Making a Musical for Bill Conrad

 

The next time Howard Kazanjian worked for producer Bill Conrad, the budget had been bumped up to 1.2 million. Warner Brothers was looking to cash in on the new craze sweeping the young teen audiences in America, represented by the success of such musical variety shows as Shindig and Hullabaloo.

The studio saw potential in a script penned by the first winner of the Samuel L Warner Memorial Opportunity Award, Joyce Geller when she was there for her internship. (I mentioned this in passing on my post entitled “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree”). Geller’s script told the story of a talented but unsuccessful singer Cliff Donner (played by Gil Peterson) and an ambitious go-go dancer Hallie Rodgers (played by Debbie Watson), who are paired up by a millionaire rock’n’roll entrepreneur Tony Krum (played by Roddy McDowell). The story pivots around Krum’s plan to generate PR for the duo by engendering a perception in the teen audience that they are falling in love – complications, of course, ensue. Geller preferred her title “The Wiggy Plan of Tony Krum,” but the studio wanted something they considered more meaningful, hence “The Cool Ones.” She salted her dialogue with words such as “Ratfink” and “Dingaling,” jargon calculated to resonate with the target audience.

Conrad also put together his team with an eye to this end. For director he selected Gene Nelson, who most recently had helmed two Elvis Presley films – “Kissin’ Cousins” and “Harum Scarum.” Nelson came from a dance background, notably having played the part of Will Parker in the film version of “Oklahoma.” Howard found him to be a very nice guy.

For DP Conrad tapped Floyd Crosby. He had extensive experience working on teen projects, including four of the beach party movies and several Roger Corman horror productions. He had a couple more musical connections of interest, he had been involved with the production of Oklahoma in the 2d unit, so he may or may not have been acquainted with Nelson already. And most interesting of all, Floyd was the father of David Crosby, at this time a member of the rock band, the Byrds – (Crosby Stills and Nash and (sometimes Young) was in the near future).

For choreographer, they brought in Toni Basil. She had assisted her mentor David Winters, the choreographer on both Hullabaloo and Shindig, (she would appear later in Easy Rider; and did choreography for American Graffiti). She brought along her friend and fellow Shindig dancer Teri Garr, whom you can catch in the background in some shots. Both Toni and Teri had appeared in front of the lenses of Floyd Crosby before, in the film “Pajama Party.” Another Shindig member, a guitarist for the Shindig house band was given a small speaking/singing part – Glenn Campbell.

Three garage bands were tapped to appear in the film – The Leaves, The Bantams, and T.J. and the Fourmations. In the main, the music was supplied by Lee Hazelwood, the composer propelling Nancy Sinatra to the top of the charts (“These Boots Were Made for Walking”). He scored ten of the twelve tunes for “The Cool Ones.” One of these – “This Town” has had a long life afterwards. Hazelwood brought in Billy Strange for the arrangements. Strange was a guitarist and a member of the Wrecking Crew, the famous group of studio musicians (utilized by many of the rock groups of the day, including the Byrds). He also supplied one song. The twelfth song slotted in was the 1957 tune “It’s Magic” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne which was warbled by the novelty pop personality Mrs. Miller.

Howard reported to Assistant Director Gil Kessel. Gil was an old timer at WB, having got his start as a set decorator in 1941 on The Maltese Falcon. He made the switch in 1958 to AD. Howard says he was a little slow, and envious of the younger people coming up. He looked askance at them, not viewing them so much as assistants but rather as his replacements.

The Cool Ones was shot mostly at the studio. For exteriors they travelled to the nearby San Fernando Valley and over to Palm Springs. Most of the scenes shot in Palm Springs were around the town, both day and night exteriors. There was one challenging bit – a musical number staged inside the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and up on the observation platform. The tramway begins at an elevation of 2,643 feet and climbs the Chino Canyon wall up to a level of 8,516 feet. Howard says that the shoot was further complicated by limited time up on top.

The Cool Ones had one more “musical tie-in” of note. When at work on one of the sets, Howard tells me that Lee Wilson the WB lighting gaffer pointed out to him that the carpet on the floor was the same one that had been used in the Ascot race scene for “My Fair Lady.” At that time there were sets for that film still around the lot, notably the one for Covent Garden – the flower market standing set. (The Cool Ones had a market scene too, but it was on location over in Olvera Street).

The Cool Ones should be so famous.

The Night of the Shrinking Man and the Fifty Foot Woman

The Night of the Shrinking Man and the Fifty Foot Woman

My girl friend and I usually had a weekly date to meet after work on Friday nights over at her family’s house. We sat on their couch and tuned in the Creature Feature – the late night scary movie. In between the ads for a local car dealer we got to see the likes of:

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Them (them as opposed to us humans – the them being giant ants)

The Blob (inside of which was rumored to be Steve McQueen)

The Attack of the Crab Monsters (by the Sultan of Schlock – Roger Corman).

And many, many more…

For some reason (possibly due to their availability) none of the classic monster movies were broadcast. No Dracula, no Frankenstein, no Werewolf movies. On second thought perhaps it was because they were so much older than these titles – the 1930s versus the 1950s – the concern on the programmer’s part possibly being for more contemporary fare.

Sometimes long nights ensued as the fare put us both to sleep. Cue the Everly Brothers – Wake Up Little Susie, Wake Up.

We were excited to learn that one of our upcoming Friday nights could be spent at one of our favorite places. The Harvard Exit had a calendar program that they printed and made available in their lobby. And scheduled for a midnight show on Halloween was the double bill – The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman.

We bought our tickets and joined the midnight throng filling the seats for the sci-fi/horror fest. My friend from college Dave went with us. Dave with his scientific bent could be a bit of a Debbie Downer. He would speak right up when something occurred that was impossible – like explosions in outer space for instance, (that epic rant came out of a viewing of Silent Running). I don’t remember any gaffs pointed out by him in these two pictures. Trust me, had there been, he would have been all over them gleefully. But then again these flicks were more in the fantasy line and were not tied down to any hard science.

I wonder now if there was not a tongue in cheek ideology behind the pairing. This time was the era of the rise of feminism. If I was into conspiracy theory, I could posit that it was a manifesto of sorts, signifying the diminution of men and the elevation of women over them.