Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Glen or Glenda Odyssey, Part Four by Greg Dziawer

The Christine Jorgensen case brought Ed Wood some publicity in 1953.

Christine Jorgensen in 1953.
Back in 2016, I shared with you an interesting wire service story about Ed Wood's debut feature Glen or Glenda. Written by prolific UPI staffer Aline Mosby, this piece explained how Wood's film—which it referred to as I Changed My Sex—shrewdly capitalized on the sensational saga of trans woman Christine Jorgensen. The article was syndicated to papers across (most of) the country on February 19-20, 1953, just a few days after Jorgensen's attention-grabbing return to the United States.

Arriving by jet from Copenhagen, Jorgensen had touched down at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in Queens on February 13. Mere months prior, on December 1, 1952, the Daily News had run this blaring headline: EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY. And, with that, Christine Jorgensen became the most famous person in the world to have ever undergone sexual reassignment surgery. The native New Yorker's transformation, in fact, would take another year to be complete. For his inaugural directing gig, Edward D. Wood, Jr. utilized the real life Jorgensen drama as a jumping-off point for his highly unique and extremely personal one-of-a-kind masterpiece, Glen or Glenda.

While I was certain at the time that Mosby's article was the earliest public ink ever devoted to Wood's film, I recently found another that had been published only two days earlier. This one had been penned by Los Angeles Times drama critic Edwin Schallert, father of the incredibly prolific and beloved character actor William Schallert. In Edwin's column on February 17, 1953, we read:

That veteran portrayer of mysterious scoundrels and what-not, Bela Lugosi, will soon be visible on the screen again in a weird science fiction subject titled "Transvestite," which concerns the transformation of men into women in their apparel and other outward manifestations but which does not deal with any sex issue. It's sponsor, Edward D. Wood Jr., declares it has no relation to a case much spotlighted in the news. Lugosi will be the mastermind in the science phase of the picture, which is said to incorporate much symbolism. Others in the cast are Dolores Fuller, whose fiance falls under the Lugosi influence, while Lyle Talbot will be seen as a police inspector and Tim Farrell as a psychiatrist. Roles of the victims are minor. The film is being finished at the Jack Miles studio.
Was Lugosi filmed at Jack Miles Studio?
For such a relatively short blurb, there's a lot to mull over here. 

Edwin Schallert, for instance, refers to Wood's film as Transvestite rather than I Changed My Sex. Although he got to press first, Schallert presumably wrote his column sometime after Aline Mosby had written hers—certainly not by much, likely a few days. The evidence of this is that Schallert states that the film was "being finished at the Jack Miles studio." Mosby, on the other hand, had trailed the production to W. Merle Connell's Quality Studios in Hollywood, where we know the bulk of the interiors for Glen or Glenda were shot. 

Some sources claim that Bela Lugosi's sequences were filmed separately at Jack Miles' Los Angeles studio. If so, it's fair to assume that these scenes were shot last. In her 2009 autobiography A Fuller Life, Dolores Fuller notes that Glen or Glenda was "shot in only five days with no budget." Under those circumstances, it's not difficult to imagine that Wood and company simply moved from Quality Studios to the Jack Miles studio because the latter location possessed the right set for Lugosi's scenes.

It's also interesting to note that, as in the Mosby article, the science-fiction aspect of the production is foregrounded in the Schallert column, and there's a deliberate statement to distance the film from Christine Jorgensen. In Schallert's article, the subject is so obvious that she is not even mentioned by name. My favorite statement, though—and we are doubtless reading Ed's thoughts and/or words throughout both of these articles—is that the film "does not deal with a sex issue." 

For its part, the IMDb notes the film's shooting locations as both the Quality and Jack Miles Studios, along with the Columbia/Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood. Incidentally, Jack's studio is also credited in the Wood-scripted The Violent Years from 1956, and Miles himself is credited for "settings" or as art director or production designer, depending on the source, for Glen or Glenda

Christine at the Silver Slipper
Jorgensen was frequently in the news throughout December 1952, right through the winter of 1953. On the same day as the Schallert article, she appeared in a syndicated photo feature, which noted that she had "changed her sex." And on February 25, 1953, Oakland Tribune staffer Wood Soanes lifted from the Mosby article, adding fresh details, including producer George Weiss being one of Poverty Row's most successful producers and agent Al Rosen offering Christine Jorgensen the lead in the film. A charming piece, it appears to have resulted from talking to Weiss, himself, sans Eddie. 

I've always wondered if the tale of Jorgensen being offered the lead in Glen or Glenda were apocryphal. This article suggests it wasn't. Connecting the dots, we'll surmise that Weiss himself offered the property to Rosen, who had initiated a seemingly failed attempt to represent Jorgensen in the States within less than two weeks of the BLONDE BEAUTY headline that had started it all. Why do I think this? A syndicated article on December 11, 1952 notes that: 
[Jorgensen] confirmed she had received an offer to star in a new Hollywood version of the comedy "Mary Had A Little," planned by producer Al Rosen. Although Christine denied she already had signed to appear in the picture and make personal stage appearances with it, her Danish manager, Blicher Hansen, indicated the one-time soldier had signed other American contracts. 
Mary Had a Little..., if the same film, was finally made—without Jorgensen—in the UK in 1961. As for Christine herself, she continued on in the entertainment industry but never became the star she had hoped. 

Likewise Ed Wood. A year or so after shooting Glen or Glenda, Ed landed Bela Lugosi a live burlesque gig at the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas. Ironically, this precluded Lugosi from appearing in Wood's next feature, The Hidden Face (better known as Jail Bait). According to Dolores Fuller, Eddie immediately began filming that crime drama as soon as the funding came through. The role intended for Lugosi was instead essayed by the mind-bogglingly prolific Herbert Rawlinson, a former leading man from the silent era, in what would prove to be his final role.

Despite Eddie's claim of Glen or Glenda having no relation to the Christine Jorgensen story, Wood and Jorgensen have been entangled ever since, their careers intersecting in various ways. In December of 1955, for instance, Jorgensen appeared in her own live show at—you guessed it—the Silver Slipper. And in the 1960s, she would be a subject of writer Carlson Wade, whose work is commonly mis-Ed-tributed to our Eddie. Continuing to conflate the transgendered with transvestites, Jorgensen even appeared in drag stage shows with legendary cross-dresser T.C. Jones, who had been "cast" by Ed in his screenplay for the never-filmed 7 Rue Pigalle.

Alas, these are subjects for other odysseys on other days.

Left: T.C. Jones. Right: A poster for Mary Had a Little... (1961).
There's a generous selection of newspaper clippings about Christine Jorgensen and Glen or Glenda at the Ed Wood Wednesdays Tumblr.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Apprenticeship Odyssey, Part One by Greg Dziawer

A young Ed Wood plays a sheriff onstage in The Blackguard Returns (1949).

"The theatre, when all is said and done, is not life in miniature, but life enormously magnified, life hideously exaggerated."
-H.L. Mencken
Ed Wood's Gateway to stardom in 1949?
Ed Wood's earliest years in Hollywood remain a murky period in his biography. After he was discharged from the Marines in 1946, he briefly returned to his hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY. That much, at least, is clear. From there, though, it depends whose version of the events you believe. Some accounts have him attending dance school with Martha Graham. Others have him traveling with a carnival or studying script writing.

The ambitious ex-jarhead finally landed in Hollywood by the end of the decade, of course, and it's there that the stories converge with a well-known and well-documented credit: Ed playing the Sheriff in an otherwise forgotten play called The Blackguard Returns at the Gateway Theatre in Los Angeles in 1949. Yet even this tidbit is problematic, as it contradicts the accepted timeline in the Ed Wood mythology. Wood is sometimes said to have met his first filmmaking partner, John Crawford Thomas—with whom he shot Crossroads of Laredo (aka The Streets of Laredo) and some primitive commercials—in either 1947 or 1948, during a staging of The Blackguard Returns.

Rudolph Grey's timeline in Nightmare of Ecstasy has Eddie making Crossroads of Laredo with Thomas in 1948, the same year he staged The Casual Company at the Village Playhouse in Hollywood. In 1949, according to Grey, Wood did "a long run" playing the Sheriff in The Blackguard Returns at the Gateway Theatre.

Leaving those nebulous chronological details aside, however, I decided to take a closer look at The Blackguard Returns itself. Here are my findings.

I. Definition

First things first, I decided to get a better grip on what constitutes a "blackguard." I found this to be a term with deep roots. Here is what The New American Cyclopædia (1859), edited by G. Ripley and C.A. Dana, has to say:
"BLACKGUARD, originally a semi-contemptuous, semi-jocular name given to the lowest menials of the court of Queen Elizabeth, the carriers of coals and woods, turnspits and laborers in the scullery... The term black garde was [also] applied in Ireland in those times to all abandoned women of violent character, and also both in Ireland and England to low ruffians." 

II. The Play Is the Thing
Las Floristas history.

Thanks to the providential survival of The Blackguard's Return's original program—still accessible on auction sites from the last few years—we have a wealth of details about the play, its characters and its cast. The cover of the program lists the play as being in its fifth year, which was reputedly 1949. Going back to June 1944, we find a blurb in The Los Angeles Times about The Blackguard Returns, stating that the play was being sponsored by Las Floristas and anticipating that it would be met with "hisses and boos," likely a reference to its ruffian antagonist(s). 

Beyond this program and a few between-the-lines surmises, however, the play remains invisible beyond its existence at the Gateway. The only reference I could find was a 1949 copyright notice for a play called The Blackguard Returns (aka The Blackguard and identified as "a play in four scenes") in the Library of Congress' Copyright Catalog, where it is credited to Alice Charlotte Newman and Leonard Charles Newman. Presumably husband and wife, the Newmans remain equally invisible today, with only one further title attributed to Leonard. But why would they have filed their play for copyright five years after it started running regularly? Perhaps, sensing its durability, they felt they had something special? And that's if we're even talking about the same play.

Whatever the case, the durability of The Blackguard Returns is evinced by another Times article from nearly a year later. On June 19, 1945, the paper reported that Las Floristas would once again sponsor a staging of the play at the Gateway, this time to benefit the King's Daughters Day Nursery. This, incidentally, was the oldest day nursery in Los Angeles, going all the way back to 1894, well over a decade before the movie colony began to settle the area. 

III. Las Floristas

A vintage news clipping from June 1945 about Las Floristas.

At this point, you are likely wondering: Who are Las Floristas? Well, those aforementioned Los Angeles Times articles depict the group as charitable sponsors and art matrons. Given the "serious" and "artistic" nature of the Gateway's usual fare, the venue's annual stagings of The Blackguard Returns—by all indications a lowbrow comedy—seem atypical. These performances were genuine local events that captured more publicity than the Gateway routinely generated.

Las Floristas continues to this day. On its own website, the charity describes itself as "an all-volunteer group of women" that has been "making a difference in lives since 1938."

IV. Freedom at Last

The Jail Cafe, a gimmicky theater from the 1920s.

"The word theatre comes from the Greeks," wrote Stella Adler (1901-1992), the renowned drama teacher whose students once included Dolores Fuller. "It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation. The theatre is a spiritual and social x-ray of its time. The theatre was created to tell people the truth about life and the social situation." 

By 1949, the Gateway Theatre had been in business nearly 20 years at 4212 Sunset Blvd. This historic venue had previously been known in the late 1920s as the Jail Cafe and had specialized in its own unique brand of theater that made its patrons a part of the story. Back then, the building's exterior was made to look like a jail. Inside, patrons were seated at tables located within cells. The waitstaff dressed in stripes. It was quite a gimmick, but in the early '30s stage performers Anne Murray and Francis Josef Hickson took over the place and renamed it the Gateway Theatre. There, they nurtured a steady stream of arty, "accepted" fare, those rowdy annual stagings of The Blackguard Returns in the late 1940s again being a seeming exception.

Dolores Fuller's autobiography
And, just to make an already complicated matter even more so, The Blackguard Returns actually merits a mention in Dolores Fuller's 2009 autobiography, A Fuller Life. In the book's fourth chapter, she describes her life with her new boyfriend Ed Wood, whom she'd met at a casting call in the early 1950s:
"At the time, Eddie was working on scripts for two or three films to star Bela Lugosi: The Ghoul Goes West, The Hidden Face and Bride of the Monster. Eddie assured me that I would have a starring role in The Hidden Face and even took out an ad in The Hollywood Reporter to announce it. Soon Eddie was directing, not a film...but a hackneyed old stage melodrama, The Blackguard Returns, at the Gateway Theatre on Cahuenga just north of Hollywood Boulevard. I soon learned there was nothing original about the production, including the fact that Eddie had done it several years earlier at a theatre on Sunset Boulevard."

It's possible that Dolores is referring here not to another Gateway Theatre, but rather to the Village Theater, which had been launched by Ed and some friends, including actors Don Nagel and Chuck La Berge. Dolores' remembrance is also interesting in noting that The Hidden Face—the working title for Ed's Jail Bait (1954)—was originally supposed to include Bela Lugosi. Bela's role was ultimately played by Herbert Rawlinson. Most interesting, this passage from A Fuller Life suggests that Ed went on to direct the play in which he had previously only performed a supporting role.

Dolores continues:
"Eddie had Chuck La Berge interview me for a part in the non-paying, non-equity play and I went along with it because, at that point, I would have done just about anything he wanted. Our 'pay' for participating in the production was pretzels (all we could eat) and beer (all we could drink, as long as we did not become inebriated and 'lessen the impact of the show')."

This anecdote could have occurred as recently as late 1953, which would mean an intersection of two significant women in Ed Wood's life, longtime girlfriend Dolores Fuller and first wife Norma McCarty, at the Village Theater. But that's another story for another day. Meanwhile, note that the perennially broke Eddie was already in his default "non-paying" mode, even with his significant other.

As for the Gateway Theatre on Sunset, it would eventually become the Cabaret Concert Theatre in 1950. Finally, in 1962, it became the El Cid, the name under which it still operates today.

V. Now

The El Cid as it appears today.

More than 20 years after Ed Wood's performance as a sheriff in The Blackguard Returns, the man's acting career would come full circle. He played representatives of the law—a jailer and a sheriff, respectively—in the infamous porn loop Prisoner Love Making (aka The Jailer, circa 1971) and Steven C. Apostolof's exploitation feature Fugitive Girls (1974). His days at the Gateway had not been in vain.

These were among Ed Wood's final appearances as an actor, but the stage upon which he performed all those years earlier lives on. Still called the El Cid, the name it has now carried for more than half a century, the former Gateway Theatre stage has played host to a variety of performers, including my good friend Mike Hickey back in 2004. Mike is as serious an Ed Wood obsessive as you'll ever meet, with a formidable yen for scouting out authentic Wood locations. And, yes, in this photo, he is wearing a Plan 9 from Outer Space T-shirt.

Mike Hickey onstage at the El Cid on Sunset Blvd.

Special thanks this week go to Mike Hickey, who has proven to be a special friend of Ed Wood Wednesdays, contributing greatly with photos you've seen previously and details yet to come. We are partnering on the upcoming Ed Wood Way Odyssey, a comprehensive tour of Wood locations in film and in life. In the meantime, I invite you to enjoy Mike's superb documentary about another outsider artist, musician Frederick Michael St. Jude.

BONUS: There is a slew of historic images from The Blackguard Returns at the Ed Wood Wednesdays Tumblr. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part Nine by Greg Dziawer

Valda Hansen, future star of Night of the Ghouls, as she appeared in high school.

Young and innocent: Valda (lower left)
as a junior class officer circa 1950.
A few months back, we took a glimpse at Valda Joanne Hansen, the blonde ingenue who unforgettably played the White Ghost in Ed Wood's Night of the Ghouls (1959). Though she was a delicately beautiful young woman with an otherworldly presence, relatively little has been written about her. And what has been written is contradictory. Depending on what you read, she either met Ed backstage at a play in which she was performing or was his 16-year-old neighbor. This week, we're going back in time to visit Valda and her family before she met Ed, whenever that may have been.

In Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy, Valda Hansen claimed to have been "16 and innocent" when she worked on Night of the Ghouls. She repeated that story in the 1992 documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood. Yet the historical records show that Valda was born on November 3, 1932 in Artesia, California, suggesting she was probably in her mid-20s when she first encountered Ed Wood in the 1950s.

Valda's parents, Valdemar and Francine Hansen (née Gero), appear to have had only one child. Since these two were married on May 5, 1932, it means that Francine was already about three months pregnant with Valda when she became Valdemar's wife. By 1940, the family was living on a farm in Downey, about 13 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. In the census that year, Valdemar listed his occupation as a "milker." A decade later, we find the Hansen family in the same geography: the suburbs southeast of L.A., in Bellflower, roughly halfway between Norwalk and Compton. By then, Valda was attending the segregated Excelsior Union High School in Norwalk.

Valda's yearbook.
These were years of Cold War tension and an escalating arms race. The Excelsior Union High School yearbooks, the El Aviador from Valda's junior and senior years—1950 and 1951, respectively—play off the atom bomb in a surprisingly lighthearted manner, with cartoon drawings of mushroom clouds and pictures of Lockheed Martin planes. That aerospace defense company was doubtless a principal employer in the suburban Bellflower/Norwalk area.

By the 11th grade, in addition to being a member of the Friendship Committee and the California Scholarship Federation (a West Coast version of the National Honor Society), Valda was a class officer and played the title in the junior play, Kurtz Gordon's three-act comedy Henrietta the Eighth. By her senior year, those school activities appear to have ceased, though Valda's star-making yearbook photo anticipated her post-high school modeling career.

After graduation, Valda went on to work for the modeling agency of actress Rita La Roy, who was a staple of the local L.A. television market in the '50s and '60s and thus a contemporary of Criswell. A memorable photo of Valda appeared in the November 23, 1952 edition of the Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram. This same paper was the original publisher of Criswell's columns and rapidly syndicated them, including both his predictions and his Dear Abby-like advice, six days a week.

The photo of Valda, taken in front of Simms Park Auditorium in Bellflower, is perhaps also anticipatory. The coincidence is striking. It features the young woman—now a blonde—in a "rabbit skin" bikini. She's promoting a "two-day Rabbit Raisers School," including a "rabbit pie banquet." The bikini in the photo is clearly furry. Rabbit fur is best and most affectionately known, especially to Ed Wood obsessives, as angora.

BONUS: There's a passel of Valda Hansen images, including a shot of the young actress in her high school play, right here at the Ed Wood Wednesdays Tumblr. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Ancestry Odyssey, Part Two by Greg Dziawer

Party animals: Ed Wood's mother, Lillian (right) at a VFW function in 1954.

A striking resemblance.
Ed Wood's mother, Lillian C. Wood (1903-1989), plays an important but slightly vague role in the director's strange mythology. Legend has it that she's the one responsible for Eddie's cross-dressing during his formative years in Poughkeepsie, NY. She reputedly wanted a girl and dressed him up as such.

Is it true? Who knows? But it's a story Ed often told about himself to others, and it has since become one of the accepted "facts" of his life, even making it into the screenplay for the Tim Burton-directed biopic Ed Wood in 1994. "My mom wanted a girl, so she used to dress me up in girly clothing," Ed (Johnny Depp) explains to a shocked Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), once he's revealed his darkest secret to her.

But what of the woman herself? Other than the transvestism story, preciously little else is ever mentioned about Lillian, even though she lived long enough to be one of the interviewees in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy. This week, let's try to change that a little. First, let's put a face to the name, a literal snapshot. 

While she never received nearly as much attention as her eccentric son, Lillian did get a modicum of press coverage during her lifetime. Through the years, she frequently posted in the local Poughkeepsie newspapers: small blurbs recording her illnesses and various trips to visit relatives. 

Furthermore, both Lillian and her husband, Edward D. Wood, Sr., were active at the local Vail-Wolff VFW Post #170. Edward had been the post's second commandeer for a stint in the early 1940s. And so, supportive wife that she was, Lillian took on numerous assignments as part of the post's Ladies Auxiliary. If there were a party at the VFW back then, it was usually Lillian credited with arranging it.

These activities generated a fair amount of ink in the local papers. In 1954 alone, Lillian was mentioned in eight different articles, nearly all of them about the Ladies Auxiliary or a related club charmingly called the Cootiettes or Cooties. Looking through these old clippings, I was stopped dead in my tracks by one particular photo of Lillian because of how strong a resemblance she bore to her famous son Ed. While this isn't too surprising, considering that they were blood relatives, the similarity of their faces was so uncanny that I wanted to share it with you.

Left: A 1954 press clipping about Lillian Wood. Top right: The Cooties' logo. Bottom right: VFW Post #170.

The article that caught my eye came from the July 15, 1954 edition of the Poughkeepsie New Yorker. The photo caption gives a little insight into what Lillian's life in Pougkeepsie was like while her son Ed was off in Hollywood, making movies like Glen or Glenda (1953) and Jail Bait (1954). To wit:
"Believed to be the oldest past president of Veterans of Foreign Wars auxiliaries in the sate, Mrs. Isabelle West (second from left), 23 Holmes Street, was honored at a surpise party at the Vail-Wolff post home last night, in celebration of her 86th birthday. Shown presenting a corsage to Mrs. West as she cuts her birthday cake is Mrs. Irene Knickerbocker, left, president of the Past Presidents' club of the Ladies Auxiliary of Vail-Wolff post, as Mrs. Lillian Wood, right, chairman for the party, and Mrs. Edith Robbins, second from right, president of the Queen Bee Cootiette club, look on."

If you're wondering about the Cootiettes, incidentally, you can read more about the organization here.

We'll visit Poughkeepsie and Ed's family again in future installments of this column. Stay tuned!