From Boin-n-g! to Blood Feast
How I Got Into the Movies
By Andy Romanoff
Reading time 14 Minutes
It was the early ‘60s and I was back in Chicago
It was the early ‘60s and I was back in Chicago after my burglary arrest in California. The stretch of Lawrence Avenue, from Alba Bowl on Kedzie to the motorcycle hangout on the corner of Bernard, was my home.
Alba was my prime nighttime hangout, a 24-hour bowling alley where big money games rolled all night long. We lounged on the hoods of cars out front, looking for action. We’d yell at the girls in cars passing by, going off on sorties, four, five, six to a ride, searching for a bottle or an easy score. Then down to Bughouse Square to yell at the left and right wing radicals making speeches on milk crates, before cruising out to the then-new O'Hare Airport at 3 a.m. to walk the deserted air-conditioned terminals. Then it was back to the corner to sit drinking coffee and eating French fries at the Bonfire restaurant till the manager grew disgusted with the endless coffee refills and threw us out. As the night wore on and the streets grew empty, we went looking for trouble.
For a while, on Sunday nights, trouble was to grab a thick newspaper and go looking for an unlocked Cadillac or a Lincoln parked in a driveway (not in our neighborhood, no driveways there and no Caddies either). We’d open the back door, roll the window down an inch, light the paper on fire, toss it in, and close the door. When the car was filled with smoke we would honk the horn till the guy came out and saw his car with a black cloud pouring out of the window. They always opened the door and then the flames flared up and then the guy ran around trying to figure out what to do — funny, huh?
For money there was always an Oldsmobile to strip of its spinner hubcaps, or a convertible to slip into, cutting the canvas where the top dropped behind the seat and then whoever was the skinniest would wriggle through the slit into the trunk, popping the lid and emerging into the streetlight night with a new spare tire, a set of golf clubs, a salesman's samples — good times.
In the morning when the darkness ebbed and the streets reappeared it was time to quit. We’d eat fried egg sandwiches with ketchup and mayo sitting at the Cooper & Cooper counter then head over to the barber shop on Kedzie where we laid back in the chairs like the punks we were and had our faces shaved by old men with straight razors, the thick pink gel they lathered onto our faces smelling like success.
When I think of those times I never forget sitting there, Pete Walver in the next chair, he not yet President of the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle gang, but already with plenty of reputation for crazy. Pete turns to me saying “Stick with me, kid, and you’ll be farting through silk. “I already am,” I reply, and drop my Levi’s to show him.
I got arrested again, twice
I got arrested again, twice, and the only thing that saved my ass was a probation system so slow that my California record hadn’t caught up with me yet. The second arrest was for ADW, assault with a deadly weapon, and that scared me. I wasn’t tough; the weapon was a thick cane I was swinging in a brawl between an Irish family from another neighborhood and the Italian one that hung out on my corner. But if it got to court I knew I would get at least another probation and then surely some clerk would match things up. Somehow, the whole thing got quieted down, but if I kept it up I was going to fall one day soon. Then the movies rescued me.
I was already shooting stills. Between my knucklehead moments I had picked up a camera and taught myself how to make pictures. A neighborhood Bar Mitzvah photographer took a chance on me and soon I was making a hundred bucks on a weekend, two Rollies with Honeywell strobes, one loaded with color, one with black and white, me in an ill-fitting suit going from table to table saying, “Hi folks, I’m here to get a nice picture of you for the family. If you five will please get up and go stand behind those people on the other side of the table…that’s it, you look great, a little closer…..ok, everybody smile”…..and…pop! the light would flash and I was on to the next table. It was a living, but I got ambitious. I wanted to know how movies were made.
In the early sixties Hollywood was still the center of the movie universe. A crew might come through Chicago every year or two and shoot some scenes for a picture but that was about it. There were two guys, though, who made films in Chicago: Herschell Lewis and Dave Friedman. They had carved out a niche making cheap nudies and selling them into the “art house” circuit. I called Herschell and after we talked for a few minutes he hired me as a PA, whatever that was. The picture was called Boin-n-g! and it was a classic nudie with a preposterous plot and a half dozen showgirls hiding behind beach balls.
Studying the manual that I’d ordered from Los Angeles I learned to clean the camera and load magazines and set focus. I was hooked. They paid me fifty bucks a week and ran my ass for fourteen hours a day, but I loved every bit of it. When the time came for their next picture they hired me again.
It was winter 1963 in Chicago, and Herschell and Dave were headed to Miami
It was winter 1963 in Chicago, and Herschell and Dave were headed to Miami to make two movies back to back, Bell, Bare and Beautiful and Blood Feast. Lewis and Friedman were an unlikely pair; Herschell was an ad guy and Dave was a carny. Herschell was the original huckster: super bright, multi-talented, and hopelessly cynical. Dave was a forever showman: a cigar-chomping, burlesque joke-telling, soft-spoken guy from Alabama.
I was twenty-one, hired to drive the equipment down to Miami, then be the assistant cameraman and shoot stills. Herschell offered me two hundred dollars a week and a room at the Suez Motel on Collins Avenue where the cast and crew were staying. Only thing was I had to pay for the room out of the two hundred, but that was still better than the fifty bucks a week they had paid me last time.
What we were about to do was preposterous. Make two movies in a couple of weeks with one of the scripts not yet written. Our entire shooting package was stuffed inside the little Volkswagen van, our Mitchell NC, two 1000' magazines, a tripod and a fluid head along with six lights, twenty thousand feet of film and the all-important makeup trunk with the special bloody looking blood. No costumes -- the actors would supply them from their closets. I didn’t know how crazy this was, though; I thought this was how you made movies.
I set out from Chicago early one morning headed for Miami and my new career. The VW was loaded to the top, packed and pig slow. I ground down through Indiana, Tennessee and Georgia on Highway 41, an old fashioned two-lane most of the way. Herschell hadn’t mentioned paying for motels and I was afraid I’d run out of money, so I just kept on driving.
In the mountains, the cold chilled the cab till I shivered uncontrollably. There was nothing but me headed south on the twisty mountain road and the big rigs rushing north, sailing by a few feet away, sucking the little van towards them in their wake. I drove through the long night, freezing, cursing and scraping frost from the windshield until I’d see the lights of a roadside cafe glowing up in the darkness. Quick inside, order a cup of coffee with lots of cream and sugar and when my hands had thawed enough, jump back in the cab and drive another fifty miles.
It took about twenty hours to reach the Florida border and when I got there a miracle happened. As I drove through the night the windows slowly cleared. I stopped seeing my breath lit by the dash lights and a beautiful smell floated into the cab: orange blossoms. I slid the window open and for the first time ever I smelled the heady moist perfume of a Florida evening. I drove entranced now, Gainesville, Orlando, Kissimmee, headed south on the Sunshine State Parkway, four lanes wide and a wonder to me, smooth, straight and brand new. Finally Miami in the morning light and crossing over at 163rd St. I headed up Collins Avenue to the Suez Motel.
Herschell and Dave were already there along with the others from Chicago, maybe six of us altogether. We had a handful of locals to fill out cast and crew and three weeks to make two movies. The one that everyone remembers is Blood Feast, a story about a mad caterer who kills women and cuts off their body parts to make a feast for an ancient Egyptian goddess. It’s the first gore film.
But first we had to make the picture that paid the freight for us to be there, Belle, Bare and Beautiful. Virginia Bell was the well-endowed star of the film, the wife of a local burlesque theater owner. I shot some pictures of her in her husband's office, but it could’ve also been on the set of Flipper -- where we snuck in and filmed at night after the regular crew had gone home. It took us about a week to finish with Bell and Bare, do the strip scenes, the baseball game at the nudist camp, silly pretense of a story and all. Then we started on Blood Feast.
Blood Feast barely had a script -- it was more like twenty pages of scene description. Mainly it was a preposterous outline of a plot that gave us an excuse to linger while we dismembered young women. Dave, Herschell, and screenwriter Bunny Downe had schemed up a gimmick, an idea guaranteed to drive customers to the drive-in. For the first time ever they would show an audience body parts actually being cut out of the body, all close up and bright in crimson color. This was new territory.
We started filming with a killing on the beach, convenient because our motel was on the beach. Herschell was a man of economy in production as well as cinematic expression. I set up the camera, helped place a few lights, then ran extension cords back to the motel for power. When we ran out of extension cords we were lit. Herschell waited for night to fall and then the filming began.
The killer stalks the girl, overpowers her, cuts off the top of her head, cuts out her brain. Oh wait, I forgot to mention, this is a public beach. A crowd of tourists has gathered to watch us film. When they see that bloody head, see actor Mal Arnold – playing the murderous caterer -- raise the dripping brain high up in the air they freak, they remember their children are watching. There are lots of hands over eyes and the crowd quickly thins but the ones that remain, they’re thinking “Ahh, that’s interesting.” They like what they see, they cheer.
We ground on for another six or seven days
We ground on for another six or seven days. We ripped out tongues, we sliced and diced various appendages, and in between we filmed the excuses for dialogue that are necessary so we can pretend this is a movie.
I won’t tell you I was disgusted then. I wasn’t. I was twenty one years old, excited to be learning new skills. The skeletal nature of Herschell’s productions meant that I could move from job to job at will, teach myself how to make a production board, move the lights, clean and thread the camera. I don’t think I gave a moment’s thought to the implications of what was happening in front of the lens -- just as long as the actors stayed in frame and hit their marks.
A week later we were finished with Blood Feast, the last body part in the can. That evening Dave Friedman took me out to dinner. We went to some nice place in Miami then drove back up Collins Boulevard, top down and enjoying the evening.
I felt like I had reached a new and special place in my life. As we drove we talked about working on the movie, about being part of something special, a brotherhood of outsiders making our way together in strange lands. Dave was a carny, a lover of outsider life on the less traveled road.
Then I hesitated, told him this all been interesting to me but I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted to do. He looked at me and said “Kid, once you been a carny, you’re always a carny. There’s no going back now.”
And there I was riding in a slick new convertible on a beautiful warm night in a place I’d never been. It sounded pretty good to me.
Andy Romanoff is a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an inventor, a photographer and sometimes cinematographer. He's a writer and a few other things too. On the way to now, he's made some bad decisions and hung out with some interesting people, had a few adventures in the film business, and is working on a memoir about those years.