Tag Archives: ed wood

From Schlock to Rock: The Unbelievable Saga of Dolores Fuller

My friend Bill West and I will soon begin hosting a television show in Santa Clarita introducing films made in the area.

A lot of schlocky, MST3K-type, low-budget horror and science-fiction films were shot up here, which is good for us, because we’re both big fans.

While tossing around ideas for our first shows, Bill brought to my attention that Dolores Fuller had died just a few days ago.

Fuller was one of the members of the angora sweater-wearing auteur Ed Wood’s “acting” troupe, as well as his one-time girlfriend. She was portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker in Tim Burton’s incredible 1994 biopic Ed Wood.

I’ve long been intrigued by the story of Dolores Fuller. She was born Dolores Eble in Indiana in 1923, and after coming west, landed a bit part in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night as an 11-year-old.

As an adult, she worked behind the scenes in television for Queen For A Day and The Dinah Shore Show, before meeting Wood in 1952, when she tried out for a role in one of his films.

The two fell in love and she began appearing in his movies, most notably in 1953’s Glen or Glenda?, a film based on Wood’s closeted transvestitism. Wood’s cross-dressing would eventually doom the relationship, but not before Fuller appeared in Wood’s Jail Bait in 1954, and in the deliciously bad Bride of the Monster the following year.

After splitting with Wood, Fuller learned that there were few opportunities in Hollywood for a Z-movie queen who wanted to advance up the alphabet to choice roles in better productions.

So, she became a songwriter for some guy named Elvis.

Fuller’s road from schlock to rock started when she asked her friend Hal Wallis for a part in Presley’s Blue Hawaii. Instead, Wallis – who earned countless fortunes producing Presley’s films – hooked her up with a composer, and Fuller ended up co-writing Rock-a-hula, Baby, which Elvis performs in the film.

Fuller would eventually write a dozen songs for Presley’s films during the 60s, as well as other tunes that were recorded by another member of music’s royal family – Nat “King” Cole.

She appeared for years at autograph shows and Ed Wood film fests before passing away in Vegas on May 9 at the age of 88.

With luck, Bill and I will find a local connection with Glen and Glenda? so that we can present the film to an unsuspecting Santa Clarita Valley audience.

Should this happen, we’ll leave it to you to decide who looked better in angora – Dolores or Ed.

The Tor Tour (Revisited)

(I originally published this last Halloween, but since today is the 40th anniversary of the death of Tor Johnson, I thought I would dust it off and present it again.)

A “tor” is an ancient word meaning “a large pile of rocks.”

6’4” 400-pound Swedish-born actor Tor Johnson (1903 – May 12, 1971) was a man who looked like he’d been carved out of a large pile of rocks. Johnson became a Z-film fan favorite in Ed Wood “classics” like Plan Nine From Outer Space.

Johnson was born Tor Johansson in Sweden on October 19, 1903, just three days before the birth of Curly Howard, another famous screen personality with a shaved head. He was barnstorming the wrestling circuit as “The Super-Swedish Angel” when he first got the attention of Hollywood in 1933 in bit roles where he usually appeared as a wrestler or circus strongman.

Johnson’s acting resume didn’t always elicit giggles. He shared the screen with several of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Eddie Cantor, Abbott & Costello, and W.C. Fields. He was featured in several A-List productions, including Shadow of the Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy, The Canterville Ghost with Charles Laughton, State of the Union with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Road To Rio with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour.

But it was an appearance in a no-budget production for which Johnson is best remembered. In 1959, Johnson played a zombie, alongside Bela Lugosi and Vampira, in cross-dressing director Ed Wood’s magnum-opus of schlock, Plan Nine From Outer Space – a film widely regarded as the worst ever made (It isn’t. That distinction goes to another of Tor’s films, The Beast of Yucca Flats.)

Since Halloween is coming up in a few days, and Tor’s face was the model for one of the biggest-selling Halloween masks of all time, I thought it would be interesting to take a brief tour of some of Tor’s old “haunts.”

Plan Nine From Outer Space

The interiors for Plan Nine were filmed in a warehouse in Hollywood on Santa Monica Boulevard just east of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Tor’s home, at 15129 Lakeside Street in the San Fernando Valley city of Sylmar, was used as Bela Lugosi’s house in the film. Also found in Sylmar is the San Fernando Pioneer Cemetery where Lugosi, now as a vampire-zombie, comes back to life.

The Beast of Yucca Flats

This film was made in the Santa Clarita Valley before the Los Angeles metropolitan area had discovered it. It is hard to know for sure, but it looks to have been filmed near the Mystery Mesa area off of Vasquez Canyon Road in Canyon Country.

Eternal Valley Cemetery

Tor was laid to rest in plot 177 of Newhall’s Eternal Valley Cemetery after his death in 1971. His stone reads, “Beloved Husband, Father and Grandfather.” This was true. Johnson was said to be a kind man whose “gentle giant” nature contrasted sharply to the monsters he played on film.

It seems this pile of rocks hid a heart of pure gold.

The Dark’s First Mistress

Before Elvira, even before Morticia … there was Vampira.

Vampira, the original ghoulish horror movie hostess in television history, was a familiar personality to Los Angeles late-night television viewers in the mid-1950s. But it was for a one-day acting job, in which she appeared in what she believed would be a quickly forgotten schlock-horror film, that Vampira is remembered today.

Vampira was the gothic alter-ego of curvaceous actress, model, and chorus girl Maila Nurmi. Nurmi was born in Finland is 1922 and claimed kinship with the great long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi. She moved to the United States when she was two, and grew up in Ohio and Oregon.

After briefly appearing on Broadway, she migrated to Hollywood, where she worked as a dancer and as a model for acclaimed artists Alberto Vargas and Man Ray.

Nurmi first appeared as Vampira in a wasp-waisted tight black dress and white pasty makeup for a masquerade ball in Hollywood in 1953; a look that was inspired by Charles Addams’ comics. She caught the attention of a television producer that night who spent months tracking down the mysterious beauty to star as hostess for a horror-film show he was launching.

Nurmi began each episode of The Vampira Show by gliding through a fog-strewn funereal set towards the camera, greeting the audience with a scream that would shame a banshee. She introduced the films with a barrage of mockery and graveyard puns that earned her a small, but fiercely loyal (and mostly male) following. Her shtick was successful enough to earn her an Emmy nomination in 1954 for ‘Most Outstanding Female Personality.”

The Vampira Show ended in 1955 and Nurmi survived being held hostage by a homocidal home invader that same year. She was critically burned in an apartment fire the following year. She recovered and supported herself by making personal appearances and acting in whatever roles she could find.

One of these roles called for her to re-create her Vampira persona for a film that was originally entitled Grave Robbers From Outer Space. By the time the film was released in 1959, the title had changed to Plan Nine From Outer Space from director Ed Wood – a film that gained a worldwide cult-following after it was voted “the worst film ever made.”

Nurmi acted sporadically over the next few decades, and eked out a living by selling antiques and installing linoleum floors. In 1981, she was working to revive the Vampira character for a new television show in Los Angeles but parted ways with the producers when they cast comedienne Cassandra Peterson in the title role with the name “Elvira.” Nurmi later unsuccessfully sued Peterson for cribbing her likeness.

Nurmi was once married to Dean Riesner, who appeared as a child in the Charlie Chaplin film The Pilgrim (which we will be screening at ChaplinFest in February), and was later the screenwriter of Dirty Harry and Play Misty For Me.

As pointed out in Warren Beath’s great book The Death of James Dean, Nurmi and Dean were once close friends, but had a falling out shortly before Dean’s death.

Nurmi passed away on this date in 2008 at the age of 85. Fans pitched in to buy a marker for her grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which ironically, is situated next to the grave of Darren McGavin (1922-2006) who is best known for his role in television’s The Night Stalker, in which he played a reporter who followed the activities of a modern-day vampire.

Kimi at the grave of Maila Nurmi. Darren McGavin's' tomb is behind her at the left of the photo.

Hail, the Sultan of Schlock!

You rarely hear him described this way, but Ed Wood was an American success story. Wood, the angora sweater-wearing film producer, director, writer, editor, and actor, died on this date in 1978 at the age of 54.

With buckets of desire (and thimbles of talent) he was able to carve out a noted Hollywood career that culminated in a pinnacle of sorts, when he was awarded the Golden Turkey Award as the “Worst Director of All Time.” While certainly not the type of superlative you aim for in a movie career, it has insured Wood a certain cinematic immortality.

Wood was born in New York to a civil servant father and a mother who dressed him in girls clothes until he was twelve. He would remain a cross-dresser for the rest of his life. He served honorably as a Marine in World War II, often wearing panties and a bra beneath his uniform. After the war he joined a carnival where he worked as a freak show performer dressed in drag as a bearded lady.

Wood made it to Hollywood in the late 40s, and first made news as the director, writer, and star of Glen or Glenda?, an exploitation film about transvestitism. Wood appeared in the title roles, donning a skirt, blonde wig, and angora sweater while playing Glen’s alter-ego Glenda. (Wood, who was straight, loved wearing angora and even used “Ann Gora” as a penname.)

Wood assembled an eclectic and eccentric stock company of Hollywood has-beens and never-weres, including Vampira (Maila Nurmi), Tor Johnson, Lyle Talbot, Bunny Beckinridge, television psychic Criswell, and Bela Lugosi, who was by this time a morphine addict. The troupe appeared in a bevy of Wood’s no-budget “classics” over the next few years, like Bride of the Monster, Jail Bait, and The Sinister Urge.

Wood’s “magnum-opus” is undoubtedly Plan Nine From Outer Space, which he shot over five days in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. The money for the film came from a Southern Baptist church, whose trustees required that Wood and his actors be baptized first into the congregation.

Plan Nine is a story about a race of invading aliens who animate the dead to take over Earth. It has cardboard special effects, terrible acting, and even worse dialogue and direction. It’s so mind-bogglingly bad that it’s brilliant! It’s one of my favorite films.

Wood’s “career” died along with his biggest star, Bela Lugosi. He ended up making smut films around Hollywood until his death. But an auteur like Wood could never be completely forgotten.

In 1994, Tim Burton directed the hilarious film Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp as Wood, and Martin Landau (in an Academy Award winning performance) as Bela Lugosi. Two years later, the “Church of Ed Wood,” a legally-sanctioned religion, was formed by a Sacramento man. Today, the church has over 3000 members, who are known as “Woodites, who were all baptized on-line. The organization’s motto is, “Healing souls and wearing panties since 1996.”

What Are You All About?

The Ackermonster in his lair.

Although we’re at the brink of Thanksgiving, let’s pause to send birthday wishes out to a character more associated with Halloween.

As anyone who ever met him can attest, Forrest J Ackerman – known as 4E, and the “Ackermonster” – was a little kid trapped in an old man’s body. The twentieth century’s biggest science fiction fan and promoter was born on this date in 1916 in Los Angeles. After discovering science fiction as a boy, he and the genre were mated for life.

Forry soon began contributing stories to the very first science fiction magazines, including Amazing Stories, which was published by Hugo Gernsback, who the Hugo Awards for best science fiction and fantasy works were named. (Forry would win his own Hugo Award in 1953.) He would continue writing throughout his entire life, creating the Vampirella comic book franchise along the way.

In the 1930s he helped create the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society which met weekly for years at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown L.A. Many of the later titans of the genre attended these meetings, including Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen, and Robert A. Heinlein. He became a literary agent and worked with nearly every science fiction writer of the first half of the twentieth century, with a clientele that included Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, and Ed Wood.

In 1939 he attended the very first World Science Fiction Convention in Manhattan where he tooled around town dressed in a space suit. Later, as the editor of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, he introduced new generations to the magic of B-Movie monsters. He was often honored by these fans after they became persons of influence in Hollywood, by being offered cameo appearances in over 200 films, including Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.

Forry was such a “character” in real life that it was natural for him to end up in fiction. He appeared as himself in a book from the Man From U.N.C.L.E. series and in Philip Jose Farmer’s novel Blown. His name was actually used as for a character in the original Superman story.

I had the pleasure of meeting Forry on several occasions at the “Ackermansion,” his home near Griffith Park. Forry was always the most welcoming celebrity in Hollywood, opening his home to everyone on Saturdays at noon whenever he was in town.

On entry to his 18-room home, Forry would welcome you with his trademark, “What are you all about?” greeting – a provocative question clothed in simplicity. There was no question as to what Forry was all about. As he led you through his floor-to-ceiling labyrinth of science fiction books, posters, and memorabilia, you knew you were exploring the corridors of the mind of the Ackermonster.

Among his thousands of items on display was a “coffin table,” dozens of original props from classic science-fiction films, and the first Stephen King story ever, which young “Stevie” hand-wrote and submitted to Forry for publication.  

Despite being among priceless items from Forry’s collection, the Ackermonster was always the real star of the tour. Forry loved to clown around for the visitors, employing a host of often-used jokes and stories. His shtick was always the same, but never got old. He would greet women on the tours with poems in Esperanto, the universal language that he spoke; fight off imaginary monsters in the cellar to the squeals of the children; and claim to have read every last word of all the thousands of novels in his home. (“You see, when I get a new book, I open to the back page so that I can read the last word!”)

Forry passed away two years ago after hosting a “living funeral” where he invited several of his friends by to say so-long.

Happy birthday, Forry … and thanks for sharing what you were all about.

(“Deadwrite’s Dailies” will be back on Monday. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!)

The Tapho Files

This wasn’t a dead weekend – it was a “mostly dead” weekend.

On Saturday, I went back to the Pioneer Cemetery in Sylmar to get some pictures for an article I’m writing. Pioneer was the cemetery used in Plan Nine From Outer Space – the greatest bad movie of all time – and is only open on the third Saturday of the month.

I met two delightful sisters there, Jacky Walker and Alma Wade, who are members of the San Fernando Historical Society, which oversees the cemetery. They confirmed that Plan Nine was indeed filmed there, and Alma has actually purchased a brick for Bela Lugosi in the memorial courtyard to let the world know about the connection.

I will be going back this week to meet with Jacky, with the portable DVD player in hand, to do a scene-by-scene survey of the film to match it up with actual cemetery locations. The ladies hope to use this information for future tours, and hopefully, for a screening of the film at the cemetery.

Bela's brick at the filming site of his "masterpiece."

Bela's brick at the filming site of his "masterpiece."

Alma & Bela

Alma Wade & Bela's brick

Alma & her sister Jacky Walker later that night after getting all "Zombified" for the march.

Alma (right) & her sister Jacky Walker later that night after getting all "zombified" for the march.

I rushed home to pick up my stepson and then sped to Universal Studios where he attended Halloween Horror Nights with some friends.

I made it back in time to go to downtown Newhall to meet with 600 of my closest “life-challenged” friends for a Zombie March. The march went from a comic book store in downtown Newhall to Heritage Junction inside the William S. Hart Park where the Heritage Haunt was going on. It was a gruesome looking crowd, but I had the distinct impression that lots of the marchers looked better with their makeup on than without it.

"We are the three dead amigos ..."

"We are the three dead amigos ..."

Heritage Haunt gets better every year. They began two years ago by creating a wonderful haunted house (inside the Newhall Ranch House, which IS a haunted house. Ask anybody who regularly works there!) They have expanded their efforts to include much more of the property with new attractions like “Psycho’s Funhouse,” “Haunted Village,” “Desperado’s Haunted Hay Ride,” “Chewy’s Pirate Cove,” and a New World Dance presentation of “Sleepy Hollow.” It is fantastic! Hats off to Ed Marg and the rest of the Haunters. Believe me, it’s as good as the theme parks, and a lot cheaper!

Since we don’t have Boingo concerts to attend at Halloween anymore, we now have time to check out other October happenings. I would suggest the screenings of The Haunting next Saturday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. It’s a cool film, and what makes this screening special is that psychic Michael Kouri will be on hand to introduce the audience to the ghosts that never left the building after their show closed.

Until next time …

Ed Wood’s New “Plan”

Just when you thought it was safe to don a pair of 3D glasses. …

It’s been announced that cross-dressing auteur Ed Wood’s 1959 schlocky science fiction film Plan Nine From Outer Space is being re-released to theaters sometime this summer in a colorized 3D format.

All I can say is: What took them so long?

Plan Nine is often called the worst movie ever made and contains all the elements of an anti-classic masterpiece: bad direction, terrible acting, a story that’s meaningless, cheesy special effects, and dialogue that’s unintelligible. But instead of being a “worst movie ever” candidate, the accolade the film should garner is “the most hilarious movie ever made that wasn’t supposed to be.”

Plan Nine is so bad that it’s hard to believe that it was ever meant to be taken seriously. Several of the scenes are so unintentionally hysterical that you imagine it being a spoof of bad 50s sci-fi films, rather than simply being one. I have seen dozens of “great films” that were yawners. Plan Nine is never boring. In fact, it’s fantastic.

Plan Nine “starred” some of Ed Wood’s usual suspects, including permanent Newhall resident Tor Johnson (he’s interred in Eternal Valley Cemetery) and one-time James Dean gal-pal Vampira (Maila Nurmi). Wood, whose ambition outpaced his talent, reportedly made the film for $60,000. He must have been spent the lion’s share of the budget on angora sweaters, because the money’s not found on the screen.

The film was partially shot at the Pioneer Cemetery in San Fernando and nearby in front of Tor Johnson’s house. I am currently working with some great ladies from their historical society to show the movie at the cemetery later this year as a fundraiser for the preservation of the grounds. Keep checking here for details: www.scvhs.org

Incidentally, a documentary on the making of another Tor Johnson offering, The Beast of Yucca Flats (which was filmed in Saugus), will be packaged in an upcoming “Mystery Science Theater 3000” set.

The Beast of Yucca Flats, in case you’re wondering, is the worst film ever made.