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Idle, Awkward Moment

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Sally Kellerman Was Punk Rock

This review originally appeared on The Classical Mess, a Substack I was doing a few years ago before I found out they gave money to bigots.

Actress Sally Kellerman — you loved her in M*A*S*HBrewster McCloud, and Meatballs III: Summer Job. Like many stars of stage and screen, Kellerman also had a passion for music. One of the more interesting subplots in her 2013 memoir Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life concerns Kellerman’s quest to be accepted as a singer, often at the expense of her bank account and her ego. Neil Diamond invited Kellerman to lunch after seeing one of her concerts; his review was comically blunt.

“You should never sing again,” he told her. “It’s not your thing. You really can’t do it.”

Anyone who’s heard Kellerman’s bluesy 1972 LP Roll With The Feelin’ can tell you she had a unique, besotted bluster that handled like a ten cent carnival ride. She was never mewling and retching like Darby Crash, though, so Diamond’s critique feels harsh. Kellerman’s reaction to Neil was definitely punk rock. She refused to let him obliterate her. “I was going to ignore Neil Diamond and keep on chasing my dream to sing.”

And so Kellerman did, establishing a musical body that occasionally bled into her screen work. If you dare to watch Sally play a live action version of cartoon femme fatale Natasha in 1992’s cable tv movie Boris and Natasha you’ll be treated to her Bon Jovi-ish rendition of “It’s Good to Be Bad” over the ending credits. Kellerman doesn’t comment on this song in Read My Lips but she does refer to Boris and Natasha director Charles Martin Smith “a darling guy” and defends the final product as “pretty good.”

Read My Lips cycles through all the other highs and lows of Kellerman’s life with varying degrees of reflection (expect more on working with Robert Altman than her appearance in the “Star Trek” pilot). It’s all presented with honesty, humility, and humor, which I would also describe as very punk rock. I’m forced to agree with the Elliott Gould pull quote printed on the dust jacket.

“It’s totally human, and you have to love it.”

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Unseen Filmed Object: The Long, Strange History of UFOria

UFOria is the best romantic comedy about aliens ever made, although it is not actually about aliens. It is, as The Hollywood Reporter put it, about “the need to believe in something, the potency of individuality, [and] the fine line between celebrity for its own sake and espousing a cause.” Cindy Williams stars as a rural grocery store clerk named Arlene who believes she has been chosen to lead humanity onto a space craft for our next phase of existence. Fred Ward is her love interest Sheldon, a hapless drifter who only cruised into town to make some dough with his phony evangelist buddy (Harry Dean Stanton). Surrounding them are a flock of hilarious townies and a country music soundtrack that fits the film like a glove.

Variety called UFOria “a snappy, beautifully written piece of work.” The New York Times raved that the film was perfectly cast and compared it to Preston Sturges. Unfortunately for the public, UFOria was as fleeting as a saucer in the sky. There were only sporadic appearances after its 1980 filming. Today, UFOria only available in a low quality VHS upload to YouTube. So why was this movie suppressed? And what’s keeping it that way?

The story of UFOria begins in 1975. That’s when writer and director John Binder read an article in The Los Angeles Times about Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, the two cult leaders alternately known as Bo and Peep. Bo and Peep were trying to convince people that Jesus had left Earth on a space ship and that another ship would be coming soon for the rest of us. “I remember thinking it could be a funny movie but only if the spaceship really comes,” Binder said. “I mean, Spielberg had not made Close Encounters by that point.”

Binder was already in movies — he’d worked sound for 1970’s Woodstock and for 1972’s Marjoe, another Oscar-winning documentary about (surprise surprise) a phony evangelist. Binder wrote UFOria, originally called Escape, and shopped it around. Cindy Williams was interested by the time the script got to Melvin Simon Productions; Simon agreed to get moving on UFOria and inked a deal with their partner 20th Century Fox for distribution. The film was shot about an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles in the cozy confines of Lancaster, California. Photography was completed by March 1981. Seven months later, the MPAA gave UFOria a PG rating. Release was imminent.

Or so it seemed. Suddenly UFOria vanished, shelved because 20th Century Fox executives got cold feet. An angry Binder vented about the situation to Rolling Stone in a June 1983 issue. “This film would have been distributed if another company had had it. It might have encountered some difficulties, but if the picture had been made by Dan Melnick or something like that, that company would have found a way to sell it. Certain choices were made.”

Binder was also frustrated with Melvin Simon president Milton Goldstein for not holding Fox to the terms of the distribution contract. Goldstein responded by saying UFOria’s shelving was a mutual decision between the production companies because they were still trying to figure out the correct marketing angle. “Sure, we can enforce the contract,” Goldstein said. “But we feel it needs a special type of distribution. We’re still trying to find a handle on which way to market it. We don’t want to take a risk on a special picture.”

Binder conceded that UFOria was a different kind of animal. “The movie’s very unusual. The humor’s a little surprising. It has a peculiar tone to it. It’s funny one minute, it’s slightly serious the next. It runs on sort of two tracks. There is some letdown because people are expecting a Close Encounters kind of thing, and it’s not. I thought that mostly younger people felt they were being hoodwinked with all the humor because it doesn’t have that visceral payoff that kids are used to. Kids do not handle irony anymore.” On top of that, there was the obvious problem with UFOria’s name, not to mention the fact movies set in our “redneck” heartland were rarely box office winners.

Binder also credited Melvin Simon with continuing to pay interest on UFOria’s $5 million dollar budget during this release hiatus instead of simply writing the film off for tax credit. As fate would have it, by the time of the Rolling Stone article, UFOria had been picked up for distribution by Universal Pictures. Alas, Universal didn’t really know what to do with the film either. Against Binder’s wishes, the studio refused to screen UFOria for critics or open it in large metropolitan cities, opting instead to do test screenings in Peoria and Rockford under the title Hold On To Your Dreams. The movie did not, as the old saying goes, play in either Illinois city. UFOria only survived after this because of Charles Lippincott, a marketing bigwig at Lucasfilm, who saw it, loved it, and got the movie into the 1984 Filmex festival in Los Angeles.

The Filmex screening delighted reviewers. “Unquestionably a pleasure,” wrote Variety. “A tasty slice of contemporary Americana that’s an oasis amid so much somber fare,” said The Los Angeles Times. Theater chains started requesting UFOria. The movie enjoyed a seven week run in Boston in 1985. That same year, UFOria ran for a week at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times was there: “If anything, [UFOria] seems even more fun than it did when it was shown at Filmex last year.”

A New York premiere scheduled at the Bleecker Street Cinema for January 3rd, 1986 was tempered by Universal’s refusal to fork over any budget for advertising. Bleecker’s booker J.D. Pollack hired publicist Lauren Hyman to spread the word about UFOria. This attracted New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, who loved the movie.

“It’s anybody’s guess why it’s taken so long [for UFOria] to get here,” Canby wrote in his review, “though somebody seems to have goofed…it’s about the most enjoyable movie of its kind since Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Jonathan Demme’s Handle With Care, both of which it resembles…[John Binder] lets his comedy build through a leisurely accumulation of bizarre details, as well as through dialogue that sounds absolutely accurate, even at its craziest. The film is also perfectly cast. As Arlene, Miss Williams comes across as someone who’s as utterly sweet and sincere as she is possibly schizoid.”

In a later column, Canby declared, “Every January should have at least one movie like UFOria.” Bleecker Street Cinema showings began selling out, and Binder felt vindicated. Universal was quick to remind the director and anyone else reading reports about UFOria’s comeback story that art house success was not real world success. Even the meager advertising budget the studio had spent wasn’t being recouped by the film’s box office. A true wide release never came, unless you count the VHS of UFOria that eventually arrived.

UFOria is not on DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix, Hulu, or any other streaming service. Some have cited the expensive soundtrack, which includes music by Brenda Lee, Hank Williams, Jr., Waylon Jennings (a hero to Ward’s character in the film), and John Prine. I say Universal can afford to take a loss on this one. It’s a gem. Expertly restore it, lovingly package it, remind viewers what we had with Cindy Williams, Fred Ward, and Harry Dean Stanton. I’m sure Minions: The Rise of Gru brought in enough to finally put UFOria out properly.

There is one chilling postscript to UFOria. The cult that inspired Binder to write the movie in 1975 was, of course, Heaven’s Gate, which made grim headlines in March of 1997 after 39 members were found dead in a mass suicide near San Diego. It wasn’t clicking when Binder heard the news until his wife mentioned Bo and Peep. Bo, alias Marshall Applewhite, was among the dead (Bonnie “Peep” Nettles died from cancer in 1985). Binder let out a hollow chuckle in disbelief, his emotions tinged with sorrow.

“Back in the ’70s, you didn’t take UFO stuff seriously,” Binder told The Los Angeles Times shortly thereafter. “Bo and Peep looked like a hundred other prophets riding around in Volkswagen buses. They were nuts, fruitcakes, but they were American fruitcakes and basically harmless. You could relax and have fun with it.”

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Uncle Rump

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Ghostbusters Book Graveyard

Here’s a collection of factoids, stories, and rumors I couldn’t squeeze into A Convenient Parallel Dimension: How Ghostbusters Slimed Us Forever (on sale now where ever fine books are sold).

— Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep both attended the Yale School of Drama in the early ’70s and a blurb in Spy magazine 20 years after the fact claimed these two students had beef; an anonymous source called it “an unspoken feud” but a feud nonetheless because Streep got all the play parts over Weaver; Weaver was apparently iced out for being too tall and too weird (it is said she sewed up her own “elf costumes” to wear around campus); as another source put it, “Sigourney and Meryl have never been friends…Sigourney has always been annoyed by Meryl’s great lady act”

— between 1974 and 1979, Ghostbusters composer Elmer Bernstein had a mail order soundtrack club where he re-recorded other people’s film scores; these re-recordings included Franz Waxman’s The Silver Chalice, Alfred Newman’s Wuthering Heights, and Miklós Rózsa’s The Thief of Baghdad; Bernstein’s son Peter he told me his father lost money on this project but Elmer didn’t care because he was doing it for the love of the music; Film Score Monthly released the entirety of Bernstein’s soundtrack club recordings on CD in 2006

— Walter Peck actor William Atherton used to claim that the philosophical teachings of Aesthetic Realism “cured” him of homosexuality; Atherton performed live testimonials about it around New York City and even went on “Donahue” in 1981 to discuss the “permanent” change he and hundreds of other followers made to heterosexuality (watch the episode here); obviously this was extremely controversial and many derided Aesthetic Realism as a dangerous cult; I’ve heard that Atherton himself eventually felt hoodwinked by the whole thing and disavowed it, which I hope is true; Aesthetic Realism still exists but they stopped promoting a “cure” for being gay decades ago

— in 1983, “Tonight Show” staple David Brenner filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros, Matty Simmons, Harold Ramis, and John Hughes for stealing the idea for National Lampoon’s Vacation from a 1979 script Brenner wrote called Goodbye Grandma; Brenner claimed he submitted his script to “one or more” of the defendants beforehand and he sought nearly $40 million in damages; it’s unclear how this was resolved

— according to Ghostbusters editor Sheldon Kahn, the levitation rig used during Sigourney Weaver’s possession scene belonged to Ivan Reitman’s old pal Doug Henning; I attempted to confirm this with Henning biographer John V. Harrison (author of the awesome book Spellbound: The Wonder-filled Life of Doug Henning) but he wasn’t sure; I also e-mailed Henning’s widow Debby but she never responded

— the hare krishna acolyte seen at the end of Ghostbusters is a guy named Stephen Friedland who had a recording career in the 1960s under the name Brute Force; no less than George Harrison was a fan of Brute and tried to get his quasi-obscene novelty ballad “King of Fuh” out on Capital Records and EMI; when those labels blanched, the Beatles pressed up 2,000 copies of “King of Fuh” on their own label Apple; it is apparently the rarest Apple release in existence

— because every aspect of his life was covered by the press, I can tell you Michael Jackson saw Ghostbusters on July 5th, 1984 with his brothers in Kansas City; the Jacksons were in town to play the first three shows of their Victory Tour at Arrowhead Stadium; considering how much acrimony erupted between the Jacksons during this tour, it’s possible Ghostbusters was the last non-contractual outing they all enjoyed together

— Tracey Ullman was complaining about the scripts she was being offered during a 1985 interview with The Toronto Star when she went on a rant about Ghostbusters, calling it “childish” and “rubbish” and a “who’s got the biggest willie” movie; this culminated in Ullman saying that Harold Ramis was “as funny as anthrax”; in all my years of research, this was the meanest thing I ever saw anyone say about Ramis; comedy is subjective, of course, and I don’t find Tracey Ullman very funny (I like her singing though)

— Mel Brooks asked Ray Parker, Jr. to write some music for Spaceballs but Parker turned Brooks down because he was, and I quote, “too busy fooling around, doing something, chasing girls or waterskiing”; yes, he regrets this

— if you’ve seen the 1988 film Storm Warriors starring Mark Keyloun, Marlise Richards, and Gozer herself Slavitza Jovan, consider yourself lucky because it was never released; in fact, Storm Warriors was axed shortly after the trailer debuted at Cannes; the ad they ran in Variety for the film has me intrigued so let’s hope an unearthing occurs soon

— Ivan Reitman said once or twice that Julia Roberts auditioned for Ghostbusters II when it appeared Sigourney Weaver wouldn’t be coming back; Roberts was 21 at the time, so as a love interest for Bill Murray that was probably a little too Blame it on Rio

— in 1990, Dan Aykroyd had a project with Al Franken and Tom Davis called “Nixon in The Navy,” a five part comedy series about Richard Nixon’s military service; he imagined they’d put it on basic cable

— I wanted to interview the women who wrote the 1995 movie Casper for my book because I had questions about Dan Aykroyd’s cameo as Ray Stantz; they said no, we have nothing to say, it’s just a silly joke people blow out of proportion; that’s not a direct quote because they asked not to be quoted

Ghostbusters: The Video Game mastermind John Melchior told me a little bit about working on Simpsons: Hit & Run, specifically that Hank Azaria was the easiest “Simpsons” actor to work with and that Harry Shearer threw a fit and walked out mere seconds into his first recording session when he saw a grammatical error in the script

My UK Media Blitz

Never mind the bollocks! I’ve appeared on two UK-based podcasts as of late to promote A Convenient Parallel Dimension: How Ghostbusters Slimed Us Forever. There’s a video component to both programs and that split screen technology really makes me feel like Bernard Shaw. On Ghostheads UK, I had a wonderful conversation with host Jamie Burns (and he hadn’t even finished the book yet!).

I had another wonderful conversation with Ben Veal on Good Journeys, a podcast of “inspiring stories” and “inspiring people.” I’ll try not to let that go to my head. Ben admitted he was jealous of the replica Vigo painting in my living room. Unfortunately I couldn’t put it behind me during the podcast recording in my bedroom because that thing is bolted to the wall.

Thanks again to all the UK Ghostbusters fans for taking the time to check out my book. I really appreciate it! By the way, my wife and I have been watching the old “Lovejoy” show with Ian McShane and it’s the perfect tonic for these troubled times. That Charlie Gimbert is such a scoundrel!

Robot Town

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A Convenient Parallel Dimension To Be Released Down Under

Get ready, Australia and New Zealand — on February 1st, A Convenient Parallel Dimension: How Ghostbusters Slimed Us Forever will be released in your beautiful countries. I’m very excited for all the ghost heads Down Under to check it out! It looks like you’ll be able to get it from Woodslane, Dymocks, Booktopia, and Amazon Australia.

A few of these places say they already have the book or it’s already been released in that neck of the woods, but I think their computers automatically pull data from somewhere else and no one double checks it. Although, there were quite a few customers here in the States who received books ahead of time. I guess the only way to know for sure is to place an order.

Oh, by the way, the audiobook of A Convenient Parallel Dimension is now available on Spotify and Audible. Just in case you’re brand loyal and can’t bear to hear it through Google Play or Apple Books.

Stay tuned for more news about the book that left Neon Splatter’s Khayla McGowan “thoroughly impressed!”

Laverne’s Memoir, Reviewed

This review was originally published via The Classical Mess, a Substack I was doing a few years ago before I found out they gave money to bigots.

If you put a gun to my head and asked me to describe Penny Marshall in three words I might go with humor, humanity, and honesty. If you disagree, try watching “Laverne & Shirley” for two seconds. Or, pick up a copy of Marshall’s 2012 memoir My Mother Was Nuts, one of the more satisfying entries in the celebrity book canon.

Marshall was a skilled storyteller and that naturally translates to these pages as she recounts her journey from the Bronx to Hollywood. Her gift is especially evident when she gets into her romance with Art Garfunkel circa the late ‘70s or early ‘80s (Marshall isn’t meticulous about exact dates). It’s a beautiful story about two lonely people falling in love one magical night, a tale for the ages that develops an amusing angle. Marshall admits she was clueless about the rancor that existed between Garfunkel and his songwriting partner Paul Simon.

There was an evening when Marshall was running late to meet up with Garfunkel; she was hanging out with her pal Carrie Fisher, who was with Simon at the time. Marshall called Garfunkel from Simon’s house and asked him to come over (in part because she was on LSD and didn’t want to venture out by herself). Garfunkel refused.

“I can’t just come over to Paul’s.”

“I didn’t know they would sometimes go years without speaking to each other,” she writes. “Eventually, Artie explained why he couldn’t just come over to Paul’s. He had to be invited. Invited schmited, I said. I didn’t care.” Garfunkel relented. The two men were later cajoled into singing for their partners, though not before the suggestion hung in the air like an unwelcome stench.

Marshall doesn’t draw any parallels between Simon and Garfunkel and her own show business partner, Cindy Williams, maybe because no exact parallels exist. Students of sitcom history know that Marshall and Williams split up seven seasons into “Laverne & Shirley” after Williams married Kate Hudson’s father, Bill. Hudson convinced his bride that no one at the show liked her; Williams quit, and for years Hudson prevented her from having any direct contact with Marshall. The true Laverne & Shirley reunion finally arrived after Hudson and Williams divorced in the 21st Century.

Though they continued their friendship, Marshall writes that Williams “remained unapologetic for leaving the show” at that juncture and “was steadfast in her belief that we didn’t want her. Of course, I reiterated how wrong she was, but in the end what could I do? We agreed to disagree.”

The extensive career Marshall enjoyed behind the camera directing such hits as Big and A League of Their Own affords her memoir a wonderful selection of behind-the-scenes tidbits and asides. Gary Busey auditioned for the lead in Big; Marshall loved his interpretation of a kid trapped in an adult body but she didn’t believe he could play an actual adult with much accuracy. On the set of Renaissance Man, Danny DeVito’s chef served up garlic cloves “every morning as if they were vitamins.” Whitney Houston? Nothing but professional when they made The Preacher’s Wife.

Anyone looking for insight as to why Marshall agreed to play her brother Garry’s wife in Hocus Pocus will be disappointed — that movie doesn’t warrant a mention. You will learn, however, that Marshall and Rosie O’Donnell made an ungodly amount of money making those Kmart commercials in the ‘90s and they were allowed to take whatever they wanted from the store.

Fame has its perks!

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Greg, Paul, The Devil, & Mickey

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“A Year at The Top” is a 1977 sitcom about two musicians who sell their souls to the Devil. It only ran for five episodes but its history is pretty wacky so you know I had to write about it. Become a JG2LAND PREMIUM subscriber for just $2 a month to unlock this piece as well as the rest of my bonus content.