Part 65: Criswell and Halo, Riley Sold Cheesecakes To Pay Rent & Other Hollywood Stories
Today is Saturday, March 20, 2021. Deaths from the Coronavirus in the U.S. are: 541,037. A few states are opening back up without mask mandates. I'm still not vaccinated, but hopefully by May or June.
In the past several months, I've been in touch with a few people from my past, and a writer, John Whalen. John wrote an article in the New Yorker (years ago) about one of our landlords, "The Amazing Criswell." As mentioned in a previous blog and in blog 67, Criswell was a celebrity psychic who had his own newspaper column, appeared on the Tonight Show, and wrote books about his predictions. Riley and Criswell hung out at the Brown Derby near our apartment. John kindly sent me his book proposal loaded with research. Here's a small part of John's fabulous pitch: "A biography of the great sham psychic, show-biz oddball and discount bon vivant who held court on the fringes of Hollywood."
Now... tell me, how can you not publish this story proposal?
Anyway, John and others confirmed more than a few strange memories and stories I was told.
Below is a photograph of Halo back when she used another stage name, April Snow. Thanks to the writer Edward Canfield for this fantastic image. When I was a little girl, I thought everyone went around changing their names, and it was no big deal. When Halo was younger and living in New York, burlesque was her gig. We lived in one of those buildings from 1967 to maybe 1970. Maybe 1971, but my mother thinks we moved out in 1970.
Halo told us she was really the psychic one, and wrote most of Criswell's predictions about the future.
The fourplex had a big porch, we lived on one side, (the lower unit, nearest to Selma Street) Halo and Criswell above us. At first, a family lived across from us on the first floor. I don't remember the father but the mother's name was Pat, she had two boys. One of them, Charles, got in touch with me just a few months ago. He confirmed many memories of Halo, and how she and Criswell hosted Sunday brunches where Ed Wood, B movie actors and others on the fringes of show business mixed and mingled. Sometimes Halo would drink too much gin, and dance on the table tops in her bikini.
A lot of my stories about this place and the people in it are from my mother's point of view. She thought almost everyone was crazy in that building. Everyone else was crazy. It's funny...she says it as if we were normal. Anyway, maybe they were all nuts, maybe they were just trying to figure out how to survive.
For a while, a woman named Maria Graciette and her daughter lived upstairs from Charles and his family. Maria said she was a countess and a former Miss Portugal (hmmm...not so sure about that) and promoted herself as a psychic. After she moved out, Ann Nobel (below) and Lester Philcox moved in. To refresh, they were actors from England. Ann wrote and starred in these wacky movies... must see to believe. One was called "The Sins of Rachel" about incest between a mother and son. Ann played the mother. Another, "The Corpse Grinders" is about people being made into cat food. I'm pretty sure you can see these movies on YouTube.
I found this perfect review of her flick online: "What happens when dead corpses are ground into meat and added to grain for a canned cat food factory is the heart of what The Corpse Grinders is all about."
It's as simple as that.
Sorry about the smudge on this photo, I think it's nail polish. Or is it blood from the corpse grinder? I've had Ann's headshot forever. She was a friend of ours for a long time, as was her daughter, Jenny, and her grandkids.
Anyway, I keep reading all these things about early childhood development and how the first five years are so important. Well, I'm a little worried about that, because those years were spent in this twisted Melrose Place type building, where everyone was psychic or making insane movies, that "Gypsy John" guy, who my mother said slept with one eye open, or sleeping in a coffin, (Criswell) or predicting that California was about to break off from the rest of the nation and float off into the ocean, (Criswell again) or telling me that I wasn't a child, I was really an old lady, reborn. That last one was Halo. I'm surprised a film hasn't been made about them along time ago.
Last but not least, last week I got a call from an old family friend, Matthew Surlin. He found me when doing an internet search for his old friend, Riley Shepard. The NPR show “Hidden Brain” and the episode about Riley popped up, and he looked up my name and gave me a call. We had a long talk on Saturday, March 13th, 2021. I needed to write out the date, as we're still in Corona-limbo, and it could be three weeks ago instead of one week.
The last time I saw Matt I was eight or nine years old, but I remembered him and his blue Sunbeam sports car.
In the late 1960s, Matthew Surlin and Joe Tanzman, both musicians, had an office in the same building as Riley’s “porn writing factory” office by the old Hollywood theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Matthew and Joe ran a music copying service, and they helped Riley out with the musical notations for the "Encyclopedia of Folk Music." Both became good friends, and Joe used to babysit me and my sister. We loved Joe, he was a sweetheart. Also, we didn’t have a car, and Joe and Matthew drove my father wherever he needed to go. Matthew’s car was a soft top convertible, and once someone cut into the fabric with a knife when he parked near our apartment (not Criswell and Halo's, we'd moved) on a sketchy street.
One night, while Riley was hanging out at The Brown Derby, Gene Autry got stumbling drunk at the bar and needed a ride home. Riley called Matt late at night and said, "Get down here. We gotta drive Gene back to Orange County." So Matt got dressed, hopped in his Sunbeam, and flew down the highway. By the time he arrived at The Brown Derby, Gene Autry was long gone. Someone else drove him home, much to Riley's dismay. He wanted to stay in Gene's inner circle.
Matthew told me that Joe Tanzman (somewhere in these blogs I spelled it Tansman—-that’s wrong, gotta fix that) passed away back in the 1980s. This is sad news, as I always wondered what became of Joe. He was like family to me.
Matthew solved some puzzles, and confirmed things I’d heard. For one thing, Riley always had a project brewing, and he got people excited about working with him and making things happen.
“Did you know how your father got the stories for his porn books?” Matthew asked.
“Um, unpublished manuscripts he found in trash cans?” I said, guessing.
“No. Riley would scour used bookstores for old novels published before 1909, so there were no copyrights to tangle with. Then, he’d modernize stuff—the horse and carriage was rewritten as a car, names and locations were changed, and then he’d add the porn scenes.”
Ahhhh. Mystery solved. That makes more sense. As mentioned, at first I was baffled by "Glowing Heat" ---it wasn't Riley's writing style at all, and loaded with mistakes. Later, my mother told me that Riley used other people’s novels, (I had wondered if they were unpublished detective novels) turning them into his porn books, but had no idea what the details were.
Matthew remembered the typing pool, (the women I mentioned in "The Red Shoe" blog #47--- they typed the porn scenes into the rest of the story) and he recalled that Riley was always broke. He was surprised to find out Dad conned people.
"Wow, if he was a conman, he wasn't making much money at it. He was always broke," Matthew said.
Matthew told me that when Riley ran out of money to pay the typists, or the rent on the office, he’d go home and make huge trays of cheesecake from a special recipe he had. I remember my father cooking and baking, and these huge sheets of cheesecake are a vague memory. Then, he’d sell the trays to Musso and Frank Grill in Hollywood. Riley got thirty bucks a tray, or something like that. After he got the money from the cheesecake sales, he’d finish the books and ship them off to the printer. It was a simple time, when you could just cook stuff at your apartment and sell it to a restaurant without any kind of special license or commercial kitchen.
I can imagine my father running down Hollywood Boulevard with a huge tray of cheesecake, rushing past the Hare Krishnas and the end times preachers, his cigar in his mouth, pens flying out of his shirt pocket.
Finally, the landlord locked Riley out of that office on Hollywood Boulevard, because he owed so much in back rent. Unfortunately, some of my mother's art was inside, even a painting she did of Matthew that she still misses."It was one of my best," she said in a phone call. She never got her stuff back. Riley lost all the typewriters, half finished porn books, and whatever else was in the office. Maybe it's all in a storage unit somewhere.
I guess there's not enough cheese cake in the world to pay off Riley's debts.
Here’s the recipes for Riley’s cheese cakes. There were a few... I’m not sure which recipe he used.
“As for cheesecake, I really think, though not 100% certain, that it was made with cottage cheese. It was made in a sheet cake size pan with sides,” Matthew said. I seem to remember something like that, too, but these are the only Riley cheese cake recipes I could find.
Matthew told another story, my new favorite. Riley had a special relationship with the headwaiter at the Brown Derby, which was a haunt for people in the music business, including Gene Autry. I knew my mother was annoyed that Riley spent so much money buying drinks for people at the bar there when we could hardly afford groceries, but this was how Riley got projects going and kept his contacts close. The Brown Derby’s headwaiter was expected to know who was important in the music world, and relied heavily on my father to tell him who was who and what was what. When a new person appeared, the headwaiter guy would scurry over to Riley to get the scoop, then he’d be prepared to greet and seat the customer. Riley knew everyone, what they did, who they worked for or with, and even who they were married to. Riley’s mind was like a spinning rolodex of information, his recall astonishing, as I've mentioned before. In his personal journal he kept what he called a “memory wheel” and it is filled with hundreds of names of people he met or was friends with in show business.
Matthew used to drive Riley around Hollywood in his light blue convertible Sunbeam. We were so broke, we lived in Los Angeles without a car.
"Riley said he'd been watched by the FBI for some political groups he joined years before, he told me that they were after him," Matthew said. Because of The Freedom of Information Act, I might be able to find out, but I heard it takes months, sometimes years to get the information. I sure hate filling out forms. Anyway, my mother confirmed that Riley was on the FBI shit list. "They dogged him" is how she described it, she says because of he was a Socialist back in the 1940s.
Anyway, that's all for now. I'll be back if I hear anything new. Special thanks to all who made this post possible.
Update: July 22, 2021. I finally got a response from the FBI. Here it is:
I guess I'll never know if the FBI was after Riley or if it was something he made up, but my mother seems to think it was true.