Day Three: The Night The Lights Went Out In Louisville
I rose from bed that morning feeling refreshed, this in spite of the previous evening's parking lot debauchery. I mentally prepared myself for a potentially sweaty afternoon of location hunting in the hot summer sun. Then I moseyed over to the Waffle House to savor one last taste of Bubba's trademark breakfast load. This time I managed to win a coveted spot at the counter. I got to talking with an older fellow seated next to me, and the subject of Girdler snaked its way into our conversation. He recalled completing a landscaping job at the house of a man who worked on soap operas in the 70s. He remembered that the man claimed he was helping a young filmmaker at the time. Also during the conversation, the guy at the counter revealed he was born and bred in the same Pennsylvanian town I call home. I scolded him for losing his elite Philly-area accent. The coincidence was heightened when he said, "Well, if you like living out in Pottstown, you'd love living here in Louisville. Everyone's friendly here. Even the rich people. And laid back. Just like there, only it's purtier here." I couldn't help but agree. Throughout the entire trip, I was consistently amazed by how friendly and polite everyone was. He also paid an accurate compliment to the town I live in.
I returned to my room after the Waffle House feast, taking the opportunity to move my car closer to the motel. The parking lot had cleared out completely since the previous night, though empty malt liquor bottles stood as totemic reminders of the hooker hoochie I witnessed. I turned on my laptop and read over some of the notes I took the day before. Lee and Joe had offered me the phone number of one Lois Haynie, a script supervisor who worked on several of Girdler's movies. She told them she'd be willing to speak with me. I wasn't scheduled to meet with Tobin for another hour, so I called up Lois.
It became evident in first moment of the conversation that Lois had a lot of moxie. I only wish I was a mite sharper that morning. A bona fide coffee achiever, I'm accustomed to higher-octane Java than Bubba offered, and my interrogation skills were stuck in first gear. I started out by asking Lois what she thought of Girdler's early scripts. "They stunk," she answered evenly. "They were campy. They were steadily improving, though. Bill should have studied writing before he went ahead with those scripts. He wasn't educated enough to do it all. To direct, produce, and write the movies at the same time. He wanted to do it, he didn't want to just learn it."
Joe had explained to me that Lois forged a very successful career with a renowned PBS station after her stint with Girdler. She worked on all of Girdler's early movies as a result of her association with Robert E. Lee. I asked Lois what she remembered most vividly from her Asylum of Satan experience. "Pam Gatz, a secretary at (Robert E. Lee's) ad agency, played the devil," replied Lois. "Pam was in that suit. They had her standing in a wagon to make her look tall, and Billy pulled the wagon when she had to move. The shoots were all extremely fun." I was interested in learning how Carla Borelli gained entry into the Louisville cast mix. Lois told me, "Duke Deneault was a friend of Bill's, and Duke had a soap opera background. He worked with Jack Borelli, Carla's husband. She was a nice woman."
Lee told me that Lois' son played the role of "Young Billy" in Three on a Meathook. I asked Lois what it was like filming Meathook. "Billy was very inventive when we made that movie. One time, we were shooting a scene late at night with an old pickup truck. The truck wouldn't start, but he'd already used it in another scene. So he tied two big spotlights to the front of the truck, and then he pushed it himself during the shoot. There's no engine sound in those scenes, if you notice. There was a lot of laughter that night, though."
(Click here to see but not hear the Three on a Meathook truck. Mpeg movie 500 KB.)
"At one point while we made that movie, a local union tried to organize against the film. Some men came out and told me I needed to be a certified script supervisor. I stood my ground. After three weeks, we were almost done with the movie anyway, so they offered to certify me outright. I still did without."
I wanted to know what Lois thought about Girdler's blaxploitation offerings. "I didn't think Billy should have been making those movies. He jumped on a bandwagon -- and I understand why -- but he didn't have to. He was heavily influenced by the movie Shaft. He thought he could make the next Shaft. I grew bored as script supervisor during those movies. It was always a lot of fun, but I wanted to do more exacting, detailed work." I asked Lois if she recalled anything about David Sheldon from those days. " I remember attending a wrap party he threw, and all he served was this God-awful lime Kool-Aid. I was appalled! I don't even think they make lime Kool-Aid anymore. It was terrible."
Lois Haynie and Girdler remained in touch after his movie-making dreams brought him to Hollywood. "His movies did get better over time. I heard that Billy had died from either Joe or Bob Lee right after it happened. I just couldn't believe it. I attended his funeral. It was like a giant cocktail party. And let's face it, nobody really wants to go to a cocktail party after they've lost a friend. In her defense, Billy's mother holds a unique social position. It was her way of coping with the grief. She was accustomed to seeing her guests served. Besides, that's how Billy would have wanted it. He wouldn't want people crying and slobbering over him. He would have wanted a big party."
Seeing how I was running short on time, I asked Lois if she could summarize Girdler as a person. "He was a warm, sweet human being," she said. I thanked her for the stories and hung up the phone, but not before asking if I would be OK for me to contact her again at a later date. She agreed.
I left my room and met Tobin at his apartment. Both of us had our video cameras charged up to capture the day's sights. The first location we sought was the Medical Arts building featured in Asylum of Satan. It stood right around the corner from Tobin's pad. Tobin recreated step-for-step Nick Jolley's purposeful walk to the front doorway.
Next, we made our way out to Cherokee Park and located the swing set featured in Three on a Meathook. Taking turns on the swings, we taped ourselves duplicating James Pickett and Sherry Steiner's (un)forgettable love scene. Cherokee Park was also where Girdler shot the opening party sequence in Abby. However, Tobin informed me that a tornado devastated Louisville in 1974, and it was likely the section used for Abby was either gone or reconstructed beyond recognition. Ironically, Carol Speed remarked after Abby that she believed the film was cursed. While this claim was undoubtedly inspired by similar making-of Exorcist hysteria, she considered the tornado's destruction proof of evil afoot. The disaster struck while Abby was filming, and it was the first tornado to touch down in Louisville in 80 years.
We traveled to the theater Tobin works at, and we investigated the basement of the adjoined mini-mall. There, in what is now a vintage clothing store, we wistfully gazed upon the very spot where the American X-Press performed during the infamous Three on a Meathook boring bar scene.
Our final stop was Bowman Field, the private airstrip where portions of Zebra Killer and Goldfinger were filmed. There was little activity at the field that particular Sunday afternoon. Tobin suggested we approach the tower to get a better shot. That sounded like an artistically sound idea, but I lingered in the parking lot so I could get some long-shots of the field. I predicted we'd be removed from the premises within ten minutes. Tobin disagreed.
In the spirit of guerilla journalism, we trekked across the wide field to gain a superior vantage point. Small private planes peppered the landscape. As we finally arrived at the grand tower, a pickup truck approached us from behind. A large, grizzled security guard leapt out of the truck, slamming the door behind him. "What do you kids think you're doing here?" he barked in a husky tone. "We could be fined a thousand dollars for you walking up here!" Apologizing sincerely, Tobin and I switched off our cameras to avoid angering the guard further (though in hindsight, I kinda wish we'd let them roll). He offered to escort us back to our car, so we sheepishly entered his truck. The man dutifully lectured us about how we could get hurt trespassing on private property. As he rambled, he failed to notice a plane taxing down a runway, and he almost drove the truck straight into the craft. The near-collision marked the only moment in which Tobin and I faced any real danger at the little airport. Both of us choked back giggles as we tried to appear as penitent as possible. We interpreted the security intervention as a divine sign, and decided it was time to make our way back to The Red Roof Inn in order to contact Lee Jones. We both talked about how fitting it was that the only trouble we ran into while Girdler-ing came when recapturing Zebra Killer: a movie seen by a total of ten people nationwide.
I telephoned Lee and he agreed to meet us at the motel. He had an appointment later in the evening, so we followed Lee to the former studio in my rental car. As we drove up the highway leading to Louisville proper, I spied a large fairground that looked familiar. Tobin confirmed that it was indeed the carnival spot featured in Sheba Baby.
Both Tobin and I were unprepared for the shocking vision that greeted us when we pulled into the "studio" parking lot. Directly in front of us stood the distinctive white church which appears in the opening Three on a Meathook pan of downtown Louisville. Girdler filmed the skyline pan (the very shot Tobin wished to recreate) from the roof of his own office! Not only that, but we recognized a slew of buildings surrounding the studio from Girdler's movies. We joked about how economical it must have been for Girdler to shoot as much as possible from his own parking lot. Plus, he never had to drag heavy camera equipment very far if he opted to photograph everything in a three-block radius!
Lee proceeded to give us a highly detailed studio tour from the outside. The building was up for sale, and it looked as if it had been unoccupied for a good span of time.
(This is it!!! The piece de resistance of the Kentucky Trip. Five minutes of Lee Jones' guided tour of Girdler's studio!! Click Here for a 15 MB Mpeg movie (not recommended for dial-up users, but worth every second of download time). Click Here for a blurry, 1 MB Real Media version of the video.)
We moved around to the back of the building, and I excitedly recognized the giant smokestack from a segment in Zebra Killer. Ironically, the smokestack is included as an establishing shot preceding a scene where a man is pushed down an elevator shaft a la Asylum of Satan. Although the brick structure is situated near the very place Claude was dropped via ropes, Girdler didn't ask his actors to plunge down the elevator shaft when he made Zebra, thus the fall is merely implied.
Lee had to leave us to meet his appointment. We thanked him graciously for showing us such a wonderful Girdler landmark. We hopped in my car, and drove about half a block to a collective of medical buildings. Our destination stood within easy walking distance from Girdler's studio, but the row of low-income houses behind the studio made Tobin concerned about the safety of my rental. Tobin and I identified portions of the medical building cluster as appearing in Meathook, Abby, Sheba Baby and Zebra Killer. A little further in the distance, Tobin recognized a building frontis from Meathook.
We made a last photographic stop at Louisville's police headquarters to recapture establishing shots used in Sheba Baby, Zebra Killer and Asylum of Satan. Sunset was upon us, so we decided to grab dinner and kick back at Tobin's apartment.
In honor of Abby, the film that spawned my Louisville voyage, we picked up some Kentucky Fried Chicken along the way. We threw a joyous two-man wrap party at Tobin's joint to celebrate our three full days of Girdler discovery. Over dinner, we discussed historical Girdler oddities, such as his never produced marijuana opus, Kentucky Wild. Then we decided to watch the fruits of our labor. We began by viewing Tobin's video. Within the first minute of watching the tape, he and I had tears streaming down our cheeks. I was laughing so hard at one point, I could barely breathe. Tobin accurately titled the footage Mondo Girdler. We both swore nobody would ever view this raw footage except for us. It was an indescribably psychedelic experience, created mainly by our own creaky camera work. Some of Tobin's footage of Girdler's studio looked and sounded as if it was shot in Bosnia because of the way the surrounding alley picked up sounds from aircraft flying above. I had left my camera running while Lee Jones described some facets of the studio (hoping to capture his audio), and the lens turned out to be pointed at his earlobe. I was now the proud owner of ten minutes worth of Lee's right ear caught on video. Tobin and I remained spasmodic with uncontrollable laughter for some time … until a sudden darkness consumed us.
(Click Here to thrill at an insane collage of the very best and very worst of Mondo Girdler. Mpeg movie 15.5 MB. It's huge, but if you enjoyed the story of the trip, you'll like it. You can also view a shoddy 1.5 MB Real Media version here)
We were so wrapped up in our snickering, it took us a few seconds to figure out what happened. Then it became clear: the electricity had gone out in Tobin's apartment. He stood up to look outside. It appeared as if the entire area was now without power. Tobin had only recently moved into this place, and he'd yet to purchase an emergency flashlight or candle supply. We laughed at the rest of our footage as we watched it on our cameras' small display screens, assuming the situation was merely temporary. The only light illuminating the room emanated from our battery-sapping cameras. I used my digital camera display as a flashlight to find the kitchen sink so I could wash the chicken sludge off my hands. After an hour or so, we realized there was no quick remedy to this climactic wave of Manitou madness in sight, so we left to find a flashlight. It took several mini-market stops to locate said torch. By the time we purchased light, I realized it was nearly midnight, and my plane was leaving very early the next morning. Sadly enough, this revenge of the Manitou also meant that Tobin would have to mail me a copy of his Louisville war footage, since his VCR had no power with which to record. I bid a fond farewell to my new friend Tobin, and left the like-minded Girdler fan to battle the darkness alone.
Unlike Saturday, Sunday is apparently not a popular night for motel prostitute romps. The Red Roof Inn seemed comparatively deserted. I had suicidally scheduled my flight out of Louisville very early the next day so I'd be able to make it to work that afternoon. I began packing my strewn belongings, mostly Girdler artifacts and media equipment, to ensure a swift bolt to the airport come morning.
I felt sad that the three-day tour was over so quickly, but I smiled to myself when I thought of all we'd accomplished. Nearly every moment I spent in Louisville revealed something new about my favorite filmmaker, and no experience added up to a waste. I snuggled into my starched sheets and peacefully fell asleep one final time in Louisville.
I woke up with a groggy head at 5:00 AM. I showered and lugged my bags out to the car. I conducted a final spot-check of the room to make sure I wasn't forgoing a camera battery or cassette tape. I lifted the sheets to see if anything had rolled under the bed, and groaned in disgust when I discovered a small pile of dead, dried roaches. They were creamy white in color, and some untapped chromatic instinct told me they'd been deceased for quite some time. I cringed when I imagined Lee and Joe scrambling for cover from an unanticipated Red Roof roach assault. Ah, but the carcasses added a final gritty (crunchy, perhaps?) flavor to the trip, no?
Feeling a little queasy, I drove to the airport. I calculated I'd have an extra half-hour to record some video of planes taking off, since airplane shots figure so prominently in Girdler's early efforts. I handed over my rental car keys and dragged my bags to the check-in point. Unfortunately, an older, seemingly well to do woman was attempting to smuggle her poodle onto first class. I stood in line for nearly an hour while this frail, white-haired woman yelled and fussed over her yapping pooch named "Bagels." There were no other flight people in sight. I watched in horror as my designated boarding time came and went. I'd never missed a flight before, and I certainly didn't want to break this trend on account of a smelly, yippy dog. Finally, the check-in person pushed the pup aside and frantically called out to anyone scheduled for the Philadelphia flight. I tossed my bags at the man, and ran clear through the entire airport to catch my plane.
Dizzy, sweating, and out of breath, I slumped into my cramped seat. I deeply regretted not capturing the airport Girdler so obviously loved on tape. I assured myself that I would have the opportunity to do so another day. I'd already decided to sleep through the ride. The flight was short, but I surely needed the rest after three blustery days of Girdler hunting. Before I dozed off, I pulled out the Abby pressbook Conover gave me. As the plane took off, I just happened to read the following passage:
Vignettes of the African way of life and some of the starling scenery of that lush country as well as scenes of the lifestyle in the Ohio River community of Louisville, Ky., all are encompassed in the new AIP chiller, "Abby."
I'd certainly witnessed a variety of scenes reflecting the lifestyles of Louisville, KY in those three information-rich days. But there was so much left for me to uncover. My mind raced with possibilities for my next journey. I reminded myself I needed some rest if I expected to work in a few hours.
The plane finally reached cruising altitude, and I reclined my seat. Gazing out the window, I watched Louisville fade away below me until I saw only foggy mist in its place. The clouds glowed with soft orange and purple hues when I looked out to the horizon. The subtly meshed colors reminded me of the skyline in Gone With The Wind. The Gone With The Wind theme sang in my head as I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.