SATIN DOLLS – OUR FIRST SHORT FILM
In 1983, Anita in her senior year at Columbia College studying film making had the opportunity to produce and direct a documentary or a fictional short about 20 – 30 minutes in length. She didn’t know which to do until I suggested, “Why don’t you make a movie about your rock and roll band?”
As I mentioned earlier in this book, Anita and her sister, Mary, had a band called the Satin Dolls in the 60s and 70s. I offered to write the screenplay. Anita liked what I wrote and submitted it for approval and was given the go-ahead by her instructor. That set the wheels in motion. It would become one of our favorite projects and our first film project together. I wrote a part for myself in the script, the character of Frankie, a Brooklyn garbage man by trade and the girls' so-called manager. In this fictional account, the girls practice for their first paying gig, their Italian-American father forbids them from playing in a nightclub, and to make matters worse, he locks up their instruments. It tears their family apart, pitting their mom and dad against each other.
Besides being in the film as an actor, I also took on producer duties. It was exciting to be on the production side of things for a change, an excellent learning experience. The first thing I realized was that many things go into making a film. We had to cast the film, find locations, record music, acquire supplies and props, put a crew together, make costumes, and get equipment, all on a minimal budget. We also put some of our own money into the project. Obtaining the necessary equipment: lights, light stands, sound equipment, and cameras were the easiest because the school made them available.
Our biggest problem was making Los Angeles look like Brooklyn. Thanks to our friend Ann Hyatt we found a way to solve the problem. Ann was going back to New York for a few days. Anita asked her if she would go to Brooklyn and shoot some photos of houses, street signs, etc. We used the photos at the beginning of the film to establish that the setting was Brooklyn. Ann also had a small role in the movie.
One day when we were shooting at our Torrance location, I had to leave the shoot for two reasons. The first was my orientation to the Screen Actors Guild. That’s when I joined the guild. Following that, I had to go to the post-production house to screen the dailies we had shot the day before. Still high from my orientation, I sat in a small screening room (theatre) and viewed the dailies from the day before. Sitting in a cushy chair, like a big-time producer, I talked to the projectionist in the booth through the telephone at my fingertips.
To cast the film, we needed three young women in their 20s or early 30s for the band. Student films of this type advertised casting notices in a trade paper called Dramalogue. We had several other male and female roles as well. There was an overwhelming response. Casting is always a difficult process, especially for student films. You want good actors but there is no pay. Actors do student films for the experience, the chance to work with budding filmmakers, and ultimately to obtain film on themselves for showcasing their talent.
We needed a father and mother in their 40s or 50s. We were lucky when Lew Dauber came to our house to audition. Lew was a good fit for the father. He wasn’t a typical Brooklyn guy, he was much younger than we imagined the part, but Anita knew with makeup and a little grey on the sides of Lew’s thinning scalp he could play the part. He captured the essence of Anita’s father and had the right attitude.
In retrospect, when we recently watched the film we realized that Lew was correct in saying that he was too angry in most of his scenes. As a result, I wrote an additional scene in which he and his daughter shared a sweet, intimate moment. It helped soften him a little. Following the movie, Lew would become a life-long friend.
At the time, Lew was in a local stage production of Bleacher Bums and suggested a woman in the play with him for the girls’ mother. That worked out well too. Helen Siff got the part. She was much younger than we were looking for but had the right attitude to play a Brooklyn mother/housewife. These two roles were probably the hardest to cast.
We also needed a raunchy standup comedian, which we found in an actor named John Jackson who was wonderful. One of our more pleasant surprises was Johnn-Benn, our hairdresser. In exchange for helping with hair, he asked for an acting role in the movie. He was thrilled to play a bartender. He fell in love with acting and went on to have a career in film, TV, commercials, and the stage. Jon still claims Satin Dolls was his big break and still grateful for our casting him.
As for the girls in the band, we received many submissions. We cast an actress named, Mags Kavanaugh, as Anita’s sister, the leader of the band. Lori Zogabe, a wonderful young actress, got to play Anita, the band’s drummer. We got lucky with Lisa Marie Gurley, a fine actress, and a fabulous singer that we cast. We bonded with the girls and our friendship continued long after the film.
Members of the crew were Anita’s fellow students. Our friend and Anita’s fellow student Eric Grufman had the important position of cinematographer, responsible for lighting the production. Another student and friend, Jurg Ebe, a Swiss exchange student, with a string of professional productions in Switzerland already under his belt. Other students from Columbia College came and pitched in as needed.
Locations are always a pesky problem for professional filmmakers and more so for students. In the Southern California area, people are aware the studio productions pay homeowners well for the use of their property. Students don’t usually have the kind of funds to pay for locations and they depend on people’s generosity. Another problem that arises over using someone’s property—production companies have a bad reputation for trashing places they used and disrespected the owners. We needed several locations: a house, a basement, a park-like setting, and a nightclub.
We don’t remember how we got to use a house in Torrance for the girl’s home. Someone who knew someone referred us to a sweet older woman named Judy Lucy who let us use her house. I remember Anita, Eric, and I met with her. Eric looked over the house for lighting considerations. She agreed to let us use the house for two days. We all sat around her dining room table, held hands, and said a prayer for the success of the movie.
The basement of the fictional house where the band practiced was in a friend of Jurg’s in Glendale. We spent one day shooting there. We had another day on the grounds of U.C.L.A. where we shot a scene of the girls on their work lunch hour in a park-like setting. For that day, we also had a New York-style hot dog cart that someone lent us.
The nightclub was more difficult to acquire. It was supposed to be the raunchy, infamous Crazy Country Club in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn where the Satin Dolls played their first professional gig.
Anita and I were walking along the Sunset Strip near the Whiskey A-Go-Go and the Roxy. We noticed an open door to what looked like a small bar or a nightclub. We walked in and found a bunch of young guys sitting around talking. We told them, “We need a club to shoot our film for two days.”
To our surprise, they said, “You can use it but you have to do it very soon because the Department of Water and Power is about to turn off the electricity.” They laughed and said, “We haven’t paid the electric bill in a long time.”
Anita said, “We want to do it this weekend. If that’s okay.”
They said, “Great. We use this place as a private club to hang out in, but we also like to use it for artistic purposes—like your film.”
We were excited to finally have a location to shoot in. We all shook hands.
We shot there on Saturday and Sunday. We had to fill it with extras for the final scenes of the movie. Eric our cinematographer wanted to light the girls’ performance in red light, then hit Lisa the lead singer with a spotlight. The excess drain on the electrical system burned out some circuit breakers. Eric wasn’t happy because he couldn’t get the lighting he wanted for the scene.
Weeks before the production, Anita had to get musicians to record the music and vocals. There was a music school in Hollywood, and several student musicians volunteered to play and record the music with Lisa Gurley doing the vocals. So at the club, the music played and Lisa lip-synced.
We spent Saturday at the club shooting a scene with Frankie on the phone. Then we set up for the shoot the following day. Lights were set, the band’s instruments were placed in front of the room where the performance would be filmed. The guys who lent us the place hung out there that evening and late into the night. Anita and I spent the night sleeping there because we were concerned about our equipment.
During the shoot, I cooked food for the cast and crew with a student named Carmen. We used the kitchen at the club to roast chickens to feed everyone that Sunday. Except for the lighting problem, the shoot went smoothly. The film ended with Lisa Marie Gurley singing Brenda Lee’s, Break It To Me Gently, which made the little hairs on your neck stand up.
Anita spent her last few months at Columbia College editing the film, adding sound effects, and polishing it. When post-production was completed, Anita had a screening at the school and received rave reviews from faculty and fellow students. Then, we had another screening for invited guests at a place in Santa Monica called The House. Everyone enjoyed what we created. Following that, we entered Satin Dolls in several film festivals.
Many of the people who helped us with the film went on to successful film careers. Shortly after we finished Satin Dolls, Lisa and I worked on a beer commercial together. We also acted in an experimental film that a friend of her’s directed and we shot it in the storm drains in Studio City off and on for several months. Jurg Ebe returned to Switzerland, where he wrote, produced, and directed several feature films in the years that followed.
We enjoyed making this film and many of the cast and crew remained friends. We are thankful to everyone that helped us make the film. Anita proved to be a talented film director. She had a good visual eye and a comfortable rapport with actors. These skills went on to serve her well in her career following graduation.