Le Journal d’un Pornographe Unrepentant
Par Shaun Costello
The finished manuscript. Just over ninety thousand words. It took me ten years to complete this book. I gave up many times along the way, stunned by the universal rejection I had received. Then, a year or so later, I would start again, find another agent willing to take it on, and get hammered with rejection once again. I don’t take rejection well. But now, thanks to a French publisher, it’s finally finished. A hard cover edition will be available, in French, in October 2016, at book stores in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Canada. Thank you to all of my friends who kept after me to finish it: Gil Markle, Thomas Eikrem, Andy Waller, Jeff Eagle, Robin Bougie, Mike Forhan, Mary Jo Rayfield, Elizabeth Main, and many others. If I have forgotten you, go out and buy a gun and shoot me. Thanks to Congress, you won’t need a background check.
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MY SIX DINNER GUESTS
by Shaun Costello
I’m sure that everyone has pondered, from time to time, who exactly they would invite, if they had their druthers, and could choose from the vast list of possibilities, living or dead, that have occupied this planet at one time or another, to be guests for an entertaining and eventful dinner; and I’m certainly no exception. But what would be the criteria? First, I think, they should offer the possibility of entertaining company – good story tellers and raconteurs. Second, their contribution to the world, as I know it, should be incontrovertible. Third, the time frame of their lifetimes should be recent enough to give me a comfort level familiarity with their accomplishments, physicality, and behavioral traits. No need to drag up history’s behemoths – after all, this is a party. So, we can automatically eliminate dinosaurs of yesteryear like Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Joan of Arc, Aristotle, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Torquemada (although I’m tempted), Charlemagne, Themistocles, Mozart and Napoleon. Besides, none of the aforementioned spoke English, which will be the lingua franca of this little get together. So, let’s stick to fun folks from the Twentieth Century, who are liable to make me laugh, engage me in insatiably interesting conversation, and sometimes simply make me stare in awe. None of my selections are still among the living, not that having died is a criterion, but merely a coincidence. Like top ten lists, this assortment of dinner companions reflects the subjectivity shuffle – your guests, I’m sure, would differ from mine. But, for whatever it’s worth, here’s who I would invite.
In alphabetical order:
Julia Child 1912 – 2004
Chef, Teacher, OSS Spy (Yes, she did work for Wild Bill Donovan in Ceylon during WWII), and an unusual and endearing Television Personality – The woman who taught America how to cook. Her seminal volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking forever changed America’s palate. Her performance on her cooking show was courageous, and hilarious. Julia, in the midst of explaining some culinary technique, dropping a goose to the floor, and simply picking it up and continuing on as though nothing had happened. The woman was unflappable. Nora Ephron’s immensely popular 2009 film Julie & Julia introduced a whole new generation to Child, delivered by Meryl Streep’s uncanny performance. Julia was married to State Department “Spook” Paul Child, and the couple suffered greatly at the hands of Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee. After all, the Childs hosted dinner parties where many languages were spoken, and by people who might, at one time or another, have listened to classical music – grounds for suspicion in post WWII America. But most importantly, Julia was a gal who liked a good party.
Clarence Darrow 1857 – 1938
Mercurial trial attorney, charter member of the ACLU, and defender of the undefendable – Sometimes referred to as Attorney for the Damned. Darrow argued for the defense in two of the most notorious trials of the Twentieth Century. First, the Scopes Monkey Trial. John Thomas Scopes, a young high school science teacher, was accused of teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee state law. In Tennessee, in 1925, a state law had been passed making it a misdemeanor to teach, in public school, any theory that contradicted divine law, as written in The Bible. What began as a small incident, mushroomed into a national circus, as both sides brought in their giants. Darrow in the defense of young Scopes, espousing science and reason; and William Jennings Bryan, Bible Thumper supreme and two-time presidential candidate, to argue for Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
It was the first trial to be broadcast on radio. Scopes was of course found guilty, and fined $100, which Darrow refused to pay. But Bryan and his Bible Thumpers were made to appear foolish in front of a national radio audience. The court’s ruling was finally overturned in 1968. The second was the Chicago Thrill Killer Trial. On May 21, 1924, two wealthy Chicago teenagers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, decided to commit the perfect crime. They would murder without motive, save for the thrill of it. They lured a 14 year old Bobby Franks to a remote area and killed him, hid the corpse, and thought they had covered their tracks. But the body was found, and evidence revealed Leopold and Loeb’s involvement. There was no doubt of the thrill killer’s guilt, so Darrow surprised the nation by entering a plea of guilty. The Chicago District Attorney wanted the boys to hang, and Darrow was a staunch advocate against the death penalty, so the trial became, not just about a senseless and brutal murder, Darrow had put the death penalty itself on trial. On August 22, Darrow gave his final summation. It lasted two hours, and is often referred to as Darrow’s greatest piece of legal oratory. The judge ruled for life in prison, and Darrow had won one of his greatest legal victories.
Charles Eames 1907 – 1978
The husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames were industrial and graphic designers, artists, film makers, and joyful creative mavericks. Eames brought fun to furniture. His design genius reshaped the way we looked at structures and the furnishings that filled them. Greatly influenced by architect Eliel Saarinen, and his son Eero, who would become Eames’ partner in many projects. But more than anything, Eames was not afraid of fun, which influenced everything he created. Somehow, I think he would get along well with Julia and Clarence Darrow, and I can’t wait for the banter between courses.
Richard Feynman 1918 – 1988
Theoretical Physicist, raconteur, and bongo drum aficionado, Feynman will probably be best remembered for his testimony before a Congressional committee investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. He had figured out what had happened, and his name would be forever linked with O-rings, the rubber sealers that failed because they were temperature sensitive, a fact that NASA had overlooked. But beyond being a genius, I’m thinking that this dinner needs a bongo drum player.
Dorothy Parker 1893 – 1967
Writer, critic, poet, satirist, acerbic wit, and foundational mainstay of the Algonquin Round Table. I’ve had a crush on Parker for most of my adult life. She was so extraordinarily clever, and so maddeningly sad. What better dinner guest could there be, particularly with a few drinks in her. How delicious. Too many quotes to list, but here are two you might recognize:
“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
“That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone. Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”
Billy Wilder 1906 – 2002
Born Samuel Wilder in Sucha Beskidzka, Poland, Wilder would live to become one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, and his undeniable talent as a raconteur would make him a mainstay on Tinseltown’s dinner circuit. If Wilder couldn’t make it, Arthur Hornblow Jr, Hollywood’s storied dinner host, would simply cancel the event, or reschedule for when Billy had some free time. If you were planning an event like mine, wouldn’t you want Hollywood’s greatest story teller?
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by Shaun Costello
Love him, or hate him, The Donald has entertainment value. He’s a one man media circus. He’s an accident happening right before your eyes. People are fascinated by the sheer audacity of the man. We’ve never had a Presidential candidate from a major political party who talked penis size. The media loves him because the more outrageous his remarks, the higher the ratings on Fox News and CNN, and the more they can charge for advertising. He’s a kind of Millennial version of Huey Long, that man of the people from yesteryear. The GOP wants to somehow get rid of him, but how exactly are they going to do that? The Republican Party is in free-fall chaos. No sensible, intelligent, reasonable Republican wants to show his/her face during this memorable and tragic political campaign. The quality of the Presidential candidates offered by the Republican Party this year is disgraceful. How could the GOP have lowered the bar to this level? The answer is easy – Charles and David Koch. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the Koch brothers hijacked the Tea Party movement years ago, funding right wing fanatical congressional candidates through Koch-controlled organizations like the Heritage Foundation, and outspending the opposition enough to get them elected to Congress. So now the right side of the aisle is populated with just enough Evangelical, knuckle-dragging wackos to render Congress dysfunctional. And why? Because the Koch brothers are in the fossil fuel business, and the recognition of climate change means increased regulation of the fossil fuel industries, eating into the sacred profits of the one percent. Anyone who doesn’t think America is in serious trouble has been too busy cheering for the likes of The Donald to notice that the righteous administration of our Constitution has become corrupted by greedy profit takers, and the sycophantic, obstructionist politicians who keep the money flowing. America itself has become dysfunctional.
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LULA AND CHRISTY GO TO TAMPA
An Uber Adventure
By Shaun Costello
Friday afternoon began without any surprises. I headed for my car carrying a bag of garbage to take to the community compactor, and a grocery list for the day’s shopping. When I got behind the wheel, I tapped the Uber App on my smart phone, which would connect me, through the GPS system, with Uber’s network. I had been driving an Uber cab for about two weeks, and was anxious to get some trips because last week I had gotten no fares at all. After dropping off the trash, I got back in my car to the sound of Uber’s trip signal. On the phone’s screen a circle was flashing on the GPS map, and my little Samsung Galaxy was beeping its heart out. A trip – just what I needed. Normally, the screen on the Uber App would provide the address and name of the passenger, the destination and the distance. But my screen was too dark to see any detail in daylight. Uber’s software was not yet fully engaged. So I let the voice on Uber’s navigation system guide me to my passenger. The Uber software is pretty glitchy, and seldom works as advertised, and Uber’s tech support is defensive and relatively unhelpful. As an Uber driver you’re pretty much on your own to wrangle your way through Uber’s software jungle, and somehow make it work.
The navigator’s voice guided me over the Peace River Bridge to downtown Punta Gorda, and a few quick turns took me to the front of one of the town’s waterfront hotels. I parked under the hotel’s portico and waited. No one approached the car, and the navigator’s voice kept squawking about another left turn and one hundred feet to the destination. I slowly made my way around the parking lot, and, sure enough, there was a second entrance. As I came to a stop, my phone’s screen lit up and told me I had arrived, but there was still no passenger’s name or destination provided. Not that I cared. I had a fare, and like Travis Bickle, I was prepared to take them wherever they wanted to go.
There was a substantial pile of luggage outside the door to the hotel. Four large hard bags, with handles and wheels, and several smaller bags, including several plastic shopping bags which were overflowing with contents. Standing behind the pile of luggage were two thin women, I would guess to be in their mid-forties, puffing on cigarettes and intensly babbling at each other. I got out of my car and asked them if they had ordered an Uber cab. The luggage might mean an airport run, which meant fifty bucks in my pocket, so I’m sure I had a smile on my face. At first they were a bit baffled by the car and the luggage, and how to fit all this into my little Honda Civic, and they shuffled their feet a bit, and puffed on their cigarettes. As we began to stuff my little trunk with their baggage, I asked if they were headed to the Airport. ‘No honey”, said the taller of the two in a seriously southern accent , “We’re goin’ to Tampa. A long trip today, sugar.” Tampa – that was over a hundred miles north, good news for this eager Uber driver.
After packing my little Honda’s trunk to its absolute limit, and the girls agreeing without complaint, to not smoke in my car, they crammed themselves and their overflowing shopping bags into the back seat, as I wiped the Uber App’s ‘Begin the Trip” bar to officially start the journey. They would introduce themselves as Lula and Christy. Two southern babes who had found themselves abandoned in Punta Gorda, Florida.
As we made our way toward I75 for the trip north to Tampa, they began to tell me their story, which, of course, was obvious from the get go. Lula, the taller and older of the two was from Memphis, and young Christy was from Biloxi Mississippi. Lula said she used Uber cabs all the time because she traveled so much, but she was vague about the nature of her travels. Christy seemed to be along for the ride. It seems they met this guy, which is, of course, how all stories like this one begin. They met him in an airport, although it was difficult from their babbling to understand where exactly, in the terminal cocktail lounge, waiting for a flight to Orlando. The guy bought them drinks, and after a while, began to persuade them to skip Orlando and come with him to Punta Gorda. “Orlando’s for losers”, he told them. “Come with me. My car’s in the lot at the Fort Myers airport. We’ll fly there and I’ll drive you to Punta Gorda.” He told them he would put them up in the best hotel in town and rent them a car. They would have the time of their lives. He would pay for everything. After several drinks, their Punta Gorda adventure began sounding more and more appealing. So, they changed their flight, and joined their new and generous friend on his journey to Fort Myers.
The whole business began to unravel as they checked in to the hotel in Punta Gorda. It seems that their new friend’s credit cards were maxed out. He told them that it was no problem. He had other cards at home and he would bring them over in the morning to pay for their room and take care of that rental car he had promised them. Although they were not specific about what took place in their hotel room that night, I think it’s safe to assume that a menage et troix of some kind was the order of the evening. They awoke with hangovers, their new friend long gone, having made his escape during the night. When they attempted to call him they found that his cell phone was out of order. He had never mentioned his last name. They had no way to find him. So, here they were – a couple of southern babes with serious hangovers, out two hundred bucks for the hotel room, in a strange little town about a million miles from nowhere. Lula had been to Tampa several times and liked it. She told her hungover companion that they would go to a waterfront hotel she knew in Tampa, and just try to forget the whole unpleasant episode. How would they get there? Lula had an Uber account.
Enter yours truly, dear reader, now on I75, headed north with a packed car, and two hungover and frisky women, who had decided to forget their misfortune and seize the day. We had barely put ten miles on the odometer before two fleshy objects revealed themselves on the arm rest between the two front seats – Two bare feet, containing ten toes, and two toe rings. Lula, who was sitting behind me, had placed her right foot on the arm rest, along with Christy’s left. I have to admit that they were attractive feet, and to thinking that this was the most promising Friday I had spent in a while. After a moment or two of silent anticipation, Lula pleasantly demanded to know which of the two feet were sexier. Was I being tested? Seduced? What exactly was happening here?
“C’mon now, honey. Who’s got better feet? You know you’re gonna like one more than the other. I think mine are pretty sexy, but if you like Christy’s, I’m OK with that. C’mon honey, you pick ‘em.”
The ten toes seemed engaged in some kind of choreographed wiggle routine, perhaps to help me decide. Was there a candid camera hidden somewhere in their luggage? All I knew is that I was up a hundred bucks for the long distance Uber trip, and presently engaged in an outrageous flirtation with two whacky women who had been abandoned in my neighborhood. I tried, of course to be “Solomon-like” in making any comparison. I told the girls that each foot had a different shape and that both were attractive in different ways. I said that I found both feet to be appealing, and that, if I came upon either of them in the course of an evening’s activities, that I would certainly create an inventive and satisfying use for them. Silence now. No response from the girls until I heard Christy telling Lula no to Patty Cakes.
“I don’t want to play Patty cakes.”
“C’mon now Christy honey, you know you want to.”
“No I don’t. No Patty cakes”
“Yesterday you played. You said you loved playing Patty Cakes.”
“No, I don’t want to. You can’t make me.”
“Suit yourself, Chisty honey, but you know you want to.”
During the Patty Cake exchange, the two bare feet disappeared from comparative consideration, my carefully crafted comparison evidently ignored. But the inquisition continued. Inquiring minds wanted to know.
It was Christy this time. “What do you think makes me horny, honey?”
The acoustics in my Honda favored road noise over back seat dialogue, so Chisty’s question seemed muffled, and my response was idiotic. “Christy, you want to know what I think makes you a horny honey?”
“No, no, no….You’re the honey – I’m just horny. I asked you, ‘What do you think makes me horny, honey?’ So, what do you think? C’mon now, guess.”
Were they just messing with me? I wasn’t sure. This was now far outside my very limited Uber experience..
“Christy, I don’t know you well enough to know what makes you horny. I know that you have an attractive left foot, and that some guy played some havoc with you both. That’s about all I know.”
“Drinkin’. Drinkin’ makes me horny as hell. The more I drink the hornier I get. You like drinkin’?”
“Sure, I mean, I guess.”
“I bet I could drink you under the table.”
“I’m sure you could, Christy. At my age, I don’t really do much high-volume drinking anymore. I’m too old for that kind of thing.”
“Nonsense. You’re not old at all. Younger men are stupid. I can’t tolerate ‘em. I like older men. Wisdom comes with age, don’t you know that? Hey, what sign are you, anyway?”
This conversation peaked with the foot comparisons, and had gone steadily downhill since the introduction of the Patty Cakes. “Capricorn, Christy. I’m a Capricorn.”
“Capricorn. That’s the goat. I like that. You know, I’ve learned a lot from hangin’ with older men. Older guys know stuff. Older guys have taught me everything I know about sex. And I know a shit-load about sex, I’ll tell you. A mega shit-load. “
Lula chimed in. “She sure does. Knows everything there is to know. Christy’s a fuckin’ encyclopedia, pardon my French, in the sex department.”
Was there a hidden microphone recording all of this? Adjectivally speaking, ‘hoodwinked’ would best describe how I felt at this moment. This couldn’t really be happening, could it? We were approaching the Sunshine Bridge on I75 and there was a scenic rest stop on the water, so I exited the highway, and pulled into the parking lot. I told the girls I was giving them a bathroom and cigarette break, and they squealed with delight. They needed the trunk opened so that they could rearrange some of their luggage, and for the next half hour, all of their bags were taken out of the trunk, and emptied on the pavement. They seemed to be taking the contents of each bag and placing it in the bag next to it, which had been emptied for this purpose, the contents now spread all over the ground. They sat in the midst of this mini-mountain of their possessions, babbling incomprehensibly, and passing cell phones back and forth. Christy had two, and Lula three, and they began to send text messages to unsuspecting recipients. The babbling had stopped now, and their thumbs were ablaze, texting away – using all five cell phones at once – passing them back and forth in an orgy of tele-communication.
If I were a normal taxi driver, I think I would be concerned at this point. Had these two escaped from psychiatric incarceration somewhere? Did they really have the money to pay for this very expensive ride? But with Uber, the minute a customer requests a ride, a hold is put on their credit card for the approximate amount of the fare. There was no way that I was not getting paid for this adventure. But this was time consuming, and I had to crack the whip. I told them that if a state trooper came by, we might get a ticket for littering, and to please get all of this stuff back in the trunk. They reacted surprisingly well, like naughty children who knew they had overreached, and began to fill the trunk with their newly rearranged possessions. We had now been in this parking lot for an hour, and neither Lula nor Christy had peed or had a cigarette. It was time to do both and get on with the trip.
I took advantage of the girls’ bathroom visit by activating the navigation system on the Uber App, which immediately lit up and started squawking directions. I now knew that I was getting paid for this bizarre endeavor, and I had directions to our destination, which made me feel better, since the girls were vague about knowing how to get where they were going. As we began to ascend the towering Sunshine Bridge, Christy spoke up mournfully, “When my Mama drew her last breath, a tear trickled down her cheek, like to break my heart right then and there.” Well, this was certainly a conversational game changer. Not to be outdone in the ‘last breath’ department, Lula answered, “When my Gramma drew her last breath, it was so soft you could barely hear it, I loved my Gramma.” Without skipping a beat, Christy responded, “When my Papa drew his last breath, it sounded like the last note in a sad song.”
Lula was now fully engaged. “When my Uncle Abner drew his last breath, it was as crackly as could be. Sounded like a chain saw.”
“Last breaths can’t be crackly, Lula. The good Lord made last breaths to be soft and soothing, like angel’s feathers.”
“You never met Uncle Abner. Every time that man opened his mouth it sounded like a chain saw. Like to drive Aunt Esther to drink. Not that she needed much help.”
The ‘last breath’ competition continued for a few more minutes, before the girls remembered that I was in the car. At least Christy remembered.
“Hey there, you don’t have to go back tonight , do you? I got plans for you, mister. I’m gonna drink you under the table. Hey, you’re not married or nothin’, are you?”
I told Christy I was divorced and she squealed, “Eeeeeeehaaaa…..I bet you’re not as innocent as you look. I bet you’re a guy who’s constantly on the prowl, lookin’ to meet up with someone just like me. Aint that true? C’mon, fess up, you’re a horny bugger, aint you? I’m gonna drink your cute little ass right under that table. Then we’ll see what’s what. I don’t take no for an answer, do I, Lula?”
“Nope, she sure don’t. You’ll be stayin’ with us tonight. We’ll get a room, and when the fun starts, the sky’s the limit.”
For purpose of disclosure, I have to admit to being both amused and tempted when those two feet suddenly and playfully appeared on the arm rest. But now, that seemed so long ago. I did not feel that these girls put me in danger in any way, but we were now three and a half hours into this trip, with at least another half hour to our destination, and there was the return trip to consider. Spending the night in a hotel room with Lula and Christy was not on my bucket list. I did not say no, however. I thought it prudent to play them along, and wait for the right moment to make a graceful exit.
We were now in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic, and the navigation system’s voice was giving me different directions than Lula, who had told me she had stayed in this hotel several times. She said that she might have given Uber the wrong street address. Uber’s navigation system was extremely precise, and if she address had been off by a single digit in the street number, the directions to the address would differ substantially. Lula had said turn right when Uber said left, and since she had been there before I followed Lula. We made a few more turns until we would up in a parking lot a few hundred yards from the hotel. Lula said to stop here. That someone was meeting them here, and they would decide on where to stay when he arrived. This was a new wrinkle in their story. Someone was meeting them. The Uber App was telling me that we were 300 feet from our destination, and until that destination was reached, the trip could not be concluded, which meant of course, that I would not be paid. I had to get these girls out of my car, and their ton of luggage out of my trunk as gently as possible, and drive that 300 feet.
Lula and Christy were now sitting on the pavement next to my car, all five cell phones actively engaged in another texting orgy. I mentioned to Lula that she should call her friend rather than texting him, since he was obviously on his way, and driving a car. Christy responded that Lula didn’t talk on phones, she only texted. My Samsung kept squawking about the 300 feet to the destination, and I tried, as gently as possible, to explain that if my car did not travel the 300 feet, that Uber would not pay me. They responded well to this information, and began removing bags from the trunk, while continuing to text to God only knows whom. But as the bags were placed on the pavement, their contents began being switched, just as they had at the rest stop. Distracted by their texting, the girls were removing half the contents of the bags, leaving the stuff strewn all over the pavement. This is where Lula had said that her friend was meeting them – right here in this parking lot.
Just as they had done at the rest stop, Lula and Christy were now sitting in the midst of a mountain of clothes, various and sundry bathroom items, and odd electronic devices, texting away on all five cell phones. I announced that I was going to drive that final three hundred feet to complete the trip, so that I would be paid. They grunted a vague acknowledgement, but pretty much ignored me. So that’s where I left them, in the middle of a now-trashed parking lot, sitting on the pavement in the midst of all their worldly possessions, texting their hearts out, seemingly unaware of my leaving, or of anything else for that matter. As I got back in my car, they didn’t look up. I watched them in the rear view mirror as I drove away, hoping that they might wave, but they were in another world entirely, and quite oblivious to mine.
By the time I reached home, eight hours had elapsed since my smart phone lit up with the Tampa trip. As a purely business venture I consider these eight hours to be badly invested. The hundred and twenty miles to Tampa was a paid trip, but the hundred and twenty mile return was not. Two hundred and forty miles on my car, a lot of gas, and eight hours of my life that I’ll never get back. But everything you do in life is not measured in dollars and cents. I will be paid $99. for the trip, which is hardly enough. But the eight hours I spent in the deliciously insane company of Lula and Christy will linger in my psyche for quite some time. Was anything they told me true? I really can’t say. Were they simply toying with me? I just don’t know. But those wiggling toes, the “Last Breath” stories, “I’m gonna drink you under the table”, “C’mon, fess up – you’re a horny bugger, aint you? “The sky’s the limit.” The texting orgies. These are moments I won’t soon forget.
And where do you suppose they are now? Did their friend ever show up? Are they still sitting in that parking lot? Did some wayward cop cite them for littering, or even vagrancy? Are they attempting to explain themselves to the psychiatrist assigned to their case? Who knows. I like to think that girls like Lula and Christy just keep on keepin’ on. That, even in the midst of their apparent confusion and seemingly irrational behavior, they somehow triumph. That there will always be some guy who has a scheme that isn’t true, who will persuade them to change their plans, and follow him to paradise. That they will wind up abandoned once again in a strange hotel that they were forced to pay for. And that they will need to leave that strange hotel, and go somewhere familiar to recuperate and regroup. And how will they get there? Well, after all, Lula has an Uber Account.
© 2016 Shaun Costello
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TOP TEN SITCOMS OF ALL TIME
By Shaun Costello
Early television existed on a steady diet of rehashed and recycled material, mostly Westerns that had been exhibited theatrically in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In 1952 Gene Autry became one of the richest men in America when he purchased the old Monogram Studios, and its inventory of 750 “B” Westerns, renaming it Melody Ranch Studios. Autry saw the future, and recognized the vacuum of programming on early television as a gold mine for any enterprising soul with readily available entertainment to sell.
Those 750 “B” Westerns, newly owned by Autry, filled that programming vacuum with non-stop cowboy culture. A stop-gap measure to be sure, but an enormously profitable endeavor for the Singing Cowboy, until shows specifically produced for television could be developed. And Melody Ranch Studios became a major production facility for Western themed TV shows like; The Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, Hopalong Cassidy, Rin Tin Tin, The Cisco Kid and many others.
Most of the earliest shows specifically produced for television, that filled the gaps between Autry’s “B” Westerns, had been successful radio programs. I can remember listening regularly to radio shows like Gunsmoke, Jack Benny, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and The Lone Ranger; all of which became newly produced as television programs. America was hungry for television, and before long, newly produced entertainment began to outnumber Autry’s “B” Westerns.
The Fifties would give birth to a new phenomenon – television’s Situation Comedies. Some, like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Jack Benny had been radio hits; but television production was now in high gear, churning out original sitcoms like You’ll Never Get Rich, with Phil Silvers as the shameless Sergeant Bilko, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Donna Reed, and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which introduced Warren Beatty and Tuesday Weld. The variety shows like Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, Perry Como, and Red Skelton ruled the airwaves, but the Sitcom was knocking on America’s door with growing success, and would quickly become a staple of the country’s entertainment culture.
I recently Googled the top ten sitcoms and was horrified to find nothing, other than Seinfeld, on any list that was produced before this current millennium. List after list of bubble gum entertainment, all millennial fodder. Sorry kids, but shows like Friends, or How I Met Your Mother hardly qualify to be on an all-time top ten list. I decided right then and there, that the Top Ten Sitcoms of all Time list was a wrong that needed righting, and my Blog seemed like the appropriate venue for this adventure. Many years ago, Groucho Marks was interviewed on Dick Cavett’s late night talk show. Cavett asked him if he watched television. Groucho responded, “Not really. Well, I do watch Bunker. Oh, and the schwartzes.” (Sanford and Son) Both of Groucho’s programs made my list. Whittling all the Sitcoms ever produced down to ten has been difficult. Quality shows like You’ll Never Get Rich, Cheers, Happy Days, and Welcome Back Kotter didn’t make the cut, much as I loved them. Top Ten lists are subjective, so yours will probably vary from mine, but these ten stalwart shows, each born of great writing, and unique performers, all of which sociologically impacted the era in which they aired, in this viewer’s opinion, are the All-Time Champs.
In alphabetical order:
ALL IN THE FAMILY
(1971 to 1979)
Created, developed and produced by the redoubtable team of Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, whose names will appear again on this list, seldom has a television character so befuddled and delighted the American audience as Archie Bunker. Bigoted beyond all reason, Archie becomes the perfect tool though which Lear and Yorkin tackle the social issues facing America in the Seventies: racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation, rape, religion, miscarriage, abortion, breast cancer, Vietnam, menopause, and impotence – all seen through the dependably debauched eyes of Archie Bunker. The series became arguably one of television’s most influential comedic programs, as it injected the sitcom format with more realistic and topical conflicts. Carroll O’Connor’s portrayal of Archie yielded what is arguably television’s most controversial and unforgettable character. O’Connor is nimbly supported by the hilarious Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers. In 2013, the Writer’s Guild ranked All in the Family the fourth best written TV series ever, and TV Guide ranked it as the fourth greatest show of all time. In September of 1979, a new show, Archie Bunker’s Place, picked up where All in the Family had ended. It ran four additional years, ending in 1983.
THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW
(1961 to 1966)
The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered on October 5, 1961, introducing to the television audience two relatively unknown performers who would become multi-media mega stars – Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. The show was developed by Carl Reiner and produced by Reiner along with Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. Loosely based on Reiner’s life as a television writer, the show follows the adventures of TV writer Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) who is the head writer for the fictional Alan Brady Show. Brady is played by Reiner as an arrogant, egocentric, and of course insecure TV star. A solid supporting cast including Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, and Richard Deacon as Reiner’s snobbish, bullying brother in law. An equally solid writing team including Reiner, Persky and Denoff; as well as Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson and Carl Kleinschmitt. Among the show’s directors were Sheldon Leonard, John Rich and Jerry Paris. The series won 15 Emmy Awards. In 1997 the episodes “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouths” and “It May Look Like a Walnut” were ranked at 8 and 15 respectively on TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. In 2002 the series was ranked 13 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. A bit dated now, but Van Dyke’s nimble sight gags are still tops, and the dialogue’s still juicy.
(1955 to 1956)
Many of you will be stunned by the years listed above. I certainly was. How can something like The Honeymooners, a corner stone of American entertainment culture have only aired for a year? It debuted as a half hour series on October 1, 1955 and aired its final episode on September 22, 1956. There are only 39 episodes, now referred to as The Classic 39. The show’s history is complicated. Jackie Gleason was introduced to early television audiences on the DuMont Television Network’s Cavalcade of Stars (1949 to 1952). Gleason, who had made his mark on the first television incarnation of The Life of Riley sitcom, stepped into Cavalcade on July 15, 1950, and became an immediate sensation. He offered several skits including – The Loudmouth, Joe the Bartended, Reginald Van Gleason III, The Poor Soul, and The Honeymooners, which co-starred Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph. In 1952, CBS president William S. Paley offered Gleason a considerably higher salary. The series was retitled The Jackie Gleason Show and premiered on CBS Television on September 20, 1952. The show had a five year run, making its finale in 1957. An immediate hit for the network, Gleason’s format was basically of the Variety genre, offering guest performers, a musical interlude with the weekly appearance of The June Taylor Dancers, and Gleason’s standard skits, the most popular of which was The Honeymooners, a comedy sketch about a Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden (Gleason), his pal Ed Norton (Art Carney), and their wives, played by Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph. This sketch became so enormously popular that Paley’s CBS network would lengthen it to a half hour, and offer it as a weekly sitcom. Although the new show was initially a ratings success, becoming the number two show in the country during its first season, it faced stiff competition at the beginning of season two from The Perry Como Show, dropping to number nineteen, and Paley decided to pull the plug. 39 episodes – that’s all that were produced, yet the show and its colorful characters have become a part of American entertainment folk lore. Everyone’s got a favorite episode. Mine is Chef of the Future. What’s yours?
I LOVE LUCY
(1951 to 1957)
I Love Lucy was the first scripted television program to be shot on 35MM film (in black and white) before a studio audience. The series won five Emmy Awards, and received numerous nominations in many categories. Although distributed by CBS, I love Lucy was the first television program to be owned by its creators, It was a DESILU production, shot at DESILU STUDIOS in Los Angeles, and owned by Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and their partners. I Love Lucy was the most watched show in America for four of its six seasons, and was the first to end its run at the top of the Nielsen ratings. The show is still syndicated in dozens of languages, and remains popular with an American audience of 40 million each year.
Lucille Ball as Lucille Esmeralda “Lucy” McGillicuddy Ricardo
Desi Arnaz as Enrique Alberto Fernando y de Acha “Ricky” Ricardo III
Vivian Vance as Ethel Mae Potter Mertz
William Frawley as Frederick “Fred” Hobart Mertz
Richard Keith as Enrique Alberto Ricardo VI (Ricky Jr.)
Twins Mike Mayer and Joe Mayer played Little Ricky as a toddler
Originally set in an apartment building in New York City, I Love Lucy follows the adventures of Lucy Ricardo (Ball) her singer/band leader husband Ricky (Arnaz), along with their best friends and landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz (Frawley and Vance).
Lucille Ball’s real life pregnancy was scripted into the show. During the second season, Lucy and Ricky give birth to a son named Ricky Ricardo Jr, (Little Ricky) whose birth was timed to coincide with Ball’s real-life delivery of her son Desi Arnaz Jr. The American television audience watched their favorite television star give birth to what would become their favorite baby on their favorite show: and the Nielsen ratings went off the charts.
After the final episode in 1957, a modified version continued for three more seasons with 13 one hour specials, running from 1957 to 1960. It was first called The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, and later in re-runs as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. In 2012, the original I Love Lucy show was voted “Best TV Show of All Time” in a survey conducted by ABC News and People Magazine.
THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW
(1970 to 1977)
In the late Sixties Mary Tyler Moore was a hot commodity. Her six season run as Laura on The Dick Van Dyke Show endeared her to America’s television audience, not to mention Hollywood, and the offers were plentiful. When she was offered her own show, which had been developed by James Brooks and Allan Burns, she took full advantage of her celebrity, taking a feather from Lucille Ball’s cap – why be a passenger on your own journey, when you can Captain the ship yourself. The show, originally entitled Mary Tyler Moore, would become the first production of MTM Enterprises, and would parody MGM’s Leo the lion, by featuring a cameo of a kitten meowing under the company name. Mary Tyler Moore would become a sociological breakthrough for television, with the first never-married, independent career woman as the central character. Mary Richards is a thirty-something single woman who settles in Minneapolis after breaking up with her boyfriend. She lands a job as Associate Producer of the evening news show on WJM-TV. The show’s characters consist of Mary’s co-workers and neighbors. Her Boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner), egocentric and inept anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), “Happy Home Maker” Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), her upstairs neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), and another neighbor Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman). The characters were so strong that three became spin-off shows. Ed Asner starred in Lou Grant (1977 to 1982), Valerie Harper starred in Rhoda (1974 to 1978), and Cloris Leachman starred in Phyllis (1975 to 1977). The show was one of the most acclaimed programs in American television history, winning Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series three years in a row ((1975 through 1977). In 2013 The Writers Guild of America ranked The Mary Tyler Moore Show Number 6 in its list of the 101 Best Written TV Series of All Time.
(1972 to 1983)
The long-running and incredibly successful TV series known as M*A*S*H was an adaptation of Robert Altman’s hilarious 1970 motion picture of the same name. The series was developed by Larry Gelbart. The writers included Gelbart, Alan Alda, Mike Farrell and McLean Stevenson. Gelbart kept Altman’s theme music (Suicide is Painless), and most of the original characters from the movie. The series follows the antics of the members of the “4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital” during the three years of the Korean Conflict. A wide range of bizarre characters interact in a show that spanned 256 episodes over eleven seasons. Cast members include: Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Loretta Swit, Larry Linville, Gary Burghoff, Mike Farrell, Harry Morgan, and Jamie Farr. I can remember where I was when Kennedy was shot, and during New York’s great blackout in 1967, and where I watched the last episode of M*A*S*H. The show’s finale on February 28, 1983, Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen became, at the time, the most-watched, and highest-rated single television episode in American television history, with a record breaking 125 million viewers (60.2 rating and 77share). Many of the scripts in the early seasons were based on tales told by real MASH surgeons who were interviewed by the production team. Like Altman’s movie, the series was as much an allegory about the Vietnam War (still in progress when the show began) as it was about the Korean Conflict.
THE ODD COUPLE
(1970 to 1975)
It’s often the case that a theatrical character, given a signature performance by the perfect actor for that role, becomes unwanted territory forever after for actors seeking a role to play. Would any actor be believed as Patton, after the world has seen George C. Scott? No one in his right mind would consider attempting it. But then, rare as they might be, there are exceptions. When Neil Simon wrote the Odd Couple for Broadway, he created two characters, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, whose quirky personalities were so delightfully extreme that they might be performed by a variety of actors, with equal appeal to an audience. Simon’s original Felix was Art Carney, and his Oscar was Walter Matthau – perfect actors for those juicy roles. I saw The Odd Couple on Broadway with that cast three times, and at the time I couldn’t imagine any other actor playing either role. They were perfect. No one else could ever play those parts. It would be like trying to imagine anyone other than Zero Mostel as Max Bialystok. Then came the 1968 movie. Jack Lemmon was given the role of Felix, and the chemistry between Lemmon and Matthau was every bit as good as the Carney/Matthau combination had been in the stage play. I can remember looking forward to seeing the movie with some trepidation, having loved Carney in the play. But I was surprised – Lemmon was fabulous. This happens rarely. Then, in 1970, The Odd Couple, which had been an incredibly successful stage play, and equally successful movie, became a television sitcom. But who would play Felix? Who would play Oscar? Would a famous movie star like Jack Lemmon lower himself by acting in a TV series? The television version of The Odd Couple was developed by Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson for Paramount Television. Among the original casting considerations were Mickey Rooney or Martin Balsam as Oscar, and Dean Martin or Art Carney as Felix, the role Carney had invented on Broadway. Eventually, Tony Randall was cast as Felix, and Randall lobbied hard for Mickey Rooney to play Oscar. But the show’s producer, Garry Marshall, lobbied even harder for Jack Klugman, and Klugman got the part. So now we have Randall and Klugman as Felix and Oscar, and, surprise of surprises – they were great. Among the show’s directors were Marshall, Belson, Jerry Paris, Hal Cooper, and Alan Rafkin. The writing team included Marshall, Belson, Neil Simon, Mickey Rose, Ron Friedman, and Rick Mittleman. The Odd Couple is a permanent fixture in anyone’s recollections of the Seventies. I just loved the Seventies.
SANFORD AND SON
(1972 to 1977)
When Groucho Marks told Dick Cavett that he watched “The Schwartzes”, he of course meant Sanford and Son, a ground breaking sitcom with an entirely African American cast of characters. The show was based on the BBC’s hit sitcom Steptoe and Son, and was developed by, I told you they’d be back, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin; although Lear went uncredited. Has there ever been a more irascible and cantankerous character than Fred Sanford? He seemed like NBC’s answer to All in the Family – the black Archie Bunker. Fred Sanford’s bigoted banter – “Son, there aint nothin’ as ugly as a ole white woman.” – was tempered by his kinder and gentler son Lamont (Desmond Wilson), who is often bewildered by his father’s venomous opinions. The show was filled by an equally irascible cast of characters: Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page), Grady Wilson (Whitman Mayo), Bubba Bexley (Don Bexley), and Rollo Lawson (Nathaniel Taylor). Sanford and Son was a ratings hit throughout its six season run. In 1977 Redd Foxx left the series to do a variety show for ABC. There were three NBC spin offs: Sanford (1980 to 1981), Grady (1975 to 1976) starring Whitman Mayo, and Sanford Arms (1977). The writing team included: Ray Galton, Norman Lear, Alan Simpson, Bernie Orenstein and Saul Turteltaub. In 2007, Time Magazine included the show on its list of the “100 Best TV Shows od All Time.
(1989 to 1998)
The last of the great sitcoms. Created and developed by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the series would remain a ratings colossus throughout its nine seasons, topping the Nielsen charts in four. The syndication royalties were astronomical, making Jerry Seinfeld a very, very rich man. In 2000 he would purchase Billy Joel’s oceanfront house in Amagansett for 35 Million Dollars. In 1997, the episodes The Boyfriend and The Parking Garage were respectively ranked numbers 4 and 33 in TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. In 2009, the episode The Contest was named number 1 on the same magazine’s 100 Greatest Episodes. In 2013, The Writer’s Guild named Seinfeld the 2nd best written series of all time (The Sopranos was #1). The show is set predominantly in Jerry’s Upper West Side apartment, the surrounding neighborhood, and the corner Diner. The characters, a craftily cast bunch if there ever was one, include: Jerry’s High School buddy George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Jerry’s former girlfriend Elaine Benes (Julia Louise-Dreyfus), and Jerry’s neighbor across the hall Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards). Seinfeld was produced by Castle Rock Entertainment. In syndication, the series has been distributer by Sony Pictures Television since 2002. Week after week, season after season, Seinfeld consistently delivered cleverly written, hilariously performed, and craftily delivered shows on a level of the very best ever aired on television. The writing team included: Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Charles, Peter Mehlman, Steve Koren, Jennifer Crittenden, Tom Gammill, Marjorie Gross, Elaine Pope, and Spike Feresten. The Directors included: David Steinberg, Art Wolff, Tom Cherones, Andy Ackerman, and David Owen Trainor. As with The Honeymooners, everyone has a favorite Seinfeld episode. Mine are any containing the Soup Nazi.
(1978 to 1982 on ABC – 1982 to 1983 on NBC)
The series, which won 18 Emmy Awards, including three for Outstanding Comedy Series, follows the lives of a handful of New York City taxi drivers and their delightfully abusive dispatcher (Guess who). Taxi was produced by the John Charles Walters Company, in association with Paramount Network Television, and was created and developed by James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis and Ed Weinberger. The show is basically a one set production, the action taking place in the fleet garage of the fictional Sunshine Cab Company. The formula here seems to be: create an extraordinarily off-beat bunch of characters, cast these characters with an equally off-beat bunch of actors – throw it all in the hopper, and, with clever scripting and direction, hope for the best. And the best is exactly what happens. The employees of the Sunshine Cab Company are a motley crew, including frustrated actor Bobby (Jeff Conaway), struggling boxer Tony (Tony Danza), art gallery receptionist Elaine (Marilu Henner), and tyrannical dispatcher Louie (Danny DeVito). For almost everyone, the cab company is just a temporary job that can be left behind when they make it in their chosen professions. The hardened core of the company is disillusioned Alex (Judd Hirsch), who’s sure he will be driving a cab for the rest of his life. Burned-out ex-hippie minister Reverend Jim (Chistopher Lloyd) and mechanic Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman) to round out the group. I don’t think there has ever been a funnier character on television than Danny DeVito’s devilishly despotic Louie. James L. Brooks’s formula worked to a tee, delivering six seasons of delicious nonsense.
© 2015 Shaun Costello
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August 3, 2015
Congressman Thomas J. Rooney
226 Taylor Street – Suite 230
Punta Gorda, Florida 33950
Dear Congressman Rooney,
I am a 71 year old Veteran who, until recently, was homeless. Through the interdiction of your office in Punta Gorda, and the help of organizations like Jewish Family and Children’s Services, The Punta Gorda Veterans Village, and the VA’s Hud/Vash program, I have been able to find permanent and affordable housing. When confronted by demands from the HUD office, to provide documentation from the IRS that was impossible for me to obtain, I turned to your office in Punta Gorda for help. I was graciously received by your staff, who gave that help with enthusiasm and dispatch. Within 48 hours, and with the help of a Congressional liaison named Linda Berkman, I received the necessary documentation in the mail. This is supposed to be the way America works, but all too often, does not. I am grateful to your staff for their assistance, and for the gracious demeanor with which that assistance was given.
During my months of homelessness, I was exposed to the system, on many levels – good and bad, through which homeless Veterans struggle to navigate, with the hope of eventually finding permanent and affordable housing. From the VA’s Medical Center in Bay Pines, to local transitional housing situations like Stillwater House in Port Charlotte, and the Punta Gorda Veteran’s Village, run by the Volunteers of America; and the VA’s Hud/Vash program, I have lived through it, and thought it my responsibility to share my experiences, both positive and negative, with your office. The positive aspects of my transition from homeless Veteran to affordably housed Veteran should be applauded; and the negative aspects, so desperately in need of fixing, need to be fixed. The plight of the homeless Veterans has become a media-intensive issue in America, and it seems only right and just to bring my own experiences to the attention of my Congressman, particularly since that Congressman’s office had been so helpful to me.
So, here is an outline of my journey, good and bad, from homeless to affordably housed. But first, let me preface this description by explaining that homelessness has been on my horizon for the last two years. Because, for most of my life, I was self employed, my Social Security stipend is quite small, and impossible to live on. Supplemental income that had enabled me to pay my monthly bills dried up, leaving me with a deficit at the end of each month, and I was aware that those months had become numbered. During the past few years I have sought the help of many VA representatives who have given no help whatsoever. Prevention of homelessness seemed to have no place in the VA’s agenda, while chronic homelessness was a different matter. I saw a man named David Donohew on three separate occasions. He ran the Veterans Office at Charlotte County Human Services. Donohew seemed like an affable and friendly guy, but each time I saw him he told me the same thing, “Come back and see me when you’ve been homeless for one year. Then I can help you.” This made no sense to me. By not preventing homelessness, the VA was exacerbating the situation. I needed to get into the VA’s system, in order to profit by it. And so I did.
On April 14 of this year, then officially a homeless person, I checked myself into the Psychiatric Unit at the VA’s Medical Center in Bay Pines Florida. I would spend nine days in this facility. The staff, from top to bottom, seemed experienced and capable. I saw a psychiatrist and a social worker every day I was there. They were goal oriented and the goal, in my case, was finding permanent, affordable housing. Most of the patients suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, or combat related conditions like PTSD. I suffered from none of these problems. I just needed an affordable place to live.
The psychiatrist was eager and focused on getting me into some kind of transitional housing so that I could resume my life. The social worker was enthusiastic but inexperienced, so that she needed constant back up for any questions or problems. She wanted to help me find housing, but had no real world knowledge of what that housing would be. The nursing staff, without exception, were attentive, and caring. There were Veterans at this facility with serious problems and they seemed to be getting serious care. Two days before I was discharged, the social worker told me that she had found me transitional housing in Port Charlotte, where I had lived for the last ten years. This seemed like good news. The problem was that the social worker had never visited any of the facilities she was to recommend, so she relied on the opinions of the people who managed them. I was to go to Stillwater House, a transitional housing facility subsidized by the VA, and live there while I attempted to find permanent, affordable housing. I was excited at the prospect, having listened to the glowing description of the place from the eager but inexperienced social worker. I was told that my all-inclusive rent would be $300, which seemed reasonable enough.
On April 23rd I was discharged from the Bay Pines facility and headed south to Port Charlotte. I arrived at Stillwater House about Noon that day. It was a small, two story building located in the center of Port Charlote, close to the library, the Cultural Center, and the local hospitals. I was greeted by a woman named Trish (I never knew her last name) who showed me a few of the available rooms. I was stunned. The rooms were tiny, dirty, and decrepit. Trish then announced that I needed to give her a rent check for the $500. I was to pay each month. I was horrified. I immediately got on the phone with the social worker at Bay Pines, who had bought Trish’s glowing description of her venue, and told her the reality of this place, and the $500. that Trish was trying extort from me for rent. She called back, giving me the name and phone number of Gilbert English, who she claimed would be able to help me. She also told me that the rent would be $300. and to pay no more. I chose the least offensive room, gave Trish a check for the pro-rated portion of the month’s rent, and got on the phone with Gilbert English. He seemed friendly, and told me he would meet me an hour later at the Coalition for the Homeless in Port Charlotte.
Gilbert English turned out to be my salvation. I spent about an hour with him, during which time he gave me several names and phone numbers, and the order in which I should call them. For any homeless Veteran who might wind up reading this document, and who lives in this part of Florida, Gilbert English is the man to see. His number can be found through any VA social worker. The first person on Gilbert’s list that I called was Michelle Hammond at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, a well funded, Veteran-friendly organization that Gilbert said could provide help. The second was a man named Tom Yanoti, who worked at Punta Gorda Veteran’s Village, a transitional housing facility. I spent an hour with Michelle the next afternoon, providing her with personal information, and making a list of the documentation that would be necessary for me to provide in order to receive their help. I then stopped by Tom’s office and got on the waiting list for space at Veteran’s Village.
For the next three and a half weeks I would live at Stillwater House, while every day setting up and going to appointments with the objective of obtaining affordable permanent housing. At 8AM on the day following my appointment with Gilbert English my phone rang. It was Gilbert, checking up on whether I had called the numbers he had given me. He was pleased to find that I had two appointments already, and rewarded me by letting me know that he had given my name to the Hud/Vash office in Bay Pines in order to get me into the Hud/Vash System. This was good news since Hud/Vash was the portal to a Hud voucher, which would enable me to obtain affordable housing. Gilbert is a relentless advocate for his Veterans.
Life at Stillwater house could best be described as problematic. Stillwater House exists under the corporate umbrella of Renaissance Manor, both being non-profits that are federally subsidized in order to provide low cost housing and care for those in need, primarily Veterans. As at the psychiatric unit at Bay Pines, most of the Veterans at Stillwater House are substance abusers, or have serious psychiatric problems requiring care. Unfortunately, at Stillwater House, care is the very last thing they receive. Not once, in the three and a half weeks I lived there, did I see the presence of a single medical professional of any kind. The facility is completely unsupervised. This is tragic because most of the men who live there are in need of psychiatric counseling. Instead of providing care for its residents, Stillwater House appears to be a storage venue, where needy Veterans are shelved and forgotten.
My first week there, one of the Veterans told me that I had mail, which could be found on a table in the lobby. It was one of those super strong plastic envelopes that the VA uses to ship pharmaceuticals, impossible to open without a knife or scissors. When I picked it up I noticed that it had been cut open. Every Vet knows these containers, and that they contain prescription drugs. Someone, one of the many substance abusing residents, had sliced it open hoping to find recreational drugs. None of my prescriptions fit that description, so nothing was missing, but I was disturbed that someone had violated my mail.
I waited a few days, giving myself time to think it over, and decided that it should be reported. I called Trish at Renaissance Manor. I told her that something disturbing had happened and that I would like to discuss it with her in person. She demanded to know the nature of the event, but I insisted that it was not a matter for telephone discussion. She said that she was quite busy and couldn’t see me. I then called her boss, a man named Todd Abbott. He was not in and I left several messages on his voicemail. The next day, I assume because Todd Abbott told her of my calls, Trish called me and told me to come to her office at Renaissance manor in Punta Gorda. When I told her of the opened mail, she was defensive, dismissive and adversarial. She seemed angered that I was reporting a problem, almost as though by reporting it, I was creating it. It seemed that Stillwater House was a mess that she did not want to deal with. Later that day Todd Abbott called me and had basically the same attitude. Problems at Stillwater House? Ridiculous. Abbott made some vague suggestion that he would do something about it, but of course, never did. So the Veterans at Stillwater House, many of whom were in need of counseling and care, continued on without it, shelved and forgotten, victims of a corrupt bureaucracy, and the laziness of management. There were many incidents during my stay at Stillwater House that were a result of behavioral problems exhibited by needy Veterans, too many to mention here. Stillwater House, in my opinion, should either be closed, or placed under new management. These men need care.
During the next few weeks I was relentless with Tom Yanoti, stopping by his office every other day, reminding him that I was his next best tenant. Veteran’s Village appeared to be a well run facility, and I desperately wanted to move there. I quickly moved up on the waiting list, and moved into apartment 221 on May 18th. The next day I sent an invoice to Todd Abbott at Renaissance Manor, asking for a refund of the rent I had paid for the month of May, which I had paid in full on May 1st. My request was for that pro-rated portion of the month (13 days) that I was not in residence, having moved to Veteran’s Village on May 18th. It is now August and I have sent Todd Abbott three invoices, with cc’s to his boss Scott Eller. They have gone unanswered. So, the management of Stillwater House are not only abusers of Veterans in their care, but are deadbeats as well. Why am I not surprised.
Punta Gorda Veteran’s Village would become my home for the next month, and was an altogether different kind of facility. Located on Taylor Street in Punta Gorda, the Veteran’s Village takes up four two story buildings and houses up to forty Veterans. It even has a swimming pool. Like Stillwater House, Veteran’s Village houses many Veterans with drug and alcohol problems and psychiatric disorders. But unlike Strillwater house, here the Veterans are offered the care they need. The manager is Kerrie Wilson, who has a difficult and sometimes thankless job to do, and does it well. Homeless Veterans can be a disgruntled and difficult group, who can, and sometimes do, lash out at those who are trying to help them. During my time there I saw Kerrie fall victim to much undeserved criticism from Veterans she was trying to help. I found her to be a caring, even loving overseer of a difficult bunch. Two days a week Kerrie receives help from Linda Briggle, a small woman with enormous energy, who, when confronted with a problem, simply rolls up her sleeves and attacks it. One day a week Kerrie and Linda are joined by Barbara Sousa, whose official title is: Grant Per Diem Liason/VA Homeless Program. (Liaison is misspelled on her card) Barbara acts as liaison between the Village and the VA. She is knowledgeable, and offers Veterans help navigating their way through the sometimes complicated maze of the VA bureaucracy. I will be forever grateful to these people for the help they gave me and the care they showed me at a time when I needed both.
At Jewish Family and Children’s Services I was turned over to a woman named Mindy Saldana, who would become my case worker. Mindy is a tireless and caring advocate for those in her charge. During the following month, JFCS would pay almost a thousand dollars to have my car repaired, purchase a new bed for the apartment I would eventually obtain through Hud/Vash, pay the security deposit on that apartment, as well as deposits for utilities, and supply my new apartment with many household items. JFCS, an organization I previously was unaware of, would become an integral component in my return from homelessness to a normal life.
Obtaining a HUD voucher should be the goal of any homeless Veteran who is serious about permanent housing. Navigating the VA’s Hud/Vash system is not without its difficulties, but if you are resourceful and determined, it can provide a homeless Veteran with the road to affordable housing. My Vash case worker was new at his job, so I took it upon myself to make sure that the HUD people were provided with the enormous amount of documentation they require in order to qualify for their help. The Vash personnel are the VA’s liaison to HUD, which holds the purse strings for housing. HUD has the power, and power corrupts, so I found the HUD people a bit arrogant to deal with. They hold all the cards and they know it. My advice to any Veteran going through this process is to remain patient, but to be determined and persistent. Do not wait for anyone to do anything for you – do it yourself.
After several interviews with HUD personnel, during which I had to provide, in my opinion, a ridiculous amount of documentation, I was granted a HUD voucher. It was now up to me to go out into the community and find available housing that my HUD voucher would pay for. This was no easy task. The voucher is County specific. I live in Charlotte County where the availability of affordable housing is quite limited. I was able to obtain lists of apartment complexes that were Hud-friendly and got on many waiting lists. The HUD voucher has time constraints. You have three months from the date the voucher is issued, to obtain appropriate housing. If you do not, then the voucher becomes invalid. So I pounded the pavement in search of an appropriate apartment. By sheer luck, I wound up at the Charleston Cay apartment complex in Punta Gorda. The manager Keith Livermore, told me that there was a six month waiting list, and asked if I was a Veteran. When I answered yes, he told me that Veterans go to the front of the list. Within two weeks I had a two bedroom apartment. I moved in to the Charleston Cay complex on July 25th.
My journey, from checking myself into the VA’s psychiatric facility at Bay Pines, to moving into my new apartment took three and a half months. I had to navigate my way through the mine fields of bureaucratic obstacles that lay waiting for any pilgrim who undertakes this process. I received so much help along the way from friends, family, and the organizations I have mentioned here, for which I shall be forever grateful. To any homeless Veteran reading this epistle, who wishes to undertake the same journey, I would give this advice: You’ve got to want it to make it happen. Do not get discouraged. It’s not easy. Stay the course. You’ve got to be determined and persistent. Do not take no for an answer. If I could do this, so can you.
I send this chronicle to you Congressman Rooney, with the hope that your good office can take the lead in Congress to eliminate the problem of homeless Veterans in America. I hope that becoming aware of my personal journey, will inspire you to take action. To help and federally fund those organizations that are so helpful to homeless Veterans like; Jewish Family and Children’s Services, The Punta Gorda Veterans Village, and so many others. And to defund and close down facilities like Stillwater House, a storage venue for Veterans in need, who are ignored and forgotten while in residence.
I hope that you find this information useful.
For purpose of disclosure, I should inform you that it is my intention to post this letter on my Blog: shauncostello.com
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I finally got around to watching Angelina Jolie’s film of Laura Hillenbrand’s extraordinary book UNBROKEN. Jolie certainly enlisted the “A” Team, in terms of support. Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the screenplay. Roger Deakins’ cinematography was dazzling, as usual. All the production’s department heads were the best that money could buy. Why then, does this film lack the luster of the book? I found the film to be flat and impersonal – even criminally imitative at times. The fault here lies with the inexperienced director. She painted a pretty picture, but told a mediocre story. The plot is fractured, and the pace listless. While reading the book, I can remember wanting to jump up and cheer for its intrepid hero Louie Zamperini. In Jolie’s movie, there seems to be little to cheer about. Unlike the book, the film seems so purposeful, that its purposefulness is a distraction. The film can’t get out of its own way. It tries so hard to make some kind of statement that the purpose for that statement is lost. It almost seems like the neophyte director was in such awe (who wouldn’t be?) of her creative team, that she forgot she was in charge of them. Good story telling cannot be staffed out – it need’s one sure hand to guide the ship.
Hillenbrand has written two brilliantly constructed and extraordinarily successful historical sagas, both of which were produced as motion pictures – Let’s take a look:
Ross, who wrote his own screenplay, did not seem intimidated by the enormous success of his source material – he seemed to embrace it. This was not just a story about a horse, but a historical tapestry of four broken souls, drawn together in heroic triumph within the intimidating shadow of America’s Great Depression. Ross’s first brilliant move was to hire the reassuring and America-friendly voice of historian David McCullough to do the narration. From the first sentence of voice over, the audience was aware that this was not just a race track movie, but a slice of Americana beautifully delivered by Ross, who seemed to understand the importance of Hillenbrand’s steady plot construction, and, for the most part, followed it.
I found Jolie’s Unbroken to be a gorgeous mess. Perhaps, had I not fallen in love with Hillenbrand’s book, I could have absorbed the film more objectively. Unlike Gary Ross’s movie of Seabiscuit, Jolie seemed so in awe of her source material that she forgot to follow it. Her movie, while beautiful to watch, feels uneven in its construction. There was a cleanliness to the art direction that seemed gritless and laundered. From the interior of the bomber, to the Olympic Stadium in Berlin without a single swastika flag displayed, to the life raft, to the prison camp – it all seemed just too tidy, too digitized. Like a visit to the present-day Auschwitz, which has been
turned into manicured park, clean and lovely to look at; while walking through it, it becomes difficult to imagine the horrors that took place there in 1944. Both Seabiscuit and Unbroken are period stories that took place in easily recognizable slices of recent history. Ross used period gimmickry to his advantage, from McCullough’s familiar and reassuring voice, to Bill Macy’s hilarious radio announcer. Jolie’s images did not give me an authentic feel, which is absolutely necessary to support a period story.
And the prison camp – What could she possibly have been thinking in trying to imitate the character relationship between Alec Guiness and Sessue Hayakawa in David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai. The relationship between Louie Zamperini and his camp commandant bore little resemblance, in Hillenbrand’s book, to the characters in Lean’s classic film. And just whose idea was it to duplicate, almost exactly, several very recognizable shots from the Kwai film? Homage or copy-cat culture? The Coen brothers are notorious for taking an element from one of their favorite old films and cleverly reworking it into a amusing visual shard in one of their movies. But the duplication of cinematographer John Hildyard’s photographic composition on the Kwai film is not clever, it is simply imitative and distracting. Make your own film, not someone else’s.
The intrepid and triumphant Louie Zamperini’s character is played with skill by actor Jack O’Connell, but the performance seems to lack cohesion, and in some scenes believability. Zamperini carrying the log (see the poster) is presented visually far too much like the doomed Jesus carrying the cross to Golgotha. Again, a silly, almost embarrassing distraction.
Jolie’s Unbroken is nothing to be ashamed of, but this material in the hands of a seasoned story teller like Peter Weir, could have yielded something memorable. One can only hope that, if she wishes to continue directing, Angelina Jolie understands the mistakes she made here, and learns from them. Directors who are in awe of their source material (see Sidney Pollack and Out of Africa) never deliver what they could have, had they been confident and comfortable translating the book to the screen.
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WILD ABOUT HARRY
A friend who knew him well remembers HARRY REEMS
by Shaun Costello
The reviews are coming in:
By Geert Claeys on June 7, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
My earliest memory of Golden Age hardcore he-man Harry Reems stems from somewhere back in the still budding Eighties. Our (Belgian) household was still a few years removed from acquiring its first VCR, mighty pricey back in the day, but the local video store would offer cumbersome play-only devices described as “movie boxes” (anyone else remember those contraptions ?) for an affordable weekend rental, throwing in a couple of complimentary tapes as part of the deal. As with any VHS renter, one of the flicks I picked was of an adult nature, in my case the 1974 carnal classic
Sometime Sweet Susan. So it came to pass that my mom (!!!) and I – aged about 15 or 16 at the time – sat down on a Saturday night to sample our first flavor of in-house intimate entertainment. Mom, God rest her weary soul, was a desperate housewife well before TV made the term fashionable, possessed of a tiger’s temperament trapped in the starting to sag shell of a stay at home spouse and mother of eleven, eight sons versus three daughters. The bloom of youth prematurely trampled by daily drudgery, Lord knows she could stand a salacious vicarious thrill to help her make it through the night. Turned out titular Susan, the pic’s perky protagonist, was a particularly troubled young lady with a split personality (the proverbial good girl/bad girl) in dire need of psychiatric support. Enter Harry Reems as the Good Doctor (I didn’t see Deep Throat until several years after) rushing in aid of our ailing heroine. I swear you could have heard both mom and me gasp at his first appearance. Although an amiable actor, certainly by adult standards (a frame of reference I was still unfamiliar with at the time), it was his look that did it for us. Yes, we really were that shallow ! A fine torso with magnificent muscle definition, yet light years removed from the pumped physique of the next decade’s gym bunnies, covered with a thick layer of fur as our favorite tell-tale trademark of virility. Mom liked ‘em hirsute and, then still unbeknownst to her, so did the youngest of her boys… The Sixties’ sexual
revolution had produced an unprecedented permissiveness on worldwide cinema screens by the time strapping young Herbert Streicher, a nice Jewish kid from Brooklyn, figured these newfangled fornication flicks were a great way to make ends meet while waiting for his big break in thespian territory. The ultimately short-lived “Porno Chic” phenomenon took sex films out of their storefront ghetto and moved them into fancy first run theaters. For a brief shining moment, it seemed as if carnal cinema had come of age and had permanently taken up residence in the major league to the approval of adventurous audiences everywhere. In such climate, illusory though it was to prove, it was not unthinkable for a struggling actor to seriously consider the option of taking it off and putting it in for pictorial posterity without a care as to how or whether this might affect his future chances. After all, he wasn’t doing anything that didn’t come naturally to most people. At worst, should fornication films prove but a fleeting fad, they would probably sink without a trace leaving no one the wiser, right ? Unfortunately for Herb, who had been trying on professional monikers with “Tim Long” the most persistent until “Harry Reems” finally stuck, an unassuming little XXX flick was to decide otherwise… Gerard Damiano’s groundbreaking Deep Throat and its legal hassles that were to kill off the legit careers of all involved, headed by Reems serving as primary scapegoat, have been extensively covered by Bailey and Barbato’s essential 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat. Shaun Costello, a fellow performer from the industry’s infancy who would graduate to feature filmmaking while upholding an astonishing “Real World” front, was there at crucial junctures in Harry’s life. Now he lifts the veil on the man whose very image was to become synonymous with the prototypical Seventies porno stud : a lean mean fornicatin’ machine with the trademark
handlebar mustache. A close buddy and ally since their days in the trenches, Costello chronologically charts the rise and fall of the reluctant adult industry icon in an instantly ingratiating, flab-free style giving you the how’s and why’s without resorting to amateur analysis or purple prose. Which is not to say that he merely records the bad boy shenanigans he shared with his subject, as evidenced by an astonishingly astute account of an acid trip that reads like something akin to Beat poetry. Carnal cognoscenti are well aware that Reems starred in Costello’s fledgling filmmaking effort, the sexually explicit Vietnam vet on a rampage flick Forced Entry, and the exhaustive chapter on that film’s genesis alone provides enough reason to pick up a copy of the book. Already associated with congenially comedic capers through Throat and other farces of its ilk taking their cues from burlesque theater, the actor gave one of his most atypical performances as the deeply disturbed gas station attendant whose twisted views on morality
(punishing women for making themselves sexually available to all and sundry) blow up in his face when the tables are turned in deliciously ironic fashion. Although Reems was to subsequently feign shock at the movie’s heady mix of real sex and phoney violence in his 1975 autobiography Here Comes Harry Reems !, it remains one of his standout achievements, providing a strong glimpse of what might have been had mainstream movies embraced rather than rebuffed him. Costello chronicles Reems’s fall from grace in harrowing detail, deftly side-stepping sensationalism at every turn. The actor’s own words quoted from various credited sources paper over the periods when the longtime pals’ paths would diverge. Their fleeting reunion towards decade’s end, when Costello was on his way up with bigger budgets allowing for more ambitious endeavors (the “Warren Evans” era, for those in the know) and Reems was fighting an ever escalating alcohol addiction in order to cope with the mounting frustration over his erotic entrapment, yields one of the book’s most poignant passages guaranteed to break a reader’s heart. Had the author ended right there and then, he would have wound up with one hell of a cautionary tale. Thankfully, life rarely comes as cut ’n dried as your average Movie of the Week would have it and Harry Reems ultimately did have a “life after porn”, finding both God and true love as well as widespread acceptance by his small town community in the unexpectedly enlightened State of Utah. Of all the lavish illustrations, mostly candid movie stills and eye-popping poster art, one stands out in particular. It’s a teeny tiny snap shot of Harry and his wife Jeannie Sterrett at the Inside Deep Throat premiere. Even the usually unsentimental Costello goes on record to concede that this apparently unassuming lady did nothing less than save his life. Moving back to where I started from, my mom never wished ill on anybody, not anybody who didn’t deserve it anyway, certainly no past or present object of her cinematic affection, secret sex fantasies or whatever the case may have been. Knowing her as well as I did, I’ve got a pretty good hunch she would have been tickled pink to learn that this lovely hunk o’man who stirred her loins many decades ago finally found happiness and got to lead a good life before his untimely passing at the age of 65. Makes me kinda happy as well, truth be told… Dries Vermeulen a/k/a the former (and future ?) Dirty Movie Devotee temporarily trapped in Limbo
“Shaun Costello has written as beautiful a tribute as anyone could imagine. A fantastic evocation of a time, of a place and – most of all – of a friendship.”
by Julian Marsh on June 1, 2015
From The Erotic Film Society in London
For such a prolific director – at least 66 films between 1973 and 1984 – Shaun Costello remained one of the New York XXX scene’s best kept secrets for many years. One reason is the number of noms-de-porn he worked under. He made more than his fair share of films that are now recognized as classics but not always under the same name – he was ‘Kenneth Schwartz’ for FIONA ON FIRE but ‘Warren Evans’ for DRACULA EXOTICA, for example – and this prevented him from getting due recognition until relatively recently. For notorious roughies FORCED ENTRY and WATERPOWER, he was ‘Helmuth Richler’ but ‘Amanda Barton’ made the sensitive PASSIONS OF CAROL. At Avon Productions he was ‘Russ Carlson’ and for a while he was even ‘Oscar Tripe’; plus there were numerous uncredited one-day-wonders.
In ONLY THE BEST, published at the dawn of the video era, critic Jim Holliday indicated that one person was behind some of these pseudonyms; but pre-internet it was pretty much impossible for even dedicated pornologists to crack the Costello code.
With the advent of the web, the IMDb and IAFD and dedicated discussion forums where smut-hounds could compare what they’d discovered, facts began to surface.
Then something occurred that every film historian dreams about; Shaun Costello himself joined the forums. He posted on IMDb. He corrected. He clarified…
And suddenly his incredible career came into sharp focus. Not just those 66 films that he helmed but around the same number of appearances from 1971 to ’89 – and that doesn’t include loops – plus at least 50 films he produced and a similar number of writing credits. It’s a wonder he ever found time to sleep.
On the evidence of WILD ABOUT HARRY, his by turns hilarious and moving memoir about his friendship with Harry Reems, during the pre-DEEP THROAT days of Big Apple hard-core, sleep was often the last thing on his mind. Whether he was editing into the early hours – the only way he could afford post-production facilities – or heroically carousing with his buddies – ‘the Three Musketeers of 42nd Street’ – those years in the late 60s and early 70s seem to have been one madcap adventure, where anything was possible.
A voracious film fan, from art-house masters to grindhouse smut, Shaun absorbed everything. He fell into the pornographic loops business by happy accident, just as they were on the borderline of becoming legal, or at least tolerated, in the adult bookstores of the Deuce.
And he was there when a handsome, young, legit actor – still known by his birth name, Herb Streicher – made his debut in an explicit 8mm film destined for ‘under the counter’ sales.
(Assumed names were cast aside faster than underwear: Herb wouldn’t settle on Harry Reems for a couple of years, after he’d tried on ‘Tim Long’ among other aliases.)
It wasn’t just the start of a professional relationship – Shaun cast Herb/Harry as a disturbed Vietnam Vet in FORCED ENTRY, his first feature as director – it was the beginning of a deep friendship.
And now Shaun has published this memoir of those heady days – and that double entendre is very much intended – as a tribute to his buddy, who passed away in March of this year. Anyone who knows the recipe for Automat Soup (a container of ketchup and hot water, if you’re asking – gourmets break some gratis crackers on top to simulate croutons) will probably already have a copy.
But what if you’re not a dedicated devotee of the Deuce and are wondering whether to purchase? Or what if you – horror – have to ask, ‘What’s the Deuce’? Well, let Mr Costello explain…
‘The Times Square subway station, my portal to the neighborhood, was an intense assault on the senses. A sudden, almost overwhelming surge of smells and filth hit you as the train doors slid open to the rush of urine, and cotton candy, and damp humanity, and hot dogs on their revolving spits, and vomit, and baked goods like crumb cakes and bran muffins and pretzels, and the garlicky pungent scent of Gyros slowly rotating, and everything suddenly interrupted by someone chasing a pick-pocket through outstretched hands asking for dimes, and a tidal swarm of the disenfranchised huddled in groups, trying to stay warm. And this entire sensory phantasmagoria was musically scored by the overmodulated sound of Kool and the Gang wailing “Jungle Boogie” from the cheap speakers over the door to the subterranean record store. And then the cold again as you climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was, “The Deuce”.’ (from WILD ABOUT HARRY © 2015 Shaun Costello)
From this vivid evocation of arriving at 42nd Street, you should immediately have discerned that our guide to all this decadence has a very neat turn of phrase indeed, which he puts to fine effect throughout the book. It’s prose that encapsulates the sights, the sounds, the smells, the animal excitement of the city – and the only reason not to enjoy it is that it makes you break down and cry, lamenting the passing of such delightful debauchery. ‘Delightful debauchery’? Well, yes. Shaun Costello is aware of the oxymoron. On the one hand, he’s a cultured chap, dating a wealthy heiress. On the other, he’s working his way up the porn ladder. And he’s having fun all the way, along with his lifelong friend Jimmy and – of course – Harry, who is seemingly ever ready for an adventure.
Such as one hallucinogen-fuelled romp which takes them from Times Square to the East Side via various apartments whose inhabitants are woken at unearthly hours, before disgorging them on a pitch-and-putt golf course by the beach… all described with a panache that matches Hunter S Thompson’s knack for conveying altered reality.
When DEEP THROAT made Harry a porno chic superstar, his world suddenly became a round of press and promotion and personal appearances, followed equally swiftly by the traumas of the authorities’ attempts to prosecute him for merely appearing in the film. During this period, Shaun lost contact with his buddy, so he has to rely on the interviews that Harry made when he reappeared from anonymity (he’d become a real estate salesman in Colorado) in the wake of the documentary INSIDE DEEP THROAT, to describe what happened.
Initially I was worried that this could turn into a cut and paste job, but Costello has chosen and edited the quotes with great sensitivity. It’s rather like that moment in a jazz number, when the star soloist comes forward. We’ve enjoyed Shaun talking about his friend and now we get hear Harry’s own voice. And what a lovely voice it is, especially talking about his conversion to Christianity and the spiritual belief that saved him from alcoholism (with the aid of a 12 step programme). This sort of tale could so easily be preachy. And how often have former porners turned on the business, their former friends, their whole past life, when they found God?
But Harry – or Herb – was clearly such a sweet guy – and his story of salvation comes over as so genuine – that even if you don’t believe yourself, you can’t help but feel glad that he found that faith because it saved his life.
And then there’s a coda: a meeting years later; a final phone call. It’s deeply touching and heartfelt. Shaun Costello has written as beautiful a tribute as anyone could imagine.
Any quibbles? Just one. I was left ravenous for more of Shaun’s own autobiography. From his contributions to various forums, I know he has great tales to tell and that he tells them in an exceptionally entertaining manner. I hope that further memoirs will be forthcoming from this fine raconteur, drawing on about his raunchy history.
But that is not the aim of WILD ABOUT HARRY. It’s not a long book but it’s an intensely warm and wonderful one. A fantastic evocation or a time, of a place and – most of all – of a friendship.
The Erotic Film Society
By Robin Bougie on June 1, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
Very worthwhile look at the life and times of 1970s and 80s porn performer, Harry Reems by director Shaun Costello. If you’ve read any number of Shaun’s elaborate blog posts about his experiences working in adult films back in the day, you know that he’s got a flair for storytelling — crafting very readable tales from his memories of being in the XXX trenches. The man has lived some crazy stuff amongst some amazing personalities, and lived to tell the tale! Here, he focuses on his intimate run-ins, on-set adventures, and informed opinions with and about Mr Reems — the famous co-star of Linda Lovelace in DEEP THROAT. There are some good photos and such as well, but the real draw here is the text. The story about the making of the infamous “roughie” porno FORCED ENTRY alone is worth the price of admission. A real “must” for those who have an interest in vintage adult filmmaking, and for those who want to know more.
By Jeff Eagle on June 1, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
Shaun Costello’s story about Harry Reems had me at page one. Even if you didn’t know Harry you will feel as if you did. Shaun crafts a memoir that brings the Golden Age of adult films to an outrageous and hilarious story between two friends and the deliciously demented people they ran with. The stories are so well written you will feel as if you were there… or wish you were. It’s a great read about some great guys in a great era. You won’t be able to put it down.
By Elizabeth Main on May 29, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
I was so happy to come across this book, I loved it. A time and place that only the writer could bring to life the way he did. Completely held my interest with every word. I love the way the writer explained their relationship along with the character development. A real page turner, great fun summer read, could not put it down.
More reviews will be added as they appear on Amazon.
HERE IS A LINK TO THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE:
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HE WAS A DECADE’S DARLING….AND ITS VICTIM
FINALLY AVAILABLE WORLDWIDE
WILD ABOUT HARRY
A Friend who knew him well remembers HARRY REEMS
by Shaun Costello
He was born Herbert Streicher, on August 27, 1947 to a Jewish family in Brooklyn – and died Harry Reems, on March 19, 2013, a converted Christian, at a VA Hospice in Salt Lake City, Utah. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer. Herb and Harry. A dichotomy he leaves behind for the rest of us to puzzle over. As Herb he was a son, a brother, A Bar Mitzvah boy, a High School track star, a student, a Marine, an aspiring actor, and a loyal and generous friend. As Harry he was a porn icon, and international celebrity, a darling of the TV talk show circuit, a victim of judicial overreach, a convicted felon, a finally-absolved and victorious defendant, a drunk, a drug addict, a 12 step champion, a converted Christian, a successful real estate executive, a scratch golfer, a semi-pro skier, a loving husband, and, at long last, a happy man.
Before the media circus that surrounded the exhibition, and subsequent prosecution of the movie known as Deep throat, Herb was a good friend of mine. This book is a personal remembrance of an old friend, and the only actor ever prosecuted by the United States Justice Department for simply doing his job. I’m quite happy with the way this story turned out, and I’m quite certain that Herb would feel the same.
I have included almost a hundred color and black and white photographs of Harry Reems, and of Times Square in its pre-clean up days during the 1970’s.
This book is a love letter to an old and dear friend, and to the era and environment that spawned his legend.
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The picture story of one man’s triumph over
the juggernaut of the Japanese Empire’s military
machine during World War II
by Shaun Costello
This story was written in 1994 while I was recuperating at my sister’s house in East Hampton.
The writing style is rough and pathetically stylistic. I had not yet learned to write, so please forgive
attempts at cuteness and all of the spelling and grammatical mistakes. I wrote this longhand and
typed it on my sister’s portable Olivetti. Rough indeed, but I think it’s an important story because it
documents the illness from which I never fully recovered, and which ended my career as a film
director. If any of you ever wondered how, after all the success I experienced, I wound up broke,
the answer is in this story.
The illness that ended my career
by Shaun Costello
This is a link to the film WRITING FOR TIME
I first visited Time Inc., as it then was, in the Spring of ’88. I met
Kelly Knauer, Claudia Brown, and some others. They seemed very enthusiastic
about what I showed them. I had developed a technique, not quite
perfected, for using small format video and manipulating the molecules
until the picture had an urgent, exciting look. Kelly kept me in his office
most of the afternoon and introduced me to several Time Inkers, all of
whom seemed thrilled about my work. Kelly has no project now, but as soon
as he does hey, sounds good to me.
Meanwhile the advertising world discovers my “look” and I become sort of
popular. Do some work, make some money.
Although busy, I keep Time Inc. on my ” every two months you get a call
whether you need it or not” list. After many phone calls, in the summer
of ’90, Claudia Brown tells me about this guy, Peter Viola, whose got a
video project. So I call. So I visit.
He likes my stuff, but he’s nervous. He wants to know about 8mm video and
why I like to use it. So I make my “small format video speech”. Something
he’s heard countless times since, ad nauseum I’m afraid. But hey, I’m
I tell him about the smallness, the lightness of the camera. How I can hold
it for long periods of time, waiting for a shot to happen. How the camera
doesn’t intimidate people, so you can get past the natural resistance in an
interview a lot faster. How I can let the tape roll, while I wait for a
magic moment t happen. How the smallness of the crew makes for a more
intimate shooting atmosphere. He asks about the cost difference. Good
question. I tell him that money should not be the issue, not the way I
shoot. I tell him that whether he chooses to shoot in 16mm film, Betacam,
or small format video, the issue should not be which costs less, but
instead, which format will capture the images he wants.
I had never used small format video because it was cheaper. I had been
fortunate to work for advertising agencies, as well as corporate clients
who went for the look and feel of what I did as a deciding factor in
hiring me. Not the cost. I got them more, I didn’t cost them less.
So he hires me. But not before I give him the same five answers to five
thousand more questions. “Jesus”, I think to myself, “this guy is really
nervous.” I remember him sitting on a spare desk, in a hallway, outside his
old office on the eleventh floor in the Time-Life building, telling me
“Shaun do you realize that a week from now we could be in Egypt?” EGYPT!??
Christ, I didn’t have a check yet. I couldn’t be in Great Neck.
So, he hires me. Not because I’ll save him money, but because I’ll get him
what he wants. He hires me because I have a passion for what I do. He
hires me because I leave a little bit of myself on every frame I shoot.
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
The cameras are always trying to protect themselves, so you have to constantly
fool them into allowing you to get the shot you want. I can remember Janice
Simpson, a Time reporter, interviewing a man in Brooklyn, who had been
mugged seven times. It was the most I struggled with the small format
technology during this project. The aperture kept shutting down. I kept
fooling it into opening back up. The focus shifted. So, I fooled it into
shifting back. Oops, there goes the aperture again. Meanwhile, what is she
saying? Do her eyes sparkle? Do I believe her? Oops, there goes the
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
I can not look through a lens without trying to make some magic happen. It’s
both my joy and my curse. Magic doesn’t happen by pointing a camera and
turning it on. Magic happens through struggle and sweat and doing battle
with the visual elements involved, until you’ve sorted them out to the point
where they tell the story that you origionally conceived when you first
looked through the lens. I cannot help but go through this process every
time I push the button. This is why I’m so exhausted after I work. This is
why he hired me.
We shoot the job. We travel. We get along. We see things we havn’t seen
before. We have fun. Peter turns out to be a great client, mainly during
the edit. He protects me from the suits. He lets me tell Time Magazine’s
story my way. I look at the footage, like I always do, I struggle with
the story I’m trying to tell, like I always do. .WHERESTHESTORY, WHERESTHESTORY.
Then, I have a dream, like I always do. I see the story in a pattern of
boxes, wake up in the night and write it down. It makes complete sense to
me. I fax it to Peter in the morning. Chuck, Peter’s boss, tells him, “It’s
great, keep him dreaming.”
So, we finish. But not before we have some minor, but typical, corporate
interference from Time execs who wonder, “Why are they breaking new ground
with brilliance, when mediocer but on-time would do just as nicely?”
An exhausted Peter, video cassette tucked under his arm, hops on the plane
for the presentation in Orlando. “Remember Peter, a year from now all this
will be forgotten. But the work, with your name on it, will live forever.”
So, we did it. I look at it today, and it’s still the best promotional video
that I’ve ever seen. Peter knew what he wanted. I was the right choice
for the job. There was enough money in the budget, and enough time to sort
it all out. Bravo, all concerned.
I take a vacation, shoot seme commercials, four months later I get a call
from Chuck. “REDISCOVER AMERICA”, a 30 second TV spot. I work mostly with
Chuck on this one. Peter is doing 10 projects at once and is looking frazzled.
There’s enough money and time, and it seems to go pretty well. The on-camera
interviews are good, but the spokes person sucks. I hate him. I remember
saying to all concerned, after casting, “Anyone but him”. Of course, he’s
their unanimous choice. Oh, well.
I have the usual struggle with the small format cameras. There are a few
interviews I can’t use, one problem or another. But we’re budgeted enough
so that I have plenty to work with. I make video prints of all the interviews
and put them in an order that seems to make sense. Chuck and Peter
cone to the editing room at Vic Losick’s and we put it together. Looks
good. We agree. Chuck asks, “What about that other black guy, the teacher?”
I tell him there was a problem with the shot.
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
We get good feedback from the advertising agency. The finished product looks
good, with the exception of the spokes person with the migrain. Why is it
he looks so right in the Advil spot?
It’s 1991, and I have the best year ever. Win some awards, do a video for
Pace University, and several commercials. DOLLARSDOLLARSDOLLARS
Peter calls me late in the year. We should talk. Chuck does most of the
talking. There are projects in the works but Time-Warner, as it now
is, has installed an in-house, give a child a camcorder, production group.
Their work is dreadful, but the stockholders are saving sheckels so guess
who gets the projects. Chuck says he’s got something he wants to do, but
no money. He uses the FAVOR word. He uses it several times during the
meeting. I figure, “What the hell, these guys have been good to me.”
I tell him I’ll do it, but there’s something about it that bothers me.
Chuck’s got three thousand bucks to do a three or four minute piece. By
the time I buy the stock, pay the crew, and do the transfers, I will be out
a thousand dollars. “But what the hell, these guys have been good to me”.
Of course, I fail to mention that I’ve been good to them. But the money
is not what bothers me. They want to do the edit. MAJOR ANXIETY ALARM.
No client has ever looked at my dailies. EVER. There are so many problems
inherent in the technology that I use that I begin to worry: What if there
aren’t enough shots? What if the miniscule budget doesn’t cover the three
or four days I need to get the material? How will Peter handle the edit,
considering the constant techical fuck ups in the technology: the drop
out, the blanking,etc ?
I remind Peter and Chuck of the origional spiel I gave them, “I don’t use
small format video because it’s cheaper.”. I am very worried about this.
Chuck uses the FAVOR word again and I tell them I’ll do it. But Chuck
knows, and he’s right, that I can’t look through the lens without trying
to make some magic happen. So he figures that I’ll give him something he
can use, even though there is no budget and Peter will be going through the
dailies. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m very worried
We shoot the job. I have Steve Robinson do the transfers because I have a
meeting on another project. Steve has worked for me for four years and
knows the drill, but an odd thing happens. I check in with Steve in the
transfer room late in the day, and he’s watching MTV while transfering video
tape. “How’s the footage?”, I inquire, like he’s even looked at it. I
do not have the budget to go through the material again, and hope that he’s
actually seen some of it; inbetween Michael Jackson and Madonna, of course.
The funny thing is that I’m the one whose losing money here. Steve is
getting his normal day rate, but he’s copping an attitude because there’s
no money in the budget for dinners and such. I’m losing money and he’s
slacking off. I have trouble understanding this.
I see the finished video and I don’t like it, but of course I don’t say much
to Peter and Chuck. It’s slow and the shot selection is not what I would
have made, but what the hell, its a finished product, made for nothing. Peter
and Chuck seem pleased.
There are dark clouds on the horizon now. Time-Warner is not my only client
to install in-house, give a child a camcorder production departments. CBS,
ABC, and my two biggest ad agencies follow suit. Well, it was nice while
it lasted. Suddenly I can’t get any work. My savings begins to disappear.
The shaky economy has caught up with me. Trouble with Inge begins. I am
depressed. Peter calls.
Another little video. Another no money for this project. Another favor.
“But what the hell, these guys have been good to me.”
Even though Steve robinson is getting his day rate (I never asked him to take
less) he begins fucking up the audio in a major way. This has been coming
for a while now. I’d been listening to his whining about his unhappy, unfullfilled
life, and dealing with his ever present arrogance. I’d even had to
endure his flirtations. But now, bad audio. I’m so mad at him that I don’t
pay him for the job. I’m running out of money and I figure if I pay him
I’ll lose $800, but if I don’t pay him I’ll make $1000. So I don’t.
We finish the video and the result is about the same as the first. Peter
and Chuck seem pleased and I hate it. There are some good shots, but the
edit is way off and Peter is beginning to grumble about problems he’s
having with certain shots. Problems with certain shots???? He used to do
this for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Now he’s doing it for five.
He’s lucky he’s not having problems with all the shots.
My personal situation has grown darker. Old clients^have dried up. New
projects are collapsing. Money is scarce. My financial situation has put
a major strain on my relationship with Inge. By late ’92 we are talking
about splitting. Inge has been the one unshakable constant in my life for
the last nine years, and now it seems to be eading. I am unprepared for
severity of the depression I feel. Suicide is now a consideration. But wait
a minute, hold everything. Peter’s on the phone.
Another little video. Another no money for this project. “But what the hell,
these guys have been good to me.”. Wait a minute, where’s the favor part?
Nobody mentions the FAVOR word. Then it comes to me in one of those MARLON
BRANDO APOCALYPSE NOW DIAMOND BULLET IN MY FOREHEAD moments. This is no
longer a favor, it’s a job. The five thousand dollar video has become a way
of life for these guys. This was no longer a “Let’s do this to show the boys
upstairs so we can get money for the big one.”. THIS WAS THE BIG ONE.
Time-Warner, my favorite client had become a charity case. But hey, so was
I. I had finally done what I said I would never do. I was shooting small
format video because it was cheaper. Strangely enough, something else bothered
me even more. Peter and Chuck were both kvetching about their respective
positions at T.W. They were biding their time, they said, until they could
leave and start their own company.
I’m having another DIAMOND BULLET IN MY FOREHEAD moment. These guys were
making these little low budget, no money for this project, do me this favor
videos, while they are drawing salaries from T.W., in order to put together
a sample reel, that I am shooting for them for nothing, so that they can open
a production company in direct competition with me The Scooter
would give this one a thousand “HOLY COWS”. “But what the hell, these guys
have been good to me.”.
I shot Peter’s little video. What the hell else was I going to do. I
replaced Steve with another sound recordist. Steve, by this time was threatening
to sue me for stiffing him on the last video. I was still so angry
that I wouldn’t talk to him. Peter was now complaining about problems with
the footage. Major problems. It seems that the digital processing unit
was blanking more than usual during the transfer process. This had happened
before on both PRIDE AND PASSION and REDISCOVER AMERICA, but I had been
in the editing room to deal with it. Peter could not afford me in the edit
suite now and had instead listened to the editor at EPG, who tried to cover
his ass and gave bogus advice.
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
1993 begins. Horror after horror, until I sink so low that everything is
bottom. Dark, slow, hopeless, filthy, suicidal. Pick your own order of
My health is failing. I’m weak. Cold sweats in the night. Nausea. Diarhea.
Fever. A strange lump on my face that is diagnosed as ingrown facial hair.
My fear, of course, is AIDS. I’m tested. I’m negative. I realize that my
negative AIDS test is the first good news I’ve had in a year.
Blood test results: seems when I was in the middle east I caught Hepatitis,
and developed an antibody to it. Other than that, my illness remains a
mystery. Several projects on which I’m bidding disappear. I start looking
for an apartment. Peter calls.
Another little video. No talk of favors. No talk of no money for this
project. This is simply what he does now. That is; this is what he does
now, while he draws a salary from T.W., in order to put together a sample
reel, that I am shooting for him for nothing, so that he can open a production
company in direct competition with me. YIPES!
This time Peter does a lot of complaining about technical problems that
he’s experiencing lately with my footage. I try to go over his problems
one by one, but he wants to lump them together into one unforgivable pile
of misstakes and call it SLOPPINESS. Not only am I broke and dying, but now
I’m a slob. Hey, whatever turns you on. Of course, I fail to mention cheapness,
or you get what you pay for. Peter once made a video for a hundred
and fifty thousand dollars, and his director was a prince. Now he’s making
them for five, and if there are any technical problems, which invariably
there will be, then his director is a slob. Or am I even a director anymore?
All I know is I’m trying to stay alive, and maybe still try to create a
little magic along the way.
“O.K., when do we start?”
“Not so fast, you slob you, there’s a catch.”
Oh boy, just what I was waiting for. Chuck has sold Entertainment Weekly
Magazine on doing a cheap promotional video, somewhere in the $6500 range.
This budget is to include post production, even though Peter will do the
DANGER WILL ROBINSON
I agree to do it, but it smacks of bad deal. If post production costs,
over which I have no control, go overbudget, thenfunds will have to come
from production costs, from which I’m not making any money anyway.
“But what the hell, these guys have been good to me.”
I move out of the apartment I have shared with Inge for the last six years
into a studio on East 44th street. I suffer depression more intense than I
could ever hope to desribe.
My body goes berserk and throws a seizure, and I 911 to intensive care at
University Hospital. Lots of Doctors. Lots of guessing. No conclusions.
Out in four days, I shoot the E.W. video. Claudio is my new sound man.
He has bad breath, B.O., and no idea what he’s doing. But he works cheap.
Hey, at least he charges accordingly. After the third day of a five day
shoot Claudio wants to know why he hasn’t been paid yet. Poor Claudio.
Of course, no one seems to care that I have not been paid the advance
check as yet, even though we’ve shot three days already and production
cash has had to come out of my pocket. This has been the M.O. for the
last four videos. I don’t get the advance check until the production is
over. In other words I, a slob, have been financing Time Warner, the
largest media conglomerate on earth for the last year. Think about it.
But hey, Claudio wants his money. I enjoy hating Claudio.
The fever episodes are more frequent now. Hospital stays of usually three
days or so. Lots of Doctors. Lots of guessing. No conclusions.
I transfer the E.W. footage and there is a new glitch, something on the
bottom of the frame. Its intermittent. It’s a mystery. Slob stuff,
no doubt. I change cameras. It goes away. It comes back. I call Sony.
I call everybody. Lots of Doctors. Lots of guessing. No conclusions.
Back in the hospital. I’m poked full of holes. TESTSTESTSTESTS
Hospitals, I find out, are a lot like Claudio. They say, “PAY ME”. So I
do something I’ve never done before, I pay the hospital with money that’s
supposed to go to crew and venders. The big rollover. What the hell, if
I’m dead the crew’s not going to get paid anyway. It seemed logical at the
time. I’m now spending so much time sick that illness is becoming familiar.
PAY ME PAY ME
LOTS OF GUESSING
The wolves are at the door now, crew and vender wise, but I stall as best
I can. Peter has an expanded version of the E.W. video to shoot, and even
though he is now totally convinced of my slobdom, he’s got no choice but to
have me shoot it. The new E.W. footage has to be shot quickly, and I am now
on the edge of ambulatory. The daily shooting is a blur now. Hospital
treatments between shooting days. Keep shooting. Keep shooting. Try to
make some magic happen. DOCTORS DOCTORS PAY ME PAY ME.
I’m laying in a pool of fever sweat in the 44th Street apartment. Somehow ,
I’ve got to get it together enough to get to the West Village to cover a
photo shoot for a Puerto Rican comedian named John Leguizamo for E.W.
I do it with 103 degree fever. The footage is great. I get an odd satisfaction
from the fact that I can still make magic happen, even with a 103
The rest of the shooting has faded. The month after we wrap the E.W. is a
dark amalgam of hospital and apartment. Of darkness and stench and weakness
and crying and fever and hopelessness. All the while, in the distance, angry
venders on the phone and DOCTORS DOCTORS PAY ME PAY ME. I had been given
a check by E.W., which of course, I had given to the hospital. The shit will
hit the fan now. But at least there will be a fan.
In the midst of this chaos the lump in my right cheek, which has been diagnosed
by an esteemed dermatologist as ingrown facial hair, begins to rapidly
expand. Too weak from fever to get to the bathroom, I reach for the mirror
next to the bed and view this new chapter in my personal apocalypse.
Small black objects, the size of pencil dots, seemed* to appear through the
pores in the skin covering the lump. They appeared and disappeared again
and again, until I noticed slightly larger objects, that seemed to be moving,
on other parts of my face and arms. Then I felt the movement and the slight
sting, as the objects broke the skin. Tiny insects, which seemed able to
fly short distances, were coming through the skin covering the lump in my
face. I remember hearing the sobs before feeling the tears. All I could
do was cry. I thought I had lost ray mind. I wondered where Inge was.
While I waited for my friends from EMS, I thought about being a child
again. The delicious sensation of protection and nurturing and terry cloth.
FIX ME I’M BROKEN.
I remember looking up from the gurney at the face of the nurse in the E.R.
who was holding her hand over her mouth and gasping “Oh my god”. Ordinarily,
this would be an annoying reaction from a medical professional. But , in
this case, it actually made me feel better. Maybe this was really happening.
Maybe I wasn’t really nuts.
It took a long time to I.D. the bugs. Meanwhile the fever episodes continued.
Oddly, the Doctors do not connect the two. The Doctors seem to be pretending
that the bugs are happening to someone else. Doctors do not deal with bugs.
Doctors deal with fever. Doctors look down at you, with a concerned look
they must go to drama school to perfect, and say, “You seem to have You
seem to have You seem to have ” followed by PAY ME PAY ME.
“Do you think the bugs are connected to the fever?”, I innocently ask my
Physician/thespian/concerned guy. ”Hmmnmmmmm”, he responds, looking more
concerned than ever. Like he really gives a shit, “…what makes you
The tests come back BINGO DIAGNOSIS BUG-A-RAMA
My intestinal and respiratory systems have become a sort of Disneyworld for
Middle Eastern parasytes. It seems I had brought unwanted passengers back
with me from the trip to Egypt I had made with Peter and Steve for Time
Magazine. I had been so careful. Bottled water. Cooked food. No salads.
Maybe it was that Felafel I had eaten with the wife of the Time Bureau Chief
on my last day in Cairo.
My esteemed Physician/thespian/concerned guys swing into action. I’m
I.V.’d like a porcupine and pumped full of poison to eliminate these pesky
critters. It’s like the big round up. “Take em to Missouri, Matt.”
Back in the 44th St. apartment. The fever episodes are gone now. Of course,
the poison I’m full of, to kill my guests, is making me sick enough to
want to join them. The answering machine is filled with pleas and demands
from people I owe money to: venders, crew, Peter, Inge, DOCTORS DOCTORS
PAY ME PAY ME.
Weak and dazed from nasty combinations of Pharmaceuticals, I pick up the
phone. It’s Peter. A half hour harangue on the virtues of bill paying.
Of course, Peter has not noticed that I have not gone chapter eleven. I
could have used that option, but it’s not really my intention to stiff
anyone. Except maybe for Steve. I just have no money. Also, Peter’s
tirade is landing on a pretty battered psyche. Like the endless squadrons
of tiny Yassir Arafats, with wings and claws, that landed and took off from
the flight deck that was once my face.
It seems that my small army of disgruntled venders, unable to squeaze any
more money out of me, are now pestering Peter. Not to mention Claudio. “Peter
help me. He won’t pay me. What can I do?”. TRY BRUSHING YOUR TEETH YOU MAGGOT.
I love hating Claudio.
Peter suddenly segues from debt diatribe to concerned friend. It’s one
of his endearing qualities. As he’s asking about how I’m feeling, I realize
that he has no idea how sick I’ve been. I’m having another DIAMOND BULLET
IN THE FOREHEAD moment. No one really knows that I’ve been sick. I have
gone through this experience completely alone. My relationship with Inge
had been so fulfilling that any friends I had were now pretty distant.
Ther was only Inge and my work. Now both were gone, replaced by illness
and debt. What a world.
Peter seems genuinely concerned. Why do I love this guy? When Peter is in
his sincere, concerned friend mode he is irresistable. The E.W. edit is
finished to rave reviews and Peter is trying to find ways to creatively deal
with my outstanding debts. He still doesn’t understand why I don’t pay some
of them. This behavior amazes me. Did he think I had a trust fund? Did
he ever realize that I lost money on each of his low budget, no money for
this project, do me a favor, and oh by the way make some magic happen, you
slob you, videos? Did he think that Time Warner sent me a paycheck every
week, like the one they sent to him? Has he long since forgotten my DON’T
SHOOT SMA&L FORMAT VIDEO BECAUSE IT’S CHEAPER warnings? Does He really think
that he and Chuck share no resposibility for this mess, when all the while
they have been drawing salaries from T.W. in order to put together a sample
reel, that I have been shooting for nothing, so that they can open a production
company in direct competition with me?
GET REAL FELLAS!
So, now it’s 1994.
Late last summer I decided to be saved by my family. I took with me only
a small amount of light clothing, tee shirts and jeans mostly, and moved into
my sister’s house in East Hampton. I left the rest in the 44th street apartment.
I simply could not face that place again, and have no idea what happened
to the stuff I left there.
My health improved over the winter and other than some occasional wierd
stuff with my face I’m perfectly fine now. I had several phone conversations
with Inge about meeting, having lunch, talking, but she never returned the
call I made to her on her birthday. That was two months ago.
So, what is to be learned from this cautionary catharsis? I know that
telling this tale is the first time I’ve attempted to relive the events of
the last few years. I know that until I’ve done that, I can’t begin the
next faze of my life. Whatever the fuck that is.
So let’s look at the cast of characters.
Shaun, Inge, Peter, Chuck, Steve, even Claudio. Are they good guys?
Are they bad guys? I think that each of them is probably a little of
both. Each of them is probobly looking to gain an edge and avoid some
blame, just like everybody else. And maybe , along the way, try to make
a little magic happen.
TALL GUYS I HAVE KNOWN
Or: How some desperados with film equipment
gained access, with questionable credentials, to a
major sports event in Scotland, created an incredible
film, and sold it to a television network – only
to be bushwhacked by a too-tall sports mogul in Cleveland.
by Shaun Costello
In January or February of 1974 Gil Markle and I made a trip to Cleveland to do battle with Super-Agent Mark McCormack, who held in his hands the legality of our selling a film we had made to CBS Television. The summer before, we had travelled to Scotland to make a film about the British Open Golf Tournament. Actually, we were there to shoot some footage of Johnny Miller, a professional golfer who had gained celebrity by winning the U.S. Open earlier that year with a miraculous score of ‘63’ in the final round. Gil’s First Lieutenant Mike Forhan had scored a major coup by signing Miller to lend his name to what would become the Johnny Miller Golf Academy, which would operate under the umbrella of Gil’s travel company ALSG. Miller was young and blonde and handsome, and now he was famous – boding well for profitable possibilities for the Golf Academy. “Learn golf in Scotland where golf was born.” It seemed like a natural. American teens flocking to Scotland to have their ‘swing planes’ and ‘short games’ corrected by the handsome and now-famous Johnny Miller. So we made the trip to Scotland to make a promotional film about Johnny Miller and his golf academy. And, other than Mike, none of us knew a thing about golf.
My participation in this endeavor was purely accidental. I was simply tagging along with Gil’s brother Bill, who was a close friend, and with whom I had worked on several film projects. Bill and his wife Viki, who had also become a close friend, were going to Scotland to make a film, and we thought it would be fun to include me. So, Bill, Viki and I, along with Gil, who I was meeting for the first time, boarded an ALSG-chartered stretched DC8 for the flight to London.
The flight took forever. A re-fueling stop at Shannon went awry when the Aer Lingus ground crew broke the pressure seal on the cargo door. We waited five hours on the Shannon tarmac for the seal to be repaired. Next stop Stuttgart Germany. This was an ALSG charter, and we had two waves of eager and happy student travelers whose destination was the Fatherland. More problems with the plane in Stuttgart, with another five or six hours of down time. Finally, we took off for London’s Gatwick Airport, the main venue for chartered planes landing in the London area. This would lead to my first “How does Gil do that” moment.
The long journey from JFK to Gatwick took over thirty hours, and we were dirty and exhausted. I don’t sleep on planes, and all I could think of was a shower and a welcoming bed. We remained onboard while the ALSG student travelers joyfully deplaned to begin their European adventure. Bill, Viki and I remained near our seats while Gil supervised the exiting kids at the rear of the plane. Bill and Viki looked as groggy as I felt, but Gil had changed gears and was in ‘executive-in-charge mode.’ Several of ALSG’s London personnel had boarded the plane, and Gil was involved in animated discussions, signing papers, accepting cash disbursements, and generally being the guy in charge. I was amazed. I remember thinking, ‘how can he do this?’ Gil was one of those rare people who, regardless of sleep deprivation, and in this case over thirty hours in a crowded, smelly DC8, could simply change gears and do what was necessary. This would not be the last time I would witness Gil’s exceptional behavior under duress.
Three days in London. Gil had business to take care of in ALSG’s London Office, and the rest of us, ensconced at the Russell Square Hotel, did what Americans in London usually do. Then off to London’s Euston Station to catch the overnight “Caledonian Sleeper to Glasgow. Much story swapping and laughter on the train. I was getting to know Gil and enjoying him – his spontaneous laughter, and how he made intense eye contact when you spoke, listening to every word, and appreciating your input. An eventful journey north. We were met at Glasgow station by Mike Forhan, who had appropriated a minivan, and who drove us to Troon where the British Open was about to begin.
Crafty Mike Forhan, through methods he never full disclosed, had befriended the female assistant to Keith MacKenzie, who ran the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Scotland, and had hondled press credentials for all of us. God only know what he had told her. So we now had unlimited access to Troon’s ancient golf course, and to all of the players in the tournament. The British Open is one of the four “Majors” and all of the world’s famous golfers were on hand: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Johnny Miller, everybody – and the scene was visually magnificent, with tanned faces ready to be photographed with a background of stormy skies, and the wind-blown sea grasses of the Troon links. It was quite a site. We quickly realized that the spectacle before us was much bigger that Johnny Miller and his golf academy. We had unrestricted access to a major sporting event.
With a fearlessness that comes from not having the slightest idea what we were doing, we proceeded to approach golfers for on-camera interviews, and to our surprise and delight, they were quite willing to participate. After all, those PRESS arm bands we wore, regardless if how surreptitiously obtained, spoke of our credentialed presence at this event.
Bill, of course, did the camera work, with Gil, who was a novice at location sound recording, recording everything on Bill’s Nagra. Mike was operating behind the scenes, making arrangements, and targeting golfers for interviews. Gil had handed me his Nikon with a motor drive and 200 frame bulk loader, and I began taking stills of the event, and of our participation in it.
Gil did most of the interviews, most notably of singer Glen Campbell, who was an avid golf fan, and who gladly agreed to participate. Gil’s interview with Campbell was quite good until he began to lose it. I think the absurdity of the moment got to him. Here he was, in Troon Scotland, interviewing a major celebrity about golf, something he knew nothing about. And Campbell, not the brightest light in the room, saw Gil’s levity as part and parcel of the interview process. The more Campbell talked on about golf, the golfers, Johnny Miller, his Scottish ancestry, and his very own Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open Golf Tournament, the more difficult it became for Gil to maintain his composure. The interview, in its entirety, is in the finished film, and it is hilarious indeed.
I spotted CBS commentator Jack Whitaker approaching the 18th Green and approached him to participate, which he graciously did. Gil interviewed him and his lines became a mainstay of the film. Whitaker mentioned to me that Gary Player was the best interview on the tour. He was outspoken, and answered questions without regard for political correctness.
Mike, who was the only member of this conspiracy who actually knew anything about golf, interviewed Graham Marsh and a few others, while I kept an eye out for Gary Player, who I finally located in the lobby of Troon’s famous Marine Hotel. Player, like most of his fellow golfers, was gracious and polite, and we made an appointment for an interview later that afternoon. I did the Player interview, and he was everything Whitaker said he would be, and more. Player delivered the most memorable lines in the finished film, and did not hesitate to sign a release, an issue that plagued us with some of the other golfers.
With much better than expected material in the can, we returned to London, where we had the negative developed by Color Film Services LTD, who struck the most beautiful work print I had ever seen. Bill, as usual had done an outstanding job with his camera. After a week in cold and rainy Troon, Bill, Viki and I gladly hopped a plane for the coast of Spain, to soak up some sun, do a little acid, and have what turned out to be a memorable time – worth its own story at some later date.
Back in New York, Bill and I spent eight weeks editing the film. We had worked on projects before and worked amazingly well together – seldom disagreeing on even the slightest editorial issue. It became obvious that we had something special on our hands. I came up with the obvious tile FOUR DAYS AT TROON. I had developed many contacts at some of the largest advertising agencies, so it became my job to find a buyer. Through various trade directories, I was able to find out which advertising agencies represented British products with American markets, which seemed like our best bet. The Ted Bates Agency represented Schweppes, and Wilkinson Sword razor blades, so I called.
I was stunned at how positively I was received, having in my possession thirty minutes of fully edited television programming. I made the presentation to the Creative Group on Schweppes, and it could not have gone any better. The Creative Director said, “We’ll take the whole thing, give full sponsorship, provided you can get CBS to run it, but I can’t see them not loving this.” He gave me the name of the head of CBS Sports, and mentioned that this film would make a great teaser, the night before day one of CBS’s coverage of The Masters.
I reported back to Gil and Bill, and the three of us were both stunned and delighted by our situation. It was decided that Gil and I would pitch CBS together. It’s amazing the difference between selling an idea, and selling a finished product. CBS loved the film. They liked the Bates idea about running Four Days At Troon as a teaser before the Masters. We had full sponsorship, the Network loved our film, and these desperados with questionably obtained press credentials were happy campers indeed. Then the roof fell in.
We had been careless about getting releases. A release is a document allowing a film maker or a photographer to sell an image of a participant in a photograph or an on-camera interview for commercial purposes. Without a signed release, the buyer, in this case CBS, would fear litigation and refuse to purchase the film for broadcast purposes. We were missing two releases, and they were whoppers – Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. While Nicklaus was not interviewed, Bill shot him on the practice tee joking with other golfers, and he delivered some memorable lines. Palmer gave us an interview. We would need both. CBS made that clear.
I called Nicklaus’s organization, Golden Bear Enterprises, and explained our situation. His people were cordial and agreed to attend a screening which we arranged at the Movielab screening room. Their only concern was that Jack Nicklaus was presented in a positive way. They were delighted with the film and agreed to have Jack sign a release. One down – one to go. The Palmer release would be more difficult.
Arnold Palmer was represented by Mark McCormack, who had invented the occupation now known as the Sports Agent. He had started out with Arnold Palmer as his only client, and quickly made Palmer a rich man, while creating a sports empire that would become known as International Management Group, the first mega sports agency. McCormack, unknown to us, also owned Trans World International, the colossal production Company that owned the exclusive film rights to the British Open, where we had, through sleight of hand, obtained access to make our film, which CBS would not buy without Palmer’s legal participation. There wasn’t a chance in hell that McCormack would allow Palmer to sign a release for a film that would be in direct competition with his own exclusive arrangement between International Management Group, and The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Scotland. We were screwed – we just didn’t know it.
At this point I should mention the film known as Four Days At Troon, while editorially finished, remained in what is known as interlock. The picture was the work print that had been edited by Bill and I, and the sound track, while mixed, existed as a separate strand. This meant that the film could be viewed only on an editing machine, or in an interlock screening room. Mark McCormack’s offices were in Cleveland, and there was no interlock screening facility in the city by the lake. The alternative was to rent a portable interlock projector in New York and lug it to Cleveland. This machine is a large and cumbersome device, and ‘portable’ is a stretch in describing it. We had Ceco in New York ship the enormous projector to Long View Farm, where we could watch the film projected, and rehearse the machine’s workings.
Early the next morning, Gil and I somehow squeezed this monstrosity into his Jaguar XKE, and began the journey to Logan Airport in Boston, to catch a flight to Cleveland in order to pitch our project to a man who had absolutely no intention of granting our request. It was an exhausting process, loading and unloading this machine, first at Logan and then at Cleveland Airport. Then the cab ride to One Erie View Plaza in downtown Cleveland, the headquarters of International Management Group.
We were basically treated with contempt at all levels by the employees of IMG, from the surly receptionist right on up to the boss himself. Their universal disdain for us was well rehearsed. Led to their conference room, we were left to set up the beastly device on the far end of the conference table. I set about threading picture while Gil handled the sound track, which had to be threaded into a separate machine which was synchronized to the projector electronically. As we began to set up the projector for screening, Gil said, “I just hope he’s not a tall guy.”
“Who?”, I responded.
“McCormack. Who do you think?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never met him.”
“I just don’t like tall guys.”
I assumed that the philosopher was philosophizing, so I remained silent.
“I hate to admit it, but tall guys intimidate me. They shouldn’t, but they do. I don’t like looking up at them. Makes me uncomfortable. I just hope he’s not a tall guy.”
When we finished setting up the unruly machine, IMG’s key personnel began taking seats around the table. No one really greeted us, they just nodded and seemed restless. I announced that we were ready to begin, and someone at the far end of the table made a call. A few moments late the door opened and in strutted the man himself, Mark McCormack, all six foot five inches of him. My heart sank.
Gil and I began our rehearsed pitch on the history of the project and McCormack cut us off immediately.
“Just show the thing”, he said. “I agreed to see it, so I’ll see it. I don’t want to hear sob stories about how hard you worked, and how you can’t sell the thing without releases. Turn it on.”
We turned on the cumbersome machinery and the film began. I marveled at the extraordinary quality of the work print, made for us by that London lab. To say that the audience was unreceptive would be an understatement. Phone calls were made and received by people all around the table, who seemed totally uninterested by what was being screened. We had been sand bagged – bushwhacked – set up for a fall by a roomful of mid-western lawyers hell bent on humiliating the wise guys from the big city who had come on their hands and knees, begging the almighty sports mogul for his forgiveness and approval. Twenty minutes into the film, McCormack stood up and in a loud voice simply said “NO”, and walked out the door, followed in twos and threes by his cronies, leaving Gil and I alone while the film was still running. We were left with a lackey who was responsible to see the offending infidels to the street.
We didn’t say much in the cab back to the airport, or on the flight back to Logan. What was there to say? About an hour into the flight the pilot announced that we would be making an unexpected stop at Albany. The plane had a cracked windshield, and repair was required. So Gil and I spent a mostly silent few hours in a bar at Albany Airport, drinking steadily until we were both pretty plastered. Finally, his eyes glazed over with alcohol, and his face contorted in philosophical determination, Gil looked up at me and, without rancor, said, “Tall Guys.”
© 2015 Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from Shaun Costello’s memoir:
Sex, Gangsters and Deception in the Time of ‘Groovy’
SOME SPIT IN THE HANDSHAKE
The last hurrah for La Cosa Nostra
by Shaun Costello
“I’ll tell you who is going to be there. Just the who’s-who of organized crime in America, that’s who. Members from all of the five New York families, and not just them. Representatives from all over the country will be at this thing. Chicago, Las Vegas, California, everywhere, and you’re being asked to do this. Do you know what kind of an honor this is – to be asked to do this? How can you even think about it? This is not something you think about. He trusts you enough to ask you to do this. So you do this, and that’s all there is to it.” This was Cal Young in sales mode, trying to convince me to do something that any person in his right mind would reject out of hand. But he wasn’t talking to any person in his right mind, he was talking to me, and I didn’t need much convincing.
It was close to midnight, and we were on the Van Wyck Expressway, in Cal’s car, heading back to Manhattan from a meeting with Dominick Cataldo, also known as ‘Lil Dom’, also known as ‘Double Decker Dom’, and I had made up my mind to agree to Cataldo’s proposition long before Cal ever started his pitch.
It was ten that morning when I got the call up in the country. I lived on a small horse farm in the tiny hamlet of Krumville, about ninety minutes north of the city, where I spent my time jumping Thoroughbreds over fences, tending my vegetable garden, and living the life of a make-believe country gentleman. At this point I should mention that my weathered barn jacket/muddy Wellington boot/Ralph Laurenesque existence, horses and all, was paid for by my day job, as one of America’s most active producers of pornographic movies. No one up in Krumville knew that, of course. To my neighbors, I was involved in the film business down in the city, which they found exotic.
I had some connection to television, and produced films for corporate clients which, to the locals, seemed mysterious and fascinating. And all this was true, but the bulk of the money I made in those days came from producing porn, a fact that I managed to keep a secret from my friends and neighbors. A good thing too, since that kind of information would have been hot gossip down at the feed store. In the country I lived the part, and ninety miles away, down in the big city, I did the sometimes-questionable work that paid for it.
I had met Cal in the city a few times, and to be truthful, was not very impressed. He was an independent motion picture distributor, mostly porn, with some cheap Splatter Movies, and even cheaper Kung Fu imports thrown in. He was a seat-of-the-pants operator with an exaggerated view of his immediate possibilities. “I’ve got some backers lined up, and as soon as I can make the arrangements I’m going to call. Just be ready because I’m going to keep you busy for a while.” Guys like Cal were usually full of hot air, but I made it a point not to blow them off. You just never knew. So he called.
“You remember when I told you about a possible backer I’ve been working on?” I did, or at least I said I did. “Well, I think this is going to work out. He’s getting his ducks in line, but there’s a catch.” There almost always is. “He wants to meet you first. He does everything on a handshake, and he’s got to meet you first.” I didn’t like the sound of this. And I really didn’t need the money, not from Cal anyway. I had two sources in the city who paid top dollar for my X-rated efforts, and kept me as busy as I needed to be, and neither of them needed to shake my hand. Cal obviously sensed my reluctance, and started a relentless barrage of reasons why it was in my best interest to come down to the city and meet his guy. I’m not sure why I caved, maybe because I was a wimp, and couldn’t take any more of Cal’s whining, or maybe because I thought it prudent to listen to his backer’s proposition. I’ll go with wimp for now.
Cal Young lived in a rent controlled apartment at 40 Sutton Place, one of Manhattan’s priciest streets, that he had inherited from his uncle, Max Youngstein, a major Hollywood producer who, a few years earlier, had accepted the Best Picture Oscar for The Deer Hunter. The walls were covered with photographs of his uncle, hobnobbing and canoodling with movie stars and professional athletes. The apartment, regardless of its elegant address, was furnished like a Holiday Inn, and Cal couldn’t seem to wait to begin giving me the ten-cent-tour of the pictures on his wall: Uncle Max with Robert DeNiro, Uncle Max with Elizabeth Taylor, Uncle Max with Arnold Palmer, Uncle Max standing on a chair shaking hands with Wilt Chamberlain. Cal gave this photo tour with the gusto of a man who was obviously proud of his family’s show business heritage.
We were to meet Cal’s guy in one of the big glitzy motels just across the Belt Parkway from JFK Airport, and did most of our talking on the drive through Queens. “Just keep an open mind and listen to what he has to say. He’s a very connected guy, if you know what I mean.” He’s turning up his sales pitch. “Very well thought of. This is a guy who is going places, and he can take us with him if we play our cards right.” Cal pulled the car into the parking lot of the Kennedy Motor Inn, and we entered the lobby, which was a maze of mirrors and shiny metal. “Iranians own this place, but to operate out here near the Airport, you’ve got to have permission, and my guy is the one who gives it, for a price.”
Past the front desk, and another hundred feet or so down a hallway was a set of double doors, upholstered in red leather, with brass handles. Above the doorway was a sign that read THE CASBAH. “Iranians”, said Cal as he opened one of the doors, revealing a strange sight indeed. It was an enormous room that probably doubled as banquet facility and nightclub. The surface of the walls seemed purposely uneven, like they were covered with a layer of rough concrete, and set in the concrete were thousands of tiny mirrors, differing in size and shape, none more than a few inches across. The effect was dazzling. Anything in the center of the room with enough light on it would be reflected, in many different directions and with varying intensity until the walls became alive with an infinite reflection of whatever entertainment was provided at the room’s center. And in that room’s center was a single round table, lit from above by one spot light, covered with a white table cloth, and surrounded by three chairs. Sitting in one of the chairs was a man wearing a dark suit with a coffee cup in front of him, turning the pages of a newspaper. As each page turned, the movement was infinitely reflected around the room, like a million fans doing the ‘wave’ at a psychedelic ball game. Orson Welles could not have done this any better.
The room swam in the reflections of the turning pages as we approached the table, and ourselves, became part of the show. Cal, ever the salesman, led the way, and I have to admit to being a bit intoxicated by the imagery. “Dom, great to see you. You’re looking good. Well, here he is Dom. This is the guy I’ve been telling you about. Shaun, I’d like you to meet my friend Dominick.” He stuck out his hand for me to shake, but didn’t get up. He swapped some small talk with Cal, mostly about traffic on the Van Wyck and, without asking us to sit, looked up at me. “You shoot both houses”, he said abruptly, leaving me to try and figure out what he was talking about. “Sit down, sit down, take a load off. Look, you shoot both houses – that’s very important – both houses. You start out with the groom’s house. He’s there with his buddies, probably hungover from the bachelor’s party the night before. A lot of joking around is going on. His pals are giving him the business, believe me. These are his last hours as a single guy. You gotta get this. Then over to the Bride’s house. It’s just around the corner. Same kind of thing. She’s getting dressed, and all her friends are going to be there. Lot’s of stories are being told here, if you know what I mean. These are priceless moments. Years from now, her grandchildren can see this. You gotta get this.”
A wedding? Cal Young has dragged me all the way out to JFK Airport to talk to some guy about shooting a wedding? I’m quietly enraged, but of course say nothing. Meanwhile Cal, who is sitting across the table from me, and next to Dominick, but just out of his field of vision, is grinning from ear to ear, and nodding his head up and down, like a ridiculous bobble head doll, the nodding reflected in thousands of tiny mirrors all around the room, like some kind of preposterous kaleidoscope. All I could think of was strangling him, but of course I just sat there and listened. Dominick wanted me to come out the following week and meet his family, see the houses, and maybe the church, get a feel for everything. Oddly, he was beginning to grow on me. He was an intense guy, probably in his late forties, with short-cropped, grayish brown hair and rapidly searching eyes, who nervously fiddled with his tie knot as he tried to anticipate my response to his proposition. He could probably be dangerous if provoked, but was surprisingly honest and vulnerable. “Look, this thing is costing me a fortune. Wait ‘til you see the place for the reception. Jesus, when I found out the price I nearly flipped. But I gotta do it. Spare no expense. It’s a matter of pride. Everybody is going to be there, and I mean everybody. It’s got to be first class all the way, even if it puts me in the poor house. Jesus Christ, I had to reach out to the street for part of it, to the shy’s. But I gotta do it, and you gotta help me here. Cal say’s you’re the best, and more important, you’re OK, if you know what I mean. Cal told me who you work for Downtown. Those guys are friends of mine. That’s very important. So what do you say? You wanna come out next week and meet my family?”
This seemed like a sincerely asked question, and I liked him all the more for having asked it. I was touched at this kind of intimate gesture toward someone he had only just met. Like meeting his family would make me one of them. Like it would seal the deal, put some spit in the handshake, finalize the proposition suggested here in The Casbah, reflected in ten thousand mirrors.
By the time we got back to the city I had forgiven Cal Young for his perfidy. Maybe it was the dazzling visuals in The Casbah. Maybe it was actually growing to like Dominick. Maybe it was Cal’s pathetic bobble head routine reflected ten thousand times over. Probably all of the above, but the idea of being invited to this grand an event, populated by the suggested cast of characters, to be allowed to walk freely, as though one of them, among the who’s-who of organized crime in America, was simply an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I’m going to take a moment here to explain why what Dominick had asked me to do was just about impossible to accomplish, something that, at the time, I was busy trying not to think about, because the wedding was six weeks off, and my plan, not that I really had one, was to put off dealing with the reality of the event until the last minute, and simply wing it which was, hard as it may be to accept, how I did everything. First of all, there was no money. Dominick had spent everything he had, even borrowed from shylocks, to cover the cost of the wedding, and the enormous reception that would follow. There was nothing left over to pay for a movie that, as Dominick suggested, I should do as a favor, favor being a word used so often by these guys that it had long since lost its intended meaning. “Look, just do me this favor”, meaning that it was an honor to do for free, something for which you would normally be paid. Favor as transaction. Favor as currency. I should feel honored to do this for free, as a favor for a friend. And then he will be in my debt, so that at any time in the future I can call upon him to repay that favor. But the problem became the Federal Witness Protection Program. By the time you got around to asking for repayment, your friend, whose name was Santini, had been renamed Smith, and relocated to a suburb of Billings Montana, where he would live out his days as a permanent guest of the Federal Government. A whore works for money, but a real man does what he does as a favor. I really couldn’t have cared less. Hanging out with gangsters was payment enough for me.
I couldn’t shoot Dominick’s movie on film because that would mean stock and lab costs, not to mention the equipment to do the job and the crew to make it happen. Video was the only answer, but this was 1978, and the available video equipment was, by today’s standards, extremely primitive. The camcorder had not yet been invented. Location footage for televised news shows was still shot on 16 MM film, which had to be developed in Motion Picture Laboratories, and rushed back to the studios to get it on the air. There were portable video units available, but they were awkward instruments; the camera connected to the recorder by a cable, clumsy to use, and the image they produced looked worse than your grandparent’s home movies. But I didn’t want to think about any of this. There was plenty of time yet. I had six weeks, and I could spend those weeks hanging out with my new friend, Dominick Cataldo, AKA ‘Lil Dom’, AKA ‘Double Decker Dom’, and his pals from the mob.
As the weeks went by, I was invited to dinner twice at Cataldo’s home, which was a simple but tidy and nicely landscaped ranch-style house, in Valley Stream, just over the boarder of Nassau County. Coached by Cal Young, I brought gifts of pastries, on each occasion, from Veniero’s Italian Bakery on the Lower East Side. Midge Cataldo, Dominick’s wife, who I had liked immediately, was a bleached blond housewife who smoked cigarettes while she stirred the sauce, sometimes dropping a bit of ash into the pot that no one seemed to notice. She made a big fuss over my pastries, and prepared delicious manicotti, and braggiole, and ravioli stuffed with pumpkin, and veal, and sautéed broccoli rabbe, and everybody ate everything in front of them, and no one there was the slightest bit overweight, which mystified me.
Dominick’s son, the groom-incumbent, made appearances at different times during dinner not wearing a shirt, which made me uncomfortable for some reason. He would sit down, rudely reach across the table and grab a bowl of something, scrape it onto his plate, gobble it down, jump up claiming he had to make a phone call, and disappear, only to return again fifteen minutes later for a repeat performance. Each time he disappeared, Dominick would shake his head and, without looking up, grunt,”Kids”. He was a nasty street-punk, maybe twenty one or so, who was probably snorting coke up in his room between visits to the dinner table. He had totally ignored my presence in his house, and at the table. I couldn’t stand him.
Over some espresso with anisette, Dominick would gush about his family’s expectations for my wedding-movie assignment. “Cal say’s you’re an artist Shaun. I’ve told everybody about you, and what you’re going to do for us. Everybody, the future in-laws too. They can’t wait. They want to see it over and over. They talk about the movie more than they talk about the wedding. We’re going to make copies for everybody. Everybody wants to see it.” Suddenly, he gave me a serious look. “It’s gonna be good, right? I mean, it’s gotta be good. You’re not gonna fuck up on me are you? You fuck up on this, you put me in a serious bind here. You know what I’m saying? Because if this movie’s not good Shaun, you embarrass me in front of all my family, everybody I know.” He’s getting louder and I’m getting nervous. “I went way out on a limb, asking you to do this. You fuck up, and I’m the laughing stock of the entire universe, am I getting through to you? Do you read me? You fuck up on this, you leave me no choice. I’ll have to make a call. You get my drift?” I think I spilled my coffee. There was a long moment of silence before Dominick couldn’t hold it in any longer, and roared with laughter. “Hey I’m just kidding. You should see the look on your face. C’mon, I’m just messing with you a little. C’mon.” He’s rubbing the tears in his eyes now and laughing almost uncontrollably. Midge shook her head. “He always kids around like this, pay no attention.” Dominick got up and went to the kitchen where I could hear him blowing his nose. He returned to the dining room, his laughter ebbing a bit, blowing a few more times into a napkin. “But seriously, tell me – the movie – What’s it gonna be like?”
I had dined at the home of the Cataldo’s twice, and I had gotten away with evasive answers to any specific questions as to my cinematic approach to their project. A week before the wedding I was summoned to a meeting with Dominick and Cal, at the Villagio Italia, a restaurant in Ozone Park that Dominick owned a piece of. Until that night at the restaurant, I was still getting away with making it up as I went along. Dominick’s seemingly unbound confidence in my ability to make his movie had given me false courage.
After we ate, Dominick took me from table to table, introducing me to his associates. “C’mon kid, I want you to meet some people.”
We approached a table where the occupants immediately stood up. Dominick obviously outranked them. “John, I want you to meet somebody. This is Shaun, my director. He’s gonna make the movie for Junior’s wedding. Shaun, this is my friend John Gotti. And Sammy, Sammy Gravano. Shaun this is Sammy.” They each shook my hand but made no eye contact with me, and gave me the pariah treatment, apparently wondering why Dominick was bringing a stranger in here, and introducing him to made guys who were not anxious to mingle with civilians. Gotti would become America’s favorite gangster years later, after his bloody takeover of the Gambino family, which would be engineered by his pal Gravano who himself, would seek asylum in the Federal Witness Protection Program, to escape the death sentence signed by his friend and tonight’s dinner companion, John Gotti. At the next table one man stood, but one remained seated, a sign of his rank. Dominick spoke to the seated man first. “Nino, I want you to meet somebody. You remember I told you I found a real film director to do Junior’s wedding movie, well this is the guy. Shaun, meet Nino Gaggi, a good friend of mine.”
Nino, like the others, never even looked at me. He offered his hand like a Bishop expecting his ring to be kissed. The man standing was friendlier, but pretty frightening. “Roy, Shaun meet Roy DeMeo. Me and Roy we go way back together.” At least DeMeo made eye contact, although I wished he hadn’t. Roy DeMeo, a Gambino associate, who owned some chop shops in the neighborhood, was out on bail, awaiting trial for several homicides. Five years later, in 1983 DeMeo, whose long string of grisly, and sometimes unnecessary murders would become an embarrassment to the Gambino’s, found himself expendable, and it would be Nino Gaggi, his friend and Capo, who would order the hit. They found him riddled with bullets in the trunk of his car.
Dominick was just getting warmed up, as we approached a table where all three men remained seated, obvious heavyweights. “Carmine, sorry to intrude, but you gotta meet this guy. Shaun, I’m introducing you to Mr. Galante.” He actually looked up at me and smiled, offering his hand, which I gladly shook. His sociable demeanor changed abruptly however, when Dominick let him know that I was the guy who was going to make the wedding movie, and he snapped his hand back like I had leprosy. The second seated gentleman was a bit friendlier. “Shaun, this is my good friend Sonny Black.” Sonny half stood for the handshake, and sat back down. “I’m telling you Sonny, it’s gonna be like a Hollywood production, the movie Shaun’s gonna make for me. I can’t wait for you to see it. Hey, you’ll probably be in it.” This news did not please Sonny Black, who looked at Dominick with unkind eyes. “And Joe, Shaun meet Joe Massino. It’s gonna be something Joe. Wait ‘til you see.” In less than a year, Carmine “Cigar” Galante, who had been whacking Gambino associates left and right, had his head half blown off by a shotgun blast at Joe and Mary’s Restaurant in Brooklyn, a lit cigar still dangling from his lips. Two years later, in 1981, Dominic ‘Sonny Black’ Napolitano would be held responsible for the ‘Donnie Brasco’ catastrophe. Brasco was the pseudonym for an FBI agent who would manage, befriended and encouraged by Sonny, to infiltrate the Bonanno family. It would be Joe Massino, by then an under-boss of the Bonanno’s, who would personally put five bullets in Sonny’s head. Massino would eventually disappear into Witness Protection, after ratting out his entire organization.
The handshakes continued, from table to table, as Dominick spread the word throughout the room that Shaun was the guy who would be responsible for the success of his only son’s wedding, placing more importance on the movie of the wedding than on the wedding itself. “You know Shaun, the wedding is over in no time. I mean, you blink your eyes and you missed it. But this movie you’re gonna make for us, this movie is forever.” Shaun was the guy who would create a permanent chronicle to the sacred sacrament of matrimony that would be entered into by his only son, and his only son’s blessed and virginal bride-to-be, that could be viewed for years to come. “Let’s just say, some time in the future, I have to go away. I mean, these things happen. I could pull a few strings, get a VHS machine for my cell. I could watch the movie of the wedding while I’m in the can.” Shaun was the guy, in whose hands he was placing, the awesome task of recording for posterity his family’s most treasured moment. A moment that could not be shared by his wife’s frail mother who, as we speak, lies dying of cancer in a lonely hospital room, lingering on life support and unable to leave her bed, even to attend her grandson’s wedding. “Shaun, all that’s keeping this poor woman alive is the hope that she will live long enough to see your movie. She prays to God every day to give her the strength to last until she sees it. The Doctors say it’s a miracle that she’s still alive, a miracle.” His name is Shaun everybody, and if he fucks up, well, I hope you’ll all share my disappointment. I was being introduced, as accountable for the happiness or the unhappiness of Dominick’s entire family, to a room filled with murderers. And now they all knew my name. My mojo was on a slippery slope, sliding backwards into a pot of red clam sauce. I remembered back to that first handshake in The Casbah, reflected in all those mirrors, when I had thought to myself, ‘What the hell. I could do this. I could do this like I did everything else. I’ll just wing it, bluff my way through, and be saved at the bell by the Gods of risk’. The dining room at the Villagio Italia was beginning to spin. I was face down in a whirlpool, spinning and spinning. If a flirtation with oblivion was what I was after, I was certainly getting my money’s worth.
Having shaken the hand of every murderer within shouting distance, and dazed from facing the reality of the trouble I had gotten myself into, I was led by Dominick back to our table, where Cal Young was talking to someone I didn’t recognize. Dominick approached the table with outstretched arms. “Heyyyyyyy, look at this. Look who’s here.” Dominick and the new guy engaged in lots of hugging and kissing on the mouth, and shoulder slapping. ‘You son of a bitch, how you been? Hey Joe, you gotta meet somebody. Shaun, c’mere, meet my friend Joe Dogs. Joe, this is the guy whose gonna make Junior’s wedding movie. Shaun, this is my oldest friend in the world, meet Joe Dogs.” Joe, unlike most of the others in the room, shook my hand like he was actually glad to meet me, and we all sat down. Dominick got back up to handle some problem in the next room, and took Cal with him, leaving me alone at the table with Mr. Dogs. This was Joseph ‘Joe Dogs’ Iannuzzi who, unknown to his oldest friend in the world, had already agreed to work as an FBI informant and, a week from now, would wear a ‘wire’ to the wedding reception. “So you’re gonna make Dom’s movie huh? Do yourself a favor. Don’t fuck up.”
With the wedding only a week away, it was time to figure out a way to do this thing, and fast. The problem was that I knew nothing about video. In those days nobody did. But I had a friend who had been fooling around with portable video for a while now. He would be a risky choice but, considering the situation, my options were limited. His name was Steve DeVita, and we had worked together on several film projects, mostly porn. He worked as an assistant cameraman, but also did some lighting and, on a film crew, was a jack-of-all-trades. Steve had a visionary’s insight into the future importance of video tape, and had been spending time interviewing odd characters around the city, using his then-primitive black and white video rig. So I made the call. He told me that we could rent, for a few hundred dollars, a small, portable color video system that would probably do the trick, but that we should shoot as much as possible outside in sunlight. These cameras were not terribly light sensitive, and anything shot indoors without proper lighting would be marginal at best. So far, so good. At least I now knew there was a way to do this, and that Steve would help, although I would have to pay him something. The problem with Steve was that he was always fiddling with the equipment. Gerry-rigging electronics, and adjusting the lights, sometimes when the camera was rolling. Of course we’d have to stop the shot. “Steve, what the hell are you doing?” “Making it better. Wait ‘til you see.” He just couldn’t help himself, but he was pretty low in the food-chain, and not really accountable for his erratic behavior. I was at the top, and if something went wrong, I was the one who would be devoured by the backer, the guy who put up the money. Steve only had to answer to me, and I was easy. I was very leery of involving a guy who couldn’t help himself on something like this, but I didn’t have much of a choice.
I needed someone dependable to offset Steve’s volatility, so I called Maryse Alberti. She worked as a still photographer, but was the savviest person on a film set that I had ever known. No matter how complicated the shot, or how big the crew, she always knew where everything and everyone was supposed to be, and could solve a problem before I knew it existed. She was French, and compact, and lively, and cute, and I had come to depend on having her around. She would say things to me in her thick but adorable accent like, “Eh boss, you pay me cash uh?” When I told her that the wedding reception would be attended by the Mafia Allstars, she squealed. I just loved Maryse.
So now I had a crew, and the equipment to do the job. I called Cal Young and told him that he would have to cover the cost of the video equipment rental, and a few hundred bucks each, for Steve and Maryse. If I was doing the ‘favor’ then he should pay the bills. He squirmed a little, but agreed. He also had a message from Dominick. “Dom called me last night. The guy is totally flipping out. He had to go back to the street, and borrow more from the shy’s. This thing is costing him double what he thought. He told me to talk to you. Remind you about what he said, you know, about being at the groom’s house, and the bride’s house, early, like eight in the morning. You’ve got to be there early”. It was the first thing Dominick ever said to me, back that night at the Casbah, reflected in all those mirrors. “You shoot both houses.” Cal was still on the line. “Oh, and one more thing. Dom say’s this is really important. As the Bride and Groom exit the Church, after the ceremony is over, outside on the steps, there will be a flock of doves.” This was the first I had heard about this. “Cal, what doves?” “How do I know what doves? Doves. Something to do with the virginity of the bride. Hey, I’m a Jew. I don’t know from this. You Goyim do some pretty weird shit, you know that?” This was not good news. “Look Cal, it’s one thing to say there will be doves, and another thing to photograph the fucking things in the same shot with the happy Bride and Groom. You’re going to need a bird wrangler. Who is going to do this? Who is going to release these things?” Cal was not being helpful. “I don’t know. Maybe Fat Mike. I think it’s Fat Mike.” As though I didn’t have enough to worry about. “Cal, suppose the birds shit all over the happy couple, or just fly away. Then what do we do?” Like birds are going to cooperate. “You know something Shaun, you worry too much. So there will be some doves. So what.”
Despite this new wrinkle, I was feeling pretty confident now. It was all coming together somehow, doves or no doves. The houses at Eight, the Church at Noon, and the reception, which was in Brooklyn, at Six. No Problem.
The night before the big event I got to bed early since I had to be up at Five. I would meet Maryse at Steve’s apartment on the upper West Side at Six, where we would sort out the equipment, drink some coffee, and head out to Valley Stream. It was a leisurely, doable schedule. I called Steve before hitting the sack, and he was happy. He had picked up the equipment that afternoon, and tested everything. The batteries were all on charge, the camera and deck worked well, we were ready. “Yeah, it’s all OK. I’m just fooling with viewfinder a little bit. Making it better”. He just couldn’t help himself. “Steve, please. Promise me you won’t do anything stupid. Leave the camera alone and get some sleep.” I could hear him fidgeting with something on the other end. “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, don’t worry. Everything’s OK.” Easy for him to say. He never shook hands with ‘Murderer’s Row’.
I had done it. Everything was ready. I had taken the ultimate risk and gotten away with it. I had pushed the envelope into a new shape – waited until the last minute to solve the unsolvable – went one-on-one with the Cosa Nostra and lived to tell the tale. I began to have fantasies of Frank Sinatra making a surprise visit to tomorrow’s reception, like Frankie Fontaine in “The Godfather”. It would make Dominick so happy. “Frank, I can’t believe you came. What a surprise. C’mon and say hello to the family. And Frank, this is Shaun, my director. He’s making my movie.” I was quite pleased with myself, as I drifted off to a happy sleep. Life was good.
I was five minutes early when an ashen-faced Maryse Alberti opened the door to Steve’s apartment. We stood there for a moment, just looking at each other, Steve’s voice jabbering incoherently somewhere off in the background. “You better come in Boss.” She led me down the hallway that opened into Steve’s living room. He was on his knees, surrounded by tools and pieces of what had once been a video camera, staring at the whole disassembled mess, attempting unsuccessfully to fit parts together, and squawking gibberish. “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do it. I was fixing it. I took the screws out. It was the viewfinder – it didn’t work right. Just a small adjustment. I took the screws out. It’s not my fault. Everything went kerflouey. I just took the screws out. Oh God – I can fix it – I know I can fix it. I looked at the schematics. I checked first – before I did any thing – I checked first. It’s not my fault. You can’t blame me for this. It’s not my fault.” He was out of control – completely hysterical. He obviously had not slept. What little hair he had was all-askew, and his face was noticeably unshaven. He had been up all night trying to fix the mess he had made out of the camera. His eyes were wild, searching for some kind of solution that just wasn’t there. I looked up at Maryse, who slowly shook her head. “We’ve got to call somebody”, I pleaded. “Eh boss, it’s Six o’clock on Saturday morning, Who we gonna call?”
I needed to think this through. Steve was sleepless, and useless in his present state. Maryse, ever-able, just needed orders to follow, but I couldn’t provide any. I needed to think. “OK. Here’s what we’re going to do. Steve, Steve, listen to me.” He was reeling. “I need you to get cleaned up. Get in the shower. Shave your face. Eat something.” I wasn’t sure that I was getting through to him. “Just do it. Maryse, I’m going out. I need to think. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Just make sure Steve does what I told him.” “OK boss.”
I walked around the block twice, thinking this through, trying to come up with options, like I had any. It was 6:20. We had an hour and forty minutes to find another camera and get out to Valley Stream, where the Bride’s party, and the Groom’s party expected a video crew to tape their pre-nuptial frolics. Back up in Steve’s apartment I went into boss mode. “OK, here’s what we’re going to do. Get out your address books, and the yellow pages too. Let’s go through everyone we know who might either have, or who might know somebody whose got a video camera. Write down all the names and numbers, make lists. Forget that it’s early, we’re going to call everybody we know.” There was only one phone line at Steve’s so I woke up a bewildered Cal Young, and told him to expect a short French girl on his doorstep, and gave Maryse the cab fare. “OK boss.” Our chances were slim, but I had to do something. The clock was ticking.
7:15 and still no camera. We were half way through our list of possibilities. Video rental companies, who might or might not be open on a Saturday, would not pick up the phone until Nine or Nine Thirty. “You shoot both houses.” That’s what Dominick had said. Those were his first words to me, and it was not going to happen.
8:30 and still no camera. It’s now thirty minutes past “Both Houses”. Cal calls. He’s beside himself. “You’ve got to call Dominic. Let him know what’s going on.” Like that’s going to do any good. “Look Cal, the wedding is at Noon, and I don’t have a camera. That’s what we’re focused on now. The early stuff is over. It’s history. The wedding is all we can think about now. Just do what you planned to do, and somehow we’ll meet you out there.” I could hear him breathing on the other end. “Oh God.”
9:30 and still no camera. Cal had left Maryse still working the phone at his apartment, and was on his way out to Dominick’s house. Video rental companies were not answering the phone on a Saturday morning. We just kept calling, it was all we could do. At 10:20 Steve’s phone rang. It was Maryse. “Eh boss, I got it.”
It was 10:45 and the three of us were in my car racing down the East River Drive toward the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. The camera she found belonged to some twerpy video buff, who lived on Eastern Parkway, out in Brooklyn. There had been a copy of Popular Photography on Cal’s coffee table and an ever-alert Maryse dove into the classifieds and found an ad that read: MISTER VIDEO can make your Bar Mitzvah live forever, call Zvi, and his phone number. It was a different brand than the camera that Steve had destroyed but was similar enough, and would do just fine. Maryse had told Mister Video to make sure he put the batteries on charge, and that we would be there, to pick everything up, in thirty minutes. His name was Zvi Herzog, and it was now 11:05 on Saturday morning.
As we followed the numbers along Eastern Parkway, looking for Zvi’s address, it was becoming obvious that we were now deep inside a seriously Jewish neighborhood. Not just Jewish, but very Jewish. Not just very Jewish, more than that, more than even orthodox Jewish.
We were in the belly of the beast. A block from the Lubavicher Synagogue, the very center of the Hasidic Jewish community, and it was the Sabbath. Up and down Eastern Parkway, all the men who were not presently worshipping in the Temple could be seen on the side walks, dressed in black overcoats and prayer shawls, their dark ear locks bobbi-pinned to their yarmulke’s, reading their little prayer books and davening rhythmically as they prayed. Bending forward at the waist, and straightening, bending and straightening, over and over, moving their lips in prayer, bobbing up and down. Hundreds of them. It was hypnotic.
“There it is”, Maryse had seen Zvi’s address, and her voice brought me out of my momentary trance. It was a four story brick building, over an electronics store that was of course closed for the Sabbath. Steve waited in the double-parked car, while Maryse and I looked for the doorway, which we found to the left of the store. I pressed the button next to Herzog. Nothing. I pressed it again. Still nothing. Maryse looked at me. “It’s 11:15 boss”. We returned to the sidewalk, our backs to the street and looked up, and there he was, Zvi Herzog, sticking his head out a second story window, with his finger to his lips to shush us. He spoke in a stage whisper. “They won’t let me answer the door bell.” He was looking up and down the street, making sure this conversation went unnoticed by the hundreds of men in prayer shawls who were davening everywhere. He was a kid, maybe eighteen, his ear locks bobbi-pinned to his yamulke like the others. I needed him to focus. “Zvi, the camera, we need the camera. We’re in kind of a hurry. Why can’t you answer the door bell?” His finger was still at his lips. “Shhhhh, are you kidding? It’s Shabbis. My parents would kill me.” I could feel Maryse’s impatience next to me. “It’s 11:20 boss.” I was running out of time. “Look Zvi please, we need to rent your camera. We’re running really late. People are waiting for us. I have the money right here for you.” He shushed me again and turned to Maryse.
“Hey, are you the one I spoke to on the phone? Are you Maryse?” She nodded. “Are you from France?” She nodded again and stage-whispered up to him, “Yes, I’m from France.” “Wow, this is so cool, I’ve never met a real French person before. I took two years of French in High School”. I’m dying here. “Hey, maybe some time, would you have a coffee with me? We could speak French to each other.” Maryse’s mouth was locked in a frozen smile, as she continued to nod up at Zvi, and without her lips moving I could hear, “It’s 11:30 boss”. And she pleaded with him. “Zvi please, we are so late. Tomorrow we can speak French, but today we need your camera. Please.” He shushed us again. “Ok”, he said and disappeared into his window, reappearing a moment later with an aluminum camera case. He had fastened a rope to the handle and lowered it down to us. Maryse quickly opened the case and looked up at me and nodded. “What about the Money?”, I whispered up to him. “It’s Ok. Pay me later. I can’t take money now, it’s Shabbis. I trust you.” I was stunned. “Zvi, You don’t even know us. Why do you trust us?” Zvi shushed me again, and looked at me like I had just asked the dumbest question he had ever heard, and then looked at Maryse. “Why wouldn’t I trust her. She’s from France.”
Steve sorted through the equipment, inserting batteries, and connecting cables into and out of Zvi Herzog’s camera, as I broke every traffic law on the books, speeding franticly toward Lynbrook, and Our Lady of Lourdes Church, where the wedding was to take place, and where a justifiably furious Dominick Cataldo was probably contemplating stuffing my battered remains in the trunk of a Chevy. And all I could think of was Joe Dogs saying, “So you’re gonna make Dom’s movie huh? Do yourself a favor. Don’t Fuck up.”
Having rehearsed our arrival at the Church, we jumped out of the car like we had been there all along. “Just don’t act like you’re anxious. Stay calm. Be casual, like we’ve been working for hours. I’m going to whisper camera direction to you Steve, and you’re going to get the shots. Slowly, calmly, like we’ve been here all day. Steve? Steve?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m good.” He was drifting, and I had to keep him focused. “Remember, like we’ve been here all along. Ready? Ok, let’s go.” Maryse took the car to find a place to park, and Steve and I, camera at the ready, casually slipped in the side door to the Church.
The smell inside the building, the frankincense and myrrh, it never changes, especially to recovering Catholics. And the sounds, bouncing off the stone walls, someone coughs and it’s a full second before the sound decays and disappears into the din of a hundred seated parishioners, fidgeting and shuffling in their pews, waiting for something to happen. It was ten minutes after Twelve. The wedding was getting a late start, thank God. It was important to make our presence noticed, but only just. Quietly, we worked our pre-rehearsed routine around the outside aisles, aiming the camera at wedding guests, walking slowly, communicating as we went, with the same stage whispers we had used in Brooklyn with Zvi Herzog. “Stay wide Steve. Just track past everyone. Nice and slow. Nice and slow. That’s it. How does it look?” Steve was grimacing into the viewfinder. “Yeah, Yeah, looks good. This is nice.”
And so we went, whispering and shooting, quietly but there, up and down the aisles, getting everyone in our shots, being noticed, being involved, part of the family. I made eye contact with Midge Cataldo, who quickly looked away toward a statue of a bleeding Jesus, holding his heart in his hand. She couldn’t look at me, not a good sign. Hard to make eye contact with a condemned man. Steve’s spare eye, the one not glued to the viewfinder, kept finding me, and I knew what he was saying. It’s too dark. I’m not getting anything. To the naked eye, the inside of the Church looked as it should, but to the little video camera that Steve was pointing at everything, we might as well have been shooting in a cave. But we had to press on, like everything was fine. What choice did we have?
We wandered out through the front doors, shooting as we went, trying to be noticed, and a surprising number of men were standing around outside the church, dressed in dark suits, smoking cigarettes, and holding umbrellas, it had started to rain. Back inside everything seemed ready, but out here in the soft shower, there was a sense of nervous anticipation. The cast of characters was not yet complete. They were all waiting for the arrival of the father of the groom. Forty well-dressed, slightly soggy, umbrella wielding wiseguys stood ready to surge forward and protect the great man from the rain. And we were there to get it all on tape.
After a minute or two, the longest super-stretch Cadillac Limousine imaginable turned the corner, and slowly glided toward the curb. It was all white, and glistened in the rain shower. As the car came to a stop, a phalanx of dark suits, rushed forward, their umbrellas extended in a collective gesture of protective solidarity, forming a canopy over the door to the enormous car, and the door opened. Out slid a dapper Dominick Cataldo, wearing a beautifully tailored suit, a white carnation in his lapel, and adjusting his tie knot as he greeted his loyal cadre. The whole umbrella-wielding protectorate, a smiling Cataldo at its center, moved forward as one, propelled by the sotto voce undercurrent of congratulatory murmurs, from the gang to the boss, on this blessed day in his life. It was a performance Dominick was born for, gracefully accepting the adoration of his underlings, as he strutted toward the steps of the Church. The rain had stopped now, and the canopy of protection disappeared, as Dominick skipped up the steps alone, leaving his fans behind. As he reached the top, he slowly turned and, looking directly at me, with an unmistakable malevolence, raised his right hand to his mouth and bit the knuckle of his clenched index finger, then turned and entered the Church. There was a muted gasp from the crowd behind me.
Steve, who was bent down, attached to the camera’s view finder, and had just taped this moment, looked up at me. “Jesus Christ”. I looked around, and the small army of well-dressed, umbrella-wielding wiseguys had disappeared, some into the Church, and some to stand guard duty at various points around the block. Maryse was standing a few feet away just staring at me. “Eh boss, what are we gonna do?” There wasn’t really much of a choice. So we went back into the Church to video-tape the wedding. That’s why we came.
From the side aisle we were able to tape Dominick, as he slid into the pew next to his wife and, once he was seated, there was an anticipatory buzz from the congregation, knowing the ceremony was near. Suddenly there was a swarm of alter boys all over the church’s proscenium, like ball boys at Wimbledon, lighting candles and prepping the stage for the arrival of the priest. And it all happened quickly now; the entrance of the Bride and Groom, the chanted Latin of the Wedding Mass Ritual, the Priest placing the sacred wafers on the extended tongues of the congregation’s willing recipients – most noticeably the Bride and Groom – and the Bride’s Maids and Groom’s Party all finding their proper places down in front of the alter. “You got that Steve?” “Yeah, Yeah, it’s beautiful, really nice.” Just loud enough for the father of the groom to hear, in the hope that he might find it in his heart to forgive me for ruining his life. Fat Chance.
The Church’s organ provided background music, while Steve and I, traversing the ceremony in a united crouch, continued our routine, knowing all the while that, considering the amount of light inside that building, we had probably not recorded a single usable moment of video tape. And then it happened. As the Bride and Groom stood before God, awaiting the recitation of their vows, and Steve and I tried our best to be noticed recording it all, there was an small puff of smoke, and an odd smell, like burning rubber. Steve turned and looked at me with a crazed expression on his face, like a hyena on amphetamines. Between the thumb and fingers of his left hand he was holding what was left of the cable that had once connected the camera to the recording deck. It had shorted out and melted. It was over now. Our survival was the only issue.
The three of us squatted together on the floor behind the last pew, and we could clearly hear the Priest’s voice bouncing off the stone walls, “Do you Angela Molinari take this man….” We had to fake it. Pretend we were shooting. And we had to begin right now. I turned to Maryse. “You should get on the train and get out of here. Steve and I will stay.” “No boss, I stay with you.” I could have cried. So now we continued our whispering and shooting routine with no cable. Nothing was being recorded. Survival was the only objective. The show must go on.
And so Junior and Angela, with love in their eyes, kissed and were wed, in front of God, their adoring parents and friends, and three terrified people who were trying to somehow live out the day. As the now-married couple stood at the alter huddling with the Priest, the guests made a bee line for the front of the Church, where they would all congregate outside to participate in the ritual of rice throwing, which would insure good luck and healthy children to the newlyweds as they exited the building. Outside with the crowd, Steve and I looked for a spot to get the best ‘make believe’ shot of the happy couple. “Steve, what do you think? What about from here?” I wondered of we were fooling anybody. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is good, from right here.” Not that it mattered. We were dead meat, in any case.
Everyone was outside the Church now, including Dominick and Midge, holding bags of rice and waiting for Junior and Angela. Out to the left, peering around the corner of the building, I noticed a very short, and very fat little man, who seemed to be trying not to be noticed. He was maybe five foot five, but probably weighed three hundred pounds. His suit was shiny and black and looked to be two sizes too small. Either that or his fat body was just larger than any known suit size for someone his height. He was holding something I couldn’t make out. He would disappear and then reappear, peeking around the corner of the building. What was he up to?
The first chords of the Recessional from Mendelssohn’s Wedding March sounded as Angela and Junior appeared in the doorway, and the little fat guy in the black suit took a few steps forward. I could now make out a bag of some kind that he was holding. A burlap bag. The familiar music continued, and the happy couple began to walk toward the steps that led down to the crowd, who stood ready with rice in hand. The fat man was on the move now, picking up his pace, and holding the burlap bag in front of him. What was this guy doing? Then it hit me. ‘Good Christ, it’s Fat Mike and the doves’. I grabbed Steve. “Steve, you’ve got to get this. Don’t ask, just do it. Get the camera on the couple. Do it now. Just pretend, for Christ sake.” Everything now happened in slow motion. Fat Mike, a graceful mover for a man his size, had shifted his portly presence into third gear, and was almost there. Angela and Junior had reached the top of the steps, Angela extending her right foot to begin her descent, just as Fat Mike flew past the couple, while violently shaking his burlap bag, and emptying its contents directly in their path. Her momentum carried Angela forward, and her right foot downward, until it came to rest squarely in the center of something soft and wet. Fat Mike had dumped, directly at Angela’s feet, a dozen dead pigeons in an advanced state of decomposition, and Angela had stepped directly into one of them, squirting pigeon intestines riddled with maggots up her right leg. And she was suddenly very still, just standing there looking down, surrounded by dead, maggot-infested birds, as Fat Mike disappeared around the far corner of the building, and Angela began to scream. It had all happened so quickly that the crowd hadn’t quite grasped the horrible reality of the moment. But there they were, a dozen dead birds, right there on the Church steps, flies buzzing all around, and Angela standing above them, her right leg dripping with unspeakable, crushed pigeon bowel and wiggling maggots, as a hundred mouths now gasped in horror, and Angela just kept screaming, until finally Dominick threw a handful of rice over his hysterical daughter-in-law and shouted, “Hey let’s hear it for the happy couple. C’mon everybody, give it up.” And slowly but surely the crowd, those who were not attempting to revive Loretta Molinari, Angela’s grandmother, who had fainted dead-away at the sight of the maggots, began in ones and twos, to half-heartedly throw rice, until they gained some momentum, and genuine cheering began. The priest, who had come out of the Church in answer to the screaming Bride, put his arm around a bug-eyed, gasping Angela, who violently sobbed as he led her back into the building. And, at the bottom of the steps, stood Dominick Cataldo’s video crew, who had just convincingly pretended to capture the whole extraordinary event on tape, for the viewing pleasure of future generations of Cataldos.
You would think that this kind of carnage would take a long time to dissipate, but that was not to be the case. Within what seemed like only seconds, almost everyone had disappeared. Dominick and his family into the Church to comfort the sobbing Angela, and the rice throwing, gasping crowd into their cars and away from this sorry scene as quickly as they could go. A small group of maybe five or six nephews and cousins remained to help Angela’s still-moaning grandmother onto the gurney provided by a local hospital. And once the ambulance left the curb, they too, quickly disappeared.
This left me alone at the steps of the Church, along with Steve and Maryse. Alone with the decaying carcasses of Fat Mike’s dead pigeons, and the swarm of flies, buzzing all around us. What we had just witnessed was so far beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend that there was no point in discussing it. We got back in the car, and found a local Diner on Sunrise Highway. No one said anything, we just ate.
Regardless of the catastrophic events of the last hour, the day was not yet over, and some kind of strategy had to be developed. The enormous reception at ‘La Mer’, in Brooklyn, that Dominick had borrowed so heavily from the shylock’s to finance, would still take place. Guests had been invited from all over the Country, and more than that, it had all been paid for. Over two hundred members; Associates, Capo’s, and Bosses, as well as their families, would begin arriving around 6PM, and we had to either renew our commitment to this bizarre enterprise, or figure some way out of it. I’d be lying here if I didn’t admit to trying to think of a way out. Was there somewhere I could hide until the banks opened on Monday morning, and I could withdraw enough money to live out my days in some third world country, hoping to go undiscovered by Dominick’s relentless predators? Could I talk my way out of this? Maryse, as always, had the answer. “It’s OK boss. The fat guy with the birds. He’s in big trouble, but you’ll be OK.” Let’s hope.
La Mer was an enormous, glitzy catering facility on Ocean Parkway, in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, a name that seemed appropriate, considering. Zvi Herzog had opened up his father’s Electronics store, and replaced the melted cable, at what he assured us was a wholesale price, and we were back in business. There was still a full hour before the guests would be arriving, and the lobby was a hubbub of last-minute primping, and polishing, and flower arranging, the whirring sound of vacuum cleaners, and clinking of glasses and dishes seemed everywhere. We found a bench off to the side, out of everyone’s way, dumped our equipment, and just waited, I’m not sure for what, but it didn’t take long. Out of a doorway, on the far side of the lobby, stepped a grim Joe Dogs Iannuzzi, who motioned to me. I told Steve and Maryse to stay put, and crossed the lobby.
He led me down a long, noisy, hallway, somewhere in the bowels of the building, where we ducked fast moving busboys carrying endless trays of glassware and dishes. “You just don’t listen do you?” I could hardly hear him through the din and clatter. “What did I tell you? Huh? What did I tell you?” He stopped and turned around. “I told you not to fuck up. And what did you do?” He was really pissed. “I fucked up.” He stuck his finger in my face. “Don’t you get smart with me.” “I’m not being smart Joe, I’m being honest. I fucked up.” He turned, and started walking again, and I struggled to keep up. “You’re in a bad spot, my friend. You watch your mouth. It was supposed to be a good day, and look what happened. Where the fuck were you this morning? Don’t open your mouth.” He stopped and turned to me, with his finger in my face again. “Don’t open your mouth. Do you hear me? Not one fucking word. You wanna live to see tomorrow? Not one fucking word.” We continued the march down the hallway. “I’ve never seen him this mad. Never. He likes you, but you’re in a bad spot kid.” He pushed a door open and started to climb a flight of stairs, still ducking between the trays of dishes that were going both up and down, and me right behind him. He stopped on the landing, and turned again. “Everything depends on you keeping your mouth shut. No matter what he say’s. He’ll try to provoke you. Don’t let him. Don’t say a fucking thing. At this point, anything will set him off. He likes you. At some point he’ll remember that he likes you. Just don’t say a word, no matter what. You got it?” I nodded.
We found Dominick in a storeroom, somewhere off the far side of the kitchen. He was pacing and smoking, and he was frantic. When he saw me his eyes focused and became smaller. Angry eyes. Hateful eyes. “You! You strunz. What did I tell you? What did I say? The first thing I said. Both houses. You shoot both houses. You stupid fuck. You don’t even show up. You don’t even call.” The veins in his neck were bulging, and pulsating with the blood that was rushing to his head. He was close to exploding. He was incendiary. “My wife is crying. The kids are going crazy. ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ You fuck. You shoulda called me. You shoulda been a man. You fuck.” He lit another cigarette. “Did you see what happened? What that fat fuck did? Bird shit on her leg. Dead fucking bird shit. On her wedding day. On her leg, on her wedding day. It was supposed to be beautiful. White doves, symbolizing the innocence of the bride. Beautiful. And what do I get? Dead fucking pigeons, that’s what I get. I’m in hock up to my eyeballs on this thing, and I get dead fucking pigeons.” I was starting to fear for Fat Mike.
“Do you know what that fat jerk-off did? I gave him two hundred bucks. I said go to a pet store. Get some doves. He tells me, ‘Boss, I don’t know from birds’. I tell him to just get the doves, and bring them to the wedding. I don’t want any excuses. You know what that fat scumbag does? He takes the money and blows it at the track. My money. Blows it. So what does he do now? He goes to the park, and starts catching pigeons. Pigeons. I don’t know how he catches them, but he catches them. Throws them in a burlap bag. Disgusting, disease ridden pigeons. For my wedding. And when he’s got a dozen, he ties a string around the bag, and throws it in the trunk of his car. They were in the trunk of that fat fuck’s car for a week. A week. Dead and rotting for a week. Fucking moron. We got him locked up downstairs. That tub of guts is in deep shit. You saw what happened at the Church. It was supposed to be beautiful. And what do I get? You gotta help me here Shaun.” He was cooling down, Maybe Maryse was right. Maybe I would be OK. He wanted me to help him. All I could do was listen.
“The video from the Church, it’s got to go. This is an embarrassment I could never live down. The people who saw it, they’re family, they’re friends. They won’t say anything. But you got it all on video. The bird shit going up her leg. The poor girl screaming and all. On her Wedding day. This is terrible.” He was calming down now, almost pleading. “Look, I know how this works. I read up on it. The video of the dead birds is connected to the rest. There’s nothing we can do. You just get rid of it. All of it. No one can ever see it. Destroy the evidence. Everything from the Church. You do that for me and we’re square.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He didn’t understand about editing, and now he would never know the full extent of my crimes. Steve destroying the first camera. All the unusable footage from inside that dark Church. The melted cable. All the pretending. The Gods of risk-takers had somehow come to my rescue. All my sins forgiven. I had been saved by a burlap bag filled with Fat Mike’s dead pigeons. “You just video the party tonight. People dancing and having fun. That’s what the movie will be, a big party. That’s OK. That’s good. And nobody will ever know what happened.”
An hour later, as we were getting ready to video the reception line that was now forming in the lobby to greet the guests, Cal Young appeared. “It’s a wrap.” We just stared at him. “The shoot has been called off. The Snake found out and said no cameras.” The question needed to be asked. “The Snake?” My ignorance bewildered Cal. “Carmine Persico, they call him the ‘Snake’. He’s in prison, but he still heard about it, about the video. Dom got rapped on the knuckles. Important people will be here tonight, and the Snake say’s no cameras. Persico is the Boss of the Colombo family, in case you don’t know. Dom’s Boss. He got the call from Gerry Lang, he’s the Underboss who runs things while Carmine is in the can. Hey, why the sad faces? You guys aren’t workers anymore, you’re guests. You sit at the table with me and Joe Dogs. Dom say’s he wants you to stay and have fun.”
And so the who’s-who of organized crime in America found its way through the reception line, shaking the hands, and kissing the lips of the Cataldos and the Molinaris, who greeted them with an eager appreciation of their presence at this unique gathering. First Dominick, who was in his glory, “Paul, I’m so honored you’re here. You know Midge. Honey, You remember Paul Castellano.” The Gambino’s were the first Family through the line. Paul Castellano, the recently annointed ‘Boss’, followed by Annielo DeLacroce, Robert ‘Dibi’ BiBernardo, John Gotti, Sammy ‘Bull’ Gravano, and several more, all greeted by Dominick, who passed them on to Midge, and then on down the line until they kissed the eager lips of Junior and Angela. The Genovese contingent was next with Big Mike Miranda leading the way, closely followed by Phil Lombardo, Vinnie ‘Chin’ Gigante, and the others. And then the Bonanno’s, and the Colombo’s, and finally the Lucchese’s new boss Anthony ‘Tony Ducks’ Corallo, and his lieutenants. Cal Young whispered the play by play to me, identifying the celebrated Mafiosi, as we stood off to the side of the lobby. “Enjoy it while you can kid. This has never happened before, not in my lifetime. Not like this. Jesus, everybody’s here.”
At the other end of the reception line was the entrance to La Mer’s Grand Ballroom, where the orchestra was playing a medley of Broadway Show tunes, with an occasional Tarantella thrown in for good measure. Our table seated eight, but there were only five of us; myself, Steve, Maryse, and Cal Young right next to an unusually quiet Joe Dogs. Years later I would find out that Joe, who had been caught red-handed with a kilo of heroin, and had made a deal with the FBI, was wearing a wire that night. Parked in a van, out on Ocean Parkway, were two Federal Agents, who were recording and listening to every word spoken to and by Joe Dogs Iannuzzi.
The dinner was typical catering fare; tough veal, thin steaks, chicken smothered in some kind of sauce, but nobody seemed to either notice or mind very much. Their family and friends had come to celebrate Junior and Angela’s marriage, and the businessmen, some two hundred strong, were there to participate in meetings and confabs between all of the Families attending; settling old disputes, redefining their territorial boundaries, discussing new opportunities, and plotting defensive measures against an aggressive Justice Department, and something new called the Rico Statute. And then there was Joe Dogs, perhaps having second thoughts about his betrayal, who stayed to himself, keeping a safe distance between the business being discussed and the microphone that no one knew he was wearing.
After the dinner, the orchestra seemed to kick into another gear and, among those here for Junior and Angela, dancing became the thing. Maryse, who could find fun on the dark side of the moon, grabbed me. “C’mon boss, dance with me.” But Joe Dogs interceded. “No, you go dance Miss. He needs to talk with me for a minute.” This left me alone with Joe. “No dancing tonight. It’s a thing. You’re going to meet some people tonight. It’s business. No dancing.” This was an odd development. “What do you mean Joe? What people?” Something was obviously bothering him. “I can’t talk about it. Not now anyway. Talk to Cal. Maybe he can fill you in.” Out on the dance floor, a wildly gyrating Maryse had become the hit of the evening.
I found Cal Young on a balcony that overlooked the whole Ballroom. “I still can’t get over it. They all came. If the FBI knew about this they would shit a brick. They’re all here.” Down on the floor, Familial contingents stuck together, either at one table, or a few tables that had been joined together, communicating with other Families through messengers, who would run from table to table, transmitting questions and answers. Initial rules of engagement were being defined. Paul Castellano would whisper into his man’s ear, and that message would be silently carried across the room and whispered into the ear of Carmine Galante, who would either shake his head or nod in agreement. Once the agenda had been set, members could speak directly with one another.
“So, who am I supposed to meet?” Cal shrugged. “Joe told me I’m supposed to meet people here tonight. What’s going on? Haven’t I met enough people already?” Cal laughed, “You mean back at the restaurant? All those handshakes? You were on display, my friend. Like a job interview.” I looked down, and they were all here. The people I had been introduced to at the Villagio Italia: Joe Massino, Sonny Black, Carmine Galante who treated me like a leper, John Gotti, Sammy Gravano, Roy DeMeo, Nino Gaggi, all sitting at tables down on the floor. “Yeah, I thought Dominick was trying to scare me a little. If he introduced me to enough tough-guys I would work harder on his wedding movie. Cal, was there ever really a wedding movie?” He smiled. “You mean, if you had shown up this morning, like you were supposed to, and if Fat Mike brought live doves instead of dead pigeons, and if the ‘Snake’ hadn’t put the kibosh on cameras here tonight? Sure, it would have been nice. It would have gotten Dom’s family off his back. They’re the ones who wanted the wedding movie, not Dom. He was pissed at you because you made him look bad. You told him you’d be there, and you let him down. That pissed him off.” I had to lean a little closer to Cal to hear him clearly. The orchestra seemed a bit louder now. “If you’re asking me if Dom cared one way or another about the movie thing, I’d have to say not really. At the restaurant, you were there to meet people. You were on display, just like tonight. All the talk that night about the wedding movie was just smoke. Dom’s way of not letting you know why you were really there. What you didn’t know couldn’t make you nervous.”
Down on the floor, Steve had returned to our table, carrying a plate of something from the kitchen. Up in the balcony, it was time for Cal to spill the beans. “Look, Dom has got something hanging over his head. I’m not saying what, but something. He might have to do some time. He needs to make some investments that will see his family through while he’s in the can. I told him about you. You’ve got a reputation kid. The movies you make for Dibi, and Star Distributors, they all make money. You’ve got the golden touch, my friend.” I could see Dominick down on the floor, like a master of ceremonies, moving from table to table, shaking hands, laughing, telling jokes, loving every moment. “Dom wants to invest in some movies, but he’s broke. He had to reach out to the shy’s for all of this. So he needed partners. And you met some of them that night at the restaurant. When he goes back to them for the money, and they ask him who is involved, he can say, ‘You met him. Shaun – at the restaurant that night. You shook his hand.’ That’s important. For these guys, everything is done on a handshake.” Maryse was down there dancing with everybody, and people were applauding. Cal was still smiling, surveying the congregation below. “Right now, Dom is out there on the floor, looking for more partners. You’ll be introduced to them. There will be more handshakes. Dom is nobody’s fool. He puts the money together, you make the movies, and I distribute. Everybody makes money, the boys are all happy, and Dom’s family will have some income to see them through. What’s the matter, you don’t like happy endings?” I wanted to ask him what would happen to Fat Mike, but I was afraid to.
Busboys were removing desert plates, and waiters were busy delivering after dinner drinks to tables whose occupants had to speak-up in order to be heard over the orchestra, whose decibel level increased as the night wore on. Out on the dance floor, the alcohol consumption seemed to help the revelers to lose their inhibitions, and they danced with more abandon. The traffic between the tables of businessmen seemed heavier now, and the conversation more animated, mostly serious, but with an occasional outburst of laughter and slaps on the back. The evening was a success for all concerned; those who came to celebrate the marriage of Junior and Angela, and those come to negotiate alliances, in an effort to stop the bickering and in-fighting that had for years plagued this much romanticized fraternity of men, and caused it to drift far from the intentions of its founders. Cal had said that this kind of gathering was unprecedented. Not since the botched Apalachin conference, back in the fifties, had anything like tonight been attempted, much less achieved. And right in the middle of it all was Dominick Cataldo, whose invitations had been answered by all present. They owed it all to him. He was the star of the show. It was his night.
What Cal Young could not know, was that something like this would never happen again. This seemingly amicable amalgam of independent criminal enterprises would soon shatter. Those present would look back on tonight as the last chance for the survival of the brotherhood. The last hope to right the listing ship of this ‘thing of theirs’. The final possibility for peace and lasting prosperity, among men who had seldom know either. It was 1978 and, for La Cosa Nostra, tonight was the last hurrah.
They had come from all over the country. Joey Aiuppa from Chicago who, along with Tony Spilotro, had put one bullet into the back of Sam Giancana’s head, followed by five into his face, in the bloody coup that would see him ascend to power. Both Tony and Joey were sitting at a table, engaged in serious conversation with ‘Tony Ducks’ Corallo, the new boss of New York’s Lucchese Family, who would soon bury his friend and partner Jimmy Hoffa under the end-zone at Giant Stadium. Phil Lombardo was enjoying a joke with Bonanno Boss Carmine Galante, who just six months later would be blown away by his own lieutenants, his signature cigar left dangling from his lifeless lips. The personal representatives from Santo Trafficante in Tampa, and Carlos Marcello in New Orleans were trading jabs with ‘Gaspipe’ Casso, and ‘Little Nick’ Corozzo. A laughing Roy DeMeo sat with his arm around the shoulder of his old friend Nino Gaggi who, five years later, would issue the contract that would see Roy dead, found riddled with bullets in the trunk of his car.
Gambino Boss, ‘Big Paul’ Castellano chatted with ‘Dibi’ DiBernardo, across the table from John Gotti who would kill them both in his bloody rise to power. Just a few years later, in 1981, ‘Sonny Black’ Napolitano would succumb to bullet wounds at the hands of his pal Nino Gaggi, but tonight they talked baseball. The ‘Bloody Eighties’ would soon take its toll, fewer than half the men in this room surviving to see 1990, but tonight you would never know it to look at them. They seemed so joyful at their combined possibilities, so hopeful for a peaceful and profitable future. Tonight all their problems seemed solvable. Tonight they celebrated La Cosa Nostra.
The orchestra, once again, increased the volume, and the five hundred guests seemed lost in the comradeship of noisy enjoyment. More people were dancing than talking now and, as the band played the first few notes of a new tune, most eyes in the room turned toward the bandstand. What they heard were the opening notes of a song familiar to them all. A song they would come to adopt as their own. A song that would become the anthem for every wiseguy in the city. And the orchestra’s vocalist stepped up to the microphone and began to sing:
“Start Spreading the news
I’m Leaving today
A huge cheer engulfed the room, and those who had been dancing, and those who had been negotiating, all instinctively approached the bandstand, and some began to sing along.
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York
More joined-in, and the song was louder now, the need to sing had become contagious. And right in the middle of it was Maryse, her arms linked between Junior and Angela, singing her heart out. The businessmen began singing, some finding each other’s arms and linking up, united in their commonality, lost in the moment. Joe Dogs sang with a purpose and, considering his situation, I wonder if the two Federal Agents outside in their van, heard his joyous noise and joined-in.
In ones and twos, deadly men began to find other deadly men, and arms found arms, and voices joined other voices, and everyone in the room was singing now, forgetting their differences, joined together in the spirit of the moment. The doors to the kitchen opened, and out peered cooks and dishwashers and helpers, all wanting to see what was happening. No one stood alone in this songful celebration. I saw Roy DeMeo grab the arm of the waiter who was standing next to him, which became an open invitation for everyone to join in. Joe Massino and Sonny Black grabbed a nearby bus boy, and stuck him between them with their arms linked to his. They were celebrating themselves, and celebrating their city. Rank melted away, as Capo linked up with Soldier, and Soldier with Lieutenant, and bus boy with Boss, and Bonanno with Colombo, and way off to one side of the room, almost lost in this frenzied celebration was a welcome sight indeed. Standing, linked between ‘Gaspipe’ Casso and a Greg Scarpa, still wearing his black suit, and singing with gusto, was Fat Mike, who had been forgiven by a now magnanimous Dominick Cataldo for sins far worse than mine, and who would now live to see tomorrow.
If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you New York, New York”
So this was how it ended, probably the strangest day I’ve known. Dominick Cataldo was now a hero. It would become widely known that he had been responsible for the greatest and most hopeful gathering in the history of this ‘thing of theirs’. His future was assured. His wedding movie had gone up in smoke, but so had many of his worries and, no one, outside of those who were there at the Church that day, would ever discover the awful truth about the pigeons. Cal Young would distribute the movies that I would make, the financing arranged by Dominick and his new network of partners, each of whose hands would find mine, in a gesture of friendship and good commerce. The Seventies would soon come to a close, and the bloody Eighties would begin the carnage that would reduce the rank and file of the Cosa Nostra by half. Some, like Dominick Cataldo and John Gotti, would die in prison, but most would suffer a gruesome demise at the hands of their closest friends and associates, leaving this once proud yet questionable brotherhood in shambles.
But, back on that October night in 1978, at La Mer on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, before the Rico Statute, the Witness Protection Program, an increasingly aggressive Justice Department, the Colombian Cartels, and the violent greed of its own membership took such an awful toll; back on that night, with hope for the future of a troubled fraternity that still had teeth in its bite and some spit in its handshake, the two hundred businessmen brought together on the occasion of Dominick Cataldo’s son’s wedding, regardless of their rank, linked arms together and, for the very last time, sang a song.
© 2015 Shaun Costello
PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from Shaun Costello’s childhood memoir:
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the Time of ‘Duck and Cover’
My friend Mickey Nolan had parents with a different last name than his, which, considering the divorce rate in the Forest Hills Gardens, was not that unusual. His mom had married a Greek man named Karras, who owned a Greek Restaurant somewhere in Brooklyn. Mrs. Karras was quiet, blond, and very attractive. Mr. Karras was very friendly, always trying to get local kids to try food from his restaurant. It seemed to give him great pleasure to get someone like me to try spinach pie, or lamb kebabs, or bacclavah for the first time, and made him truly ecstatic if you enjoyed it. These were tastes I had never experienced before, and I really liked them. My mother’s cuisine consisted of burned meat and frozen vegetables, so anything new was welcome. Mrs. Karras was a painter who did pastoral water colors and occasionally had exhibitions of her work at their house. On one particular Saturday I went looking for Mickey to play some stick ball and there was a sign outside his house that read, “EXHIBITION TODAY”.
There were lots of people, all dressed up, and Eddie’s mom told me that he was up in his room. Eddie was standing at the top of the stairs, frantically waving me up. He told me that he found something in his parent’s closet – something so cool that he was certain that I had never seen anything like it before. We went into his room, and he locked his door. He took a shoebox from under his bed, opened it, and took out a stack of black and white photographs. They were pictures of naked adults doing strange things to each other. When I looked closer I realized that they were pictures of Mickey’s mom, Mr. Karras, and several men, all naked, and involved in kissing, and touching, and caressing each other. Mickey was right. I had never seen anything like this before. I could not even have imagined it. They were mostly of Mickey’s mom being caressed by the men, who all had swollen dicks. So this must be what a boner looks like. Some of the pictures showed Mrs Karras fondling the boners of the naked men. Some even showed her even putting them in her mouth. I was horrified and fascinated simultaneously. With puberty still a year away, the activities graphically displayed in the pictures were a mystery to me. I was only ten years old, but somehow I sensed that what I was seeing was important, a seminal moment in my little life. I mentioned something to Mickey about his mom looking great in the pictures. I really didn’t know what I was supposed to say. He told me, “What, are you crazy? That’s not my mom. She just has the same color hair, that’s all”. The woman in the pictures was definitely Mickey’s mom, no matter how elaborate his denials. What I wondered was why he was showing them to me.
On the way out Mrs. Karras was shaking hands with people who were leaving her exhibition, some of whom were carrying framed water colors they had just purchased. “Bye Shaun”, she said. “You behave yourself now”. It seemed that each day something happened to me that made me different than I was the day before. This was one of those days.
© 2015 Shaun Costello
HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO
by Shaun Costello
This story becomes Chapter One (following the prologue)
of the childhood memoir:
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the Time of ‘Duck and Cover’
As a child, I had two adult male role models, neither of whom, as far as I know, experienced a single responsible moment in their lives; which goes a long way toward explaining why money has always been a mystery to me. There was my father – a pathological liar, degenerate gambler, alcoholic, chain smoker, and raconteur to the uninformed; who seemed involved in an endless struggle between his income and the image of himself he had created, with clumsy sleight-of-hand, as a buffer to prevent being discovered as the fraud he must have known in his heart he undoubtedly was.
And then there was my Uncle Tommy, who staked his claim to my affections during the waning months of World War II, while my father was off serving in the Pacific, and then with the occupation forces after the Japanese surrender. Uncle Tommy was movie star handsome and a professional dancer, who parlayed this combination of useful traits, regardless of the fact that he was homosexual, into a lifetime of living off the gifts of generous and very wealthy women, whose ranks included Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton.
Quite understandably, my father resented my uncle, who lavished expensive gifts upon his favorite nephew, made his gift-laden visits to our family driving his Rolls Royce, and occasionally took us cruising on his yacht. My friends would gather outside our house as the trunk to Uncle Tommy’s Rolls would open like a cornucopia of generosity, the gifts flowing, while my father watched from our living room window, properly fortified with yet another VO Manhattan against the onslaught of familial competitiveness, a turf war he had no chance of winning. I thought Uncle Tommy was rich – the Rolls, the yacht, the custom tailored suits; but I’m willing to bet that, for all his lavish behavior, Uncle Tommy never had a bank account containing more than a hundred dollars. Neither my father nor my uncle spent any time planning for their futures. They couldn’t be bothered. They both lived in the smoke they had created around their respective ever-precious present. They had tricks up their sleeves. They did it with mirrors – an endless hocus-pocus. They both died broke.
On the surface, my family seemed to be living out the post war, Robert Moses version of the American Dream – Father, mother, brother, sister, dog and station wagon; all ensconced in the suburban subdivision of Green Acres, a delightfully park-like, child-friendly community, in Long Island’s Nassau County – about a forty minute car ride from midtown Manhattan.
We lived in a two story brick house that was identical to every fourth house in the community, Green Acres offering four designs to choose from. This meant that on Elderberry Lane, which had a total of fourteen houses, our house was repeated three or four times, pretty typical in post World War II cookie-cutter subdivisions. Sounds a bit like Baltimore, but, despite architectural similarities, people seemed to find their way to their own houses unaided, with the exception of my philandering father, who was often accused by my mother of spending just a bit too much time offering domestic assistance to neighboring housewives, which was the cause of many interruptions in our familial tranquility. Virtually all of the streets in Green Acres were cul-de-sacs, which meant no through-traffic, or paradise to a kid on a Schwinn. Sections of the community were separated by small parks, so that you could walk from one end to the other without crossing a single street, allowing our extremely eccentric Dachshund ‘Ronzoni’ to wander freely about the neighborhood, sometimes for days at a time.
And then there was Montauk. In the late 1930’s, some members of my mother’s family, siblings of mygrandmother, bought property in Montauk, which was then a small fishing village at the very Eastern tip of Long Island, about a hundred miles East of Manhattan. These were the Stephensons, the children of my great grandmother Kitty Lane, who married Edward Stephenson, whose photograph, for decades after his early demise, sporting a straw skimmer and handlebar mustache, adorned the wall of their family’s Bronx apartment.
They were blue collar, working class, depression era Irish, bringing to the table all the good and the bad that that combination of unfortunate circumstances might suggest. With the exception of Aunt Catherine, I found them to be likeable and exotic. They seemed to speak another language, pronouncing words differently than I had ever heard before. Oil was earl, as in, “I’ve got to put some motor earl in the car”, or, “Pick up some olive earl for salad.” They called Chinese food chinks, and pizza was ahbeetz. Their apartment in the Bronx was filled with strange and bewildering religious oddities, each room with a crucifix on the wall and framed pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and various Saints. And there were glow-in-the-dark statues, mostly of Jesus that, if held next to a lamp for a minute or so, would glow a strange blue-green. On my Great Grandmother’s dresser was Statue of Jesus with little doors built into his chest which, when opened, revealed all his internal organs, like an illustration in a biology book. I had no idea why Jesus would want to share his internal organs with me, but examining the sacred innards was so wonderfully weird that it became my favorite source of amusement whenever we paid a visit.
The oldest Stephenson was Edward Junior (Uncle Eddie) who, although his Montauk cottage sat directly across the .street from his younger sister Catherine, had, some time between the purchase of his building lot in the mid 1930’s, and the end of World War II, engaged in some dispute with his siblings, a result of which was eternal and mutual banishment. His sisters seldom spoke his name, and then only accompanied by a shaking head and mournful sigh – an Irish form of familial excommunication. As a small child I saw him once or twice, but was discouraged from crossing the dirt road that separated the warring parties.
The next in line was my Great Aunt Rose, a stout, determined woman, who lived far outside the code of conduct normally adhered to by her peers. Some time in the early 1920’s, Rose divorced her husband, and married Charlie Volk, a Jewish soda vendor with whom she had been carrying on a delightfully disgraceful affair for quite some time. Among depression era Irish, divorce was unthinkable. And marrying a Jew, well, the whole neighborhood probably grabbed their rosary beads and fell to their knees in a desperate attempt to prevent Bronx-bound lightening strikes. Rosie drank whiskey in bars, and enjoyed the company of men. Rosie got into bar fights that she usually finished. Rosie had some cojones.
Then came Aunt Della, a small, thin, mousy little woman, who, it was rumored, suffered a terrible bout of tuberculosis in her early twenties, which kept her chair-bound for most of her life, but didn’t seem to deter her chain smoking. Della married a man named Clem who, during prohibition, succumbed to a lethal combination of bad calms and bathtub gin. He walked out of the clam bar on City Island with a smile on his face, and was dead two hours later. There were whispers about Aunt Della that my young ears detected, but that my child’s brain could make little sense of. Something about a tubal pregnancy. A dead fetus inside Aunt Della. A shameful secret. Hair that kept growing. Different lengths were mentioned – three feet, five feet, ten feet – all inside Aunt Della. Until finally, she could hide her delicate dilemma no longer, and off to the hospital she went, to have her expanding Medusa surgically removed from her Catholic self. I assume it was the offspring of the deceased clam eater, but I guess we’ll never know.
Next was Anna (Nan), my Grandmother, who flew the coop at an early age, and married notorious gambler, and stage performer Black Jack Dowling. They started a Vaudeville act, had two kids (my Mother and Uncle Tommy), added them to the act, and called themselves the Dancing Dowlings. They played the Southern Vaudeville circuit for about ten years, before returning to New York City. Unlike the rest of her siblings, Nan lived in Manhattan for most of her adult life.
Last and probably least, was Aunt Catherine, the baby of the Stephenson clan. She bore a startling resemblance to Margaret Hamilton, who played the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz. Catherine was married to Harold Hanley (Uncle Harold or sometimes Bootsiboo – don’t ask) who was a construction foreman, flounder fisherman, and pretty affable guy. How he put up with all those old biddies is anybody’s guess. Catherine was an unpleasant woman who couldn’t resist pinching my cheek, which really hurt. I hid from Aunt Catherine.
In the early days of World War II, Aunt Catherine and Uncle Harold built a tiny cottage on their Montauk property, and their presence seemed to draw other family members out to the end of Long Island. Uncle Tommy, who worked on the Tars and Spars Shows, out of the Brooklyn Coast Guard Barracks, began taking weekend passes, along with his Coast Guard pals, and heading out to Montauk, where he had befriended Otto and Mary Steinfeld, who owned the Montauket Hotel. After the war, Sonny Volk, Rosie’s son, who had lost a leg in the Battle of the Bulge, settled in Montauk, looking for business opportunities.
In January of 1946 my world, as I knew it, would change forever with the return of my father from Japan. Hail the conquering hero. He was resplendent in his army uniform, shiny Captain’s bars adorning the epaulets on his shoulders, and I’m sure a great fuss was made over him by everyone he knew, or was introduced to. This would be the first time I laid eyes on my father, who was on a troop ship sailing to New Guinea when I was born. Up until then, having a father, in my little world, meant being told stories by my mother of her hero, off somewhere far away, fighting for America.
She would show me pictures and read me letters, and drag me to the record store where we would sit in a booth and record our voices on a disc that she would send off to somewhere in the far Pacific, to be listened to by her husband and his army pals. Personal recordings were extremely popular during the war, where many, like my father, could listen to the voices of their wives and sweethearts, and children they had yet to meet. I was two when I first met him, and I’m sure that his sudden presence in my life was bewildering, to say the least. He moved in to the small apartment I had shared with my mother, on Creston Avenue in the Bronx. My mother told me years later that she made my father wear his uniform after his return so she could show him off to everyone she knew. Take him down to the Club Fordham and flaunt her victorious soldier to the gang. He was a handsome guy, and I’m sure my mother’s pals were impressed by those shiny Captain’s bars on his shoulders.
A few years later, while snooping through his army trunk, which was one of my favorite forms of rainy day adventure, I came across his discharge papers. They were right there, along with his uniforms, and souvenirs of his years in the Pacific; a samurai sword, a blood-stained Japanese flag allegedly taken from the pockets of a dead enemy soldier, ivory Buddha statues, sea shells, photographs of naked women, and the various and sundry collected keepsakes of two years in a distant land. First Lieutenant Albert W. Costello was Honorably Discharged…………First Lieutenant. This would be my first brush with my father’s sleight-of-hand. He must have purchased Captain’s Bars at the PX, and somewhere between exiting the troop ship, and being enveloped into the welcoming arms of my mother, Lieutenant Costello became a Captain. I guess his army rank disappointed him, but more importantly, he thought it might disappoint others. I never mentioned my discovery, which I’m quite certain my mother was unaware of. The uniform finally went into mothballs, replaced by custom tailored suits, but the story of Al being a Captain in the war became his permanent legacy.
It wasn’t until my family moved to Green Acres that we began our visits to Montauk. After the birth of my sister, my father, looking for more space for his growing family, and greener pastures for his fragile self-esteem, moved us from our tiny Bronx apartment to the town of Katonah, in the wilds of northern Westchester County, a two and a half hour commute by train to his office in mid-town Manhattan. He had rented a house on a lovely estate called Blue Spruce Farm, overlooking the Croton Reservoir. The property, owned by a mysterious man named Korhulse, was extensive – fields, woods, ponds, streams, barns containing horses, empty buildings in which to do make-believe and exploring – what a place to be a kid. The literally thousands of family photographs I inherited tell a story of countless visits by many of my father’s friends from the city, who made the trek north to our house in the country, to witness, first hand, the kind of life style Al Costello now enjoyed. But, after two years, the length of the commute, and the lure of participation in the American Dream’s reward of home ownership, overwhelmed my father, who decided to buy a house on Long Island. I was told quite abruptly, half way through kindergarten, and was uprooted, and dragged kicking and screaming to the enclave of Green Acres, a short commute to my father’s office, and the first home my family actually owned.
We now lived less than a hundred miles from the hamlet of Montauk, where family members owned houses, and others like my Uncle Tommy were now visiting fairly often. It didn’t take long before we began stuffing ourselves and our baggage in our Nash Rambler station wagon to make weekend trips east.
My father took to Montauk like the return of the prodigal son, although I’m not sure why. He wasn’t a fisherman, being a bit too squeamish to gut a freshly caught flounder. Boating made him sea sick. He was prone to sun burn. Yet, according to all who witnessed Al Costello’s Montauk epiphany, the man just loved the place. Early attempts at staying with Aunt Catherine, Uncle Harold and all the old biddies in their tiny cottage were quickly exchanged for rooms in local hotels. There was Bill’s Inn on Fort Pond, and The Montauk Chalet in a place called Shepherd’s Neck, and finally cottages in Hither Hills overlooking the ocean that were owned by a family named French. The Frenches were friends of my Uncle Tommy, who recommended we stay there.
The French family owned considerable property in an area of Montauk called Hither Hills, which sat directly above the ocean beaches and, many decades later, would become the most valuable real estate on the East Coast. Richard Nixon, who, while staying at Gurney’s Inn, an ocean front hotel in Hither Hills, wrote his acceptance speech for his nomination as the Republican candidate for President in 1968. Nixon was so taken with Hither Hills that, after his inauguration as President, he attempted to have the government purchase the property adjacent to Gurney’s Inn, with the intention of constructing the Nixon Summer White House. The Secret Service put the kibosh on Nixon’s plans because of security concerns, the property being too visibly accessible from the ocean.
The familial competition between my father and uncle rekindled when the Frenches persuaded my Uncle Tommy to purchase ocean front property adjacent to their own. Uncle Tommy’s always-prosperous appearance deceived the Frenches into thinking he could afford it. Unable to actually buy the property, and unwilling to be found out as a mountebank and charlatan, my uncle somehow wrangled an option to purchase the land with a small down payment, which could only have come from one of his many dowager patrons.
No one but Uncle Tommy knew this, of course, everyone assuming that he was now the proud owner of some very expensive real estate. This was disturbing news to my father, who had recently purchased, on a G.I. mortgage, our house in Green Acres, and was almost certainly financially overextended. Not to outdone by his brother-in-law, and ignoring his financial reality, the ignoble Army Captain found himself a willing real estate agent, and began looking for a suitable site for the Costello family’s new summer house.
Within a year, Al Costello found himself making mortgage payments on our home in Green Acres, and our new summer house in Montauk. My father was now living way beyond his means, the two mortgages added to his ever-increasing gambling debts, and, unknown to the rest of us, was drowning in a whirlpool of fantasy-driven irresponsibility, robbing Peter to pay Paul, and struggling to somehow keep his head above water.
Meanwhile, Uncle Tommy, unable to make any additional payments on his ocean front fiasco, lost his option to purchase the property. Somehow, no one found out about this real estate calamity, and his friends and family went right on thinking, for many years, that Thomas Dowling Esquire owned that ocean front property, a myth he enthusiastically encouraged. After all, in his custom tailored suits, driving his Jaguar Mark IX sedan, gifts lavished upon him by generous women, he certainly looked the part.
My mother, now ensconced in her Green Acres dream house, spending weekends splashing about on the beaches near her newly acquired summer home, was unaware of her husband’s financial difficulties, at least in the beginning. But financial pressures quickly eat away at marital stability, and within a short time my parents’ marriage became out and out warfare, my sister and I hiding under our beds during bouts of shouting, name calling, and dish throwing; the argument usually started by my father, who was by then stopping off for a few quick ones on his way home to face the family he now blamed for his dilemma. I remember one horrific incident, when my father came home quite late and obviously drunk, ignoring the dinner set on the dining room table, and staggering to his room where he collapsed in bed. My mother was so enraged that, for reasons known to her alone, she took all of the dishes off the table and smashed them against the living room wall which, by the time she had thrown her last projectile, was completely covered by dripping food, and broken fragments of china, a violent and terrifying image I can still recall vividly.
Our family was in jeopardy. Revealed to me many years later, my father uncharacteristically confessed his situation, even the gambling debts, to my mother. A change had to be made, and it had to be made quickly. One of the houses had to be sold, and my parents decided to sell our home in Green Acres, and hold on to, at least temporarily, the Montauk beach house. Leaving Green Acres was probably the most traumatic moment of my childhood, and I never really forgave my parents. It had been decided, certainly without consulting me, that we would pack up our belongings and move to an apartment in Forest Hills, which I was told was in the borough of Queens, a part of New York City.
My mother had spent time there as a teen, dancing with my uncle at the Forest Hills Inn. She said it was a wonderful neighborhood. There was a famous tennis club, and a beautiful Catholic school, just a short walk from our apartment. I was told I would love it. Both my parents assured me that life in Forest Hills would not be that big of a change. After all, we still had the house in Montauk. They considered it a solution. I considered it a betrayal. But, like all children in situations like this, I had little say in the matter. We were moving to a place called the Forest Hills Gardens, and that was that.
© 2014 Shaun Costello
PORNOGRAPHER FOR HIRE
Toiling at day labor in the world of smut.
by Shaun Costello
In 1978, the Reverend Jim Jones, a self-proclaimed Apostolic Socialist Preacher, increased the world-wide awareness of Kool Aid immeasurably, by moving his “People’s Temple” flock from the city of San Francisco to an obscure corner of Northwest Guyana, where he led them in a ritualistic mass suicide, leaving over nine hundred rotting, bloated corpses for the world’s Paparazzi to record for posterity. At Camp David, in rural Maryland, Egypt and Israel shook hands on a peace agreement while, in Lawrenceville Georgia, Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine, was paralyzed by gun shots from an unknown assailant. In England, the birth of the world’s first test tube baby was recorded – conceived through In Vitro Fertilization. Before the year would end, Atlantic City would legalize gambling, the Love Canal would be declared a federal disaster, and Garfield the Cat would enter syndication. In the Spring of 1978 I got a call from Roy Seretsky, who had an office in New York’s Film Center Building where I also had space for years. I knew Roy only slightly, and he knew me mostly by reputation. He also knew of my association with Dibi (Robert ‘Dibi’ DiBernardo) and the Gambino crime family. I was considered a protected guy, which meant I was untouchable, a status I reveled in. Dibi, in deference to my friendship with the late John Liggio, had kept the status of “connected” from our relationship. Instead I was considered a “friend” of the family, and friends were protected, without the reciprocity that would be demanded of a “connected” guy, or an “associate”. An ideal situation.
A year before, I had met Roy during the shooting of ‘Fiona on Fire’, a movie I was reluctant to direct. Fiona was written and produced by Ken Schwartz, who owned a film editing facility a few floors above my office in the Film Center. Schwartz was an affable man who I had gotten to know through renting his editing rooms to do post production on Waterpower, a movie I had produced a year earlier. Ken couldn’t get over Waterpower – how well he thought it turned out, and how absurdly kinky it was. He mentioned to me more that once that, if he ever got the opportunity to produce a film of his own, I would be the only director he would consider. I had been directing adult films for six years, and had always written and produced my own projects, a situation that I was not anxious to change. Working with long-time collaborator, cameraman Bill Markle, I had always written and produced everything myself. But Ken was relentless, and suddenly the opportunity presented itself. He had written a script based on Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic “Laura” and, through Roy Seretsky, had come up with the
money to produce it. The idea of working with someone else’s material was unappealing to me, and I declined Ken’s offer. But sometimes a situation can dictate a change in direction. A film I was planning had been cancelled by its backers, who were restructuring and temporarily out of business, and I found myself unemployed. This, combined with Ken’s relentless pursuit and offers of a hefty director’s fee, changed my position. So I took the job and hated every minute of it. Although I was allowed to hire Markle as the Director of Photography, that hire was my limit. Ken had written a complicated screenplay, with tricky dialogue that even experienced actors would have trouble with, and he expected porn performers, who had difficulty with the simplest scripts, to deal with it. It was impossible. Not only had Ken written the script, but he would also do the casting, so that actors I didn’t know, who had little experience, and even less talent would show up on the set to wrangle with dialogue they had no hope of delivering in any believable way. And, as the film’s director, I was supposed to sort all of this out – make it happen. It was hopeless. Bill Markle did a great job, as always, giving the movie a professional look, but the performance of most of the cast was laughable. At the end of every shooting day, after begging Ken to
simplify the dialogue, I swore I’d never do anything like this again. Two or three times, during Fiona’s eight shooting days, Roy Seretsky would show up on the set, look around, and then quickly disappear. I had maybe one or two conversations with him, certainly nothing memorable. A year after we wrapped the set on Fiona, I was surprised to hear from him. Roy had one of the most unique jobs in show business. He scouted investment opportunities in theatrical and motion picture production for organized crime, particularly the Bonanno family. He had put together financial packages for many Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, which had enjoyed a long and profitable Off-Broadway run, was wholly Bonanno funded, the arrangements made by Roy. Their biggest success was twenty percent ownership of “Cats”, which made them a fortune. On the film side, Roy was offered all or part of almost everything produced by Dino DeLaurentis. Roy had backers for a script that my old nemesis
Ken Schwartz had written and wanted to direct, a comedy/sex version of Dracula. The budget was huge, maybe $150,000, which was more money than had ever been spent on what would still have to be considered a porno movie. The script was hilarious, but the backers were nervous. Roy asked me to meet with him, along with some of the Colombo people. My part in this meeting would be to act as consultant in order to advise them on the profitability of the project. The meeting was held at Lanza’s Restaurant, on First Avenue and Twelfth Street. Roy, myself, and two of the Colombo people would participate. My good friend and sponsor John Liggio, a ranking member in the Colombo family, had died of lung cancer a few years before, and I recognized one of the Colombos from the funeral. He worked under John, and knew of our friendship, so the mood of the meeting was warm and friendly. They laid their cards on the table and I advised them as best I could. Ken Schwartz, who wrote the script and was lobbying to direct it, wanted to cast Jack Wrangler, a notoriously gay porno actor, famous for his live-in relationship with singer Margaret Whiting, as Dracula. Mafia members are born homophobes, and they were nervous about putting up the
biggest budget ever spent on a heterosexual porno movie (Dracula) starring a notoriously gay actor (Jack Wrangler). Wrangler had told Schwartz that if he got the part his good friend, famous Broadway wardrobe designer, William Ivey Long, would do the costumes. A stage-struck Schwartz was smitten with the idea of Long’s participation and, although I had no idea how that would add to the project’s profitability, I continued to listen. I heard them out and told them what I thought. Ken’s script was hilarious, and had real possibilities if correctly handled. I had met Wrangler a few times and liked him. I told them that Jack might make a very campy and funny Dracula. When asked if I would cast him I told them that, with a budget this big, it could be risky. I suggested that if the decision were mine I would cast Jamie Gillis as the moody vampire. On the Schwartz/directing issue I told them that he would probably be fine, but he should be closely watched. First time directors have a tendency to overshoot, and in 35MM that could lead to stock and lab overages that could be substantial. The meeting ended and we went our separate ways. I left the meeting hungry because the food at Lanza’s was awful. The place was kept open exclusively for meetings like this one, not for its cuisine.
A few days later Roy called. He asked me if, as a favor (a big word with these guys), I would take the job of assistant director on the picture in order to keep an eye on Schwartz. I declined. Having an obvious spy in the crew would only serve to make the first time director nervous. Roy had his back-up offer ready. He said that if I would direct the movie for a flat fee he would hire Gillis to play the lead, and I would have final say on all casting. This would mean a month in the city, and I had been training for a major dressage competition in Rhinebeck in a few weeks, so this was not an appealing idea. Also, it seemed like Fiona redux, which was an awful thought. But I knew that, if I said no, the Colombo’s would pressure the Gambinos, and I would get a call from Dibi suggesting I do this for the good of all concerned. So I caved. During pre-production it became obvious that the whole project was quickly becoming a mess, but there was one exception. Ken Schwartz, who had been kicked upstairs as Producer, and was becoming strangely
unstable, had hired a typist/PA on the production who caught my eye. He was a skinny, mousy guy with thick glasses, and a mid-western accent, who seemed to be an island of quietly assertive competence in the sea of chaos that this production was becoming. This was Mark Silverman, who would become my producer and friend for the duration of my tenure as a pornographer. The shooting of “Dracula Exotica” took over three weeks. I had a script supervisor and even an assistant. There was a production manager named Bill Milling, who I loathed on sight, and the biggest crew I had ever seen, much less worked with. Ken Schwartz spent most of his time going over sketches with William Ivey Long, the famous Broadway wardrobe designer, who took the job because he thought his friend Jack
Wrangler was going to play the lead. Long quit after a week. The first night of pre-production, Milling and I got into it over something. As the shouting got louder, and the tension approached the red line, Mark Silverman, who was the lowest ranking production assistant in the crew and had the title “typist”, walked right over to the shouting parties and said, “Hey, do either of you two assholes want coffee?” I was in love. With one line Mark was able to diffuse the argument, and even get a few laughs. My kind of guy.
I was happy with the look of the dailies. If only Ken Schwartz could handle post-production, he’d have a huge hit on his hands. By the end of the first week of shooting Schwartz, who had been growing more unstable with each production day, had a nervous breakdown. It seems that earlier in the day, William Ivey Long, the wardrobe designer, who was disappointed at the absence of Jack Wrangler, quit the project, and Ken flipped out. I was in a screening with Bill Markle and Robbie Lutrell, the special effects designer, when Mark Silverman burst in. “We have a big problem”, he said. “Ken has flipped out, and Bill Milling is running around like a lunatic, making phone calls and telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s taking over the picture”. I told Mark to get Roy Seretsky on the phone. I told him not to give details, but that he should get over here right away. Ken was sitting behind his desk mumbling something and had become completely dysfunctional. I guess that being responsible for this sized budget had gotten to him. Anyway, Roy showed up and straightened Milling out, and we kept shooting. Ken gradually recovered his ability to speak and by the end of shooting seemed normal, but wasn’t. The responsibility for the huge budget had gotten to him, and the loss of his famous wardrobe designer was the last straw. He never seemed to recover his original enthusiasm for the project. Ultimately, Dracula Exotica was a real disappointment. The cast, particularly Jamie Gillis, Vanessa Del Rio, and Bobby Astyr were terrific. The sets were elaborate. The locations were lush and inventive. Ken’s script was funny. But the picture just never worked. Schwartz, who seemed to have lost all faith in the production, and in order to save a few shekels, hired Robby Lutrell, the special effects designer on the project, who had never edited anything in his life, to cut the picture. The dailies had great potential, but the finished picture was flat. Robby couldn’t cut sex, and he couldn’t cut comedy, a bad combination. Dracula Exotica could have been a breakthrough picture for all concerned but, because Ken cheaped out in post production, all that expensive footage, that took us all so many long shooting days to achieve, was wasted. If asked, I probably would have cut the film for nothing, and the result might have been quite different. But I wasn’t, and this time I swore, and stuck to it, never to work as a hired gun again.
I’m going to take a moment here to explain why adult movies with big budgets like Dracula Exotica were, from an investor’s point of view, pure folly. During the Seventies there were a finite number of first run adult movie houses in major cities, just as there were a finite number of second and third run (where the real profit was made) houses in the suburbs and rural areas. In 1978, the year I made Dracula Exotica, a Porn Feature made its reputation playing the big houses in NY and LA. This assured that picture of major play in the rest of the big cities. The biggest play date
was the Pussycat Theater in NYC. The Pussycat played the biggest pictures, not because of their quality, but because of the familial connection of the backers. Since the Pussycat was owned and operated by New York’s Bonanno crime family, it stood to reason that a Bonanno funded picture would be first choice, guaranteeing a nice profit for its investors. A full page rave review, written by Al Goldstein, would appear in Screw the week of the opening, with quotes galore, available for the print ads and one-sheets. Goldstein was on the Bonanno’s payroll, and did what he was told. If no Bonanno funded picture was available then a Gambino funded picture would play the house, followed by a Colombo funded picture, etc. The rule of thumb was that the first run houses in major cities made back the picture’s negative cost, and the second and third run houses in the hinterland made the profit. The same is true in television, where the network run makes back the production cost, and syndication makes the real profit.
The formula was: Dollar one of profit was reached at 2.5 X negative cost.
So a Movie like Dracula Exotica, which had a production cost of $150,000 and additional lab costs (internegative, and release prints) of $30,000 had a total negative cost of $180,000. This meant that it would not make dollar one of profit until it grossed $450,000. That’s a number that might take years to reach. The only reason that the budget was so big was to make Ken Schwartz feel good about himself. He convinced Roy Seretsky, who arranged the financing, that he could produce a “Breakthrough” movie that would make them all rich and Roy bought into Ken’s fantasy, a bad decision, from a purely business point of view.
When I was approached by Cal Young, that same year, to make a picture with Dom Cataldo’s money, I was careful about how I approached it. This was Cal’s first attempt at a “better” movie, and I liked both of these guys, and wanted them to do well. Also I had a piece of it. So I designed the production to maximize profitability. I came up with a great title (Afternoon Delights), wrote a screenplay that revealed itself in vignettes (more bang for the buck), shot the movie in 16MM, specifically designed to be blown-up to a 35MM internegative, and limited the 35MM release print run to ten (you rarely needed more). Dom Cataldo was a highly ranked sub-boss in the Colombo family with gambling operations in Brooklyn and Queens, so opening Afternoon Delights at the Pussycat was assured. That would mean that the two pictures would have pretty much the same play dates throughout their runs.
Let’s compare them: THE TALE OF THE TAKE:
DRACULA EXOTICA: “The Heavyweight Champ and disappointment to its backers”
Negative cost $180,000
Dollar one of profit reached at $450,000.
Gross revenues (as of ‘83) $550,000. (I know this number because Seretsky, who was pissed at Ken Schwartz, told me)
Profit: $100,000. or 56% of its negative cost.
AFTERNOON DELIGHTS: “The Lightweight Challenger, and little known cash cow”
Negative cost $60,000 (production cost $40,000…blow up and print run $20,000)
Dollar one of profit reached at $150,000.
Gross revenues (as of ‘83) $500,000.
Profit $350,000. or 580% of its negative cost.
Which investment would you rather have made? The moral to this story is that, back in 1978, as long as you were connected, spending more than $60,000 on an adult movie was pure folly. Other than freakishly profitable blockbusters like, Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and some others, most adult movies made the same money, provided they were ‘Family’ financed, and looked good. The pictures I made for Reuben Sturman a few years later were made with video in mind somewhere down the road, so they had to appeal to a wider audience, namely couples. Sturman wanted a “Look”, was willing to pay for it, and it was money well spent. He had the foresight to understand where the business was going. At this point the ‘Families’ were coming to the conclusion that there was more money in heroin and cocaine than in porn, which was basically the end of them.
© 2014 Shaun Costello
SANTA’S RACIAL DILEMMA
The Morality Police busy themselves saving children from reality.
By Shaun Costello
Members of the Liberal press, people I listen to, and read daily, had a communal nosebleed when a Fox News bimbo-clone and a few Republican idiots recently proclaimed that Santa Claus was their favorite color – WHITE. I’m as liberal as liberal gets short of anarchy, but I find no fault in Santa’s being white. Santa Claus, AKA Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Chrismas, etc, is a product of Northern European folklore, and his inclusion in the celebration of Christmas is a product of Northern European culture and tradition. As Europeans immigrated to the New World, they brought their traditions with them, and an Americanized version of the Santa character evolved on our shores. America, unlike Northern Europe, became a multi-cultural nation, and as different nationalities and races assimilated into American society they were exposed to each other’s religious beliefs, celebrations, and traditions. America’s diversity is our greatest strength, and tolerance of our differences, while long in coming, is an American phenomenon well worth the wait.
The celebration of our individual ethnic traditions by Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, etc, does not make us any less American. I hope that Christmas and Chanukkah are never, at some future date, molded together into a celebration of the ultimate amalgam of political correctness – Christukkah. The Jewish God, with his flowing white hair and beard, and lightening bolts in each hand, ready to toss at some unfortunate offender, would never allow it. Nor should he. Chanukkah, the festival of lights, is a
wonderful holiday that should remain forever Jewish. As Christmas, a celebration, for those who are keeping score, of the birth of Christ is, and should always remain Christian. That Santa should have no color is preposterous. That the spirit of Christmas should have no color is something to strive for. I can only hope that one day, children will honor and celebrate the spirit of each other’s ethnic holidays and appreciate the wonder of their differences.
The commercialization of Christmas in America has turned a once charming tradition into a frenzy of gift giving that borders on the ridiculous. The spike in the suicide rate at Christmas time has a direct correlation to the obligation Americans seem to feel to give the right gift, and the disappointment and shame they feel when they fail to do so. Bargain sale days like black Friday, which allegedly exist to help shoppers fulfill their obligatory purchases for the upcoming gift swapping conflagration that Christmas has become, have become so competitive that gift-hungry buyers line up sometimes several days in advance to assure their purchases at the right price. This holiday season has so far seen three deaths at shopping venues, two by gun shot wounds, as frantic shoppers compete, sometimes violently, for the discounted price.
Traditional icons of the Christmas celebration, like Santa Claus, have lost their luster, and their connection to the idea of Christmas. As commercialization overtakes ritual,
Christmas loses the charm of its identity, and morphs into the struggle of buying, and giving, and returning, and the never-ending obligation to succeed in the frenzy of finding the perfect gift. Americans have long ago lost touch with the origins of this Holiday and the traditional characterizations that have always accompanied the
celebration. So, Santa Claus, a product of centuries of folklore, becomes a plastic, red and white, bearded face on a front door. We no longer think of him as flesh and blood – the jolly white-bearded, bearer of Yultide gifts, driving his reindeer and sleigh through the skies to bring joy and gifts to the children of the world. He’s been lost in the amalgamation of the idea into the commercialization of the moment.
So just why, exactly, do Liberals think Santa has no color? Are they so guilt-ridden that they busy themselves creating an antidote to offending absolutely anyone? Do they really think that Black children can’t relate to a Santa who is white? Do they
really think that black children see the world as grey? Do they really think that black children are oblivious to the fact that there are black people, and white people, and yellow people, and brown people? Are they so lost in the androgyny of their morality that they’ve gone on the permanent defensive against the celebration of anything unique or individual? Do they really feel that playing the role of the morality police compensates for a lifetime of questionable decisions and behavior? Do they really think they can throw us all in the blender, obliterate our differences, and turn us into them? Just what exactly are they afraid of? Why can’t Santa be white – the guy is from Poland.
© 2013 Shaun Costello
From The Erotic Film Society in London
The first review of:
WILD ABOUT HARRY
by Shaun Costello
For such a prolific director – at least 66 films between 1973 and 1984 – Shaun Costello remained one of the New York XXX scene’s best kept secrets for many years. One reason is the number of noms-de-porn he worked under.
He made more than his fair share of films that are now recognised as classics but not always under the same name – he was ‘Kenneth Schwartz’ for FIONA ON FIRE but ‘Warren Evans’ for DRACULA EXOTICA, for example – and this prevented him from getting due recognition until relatively recently.
For notorious roughies FORCED ENTRY and WATERPOWER, he was ‘Helmuth Richler’ but ‘Amanda Barton’ made the sensitive PASSIONS OF CAROL. At Avon Productions he was ‘Russ Carlson’ and for a while he was even ‘Oscar Tripe’; plus there were numerous uncredited one-day-wonders.
In ONLY THE BEST, published at the dawn of the video era, critic Jim Holliday indicated that one person was behind some of these pseudonyms; but pre-internet it was pretty much impossible for even dedicated pornologists to crack the Costello code.
With the advent of the web, the IMDb and IAFD and dedicated discussion forums where smut-hounds could compare what they’d discovered, facts began to surface.
Then something occurred that every film historian dreams about; Shaun Costello himself joined the forums. He posted on IMDb. He corrected. He clarified… And suddenly his incredible career came into sharp focus.
Not just those 66 films that he helmed but around the same number of appearances from 1971 to ’89 – and that doesn’t include loops – plus at least 50 films he produced and a similar number of writing credits. It’s a wonder he ever found time to sleep.
On the evidence of WILD ABOUT HARRY, his by turns hilarious and moving memoir about his friendship with Harry Reems, during the pre-DEEP THROAT days of Big Apple hard-core, sleep was often the last thing on his mind.
Whether he was editing into the early hours – the only way he could afford post-production facilities – or heroically carousing with his buddies – ‘the Three Musketeers of 42nd Street’ – those years in the late 60s and early 70s seem to have been one madcap adventure, where anything was possible.
A voracious film fan, from art-house masters to grindhouse smut, Shaun absorbed everything. He fell into the pornographic loops business by happy accident, just as they were on the borderline of becoming legal, or at least tolerated, in the adult bookstores of the Deuce.
And he was there when a handsome, young, legit actor – still known by his birth name, Herb Streicher – made his debut in an explicit 8mm film destined for ‘under the counter’ sales.
(Assumed names were cast aside faster than underwear: Herb wouldn’t settle on Harry Reems for a couple of years, after he’d tried on ‘Tim Long’ among other aliases.)
It wasn’t just the start of a professional relationship – Shaun cast Herb/Harry as a disturbed Vietnam Vet in FORCED ENTRY, his first feature as director – it was the beginning of a deep friendship.
And now Shaun has published this memoir of those heady days – and that double entendre is very much intended – as a tribute to his buddy, who passed away in March of this year.
Anyone who knows the recipe for Automat Soup (a container of ketchup and hot water, if you’re asking – gourmets break some gratis crackers on top to simulate croutons) will probably already have a copy.
But what if you’re not a dedicated devotee of the Deuce and are wondering whether to purchase? Or what if you – horror – have to ask, ‘What’s the Deuce’? Well, let Mr Costello explain…
‘The Times Square subway station, my portal to the neighborhood, was an intense assault on the senses. A sudden, almost overwhelming surge of smells and filth hit you as the train doors slid open to the rush of urine, and cotton candy, and damp humanity, and hot dogs on their revolving spits, and vomit, and baked goods like crumb cakes and bran muffins and pretzels, and the garlicky pungent scent of Gyros slowly rotating, and everything suddenly interrupted by someone chasing a pick-pocket through outstretched hands asking for dimes, and a tidal swarm of the disenfranchised huddled in groups, trying to stay warm. And this entire sensory phantasmagoria was musically scored by the overmodulated sound of Kool and the Gang wailing “Jungle Boogie” from the cheap speakers over the door to the subterranean record store. And then the cold again as you climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was, “The Deuce”.’ (from WILD ABOUT HARRY © 2013 Shaun Costello)
From this vivid evocation of arriving at 42nd Street, you should immediately have discerned that our guide to all this decadence has a very neat turn of phrase indeed, which he puts to fine effect throughout the book.
It’s prose that encapsulates the sights, the sounds, the smells, the animal excitement of the city – and the only reason not to enjoy it is that it makes you break down and cry, lamenting the passing of such delightful debauchery.
‘Delightful debauchery’? Well, yes. Shaun Costello is aware of the oxymoron. On the one hand, he’s a cultured chap, dating a wealthy heiress. On the other, he’s working his way up the porn ladder.
And he’s having fun all the way, along with his lifelong friend Jimmy and – of course – Harry, who is seemingly ever ready for an adventure. Such as one hallucinogen-fuelled romp which takes them from Times Square to the East Side via various apartments whose inhabitants are woken at unearthly hours, before disgorging them on a pitch-and-putt golf course by the beach… all described with a panache that matches Hunter S Thompson’s knack for conveying altered reality.
When DEEP THROAT made Harry a porno chic superstar, his world suddenly became a round of press and promotion and personal appearances, followed equally swiftly by the traumas of the authorities’ attempts to prosecute him for merely appearing in the film.
During this period, Shaun lost contact with his buddy, so he has to rely on the interviews that Harry made when he reappeared from anonymity (he’d become a real estate salesman in Colorado) in the wake of the documentary INSIDE DEEP THROAT, to describe what happened.
Initially I was worried that this could turn into a cut and paste job, but Costello has chosen and edited the quotes with great sensitivity.
It’s rather like that moment in a jazz number, when the star soloist comes forward. We’ve enjoyed Shaun talking about his friend and now we get hear Harry’s own voice.
And what a lovely voice it is, especially talking about his conversion to Christianity and the spiritual belief that saved him from alcoholism (with the aid of a 12 step programme).
This sort of tale could so easily be preachy. And how often have former porners turned on the business, their former friends, their whole past life, when they found God?
But Harry – or Herb – was clearly such a sweet guy – and his story of salvation comes over as so genuine – that even if you don’t believe yourself, you can’t help but feel glad that he found that faith because it saved his life.
And then there’s a coda: a meeting years later; a final phone call. It’s deeply touching and heartfelt. Shaun Costello has written as beautiful a tribute as anyone could imagine. Any quibbles? Just one. I was left ravenous for more of Shaun’s own autobiography. From his contributions to various forums, I know he has great tales to tell and that he tells them in an exceptionally entertaining manner.
WILD ABOUT HARRY
is available as an eBook
WHY I’M NOT SURPRISED THAT MARK JACKSON BECAME A SUCCESSFUL NBA COACH – AFTER ALL, ONCE UPON A TIME, HE SAVED MY ASS AND MADE ME A HERO
by Shaun Costello
I was born and raised in New York City, commuted to High School by subway – a real city kid, and dedicated gym rat. When it came to basketball, I rooted for the New York Knickerbockers. After all, they were the city’s team, my team. Over the years I rode the roller coaster of highs and lows that the sometimes magnificent, sometimes dreadful New York Knicks provided for their loyal and befuddled fans. I remembered the names of all of the players and their many coaches – even some of the assistants. This is the plight of kids who grow up as gym rats, and who, once upon a time, thrilled to the peerless ballet performed on the floor of Madison Square Garden by the likes of Willis Reed, Dave Debuscher, Frazier,
Monroe, Lucas, and the rest. You become a hopeless case, who dreams the impossible dream, of your team, the city’s team, returning to its former glory, even though, with passing years, those days of glory had long since faded into the distant past.
During the Eighties, I made a very good living directing television commercials for New York advertising agencies. In early September of 1989 I was handed a story board from Grey Advertising containing their concept for an ambitious television commercial for none other than my beloved New York Knicks. I was beyond thrilled. If my production company was awarded this project, the entire team would be turned over to me for one whole day.
OK, long story short; the agency creatives liked my input, the suits gave the go-ahead, and the job was mine.
Now, this was the 89/90 Knicks – the Patrick Ewing/Charles Oakley/Mark Jackson/Trent Tucker/Kiki Vandeweghe/Gerald Wilkins Knicks. The team that came between the Rick Pitino trap and gun blur of the mid Eighties, and the Pat Riley-led NBA Finalists of the mid Nineties. A good, but not great team, filled with journeyman role players. Of course, how good they were was meaningless to me. All I could think about was that the New York Knickerbockers were going to be mine for a day.
The commercial would be a complicated combination of live action (Knicks players) interacting with recognizable pieces of New York City’s skyline
(Empire State Building, Pan Am, World Trade Center, etc). The players, who would appear to be hundreds of feet tall, would dribble, pass, and dunk their way through Manhattan’s caverns, using the famous buildings as props. I spent seven shooting days carefully photographing the buildings, so that they would match the intended interaction of the players. We would need the largest soundstage in the city, to accommodate the players, who were taller than I ever imagined, and the building cut-outs with which they would interact. Locked-down cameras were set up in position to photograph the cut-outs, which were carefully constructed to exactly match the buildings I had already photographed, and the Knicks personnel, who would appear as giants, doing their thing. The cut-outs would be painted a color that the computer animation system would recognize, hopefully allowing the intended magic to happen. On the studio floor, the action would appear to be basketball players weaving between huge green set pieces, but on the monitors that were set up all over the building, my original footage of the skyscrapers would be sandwiched with the new shots that included the players at work. Patrick Ewing, and his giant
shadow, would appear to be three quarters the size of the World Trade Center. To do this right, the camera set ups had to be absolutely exact, and this would take several days. In order to simulate the action during the complicated set-up, crew members and agency personnel stood in for the players. The problem was, that none of our crew people or art directors was seven feet tall, but this didn’t seem to matter at the time. Once we were convinced that the set-ups were correct, we were ready for the players. The team was in training, preparing for the upcoming season, and we would only have them all together for one long shooting day.
I arrived early the morning of the shoot. Everything had been set up by the time we left the studio the night before so, other than turning on all the lighting, and technical gadgetry that covered the studio floor, not much had to be done. I had assigned a production assistant the important task of taking still production photographs of the director, and former gym rat, interacting with his heroes throughout the day. In addition, I handed him my very own personal basketball, with instructions to get every player to sign it – reasonable perks for a lifetime fan.
Whenever celebrities were involved in a production like this, an unusually large number of hangers-on were sure to show up. Between Grey Advertising, the Madison Square Garden handlers and publicity staff, the production company, and all of the personal management people who represented the individual players, there must have been well over a hundred gawkers, who were there for a free lunch and a glimpse of Charles Oakley’s sneer.
This was in addition to the twenty five crew members who were already busy warming up the production machinery. And, of the approximately 125 people now waiting for their arrival, I was sure that I would be the only one in the building who knew each and every player by name. A lifetime Knicks fan was about to get his due.
Other than Trent Tucker, who lived in Manhattan, and was already sipping a coffee on the studio floor, the team would be bussed down from their training facility in Westchester. After a pleasant Chat with Trent, I was
informed that the team had arrived, and were all upstairs in the dressing rooms. My heroes, here at last. The first player I noticed was Kiki Vandeweghe, who was sitting in a chair in the make-up room, having some pancake applied to his face. I introduced myself, and he cheerfully engulfed my outstretched hand in his own, the largest hand I had ever seen. I felt like a three year-old, shaking hands with an affable gorilla. One by one, I met the players, who seemed happy to get a day off from the rigors of training camp and, this early in the day, were in a playful mood.
Down on the studio floor, the players mingled with crew people, asking questions about the technology involved in this endeavor, looking in camera viewfinders, seemingly happy to be there. The two players who took particular interest were Mark Jackson, and Gerald Wilkins, who asked intelligent questions, and seemed genuinely fascinated by the technology involved in the production.
Jackson, who addressed me as “Chief”, which almost made me swoon, was relentlessly curious about everything we did. He seemed amazed by the artistry, and wanted to know all about the technology we used to achieve it. I introduced him to our chief video engineer, and walked over to the edge of the studio floor, where Patrick Ewing was sitting all by himself. Now, I’m just not used to being in the presence of anyone seven feet tall, and have to admit to being intimidated by his knee being level with my waist. I asked him if he needed anything, and he shrugged and said he was fine. A few minutes later, I noticed my assistant director, a woman considerably more sensitive that I, approach Patrick, who still seemed aloof.
She slid her arm around his sitting shoulder and gave him a half hug, and his face lit up like a Christmas tree. Patrick wasn’t aloof – he was just shy.
At some point Stu Jackson, the newly hired Knick’s coach made a brief appearance. He asked me if everyone was behaving, and left after a few minutes. Actually the players, with the possible exception of Charles Oakley who had on his snarly game face, were a cooperative bunch. As we began the first set-up, it became obvious that something was wrong. When Oakley or Patrick Ewing stood next to our precious cut-outs, the scale was off by a mile. A common practice in prepping a production, we had used crew people as stand-ins when we constructed the sets. The problem, which was now obvious, was that crew people are not seven feet tall, and that none of our carefully constructed building cut-outs would work with the actual players. I had a very expensive disaster on my hands. We told the team to take a break, and had a crash meeting. Everything would have to be at least two feet taller. All the set-ups, that had taken so many long days to achieve, would have to be redone, and in a hurry. The construction crew attacked the task at hand, and we would have to go through the day shooting one set-up while constructing the next; a noisy, distracting process.
Somehow we managed slowly shooting set-up after set-up, the crew becoming exhausted and cranky, but the players, again with the possible exception of Oakley, were real troopers and none of them complained about the time all of this was taking. After ten hours of shooting, and well into overtime, we were ready for the final shot, which would be the whole team, forming a semi-circle, standing along the edge of Madison Square Garden’s cylindrical roof-line, high-fiving each other, and exuding the energy and confidence of a sports franchise ready to kick some butt. The enormous cylinder shaped platform that the players would stand on had been raised a good five feet by the construction crew, while we were shooting the other set-ups. This would be the big shot. The players climbed up on the platform, and I arranged them in an order that made sense in the camera. The choreography of this shot took at least another hour and, by the time everyone was in position, they hardly looked like the high-energy butt kickers I has envisioned, but instead just a bunch of tired guys who wanted to go home. We began shooting and, take after take, the team seemed more and more exhausted. Payroll wise, we were now into ‘Golden Time’, the client was grumpy and becoming nervous, the crew was sleep-walking, my heroes appeared very unheroic, and my ‘big shot’ was just not working. Just about the time I considered killing myself, I heard a familiar voice from up on the platform. “Hey Chief, wait a second”.
It was Mark Jackson, who jumped down from the platform, took me by the arm, and led me off somewhere beyond the earshot of the huge crowd of gawkers who had been watching this disaster in the making. “Look”, he said, “There’s no energy here. It’s late. These guys are beat. You’ve got to wake them up”. I could only nod, grateful for his interest, but almost too tired to respond. “Look Chief, these are performers you’re dealing with here. They need something to respond to. They need a crowd to cheer them on like it’s the last minute of overtime and they’re one point down. They need their fans to get behind them and make some noise”. Of course, he was absolutely right. He saw the situation, found the problem, and came up with the appropriate solution. Mark took his place back up on the platform, and I rallied the troops. I had to turn every crew person, gawker, and corporate freeloader on that studio floor into frenzied, screaming sports fans, rallying their heroes on to victory. I told the exhausted, yet somehow still cooperative players that we would try one more take, while Mark Jackson poked and prodded them into laughing and trash talking. The camera began rolling, and I began screaming at the people on the floor to get behind their team. As the noise level grew louder, the energy level of the players grew as well, until the crowd, who had now gathered close around the platform, was a delirious cacophony of deafening encouragement to twelve tall men who had totally bought into their enthusiasm. Trash was talked, high fives were swapped, someone threw a basketball up to the players and they did mad tricks with it. It was exactly the high energy madness I had envisioned, but was unable to achieve, until Mark Jackson wisely intervened with exactly the right solution. This very expensive disaster, was transformed into an enormous success thanks to a guy who saw a problem, and knew how to fix it.
I can remember thinking at the time, that one day, after his point guard days were over, Mark Jackson would have a long and successful career coaching NBA basketball. He was a natural. A leader of men. A fixer of problems. He walks with a swagger that’s been earned. He would be a brilliant coach. But, although he interviewed well, he was turned down by a series of teams because of his lack of coaching experience. After retiring as a player, Jackson chose the broadcast booth over an Assistant Coach’s seat on the end of the bench, and most teams chose from the pool of Assistant Coach’s to fill their Head Coaching vacancies. I knew Jackson’s manager, Steve Kauffman, and sent him a version of this humble scribbling, which he used in his campaign to find a Head Coaching job for his client. I’m sure that my literary plea on Jackson’s behalf had little to do with the San Francisco Warriors final decision to give Mark Jackson his chance as their Head Coach, but I’m thrilled to have helped.
After his extraordinarily successful first season, there’s little doubt that Mark Jackson is a coach to be watched, something I knew all along. After all, if Mark Jackson could turn my miserable self into a hero, winning an NBA championship is really not so much of a stretch.
© 2012 Shaun Costello
I’M STILL HERE
My flirtation with mortality was obviously unsuccessful. After 12 days in the hospital, I’m still weak and not at all sure about anything. One thing is certain, my situation remains unchanged. I still can not meet my monthly financial obligations. Ridiculous as it might seem, homelessness remains a possibility. But I’m still here, and attempting to remain here.
AN UNTIMELY EXIT
This is the 60th and final post on this Blog
By Shaun Costello
So, it’s come to this. Considering my situation, I suppose that only my pig-headed stubbornness has kept me going for the last few years. The perhaps unrealistic anticipation of a change of fortune. The possibility, no matter how remote, that a publisher would see value in one of my manuscripts, and come to my rescue with an advance check that might just serve to keep the wolves at bay. A television producer might call with an offer I couldn’t possibly refuse. My Blog might grow in popularity to the point where ad
revenues would be offered per site hits received. Even a winning Lotto ticket – Hey, you never know. So I kept on writing, and promoting, and networking, and buying those silly Lotto tickets, and trying not to lose hope. There’s a moment however, when you simply run out of options, and run out of time. And that moment confronts me now.
Since none of the aforementioned possibilities have come to fruition, the crushing financial reality of the situation I face remains unchanged and untenable. Unfortunately, I can not work. My arthritis, while not life-threatening, keeps my physical abilities limited. I have struggled, with some success, to make my handicap as unnoticeable as possible to those around me. But, none the less, it’s there. My small Social Security stipend
does not come close to paying my monthly bills, and sooner than later, the services those bills represent will begin to disappear. Sad stuff indeed. So, like a cowboy wanting to hit the big roundup in the sky with his boots on, I think it more seemly to leave this world with my lights still burning, the water still running, and my internet connection still active.
I’ve spent a good deal of my life fixing problems and overcoming obstacles through sheer bravado. I would beat up on whatever stood in my way until it yielded to me. And until now, I’ve gotten away with it. But this mortality business is something else again. The will to live is surprisingly strong. It can’t be bullied. It has to be finessed.
I have few regrets. Until my illness in 1993, my life was going according to plan. I couldn’t have written a better script for myself. I was doing the work I loved, surrounded by people whose company I found blissfully stimulating, and being well paid for my efforts. But the parasites my body collected, while I was in the Middle East making a film for Time Magazine about the first Gulf
War, took their hungry toll. Although I recovered after a year of treatment, my body was never the same. The poison given me to kill my little passengers also did damage to my immune system, which gradually sped up the onset of those maladies normally associated with aging, like my arthritis. My body clock’s rhythm increased exponentially after the bugs. Again, not life-threatening, but certainly life-limiting.
Since I was outed in 2005, regarding my porn involvement back in the Seventies, and with the help of social media, I’ve been able to reconnect with old friends long absent in my life, and have made new friends who have become surprisingly important to me. I’ve enjoyed the daily Facebook banter, even though the site, because of its popularity and the greed of its controllers, has lost much of its initial luster. Maintaining almost constant contact with friends across the US, and all over Europe has been fun.
In an attempt to maintain my legacy, such as it is, I have taken steps to protect those two elements that comprise the body of work I leave behind; my Blog, and the publishing rights to my writing. My friend Alan Hoffman in Chicago has generously agreed to maintain my Blog, which exists under the domain names – http://shauncostello.worpress.com and http://shauncostello.com I have assigned all publishing and media rights to everything I have written in my lifetime to my friend Thomas Eikrem in London, with the understanding that he will pass on any revenues to my daughter, who lives with my sister in Sag Harbor, New York.
So, that’s it then. My affairs, such as they are, are in order. My only regret is the timing of my exit. I would have enjoyed continuing to live my life, finishing my manuscripts, contributing to my Blog, harassing Republicans on Huffpost, creating an internet ruckus whenever I felt it necessary, and interacting with friends. Other than living with sore joints and needing another new hip, I’m actually surprisingly healthy for my age. But I’ve been living on borrowed time, and that time is up. Life is a luxury I can no longer afford. I’m doing nothing, more or less, than playing the hand I’ve been dealt, and I’m afraid it’s time to fold.
© 2013 Shaun Costello
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