Thursday, March 31, 2011

FROM THE ASHES: THE FRANK BELMONDO STORY, CHAPTER V

WHO TOOK THE GRAVY?

SAMUEL PROCTOR: We had been in negotiations with Fannie Flagg to create a show for CBS for several months. We finally put something together that clicked with the network and CBS agreed to give us a 13-episode run. I knew that there was a way to get Frankie involved, so I had Fannie and Frankie meet. I was happy to see the two of them hit it off immediately.

FANNIE FLAGG, AUTHOR/COMEDIENNE/FREQUENT MATCH GAME PANELIST: I could tell immediately that Frankie was an old soul. I liked that about him. He also had the ability to make people laugh even when he was saying something completely serious. To make a modern parallel, Frankie was kind of like the absolute opposite of Tracy Morgan.

FRANK: I had known of Fannie from her sweaters on Match Game. I may have been eight, but I knew how a sweater could be filled out even back then. She was a great person, too. I was happy to work with her.

The show had Fannie and veteran actor Earl Holliman playing the characters of Fannie and Tuck, a married couple with three children living in the rural south.

SAMUEL PROCTOR: The show was called Who Took the Gravy? It was originally called The Whitman Family, and then Fannie, but the title came from a joke that we had in the pilot. It became a running joke through the first seven or eight episodes.

SCOTT KANNBERG, HEAD WRITER, WHO TOOK THE GRAVY? We didn’t even have the joke said at the dinner table all of the time. It became a contest between the writing staff as to the weirdest place we could have the line said. We had one episode where Earl said it while on his fishing boat. It became a popular catchphrase for a brief period of time.

There were two original ideas that came from the show. The first one was that Flagg and Holliman both played welders.

SCOTT KANNBERG: I know that having Fannie Flagg playing a welder was a bit unusual, but both of my parents were welders, so it kind of became homage to them.

SAMUEL PROCTOR: I didn’t care what they did for a living, as long as the jokes were funny. But you’d be surprised as to how many good welding jokes can be written.

SCOTT KANNBERG: Fannie also liked the welding idea…it was a very positive character for the women’s liberation movement.

The second original idea that came from the show originated from Frank’s character, Jeffrey, who was the youngest son. Jeffrey loses the use of his legs after being hit by lightning, and in the course of his electrocution, he becomes a Catholic in an all-Baptist family.

SCOTT KANNBERG: It was Frankie’s idea, really. We were trying to find a way to make the wheelchair idea work, because the network wanted the wheelchair, you know. They were dead-set on it. So Frankie’s sitting there listening to the writing staff toss around ideas, and he says, “What if I was hit by lightning? That happens in the South a lot, doesn’t it?It was genius.

FRANK: That was my idea, it’s true. Then one of the other writers says, “What if the accident turns him into a Catholic, and the rest of the family was Baptist?” I had been meeting with Father McGuinn for my religious studies – the studio chaplain had to be all-denominational, you know – so I had a vibe as to what Catholics were like. I remember my favorite line on the show was based on that. In the pilot, my brother, Teddy – played by Arthur Stanville, he was great – he says to me, “So, Catholic boy, what are you giving up for Lent?” I respond, “Since I have to go into the bathroom after you, I guess I’m giving up hope.” There was a lot of subtext in that character. Deeper than your average third-grader.  Even the bathroom jokes were smart.

Upon completion of the pilot, CBS knew that they had something that would interest a broad audience.

BENJAMIN WILKERSON, NETWORK EXECUTIVE, CBS: The show was very Middle America, but it was smart, too, and it also had a heart. I guess it was a lot like M.A.S.H. in that way, except for the whole Korean War and liberal agenda thing. Frank was a big part of it, too. We thought about giving him his own catchphrase, something that wasn’t “Who took the gravy?” and would make him stand out. We tried, “Hey, I’m crippled, what do you expect?” for a few episodes, but that caused some issues.

That was not the only controversy that the show caused. Jason Pearlman and Jon-Asher Carlson, two actors from the Jarrett Thibodeaux School of Acting for Handicapped Children and the protestors who pelted Frank with rocks and garbage upon his entrance to the Rudolph Simoneaux Acting School, decided to continue their protest of a non-handicapped actor playing a handicapped person by appearing on television and radio talk shows and denouncing Frank. Unfortunately for Pearlman and Carlson, the protests did not work.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: Here’s the one thing that Frankie had that not many people ever have: you’re not gonna out-martyr him. You had two kids who were in wheelchairs, for crying out loud, and who got the sympathy? Francis, that’s who. He understood the media better than any other child actor I worked with, bar none. I remember in one television interview that he did during the protests where suggested the sad music that should play in the background during his most emotional part. It got both the reporter and the producer of the story nominations for a local Emmy.

SAMUEL PROCTOR: I believe the protests actually helped out the ratings the first two weeks.  You know what they say, any publicity helps.

FRANK: And when the news came out on that Carlson kid came out, well, that’s when it all ended.

JASON PEARLMAN, FORMER CO-CHAIR OF HANDICAPPED ACTORS FOR HANDICAPPED PARTS: I had no idea that Jon-Asher was faking his own affliction, as well. He was a really good actor, I guess. It really took the steam out of our sails from that point.

JARRETT THIBODEAUX: It forced me to put in a strict screening process to get into my class. That actually helped my business, though, because any time you put restrictions to admittance to anything in Los Angeles, everybody wants in to your place.

Jon-Asher Carlson could not be reached for comment. It is rumored that he is currently working at a cannery outside of Juneau, Alaska.

BENJAMIN WILKERSON: After the first three weeks of airing, we had a solid hit, hovering around the teens in the ratings and winning its time slot. Frank was becoming a bit of a breakout star, too. We had to get him out there on the circuit, strike while the iron was hot.

FRANK: I appeared on a lot of talk shows, Carson, Merv. I appeared on Battle of the Network Stars, too. I finished third in the Simon Says competition, narrowly losing out to Valerie Bertinelli and Kristy McNichol. They were both tough competitors. But it was a very strenuous time for me, too. I was doing the show, having my religious studies with the chaplain and I was being tutored in my normal schoolwork. My tutor, he was an interesting guy, though.

PATSY MCARDLE, FRANK’S TUTOR: Father McGuinn was the one that got me together with Frankie. Because of all of the stress that Frankie was going through, I had to keep things light and fun. Don’t overwhelm the lad. But he was a good kid, very curious.

FRANK: Patsy had a really thick Irish brogue, so the first few times that we met I couldn’t understand a thing he said. But since we both had issues with the way we spoke, it made us pretty tight. I remember he also had a tattoo across his knuckles that said “BLOOD MONEY”. That scared me a bit.

PATSY MCARDLE: I got that tattoo while I was in prison. It was part of a joke that me and the lads in cell block “H” had. I did three years in Chino for hijacking a truck of cigarettes near the Nevada border.  I had gotten the job through CBS’ prison outreach program and Father McGuinn. I was very honest with Frankie about my past, and he was very understandable about my transgressions.

FRANK: My father – well, my second father – had taught me about forgiveness, so I followed his path. Besides, Patsy was a riot. He taught me math by going to the races at Hollywood Park.

PATSY MCARDLE: If a kid can learn how to box a trifecta, he can handle his own in math. Frankie had good instincts about the ponies. He won me two grand one time.

FRANK: I was going through a good run in my life. I just brought Patsy along for the ride.

With the sudden fame came a lot of attention from members of the opposite sex.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: As soon as a month after the show premiered, Frankie was getting up to fifty fan letters a day, from all across the country. He wasn’t quite a teen, yet, but he had a heartthrob quality that could not be denied. People warmed up to him quickly.

FRANK: I still have one of my first fan letters. I framed it, and it’s up on my wall in my home office. It let’s me remember my past, but it also keeps me centered, too.

Dear Frankie,

You are my favorite person on the T.V. I like your funny voice. Why is your voice like that? It is so funny.

You seem to be real nice. I think that if we met we would be good friends. We would laugh all of the time. HA HA HA HA HA! I like to say funny things.

I would like to take you in your wheelchair and (section blacked out by censor)

If you are ever in Alabama please come and visit. I promise to be good. My doctor says I need to take my pills now.

I am 43 years old.

XOXO
Maria! Sebastian
Birmingham, Alabama

P.S. Lock all of the doors!!!! THE WOLVES ARE COMING!!!! THE WOLVES ARE COMING!!!!

(This letter was approved for delivery by the St. Andrew’s Mental Health Center. Any sections that are censored out of the letter are the decision of St. Andrew’s and its staff. The letter was placed in the envelope by an authorized staff member and sealed for the protection of the patient.)

After the fifth week of airing, Who Took the Gravy? was guaranteed a second season by the network. It was also promised that Frank would be a larger focus on the show, which meant that one of the other characters would be written out of storylines. The producers of the show decided to cut ties with the character of the middle sister, Annabelle, who was played by a then-12-year old Julia Roberts.

SCOTT KANNBERG: The character of Annabelle was a bit of a troublemaker, so we had her sent to boarding school. We had some issues with a rural, middle class family being able to afford sending their kid off to a boarding school, but, hey, it’s television. You stretch the truth. It was originally agreed upon that she would reappear in a few episodes throughout the next season, but that didn’t work out.

SAMUEL PROCTOR: In hindsight, yes, our instincts were off a bit there. But you go with a decision and you stick with it. Frankie was the way to go. I still stand behind that. I do. Really.

JULIA ROBERTS, ACADEMY AWARD®-WINNING ACTRESS: Sure, it hurt at first. But I can’t really complain about how things worked out, can I?

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: It wasn’t that we were trying to get Julia off of the show. We were just trying to get Frankie more air time. It was an unfortunate consequence from our negotiations. Frankie had nothing to do with it.

SCOTT KANNBERG: There was a great deal of chemistry between Frank and Arthur Stanville, sort of an Abbott and Costello thing that we couldn’t interrupt. We didn’t have that with Julia’s character. Maybe none of us could write young women…I don’t know. To tell you the truth, if you would’ve asked me at the time of the show which one would’ve been the biggest long-term star of the three, Arthur would’ve been my choice.  But then he just got so fascinated with the insurance racket…shows you what I know.

ARTHUR STANVILLE: My main focus is long-term life insurance. I sell home and auto insurance, as well, but long-term life, that’s where the gravy train really rolls in – no pun intended. I had some thrills acting, but there’s nothing more satisfying than giving a family the assurance that they won’t have to worry about their children’s future if something goes wrong. Face it - on your deathbed, are you more likely to say that you really enjoyed an actor’s performance on a television show, or that you protected your family with a flexible premium annuity plan?  I don’t think that I have to answer that question, sunshine.

Who Took the Gravy? rose steadily in the ratings until it was considered to be a legitimate hit by the end of its first season. Film offers began to trickle in, but Frank was beginning to fear that he was being typecast. His fears were best expressed in an interview that he did with Esquire for Young Men magazine in the summer of 1980.

(To see Chapter 6, click here)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Scene From My Play, "David Mamet: The Early Years"

(When I saw the film version of "Glengarry Glen Ross" with my buddy Hoff, I hated it. Just couldn't stand it. I have learned to appreciate the David Mamet overlapping, repetitive style of dialogue more over time and in other films, but I can't bring myself to see "Glengarry" again. Anyway, I hated it so much, I wrote a short play called "David Mamet: The Early Years". Here is a scene featuring Mamet in eighth grade. Enjoy!)

INT. JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL CAFETERIA - DAY

Two 13-year-old boys, circa 1960, walk through a typical school cafeteria. They are named JAMES and RONNIE. They are carrying trays, toward a table where DAVID, another 13-year-old, is seated, eating his lunch. They sit down next to David, all of them nod to each other in greeting.

JAMES
Hey, Dave.

DAVID
Hey, James. Hey, Ronnie.

RONNIE
Hey, David.

JAMES
David, you going to the dance tomorrow night?

DAVID
The dance?

JAMES
The dance.

 DAVID
What dance?

RONNIE
The dance, you know. Streamers. Music. Dancing. The dance.

DAVID
I don't know anything about any freakin' dance.

JAMES
How do you not know about the dance?

RONNIE
Everyone's talking about it.

DAVID
About what?

JAMES
The dance. What are you, friggin' retarded?

DAVID
I'm just saying, if I knew about the gosh darn dance,
I would've said that I knew about the dance.

JAMES
Fine. I hear you. Well, there's a dance on Friday.

DAVID
Where?

RONNIE
Where, what?

DAVID
Where's the dance?

JAMES
Here.

DAVID
Right here, right where I'm standing?

RONNIE
Yeah, in the cafeteria. That's why there's no lunch
in here on Friday, they need to decorate.

DAVID
You telling me I am missing out on tater tots on Friday
because of a freakin' dance?

JAMES
That's the story, Davey Boy.

DAVID
Geez Louise.

RONNIE
Who are you gonna ask to the dance?

DAVID
How am I going to answer that? I didn't even know
there was a dance until two minutes ago.

JAMES
I'm taking Cindy.

DAVID
Cindy Metzelaar? How in the heck did you pull that off?

JAMES
I  asked her.

DAVID
(to Ronnie)
He's that good?

RONNIE
He's that good.

JAMES
I'm totally boss.

DAVID
Humble, too.
(to Ronnie)
Who are you taking?

RONNIE
I'm thinking about Mary Collato.

DAVID
Mary Collato? The hunchback?

RONNIE
She's not a hunchback.

DAVID
That back is hunched. 

RONNIE
It's...scoliosis. She's working on it.
(beat)
At least I'm asking someone.

DAVID
How could I ask someone to something I 
didn't know about?

JAMES
Know about what?

DAVID
The dance! The friggin' dance! What else have
we been talking about?

RONNIE
Scoliosis.

DAVID
Now, you, shut up.

The three stare at their trays, then stare at each other. David shakes his head and works on his Salisbury steak.

Friday, March 25, 2011

20 Books This Year Project/#7: The Hilliker Curse, James Ellroy

James Ellroy lost his mother at the age of nine from an unsolved murder and this framed the rest of his life in terms of his relationships with women. He obsessed on the women his life, whether it was a real relationship or women who only passed through his life briefly. He brooded, he panicked, he imagined fully-realized scenarios with these women. He combines hard-boiled machismo with the fears that a young boy has toward the girls in his neighborhood. He keeps hoping the next woman is Her, even into his sixties. He's afraid to be alone, yet doesn't know how to be together. Yeah, I got it. Grade: A

Thursday, March 24, 2011

FROM THE ASHES: THE FRANK BELMONDO STORY, CHAPTER IV


CHAPTER IV

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD

With the opportunity of fame and fortune presenting itself in Hollywood to Francis and his family, a great debate began within the Laster household as to whether or not the move was the correct direction to go.

JEREMIAH LASTER: Normally, I would think of Hollywood as a place of sin and depravity. But I also had my doubts about Francis’ dancing, and before the moment he was injured he had brought a lot of good will to the community through his artistic expression. Maybe Francis would be able to bring his positive spirit and love of Christ to Hollywood and change things around there.

FRANK: I think that my father had a lot of expectations of me, which was nice and all…but I was just a kid. It was never going to be one of those “and a child shall lead them” moments, no matter what his hopes were. I was just going to be happy that I was going to appear on television

JEREMIAH LASTER: After much internal struggle, we called up Samuel Proctor and told him that Francis would be coming to appear on his television show.

The first thing that needed to be done was to get Francis an agent.

JEREMIAH LASTER: We met with several people who represented child actors. In the end, we felt that Mr. Fenita would be the best person to represent our young Francis.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA, TALENT AGENT: Basically, I just said that I would donate one percent of my gross commission – up to fifty dollars, max, for each deal – to the father’s church. It was a calculated gamble that worked. I mean, the kid already had a role guaranteed. You just have to follow the money,

FRANK: Buck was a good guy. The man would’ve sold me to the black market if the price was right, but generally he was a cool dude.

The biggest dilemma for the Laster family was with Jeremiah, who knew that he had a flock to tend to in Cedar Creek.

JEREMIAH LASTER: I had realized very quickly that Los Angeles was not the place for me or my wife. But we could not let Francis not go through this journey. It was a painful decision, but we did what we thought was best.

FRANK: Buck became my legal guardian. My parents would come and visit three times a year. Not that I knew about the Belmondos letting me go at that time, but something had told me deep inside that I had been let go before. It was a tough adjustment for me, but I was focused on my future, at the same time.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: I never had to raise a kid before. But the kid had a series guaranteed. I felt confident about Frankie’s long-term prospects, as well. The kid had a quality that was unique to a child star…he wasn’t a Gary Coleman or one of the Brady kids. He was more like a pint-sized Donald Sutherland. The kid had a certain kind of…can I say sex appeal? I don’t want to sound like a pervert or anything…

GWEN LASTER: We had to have some ground rules put together in order to allow Francis to stay in Los Angeles. He had to continue not only his normal education but also his religious studies. His physical therapy for his Achilles’ tendon needed to be taken care of – I still had some hope that his dancing career was over. Maybe I was being na├»ve. Overall, there needed to be a good moral compass in his life.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: I don’t know if I can call myself a “moral compass”, but I got the kid meetings with the chaplain at the studio, and the studio got him the best physical therapist money could buy. The final pieces of the puzzle were to negotiate a fair contract and to get Frankie acting classes.

FRANK: I was going through a lot with the physical therapy. It was so strenuous that I had to sit in wheelchair most of the time outside of my appointments. I was too exhausted to walk around with crutches. When we would have meetings with the studio heads about series possibilities, they thought about putting my character in a wheelchair. They said that I look “natural” in the wheelchair. Somehow that just seemed insulting to me, but Buck said that I should go with it – it could work as a negotiating point for my contract.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: When it comes to negotiation, you need to use every angle to your advantage. It could be argued, let’s just say, that making him sit in a wheelchair all day would cause him to have what I like to call “ass fatigue”. William Conrad, the guy who was on Cannon, that show with the detective in the wheelchair, he had a similar clause in his contract. So I pulled a Cannon, in effect.

FRANK: Say what you want, his negotiating got me a motorized wheelchair. For an eight-year-old kid, that’s almost like getting a dirt bike. With all due respect to actual handicapped kids, of course.

Buck was also able to land a coup by getting Frank into the exclusive Rudolph Simoneaux Actors’ Collective. But on the morning of his first day of class, Frank received a phone call.

FRANK: I’m getting dressed to go to class, and my mom calls me. She tells me that I was adopted and that they had found out who my real father was. They tell me that his name was Stephan Belmondo and that he was a carnival performer. Now, like I said before, I had a feeling that I had felt like there was a feeling of loss before and that confirmed it. Also, look at it, I’m like two pigments lighter than they are and neither of them can dance. But the whole phone call did throw me off of my game that day.

GWEN LASTER: If I had known that it was his first day of class, maybe I would’ve waited. But we felt that Francis had a right to know the whole truth about his birth. We hadn’t contacted his father, yet – we still had to find him. But I felt that Francis needed to know that he existed.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: The day of Frankie’s first acting class, I had my assistant, Ruby, drive him over to class. Big mistake. Ruby was a bit absent-minded…like most agents in the ‘70s; I hired her for her chest. When she got Frankie to the building where Simoneaux’s class was, she had forgotten Simoneaux’s name. So, she just told the security guard at the front desk that Frankie was there for acting class, and the guard, he took one look at him and just assumed that he was in the other class.

JARRETT THIBODEAUX, ACTING TEACHER: I have had the Jarrett Thibodeaux School of Acting for Handicapped Children for over thirty years now. I had come up with the idea for the class while on my tour of duty in Vietnam. The moment my right arm was shot off while taking enemy fire in the jungles outside of Khe Sanh, the first thought, the first thought, that entered my mind was, “I need to teach an acting class.” Back around the time that Frankie came along, before I had gotten credibility within the acting community and could charge my students, I did it as a volunteer class, working out agreements with my students that they would pay me back when they got work. When Frankie came in, then, I didn’t think much of it, since we had kids come in all of the time from the street. But after hearing him speak, I could tell that he had a presence that could lift him right out of his wheelchair. Little did I know at the time that he could do that already, but—

FRANK: Who knew that there would be two Cajun acting teachers in the same building? I was so disoriented from the news of my adoption that morning that I didn’t bother to notice that I was in the wrong class. Buck had told me before I left that the key to Rudolph Simoneaux’s class was to stay in character at all times. So when Jarrett asked me to discuss my handicap, I just went with it.

JARRETT THIBODEAUX: When he spoke about his ailment, there were tears in my eyes. To be a victim of a gangland-style shooting while at his father’s grocery store, and to lose both parents in the shooting, and to lose the use of his legs…truly tragic.

FRANK: I made some stuff up. I thought that was what was expected of me. I had an active imagination, and Buck was watching The Godfather, Part II the night before. It came together quite easily.

JARRETT THIBODEAUX: I had done an all-autistic version of Waiting for Godot the year before to rave reviews, so I had built up some stature in the acting community. But I knew that Frankie was going to be my Olivier. He would be the one that would take handicapped acting to its next level. The day after Frank came in, I ordered business cards. I was that confident.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: It was about three weeks into his studies when Rudolph called and told me that Frankie hadn’t attended a single class. So I go to Frankie and confront him, and he says, “I’ve been to every one of Mr. Thibodeaux’s classes.” I say, “Thibodeaux? Who’s Thibodeaux?” Naturally I fired my assistant the next day.

JARRETT THIBODEAUX: I was doing the blocking for an all-wheelchair version of The Iceman Cometh, with Frankie in the lead, of course, when Mr. Fenita walked in and told me of the mistake, and that Frankie wasn’t really handicapped. I was devastated. Not only was I losing my best actor, the hope that he had given to the others, the belief that he inspired, well, that was all in the shitter.

FRANK: I transferred over to Mr. Simoneaux’s class. It really was a big difference. No offense to Mr. Thibodeaux, but he couldn’t hold Mr. Simoneaux’s jock when it came to teaching the craft of acting. The only problem was that every time that I showed up to class, there would be two kids in wheelchairs waiting for me and they’d pelt me with rocks and garbage. I could have gone through the back entrance of the studio, but I felt that I deserved the punishment. I had let them down, after all. Also, I felt that the embarrassment would only improve my acting. Boy, I was a pretentious little prick back then.

RUDOLPH SIMONEAUX, ACTING TEACHER: I had paid the two kids in the wheelchairs to throw the garbage at him. The rocks were the kids’ idea. I thought that he needed that pain to make him a stronger actor. Although Francis had gone through much turmoil in his life, I thought that he needed to go through a little bit more to make him the best actor that he could be. Shame is a great motivator.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: Samuel Proctor came to us about a month after Frankie had started with Rudolph’s class to tell us that they had the perfect vehicle for Frankie. I went to Rudolph and asked him if Frankie was ready. Rudolph said that Frankie was “a natural” and that he “sparkled with intensity greater than all of the stars in the cosmos.” So I slowly backed out of the room and took Frankie to the studio for a meeting.

FRANK: Samuel Proctor had a pilot that he was putting together for a while, and they had added a character in the show that was just for me. I was flattered.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: There was one thing that they asked from us, though, to get things started. They didn’t think that the name “Francis Laster” was going to be appealing. We needed a new name. The whole three-name thing for child actors hadn’t caught on, yet – the only one who had three names at the time that I could remember was Rodney Allen Rippy, but that didn’t count. So we spent that evening of the meeting bouncing names around.

FRANK: So, I said to Buck, “What about Frankie Belmondo?” It was my birth name, right? Buck and the studio loved it. And so, a legend was born, I guess.

(to see Chapter 5, click here)

Friday, March 18, 2011

20 Books This Year Project/#6: Earth, by Jon Stewart, others

Similar to their first book, AMERICA, the Daily Show group continues their snarky, witty comments on society, managing to hit all of the requisite targets (including Charlie Sheen before the shit really hit the fan). A coffee table book for hipsters. Grade: B+

Thursday, March 17, 2011

FROM THE ASHES: THE FRANK BELMONDO STORY, CHAPTER III


(if you want to read chapters one and two, click the links)

OPENING NIGHT (WHEN ONE PATH LEADS TO ANOTHER)

The following is a review of the 1978 West Virginia Modern Dance Spectacular, April 17, 1978, by Richard Pickerd of the Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram.

FIFTEEN MINUTES OF BRILLIANCE, ONE MOMENT OF DISASTER

By Richard Pickerd, Exponent-Telegram Arts Editor

It was the most highly-anticipated event at the West Virginia Modern Dance Spectacular since 1971, when then-Governor William C. Marland agreed to appear in Swan Lake as part of losing a bet with Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer over the previous year’s WVU-Pitt football contest. Eight-year-old Francis Laster, considered by many to be the future of modern dance not only in West Virginia, but in all of America, was to perform lead in his first stage production. Not only that, it was to be in a performance created by Laster himself. Purple Nurple, a twelve-minute piece based on Laster’s personal experience with bullies, was to be young Laster’s introduction to the world of modern dance. Indeed, the stakes were high.

Laster, in the role of “Youth”, burst onto the stage in a smart shirt-and-slacks combo from the Garanimals “Rhino” collection. Immediately, he leaps into our consciousness with a carefree ebullience, yet with a cocksuredness that belies his tender age. This is a boy in touch with his emotions, totally able to appreciate the beauty around him.

The music encompasses Youth’s persona perfectly, consistently playing at a frenetic pace, surprising since the only instruments used are a xylophone, maracas and a three-piece drum set. “I didn’t write the music for the piece,” Laster said in an interview before the performance in a deep voice that sounded like it couldn’t come out of such a young boy, “I just showed them where I was going and told them to catch up.”

Unfortunately for Youth, his fancy-free nature was soon to be tested. Entering stage right, The Bullies (played with gusto by 17-year-old Austin Peterman and 16-year-old Wyatt Turnbow) come in with leather jackets and scowls, reminding one of two young Fonzies. They instantly show disdain to Youth’s joie de vivre. Pouncing on the young lad like two jungle cats, The Bullies are ruthless, calculating and frightfully demonic. Yet Youth is able to overcome the savages’ taunts, withstanding their punishment and maintaining his upbeat attitude. Nothing that the young ruffians do will break the boy’s spirit. He is hope incarnate.

Creating a fight scene complete with more tumbles than a performance by the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Youth’s only hope is to not overcome The Bullies by beating them in hand-to-hand combat, but by winning them over with his personality. As The Bullies go in for their coup de grace, Youth extends his arms outward, fully accepting his fate. Youth’s gesture suggests a welcoming into his world of joy. It is a statement that says, “Come on in, I’ll take care of you.”

The two thugs, at first unsure of Youth’s offer, decide to pick him up and swing him around, threatening to toss him into orbit. But Youth remains blissful; his arms continuing to stay wide open. When The Bullies put him down, they realize that they have been beaten. They offer their hands in friendship, and then the three do a vigorous jig that energizes the room, leading to a solo finale by Laster that defies expectations. The crowd’s reaction was unanimous – the future of modern dance stood before them.

If only it were that simple. The cosmic phenomenon that brought Francis Laster to the world of dance may be the very one that takes him out of it. During a ten-minute standing ovation – almost as long as the piece itself - Laster leapt up to reach for a bouquet of roses being thrown to him by an adoring fan. On his way down, Laster landed wrong on his left ankle and tumbled to the ground, grimacing in pain. Laster then let out a stream of verbal obscenities that no young boy should be allowed to say, much less a drunken sailor. Combined with his surprisingly-deep voice, for a moment one could believe that Richard Pryor was onstage. The crowd, integrating the shock of the incident with the disbelief of the profanity-laden tirade, sat motionless, almost helpless.

We do not know if Laster will ever dance again – the injury was that serious, according to doctors shortly after the show. What we do know is that Laster’s father – a pastor, of all things – should wash his son’s mouth out with soap. What we also know is that, for fifteen minutes, Francis Laster was perfect, and that can’t be taken away.

FRANK: I had never sworn before in my entire life. Not a word. But when I fell to the ground, it just came out of me.

JEREMIAH LASTER: I realized at that point that I should have gone through the exorcism. But I don’t know what it would feel like to tear an Achilles tendon, so maybe I would have said a few blue words myself in that situation.

FRANK: I was never going to dance again. That part of my life was officially over.

DOROTHY FENNER, HOUSEWIFE: I was the one who threw the bouquet. For several years I was seen as a disgrace when in town, and I could always feel the whispers of others when I was around. That pain caused me to have a brief addiction to inhalants, but I’m much better now.

DR. LARS PENCHANCE: The only comparison that I could make is when Elvis died. We had lost the Elvis of modern dance. In Francis’ case, though, we only got to appreciate it for fifteen minutes. At least with Elvis, you can put Clambake in the video recording system any time you feel like it and appreciate his true brilliance. With Francis it’s just memories. The whole thought of Francis being out of dance made me want to mewl like an Abyssinian.

RICHARD PICKERD: The other thing was, when Francis started swearing, I realized that we not only lost a great dancer, but we also possibly lost a future “bad boy of modern dance”. And there is nothing more robustly masculine than a bad boy of modern dance.

SAMUEL PROCTOR, TELEVISION PRODUCER: I was traveling around the country, trying to get ideas for a show that I was helping get together called Real People. I had heard about Francis from several people in the arts community, they said this kid was the real deal. I went to the West Virginia Modern Dance Celebration and the first thing I noticed was how they treated this kid before the show – it was as if he was their one and only chance for greatness. They had no doubt about him.

I watched his dance piece, and I knew that he was perfect for this show. He was a hell of a talent. I was getting ready to sign him up, but the next thing you know I see him on the ground. I knew it was serious. I was ready to write this one off, but then the kid starts to swear like a guy with Tourette’s syndrome and a sugar high. And his voice. Wow. I knew that he wasn’t right for Real People, but I had this other show that I was working on, and I thought there were some possibilities.

FRANK: So I’m sitting in the back room, and there’s a bunch of people huddled around the doctor.  They don’t have to tell me anything – I know my dance career is over. But then Mr. Proctor walks in and starts talking to me. Doesn’t mention the injury, doesn’t mention the performance, just casual talk, real classy. But then he then tells me that he’s a television producer. And not local TV – I’m not talking about Farm Report, man. This guy’s from Hollywood.

JEREMIAH LASTER: Mr. Proctor said that he was interested in bringing Francis to Hollywood and putting him in a pilot starring Fannie Flagg from Match Game, a show I never watched due to its bawdy nature. But Mr. Proctor said that he could get Francis the best medical care available in Los Angeles and that was a good thing. I told Mr. Proctor that we’d have to give it a day and talk to Francis about it.

FRANK: Hell, yeah, I wanted to go! You know how some people dream about becoming a star? I never dreamt about it, I knew that I was going to be big. I was too young to understand the concept of fate, but I kind of had the idea that it was supposed to happen that way.  If dance wasn’t the way, then acting might be it.

GWEN LASTER: We are not the kind of parents who would hold back an opportunity. And he would get the best medical care and have a private tutor. Besides, we never had been to California before. It was worth a try.

FRANK: I remember that I really wanted to meet Suzanne Somers.

(if you want to read Chapter 4, click here)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lines Mickey Spillane Never Used


Hard-boiled detectives, mysterious dames and ruthless gangsters were central to the writing of Mickey Spillane. Last night I was in a weird mood and I created a bunch of Tweets of lines he never wrote (including a few more I wrote today):

- She had long legs, smoldering lips and a music box which played the most delightful Brahms melody.

- I didn't know whether to smack her or take her antiquing, try to find some cute cow salt and pepper shakers.

- What a dame. If she could play the banjo, I swear I'd positively swoon.

- As she walked into the room, my first thought was that her shoes didn't go with her dress. Her purse, maybe

- "You think you're tough, wise guy? Try getting through the white sale at Montgomery-Ward."

- I punched him in the face. He wiped the blood off his lip. "Aren't you a naughty rapscallion?" he gleamed.

- "Sorry, baby, it's just that this cholesterol medication's leaving me a little bloated."

- It was 10 a.m. I was all out of scotch, so I settled for a Mountain Dew Super Nova. It was totally extreme.

- I grabbed her, pulled her close to me. Her breath smelled like ass."

- I needed to get out of sight, lay low. I ducked into a theater. I swear, I could watch "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" a hundred times.

- "What are you doing, Hammer?" "Knitting myself a gun cozy."

- She wasn't your average dame. She was the type that made me want to diversify my investments , set up a high-yield IRA. You know, important things.

- She had a miniature poodle, with just the cutest button nose. I could just eat that puppy up with a spoon.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

20 Books This Year Project/#5: Pop - The Genius of Andy Warhol


It's hard to say if Andy Warhol was a great artist or a great opportunist, but, to be truthful, both should appreciated. This book covers his peak time - the 60s - where he created the Pop movement and surrounded himself with some of the most unusual characters ever to walk the earth. You may not fully understand Warhol's motives for what he did, but the book is instructive in showing how painfully shy Warhol was as a person, how he was never comfortable in himself, and how the characters around him represented him and spoke for him quite often. Grade: B+

Thursday, March 10, 2011

FROM THE ASHES: THE FRANK BELMONDO STORY, CHAPTER TWO

(For those who have not read the first chapter, here is a link. Please feel free to leave comments and if you could follow the blog, that would be great.)

FINDING ONE’S TALENT
Taking on the new adopted name of Francis Laster, life in Cedar Creek gave Frank a chance for the traditional childhood he would not have received on the carnival circuit.
FRANK: My new dad and I would always have fun, although in a very Protestant way. We used to play this game whenever we would walk down Main Street called Guess Who’s Coveting. You know, “That woman is coveting that dress in the window,” “That man is coveting his friend’s new car,” stuff like that. Every time that I’d get five covets, my dad would give me a ginger snap. I loved ginger snaps.
JEREMIAH LASTER: Thankfully, the town was small and not full of sinners or he would have become a really fat kid. He loved those ginger snaps.
FRANK: My dad would also take me out crossbow hunting. Since I was so small, he had to make me a smaller crossbow so I could use it. I could take out a rabbit from forty yards away at the age of six with that thing.
Although life at home was idyllic, Frank’s life at school was much rougher.
FRANK: I had two things going against me – one, I was a pastor’s son, and most religious kids are seen as weirdoes to begin with; second, my voice. I was this little kid with this deep foghorn voice. I tried everything short of cutting my nuts off to have a normal voice, but it was just a cross that I was going to have to bear.
During first and second grade, bullies would give Frank a hard time. The two bullies who would harass Frank the most were the Robusto Twins, Lonnie and Morrie.
LONNIE ROBUSTO: I was more of a head and neck kid, while Morrie was always focused on working the body…sometimes I’d say too much, but I guess I was a bit of a perfectionist back then. Frankie was a good target – he was small, but not quick; he had something that we could pick on (his voice); and he took his beatings very well. He was on our schedule for Tuesdays after school, and I don’t think that he missed one of his beatings, ever. He was a real stand-up guy. Either that or he just didn’t figure out that we had him on our schedule for Tuesdays.
MORRIE ROBUSTO: Frankie was very important in our development as bullies. At one point we were going through an experimental phase and we’d try out new bullying techniques, and Frankie was a big part of that. Frankie was the first kid that we tied to the flagpole and covered in peanut butter…now that I look at it, a lot of the stuff that we did was quite homoerotic. You know, I may need a moment to figure this out.
FRANK: I would hate the Robusto Twins, but if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have had my dancing career.
Indeed, it was from a moment of torture where Frank learned what would be his special gift.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE, DANCE DIRECTOR - WEST VIRGINIA MODERN DANCE TROUPE: I was having my morning brisk walk near the train tracks when I saw two ruffians throwing rocks at a scrawny little boy. At first I was planning on ignoring the incident, but then I noticed that none of the rocks were hitting the boy. In fact, the boy was avoiding them in such a way that it was nearly poetic. I continued to watch, and the young boy was begging for me to make the oppressors stop, but I couldn’t stop watching. I even started throwing rocks at him, too, just to see what would happen. Not a single rock touched the boy. By the time we ran out of rocks, the boy ran away before we could reload. I asked the two bullies who the kid was and they were kind enough to give me his name and address. After the moment passed, I had a good cry, as I was overcome with emotion.
FRANK: When Dr. Penchance showed up to my house, I hid in the attic for thirty minutes, as I thought that he was going to throw more rocks at me. When I realized that wasn’t the case, I came down and found out that he wanted to teach me how to dance. I don’t know why I agreed to do it – my dad said it might be good for self-defense, although I have no clue what that means. Maybe I just wanted something to do.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: It was very hard to find young boys in West Virginia that wanted to dance, even harder to find boys that would admit it. I think that Frank opened quite a few doors for young, male, West Virginian dancers.
Dr. Penchance chose an aggressive curriculum, starting with some of the methods of Martha Graham and working into the works of Twyla Tharp.
FRANK: I got pretty good with Graham’s “contraction and release” method, but I felt more of a connection with Tharp. She was a happening chick. In fact, the first dance that I performed in front of an audience was one of Tharp’s, a piece from As Time Goes By, which had Barishnikov, I believe. I didn’t really know what the dance meant, but I just liked to dance.
Word got around about Frank’s dancing ability, which got him some publicity in the West Virginian dance scene. It also helped him in his school life, as well.
MORRIE ROBUSTO: Frankie became a bit of celebrity, which meant that people had their eye on him more, and that meant that we couldn’t mess with him. Luckily for Lonnie and me, we were entrepreneurs. We took advantage of the situation. We became Frankie’s bodyguards.
LONNIE ROBUSTO: We still got to pound kids, but now we felt that there was some purpose behind it. I believe that’s one of the reasons why Lonnie and I both got into law enforcement.
FRANK: The press was really kind to me at that time. I remember being told that one paper called me “the Nureyev of the Appalachians”. I didn’t know who Nureyev was – hell, I didn’t even know what the Appalachians were at that time. But whatever – it wasn’t like I was reading the paper every day, I was watching Laff-A-Lympics on TV. I was seven. To me the most important thing was that the bullies weren’t messing with me, and that they were actually defending me. That was cool.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: It was quite refreshing to have one of my dancers not be a diva. Francis was refreshing, like a nice cup of cucumber tea. But he was also willing to take chances, extend himself beyond what was expected of him. When he came to me with Purple Nurple, I knew that we had something special.
Purple Nurple was an original dance that Frank created at the age of eight. It was a personal dance created out of self-discovery and reflection based primarily on his being tortured by the Robusto Twins.
FRANK: It was the first time I had an outlet for my emotions.
LONNIE ROBUSTO: It was very flattering. I think that he was able to understand the nuances of the bully’s milieu. He didn’t leave anything out.
The twelve-minute dance piece was so well-received during rehearsals that it was chosen to be the headlining event for the 1978 West Virginia Modern Dance Spectacular. This caused a great commotion as many critics felt that, while he was considered to be a dance prodigy, Frank was not yet ready for the big time.
RICHARD PICKERD, ARTS EDITOR, CLARKSBURG EXPONENT-TELEGRAM: Was Francis Laster a great dancer? Yes. Did he have the potential to become one of the all-time greats? Possibly. But you can’t make an eight year-old kid the headliner of West Virginia’s biggest dance event. It’s too much pressure.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: Francis was ready. I truly believed that. I directed several big musicals on elite cruise ships and not one of those dancers had what Francis had. The boy had a smoldering spirit inside of him that singed the audience’s eyes. He was like the Phoenix rising from the ashes. It makes me want to whimper like a newborn calf just picturing him dance.
FRANK: I just was happy that my mom had said that we would go to Howard Johnson’s after the recital. Fried clams and that coconut cake…I wasn’t really thinking that I was going to create modern dance history.

(to see Chapter 3, click here)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

FROM THE ASHES: THE FRANK BELMONDO STORY, CHAPTER ONE


During my time away from work, one of the projects I have been working on is an oral history based on an amazing lost figure in the entertainment industry, Frank Belmondo. Many of you may not know who he is, but his work has spanned many decades and he has had as diverse a career as any man living. Every Thursday I will put up a new chapter of his life. Please take the time to appreciate this incredible man's life, and feel free to share with your friends!

CHAPTER ONE: HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

STEPHAN BELMONDO, FRANK’S BIRTH FATHER: We were known as The Flying Belmondos – it wasn’t our real last name, but The Flying Belmondozaviches was just not a choice. We worked the carnival circuit throughout the northeast United States as the stars of an acrobat troupe. I would jump through the air and my wife, Reza, would catch me. She’s as strong as a bull moose. I met her outside of Zagreb where she was famous for leg wrestling. I used to hear her matches on the radio. She was undefeated. I get a ticket, I see her go against Magda Davidski – they called Magda “The Clamp” – for thirteen hours straight until Reza won. By the time Reza passed out from exhaustion I knew that I was in love. I talked to her manager and arranged a meeting.

REZA BELMONDO, FRANK’S BIRTH MOTHER: Men in our homeland have different standards for what they look for in women. Leg strength is considered to be very sexy. Stephan used to have me crack walnuts behind my knees. It aroused him very much.

The couple married two months after meeting. The wedding was a small civil ceremony that was attended by both families and Stephan’s pet goat, Georgy.

Shortly after their wedding, however, financial issues caused strain between the couple.

STEPHAN BELMONDO: There was not much need for an acrobat in my town. One of every five males in my town was involved in a tumbling vocation in some kind of way.

Also, due to an unusual mental illness with Reza, a permanent food taster had to be hired by the family, causing more financial strain.

STEPHAN BELMONDO: I could never understand why we needed a food taster. She was always afraid that her food was being poisoned, but she cooked all of the meals by herself. But I loved my wife, so I tried to help her.

REZA BELMONDO: He thinks I am crazy, but please explain how two times before Stephan was about to fire our food taster, they die from food poisoning? Two times! So, who is crazy now?

With a dwindling local economy and increased expenses from burying two food tasters, the Belmondos realized that their only hope was to move to America.

STEPHAN BELMONDO: Reza, my brother Merkin, our food taster and I sneak on a boat in 1969 and made our way across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the food taster died from botulism on the way there, but the three of us landed safely in New York. I knew a friend that worked as an acrobat in a carnival. I teach Reza some tumbles and how to catch me. She was a natural; she only drop me twice. Six months later, Reza and I begin an acrobat troupe.

Things were improving for the Belmondos as their act gained a small level of popularity. But then, Reza discovered that her body was going through a change.

REZA BELMONDO: I started getting sick every morning. I at first blamed the food taster and tried to kill him with a hatchet, but Stephan calmed me down and had me visit the carnival doctor. He was not a real doctor, but he used to check the horses for hernias. Anyway, he says I am pregnant.

STEPHAN BELMONDO: I had noticed during the pregnancy that Reza was acting really strange. The carnival doctor said it was hormonal, but when she started having conversations with heads of cabbage…I should not say conversations; they were more like arguments. Very one-sided, too – I think that the cabbage was winning. She would get very defensive. When Reza would get frustrated she would throw the cabbage into boiling water. Then she would complain that she could hear the heads of cabbage screaming and that the sound of their screams was like locusts tearing into her eyeballs. I was obviously concerned.

But fortunately, despite Reza’s unusual behavior, the Belmondos had a healthy pregnancy and childbirth.

STEPHAN BELMONDO: We had a boy. We name him Francis Conrad Belmondo, after Connie Francis. Reza loved Connie Francis – she had seen Where the Boys Are at least 27 times on the TV. The only problem, beginning with the whole hatchet thing with the food taster, I was starting to believe that Reza may not be a good woman to raise my son. I thought she was – how do you say it? A homicidal maniac, yes.

Two deaths among carnival workers confirmed Stephan’s suspicions.

JACK MCGANNITY, SHERIFF, LATROBE, PENNSYLVANIA: We had found two clowns inside one of those tiny cars. We at first suspected suffocation since those cars are so tiny and they try to fit so many clowns into it. But then one of our deputies noticed that there was a huge hole underneath the car where all of the clowns would climb up into the car and get out of it from there, so that made suffocation less likely. Then, the same deputy noticed a large hatchet in the back of one clown and hatchet wounds in the other. That ruled out suffocation completely.
STEPHAN BELMONDO: The police they come and interview me and my wife – it’s called “canvassing”, right? I learned that from watching N.Y.P.D. Blue. Reza has blood all over her hands and says that one of her heads of cabbage committed the murders. I was surprised that they didn’t arrest her right away – it took them two days.

While the two days passed without an arrest, a third man, John P. Saunders, an assistant Ferris wheel operator, was found murdered. He was killed with seven strategically-placed lawn darts. Reza Belmondo was arrested and eventually confessed to all three murders.

JACK MCGANNITY: The third murder was unfortunate, but we had some bad press from a previous investigation and didn’t want to miss anything on this one, so we tried to be patient. Of course, we ended up getting even more bad press than we did on the other case, so what are you going to do?

Upon the arrest of Reza Belmondo for triple homicide, Stephan Belmondo was faced with a dilemma: how to raise a newborn son alone while continuing his career as an acrobat. He realized quickly that he couldn’t.

STEPHAN BELMONDO: The life of an acrobat does not give you a lot of time to be a parent. I had no one to help me as my brother Merkin had his own career as a chainsaw juggler to deal with and you cannot have a young child around him when he is practicing.

During a tour stop in Cedar Creek, West Virginia, Stephan had read in a local newspaper about a local pastor, Jeremiah Laster, who had done several good deeds in the community, including saving twelve kittens from a barn fire. Stephan knew at that moment what he had to do.

STEPHAN BELMONDO: I could tell that Reverend Laster was a good man. It hurt me to do so, but I knew that he would be able to help. I put Francis into a basket and left him on the doorstep of the Laster’s house and then I did what the kids call “ding-dong-ditch”.

Unfortunately, if Stephan had read the article on the next page of the same local paper, he would have been made aware of a militant group of Jehovah’s Witnesses known as Witnesses for the Execution. The organization was widely rumored to have committed violent acts toward religious leaders of other faiths in West Virginia, including sneak attacks involving baby ocelots.

BRAD GURNEY, FORMER MEMBER OF WITNESSES FOR THE EXECUTION: What you’d do, see, is take a baby ocelot – we had a secret farm where we’d raise them, see – and you’d rile ‘em up real good, but the whole time they’d have a blanket on their heads, so they couldn’t see anything. By the time the blanket would be lifted they’d sure be pissed, and they’d take it out on the poor guy that would look into the basket. It’s like training a falcon, but, instead, it’s an ocelot.

JEREMIAH LASTER: I was well aware of the Witness for the Execution, and I heard about the ocelot attacks. They also had put a beehive in the one of my friend’s pulpits, Father Hannigan at St. Luke’s. That didn’t turn out well. So, when I saw the basket on my doorstep, I was a little wary. When I saw some movement in the basket, I guess I panicked. I picked up the basket, ran into the backyard, and dropped the basket into the well. I turn around and I see a note that fell out of the basket, saying, “Please take care of my son. I am unable to do so. Thank you for your kindness.” When I heard the crying coming from out of the well, I knew that I made a big mistake. Luckily, the basket landed bottom-first, and it floated. We got him out but it took about an hour and a half.

FRANK BELMONDO: Ever since that time, I’ve had an acute fear of wells. And from what I’ve been told by doctors, that time I was in the well caused a strain in my vocal cords, which has never healed. That’s why I have such a deep voice, even when I first spoke. When I said my first word, I’m told that my dad almost had me exorcised.

GWEN LASTER, FRANK’S ADOPTED MOTHER: I had to talk Jeremiah out of exorcism. Frank was a good boy, you can tell. It took seven years for Jeremiah to be convinced, but he eventually gave in.

(to see Chapter Two, click here)