Day Two: Fear And Loathing At The Red Roof Inn
I woke up around 7:30 AM to call Lee by 8:00. Alertness at that hour was a huge strain on my constitution, as I was exhausted by several late nights in a row. Luckily, Lee had an unexpected late night too, so he suggested we postpone solidifying our plans until the afternoon.
I phoned Tobin after I showered and primped. We decided to hit the Wonderfest showfloor prior to meeting Lee. I ran over to the Waffle House to grab a quick bite to eat. Bubba was again cooking up his delicious diner diablerie. The counter was booked, which meant I was relegated to a booth. Without the addition of forced counter conversation, my diner rush felt somewhat dulled.
Tobin and I arrived at Wonderfest at 11:30. We forked over $12 bucks each and made our way to the vender area. The show generated a fantastic turnout. The floor was packed to the gills with genre fans. There were models and sculptures as far as the eye could see. We instinctively bee-lined to aisles with video hawkers. I bought a copy of Attack Of The Mushroom People, but reminded myself of my journey's budget constraints to avoid other purchases.
Again, Dave was scrambling to ensure that the show went off without a hitch, so I didn't have much time to grok Girdler with him. Beau was also diligently maintaining law and order Wonderfest style. Conover did find a moment to give me a terrific Abby pressbook before we left the show.
We made it back to my dreary room around 1 PM. I telephoned Lee upon our return. Lee had a lot on his plate that day and he was still trying to get in touch with local folks who worked with Girdler. He asked that we call him around 3:00 after he finished his errands, and we agreed.
To pass time, Tobin and I listened to Todd's blaxploitation radio CD. At one point, I offered dramatic readings of the Sheba Baby pressbook, and I also flaunted my Carol Speed singing impersonation (a skill I've artfully honed).
(Click Here to hear a 1 MB MP3 of the Sheba Baby radio commercial. Click Here to listen to a 100 KB Real Media version of Sheba.)
(Click Here to listen to a 1 MB MP3 of the Abby radio spot. Click Here to hear a 100 KB Real Media version of Abby.)
When Lee finally finished his work-related chores, he called and told me it would be easier if he just came to my Red Roof Inn camp. My heart sank. Not only was the whole motel a dive, but my room was a mess of camcorder batteries, strewn photocopies, and semi-unpacked clothing. Plus, the cleaning people had yet to make their rounds.
I hurriedly straightened up the place. While I could make the room appear tidy by a narrow squeak, I couldn't move the rusty old pickup parked directly out front the one with the grease-encased barbecue and the shovels all pouring out of the truck bed. There was so much activity directly outside the room, I drew the curtains shut to avoid distraction.
Lee arrived soon after my whirlwind cleaning spree. He was boisterous and warm, although he still seemed surprised someone was so interested in Girdler's movies. Lee used his phone to call Joe Schulten and directed Joe to my dive of a motel room. Tobin and I exchanged nervous glances at the notion of this uncomely spot becoming so public.
Lee let me record our interview, and he cheerily demonstrated his former disc jockey persona with my mini recorder. Our captivating conversation can be viewed in its entirety here.
Joe knocked on the door an hour into my interview with Lee. Lee instinctively turned off the tape recorder. Joe explained that he's acutely media-phobic, and he didn't like recording devices of any kind, including cameras. I've met a number of people with similar phobias, so I asked him if I could type notes into my laptop as he talked. He agreed. Joe was a remarkably soft-spoken, well-mannered fellow who instantly made me feel at ease with my line of questioning.
Joe Schulten began at a unique point in the Girdler story ... he started at the end. "Billy was the first person I was close to who died," Joe offered. "I've had many friends die since, but we were all so young then. It shook up everybody. It was unthinkable. Nobody expected it."
Lee urged Joe to tell me about Patrick Kelly's Philippine experience at the time of Girdler's accident. "Billy always wore his late father's watch as well as some family jewelry," Joe recalled. Bill died when the helicopter he rode in became tangled with some power lines, which electrocuted the pilot and passengers. Some villagers came across the crash scene and removed all the valuables from the victims. "Pat Kelly went out to all the street markets, and eventually tracked down Billy's things to bring back home. He really cared about Billy."
Joe said there were three funeral services held for Girdler. One in the Philippines, one in California, and one in Louisville. "They played a theme from Gone With The Wind at Billy's funeral. It was his favorite movie, and he loved the song. The service was held at his mother's estate with a closed casket. The whole thing was like a cocktail party, with waiters serving drinks ... and music. Some people were taken aback, but it's really how Billy would have wanted it. He would never have wanted people crying or being sad."
Lee added that he'd heard Tony Curtis appeared on The Merv Griffin Show in 1978, and Curtis learned of Girdler's fatal accident while backstage. From what Lee recalled, Tony announced on the show that his 'good friend Bill Girdler just died,' and he said what a great loss it was for the film industry. Lee said Curtis could barely speak on air. Tobin piped up and reminded us how Curtis now attributes his late-seventies film roles to cocaine abuse.
The discussion was interrupted by a knock on the door. The cleaning people had finally made their way to the room. I nervously ushered them out, but not before I detected a glint of suspicion in their eyes. Tobin and I would laugh about it all later, because at that moment he and I both realized how seedy the scenario looked. Two Southern gents with nice cars parked out front, seated in a dingy motel room with drawn curtains, surrounded by black bags and video cameras. Regret born of my econo location churned in my stomach with more fury than Bubba's country fried ham.
I resumed grilling Joe about his friendship with Girdler. In addition to financing Three on a Meathook, Joe handled the insurance for many of Girdler's films. Bill was 14 when Joe and he first met. "Billy was a smart guy, but he was bored with school. He always wanted to make movies. His father had died right before we met. Billy used to say that his grandfather died at 50, his father Walter died at 40, so Billy figured he'd die when he turned 30. 'I'm not gonna live past 30, school's just a waste of time,' he'd tell me."
"Billy was asked to speak about filmmaking at a university sometime around Grizzly, I think. He told me that he got up in front of the students and said that they should all drop out of school and just start making movies. The college never invited him back again."
Joe remembered introducing Girdler to his first wife Barbara when Billy was 17 and she was 19. "He was just head-over-heels about Barbara. It was her debutante year, and her parents threw her a giant coming out ball. Then Barbara told them that all she wanted to do was marry Billy. They were outraged. Billy was only 17, so he and Bunny went to Michigan where there were no age restrictions on marriage. Billy said to me, 'Barbara is the only person in the world for me. We're getting married. Be my best man.' When Billy got that excited about something, he'd always see it through." It was a very small ceremony, according to Joe.
Since college was not in the future for Girdler, he joined the Airforce. He became involved in the communications field while stationed in California. After Girdler set his sights on filmmaking, he attempted to get Joe involved in his pictures. "He was always trying to draw me into the business, and it just wasn't my thing. I was never interested in the film business. He and Lee were enamored with the industry, but not me. I remember he'd call me up in the middle of the night and say, "We're going to be on a radio talk show!' and I'd say, 'Billy, you know what happens when I get a mike.' But he'd keep calling, and I'd finally agree just to calm him down. I remember during Sheba Baby he talked me into a cameo in the yacht scene. I was supposed to fall into the water. (If you've seen the river, you know that's the last place anyone wants to be.) And I hate being in front of a camera, but he kept insisting. I finally said yes. The yacht was owned by Herman Weist, the man who invented plastic 'baggies.' So I went out there very unhappy about doing this scene. Something went wrong, and Billy ended up shooting another sequence many times. I fell asleep somewhere below deck. When it came time for them to film my scene, they didn't know where I was and they shot without me. It was a huge relief."
I asked Joe if he recalled how Girdler became acquainted with Charles Kissinger. "We'd all go over to Billy and Barbara's house to watch The Fearmonger. Billy became good friends with the late Robert E. Lee, who ran an advertising company that made TV and radio commercials. Robert Lee introduced Billy to a lot of people, and I'm pretty sure that's how he met Charlie."
"Charlie started out as an actor in the Louisville theater. He was such a funny man. People stood around him at parties, and he would tell jokes and stories for hours. He went to LA at some point to become a stand-up comic. He worked at a comedy club for a while, but it just didn't click for him out there. Everybody who met him loved Charlie, though."
Claude Fulkerson, the mystery white man in Abby, worked on TV and radio commercials with Robert E. Lee. "Claude was a local personality," said Joe. "He was famous for these car commercials where he'd say, 'I'd give it away if my wife would let me!' He played the orderly in Asylum of Satan. There's a scene where he falls down an elevator shaft. We rigged him up with some pulleys and a harness and suspended him over a seven-story elevator shaft! There were ten of us holding the ropes. And on Billy's signal, we'd run as fast as we could to make it look like he was falling. I was so scared for Claude, because we were the only things holding him. Then Billy yelled, 'Ok, we have to shoot it again.' Everybody groaned. Poor Claude. He was a great sport."
While we were on the subject of Girdler's featured players, I asked Joe what he knew about James Pickett. "He started out playing Daniel Boone in a local pageant," Joe recalled. "He also worked in the local theater. Jim started with Billy by doing the makeup in Asylum. You know, some of the other special effects people from Asylum of Satan had worked on I Dream of Jeanie. But I heard James Pickett moved to California and he acts in a dinner theater now."
"Everybody was trying to have fun when we did those movies. We were all working until three or four in the morning. Billy was always Mr. Enthusiastic. Billy had such good manners; he'd go around complimenting everybody and telling them how well they were doing. He was under so much pressure. It's stressful when you don't have many resources and you're doing everything yourself. But he was also very realistic about his movies and his own limitations."
"A lot of people lost money on Asylum of Satan. Alex Hampton and Herman Weist ... they were always trying to figure out how to get money from it. I lost money on Meathook. Those movies ended up being tax write-offs. Billy eventually signed away his rights to those movies to Edward Montoro, I think. We ended up breaking even. There were never any spectacular profits. Not for anyone involved with making those movies. Billy especially."
I asked Joe what he remembered most fondly about Three on a Meathook. "Pat Patterson did the special effects. There's a scene at the end where Charlie is chopping a leg. Pat made a leg in vinyl, but it didn't come out right. It was all floppy. So I spent some time stuffing it with cotton, then with meat and bones, then ketchup. That was my leg! It looked pretty good on film."
"Three on a Meathook started out as just a title," Joe continued. "Billy didn't have a script. We made the movie in about a month. It probably cost about $30, 000." Tobin interjected that the title was pure genius, and everyone nodded in agreement. I pointed out to Joe how Girdler once claimed he made Meathook for $18, 000. "I think it cost more than that," Joe replied. "He did Three on a Meathook to show people what he could do with very little money. He wanted to show Hollywood that Louisville was a great place to make movies. Billy really wanted Louisville to become the next big movie center."
"I went with Billy to Hollywood for a screening of Three on a Meathook. It was at Twentieth Century Fox. Billy was showing it around so he could find somebody to make more movies with." I asked Joe how he felt about Meathook's tinsel town unveiling. He laughed, "I was mortified."
"Billy talked up the movie to anyone who'd listen. He met David Sheldon during that screening. Three on a Meathook is what got Billy's foot in the door to do Abby and the other black films. That's how he met Sam Arkoff. So he wouldn't have made those films if it wasn't for Three on a Meathook."
Lee's cel phone started ringing, and he stepped outside to take the call. "Lee was the big fundraiser for Grizzly," Joe told us. "He got that film off the ground for Billy in about a week. It was amazing. I did the insurance for that film, too. Billy had a scene where they built a rickety tower, and they wanted to rig it so a guy would jump off and fall onto some mattresses. It was high enough that the fall could have easily killed him, and the thing didn't look stable. Billy wanted the actor to jump onto a couple of regular bed mattresses. You have to get the insurance companies to approve all the stunts in advance. I said, 'Billy, I can't get this signed off.' He said it would seem more realistic his way. I think he used a dummy in the end, and it looked fine. I also remember being on the set with the bear. It was enormous. The biggest bear I've ever seen. And the bear's training consisted of throwing a piece of meat and filming him as he walked to get it. That's it. That was its training. After Grizzly finished, Billy called me up one day and said, 'We're making this new movie with lots of animals ...' and I immediately told him, "No way! I don't want to have anything to do with it.' I just couldn't imagine handling the insurance for a movie like that."
Lee returned and told us that he had to go home for the night. He asked that I contact him the following day so he could take us out to Girdler's old studio. He also commented that Girdler's son was interested in seeing Zebra Killer. I gave him a video to pass along, and I thanked Lee for stopping by my room.
After Lee left, I asked Joe what he recalled about Project Kill. "I used to say Project Kill was a mediocre film with worldwide distribution. That's what it was meant to be. Some little guy from the Philippines called Billy and told him, 'You can make a movie here real cheap. We'll take care of everything. Just come out here. We've got the equipment, the insurance, everything!' So he and Pat got something together and flew over there. Two days later, Billy calls me and says, 'This guy doesn't have anything. No equipment, no insurance, no studio. Nothing.' So I got in touch with a place in Chicago, they sent over all the equipment, and I rushed to take care of the rest. Project Kill was supposed to be distributed in a lot of countries. Nancy Kwan was an international star at the time, and it was booked up all over the place. But the man who was going to distribute the movie was either killed or committed suicide right before the film was scheduled to come out. So the release was tied up in an estate dispute. I don't think Project Kill was ever released to movie theaters. I think it only showed up on cable in the eighties."
I asked Joe what was going on at the time of The Manitou. "Billy was really excited about that movie. He was living out in California in Leslie Nielsen's guesthouse. He was good friends with Robert Goulet at that time, too. Billy was really happy to be making a movie in Hollywood. That was the first time he shot there. Some of the movie was filmed in San Francisco, but most of it was done on a soundstage in Hollywood. He looked at every movie as a learning experience, and he had a goal of making one great film someday. He was right on the verge of making something really good. Manitou was a new start for Billy."
We talked a bit about the Website and Girdler's surviving family. It turns out that Joe is also the Godfather of Bill's eldest son (who's my age). Then I looked at the clock, and noticed it was past nine. All three of us were surprised at how much time had passed. I cordially thanked Joe for taking so much time out to talk to me. He left for home, and Tobin and I went in search of dinner.
Tobin took me to a great pizza joint not far from Wild and Woolly Video. We laughed about the seedy motel room, and at how both of us became simultaneously conscious of its sleaziness. "It looked like an international drug deal going down in there," Tobin said. We both agreed that Joe was very down to earth and unbelievably polite. And we marveled at how vividly Lee recalled events surrounding the movies. We also discussed our approach to tracking down Girdler filming locations on Sunday. Then he and I talked about his film project, The Living Hell for a while. It was getting late, so we decided to meet up again around 1:00 PM. I dropped Tobin off at his apartment and bid him goodnight.
Upon returning to my dingy motel room, I found that all of the parking spots in the surrounding lot were occupied. I saw a group of five vampy hookers posed outside a room near mine. Their paramours were brawny bikers gulping cheap 40 ouncers. I rolled my eyes and thanked God that Lee and Joe were long gone. I found a spot up near the Waffle House, and skulked back to my room, making sure to sneak by the biker/hooker alliance as covertly as possible.
As if the roaring jet engines weren't loud enough, now there was an alcohol-orgy raging outside my room. I was exhausted, but the parking lot ruckus and the screaking bedsprings in a nearby room kept me awake. I pulled out the newspaper articles I brought with me, and looked up a few remarks Girdler made about Project Kill. He'd claimed in one article that the film was produced with about $75, 000, and he said it broke even during its theatrical run. Joe thought it never saw release until the eighties. Joe's account explained why finding Project Kill press material was proving impossible.
Reading on, I grew drowsier and drowsier. I eventually rolled over and fell asleep on my notes, though not before reading this Joe Schulten quip from The Courier Journal, circa 1975:
A group headed by Joseph Schulten, a Louisville insurance executive, is trying to iron out problems in the distribution of Three on a Meathook. "It's fun, but expensive," says Schulten. "I'd like to make another one."