A Petaluma Boy Goes to Hollywood

Photo by Trane DeVoreCUT! Goddamn tourist trams. It’s a hazard of the neighborhood we’re shooting in, a tony faux burg that affords the beau ideal of establishing shots–a nice wide angle of the Leave It to Beaver house. That monolith of Americana is nestled just next door to the Hardy Boys’ joint, around the corner from Boo Radley’s ramshackle abode, and down the hill from the Bates Motel, which overlooks the gooey pastels of Whoville.

It’s also a popular stop on the Universal Studios tour. Every 10 minutes, my old pal and assistant director Abe Levy (a buzz-worthy filmmaker in his own right) calls “Tram!” and we scurry out of the way as the centipede brimming with tourists wends its way through our set, the riders all agawk and snapping photos of an honest-to-goodness real live picture show in the making.

After months of angling in the motion picture industry, I have finally landed an assignment to write, direct, and produce short films for potential theatrical, television, and Internet distribution.

My crew and I are granted one day on the lot to get all our shots. Time is fleeting.

We have been rained out of this location twice, so Jim Cashman, Universal Studios operations group manager of marketing, is booking our shooting dates on the fly. Unfortunately, there’s no way to re-route the trams, which run as mercilessly on time as if Mussolini himself did the scheduling.

The tram operators are nonplused by our obstruction and take potshots at the crew and me over the vehicles’ tinny public-address systems.

“Occasionally the studios will take pity on smaller, low-budget productions and let them shoot on the lot ? like an outreach program for wannabes,” squawks a tour conductor. He catches my eye as he passes and lobs, “Hey, look at this one ? let’s play ‘Guess the Day Job!’ ”

In this pissing match, I think I’d win, tram-man. The anatomy of my career is as follows: the newspaperman bone is connected to the novelist bone, the novelist bone is connected the filmmaker bone, and the filmmaker bone is connected directly to my ass, through which I often speak and which has of late endured the slings and arrows of being kicked around Hollywood.

Backstory ? Elements necessary to the understanding of a story, often clumsily included as a flashback or in a surfeit of jumpcuts.

At the tail end of 1999, I quit my day job as entertainment editor of my hometown paper, the Petaluma Argus-Courier, because, while shoveling through a shit pile of deadlines, an attractive woman from the neighborhood came over, looked at me with her deep brown eyes, and inquired if I wouldn’t rather join her in making caramel apples.

After reassessing my values, I decided that (taken literally or euphemistically) making caramel apples with a pretty girl was truly more in league with my sense of, as the ancient Romans used to say, vocatio–one’s calling.

Enter Cary Carpe, a part-time Petaluman one decade my senior who is in the midst of piecing back together a once-thriving screenwriting career that crumbled when his wife left him for an aging teen idol.

The bearded, understated, and dreadfully deadpan Carpe and I met five years earlier through Petaluma poet Trane DeVore, who turned him on to my darkly comic novel The Late Projectionist, a semi-autobiographical riff on an aspiring screenwriter trapped in a small town. Truth and fiction would soon merge.

Aware that I recently chased a skirt into the rush-hour traffic of freelance gigs and theater reviews that barely covered my rent (but kept my jackets tight, as I had a habit of guzzling opening-night champagne and liberally grazing pallets of hors d’oeuvres), Carpe gives me my first show biz break.

Carpe is recovering from a five-year case of writer’s block and needs a title for a spec script he plans to write about entertainment industry ghostwriters. I suggest The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghostwriter. He says I’m hired.

I learn the craft of screenwriting while writing the flick with Carpe–feeling all the while like a magician’s apprentice who nightly watches his screen-bound corpus sawn in half and expertly restored, though usually a bit shorter.

Meanwhile, the brave new world of digital cinema is beckoning. The obstacles (lack of cash) and excuses (being a busy newspaperman) that have prevented me from making a film in the past are no longer an issue. So, in late spring 2000, I begin shooting Hold Me with Your Robot Hand, an 11-minute mockumentary about a boy, a band, and a robot hand.
“Think of it as a sort of Horatio Alger story set in the amputee ward,” I bray to an investor, who, either impressed with my chutzpah or my producer/new girlfriend’s sang-froid demeanor and doe eyes (meet Rachael “Caramel Apples” Costa), cuts the check for the production budget.

After playing nationally on the film festival circuit, the flick is acquired by Lions Gates Films’ online venture CinemaNow for online distribution.

Buoyed by Tinsel Town’s reception of Robot Hand, I jump headlong into the chrysalis of new media and come out a moth fluttering around the limelight of Hollywood’s backdoor. Which in this case is tucked into the Echo (insert sound of automatic weapon fire) Park district of Los Angeles in an apartment split with Cary Carpe.

There, we set to writing the great American screenplay, and thus is born our partnership. We fancy ourselves a modern-day Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (hail of bullets and all) or Lennon and McCartney (hail of bullets on the side). I have turned a new page in my career as a writer — and find it crested with the words “FADE IN.”

The Pitch — A form of groveling native to Hollywood in which you “show them yours” and they show you the door.

In the meantime, Carpe introduces me to his private fetish — the relatively unheralded world of 1950s educational films (Dating Do’s and Don’ts, Are You Popular?, Soapy the Germ Fighter, What It Means to Be an American, et al.). He suggests we write a ensemble-cast comedy about the people who made them. We write the feature-length screenplay, titled Best Behavior, in a month, polish it for two weeks, and then begin shopping it.

To re-educate the studio executives as to what an educational film actually is, Carpe and I shoot a short parody, Is it Time to Swap?, for would-be swingers.

The buzz on Swap lands us a meeting with new media studio Hypnotic, a start-up strategically partnered with Universal Pictures and and boasting offices in New York and on the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles.

I utter my name with extra flourish to the unimpressed guard–and lo, the striped barrier arm raises in a 45-degree Sieg Heil to the nouvelle auteurs.

On the lot, it looks like Carnival has collided with a circus train. Carpe and I move among a widening gyre of astronauts and ballerinas, a bevy of teamsters moving prop palm trees in seeming slow motion, a wizard on a bicycle, monkeys smoking cigarettes lit by a fire-breathing man costumed as a satyr, a pantomime horse studded with arrow wounds, and dozens of beautiful young women toting headshots and yammering “Baby, screen kisses don’t count” into wireless devices.

Alas, I suddenly understand Ezra Pound’s inspiration for his poem In a Station of the Metro, wherein he witnesses a succession of Parisian belles worthy of whistles from the hard-hat set:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd/ Petals on a wet, black bough.
The Hollywood version of Pound’s verse, of course, reads like this:
The apparition of these starlets on the lot/ Casting on a black leather couch.

We’re greeted by Andrew Weiner, a vaguely debauched but trim executive with a smile indicating that he might or might not release the lions.

He sits us down in his office, then does some perfunctory meet-and-greet banter to get a clearer bead on who we are and — more important — who we know, or at least pretend to know. I let Carpe do the talking; he’s been around so long that he knows everyone by default, the way a prisoner might remind a guard of his anniversary.
We pop in our screener of Swap and nervously watch Weiner, whose stoic demeanor lets nary a whisper of laughter crease his lips. Finally, the tape ends and he turns to us.

“Nice calling card. So what do you want to do with it?”
I drop the screenplay on the table.
My partner turns to me and whispers, “You do ‘play by play,’ I’ll do ‘color.’ ”
I begin the pitch.
“In an era that liked Ike and loved Lucy, school boards commissioned thousands of sensational, conformist, and often bloody ‘social guidance films . . .’ ”
“Red Asphalt,” Carpe interjects, arching his brow.
I clear my throat.
“Once believed to be an infallible teaching aid, the films extolled the virtues of proper dating habits and good citizenship and the wonders of patriotism,” I continue, then ask rhetorically, “But who were these people that made films of such impossible virtue?”

We pause for dramatic effect, which succeeds only in giving Weiner a chance to check his watch.
“Our comic feature screenplay explores educational filmmaking from a behind-the-scenes perspective . . .”
Carpe adds with relish, “Boogie Nights meets Ed Wood in the dark alley of American educational films.”
“In our research,” I continue, “we’ve discovered that these educational filmmakers were out-and-out sleazebags . . .”
“Despots, junkies, beatniks,” Carpe adds.

“One day, into this melange of vice rolls a student teacher who has virtually raised himself on these films. He is polite, hygienic, clean-cut, possibly a virgin . . .”
“Squeaky clean . . .” Carpe avers.
“This aspiring pillar of society rolls in and whips the studios in shape . . .”
“Squeaky wheel . . .”
“But in so doing, he discovers that those he comes to call his mentors and friends are actually rogues, scoundrels, and weirdos. Does he succumb to their temptations? Or does he take matters into his own self-righteous hands?”
“Squeaky Fromme,” Carpe concludes, then leans back, satisfied.
Weiner blinks. He finally asks, “So what happens?”
“You see Frankenstein? That happens,” I say emphatically.
“This is a comedy?”
“A dark comedy.”
“Are there lesbians?”
“There can be.”

Option ? Essentially a down payment on a screenplay or property that grants the producers the right to peddle and develop the work without purchasing it completely; i.e., getting fucked without getting kissed.

Weiner and his associates at Hypnotic read a lesbian-enhanced version of our screenplay. In mid-January 2001, while in Park City, Utah, during the 10-day soiree that comes with the Sundance Film Festival and its satellites (including our own festival, SCAMdance), Carpe and I ink our first deal as partners.

Park City is to film contracts what Geneva is to peace treaties–neutral territory suitable for the signing of documents. Talks are tense. Our then lawyer, a man plainly used to bigger fish, thinks of us as chum and consequently used our contracts–to extend the metaphor–as fish-wrap.

We get a new lawyer (who, incidentally, counts gangsta rap label Death Row Records among his clients and is conveniently a contract and litigation lawyer) and sign on to an option of our feature screenplay, the acquisition of Swap, and the commission of three more shorts to create a series of educational films.

Included in the series is the self-explanatory What to Do with Your Dead Hooker; Let’s Meet Those People ? a pair of WASP kids venture to the other side of the demographic spectrum–and Johnny Come Early, a guide to preventing premature ejaculation, all of which we would shoot on the Universal Studios lot.

On Set ? See Dante’s Inferno, canto 3: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here . . .”

The back lot of Universal Studios is the lost twin of downtown Petaluma. From the bricks to the iron-front buildings, from the clock tower to the slough, it’s a brick-and-mortar valentine to mom and apple pie–except that it’s all fake and nearly as expensive.

The cadre of Petalumans I have assembled to aid and abet my foray into studio filmmaking feels eerily at home and frolics in the vacant streets as if playing a game of stick ball.

Our star, Petaluma actor Zachary Kahler, arrives at the set fresh-faced and spritzing us with a squirt gun he found in a hole cut into the pages of his hotel room Bible. His watery assaults are combated by Levy, who tosses a brick at Kahler to watch him flinch. Luckily, the brick is a prop made of foam.

Costa quietly warns me that some of the studio people are en route to check our progress.
“It’s difficult see the Hollywood sign when blinded by the glinting sword of Damocles hovering perpetually over one’s head, eh, Daedalus?” my collaborator Carpe whispers wryly into my ear.

Indeed, it’s time to get the shot.

Another tram finally chugs out of the frame, Levy calls everyone to order, and the camera begins rolling. Carpe nods to me: “Go ahead, man, this one’s on me.”
I take a breath, cup my hands, and holler, “Action!”

Hold Me With Your Robot Hand

Neil Alden may have an artificial arm, but he has no tin ear. Despite being born without his right arm, Neil has yearned to play bass like his hero Michael Anthony of Van Halen. Through a chance encounter with a German engineer and a little help from his friends, Neil’s dream may come true…

The Late Projectionist Review

Cover photo by Sara Sanger, design by Josh Staples “…A torrid tale of angst set in a surreal little town a bit like Petaluma. Our narrator is a frustrated and slightly delusional would-be screenwriter coping with art, love, and life while searching for a leg up (or at least a crumbling foothold) on his foundering career. Is he condemned forever to small-town Dullsville and his career as a beleaguered movie theater projectionist? Or will he reach the escape velocity attained by his former girlfriend, now a world-class concert cellist? …The book’s true strength, is the hilarious interaction among the narrator’s charmingly bizarre circle of slackers, swingers, stymied geniuses, and other miscellaneous malcontents. Howell’s gift for dialogue is this novel’s greatest asset.” — Bohemian

Read it here.

Purchase it here.

Brenda Starr Creator Dale Messick Endured Deadlines and Sexism

Brenda Starr

“I’m a half-assed celebrity — everyone knows Brenda Starr but nobody knows me,” laughs cartoonist Dale Messick. “I still get fan letters after all these years — five or 10 a week. They all want a sketch and an autograph because people collect these things. People collect anything. That’s why I never take my [dental] bridge out — they might collect bridges!”

Messick is the creator of intrepid, fire-haired comic-strip news reporter Brenda Starr–an enduring conflux of stouthearted vixen, uber-frau, and svelte, impeccably coiffed career woman with a penchant for breaking news and difficult men.

In June, Starr will be 57 years old, but thanks to the disparity of cartoon years vs. human years, she looks little older than she did when she tumbled full-grown from Messick’s imagination. Likewise, her spry and delightful creator appears only a fraction of her ninety-something years.

In her characteristic deadpan, Messick downplays her accomplishment.

“The only remarkable thing that I think I did was that I was married twice, divorced twice, had a horrible automobile accident that almost killed me, had a baby, and in 43 years never missed a deadline.”

A Hoosier born in South Bend, Ind., just days before San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, cartoonist Messick has resided in Sonoma County near her daughter and granddaughter since the death of her husband several years ago. The walls of her Oakmont home are strewn with awards, plaques, and photographs of conventions at which she was honored. The Redwood Chapter of the California Writers Club recently named her an honorary member, and in April the National Cartoonists Society will present her its version of the Oscar.

Displayed on a far wall of her art studio is a poster-sized blowup of the postage stamp the U.S. Post Office issued to commemorate her comic strip. Of the dozens of early cartoonists so honored, Messick is the only one still alive and the only woman.

Raised by artistically inclined parents in a cultural region that little valued artistic expression, let alone that of a precocious child, Messick grew up markedly different from her childhood contemporaries. Profoundly near-sighted, the young Messick couldn’t see the looming face of the classroom clock, slowing her mastery of time-telling at an age when such skills are an important social factor (queries about the time of day still cause her a flash of anxiety). Worse yet, her spelling was atrocious, and she was left-handed at a time when that would earn one a beating.

MESSICK’S ABILITY to draw became an obvious refuge, and the talent she nurtured throughout her school years eventually garnered her a position designing greeting cards at a Chicago publishing house when in her early 20s. Later, in 1933, she migrated to New York and earned a staggering Depression era salary of $50 a week, nearly half of which she sent back to her family in Indiana.

“I had $30 a week to live it up,” remembers Messick of her windfall. “You could walk down 42nd Street and have bacon and eggs and toast and coffee and hash brown potatoes and orange juice–the works–for 25 cents.”

In the late ’30s, comic books began to swell in popularity as the appeal of dime novels and “weird fiction” pulps began to evaporate. Recognizing a possible market threat to their Sunday comics pages, large metropolitan newspapers produced ancillary comic-based publications to safeguard their readerships. To this end, the monolithic Chicago Tribune–the universal appeal of its Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates strips notwithstanding–began devising a booklet that required eight new strips.

“This friend of mine in New York gave me the tip about it,” says Messick, who had altered her given name of “Dalia” to the more sexually ambiguous “Dale” in order to thwart the male-chauvinist editors she routinely encountered. “If I sent in my stuff and they knew I was a woman, they wouldn’t even look at it. So, [as Dale] I wrote up a story and sent it in to them. They accepted my comic and gave it the center page. Out of eight unknown cartoonists, I was the only one who survived. That was my big break,” she recounts. “I went into the Chicago Tribune-New York News syndicate and I was the only woman…I never was really accepted.”

Brenda Starr Origins

ALTHOUGH SCIENTISTS have never bothered to note the event in the annals of astronomical history, on June 30, 1940, a Starr was born. The early Brenda was very much a mirror of her creator’s inspiration–the screen siren Rita Hayworth. Like Hayworth, Brenda was feisty, dauntless, unabashedly sexy, and, as Messick laughingly reports, “had this gorgeous red hair that could go through any sort of adventure and look great.”

In equal parts a soap opera and action-adventure serial, Brenda Starr was immediately embraced by a readership comprised of both sexes, whose tastes seldom went coed in a comic strip. Some male fans, misapprehending Messick’s gender owing to her unisexual pseudonym, even asked the cartoonist for jocular tokens of fraternity.

Says Messick, “I used to get fan letters from guys who requested a ‘daring picture’ of Brenda. Well, you know what they wanted — I had made Brenda very sexy. I’d send them a little sketch of Brenda Starr going over Niagara falls in a barrel and say, ‘I hope this is daring enough.'”

Brenda Starr joined the profusely male pantheon of comic heroes during an era that spanned the Depression, World War II, and the I Like Ike and I Love Lucy-goosiness of the ’50s. Her prosperity was, in part, a product of World War II’s strong female workforce. Like the affable Rosie the Riveter caricature, Brenda Starr was an exemplar of girl power–a white-collar analogue of the buxom factory gal.

In this atmosphere of patriotism and sisterhood, the strip flourished (after all, Brenda Starr did her part for the war effort) and compounded the early success it achieved in the 18 months before Pearl Harbor.

By the time the war ended and women workers were ousted by returning GIs who subsequently knocked them up with the Baby Boom, Brenda Starr was securely fastened to the pages of daily newspapers as far-flung as Australia, ultimately boasting a worldwide readership of 60 million.

“I’ll read strips from 20 or 30 years ago and get hooked. I wrote it, I drew it, and I forgot it. I still say that I have better stories in there than they have on television today,” avers Messick, who has maintained a collection of her entire Brenda Starr oeuvre–15,000 strips in all. “Probably after I’m dead and gone they will discover that and use my stories.”

Hollywood, however, has already heeded Messick’s counsel and in the late ’80s brought a lackluster cinematic version of Brenda Starr to the screen under the aegis of Princess Di’s Starr-crossed beau, film producer Doti Fayed. In a tragic fit of poor casting, Fayed insisted his then-paramour Brooke Shields become Suddenly Brenda.

“She really wasn’t the Brenda Starr type at all,” Messick says of Shields’ performance. “Let me tell you, the movie was so bad it never even won the ‘Worst Movie of the Year Award.’ Don’t see it, it’s awful.”

After 43 years of meeting strenuous deadlines (her strips were drawn six weeks before publication), Messick retired in her late 70s. Brenda Starr continues to be drawn by other artists for the Chicago Tribune-New York News syndicate–an endeavor Messick does not begrudge, though she has no compunction about voicing her criticism.

“Now it doesn’t look like Brenda at all,” Messick contends. “She looks more like she works at a bank. No glamour, no curves, no fashion — but it’s still going pretty good.”

Since her retirement, Messick has developed new strips, including a weekly one-panel series for the Oakmont Gardens Magazine dubbed Granny Glamour. The comic features a saucy senior full of such punchy, homespun aphorisms as “You’re in when your foxy grandpa’s pacemaker opens the garage door.”

“This is all I know,” Messick says simply. “All my life I’ve been creating and drawing. I don’t have much time left–I’m living on borrowed time — so with the few years I have left, I want to do what I want to do and that’s to work in my studio.”

As Granny Glamour says, “When you quit and just sit, that’s it.”

Dale Messick passed away April 5, 2005.