Part 97: A New Book About The Amazing Criswell, Our Hollywood Landlord and Celebrity Psychic
"Where is the performance, and where is the reality?" –– Rick Rubin
It's Saint Patrick's Day, 2023. I've been listening to the music producer, writer, and artist Rick Rubin talk about creativity on a podcast called "On Being," and I heard him interviewed last week on "The Huberman Lab" podcast. If you're working on a creative project, what Rubin says about process is inspiring.
"Enjoy the story that speaks to you," Rubin said.
I wanted to connect these thoughts, "enjoy the story that speaks to you" with my first author interview here, because the writer Edwin Lee Canfield has been relentlessly researching, writing, collecting, and curating stories about our family's former Hollywood landlord, "The Amazing Criswell" for years. Criswell, also known as "The Amazing Criswell" was a celebrity psychic who, along with his wife, Halo, owned the building we lived in on the corner of Cassil and Selma Streets. I've been in touch with Ed since March of 2021 by email, when he was putting everything together for his new book, "Fact, Fictions, and the Forbidden Predictions of The Amazing Criswell."
Here's how Criswell and Halo's building looks now. My father's ashes are under that tree to the right, we sprinkled a few teaspoons there several years ago.
Here's what we chatted about:
Stacya: First, congratulations on your book “Fact, Fictions, and the Forbidden Predictions of the Amazing Criswell.” You’ve managed to bring together the former tenants of Criswell and Halo’s fourplex apartment building in Hollywood from back in the 60s and 70s, something I never imagined happening. I was told wacky stories about those two–– Criswell sleeping in a coffin, Halo believing her poodle, Buttercup, was her reincarnated cousin, the brunches with Ed Wood, and the rotating cast of characters that were our neighbors. My mother also told me that Mae West loved to cook for Criswell, and she’d send food over, and that she also completely believed in Criswell’s psychic powers. I used to think my mother exaggerated what went on, but it turns out, she's an incredibly accurate reporter!
You write about the building on Selma and Cassil, did you get a chance to visit the old place while you were working on this project?
Edwin: I have visited it a number of times over the years. Haven't been inside. It's had a few different business tenants. Charles Coulombe, who also lived there, took me and shared his stories a couple of times. I was just there in February for the book release party held at Boardner's which is just a couple of blocks away.
Stacya: There’ve been other writers who have tried to get books launched about Criswell, including the writer John Whalen, but nothing took off. I’ve always thought Criswell and his world would make a great film, series, or even documentary. I’m glad you got this book out. Any plans to expand the book into something for the big or small screen?
Edwin: My original intent when I started researching Criswell was to write a biopic like Tim Burton's Ed Wood, then I worked on it as a documentary project. After neither one of these came to fruition I decided to do the book. I'm currently working on screenplay and book is available for optioning for production. It certainly is a good story worthy of portrayal on the big or small screen.
Stacya: It's a great story, jam packed with side stories from the people who knew him and lived in the building. I'd love to see it made into some kind of film. My father and Criswell fell out in a big way. It’s an early childhood memory, I could hear them yelling at each other from Criswell's place, which was above our apartment. I told my mother I was scared–– I thought the walls were shaking, their booming voices seemed to vibrate through the building. I understand after reading your book, that it’s quite possible that Criswell and my father argued about politics, as my mother said. I’d assumed that the big shouting match between them was about money. I’m not sure we ever paid rent on our apartment, so I jumped to that conclusion. After the huge blowout, we moved out. I think that was around 1971.
It seems against all odds (with his career and life it seems incompatible) that Criswell was politically conservative. My father was socially and politically liberal, and sometimes they'd get into it.
It’s hard to tease apart which was the persona Criswell developed, and what was real. Did you have trouble navigating that part of Criswell when doing your research? Do you suppose Criswell chose this schtick as a psychic because it brought him the most attention and income? I had the feeling that Halo and Criswell didn’t need the money back then, was it simply his way of keeping a show business career going?
Edwin: I think his being politically conservative came from growing up in a small town in the Midwest (Princeton, IN) where that is just ingrained in the culture. But his societal, cultural, philosophical outlook was very liberal about sexuality, feminism, equal rights, a socialist type future, and other modern cultural trends. That's one of the things that drew me to him was that duality. His greatest desire was really to be an actor evidenced by his attempts to break into Broadway and that's where he and Halo met. He did do financial forecasting on the radio in New York. After they moved to Hollywood in 1940 they began their own stage productions as well. It was around this time that he began dabbling in Spiritualism and started his own Spiritualist church. He had also worked with Norvel who was called the "Astrologer to the Stars." So all of these things led to his "Criswell Predicts" persona which really was solidified with his local LA TV show and his newspaper columns. He and Halo both desperately wanted to be famous in some way and become celebrities. He did achieve a sort of relative fame but not the level he wanted. I don't think they were ever really financially well-to-do. They would do whatever they thought would bring them attention and bring in some money. Anything from acting, to Spiritualism, psychic predictions, whatever it took. He even went into the vitamin/supplement business with a product called Criswell's Family Formula.
Stacya: In our emails and in your book, you've enlightened me about my childhood friend’s grandmother and family friend Ann Noble. I thought she made fringe movies–– B movie “horror” realm. Or maybe I should say "C" movies. I didn’t know about the porn movies she made.
There’s so much to say about Criswell, Halo, and all the other rotating cast of characters. How did you decide what to keep in the book? How did you decide to organize the vast amount of information and research you collected? Was there anything that didn’t make it in, any story you can share with us?
Edwin: I tried to include everything I had found to try and give as complete story as possible. Even some things that were contradictory. I made the book chronological, then broke it down into the chapters and sub-categories and tried to organize the information where it kind of naturally flowed as a story.
Something is starting to happen that I had hoped would, which is people read or hear about the book and contact me with new information from their personal experience with Criswell, either having known him or know of him and have uncovered things on their own. Someone recently contacted me about Robert Harrison who was Criswell's partner, employee, and living companion after Halo moved back East, sold the apartment building, and divorced him. I hadn't been able to find much information about him but it turns out he just passed away January 7, 2023 and was interred in the same space as Criswell at Valhalla cemetery. This led me to contacting one of Robert's family members who told me that he had been a cab driver and would chauffeur Criswell in the limousine given to him by Mae West. The one time the family member met Criswell with Robert was in Boulder City, NV and the rear bench seat of the limo had been removed and replaced by a Lazy-Boy type easy chair. So I know there is still lots more to discover and learn about Criswell which I hope to include what I find in a future revised and expanded version of the book.
Stacya: Ed, thank you for connecting with me back in 2021, sharing these great photographs, and thank you for including my memories in your book, and the pages about my father. I appreciate how you gave everyone credit for the information they shared. I've also had that experience of people reaching out who knew my father from the Hidden Brain episode on NPR. It's amazing the way these true stories bring people together. Looking forward to whatever else you find out.
I'm thrilled that Ed wrote about a story that spoke to him, and kept with the idea for the story, continuing to connect, learn, and write about his subjects with compassion.
The book can be purchased anywhere books are sold. Here's a link.
Here's another photograph Ed shared, one of Criswell in Newsweek magazine:
Next blog, a conversation with artist and author Eric Pitsenbarger about his book "Beaujolais in My Blood: Growing up Gay and Well-Fed in a Family-Run Restaurant."