Los Angeles

The Rockford Files, S2-E1, “The Aaron Ironwood School of Success.”

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A whole lot of Rocky.

After a triumphal debut season, “The Rockford Files” kicks off its sophomore year with an action-packed thriller. There’s nothing fancy here, no romantic female lead for Jim to work with, no very special guest star, no two-parter. Instead, they double-down on the basics: appearances from Dennis, Beth, and a whole lot of Rocky. Angel Martin does not appear in this episode.

“The Aaron Ironwood School of Success” begins with Jim exiting his trailer early one morning intending to pick up Rocky so they can go meet an old family friend at the airport. But before Jim can take three steps towards the Pontiac Firebird he gets forced into the back of a waiting limousine. These hoods look like they mean serious business, but Rockford quickly outwits them, and less than 200 seconds into the new season we have our first car chase.

Jim must have wanted to inaugurate the show’s second season with a surprise, because he makes his first getaway not in the Pontiac, but in a VW bug that has been customized into a pizza delivery vehicle and happens to be making an early morning stop at the beach restaurant across the parking lot.

Jim commandeers Pizza Dan's delivery vehicle.

Jim commandeers Pizza Dan’s delivery vehicle.

My first thought is, “isn’t that funny? You never see VW bugs delivering pizzas in real life, do you? WTF?”

After making a getaway on the sands of Malibu’s beach, Jim, still in the bug and having found a spare pepperoni pizza to munch on, collects Rocky and they head off to the airport to meet their family friend from way back by the name of Aaron Ironwood (played by James Hampton hot off his role as the doomed Caretaker in “The Longest Yard”), who has done well for himself and is arriving in his own private jet.

Jim flees his pursuers in the beach parking lot.

Jim flees his pursuers in the beach parking lot.

The mobster limo gets stuck in the sand.

The mobster limo gets stuck in the sand.

Jim gets away on the sands of Malibu beach.

As Jim gets away along Malibu beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ironwood is a childhood friend of Jim’s who was looked after by the Rockfords after his own parents were tragically killed. Today (1975), Aaron Ironwood is a motivational preacher hocking a get rich quick scheme called “Dare To Win.”

It soon becomes clear that Aaron Ironwood is the kind of old family friend that gives Angel Martin a run for his money, and Rockford quickly finds himself on the wrong side of some very powerful bad men.

The gist of the “Dare To Win” program, as Ironwood lays out to a rapt audience, is this: “I’m gonna teach you how to make a million dollars…by the end of the year. And what’s it gonna cost?? Only five thousand dollars.” The audience oohs and aahs their collective approval at this last sentence.

* * *

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We hard cut to a honky-tonk bar, where Jim and his old chum are re-bonding over some arm-wrestling, shuffleboard, and “country-style” fistfighting out back. With the ice broken, Aaron asks to know what Jim really thinks about “Dare To Win.” In the kindest terms possible, Jim answers, “there’s not too much about it that doesn’t sound like a medicine show sales pitch.”

Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 11.22.43 PMOver a couple of cold ones, Aaron makes a confession of his own to Jim: Not all is well in the preaching empire. There’s been drinking, there’s been whoring, there’s even been puking, and now somehow the mob’s gotten wrapped up in it. He needs Jimmy’s help, and he’s got an offer Rockford can’t refuse. The paperwork’s already drawn up.

Beth Davenport looks over the contract and gives it her approval, whereupon Rockford signs on the dotted line.  The rest of the episode plays out with a series of double-crosses and some mob justice scenarios that belong in The Sopranos. And in the episode’s other good news, Dennis Becker passed the written part of his lieutenant’s exam and is now fifth in line for promotion.

Beth gives the contract her approval.

Beth gives the contract her approval.

I can’t testify to the status of prosperity preaching in 1975, when this episode aired. Certainly televangelists existed, but I don’t know if they were quite on the cultural radar the way they were a decade later, when (the other) Jim, Tammy Faye, Swaggart, and Oral provided the Decade of Greed (ie the 1980s) with its religious dimension.

One guesses that the 1970s were gravy years for the Aaron Ironwoods of the world, when they could roll their earnings over into personal jets and hookers well out of reach of the long arm of the law and the eye of the media.

Society as a whole would remain oblivious to the racket until Jessica Hahn revealed it all in Playboy ten years later, but the Rockford Files was on the case as early as 1975, three years before the Stones sang about it in “Far Away Eyes.”Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 10.51.31 PM

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Categories: 1970s, Los Angeles, television | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Rockford Redux: Link to B.B. Olshin’s Heartfelt 2012 Piece on the Rockford Files

Wow! A week after my own post on the Rockford Files, I came across this wonderful piece by someone named B.B. Olshin. It’s eerily similar to mine in some places, and much better articulated and thought out in other parts. I’m humbled to have made so many like-minded (in some cases almost word for word) observations as this 2012 article written by a philosophy professor, no less. I swear I didn’t know about it beforehand; I just discovered reddit today!

Click on the link below.

Finding Solace in The Rockford Files.

Categories: 1970s, counterculture, Los Angeles, television | Leave a comment

In Praise of Rockford

Though it may be hard to believe, Apr. 7, 2013 marked the 85th birthday of one of TV’s most timeless icons, James Garner. Thanks to the magic of syndicated reruns, Garner is instantly recognizable to generations of TV viewers as Jim Rockford, private investigator and beach parking lot trailer inhabitant.trailertitle

If you’re like me, the phrase, “two hundred dollars a day, plus expenses” served as a childhood credo, the magic over/under number that seemed like some sort of gateway into adulthood. Whatever your chosen profession, if the quote on your business card–or answering machine message–was $200 a day plus expenses, you’d be writing your own ticket and living in a beachfront condo.  In 1974, two hundred dollars a day was a princely sum, more than the average major league baseball player earned in fact. But it was the “plus expenses” part that hinted at the great unknown.

rockopenerOf course with Jim Rockford, the carpet didn’t match the drapes. There was no beachfront condo, there was a beachfront trailer badly in need of a coat of primer. Rockford’s answering machine and outgoing phone message may have been 1974’s version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but the incoming messages were from bill collectors with overdue dry-cleaning notices.

The Yellow Pages ad.

The Yellow Pages ad.

Rockford had a full ¼ page ad in the Yellow Pages, but he also had an unfinished game of solitaire on his desk.

Rockford’s people weren’t Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, they were Beth & Rocky &, Dennis & Angel. (By the way, Rockford taught me another another truism: Anybody named Angel is born to be trouble, male or female.)

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Jim Rockford was an everyman, a tall, handsome everyman whose profile was worthy of Mount Rushmore, but an everyman nonetheless, just a guy in a trailer trying to keep the power from getting shut off.

There were plenty of other TV dicks with hour-long primetime slots in those days, but Rockford was the most photogenic of them all. Malden, Ebsen, Cannon, Baretta–not a particularly good-looking bunch of lead detectives by any stretch. But Rockford’s handsomeness was countered by his outsider status. Jim Rockford did time, and although we’re told that it was for a crime he didn’t commit, we also see that in the eyes of the law, Rockford will always be an ex-con, an eternal outsider in the American judicial establishment.

Another random encounter with a glamorous woman of mystery.

Another random encounter with a glamorous woman of mystery.

Rockford was too busy being a fugitive from injustice to ever become a legitimate sex symbol. In the Seventies, you needed a moustache for that. Unlike Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck, there were no James Garner wall posters adorning bachelorette bedrooms. Rockford’s Pontiac Firebird was probably the biggest sex symbol on the show.

Rocky

Rocky

Is Dennis actually about to smile?

Is Dennis actually about to smile?

***

Whether in movies or television, never underestimate the strength of a soundtrack. We do as much watching with our ears as with our eyes. While the Rockford Files’ visuals are compelling enough, the show also offers great ear candy. This ear candy is the secret ingredient that makes “The Rockford Files” so much more watchable than other similar shows. It is rerun comfort food, and the soundtrack is the subliminal reason why it tastes so good.

The theme song is famous in its own right. Other than Garner himself (and possibly Stuart Margolin as Angel), this tune is the single most memorable thing about the show. It was the first TV theme song to achieve Top-40 radio success in the 70s, peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going on to win a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement of 1975. This is the song that put Mike Post and Pete Carpenter on the map.

City of Angels?

City of Angels?

Other TV theme songs quickly followed on the heels of The Rockford Files in becoming Top 40 radio hits–Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, and later The Dukes of Hazzard and Greatest American Hero–but these were all ballads with lyrics. The Rockford Files theme was pure instrumentation: Soundtrack music accompanied by a montage of photo stills illustrating the life and times of James Rockford.

It’s easy to forget that this was an era before MTV and VH-1. Show intros like Rockford’s fulfilled the same role that music videos would in the 80s. In the Seventies, show intros were our MTV.

Go ahead and watch a Rockford Files rerun. You’ll realize that the musical mood established with the opening theme carries through for the entire episode. Country/bluegrass jams are used throughout as sound beds for car chases, describing a character’s emotional arc, to evoke a sudden mood change, punctuate a hard cut, twist the plot, or simply to brighten up the scenery.

The Rockford Files reminds us how good L.A. could look with a country twang, even in the disco era. By the 70s, L.A. had become a prisoner of its own gridlock, smog, and overdevelopment, but Rockford liberated the landscape simply by using music that evoked the freedom and wide-open spaces of the Old West. Revisit an episode with open ears and see if you don’t find that it is the best use of harmonica ever.

 * * *

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Of course, no visual pairs better with a country-bluegrass sound bed than a good car chase scene, and car chases are a staple of every Rockford Files episode. The Arthur Penn-directed “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967), was a groundbreaking film in many ways, one of which was the marriage of car chases with banjo and fiddle music, which had an invigorating effect on audiences. Following Bonnie & Clyde, the period from 1968-74 was the golden age of car chase movies, when the classics of the genre came out, starting with “Bullitt” (1968), followed by “The Vanishing Point,” “The French Connection,” and “Gone in 60 Seconds.” This six-year span also included “The Seven-Ups,” “Two Lane Blacktop,” “Duel,” and “The Italian Job.”

But as far as I know, no one was doing it on television until Rockford came on the scene. Country-fried car chases were a new phenomenon on TV in 1974, like answering machines were. Of course, “Starsky & Hutch” and “Dukes of Hazzard” would follow, but Rockford was doing it first. And what’s notable about those other car-chase shows is that it took two-men to do what Rockford did on his own.

There were not too many muscle cars on the tube in 1974 either. Most of the TV dicks of the time–Cannon, Barnaby Jones, Karl Malden–drove land yachts. The above-mentioned Starsky & Hutch did indeed drive a Seventies-looking sports car, and, what a surprise, their show debuted at the end of The Rockford Files’ first, and highly Nielsen-rated, season.

The pilot episode. Bill Mumy, all grown up.

The pilot episode. Bill Mumy, all grown up.

Turning on that Rockford charm.

Turning on that Rockford charm w/Lindsay Wagner.

 

 

Beth and Jim. Are they or aren't they?

Beth and Jim. Are they or aren’t they?

***

While revisiting “Bonnie & Clyde” for car-chase information, I stumbled onto an epiphany: In addition to being a groundbreaking film, Bonnie & Clyde represented everything that was wrong with the 1968 generation. The film rewrote history to portray a couple of violent thrill-killers as a misunderstood Romeo & Juliet hopelessly pitted against an omnimalevolent Establishment. It glorified Bonnie & Clyde as martyrs and reveled cartoonishly in the blood they spilled. It inspired hundreds of thousands of gullible youths to take the message literally and to act out in ridiculous self-serving ways, in essence to loot the noble ideals that had been so painstakingly built up during the earlier part of the 60s and pawn them on an orgy of sex, drugs, violence, and rock and roll, no doubt setting back the legitimate aspirations of that decade by at least half a generation.

At Angel's pad. Speaking of the 60s, Is that Bob Dylan's "Self Portrait" in the background?

At Angel’s pad. Speaking of the 60s, Is that Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait” in the background?

And what about that generation that followed the Sixties? I had another epiphany:  Jim Rockford is the Bonnie & Clyde of the post-Woodstock generation. Rockford Files was the go-to afternoon re-run for latchkey kids of the 70s and 80s. It’s a big part of what makes us the people we are today. We don’t self-identify with an extroverted glamour couple shooting up banks and pissing off old folks just for kicks. Our patron saint is a guy who lives in a trailer by the beach and appreciates the little things in life: the smell of the sea, the sound of the gulls, and an onion ring basket shared with a good friend over a picnic table. This was the same strain of disillusioned anti-materialism that ushered in the 90s in response to the steroidal greed of the 1980s. That’s why Ben Folds writes lyrics about getting stoned and watching Rockford Files reruns instead of Barnaby Jones or Magnum, PI.

Unlike Bonnie & Clyde, who decided to combat the boredom of their lives by robbing banks and killing for kicks, Rockford was set up; he was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit. Nearly every episode sees him going up against a hostile police force that continues to hold his false conviction against him in perpetuity. If anyone had a right to be angry at society in general and authority in particular, it’s Jim Rockford. But do you see Rockford acting out like Bonnie & Clyde? Not even close.

Inadvertently, James Rockford is the folk hero of post-Watergate era America. Respect for the establishment is at an all-time low, but people are also burned out on the Bonnie & Clyde-style excesses of the Sixties. Each week, Rockford treads the fine line between powerfully corrupt authority figures (ie The Man) and shallowly groveling opportunists (eg Angel Martin), and he does so without ever having to fire a shot (almost). He was the ideal outlaw figure for the times.

Perhaps it was the leaded gasoline fumes that made us all more lethargic, but to the best of my recollection, the mood in America just after Watergate was decidedly hung over, and no one pulls off a ‘where the hell’s the damned aspirin’ look like Jim Rockford does.

The trailer’s leaking, the Pontiac just blew a retread, Angel’s shaking him down for another sawbuck, and the insurance company isn’t going to pay out after all. That was exactly how the Seventies felt; but Rockford persevered with style, ending every episode with a wry twist that let us know that no matter how much it felt like things were spiraling out of control, at the end of the day we always break about even.

Where the hell's the aspirin?

Where the hell’s the aspirin?

***

What is sometimes overlooked is that “The Rockford Files” was actually James Garner’s second great act in television. Garner is one of the select TV actors who starred in his own series not once but twice, and in two very different timeframes. In the era when television was black and white, Westerns reigned supreme, and Eisenhower was still President, Garner was Bret Maverick. In the era of dystopian, post-Watergate detective shows, he came back as Jim Rockford.

During that interregnum between 1959 and 1974, America had changed about as radically a society could in 15 years, Not too many actors could bridge that gap and stay relevant, but Garner did just that. It was a totally different America in 1974, but Garner was still Garner and Maverick was now Rockford. The people who ran television liked Garner so much they paid him the ultimate network tribute, allowing him to use his real first name for the character of Rockford.

Garner was still a smooth-skinned post-adolescent when he played Bret Maverick.  As Rockford, his majestic profile had matured into its fully chiseled peak. When the time came, Garner walked away from both shows on his own terms, leaving money on the table each time, enhancing his outlaw status.

Rockford portrayed an ageless quality on-screen, so it might surprise people to know that James Garner was 46 years old when the show embarked on its five-year run.  And unlike other leading men, Garner did almost all his own stunt-work and live car chases, as well as appearing in almost every scene of every episode. He put his middle-aged body through the ringer to play that part, and the toll it took may have been the primary reason he decided to pull the plug on the program during its sixth season.rock1

***

“I knew those two weren’t Feds. Feds still wear narrow ties.” Rockford fingering a couple of imposters in an early episode of the first season.

Yes we are boldly in 1974 with this program. There is no ironic Seventies appreciation here, only the real thing. When “The Rockford Files” came out, it was cutting edge, not nostalgic. That’s why it gives us such great insight into what was actually considered cool in the mid-70s: wide ties, earth-tone Pontiacs, and witty answering machine banter.

Kids, that's a payphone; notice the rotary dial. Payphones were a major part of Rockford's business model.

Kids, that’s a payphone; notice the rotary dial. Payphones were a major part of Rockford’s business model.

One other thing about 1974. It’s closer in time to the 1930s than the 2010s. With fresh 2013 eyes, what you notice is just how much a Rockford Files script mirrors one from the classic LA Hardboiled detective genre of the 1930s and 40s (think “Double Indemnity” 1944). It’s all there: The snappy banter; the archetypal characters–hoods, goons, dicks, Seamuses, high-class dames and femme fatales; and air that bristles with sexual electricity but always maintains a puritanical approach to what is actually portrayed on-screen (which happens to be much less than a Close-Up toothpaste commercial of the same era).

Detectives have been part of L.A.’s fictional landscape since L.A. began producing fiction. In novels, movies, or T.V. serials, the City of Angels has always had detectives as protagonists. But there was only one that ever lived in a trailer in a beach parking lot. As I touched upon in a different blog post, Jim Rockford represented the fusion of one Southern California archetype, the hardboiled detective, with another SoCal archetype, the off-the-grid beachcomber. It’s uncertain when we will see another like him come this way again, but Rockford’s place at the top rung of syndicated reruns is eternal.

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Categories: 1970s, counterculture, Los Angeles, television | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

For as long as I’ve been around, Ray Bradbury has been there as an esteemed literary elder. Even back in the Seventies, a time when American society was especially divided and polarized, Bradbury was a transcendent grandfather figure, respected by all, disliked by none.

rbradbury

Ray Bradbury, visionary of the Atomic and Space Ages.

Bradbury was an author of novels, but he also penned scripts. He was an oracle of television when television was becoming the premiere medium of our time.  Like his contemporary, Rod Serling, Bradbury was a man from TV’s black and white era, when the best writers on the small screen worked behind a veneer of strict, straight-edged respectability, long before Archie Bunker’s toilet flush set the new standard for TV excellence. Unlike Rod Serling, he was neither edgy nor beatnik, and he didn’t die young.

1950_Martian

“The Martian Chronicles” (1950).

Ray Bradbury passed away in the city where he spent the last 77 of his 91 years, Los Angeles, CA.

Bradbury would appear to be an atypical Angeleno by our contemporary estimation, but in fact he represents a classical L.A. archetype: the Midwestern Angeleno. As a boy of 14, Bradbury moved from Waukegan, Illinois to Los Angeles with his family at the tail end of L.A.’s initial boomtown era–a period of four decades that saw the city’s total population soar from 33rd in the nation in 1890 to 5th by 1930. What made this growth unique from the other major American cities whose populations swelled in those decades was that it was fueled largely by WASPy Midwesterners, rather than European immigrants. People like the Bradburys came from places like Iowa and Illinois and settled in areas like South Central and Inglewood.

Ray Bradbury graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1939 but said his real education came from hours spent reading and writing at the L.A. Central Library. Unable to afford college, Bradbury worked selling newspapers on a corner of Olympic Blvd as he peddled his stories to movie studios and literary publishers.

centrallibrary

Central Library, downtown Los Angeles.

Incredibly (for a resident of Los Angeles), Ray Bradbury never learned to drive.

It surprises people to learn that the man who penned such unmistakably Midwestern flavored Americana spent his entire career in Los Angeles, but Bradbury clearly retained enough youthful memories of Illinois to populate his prolific body of work.  Indeed, perhaps leaving Illinois at such an innocent age is what allowed Bradbury to preserve such an idyllic Midwestern childhood from which to draw.

Ray Bradbury and his wife lived and raised four daughters in a relatively modest home in the quietly elegant neighborhood of Cheviot Hills, precisely the kind of place where you would expect a writer to reside. It’s a nice area for leisurely strolls, but being L.A., Cheviot Hills is surrounded by freeways and major thoroughfares; it’s not an area with lots of walkable destinations, but it is an ideal place to contrast a cozy family home life with an endlessly sprawling dystopia.

raybradbury

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).

Ray Bradbury might be more quintessentially Los Angeles than we think.

Categories: 2012: The Year in Review, Los Angeles | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

“Echo Park” (1986). A Film Review

neonfont

The opening title lets us know right away that this is an ’80s film, made in the era of Swatches, Nagel prints, and neon fonts–long before anyone even knew what a font was. The Tangerine Dream-like original score reminds us of how ’80s movies sounded.

“Echo Park” drew me in for three reasons. The first is its co-star, Susan Dey. As a boy, I wanted to kiss the TV screen whenever Lori Partridge came on. As a teen, I made a point of seeing any movie that Susan Dey was in, even if it was dubbed into Spanish on KMEX.

Reason number two is the film’s other co-star, Tom Hulce. To me, Hulce will always be Pinto from “Animal House.” Pinto was the straight-laced, virginal freshman who was thrown into the anarchy of the Delta House, where all his adolescent angst was wiped away in one alcoholic swoop. I got through junior high and high school knowing that if Pinto could do it, I could do it.

The third thing that compelled me to see this film was the title itself: Echo Park.

Echo Park is a venerable neighborhood of Northeast Los Angeles, nestled into the low hills between Silver Lake and Dodger Stadium. In full disclosure, I spent part of my childhood in the ’70s near Echo Park. One of my good friends in 5th and 6th grade lived there, and a group of us would often ride the school bus home with him in the afternoon. After rummaging through his pantry for junk food, we’d walk over to Dodger Stadium to catch a ball game (In 1977, bleacher tickets for children 12 and under cost 75 cents!).

Echo Park had been considered a gang intensive neighborhood for as long as I can remember (see Mi Vida Loca). Even back then, in 6th grade, my friend was facing situations I could scarcely comprehend: Teenagers jumping out of the bushes and demanding, “where you from, dood? Where you from?!?” and the like. There was one 15-year old red-haired, glue-sniffing tough in particular named Bernardo who was always in and out of juvie, and for some reason had it out for my friend. When you saw Bernardo, you just ran and didn’t look back.

But Echo Park also had its multi-generational families, its mom-and-pop stores, and its faded grandeur that bespoke a certain historicity. The neighborhood dates to the 1880’s, which by L.A. standards is ancient history.

The film industry itself was originally centered in Echo Park during the silent movie era, before World War I. Mack Sennett built what is considered the first true movie studio there (Keystone Studios) in 1912. Many Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and Fatty Arbuckle comedy shorts were shot along the hillsides of Echo Park.

It is on these same hillsides, some sixty-odd years later, that “Echo Park” the movie takes place. Susan Dey plays May, an aspiring actress currently working as a bartender. Tom Hulce plays Jonathan, a songwriter and romantic who delivers pizza. And Michael Bowen plays August, an Austrian bodybuilder determined to make it in America.

“Echo Park” opens with a dream sequence in which August’s father emerges from the Alps straight into Echo Park’s eponymous public park, wearing a garland of sausage links around his neck and leading a cow by a rope through a phalanx of zombie-like male and female bodybuilders that includes his son, August.

“Papa? What are you doing in America?”

“A good butcher uses every part of the cow, August,” the father responds, purposefully raising his knife to stab a female bodybuilder.

August jolts awake in his bed with a terrified start from the nightmare. His demons now established, August steps out onto his little back stoop in the predawn to greet the new day.

August in the pre-dawn.

August in the pre-dawn.

The palm tree affirms that we are in Los Angeles, and the lifeguard tower-sized room with sheets hung up for curtains indicates that it’s the kind of residence where a starving artist/body-sculptor lives. Back in his room now, August steps over to his workout machine and commences the day’s first sets of seated lat pulldowns with grim determination, punctuated by loud grunting screams that could symbolize anything at this point.

The camera next pulls back for an external shot, revealing that August’s pad is one part of the second story of a dilapidated house, the other part of which is occupied by May, who, wearing her nightshirt, flips on the light and presses her ear firmly to the thin wall to listen to August’s anguished grunts, and starts to get turned on.

Before May’s imagination can get too carried away, a little boy, her son, walks into the room and asks for a glass of milk.

“At this hour of the night? It’ll just make you fart,” May answers, leading him back to his bed. The boy says he’s scared and asks May if she’ll lie down with him in her bed. “Sure,” she says, taking him to her closet-sized bedroom that has a curtain for a door.

So far, so good. May is a single mom who has sacrificed any semblance of party life because she is devoted to raising her child. That’s why the next scene shocks me so. After tucking the boy into her bed, May sits on the edge and lights up a cigarette.

I forgot that they used to do that in movies–have the sympathetic characters smoke in their establishing shots to show…what exactly? That they’re cool? Relatable? Responsible parents?

deygreetsmorning

May greets the morning.

Last but not least, we meet Jonathan, a pizza delivery guy out on the job. As a veteran of the pizza delivery profession in two different time zones myself, I can say with authority that Jonathan’s gig is like nothing I’ve ever seen. He gets to wear espadrilles, panama hats, and clothing that looks like it came right off the back of a field worker. I know it was the ’80s, but come on.

Jonathan.

Jonathan.

He drives a custom delivery truck that has no doors and surely can’t be street legal, and when he can’t locate the address of a pizza delivery, his boss tells him to eat the pizza himself if he has to, just don’t bring it back.

Vinnie's Pizza delivery truck. No way it's street legal.

Is this thing street legal?

QUIRKY

“Quirky” seems to be the word favored by reviewers to describe this movie, and perhaps nothing establishes this depiction as well as the opening credits sequence, which is accompanied by a note for note cover version of the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover.” This enigmatically titled song is Tejano music rather than East L.A., but it has the low rider vibe of Echo Park.

As the credits flash across the screen, we are presented with a montage of nocturnal Echo Park street scenes interspersed with footage of Jonathan on his pizza delivery rounds and an entire house from floorboards to rafters being transported in one piece on an oversized flatbed.

Night turns to day as our main characters, who still don’t know each other yet, get busy with their morning commutes on the streets of Echo Park.

“She’s About a Mover” reprises as Jonathan locates a pizza delivery address and discovers there’s nothing there but a vacant lot. He phones Vinnie the dark-personalitied pizzeria owner to report this news, and Vinnie responds, “Whaddya mean you can’t find the place? It couldn’t just disappear, unless there was a mover…” And voila. With that Delphic non-sequiter, the circle of quirky has just been squared: The Sir Douglas Quintet song, the house being transported by night, the vacant lot. It all ties together, or not.

The film’s writer is Michael Ventura, who came from Austin, TX to Los Angeles, where he began writing for the alternative newspaper, the L.A. Weekly, in the late 1970s. If there’s anybody who would pick up on the special vibes of a place like Echo Park, it would be someone like that. Ventura’s Austin, TX roots might explain the selection of the Sir Douglas Quintet song as the movie’s establishing number. “Sir Doug” originated in the nearby Texas city of San Antonio, and its founding members were about four years older than Ventura, just the right age for a teenager to be out enjoying their shows, and to gain a lasting impression of their music.

♠♣♥♦ ♠♣♥♦ ♠♣♥♦ 

Echo Park. The house where the kisses are his and his and hers.

Echo Park. The house where the kisses are his and his and hers.

Back to the plot development: Inevitably, Jonathan and May’s paths cross when he delivers a pizza to her door after she has had a fruitless day of interviewing prospective tenants to help defray her rent expense. Once again, the delivery process is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. He knocks on her front door with the pie, but instead of completing the transaction there at the door, she says, “the kitchen’s that way.” Jonathan wordlessly goes into the kitchen, slides out the cutting board, and places the pizza box on top. He then opens the box, procures a 99 cent store pizza cutter and begins slicing up the pie, making sure to pin down the crust with his unwashed hand for leverage as he hacks away.

Prospective tenant.

Prospective tenant.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” May protests.

“It’s part of the service,” Jonathan explains.

Really? When was the last time you ordered an unsliced pizza, let alone had the delivery guy slice it up for you in the kitchen? That’s like going to a bar, ordering a round of beers, having the waitress bring a bunch of unopened bottles to your table, where she procures a bottle-opener while you protest, “oh, you don’t have to do that.” Only in Hollywood.

But of course, this sequence of events happens for a reason, three reasons actually: So Jonathan can develop a crush on May, find out she has a room to rent, and make an offer on the room himself.

Bodybuilders on a mission. August is front and center.

Bodybuilders on a mission, August front and center.

Next we go to the gym to see August working his day job as a personal trainer. August trains his clients by repeatedly telling them in his Austrian accent that their muscles are puny. Keep in mind, this movie came out a solid year before Hans and Franz debuted on Saturday Night Live, so let’s give credit to Michael Bowen and the creators of “Echo Park” for developing this character.

Bowen really did his homework for this role, studying all the Arnold Schwarzenegger footage to glean the future governor’s core ideas about muscles, orgasms, masturbation, superior genes, and celebrity, and mold them into an overarching narrative that became the character of August.

The manager of August’s gym is played by Richard “Cheech” Marin, and the receptionist is played by Cassandra Peterson, better known to many as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Cassandra Peterson & Cheech Marin

Cassandra Peterson & Cheech Marin

Cassandra Peterson

Cassandra Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the 14-minute mark, the three protagonists in “Echo Park” are already in place. All that’s left to do now is watch the plot unfold and the characters develop. We see firsthand the ups and downs of May, Jonathan, and August as they struggle to tightrope across the gap between the dream and the reality, trying not to plunge into the insecurity roiling below.

May attempts to strip-o-gram her way into legitimate Hollywood while maintaining her dignity and the respect of her son. The cynic in me suspects this role is just a ruse by the director to get Susan Dey to dress and undress in a series of tarty costumes.

But the raciest dialogue comes when May is out of costume. For anyone who ever dreamed of seeing Lori Partridge talk dirty, this is your film. All in all, it’s a bold role for Susan Dey. In a positive example of life imitating art, I’d like to think her portrayal of May is what propelled Susan Dey into the great second act of her career, the “L.A. Law” years, which began mere months after the release of “Echo Park.”

May’s foray into stripperdom introduces us to Hugo, a sleazy producer who operates out of an office on skid row. For my money, John Paragon’s rendition of Hugo is the best performance of the entire film. And don’t worry, Hugo may be dripping with slime, but underneath it all he’s got a heart of gold.

John Paragon as Hugo.

John Paragon as Hugo.

***

Jonathan is the broodiest of the trio. He’s an intellectual who dabbles in songwriting, but spends most of his time in his book-filled bedroom or delivering pizza.

“Echo Park” does a very good job of showing rather than describing Jonathan’s failure to connect romantically with women.

This would be a good place to note that the hearing of grunting through walls we experienced in the opening scene becomes a leitmotif throughout the movie that ties together all three characters and advances the plot.

August and May, two beautiful months, discuss grunting.

August and May, two of the finest months, discuss grunting.

Throughout his workday, Jonathan occasionally hums an unrecognizable tune, but the only tangible clue of Jonathan’s songwriting ambitions comes when he delivers a pizza to a recording studio. As we know, Jonathan likes to make himself at home wherever he drops off a pie, so as the session band takes their lunch break, Jonathan noodles around on a keyboard and mumbles his way through the song he’s working on.

“That has a nice feel to it,” the beer-gutted studio engineer says tenderly, looking up from his pizza slice. “Carry on; it’s good.” In the business, that’s called major label interest. But as the guitarist steps in to pick up the melody, Jonathan explains that the song’s not finished yet, and makes a hasty, Cinderella-like retreat as the engineer begs him to come back.

August’s dreams are more involved. He’s a go-getter who, unlike the other two protagonists, takes direct, pro-active steps to make those dreams come true. When Hollywood doesn’t cooperate with August, his demons emerge.

neonfont

AFTERWORD

Roger Ebert’s 1986 review of “Echo Park” concludes by saying, “(it) has no great statement to make and no particular plot to unfold. Its ambition is to introduce us to these people (August, May, Jonathan) and let them live with us for awhile…”

Indeed, in the fullness of time, what redeems “Echo Park” is its sincere effort to identify and portray the occasion of artistic-idealistic 20-somethings congregating in rundown but charming ethnic neighborhoods, where they share dilapidated housing in roommate situations, surrounded by freaks, haphazardly chasing their dreams. In the end, it is the journey and the interactions they have with each other that become the story, while the dream falls by the wayside.

It is a storyline that is much more familiar in the ’90s, once Generation X becomes identified and celebrated in popular culture. Back when “Echo Park” was shot in 1985, no one knew what to call this phenomenon, but at least one team of filmmakers knew it was there and tried to say something about it.

Watching the movie all these years later, I was immediately reminded of the ahead-of-its-time single from the musical duo David + David, “Swallowed by the Cracks,” off the “Boomtown” album, which happened to be released the same month (July 1986) as “Echo Park.”

In the opinion of this blog, the thinness of “Echo Park’s” plot is trumped by the boldness of the statement it was trying to make.

NOTES & OBSERVATIONS

  • You may notice many irregularities in the way Jonathan delivers pizza. One is that he quotes prices in whole dollars, seemingly off the top of his head: “mmm…seven dollars American…” “uhh, ten dollars per pizza…” Even stranger is the total absence of “hot bags.” Jonathan just walks around trudging a stack of dented cardboard pizza boxes on his deliveries, but this might actually be historically accurate. Although hot bags were standard by the time I started delivering pizza in 1989, apparently they weren’t in general use until Domino’s patented them in 1984. If this is the case, then the odds are good that “Vinnie’s Pizza” would be a late adapter.
  • Though they are in East L.A. in summer, Jonathan goes the entirety of the movie wearing button-down shirts, long-sleeve shirts, or two layers of shirts, including on a day at the beach. Then, inexplicably, he goes shirtless for the last ten minutes of the movie, even though these scenes take place in the cool of the night and in the Austrian Alps. Perhaps it’s meant to symbolize the liberation of Jonathan’s character. My guess is Tom Hulce lost an off-camera bet with Susan Dey.
  • The film is bookended by a pair of intriguing sequences filmed in Austria that last about two minutes in total and have absolutely nothing to do with the storyline. Other than keeping it surreal, the most likely reason for including these scenes in “Echo Park” is to give the film a “Made in Austria” imprimatur and thus secure funding from the Austrian Film Fund. “Amadeus,” of course, starred Hulce in the lead role, and was filmed largely in Vienna, Austria.
  • “Echo Park” appears to have been filmed in the spring or summer months of 1985, when Tom Hulce would have been at the apex of his “Amadeus” fame, just after that film in which he starred in the lead role triumphed at the 1985 Oscars. Yet, “Echo Park” grossed less than $800,000 in the U.S.A.
  • At about the 1:17:00 mark in the film, Jonathan (Tom Hulce) walks up a staircase, past a portrait of Mozart, and stops to do a double-take.

    Mozart

    Jonathan encounters Wolfgang Amadeus.

  • When Jonathan moves in to May’s house (Susan Dey), he is carrying a stack of records, which includes a prominently displayed Partridge Family LP. Susan Dey, of course, played Lori Partridge.
  • There is an “Elvira” poster on August’s wall, as well as an ‘I Heart Elvira’ bumper sticker on the Vinnie’s Pizza delivery truck.

    elvirasticker

    “I Heart Elvira,” lower left.

  • Vinnie the pizzeria owner was the final feature film role of character actor Timothy Carey.

    Timothy Carey.

    Timothy Carey.

  • Burt Reynolds’ double is played by longtime colleague of this blogger’s father and all-around L.A. County renaissance man, Fred Leaf.

    Fred Leaf

    Fred Leaf

  • Included in the film’s soundtrack is the song, “Tomorrow’s Gonna be a Better Day,” performed by “Johnette,” who is none other than Johnette Napolitano, longtime resident of Silver Lake (which shares a zip code with Echo Park), just before she formed Concrete Blonde. The song (sans vocals) can be heard during the climactic pursuit scene towards the end of the film, when Jonathan first loses his shirt.
  • Also included in the soundtrack is “Imagination,” by David Baerwald, one half of the duo David + David, and singer/songwriter behind the aforementioned song, “Swallowed by the Cracks.” The film’s music (as per the opening credits) is by David Ricketts, the other half of David + David.
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