Friday, November 30, 2012

My First NEW Parkway Memory!

Theater #2 (Photo by Doug Abeel)
My final "Parkway memory blog" (i.e., this one) was supposed to dovetail with the grand opening of The New Parkway - tonight. However, in true Parkway tradition, circumstances beyond anyone's control have forced a slight delay. This unfortunate but unavoidable speed bump did not pre-empt the recent private party thrown for The NP's many investors, supporters and volunteers, which took place at the nearly completed theater this past Wednesday, November 28. Monica Tiki Goddess and I were very excited to see J. Moses Ceaser's grand ambition finally realized. While this venture was an ensemble effort, just as before, Moses is to this venue what Parkway co-founders Kyle and Catherine Fischer were to the original - the visionary mastermind that brought it all together and made it possible. Kudos to both.

"Just when I thought I was out,
they pull me back in!"
I have to admit, as the long time programmer/publicist of the original theater, and as someone who never thought I'd return to this industry in any capacity, it felt a bit weird to be there. As I've said before, I felt like the star of a canceled TV series that became a cult sensation following its premature demise, and was now being revived with a whole new set and crew, while maintaining the basic concept (i.e. Star Trek TOS vs. Star Trek: The Next Generation.) I was just making a cameo in the rebooted version. Many members of the new crew had not been to the old Parkway very often, if at all, meaning they were not aware of my prior position, so I am an unfamiliar face to them (and vice versa). But many of the folks present were from the "old" community and it was very nice to see them again. None of us thought this would ever happen. Some are sad the original location could not be revived, but the fact is, the 24th @ Telegraph address is far more strategically sound, easily accessible via bus and BART, and smack in the middle of the bustling hub known as Uptown. And the interior setup is very impressive.

When you walk in the door, you are greeted with a bright, airy cafe and a concession stand on the far left where patrons will purchase tickets and order food. The space extends to a mezzanine level, and the walls will be adorned by local artwork. Very Oaktown.

The two screening auditoriums are what I describe as "organically funky." Both replicate the cozy, casual ambience without duplicating the actual design of the former location. Remember, this is a renovated warehouse, which actually suits the artsy/commercial character of the district, the same way the original Parkway matched the old school, laid-back mood of its own more residential neighborhood.

I programmed some public domain films for the occasion: vintage Betty Boop cartoons and 1959's B-classic The Killer Shrews, which contains more booze-guzzling than any movie ever, including The Lost Weekend and Leaving Las Vegas. Trust me, if you were trapped on an island surrounded by rabid dogs wearing shag coats and fake fangs, you'd be hittin' the sauce big time too.

Following a formal presentation honoring the many people who helped bring this project to life, including the local vendors contributing food and beer to this shindig, there was also a very entertaining program of local short films, setting the table for what's to come...

Theater #1 is arranged "cabaret style" with tables and chairs on the lower level and many couches up in the balcony area, as well a few lining the walls.  There's even an old organ in one corner. Completely unique. This is where my weekly "Parkway Classics" series will take place, beginning with The Big Lebowski

Theater #2, where "Thrillville Theater" will happen every Sunday at suppertime, starting with Forbidden Planet, features a hodgepodge of midcentury modern furniture facing the screen with more traditional theater seating in the back. It reminded me of Ren & Stimpy's house. Fantastic. And again - very Oaktown. All I can say is, fans of the former location will love it, while a whole new generation of patrons will be introduced to a very special filmgoing/dining experience. 

And making good on my promise to the closing night crowd back on March 22, 2009 (William Shatner's birthday), I booked Carne Cruda to help re-open the revived theater. Not in the same spot, as it turned out, but possibly, even better. When they played "Oakland's Tight," it all felt right. Full circle.

Later that night, when I flipped on the TV as I laid in bed, processing many mixed emotions, Star Trek: Generations happend to be on IFC. Incredibly ironic and ominous. I watched Kirk pass the torch to Picard and thought: this is a natural progression from one "enterprise" to the next...

I will always cherish my many good memories of the original Parkway, but it's nice to finally be making some new ones, too. Cheers.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Parkway: Closing Night

I remember it all too well. It was a Wednesday night in March 2009 when Speakeasy Theaters CEO Kyle Fischer called me up to tell me The Parkway was closing its doors for good on Sunday. That Sunday. Four days away. I was stunned. So I got the news only slightly before everyone else did, including the staff, because I was the one who made the formal announcement via the "emergency" email newsletter. I won't get into the reasons why this cultural tragedy happened so abruptly, partly because I'm not entirely sure. I  have my own personal theories from an insider's perspective, but I'll keep those to myself. Suffice to say, much of the outside speculation has been false. After struggling for many months to stay afloat, the company simply imploded, despite its popularity. And as I predicted, the reaction from the public and media was intense. And I had suddenly lost my 12 year career as a film programmer/publicist. Just like that.

Will the Thrill & Monica Tiki Goddess say goodbye
to The Parkwayafter 12 years of Thrillville shows
I had to immediately contact clients whom I had booked for upcoming events spanning months. One was the local Latin rock/surf/jazz band Carne Cruda, whose signature song, "Oakland's Tight," actually mentioned The Parkway in the lyrics! I contacted their leader, Camilo Landau, and told him I had to cancel their gig for the following Thursday, since the theater would be totally dark by then, but asked if they would be our closing night act. They agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history. March 22, 2009 was a night to remember - and not just because it was William Shatner's birthday. 

Once the word got out, the outpouring of love and grief from the community was incredible. Kyle and Catherine Fischer, the couple responsible for the existence of this beloved institution, were overwhelmed. I don't think they really had any idea what they'd accomplished, or were fully aware of the impact their brainchild had not only on Oakland but the Bay Area arts scene as a whole. It was a source of pride and joy for so many people. But the Fischers knew it, and felt it, now that it was all over. Closing night was an equally passionate and sorrowful occasion, and multitudes of mourning patrons were left in the theater's wake.

Our final movie? Let the Right One In, the Norwegian vampire flick which we'd held onto for months, simply because we couldn't afford to book anything else. People still showed up in droves. That's how Parkway fans were.

Viva Parkway!

To be perfectly frank, I have a lot of complicated feelings about my long association with The Parkway. I've been sharing many happy memories in this blog. But I also have some very unhappy memories which are really nobody's business. They don't matter now anyway. All that remains is the good will and lingering love from our many loyal patrons. Thank you.

When announcing the band to the packed house that night, I promised that we'd bring Carne Cruda back when The Parkway re-opened. Despite many attempts by various groups and investors, that never happened. Until now.

Last night I attended a private appreciation party for the many supporters and volunteers for The New Parkway. And I kept my promise. Carne Cruda returned to rock the house, this time celebrating a rebirth, not commemorating a lost cause. The New Parkway, located in a completely renovated warehouse at 474 24th Street in Uptown Oakland, will be opening any day now.

Salud, and Viva Parkway!

Carne Cruda then...
...and NOW!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Parkway Can't Help It

Poster by R. Black
In August 2005, I booked one of my favorite movies, The Girl Can't Help It (1956) the ultimate '50s rock 'n' roll sex comedy ,starring Jayne Mansfield, Tom Ewell, and Edmond O'Brien, with musical performances by Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Platters, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Julie London and many other pop luminaries of the era, shot in widescreen Deluxe color and directed by the great Frank Tashlin.  Since it was Thrillville, Jake, I added live burlesque by The Devil-Ettes - frequent guests and one of the Bay Area's most popular troupes - to the already busy bill. Artist R. Black contributed a fantastic poster which remained in the lobby through the duration of The Parkway's existence. You probably remember it, hanging right near the men's bathroom...

"Scheme C6" starred my wife Monica Cortes Viharo
in the female lead
Additionally, legendary local filmmaker Rob Nilsson (Chalk, Heat and Sunlight, Signal 7), an old friend of ours, wanted to make the final film in his gritty, streetwise, cinéma vérité style 9@Night series, called Go Together (2007) at The Parkway, with me in a cameo as myself, "Will the Thrill," and Monica not only playing "the Tiki Goddess" on stage, but reprising her role of "Yve," the sexy female lead of an earlier film in the series, Scheme C6 (2001). My father, actor Robert Viharo, had a recurring role in this series as well, including Go Together. So Rob set up cameras and shot footage of me hosting this particular show, including The Devil-Ettes' performance, to incorporate into the movie, in which I was actually hosting a porno festival! Not much of a stretch. I improvised some bits which later wound up in the final cut, and the audience went along with it. Later, Rob shot a bunch of scenes for the movie privately during the daytime, with Parkway patrons volunteering to play "the audience." The late David Hess, star of the grindhouse classic The Last House on the Left (1972), played a bum in the Parkway alley! But most of my scenes were filmed at this show, which I called "Thrillville's Rockin' Bombshell Revue." It sold out and was quite a memorable experience - but not all for the reasons already mentioned.
The Devil-Ettes - who needs a movie?

The night before the gig, the 35mm print for The Girl Can't Help It was dropped off in our lobby, cutting it pretty close to showtime. Our projectionist popped open the can and discovered only two reels - three were simply missing. That was pretty much most of the movie! Panic quickly set in. At the time, Girl wasn't on DVD yet, but I did have a bootleg VHS copy in my private collection. Unfortunately, that would have to there I was with a packed house, a film crew shooting live footage for an indie flick, and a movie on the big screen that I taped off TV. Thankfully sans commercials. Still pretty ghetto. I promised the audience this wasn't the usual practice at The Parkway, and being regular patrons, they were already accustomed to such unexpected mishaps. In their typical forgiving spirit, the crowd rolled with the circumstances, and nobody left and everyone had fun. It was simply a great night - and so was the premiere of Go Together at The Parkway a couple of years later. Here's to all you patient people. Cheers.
At the Mill Valley Film Festival screening of "Go Together" (2007)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Remembering Ray Dennis Steckler

Poster by Miles Goodrich
Some of my favorite memories of The Parkway are when my friend Ray Dennis Steckler appeared in Thrillville and literally took over the show. Ray is famous amongst cult movie fans for such grindhouse gems as The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1963), The Thrill Killers (1964), Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters (1965), and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966), all of which I proudly presented with Ray in person over the years. He would haul his own 35mm prints to the Bay Area from his home in Las Vegas, where he ran his own video store. He even made professionally edited, full length documentaries about these live shows which he sold, inserting vintage film clips into the footage he shot at The Parkway as well as the shows we did at the Fine Arts Theater in Berkeley, also sadly defunct. Ray loved to meet the fans and always regaled audiences with long-winded but riveting tales of guerilla filmmaking back in the day. He was a true independent, long before that designation became trendy. He often brought special guests like frequent co-star Herb Robins, who was hilarious, and his old editor Keith Wester, who went on to an Oscar-nominated career. 

At the Fine Arts, Berkeley
My biggest pleasure was chasing Ray around the theater during a screening while wearing one of his original "Mummy" outfits, waving a plastic axe, and Ray donned the trademark hoodie of his cinematic alter ego, "Cash Flagg." During one of our most successful gigs together, Valentine's Day with Ray Dennis Steckler on February 14, 2002, my friend Mick Turpel of Barely Legal Productions and I were chasing Ray through the screaming audience in a sold-out house as Incredibly Strange Creatures was playing - and the fragile film suddenly snapped. Ray got up on stage and said jovially, "Story of my life!" Then he entertained the folks with more crazy true stories while the projectionist taped the frail print back together. This happened a couple of more times that night, too. One of my very favorite nights at The Parkway.

Gorilla X, "Cash Flagg," and Jello Biafra!
Sadly, Ray passed away on January 7, 2009 - the same exact day as another Thrillville/Parkway regular, Creature Features host Bob Wilkins. The irony was bitter and seemingly foreshadowed the abrupt closing of The Parkway only a couple of months later, on March 22, 2009. The sudden, complete end of an era.

I donated the 35mm prints Ray had left with me, Incredibly Strange Creatures (under its alternate title, Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary) and The Thrill Killers (also under its alternate title, The Maniacs Are Loose) to the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, where they will be preserved for posterity. To my knowledge (and Ray's), no other 35mm  prints of these classics exist.

So my pal Ray won't be appearing at The New Parkway, except in spirit. Here's to the other Bob and Ray. Cheers. (Watch Ray's "documentary" of his first show at The Parkway from August 2000 here, and of his epic Valentine's Show at The Parkway here.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Horror Host Palooza!

Over the years hosting, programming and producing Thrillville at The Parkway, I had the honor of sharing the big stage with many professional "horror hosts," besides Bob Wilkins and John Stanley of Creature Features fame (more on those epic shows here). While I met many of them via the Creature Features reunions at The Parkway, we continued to network and present separate "spook shows" and fright festivals throughout the year. I never considered myself a "horror host" per se - more like a B movie beatnik lounge lizard - which is why I've pretty much retired the fez to pursue my true passion, writing. But these folks are hardcore. They are living their dreams, and it was always a pleasure both for the audience and me when they co-hosted Thrillville. 

Posters by Strephon Taylor

In October 2005, I decided to assemble them all like The Avengers of Schlock for one big Halloween show, which I called "Horror Host Palooza." I called together Thrillville regulars Mister Lobo of Cinema Insomnia, Ms. Monster and her Melons, and Dr. Goulfinger, along with my Midwest doppelganger Rock 'n' Roll Ray, Cleveland's Son of Ghoul, and a dude named Adam Strange from LA, for 35mm screenings of Al Adamson's Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) and Ted V. Mikels' Astro Zombies (1968) - a particularly sleazy double bill, of which I was quite proud - along with live theremin by Robert Silverman, yet another frequent and popular Thrillville guest. It was such a smash hit that I put together a couple of more Horror Host Paloozas after that, with John Stanley and Bob Wilkins joining the gang. 

I plan on bringing back a lot of my fearsome friends to guest host Thrillville Theater at The New Parkway on Sunday evenings, including guys I never had a chance to work with while The Parkway was open, like Johnny Legend and Lord Blood-Rah. I may show up and present a movie now and then, but by and large, I'm retired from that scene. I'm leaving it to the professionals. Cheers.

Mr. Lobo emerges from the pod...
With Lobo and Bob Wilkins
Ms. Monster and her Melons!
Son of Ghoul and John Stanley
With Son of Ghoul and Rock 'n' Roll Ray
Live theremin by Robert Silverman!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

New Year's Eve at The Parkway

One annual event that never really took off the Parkway New Year's Eve Party. We only did it about three years in a row, as I recall. Each admission included free champagne, a celebratory menu, dancing, and specially selected themes. themes. One was a disco party where we showed Saturday Night Fever then opened up the floor with a DJ, moving all the couches away from the stage area so folks dressed up like 70s relics 'n' rejects could boogie the night away. Another time we threw a toga party and showed Animal House. That was my favorite. But again, unlike our Oscar Bash, which sold out in minutes and packed both screens, the NYE concept simply didn't attract enough patrons to warrant staying up so late. 

The New Parkway may or may not throw a New Year's Party this year, or next. In any case, I'll probably be staying home anyway. Cheers.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bikers Invade The Parkway

The Devil-Ettes at Thrillville's Honeymoon Show,
 June 2001
The East Bay Rats often frequented The Parkway, especially on 2 for 1 Wednesdays, and I spotted more than a few Hell's Angels at the the theater over the years. They always parked their bikes outside, though, per the law and all. Very respectful and polite.

But on two separate occasions, I actually allowed - make that encouraged - local biker gangs to bring their bikes inside the main theater, park them along the stage, and on cue, rev their engines. Call me crazy. I hear it often. Mostly for jazz like this. But The Parkway was that kinda place. It fostered insanity, er...creativity.

Poster by Strephon Taylor
The first time I pulled this stunt was for my big Thrillville Honeymoon Show (actually shows, since we did it twice in one evening) on June 21, 2001. Monica Tiki Goddess and I had just returned from Hawaii after tying the knot at the Cal-Neva Lodge in Tahoe, and we wanted to celebrate in Thrillville, since that's how we initially met. I booked a rare 35mm print of Ted V. Mikels' classic She Devils on Wheels (1968) from The Werepad, and for live entertainment we had legendary local burlesque troupe The Devil-Ettes, along with a Oakland's famous female biker gang The Devil Dolls, who wheeled their hogs through the lobby or via the side theater door, lined them up along the stage, and right before the movie began.....vrrrrooom! Twice. It was such a blast, so to speak, I did it again later for a sold-out Thrillville screening of Easy Rider (1969).

I seriously doubt this was legal. Don't expect this experience to be replicated at The New Parkway. At least not by me, anyway. I don't want to push my luck...cheers.

(See video of the infamous Honeymoon Show here.)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Elvis Lives! The Parkway

The King and I
I love Halloween and Christmas, but for Monica Tiki Goddess and me, our very favorite holidays of the year are Elvis B-Day (January 8) and Elvis D-Day (August 16), the anniversaries of The King's birth and "disappearance," respectively.  My wife Monica and I first met at The Parkway on May 31, 1997, when I was hosting Jailhouse Rock (1957) in The Midnight Lounge and picked her out of the audience to spin my big wheel, so to speak. I had been hosting Elvis B-Day and Elvis D-Day parties at various venues around the East Bay since the early '90s, often sponsored by the Elvis-friendly computer company 42 Inc. Monica and I officially met  (i.e. started dating) months after our initial Parkway encounter at my Elvis B-Day party at the Ivy Room in Albany, on January 8, 1998. She remembered me as the Parkway dude who gave her an Elvis blanket as a reward for her sexy wheel-spinning, and I remembered her as the hot babe with the tattoo of a Navajo symbol that read "Elvis." She got the gigs of both lovely assistant and wife, and has been spinning my wheel ever since.

Impersonator contest...
The Midnight Lounge was the original name of my weekly cult movie show at The Parkway before it suddenly morphed into the B-movie/burlesque extravaganza known as Thrillville on January 8, 1999 with a "prime time" screening of Viva Las Vegas (1964), one of the greatest nights ever in my so-called "career" as "Will the Thrill." The crowd just went totally nuts over the cosmic, combustible combination of Elvis and Ann-Margret. After that surprise smash, I moved the gig permanently to Thursday nights, where it remained for the duration of its run, with much bigger audiences, unlike my early, sparsely attended Saturday midnight shows (replaced by the much more successful Rocky Horror Picture Show presented by Barely Legal Productions). 

I decided to host all my annual Elvis B-Day and D-Day parties at The Parkway following that  fateful screening of Viva Las Vegas. Once we even got Elvis's blonde co-star in Jailhouse Rock, Jennifer Holden, to make a special appearance. She was a trip.

Me with Annie, Deborah Walley, Monica,
September 2000
Another memorable show: the time I brought up my stepmom Anne Helm, who co-starred with Elvis in Follow That Dream (1962), along with our friend Deborah Walley (Gidget Goes Hawaiian), who co-starred in Elvis's Spinout (1966). I managed to score a 35mm print of Spinout, and was pretty pleased about it - until I belatedly discovered, during the screening, that some jerk had cut out all of Elvis's musical numbers from the print, leaving us with his thespian talents only. I guess it was "the Director's Cut." Sadly, this was one of Deborah's final public appearances before she passed away the following year. She was a great lady.

With Cari Lee Merritt and The King
I was actually fortunate enough to meet, befriend and interview several "Elvis babes" via my connection with Annie, including Stella Stevens (1962's Girls! Girls! Girls!), Joan Blackman (Blue Hawaii, 1961; Kid Galahad, 1962), and the late, great Julie Parrish (Paradise, Hawaiian Style, 1966). 

At yet another revival of Jailhouse Rock, the unconventional, controversial and unpredictable performance artist known as "Extreme Elvis" showed up with his own throne (toilet), mooning the audience as he pulled down his jumpsuit and took a seat...

With Yvonne Craig and Gary Lockwood,
August 2000

For Elvis D-Day 2000, I showed a rare, faded 35mm print of the 1963 "classic" It Happened at the World's Fair with two of the original co-stars - Yvonne "Batgirl" Craig and Gary "2001/Star Trek" Lockwood - in person. Neither had ever even seen the film before! And they only lasted about 20 minutes with it this time before drifting out into the lobby to mingle with fans...But before that, I did get to sit on a Parkway sofa next to our pal Yvonne while Elvis tried to seduce her younger self on a big screen sofa as he serenaded her with the song "Relax." Definitely one of my favorite Parkway memories, obviously. (See video of our appearance on KTVU's Mornings on 2 to promote this show.) 

Anyway, I already have Viva Las Vegas booked for Thrillville Theater at The New Parkway on January 6, 2013. Perhaps history will repeat itself. Cheers and TCB.

Posters by Miles Goodrich