The Musical Mystery of Bob Cresse’s Mondo Bizarro
By Kier-La Janisse
Reading time 19 Minutes
Bob Cresse is one of the more crucial, and notorious, exploitation producers
Bob Cresse is one of the more crucial, and notorious, exploitation producers of the post-war era. A former carnival barker and MGM message boy, Cresse rose through the ranks of underground cinema exhibiting a taste for lurid subject matter and evincing a personal style that was brash, aggressive and occasionally unsettling.
Frequently partnering with fellow producer David F. Friedman, as well as writers/directors Lee Frost and Wes Bishop (often credited as R.L. Frost and Wesdon Bishop), Cresse began his career with nudie-cuties like Once Upon a Knight (1961) and The House on Bare Mountain (1962) before expanding into distribution with his company Olympic International Pictures. OIP imported foreign softcore films as well as producing a slew of deviant roughies in a variety of genres, including low budget westerns, crime films and spy capers. Cresse often appeared in his own pictures in various roles and guises – including Nazis, sadists and, in the case of The House on Bare Mountain, an elderly woman.
As the ‘60s wore on, Cresse was increasingly interested in targeting the youth market as well as the typical raincoat crowd, and late-‘60s California provided an exciting milieu where the sex film organically coalesced with the arthouse and music scenes. This cultural fusion was further bolstered by left wing politics that manifested as a visible movement of youth-in-revolt that would be documented in many AIP films of the era, including the Sam Katzman-produced Riot on Sunset Strip. As music historian Domenic Priore notes in his book of the same name:
The fruits of LA’s teen megalopolis, and the remnants it left behind, transformed the mid-1960s Sunset Strip into a fascinating artistic Mecca. During this moment, something actually displaced movies as the center of action in Hollywood: rock n’ roll. This was great news for Sunset Strip’s artistic community, which began to collaborate with other forces: television, radio, independent cinema, and fresh forms of consumerism beginning to hit the newly minted teen market, symbiotically altering mass media in surprising ways.
Olympic International Pictures’ offices were smack dab in the middle of the strip, and there was no way an entrepreneur like Bob Cresse wouldn’t notice the revolution taking place just outside his door and crave a piece of it. A key component of tapping into any youth market is music, and Cresse’s films frequently featured interesting scores, from the burlesque jazz and fuzz-guitar stylings that punctuated Love is a Four-Letter Word (1966) to the rare appearance of LA folk musician Jim Sullivan – who later disappeared in the desert, leading to theories that he was abducted by aliens – playing acoustic guitar at a party in art-noir roughie The Pick-Up (1968).
Like many exploitation producers of the era, Cresse was passionate about film (the breadth in style and tone of what he produced or distributed speaks to this) but he was first and foremost a business man and always susceptible to the ethical shortcut. That he would repurpose footage from movie to movie is well-documented, and exploitation films in general were rife with pseudonyms, but the credits that are conspicuously absent are the most telling of all – like just who was responsible for “The Blow Up,” the mind-blowing surf anthem that kicks off Cresse’s 1966 production Mondo Bizarro.
Mondo Bizarro is the Cresse film soundtrack fraught with the most intrigue
Mondo Bizarro is the Cresse film soundtrack fraught with the most intrigue. Made back to back with Mondo Freudo (1966) to capitalize on the Mondo fad that emerged in the wake of 1964’s Mondo Cane (Cresse himself had been instrumental in Mondo Cane’s successful release strategy), Mondo Bizarro positions itself as an ethnographic “documentary” portraying a variety of strange international customs and hedonistic experiences, stretching from Tokyo to the Middle East to Los Angeles (but likely all filmed in LA with establishing shots borrowed from elsewhere).
Los Angeles arts culture is heavily showcased, including the Sunset Theatre’s collection of nude oil paintings, a long-running Nazi stage play, and a topless photo session with mononymous artist and scenester Vito, whom the LA Free Press’ Jerry Hopkins has called a “father-like figure for the teenyboppers.”
The whole film is a rather tame ruse that doesn’t approach the cinematographic scale or salaciousness of its namesake, but it does contain snippets of LA culture that are not documented elsewhere. Both Mondo Freudo and Mondo Bizarro feature footage of the Sunset Strip in its heyday, and as Domenic Priore points out in his book, the latter features an aerial shot in which you can see The Doors listed on the marquee of the nightclub London Fog and Love headlining at the Whisky-a-Go-Go. But the uncredited music used in the film weaves it more deeply into the cultural fabric of that time and place.
The opening sequence, set behind a two-way mirror in a ladies’ dressing room, cycles through a series of songs channel-flipping on the radio, from the opening anthem to a loungy cha-cha, a chugging surf number, a garage-punk version of “I Can Only Give You Everything,” jazz piano, and even Asian traditional. The film’s sole music credit is to someone named “Lawrence Von Lattman,” though this name does not appear in any other credits – film, music or otherwise.
At one point in the film, during a scene at a massive outdoor art exhibit attended by hippies, bikers, and all manner of anti-establishment types, there is a song with lyrics, which meant there was something tangible to plug into a Google search. The lyrics begin:
Protest, it’s the thing to do
There must be something bugging you
Protest, we gonna start today
So get outside toward the picket lines and make the way
We’re gonna save the world
We’re gonna save the world
If the voice sounds familiar, it should: It’s noted singer-songwriter and film composer Randy Newman. But it’s a Randy Newman song that has never been released to this day, and is completely uncredited in the film – which means the only place you can hear it is in Mondo Bizarro.
“The question of how the song made it into the film is one of many questions Randy has never answered,” says Gary Norris, Newman’s longtime archivist, “which leads me to believe he had nothing to do with the use of the song in the film.”
The only other song in the film with lyrics is the cover of “I Can Only Give You Everything” which appears in the title sequence. There are over 40 recorded covers of this song, which was originally done by Them and later became a staple of the MC5. This version turns out to be by a band called The Heros – a local combo from Playa Del Rey originally called The Odds and Ends. A photo of the 45 on YouTube yielded the name A. Schroeder Music, referring to Aaron Schroeder, a songwriter who made his name writing for Elvis Presley before becoming Gene Pitney’s manager and a publishing mogul with his company January Music - through which he also represented the works of Randy Newman.
But running through the film as its “theme” is an anthem so blistering, bombastic and slickly-produced that it seems way too big for this modest film. And that’s because it’s by Phil Spector protégé and soundtrack king Jack Nitzsche (Performance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
Nitzsche’s single “The Lonely Surfer” had been a hit in 1963, three years before Mondo Bizarro. “The Lonely Surfer” and accompanying album had been co-written with Marty Cooper, who had penned The Marathons’ 1961 hit “Peanut Butter” and was in The Shacklefords (1963-1968) with Lee Hazlewood and Nitzsche’s then-wife Gracia Nitzsche. Cooper had also written and recorded a pair of songs for an obscure girl singer named Charity Shayne, aka Catherine Share - later to change her name to “Gypsy” as a member of the Manson Family. After “The Lonely Surfer,” Nitzsche and Cooper decided to write and record another song that would have a big, Bond-theme feel, called “The Blow Up” -- based on their mutual admiration for the 1966 Antonioni film of the same name.
“Jack had alienated Reprise at that time, particularly the producer Jimmy Bowen,” explains Cooper, “So Bowen refused to do the session.” But Reprise – a division of Warner Bros. founded by Frank Sinatra -- told Nitzsche to go ahead with the session.
Nitzsche and Cooper went to United Recording Studios to lay down the track. Members of the legendary Wrecking Crew - Hal Blaine on drums, Billy Strange on guitar, Don Randi and Leon Russell on keyboards and Emil Richards on Percussion – served as the band. The resulting track was probably the most electrifying thing they’d ever done. “I almost fell off my chair,” says Cooper, “it was so exciting.”
Soon after “The Blow Up” session
Soon after “The Blow Up” session, Cooper was approached about writing songs for a proposed radio show. “My wife and I were living in Hollywood, and there was an alternative newspaper called the LA Free Press,” he says. “It was the only voice that wasn’t the Los Angeles Times and the local news channels. And it was radical. There was a columnist for that paper, her name was Liza Williams.”
Williams began writing for the paper in 1966 and quickly emerged as one of LA’s most hip and critical voices. She would later be immortalized as the character Dee Dee Bronson in Charles Bukowski’s 1978 book Women, after a three-month affair with the author and poet.
“Liza came up with an idea of doing an alternative radio show,” Cooper continues, “and she made some kind of a deal with KPFK, which was the Pacifica Foundation station in LA. And she got a group of people together, and I was a songwriter and musician and the whole bit, so I kinda joined in that group. And the reason she put the group together is Bob Rafelson had the idea that there needed to be a group of alternative radio nutcases, much like The Gong Show or similar to it, and so he came and presented this idea to us.”
At some point before the show debuted, a stranger – possibly Bob Cresse, or someone in his employ -- appeared at one of their meetings. “A guy shows up and says, I want you people to see my film,” Cooper recalls. “Now you remember at that time ‘Mondo’ was a big word because of Mondo Cane. So he puts this thing on, it’s called Mondo Bizarro. And what do I hear? My unreleased, unlicensed, Jack Nitzsche Warner Brothers master. And I say to him ‘Where did you get this, you have no right, that’s my song!’ And he blew me off and disappeared.”
Cresse knew that all the anti-establishment types were going to be on board with this LA Free Press-affiliated radio show, and, as Cooper remembers it, was hoping for coverage – a direct through-line to his target audience. But that Cresse would have little regard for either the artist he offended or the legal ramifications of using unlicensed music speaks to Cresse’s mobster-like mentality. Though he was a notoriously hammy overactor onscreen, those who knew Cresse in real life knew that he always got his way.
“Cresse was a crazy fucker,” says Jimmy McDonough, biographer of Andy Milligan and Russ Meyer, who’s working on a Jack Nitzsche autobio. “I worked for [director/distributor] Radley Metzger for a few years and Cresse was one individual that he spoke of with zero fondness. He'd had some sort of run-in with Cresse involving a gun and seemed completely disturbed by him.”
How exactly Cresse would have gotten the master of Cooper and Nitzsche’s unreleased song is uncertain, though it’s likely that Aaron Schroeder was the conduit – albeit not necessarily on the up-and-up. “Jack had made some kind of a deal with Aaron Schroeder,” says Cooper. “Supposedly Aaron Schroeder was going to handle Jack’s publishing, which would include his half of all the songs we wrote together. And Aaron Schroeder, who [was] a shady character, somehow or other, without permission from Warner Brothers, without permission from, I’ll bet not even Jack, and certainly [without] permission from me, gives this song to this total scam artist [Cresse], and he puts it in the movie.”
But others are less quick to accuse Schroeder of being complicit. Citing a 1965 issue of Billboard reporting that "Composer - arranger Jack Nitzsche was being groomed for film-TV chores by his new manager Helen Noga” and that “Nitzsche has already met with Screen Gems officials to discuss film work," Martin Roberts’ Spectropop website proposes that Nitzsche himself may have circulated a demo of his writing and production work (which could have included several Randy Newman collaborations) in a bid for soundtrack work, and that Cresse got his hands on it and just plugged the music into the film sans rights.
But that was not the end of the drama surrounding the song.
“Somehow,” Cooper says, “and I do not know how, and I will never know how, our master – in those days you used to make acetates, which was essentially a cut disc, which was like a master only it was a cheaper material, and you could play that - somehow that got to Capitol Records. And David Axelrod, who was a producer there, calls me up and says, ‘Great news, we’re going to record this with David Rose!’ And I said, ‘Oh no! God no! David don’t, you shouldn’t even have a copy, that’s not even released!’”
The Axelrod-produced cover came and went without any fanfare, but Warner Brothers was incensed that their master had somehow ended up at Capitol Records. “Jack had a recording contract with Warners,” explains Cooper. “The master belonged, and does belong, to Warner Music. There have never been rights granted by anyone for the use of that master.” The song remained officially unreleased until the Ace Records compilation Hard Workin’ Man: The Jack Nitzsche Story Vol. 2 featured it under the title “Surf Finger” in 2006.
“That was an incredible mélange of events that happened over a very short period of time,” says Cooper. “And the difficulties of it last right to today. People at that time were so wigged out and thought they could do anything, just like Aaron Schroeder could give some guy with no credits the right to use the song. The guy thought the songs and the record would make the movie. And that didn’t happen either, I don’t know if he made five cents from his movies. I only met him that one time.”
Bob Cresse made more than five cents from his movies -- in fact, he made a fair bit of green through the ‘60s by keeping his overhead low, focusing on sensational subject matter and combining production with distribution and exhibition. Ultimately, Creese died penniless after he was shot three times while breaking up a street fight in the early ‘70s, an experience that left him with not only massive hospital bills but also a pronounced sense of paranoia that made him increasingly reclusive.
His colleagues Lee Frost and Wes Bishop continued their partnership with a steady stream of exploitation hits through the decade, including the Thing with Two Heads and Race with the Devil. Cresse himself was pretty much finished and died of a heart attack in Miami in 1998. Meanwhile, according to music historian Steve Huey, Aaron Schroeder was “plagued by lawsuits over his questionable business practices, [and] eventually sold off his publishing and label interests to United Artists.”
Cresse’s Mondo Bizarro has survived through various re-releases over the years, and while certainly not the best film by anyone involved, it’s a valuable document of underground LA arts culture as well as the center of a decades-old sonic mystery.
Thank you to Marty Cooper, Chris Poggiali, David Gregory, David Goldstein, Domenic Priore, Jimmy McDonough, Gary Norris, Harvey Kubernick, Lisa Petrucci and Martin Roberts’ Spectropop website.
Kier-La Janisse has been a film writer and programmer since 1997. She is the author of House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, the owner of Spectacular Optical Publications and founder of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies.