are good -- it doesn't seem to matter. They just spoke to people.
This is where the William Goldman quote from his 'Adventures In The Screen Trade' shines brightest. "NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING."
When I was starting out in 1970 (Jesus, does the calendar actually go back that far?), it was a movie called "Joe" starring Peter Boyle and a very young Susan Sarrandon in their first roles, directed by John Avildsen who went on to direct "Rocky" and most of the "Karate Kids." Written by the bizarrely great Norman Wexler (see earlier MGM pitch story) and made for only $100,000, "Joe" grossed over $20,000,000 for the goniffs at Cannon.
A few years later, there were the Charles Bronson revenge blood-bath "Death Wishes." Coming at a time when our national crime stats were out of control, these movies gave lines around the block a simple tough guy approach that completely satisfied...if you didn't look to closely. Like at the movie itself or the U.S. Constitution.
Then there was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," Nia Vardalos' theatrical memoir licence to print money. And later anomalies were from 'documentarian' Michael Moore and movie star Mel Gibson. Imagine dinner with those two.
Moore's docutainment "Fahrenheit 911" was made for 6 million and grossed 222.5 million. As for Gibson, he decided to put up his own money, 30 million, when all his fair-weather buddies passed on "The Passion," his hard-core Jesus movie. Then, four-walling it across the world, he ended up making over 612 million. Think anyone saw this coming?
These movies may yet eclipse "The Blair Witch Project," a simple film about rage and Tarantino and Avary's masterpiece "Pulp Fiction" as the most profitable films in history. They didn't follow the normal success formulas. They blazed their own staggering trail to financial glory, leaving us mystified but happy.
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" Well, The Shadow, of course. But after him and all the way down, a screenwriter does. Because every one of these movies came from one. Including Michael Moore who, on "Fahrenheit 911," functioned as a screenwriter as ever a writer did.
And Sparkie, I love screenwriters!