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