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
“Mommy, Santa’s asleep on the kitchen floor”
By Shaun Costello
Christmas in the Forest Hills Gardens was my favorite time of year. A great deal of attention was paid by Gardens residents to make sure that the little hamlet was as adorable as was intended by the designers who created it. The
Gardens Corporation spent a hefty portion of its annual budget making sure that every lamp post, every pine and spruce, even the stop signs were appropriately adorned and decorated to say “Merry Christmas” to each and every passer by. There was a full scale Nativity Scene with a stable, and life size statues of the participants, as well as enormous stuffed sheep and goats. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, the older kids would rearrange the juxtaposition of the scene’s characters to suggest that the Magi were doing something unnatural
with the sheep, but the following morning the Gardens Corporation’s handyman would put things right, and Yuletide spirit would resume, uninterrupted.
The houses were elaborately decorated with lights, and wreaths, and holly, with candles in the windows, and Santa’s sleds on the rooftops. There was a team of judges who traveled about the community, making notes on the quality of decorations, and a prize was awarded to the best dressed home on Christmas night right in the middle of Station Square, the epicenter of the community. There was a rumor, that the judges could be bribed with martinis, so the validity of the prize was in always in question.
On Christmas Eve the grown ups had lots of parties, and the Gardens Corporation kept track of where they were so that a list of addresses could be given to the Gardens Carolers, who would sing their versions of “Silent Night”, and “We Three Kings of Orient Are”, at each and every gathering, after which they would be rewarded with drams of eggnog and cognac and thus fortified, move on to the next venue. The streets in the little hamlet were crowded with revelers, drinks in hand, arm in arm, singing and laughing, as they staggered from party to party, hell bent on the proper celebration of the birth of the Christ child. Enormous consumption of alcohol seemed to be an integral element in the festivities.
Each Christmas Eve the Gardens Corporation “conscripted” a group of Santa’s from among the Gardens’ teenage population. They were dressed in Santa outfits, given a list of addresses complete with the names of the children in residence, and a bag of gifts, one for each child on the list. This event was enormously popular with the children of the community, who got a visit from their very own Santa, who handed them a gift with their very own name on it. On this particular Christmas, my friend Bill Beggs’ older brother Jack was to take his first tour as Santa, and Bill’s friends, me included, went over to the Beggs’
house to give Jack pointers on his Santa performance, and tease him as much as he would allow. Jack Beggs was an unassuming, engaging, friendly kid and Bill’s friends all liked him. He was the only teenager in the community who treated us like humans.
There was a tradition at the Gardens Corporation office on every Christmas Eve, that involved giving each Santa a shot of brandy to ward off the cold, along with a Merry Christmas toast before the eager team of teenage Santa’s began their rounds of gift giving. Jack was fourteen, and had never had a shot of brandy before, but the fiery liquid was a welcome fortification against the cold, not to mention his nervousness at the possibility of giving the wrong presents to children whose names he might forget. Properly imbibed, Jack began his rounds.
Mr. and Mrs. Beggs were out doing the party circuit, so Bill answered the phone when it rang about two hours later. “Look Beggs, this is Al Relyea down at the Gardens office. I just got an angry phone call from Doctor Fallon. I guess you know that your son Jack is a Santa this year. Anyway, he evidently got his hands on a bottle of hooch, and got himself plastered. He passed out on Fallon’s kitchen floor and threw up all over the place. The Doc’s kids are hysterical, and he’s threatening to sue the Gardens Corporation for something called “loss of innocence”, unless we get young Jack out of his house right away. Say, how old is Jack now, fourteen? I guess he got an early start. Hair of the dog, eh John? Look Beggs, you’ve got to help me here. Go over and get your son out of there”. A stunned Bill Beggs, lowering his voice as far as it would go said, “Right away’, and hung up.
Not knowing what to do, and realizing that if his parents found out, Jack would be on house arrest until his 65th birthday, Bill called me. Jack was simply too big for the two of us to handle, so we enlisted the help of the Bullock twins, and Chipps Page, who were delighted to be able to witness the sight of Jack in his Santa suit, unconscious on the Fallon’s kitchen floor, and they met us outside the Doctor’s house.
When we knocked on the Front door we were confronted with an angry Doctor Fallon, who challenged Bill with, ‘Where’s your father, mister?” We explained to the Doctor that Mr. and Mrs. Beggs were out, so the five of us would get Jack out of his house and take him home. Santa was still out cold on the kitchen floor, his beard all askew, and Mrs. Fallon was busy cleaning up the remains of the dinner that Mrs. Claus must had made for him before he began his trip from the North Pole, and that he had thrown up all over the Fallon’s floor. Jack was dead weight and it took all the strength we could muster to get him out of there and back home.
Here’s what had happened. It seems that there’s one more tradition in the local Christmas lore that Jack was unaware of. Each time Santa makes a visit he is rewarded by the grateful family on which he has bestowed his gifts, usually in the form of what local grown ups referred to as a “blast”. This consisted of a strong eggnog, or a shot of Cognac. The Fallon’s were Jack’s tenth and last family, which meant that fourteen year old Jack Beggs, whose first taste of alcohol was the Christmas Toast earlier that evening at the Gardens office, had consumed five eggnogs and four Cognacs before he knocked, with great difficulty, on the Doctor’s door. He had somehow lost his
hat, and was wearing his beard sideways as he staggered into the Fallon’s living room. Poor Jack was sick for a few days, and his parents actually did find out about his mischief, but drunkenness in the Forest Hills Gardens was a forgivable sin, not only condoned, but encouraged, even in children. Young Jack became a folk hero in the eyes of the local grown ups, who were sometimes referred to by their children as, the “unquenchables”. His father was greeted by friends with, “Chip off the old block, huh John?” His heroic performance had added stature to Jack’s reputation in the community, and I wondered how long it would be before his dad greeted him one evening with, “Hey son, how about a blast?”
© 2010 Shaun Costello
SHOWING IT TO CHARLOTTE
A Christmas Odyssey
By Shaun Costello
My friend John has a comfort-level problem with the Holiday Season. A lifetime of frosty Christmas mornings in Boston seems a distant memory now since John, fulfilling his long-standing commitment to never touch another snow shovel, moved his family to Florida, just a few years ago. The sappy scent of a real tree, usually a Blue Spruce or a White Pine, standing in the corner of his New England living room, covered with holiday ornamentation, some of which were family heirlooms inherited from his grandparents, has been replaced by a plastic palm from Walmart with built-in flashing lights. His kids didn’t seem to mind, but for John, it just wasn’t the same. It didn’t feel much like Christmas. But this isn’t the only reason John is uneasy this season. Each Yuletide he relives his ultimate horror. It was the day before Christmas, several years ago, when John traveled three thousand miles in an attempt to show his penis to an unsuspecting Charlotte Rampling.
For some time now John has harbored a dark secret, something not even his closest friends suspect. He suffers from a ZARDOZ fixation. Growing up a sexually repressed Catholic in a working class Irish neighborhood in Boston, John spent more than his share of time in the balconies of porno theaters, and found this degenerate atmosphere to be a comforting refuge from the daily drudgery of his blue-collar life. But all good things eventually come to an end and, with the advent of the video cassette, the days of the “Adult Theater” were numbered. So one day John, who had set aside several hours for some serious balcony time watching some of his fave smut flicks, was astonished to find that the theater had changed it’s policy. No more porn. Instead, the theater was showing Vintage Sci-fi Movies, starting off with a twin bill of, “This Island Earth” with Rex Reason and Faith Domergue, and “Zardoz” with Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling. “Well”, thought a shattered John, his fiver still in his hand, “Better than nothing”. So he paid the five bucks, bought his popcorn, and settled in for an afternoon of ray guns and slippery logic.
As the plot of Zardoz began to reveal itself John liked what he saw. An Amazonian civilization where men were unknown and women ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove. He began fantasizing about this little community as a vacation destination, where he might mingle with clusters of innocent, scantily clad, sexually curious maidens, who had never seen a man and were impossible to disappoint. Then came the scene where a naked Sean Connery stood before the Amazonian Senate. Curious about his anatomy, they showed him Charlotte Rampling’s naked breasts, just to see if they would have an effect on him. Not knowing how to react to Sean Connery’s now very erect penis, the nervous Senate chamber was filled with giggles and then laughter. But not from Charlotte Rampling, who knew a good thing when she saw one. She stared at Connery’s hard penis with the expectation of limitless possibilities.
John couldn’t sleep that night, not from nervousness over his Latin final the next day, but from that look on Charlotte Rampling’s face. The look that said, here was a woman who knew a good thing when she saw one. John had never seen that look on any woman’s face before. Certainly not on the face of Mary Alice Dowd, or any of the other girls at Our Lady of Perpetual Conception. He swore to himself that, one day, he would see that look in person. So he sat down and made a plan.
Through very thorough research, John found out that Charlotte Rampling lived in Dorset, on England’s southwest coast, in the village of Lyme Regis, about a three-hour train ride from London. He made up a story for his parents about going skiing in Vermont, packed his bags, and headed out to Logan Airport where he boarded British Airways flight 1181, and began the journey to England, and his date with destiny. It was cold and sleeting when he landed at Heathrow, but John was warmed by an inner fire and impervious to the weather. After sorting out the luggage/customs ritual, he took a cab for London.
At Charing Cross he boarded the Dover train, and got off at Waterloo Station, the first stop on the line. Within ten minutes he boarded the Weymouth train, which would take him to the coast. He sat in the club car, ordered a glass of Porter, and watched the towns and villages of southern England parading by his train window, all decked out in their Christmas finery, a spectacle to see. And he began to wonder, “What if she’s not home? What if she’s away on holiday?” But then he remembered having read an interview she had given to some movie magazine where she said, “There’s no place like Dorset for the Holidays”. He smiled, knowing that this year he would spend Christmas Eve like he had spent no other. This year he would spend Christmas Eve showing it to Charlotte.
Icy darkness descended on Weymouth, as John’s train reached its destination. He lugged his bags onto the Station platform, and wondered to himself why he had packed so much stuff? “Maybe”, he thought, “just maybe, once she had seen his goods, she would invite him to stay the night”. After all, that’s what happened with Sean Connery.
The cab ride from Weymouth to Lyme Regis took about thirty minutes. Not wanting to drag his luggage around with him he asked the driver to take him to the best Hotel. The desk clerk at The Royal Lion told him they were full up, and suggested The Mariner Hotel, just down the Street. The Mariner was booked solid for the Holidays, as was The Swallow’s Eaves, The Orchard Country, The Kersbrook, and The Dower House. The irony of “no room at the inn” on Christmas Eve did not escape our hero as he continued his search for a place to stay. Finally he gave the desk clerk at the totally booked Channel House a few pounds to watch his bags, sat down to a nice cup of tea and contemplated his next move.
He looked at the address on the crumpled piece of paper that he took from his pocket. Number 15 Blue Dolphin Way. This was the address. Her address. Charlotte Rampling’s address. He asked directions outside the Channel House and was told it was a short walk up the hill and to the right. John’s journey was nearly at its end, as he began the climb. The rain and sleet came down harder now, but our rain soaked hero was still warmed by that inner fire that made weather irrelevant. He passed a few sign posts on his climb. Tattersall Way, then Judith’s Close, and finally here it was, Blue Dolphin Way. And right there on the mailbox, just under the number ‘15’, were the initials C. R. He was home. Her Home. Charlotte Rampling’s Home. And home she was indeed. The house was adorned with hundreds of Christmas lights and decorations of all sorts. John could see movement through the first floor window, and there, to his overwhelming joy, was Charlotte Rampling, decorating her tree. He was unprepared as to what to do next. Should he remove his clothes and simply knock on her door? Should he expose himself to her through the window? He hadn’t really thought this through. When he first saw her mailbox he had noticed that the flag was up. She had not gone out to fetch her mail today. Maybe it was just raining too hard. Maybe she simply forgot. At any rate he felt certain that, sooner or later, she would make the trek to the mailbox, and that’s when he would confront her. That would be his moment of triumph.
As he watched through her window, she walked over to the front door and took a yellow slicker of its hook. This was it. The moment was here. She was going to fetch her mail, and our hero was up to the task at hand. He raced back out to the gate, tearing off articles of clothing as he ran and, naked as the day he was born, stood next to her mailbox, proud, and tall, and all hers. He could hear the front door to the house open and close, and the sound of a distant voice singing. She was singing. As the sound of her footsteps approached he could barely make out the words and melody. “Some day……my prince….will come”. She was singing “Someday My Prince Will Come”, from Snow White, and her prince he was indeed. Standing there in the driving rain and sleet, naked as a Jaybird was our John, the sexually repressed Irish Catholic kid from Boston who, once upon a time saw Sean Connery standing naked and tall in front of this very same Charlotte Rampling, the result of which was the beginning of a whole new civilization of little Seans and Charlottes to populate a brave new world filled with hope for the future, and Sean Connery’s endless erection. And here she was approaching her mailbox right next to her naked, soggy prince who traveled all these countless miles to fulfill a destiny that they both surely shared here in the driving English rain. And they stood there, together for that one endless moment, until she reached down, grabbed her mail, spun around and, still singing, walked back to the house.
It’s hard to tell just how long John stood there, naked in the driving winter rain, before he realized that she hadn’t noticed him. Or had she? He will never really know for sure. On the train heading back to London John wondered whether or not this was the dumbest thing he had ever done. No, it wasn’t. He had done much dumber things than this, without one tenth the satisfaction he got from standing there naked with Charlotte Rampling on that rainy Christmas Eve in Dorset, totally prepared to populate a brave new world with little Johns and Charlottes, if only she had noticed him standing there. John prefers to think that she did notice him. Maybe she really did notice him, but was just too polite to say anything. And if she had said something, what would it have been? As his plane began its final approach to Logan Airport, John realized exactly what she would have said. As he stood there, naked and cold, in the driving Dorset rain, she would have looked at him and smiled, and said, “Merry Christmas John”. The English are like that.
© 2006 Shaun Costello
CHRISTMAS ON EIGHTH AVENUE
By Shaun Costello
In the cold months of winter, Manhattan apartments back in the early Seventies, as I’m sure they do today, resonated with the clanky noises that accompanied the warmth provided by the hot-water radiators that were the common source of heat in most buildings. The clank, clank, click-click-click, clank as the hot water replaced the cold in the pipes leading to the radiating units, followed by the phsssssssssssssssssssssssssssst, as the steam safety valves on the those units went into action protecting the tenants from the danger and inconvenience of exploding pipes. The ability to sleep through this racket was the sign of a true New Yorker. While tourists probably got little sleep terrified that the radiators in their midtown hotel rooms were about to burst, scalding them to death, the hardened veterans of Gotham simply slept through the noise, waiting for their clock radios to start their day. My building was no different, maybe even louder than most, but the clanking never bothered me, and I didn’t need an alarm clock. Each morning between 6 and 7, I would feel the annoying, but reassuring sensation of little teeth gently biting down on the tip of my nose. This was my cat Spiegel, demanding breakfast, and there was no escaping him. So I got up, fed the cat, made coffee, and jumped in the shower, the beginning of just another day in the life of a sex addict.
The 32 one-day-wonders that Bill Markle and I had made for Sid Levine at Star Distributors the year before were playing everywhere, and people were beginning to find out who was responsible for this sudden tidal wave of mass produced smut. I had gotten a call from someone with a medium-heavy European accent earlier in the week asking for a meeting. His name was Tom Gioulos who, along with a partner named Teddy Kariofilis, owned the Capri Theater on Eighth Avenue, where many of the pictures I had been making for Star played regularly. So, fortified with a few cups of coffee, I began the trek uptown to meet “The Greeks”.
It was a cold five-block walk to the Lexington Avenue subway station at 23rd Street, where I took the Number Four train to Grand Central Station. Then the long walk down sour-smelling corridors to the Times Square Shuttle, which deposited me underneath what some people have called the cross roads of the world. The Times Square subway station 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 I climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was. The Deuce.
Forty Second Street between Times Square and Eighth Avenue had pretty much the same chaotic intensity as the subway station, except brighter and colder. The sidewalks were covered with evidence of the previous night’s activities, and silent men with brooms were sweeping out the entrances to the many movie houses that provided a dark haven for degenerates on the prowl, and warm place to sleep for those who had no alternative. When I was a bit younger I spent many a night with friends from High School in these theaters, where you could see three action pictures for a buck, and where the predominantly black audience threw empty soda cans at the screen to warn the hero that a bad guy was sneaking up behind him. Even this early in the morning the pedestrian traffic was heavy. The owners of most of the storefronts were busy opening the security screens, revealing cheap discount goods and services of every variety imaginable. Army/Navy, Discount Electronics, Peep-O-Rama, Nedicks, GIRLS/GIRLS/GIRLS, Souvlaki/Gyros, El Cheapo Menswear, Tad’s Steaks, Pinball-Palace, Te-Amo Cigars, Orange Julius, Modell Sporting Goods, Movieland, all opening up for another day on The Deuce.
Why I found this degenerate atmosphere to be the soothing, nurturing, cradle of comfort that drew me like a moth to a flame, is difficult to describe, particularly to those who never experienced it, or never needed to. Today’s Forty Second Street is a Disney-driven, squeaky-clean, family-friendly, vanilla canyon of imitative tourist attractions that might just as well be found in Kansas or, better yet, Orlando. But back then, before the bulldozers cleared away the grunge of reality to make room for the plasticine, cellophane wrapped Valhalla that would replace it, “The Deuce” was the Mecca for those restless souls who prowled the canyons of Manhattan’s West Forties looking for the shit.
When I got to the corner of Eighth Avenue I turned north and was surprised to see The Tycoon’s Daughter in big letters on the marquee of the Cameo Theater. It was one of the many little movies I had made for Sid Levine at Star the previous year, and here it was nine months later and people were still paying money to see it. After perusing the familiar promotional photographs outside the theater I headed toward the Capri, which was near the corner of 46th Street.
Teddy Kariofilis and Tom Gioulos were a couple of Greek immigrants who had taken advantage of the relaxation in the enforcement of the obscenity laws and opened the Capri Theater which played about half the little pictures that I made for Star. And up on the marquee was another one of my movies. Sexual Freedom in the Ozarks was a little picture that we shot at my partner Bill Markle’s house up in High Falls, which was about 90 miles north of the city. It wasn’t yet 10AM and people were already paying to get in.
The box office attendant was pretty gruff and kept repeating “four dollars, four dollars”, until I finally got his attention by telling him I was there to see Tom. After making a call he waved me through the turnstile, pointing up and shouting, “upstairs, upstairs’. There was a narrow stairway to the balcony, which was pretty crowded, even at this early hour, and as I climbed up toward the projection booth I heard a familiar voice, my own. I turned, and up there on the screen was a porn actress named Andrea True, bent over a few bales of hay that we had placed in Bill’s barn, and standing behind her was me, naked except for cowboy boots, and fucking Ms True for all the world to see. I laughed out loud which seemed to disturb some members of the audience whose concentration had been broken by my careless levity. A crack of light appeared in the back of the balcony as the door to the next level opened. My eyes had not yet fully adjusted to the darkness so I slowly climbed through, and as the door closed behind me a glad hand grabbed mine. “Shaun, how ya doin. Great to meetcha. C’mon up, Teddy’s dyin to see ya”. This was Tom, who had called me a few days earlier. He led me up the stairs and into their offices above the theater, where we walked through a private projection room and into a large, wood paneled office that faced east. Behind a desk that seemed much too large for its occupant sat a little round man with an enormous balding head, who jumped up when I entered the room and approached me with both arms outstretched. “Oh Shun, Shun, You make me so happy. You come to see Teddy huh? Oh, Shun, Shun”.
As he sat back down behind his desk all the features on his face suddenly rearranged themselves. I had never seen a face like this before. Each of his facial features seemed to have the ability to move about or change shape independently of the others. His eyebrows, and lips, and cheeks, and eyes, danced all over his face, apparently triggered by some change in mood, or the necessity to express joy or concern. He was now in serious mode so I just sat there and listened. His head was low and cocked to one side, and the musculature in his face was tight. “Oh, Shun, Shun. I got no money”. I wondered if he was going to ask me for a loan. Anything was possible under these preposterous circumstances. So I continued to listen. “Oh, Shun, Shun, what can I do uh? What can Teddy Do? Shun, I got no money”. I’m still listening. “Oh Shun, you help Teddy uh? You work cheap for Teddy uh. I got no money”. So Teddy obviously wants me to make movies for him, but doesn’t want to pay much. I suggest that his theater, even at ten o’clock in the morning was packed with paying customers, and his face changed shape again. He looked away for moment, then thoughtfully turned his slightly cocked head back to me, and nearly in tears replied, “Oh, Shun, Shun, it’s so cold outside. I let the people in for free to keep them warm. They got no money, but I keep them warm for free uh? Teddy keeps them warm”. At this point I reminded him that I was downstairs and watched the customers paying four dollars each for his warmth, and his face changed again. He appeared concerned, but behind his concern an invisible grin was revealing it self as he said, “Oh Shun, heat costs money uh?” And slowly all of his features turned upward, he threw his head back, and roared with laughter. Tom slapped me on the back, and Teddy seemed beside himself. “Oh, Shun, Shun, it never hurts to bargain a little uh? We make movies, you and me. We make movies.” His eyes had expanded to such a diameter that his eyebrows almost touched his hairline. “We make money, Uh?” Teddy could take this routine to the Catskills and make a living as a comedian.
Up until now, the Capri had been playing about half the movies I had made for Star, but Teddy was ambitious, and wanted to expand. Bigger budget movies like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and the Post Graduate were cleaning up at the box office and Teddy had a plan. If he made his own films, increased the budget to $12,000 each to give them a better look, and opened them at the Capri, they would only need to play two weeks to recoup his investment. He would then be free to distribute them all over the country and every dollar that came in would be profit. A smart plan. I told him that I would have to think it over. I was used to making sixty-minute quickies. The length of each movie would need to be increased to 70 minutes, and I would need to shoot an additional day, maybe two. My rule of thumb was that for each day of shooting I would need to make a profit of one thousand dollars. I told Teddy and Tom that I would need to think this through and I would get back to them.
During the eight months that followed, and under the name Oscar Tripe, I would deliver three features to Teddy and Tom. The first was “COME FLY WITH US”, a Stewardess buddy movie that did big box office at the Capri, and made Teddy Kariofilis a very happy Greek. The second was “LADY ON THE COUCH”, a lost identity – psychoanalytical pornodrama starring Andrea True. It did healthy, if not gangbuster box office, keeping Teddy Smiling. And the third was “THE LOVE BUS”, a cheaply made, silly sex farce that played to standing room only audiences at the Capri Cinema. By the first week in September 1974, flush from this series of box office successes, and receiving daily calls from Tom Gioulos begging for the next movie idea, I had pretty much run out of steam. I was also bored. The movies I was making were formulaic and unchallenging, but the formula was working because Teddy’s box office receipts were never higher. I needed to do something different, but what?
My reading habits were, as they still are, pretty cyclical. I was going through a Charles Dickens phase, starting a new Dickens book, the minute I finished the last. And half way through “A CHRISTMAS CAROL”, I started thinking. It was three and a half months before Christmas. Plenty of time to write a script, prep a production, get through the shooting, and complete the edit. Just in time for The Holidays. A Christmas porno movie – a preposterous idea. Could I actually convince Teddy Kariofilis to invest his hard-earned sheep money in something this ridiculous? It would certainly be fun to try. This was, after all, the time of Porn Chic, when Harry Reems could be found chatting with journalists at the bar at Elaine’s and Jackie Onassis had been seen sneaking out of a screening of DEEP THROAT. In New York, porn was all the rage, and with the right promotion, any movie idea with sex in it, particularly if it was different, even outrageous (the movie – not the sex) might just become a big hit. This was my pitch to a bewildered Teddy Kariofilis who, for once, sat expressionless across his oversized desk, looking at me like I had just delivered my thirty minute presentation on why a porn version of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL would be a blockbuster hit, not in English, or even Greek, but in Esperanto. He just stared at me.
Tom broke the silence with worried comments about the possibility of a backlash against the sacrilege of desecrating such a well known story, by turning it into smut, while every feature on Teddy’s normally active face remained frozen. I told them that my plan was to write a screenplay, closely following the Dickens book, shoot the entire picture on a sound stage which would require building cartoon-like sets, complete principal photography in four days, and bring the entire project in for fourteen thousand dollars, which was only two thousand dollars more than it cost to make any of the three box office bonanza’s I had produced for them that year. And, I reminded them of the popularity of the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. “We’ll dress up the Capri Cinema like one big Christmas tree, and have our own Christmas Show, right here on Eighth Avenue. People will love it”. And then, the clincher. “Look, this kind of light comedy needs a sensitive touch, a woman’s touch. And there’s never been a successful female director of Adult Films. Let’s hire one to direct this movie. You can use it in the marketing. ‘Finally, an Adult film with a woman’s point of view’. Amanda’s a good name. Let’s call her Amanda something. Amanda Barton. That’s it. Amanda Barton’s Passions of Carol. I’ll bet Al Goldstein will try to pry her phone number out of you”. Although Teddy’s death mask expression remained unchanged, Tom was now smiling, his head nodding ever so slightly. It had taken less than an hour to convince the Greeks to finance my little Yuletide adventure, a decision they would live to regret.
It was now the second week in September, and I had guaranteed a December tenth delivery date, which would allow enough time to properly advertise the grand opening of Teddy Kariofilis’ Eighth Avenue Christmas Spectacular. And I had made this guarantee without smoking anything stronger than a Marlboro Light. So far, my career in the adult film business had been so successful that walking on water was not beyond my reach, al least not in my overbloated, egocentric, self-aggrandized opinion of my own abilities. I could do no wrong – a situation that was about to change, drastically.
It took a week of eighteen hour days to complete the screenplay, closely following the structure of Dickens’ book, and even lifting a fair amount of dialogue directly from the original. I blocked out four shooting days during the second week in October, booked crew people, with some additional personnel necessary for the task at hand, and went looking for an affordable sound stage.
Most shooting stages in Manhattan, and there were many to choose from, were union houses, meaning that their use was restricted to members of the Motion Picture Industry’s film production union, IATSE. They were also quite expensive. So, I found a list on non-union stages, most of which were in a state of ill-repair, and made the appropriate calls. The owner of a sound stage down on East Fifth Street seemed enthusiastic, even excited to have me rent his building for my production, and when I toured the premises I realized why. No one had shot in this place for years. Everything was covered in layers of dust and grime, but it was big, and it was cheap. And it actually looked like a film studio, with big lights, 10K’s, 5K’s, 2K’s, and soft lights, sitting on stands, their barn doors shut, looking sleepy. And a wrap-around cyclorama, thirty feet high, and over a hundred feet long – more than enough to house my little production. The owner said he would flat-rate the place to me for three hundred dollars a day. And I could use any of the lighting equipment, as well as the two hydraulic dollies. He started asking me about build days and strike days and, not wanting to seem like the amateur I undoubtedly was, I simply told him four days total. Up until now, my experience in film production was limited to shooting in apartments, houses, or hotel suites, which came furnished. If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized that an appropriate number of build days would have to be budgeted, so that a construction crew could complete the sets, which would then have to be wall papered, painted, and furnished by the set dressing crew under the supervision of the art director, followed by enough prep days for the Gaffer and his lighting crew to accomplish the task of setting the lights appropriate to the action involved. And, because you must return the space to its original, empty condition, a certain number of strike days would need to be budgeted to disassemble the sets, leaving the place as you found it. Oblivious to all of this, I had told the owner, “Four days total”, and had no idea what I was getting myself into. The idea that I was over-confidently marching head-long into a disaster was the furthest thing from my mind.
I lived in a rent controlled apartment on East Twenty First Street, in a building shared by neighbors who, for the most part, worked at home as illustrators, writers, and generic creative types, with whom I had become quite friendly, and by whom I was eagerly welcomed as the ‘Pornographer in Residence’. And, without quite knowing what they were getting themselves into, they were willingly conscripted into my Christmas fiasco as my very own little army of creatives, whose job it would be to turn that big, dirty, empty sound stage down on East Fifth Street, into a Dickensian wonderland, albeit a pornographic one.
Casting would be relatively easy. My first call was to Marc Stevens, who had worked for me many times, and who always managed to keep the cast and crew laughing, even on the longest of shooting days. I thought Marc would make a hilarious Lance Marley who, in keeping with the book, would be the first of Carol Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors. And my friend Jamie Gillis, who could exhibit his gentler side, as Bob Hatchett, who is forced to work late on Christmas Eve by an demanding, insensitive Scrooge. And Kim Pope, who I had never worked with, to play Mrs Hatchett, left alone on Christmas Eve with Tiny Kim, while hubby Bob burned the midnight oil at Carol Scrooge’s magazine. I even gave a small part to my pal and fellow degenerate Mal Worob who, under the nom-de-porn Carter Stevens, was a successful smut meister, in his own right. One by one, I cast the parts, mostly with people I knew and liked, but Teddy and Tom wanted a ‘name’ to play the female lead, important in selling the movie to the public. Teddy suggested Mary Stuart, who had starred in a recent film that was doing very well at the box office. Mary, a surprising choice, was someone I liked, so I agreed and the casting was complete. I, made up to be unrecognizable, would play two of the spirits.
As the weeks flew by, my wonderful, generous, gifted neighbors were hard at work, designing the sets, conjuring and sewing the costumes, and creating the props that would be required. David Wool, who illustrated children’s books, and moonlighted, creating authentic-looking Tom of Finland knock-off gay porn books for my friends at Star Publishing, would do the bulk of the set design and construction. Harriett Springer, another illustrator, who would become my long time live-in girlfriend, created the wall art for the sets. And Shelley Slater, Harriett’s former room mate at Carnegie Tech, who had followed her to New York, did the sewing. The furniture necessary to fill out the sets – beds, tables, chairs, rugs, wall art, etc, would come from all of our apartments, and would be moved by us in the production van down to the empty sound stage.
On the morning of October 18th, which was our first day in the studio, and had been erroneously scheduled by me as a shooting day, while staring into the vast, empty abyss that was our shooting space, I began to see the structure of the catastrophe I had created. I had a shooting crew and actors, standing around drinking coffee, and truckloads of props and furniture, waiting to be put in sets that had not yet been constructed. How could I not have seen this coming? The crew, made up mostly of friends, and the cast, also friends of mine, were understanding, and tolerant of my blunder. I sent everyone home, and put off the first shooting day for 48 hours. They could have stuck it to me, but they didn’t. And, without a single complaint. I had just bought us two build days, and my ridiculous pronouncement of shooting the whole film in four days, had now grown to six, and more likely, ten days in that studio. I was already subconsciously rehearsing my ‘we went over budget’ speech for Teddy Kariofilis.
Working, almost around the clock, with the help of caffeine, and a few Dexedrines, David, Harriett, Shelley, myself, and a few PA’s assembled the sets out of the available building flats, constructed the fake windows, began the dressing process, and the absurdist Dickensian rooms began to take shape. David had constructed the skyline of lower Manhattan in forced perspective, made entirely out of corrugated cardboard, complete with tiny lights in the windows, that would become the view from Carol Scrooge’s bedroom window, where Marley’s Ghost, in the person of Marc Stevens, would first appear.
Two days later, on the morning of October 20th, the exhausted, bedraggled set builders, myself included, greeted the cast and crew for a second try at a first shooting day. Peter Nevard and his lighting crew were tweaking the big 10K’s, Bill Markle and Alvar Stugard were putting the camera and sound recording equipment together, and all around us, actors were rehearsing their lines, while getting into costumes and make-up. I kept hearing lines of dialogue repeated from all over the stage floor, which was a new experience for me, because, for the very first time I was listening to dialogue that I had written being read aloud by the intended performers. Until today, I had handled dialogue scenes by giving the actors a situation, and turning them loose to improvise their own lines. These people, though they tried their best, were not professional actors, and it had seemed best to let them make up their own material. But, for this film, I had actually written a screenplay and, for better or for worse, the cast would have to learn their lines, and deliver them as believably as possible. This caused an unforeseen dilemma from an unexpected source.
Marc Stevens, in full make-up as Marley’s ghost, presented me with the first crisis of the day. “Shaun, I can’t do this. I just can’t do this”. Marc, truly one of the word’s nicest, and most cooperative people, had seen his lines and panicked. He had tears in his eyes when he told me he had never done dialogue before, and most of what I had written for him was lifted directly from the Dickens original. He didn’t want to disappoint me, but he told me that he just couldn’t do it. He didn’t know how. And he couldn’t remember all of his lines anyway, and that no one had ever asked him to do this before. I hadn’t anticipated anything like this. I told him to study and rehearse his lines, and when it came time for the camera to roll, we would wing it. And, that’s exactly what we did. Marc, wearing his ridiculous costume, covered with paper mache chains and cardboard locks, did his best. It wasn’t what I had written, but Marc was a naturally funny person, and camped his way through the scene, leaving the crew doubled over laughing. I was disappointed, but it was a valuable lesson. My first confrontation with writing dialogue for performers who had no acting experience would certainly not be my last. With few exceptions, the vast majority of performers in Adult Films had no professional training, and struggled with delivering their lines in any believable way. So, I learned to be flexible, and to accept their best efforts, even though the results were sometimes embarrassing.
As the days went by, the constant building, dressing, and lighting of tomorrow’s set, while attempting to shoot in today’s, became an exhausting process, the ever-present sound of David Wool’s power tools doing battle with actors delivering barely believable lines of dialogue. The general exhaustion of the crew, working one 20 hour day after another, was becoming a factor in their performance. The four days total, that I had so idiotically predicted, became fourteen. In between scenes, I could usually be found on the phone with the studio owner, pleading my case for a negotiated settlement of the overage. I guess my groveling was effective, because he gave me the additional 10 studio days at half price, which certainly helped. But, sooner or later, I was going to have to tell Teddy Kariofilis that a movie he really didn’t want to begin with, was going to cost more than he expected.
Before the dust would settle, Teddy and I would face off in attorney Seymour Detsky’s office to hammer out a settlement that would see Teddy pay four thousand dollars in overages, and accede to my preposterous demand to open the film, not at the Capri Cinema, but instead at a straight, non-porn venue. Somehow, I thought I had created a crossover comedy with the potential to successfully play to a straight audience. What was I smoking? In March, 1975, missing my predicted Christmas Opening by four months, Passions of Carol opened simultaneously at the Capri Cinema, and The Quad Cinemas, a straight venue that had never before played a sex film. The box office was disappointing at the usually packed Capri, porn audiences bewildered by this odd presentation of sex and Christmas, and downright disastrous at the Quad, where the film played for two weeks to mostly empty seats.
We had entered the East Fifth Street Studio on October 18th, and finally struck the production on November 2nd. During our time in that building TWA Flight 841 was blown out of the air by a terrorist bomb over the Ionian Sea, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopea was deposed, Japanese Red Army members seized the French Embassy in The Hague, and in Kinshasa Zaire, Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman to regain the heavy weight championship of the world. During those fourteen days Joaquin Phoenix, Jerry Stackhouse, and Leonardo DiCaprio were born, and Ed Sullivan, Vittorio Di Sica, and Oskar Schindler passed from this earth.
Within a few months, Teddy forgave me my sins, and Tom was once again on the phone asking for the next movie idea. I guess they had made so much money with my earlier pictures that they were willing to overlook my first financial flop. But, it would probably be difficult to ever again convince Teddy to put his hard-earned money into a project that seemed unusual. Just about then, I got a call from Doug Collins, an old friend who had taken a risk and made a totally unsellable movie three years earlier. A picture so ridiculous that no one in his right mind would distribute it. It was called:
AN AMERICAN IN BETHESDA
The world’s first Vaudeville-Porno-Musical
Doug had gotten himself into hot water over some kind of abuse of the commodities market, and was selling everything he owned to pay his lawyers. He had heard that I was making hit sex movies, one right after the other, and probably had good contacts in that market. He asked if I might have an interest in buying his still-unsold Vaudeville-Porno-Musical disaster, adding some sex scenes to it, and convincing a theater owner to open it as an unusual sex movie. Now, this was the most unsellable cinematic oddity I had ever seen, but the idea of attempting to convince someone into buying it was irresistible. And I knew just the guy. So, I made the call. “Tom, hey it’s Shaun. Listen, I have something – something wonderful. Tell Teddy I’ve got a great idea”.
© 2010 Shaun Costello