Part 41: Inspiration in All The Wrong Places
It is Sunday, September 6, 2020. Some schools have reopened. The college I went to in Chico, California, opened the dorms, and parents dropped their kids off. An outbreak of the Corona Virus spiked, and after a week, they shut the buildings and ended in-person classes. The headlines this week have focused on a story that The Atlantic published. An article citing four unnamed sources, that said Mr. Trump (our president) had referred to American soldiers killed in combat during World War l as "losers" and "suckers." In a series of Tweets, Trump called on people like Sarah Huckabee Sanders to defend him. He denies that he said those things, and lashed out at his former Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, accusing him of being the unnamed source.
Time to go back to the murky past, a story that has left me bewildered. My friend Thomas once described himself as a strange combination of gullible and suspicious. That is my general state of mind as I try to get this fucking oddball story out.
In 1967, a movie came out called "The Producers" starring Zero Mostel as the sketchy producer Max Bialystock, and Gene Wilder played the anxious accountant, Leopold "Leo" Bloom. Written and directed by Mel Brooks, it's a zany comedy that takes a peek behind the curtain of producing and mounting Broadway shows. Max realizes that if he can get enough investors for a show that's a sure fire turkey-- a flop, he would actually make more money. In this story, many of the investors are little old rich ladies. The "sure fire turkey" is a musical about Hitler and the Nazis, including songs such as "Springtime for Hitler".
Spoiler alert. The show doesn't flop. The audience finds the play hilarious, and it becomes overnight sensation. The only thing is, Max had too many investors. They were counting on the show closing the same night it opened.
I've only seen parts of this movie, although I saw "Young Frankenstein" at least 20 times over the years. "The Producers" isn't just a fun old movie for me, because of a story my mother told me when I was 19. I'm going to try to watch it all the way through, soon. Maybe writing this insane story down will let me relax and enjoy the comedy, rather than sitting there wondering what the hell happened back then.
I'll tell you the story as it was told to me. The first time I heard Mom's talk about that night, it was 1984. I've pressed my mother to repeat this story over the years, just to see if she tells it differently. I'm surprised she still returns my calls, that's how many times I've asked her to tell me (again) what happened. She never tells the story differently. She swears this is what Riley said.
It was 1967. One night when we were living in Criswell and Halo's apartment in Hollywood, my father went out to see "The Producers." It was right when movie came out. At this time in Riley's career, he had already made a deal with a company to buy his "Encyclopedia of Folk Music" including all the illustrations my mother did for the manuscript. That night, my mother stayed home with us, I was two and my sister was seven years-old. Riley came straight home after the movie, bursting through the door, brimming with excitement. He thought it was brilliant, and wanted to tell my mother all about the plot of the movie.
Dad was pacing the room, saying what a great concept the scam was in the film, and he was focused in on the idea to sell too many shares in something that would never take off. "It's the best idea I've ever heard," he'd said. That's what made his heart beat faster, this concept in the movie. Dad said he was inspired, and this would be the way to make money from "The Encyclopedia of Folk Music" from then on, to just keep selling shares.
When my mother first told me this, she and my father had gone through a bitter break-up. Well, not so much "break-up" but more that my father simply vanished and left my mother with all the bills and problems. When he tried to connect again, she was done.
So I'm nineteen, I'm hearing this story for the first time, and I say something like, "Well he was kidding."
"No. He wasn't kidding. That's what he did. He got investors to give him money for the encyclopedia knowing it would never be published," Mom insisted. "That's why I would always try to get people alone, to warn them not to give Riley money. But they never listened to me."
I still felt in my heart that Dad must have been joking. How could he not be? I saw him slave over that project. Joe Tanzman, our family friend, spend years creating the sheet music for the encyclopedia. Joe wouldn't have kept at it if he thought it was all a scam.
I have letters he wrote to various publishers trying his best to get the right company who could afford to publish the encyclopedia. Not only that, he talked about the encyclopedia and the possibilities constantly. After listening to the "Hidden Brain" episode about how he toiled away perfecting the Encyclopedia, you'd have a hard time believing the story my mother told me.
According to my mother, he found out early on the encyclopedia was too large and expensive to publish, so he tried out this other way of making money from the work--the idea sparked when he watched the movie "The Producers."
Anyway, for years I had wondered if my parents just had no common sense of humor, and Mom just took everything he said the wrong way. Dad worked so hard on this project, and people thought his work was brilliant. His friends, Joe, Paul, and Bud, and many others, thought he was brilliant.
When my mother first told me the story about Dad's obsession with the movie "The Producers", I really believed his dark joke just didn't go over well. They just didn't get each other, he was just playing around and she took it literally. My sister and I used to listen our parents argue, and I'd say to Lisa, "They aren't even talking about the same thing anymore." I remember wishing I had a tape recorder, so I could tape their arguments and make them listen to what they'd both said, because often, they made no sense.
Below is a photograph I took of my parents in Oxnard, around 1977 or so. I took the photograph with my Brownie camera, right as they were headed out on a date. I think my mother let me do her eye make-up. Behind them is an old Ford Truck and a street called "Pleasant Valley Road" which I find hilarious because it's not really a little sweet road, as the name implies, it's more like a busy highway. This is the only photograph I have of my parents together, even though they were a couple for 23 years.
My mother liked the photograph I took of the two of them so much that she used the image for a painting, and the City of Oxnard purchased it. She made a rainbow spring up behind her head, and added one of our chickens.
The questions from the Carnegie Art Museum Educational Department make me wonder how people answered them. "In your opinion, what were the subjects thinking?" I'd like to know.