A Dane Among the Chickenpickers
Photographer Preben Sorensen brought a touch of class to the world of genre and exploitation films
By Bob Mehr
Reading time 25 Minutes
On the morning of December 6, 1966
On the morning of December 6, 1966 readers of the Fort Myers News-Press opened the newspaper to find a rather unusual headline blaring across their broadsheets: “Dane Wants to Lose Accent, Hopes to Become Hillbilly.”
That winter, the paper had been reporting regularly on the efforts of a fledgling Florida-based studio, Southeastern Pictures. The film company was in nearby Lehigh Acres shooting a country music comedy called Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers. The cast was led by group of Nashville singing stars, including the charismatic Del Reeves and stuttering comic foil Mel Tillis, and filled out by a group of faded old showbiz hands, like booze-sozzled blue blood thespian Sonny Tufts, boxer-turned-actor Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom and scandal-plagued silent film queen Lila Lee.
Even among this rather colorful contingent of country crooners and Hollywood types, one person on the set cut a most curious figure.
“Preben Sorensen of Denmark has a very attractive accent which he is trying to lose,” began the News-Press piece. “He has been coached for the past month by several masters of the hillbilly lingo Del Reeves, Hugh X. Lewis, Mel Tillis and Hank Mills, and if he can acquire the necessary Tennessean slant in this language, he plans to make one more trip. This time it will be to come before the Nashville Hillbilly Board, composed of hillbilly singers naturally, and if he can pass the requisites he will probably turn in his camera for a guitar. Drama with the camera is what brought Preben to Lehigh Acres – he is the still man on Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers.”
A serious photojournalist, Sorensen had found his way into pictures a few years earlier, first in Europe and then America, as a set photographer on a series of rather infamous movies like The Christine Keeler Story and The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield.
On Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers, Sorensen would take on multiple roles, working as an extra and stand-in as well as capturing the shoot. His images from the production are a striking time capsule. Unearthed and seen exclusively here for the first time at byNWR, they are, in many ways, more evocative than the rather cornpone film itself.
And what of the man behind the camera -- the Dane hoping to become a hillbilly? Well, he has a story to tell as well.
“I lie a lot,” says Preben Sorensen
“I lie a lot,” says Preben Sorensen, chuckling, “but I promise I’ll make it interesting.”
It’s spring 2018 in Los Angeles and the 88-year-old Sorensen is holding court. Some 50 years after his stint on the set of Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers, Sorensen’s “attractive accent” remains intact, as does his rakish mustache and elegant manner. In conversation, Sorensen reveals himself as both a cultured artist and a deep intellectual. It’s a reputation that belies his c.v. in the world of genre and exploitation films.
These days, Sorensen can be found in front of the camera, where he makes his living as an actor, playing bit parts in television shows and commercials. As he navigates his way around a small apartment crammed with books and boxes, he notes that he’s long outlived most of his family, friends and contemporaries.
“When you get to be my age people are looking at you like you’re a doddering old timer or you have Alzheimer’s,” he says. “But my mind is sharper than it’s ever been. All I have are my memories.”
Born in 1930 in Skanderborg – a town of 15,000 in Denmark’s Mid-Jutland region – Sorensen had an idyllic childhood. “Skanderborg was the absolute most beautiful town to grow up in, surrounded by a forest and lakes,” he says. His father was a traveling salesman for the largest wine distributor in Denmark, then eventually a company executive. That ended with the German occupation of the country during World War II.
“When the Germans took over the Danish police in 1943, the local city council created a civilian security force, and they made my father the head of that,” says Sorensen. “He was running the security force, but at the same also meeting with the underground, he was part of the resistance against the Nazis. My parents never had to tell me anything. I saw and understood what was going on.”
While the war raged on both at home and abroad, Sorensen played out his theatrical fantasies. “I remember I built this plywood stage with a friend of mine and put on shows,” he says. “We were doing things like The Three Musketeers. I guess that’s how I got into [entertaining]. After the war was over, I got to Copenhagen and I started doing extra work in films. I’ve always been a showoff.”
Movies weren’t a serious pursuit however – not yet, anyway. Instead Sorensen attended college, getting his diploma in photography. He gained some renown as photojournalist for a Danish newspaper, spending a year working on book project about the Faroe Islands and shooting the action at nearby U.S. military bases for the government. But the lure of opportunities outside his native Scandinavia and in motion pictures beckoned.
Emigrating to England in the early-‘60s
Emigrating to England in the early-‘60s, Sorenson worked as a freelance photographer – and sometimes made ends meet as a salesman hawking Danish cookbooks door-to-door throughout the country. His natural skill with the camera soon gave him a path into pictures. His first gig was serving as set photographer on The Christine Keeler Story – a 1963 flash-filmed biopic about the woman at the heart of the Profumo Affair, the sex-and-spy scandal then rocking the British government.
The job led to others, and over the next decade Sorensen would find himself working in various capacities – photographer, aide-de-camp, caretaker -- for a succession of colorful film figures. These were not so much movie moguls, but rather hustlers, conmen, and criminals who’d happened to find an outlet in pictures. “I lived with five different producers over the years and they all wanted me for their own benefit somehow,” says Sorenson.
Among them was the British producer and fraudster Dennis Lorraine: “One of the biggest con artists ever out of England,” notes Sorensen. Lorraine would become known for myriad financial scandals — notably, his part in a counterfeiting ring that had printed up $50 million in fake bills.
In 2011, Lorraine’s son, Clive Kristen, published a book detailing his father’s activities titled Fucking on Fridays: A History of Britain’s Most Notorious Casanova Conman. In it, Kristen describes Sorensen as a “Dane of charm and intelligence.” For his part Sorensen notes that Lorraine had his good qualities too. “Dennis was a brilliant man,” he says. “You know, they say there is a bit of larceny in all of us. There was just an awful lot more in him.”
Later, while laboring on Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers, Sorensen would work under Southeastern Pictures producer Charles Broun Jr. -- who would prove a notorious drug money launderer himself a few years later (Broun’s case was documented in the book and film, The Infiltrator).
It’s no small irony that the scrupulously honest Sorensen found himself in league with such characters. “But these were not criminal types, you see,” insists Sorensen. “If you are working in the high classes with millions and billions at stake you can’t be so obviously a criminal. If you’re a good con artist, no one will ever know what you are. That’s why they call them ‘artists,’” he says.
“The reason those people gravitated to me is they knew they could trust me, and that I didn’t necessarily believe any of their bullshit. They probably trusted me because I didn’t believe their bullshit,” he says. “I was also good to have around for appearances, I suppose. Perhaps I brought a touch of class to the operation. ‘Oh, here’s my good friend Preben.’ So, in a way, they used me too. That has been a dilemma in my life, I’ll admit.”
Sorensen spent much of the mid-‘60s in Italy with John Drew Barrymore, the scion of the Barrymore acting family who’d starred in The Christine Keeler Story. “John Drew was known as the biggest drunk and dope addict in the world in those days,” says Sorensen. “He said ‘You must come with me to Rome, be my manager and take care of me.’ I had about three or four hours to get everything arranged. Then I stayed down there in Rome for two years.”
In Italy, Sorensen would make the acquaintance of producer Dick Randall. An Barnumesque PR maven, Randall would go on to make 50-plus films before his death in 1996 -- including some the most unapologetically trashy pieces of exploitation cinema, from Around the World with Nothing On to The Clones of Bruce Lee. “Dick had been a press agent. Amongst other things he’d been the publicist for [actress] Dagmar, and one or two of the Gabor sisters,” says Sorensen. “At the time he was doing publicity for Mickey Hargitay.”
Hargitay and his wife, the blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield, were in the process of making a Mondo-style documentary titled The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield. Randall brought Sorensen over to Hollywood to work on the project. “I took still photos and was actually living with Mickey and Jayne at the time. We filmed most of it in their famous ‘Pink House’ out on Sunset Boulevard – everything in the house was pink and heart shaped,” he says. “Jayne and Mickey were the Kardashians of their time. They invented modern publicity and self-promotion. There wasn’t a supermarket in America that Jayne didn’t open.”
After the Mansfield project, Randall offered Sorensen an opportunity to stay in America and work on another picture, a little musical comedy that he was helping produce down in the swamps of Florida. “I had no idea about Florida,” admits Sorensen, “but it seemed like it would be a good adventure.”
Along with the rest of the cast and crew
Along with the rest of the cast and crew of Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers, Preben Sorensen arrived in Lehigh Acres, Florida in the late fall of 1966 for what turned out to be an especially loose, especially low budget romp, both on the set and off.
“We all stayed at this motel -- a ‘resort center’ as they called it. We had a swimming pool and golf course and everything,” he recalls. “The big actors took the filming as an opportunity for a vacation. There was a lot of drinking and fun being had.”
On set, everyone fell into three camps: there were the Floridians, a mix of bit players and crew who’d been hired locally; then there were the established Hollywood people; and finally, the country folks in from Music City. “We called them the ‘Nashville Gang,’” says Sorensen. “We felt we were the big shots from Hollywood and we’d start singing ‘Hooray for Hollywood.’”
“But really, we all got along and had a great time as you can see in all these pictures,” says Sorensen, flipping through a stack of photos signed by the cast. “The inscriptions are all about how wonderful I am – that’s why I kept them. As you can see, I was actually a good photographer.”
Sorensen’s images attest to this fact. For a cheapo Florida-filmed genre picture, the Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers stills are both remarkably artful and often haunting. Especially fascinating are a series of closeups of the cast. Sorensen’s camera reveals the years of hard living on the faces veterans like Sonny Tufts, Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom and Jack Morey. He captures the raw intensity of young character actor Christian Anderson, the uncertainty of up-and-coming country singer Margie Bowes waiting for her big scene, and the beatific expression an older unidentified woman working as an extra.
Sorensen also caught much of the spirited action during and between takes: Mel Tillis and comedian Tommy Noonan messing around in a helicopter; stunning starlet (and fellow Dane) Greta Thyssen frolicking among the palms; Del Reeves and Hugh X. Lewis doing their own stunts for the film’s climactic fan boat finale.
And then there are the pictures of Sorensen himself, who was enlisted to play the part of a sheriff’s deputy. He made efforts to shed his accent and pick up the right Southern lingo (though he didn’t end up with any dialogue in the finished film). He also got dressed up in flight gear, serving as a double for Tillis. Most of the photos find Sorenson mugging or preening for comic effect. “I told you I was a showoff,” he says.
Sorensen attracted the attention of Betty Andersen, an entertainment writer covering the shoot for the Fort Myers News-Press. “This tall handsome bachelor…has traveled to many lands working as a freelance photographer,” Andersen wrote, before returning to her Dane-goes-hillbilly gambit. “[Sorensen] promptly started practicing his ‘ain’t’ and ‘haing’ and ‘Houn’dawg’ so that – maybe – someday he could be one of the gang.”
Fifty-three years later, little of that hillbilly training remains. “You know, no one has ever asked me about Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers,” says Sorensen. “I suppose it was a forgettable little film. But for me, it was a very interesting opportunity. Even if no one else remembers it, I have my pictures and my memories.”
Signed Cast Photos
Signed Cast and Crew Photos
As a little bonus, Preben provided us with all the signed cast photos he managed to amass. Enjoy!
Special thanks to Amy Nicholson, Lauren Fields, and Rachel Dik Dukes.
Bob Mehr is the author of the New York Times bestseller Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.