I got an email yesterday from a colleague whose friend is casting a new reality show about feuding families:
We're looking for 2 families that are next door neighbors that do not get along and that are having disputes over fences or land or that just plain don't like each other. They can live anywhere in the United States. Each family must have parents and at least 2 children, 10-25 years old. EACH family will receive $100,000 just for participating on the show. Yes, that's $100,000.
Who in their right mind would go on such a show—can you imagine how crazy they will make the family members look? But $100,000?? Dear God, I’m tempted to rent another child and throw some chicken carcasses onto my neighbors’ front lawn just to get them riled up.
I expect that the whole Reality TV craze will burn out relatively soon but I fear it may sink to new lows before that happens. I remember watching the brilliant Sidney Lumet film “Network” in 1976 and staring in shock at the programming that network executive Diane Christenson (Faye Dunaway ) was introducing to the network affiliates. My favorite was “The Mao Tse Tung Hour” featuring the terrorist antics of the radical Ecumenical Liberation Army. When the network lawyers started panicking about the footage the ELA wanted to air of an actual bank robbery, Dunaway got excited:
“Let the government sue us! We'll take them to the Supreme Court. We'll be front page for months! The New York Times and the Washington Post will be doing two editorials a week about us. We'll have more press than Watergate! All I need is six weeks of federal litigation and ‘The Mao Tse Tung Hour’ can start carrying its own time slot. What's really bugging me now is my daytime programming. I'm thinking of doing a homosexual soap opera called ‘The Dykes’— the heart-rending saga of a woman helplessly in love with her husband's mistress.”
At the time we howled at the outrageous parody but today everything in Paddy Chayefsky’s amazing script, from Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” to Sybil the Soothsayer’s Armageddon-like predictions seem like an average day’s programming on Fox or UPN. Faye Dunaway won an Oscar for her exquisite portrayal of the soul-less network executive who would exploit anyone if it meant another ratings point. How ironic then that she is now starring in an execrable Reality TV show that would have given Howard Beale a run for his money. In “The Starlet,” ten tragically misguided women live in the same house and compete against each other for the chance to become “2005's next big thing.” The grand prize is, according to the promos, “ a career-launching role on the WB's hit drama “One Tree Hill.” The only way anyone’s career is going to be launched from this garbage is if they pull a Howard Beale and blow their brains out on the air.
Oh Faye, Faye, Faye, how can you participate in this abomination when you launched your own career in such magnificent films as “Bonne and Clyde,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Little Big Man,” and “Chinatown?” I could only make it through the first episode of “The Starlet” but I got to see all ten women freak out to the point of apoplexy because they had to simulate a lesbian kiss in their “master acting class” that week. They were so horrified you’d think the producers were asking them to make love to a rampaging goat (they never would have gotten callbacks for Faye’s “The Dykes!”). Then, at the end of the episode, Faye joins fellow panelist and acting equal Vivica Fox (?!) to critique the fledgling starlets on their potential to make it in the biz. One contestant has to go, so using her most imperious Joan Crawford voice, Faye looks the loser straight in the eyes and barks the show’s unoriginal catch phrase: “DON’T CALL US…WE’LL CALL YOU!” If Johnnie Cochran hadn’t died yesterday, he might have been hired by Faye Dunaway’s Oscar to sue the actress for irreconcilable differences.
Before I besmirch anyone else who is fool enough to appear on one of these shows, I should tell you that we just got word that Kendall and I are going to be on an episode of the HGTV show “If Walls Could Talk.” A production crew is coming from Denver in two weeks to shoot our 1909 house and interview us about its history and the discoveries we've made during our restoration. The current host of the show is Grant Goodeve, former oldest brother on “Eight Is Enough,” but the producer told me that they are close to hiring a new host. What former TV star could it be? One of the Waltons? Jan Brady? Rodney Allen Rippy?
Even though our show is much more “real” than so-called “reality programming,” it’s certainly not considered part of the Reality TV juggernaut—that is, there is no humiliation involved. Well, except for my on-camera appearance. Oy, does this filming have to occur when I am so out of shape I could be Jabba the Hutt’s stunt double? And I just got one of those nasty under-the-surface pimples that makes my already hook-nosed profile look like one of the anti-Semitic caricatures of German Jews in the Nazi weekly “Der Stürmer.” And what about that stress-produced ridge on my forehead that is so deep you could pan for gold in it? Oh wait, this is not an episode of last year’s “Are You Hot?” it’s just a show about old houses.
Maybe I can hire someone to play the role of Danny Miller. One New Year’s Eve in the late 80s I was at a rock club on Sunset Blvd. sitting at a table next to Frank Zappa’s two oldest children, Moon Unit and Dweezil. I thought they were the coolest, most talented brother and sister in town (despite their awful sitcom called “Normal Life” which had just been cancelled) and their close relationship reminded me of me and my sister. The next day my friend Christina asked who I’d cast in the movie version of my life and I said “Oh, definitely Dweezil Zappa.” For some reason this joke stuck and I always cast Dweezil as myself even though we bear absolutely no resemblance to each other. Once again I call on Dweezil to help me out and let the world see a much cooler version of Danny Miller. Moon Zappa is actually a former classmate of Kendall’s. If only she weren’t Dweezil’s sister she'd be pefect to play my wife on the show. (Kendall’s interest in our TV debut plummeted when she found out the show doesn’t pay anything!)
Despite my stage fright, I do look forward to sharing the story of our house and its original owner, Henry C. Jensen. From the moment I walked into this house two years ago, I’ve been obsessed with the man who lived here from 1909 to 1944 and have compiled a dossier on him thicker than J. Edgar Hoover’s file on the Kennedys. I portrayed Henry Jensen at his gravesite last October at the annual Rosedale Cemetery Living History Tour. Rosedale is the oldest cemetery in Los Angeles and it’s just a few blocks from our house. Henry Jensen was born in September 1859, I was born in September 1959. I’ll save all of our past-life connections for another post because I don’t want to scare you but I’ll tell you that one of his main claims to fame (besides giving John Wayne his first job at the age of 9) was building some of the earliest movie palaces in southern California, starting in 1914.
The crown jewel of Henry’s theatre chain was Jensen’s Raymond Theatre in Old Pasadena which opened on April 5, 1921 and, at a cost of $500,000, was the most expensive, lavish movie theatre built on the west coast up to that time. I spoke at length at the cemetery tour about the grand opening of that theatre which was attended by the top echelon of Hollywood society. They had to turn 5,000 people away it was so crowded and Henry Jensen reigned supreme along with his two sons, Walter and Robert Jensen who managed the theatre for him. The opening night program included a screening of the film “The Love Special” starring Wallace Reid and Agnes Ayres (soon to be seen as Valentino’s girl in “The Sheik”) and Buster Keaton’s “Hard Luck.” A variety of vaudeville acts entertained the tony crowd including the 22-piece Jensen orchestra and an unusual performer named Frederick Ko’vert, who was at the pinnacle of his career as a female impersonator. Ko’vert applied real gold leaf to his skin for his dance performance called “Hanuya, the Spirit of Evil.” He would later become known as the Father of “Male Physique Photography” before shooting himself to death in the late 1940s.
In later years, the Raymond became the Crown Theatre and then had a successful life as Perkins Palace, site of southern California’s highest profile rock concerts of the 1970s and 80s. But the glorious theatre may be destroyed very soon if the current owner gets his way. I’m involved with a fantastic nonprofit group called Friends of the Raymond Theatre, led by Gina Zamparelli (the only other person on the planet obsessed with Henry Jensen). For almost 20 years Gina has successfully blocked the destruction of this irreplaceable treasure. Our group has attended many sessions of the Pasadena City Council which has shockingly approved the developer’s outrageous plans to gut the interior of the building and replace it with condos and chain stores. Various lawsuits have delayed this for quite some time but things are looking terribly grim at the moment. If you’re anywhere near La Cañada-Flintridge this weekend, please come to the HUGE Rummage Sale that is being held to save the theatre. I may even spontaneously start channeling Henry Jensen.
Why isn’t anyone producing a reality TV show about all the historical landmarks that are biting the dust every day because of greedy developers? By the way, did I mention that the feuding neighbors show is so desperate for contestants they are offering a $3,000 finders’ fee to anyone who suggests someone that they end up using? Maybe I’ll submit Julie Newmar and Jim Belushi since they are already suing each other for a long list of offences. In the meantime, I have GOT to get Dweezil Zappa on the phone…