The Ray Dennis Steckler Interview
Ray Dennis Steckler is an incredibly genial man and as gracious a host as anyone could ask for. To say that I interviewed Ray would be a misstatement. Ray Dennis Steckler interviews himself or if anything, he interviewed me! He is highly opinionated about his profession but shares these opinions with such an air of honesty and a lack of pretension that it is hard not to get caught in his jet stream of consciousness. To escape from the greed, corruption, and fakery of Hollywood, Steckler moved to Las Vegasa little over thirty years ago and now makes his home and films in a town best know for its towering and abundant casinos. According to Steckler he left because he couldn’t find a place to park in Hollywood and now it’s getting that way in Vegas! It is to the South of this Technicolor nightmare and in the shadow of a far more impressive mountain range, that Steckler now runs his last remaining video store with the assistance of his friend Bill Libby. The other stores were sold off to consolidate his businesses when health problems finally slowed him down. Despite the slower pace, Steckler is still hard at work marketing his films and undertaking more projects, including a new film, than he knows what to do with. The interview you are about read was originally conducted over several sessions in March of 2001 and updated in April of 2004.
Ed Tucker: Ray, I think by now most people are familiar with your more famous pictures like “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies” and “The Thrill Killers”. I would like to talk about some of your lesser known productions including some of the more recent ones. The first film you ever made was the short “Goof on the Loose” in 1959, correct?
Ray Steckler: Yes, “Goof on the Loose” was the first film I ever did entirely by myself. I had always been a big fan of the silent comedians like Buster Keaton. He was tremendously physical comedian. He made some incredible films like “The General”, but towards the end of his career he had to make some terrible films just to stay alive.
ET: He was in a number of films for AIP including some of the Beach Party movies. It always amazed me because he was old and not a real match for these kinds of films. They would give him bad parts and only have him on screen for about ten minutes and he would still steal the show.
RS: He never made any money because he didn’t own the rights to his films like Charlie Chaplin did. He was at the mercy of the studios and just trying to stay alive and that was what they did to him. Towards the end he worked for MGM and they paired him with Jimmy Durantee. Buster Keaton was a very physical and mobile comedian, where Durantee was dependant on dialog. I guess they were pushing Durantee because he had had some recent success on Broadway but they were just mismatched.
ET: Keaton was still trying to make silent films, even then.
RS: Good for him. He was the last. Nobody has the guts to do that any more. Nobody except me. No one else would have tried to do what I just did with “Summer Fun”.
ET: In your acting career, did you limit yourself to just working in your own pictures? I know you had a brief cameo in the film “Eegah!” for Arch Hall but did you do anything besides that for anyone else?
RS: I did a few other parts. I was in “Las Vegas Weekend” and a few other pictures but they were for friends. It’s not like I went out and worked for anybody. I never solicited a movie role in my life. I was asked to do “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant” but I saw the makeup and I told them you’d have to be a fool to do this, it will haunt you the rest of your life. Bruce Dern was in it.
ET: Bruce Dern, Pat Priest from the Munsters, and Casey Kasem.
RS: I don’t know if that was a mistake or not. I don’t think so. The film was directed by Anthony Lanza, who was my editor on “Wild Guitar”. He was a very interesting and talented guy. He edited some of “Strange Creatures” for me too. He did the scene at the end of the chase down the beach, which was really well edited with the rocks and the water and the splashing. When I took a look at it it was just edited terribly. I asked him what happened and he said there was nothing there. I went through all the trims and I re-edited the whole scene that day and I’m glad I did because I love that chase scene at the end. I didn’t have any faith in Anthony Lanza after that as an editor but I think he would make a competent director in the conventional sense. I never saw “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant”. I don’t know what happened to him after that but I felt he had the ability to go a long way.
ET: I saw that film originally at a drive-in in Jacksonville,Florida on a double feature with “Frankenstein Conquers the World”. I even have the poster for it but I never realized Anthony Lanza directed it.
RS: This is what I am getting at. People remember that film but no one remembers who directed it. People see my films and they remember my name. I am not being immodest about this, but they remember my name and more. I even get accused of doing films I never made. “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant” wasn’t Anthony Lanza’s film. He directed it, but he was doing it for someone else. The type of person who is going to pick up a camera and make his own film from start to finish is the type of person who will get destroyed in Hollywood.
ET:Hollywood rewards the person who is just doing a job?
RS: You have to understand something about Hollywood through the years. I have read a lot about it and let’s just say I am well versed in it. What is Hollywood? Is it a town? Is it a group of people? Is it a figment of your imagination? What is Hollywood really?Hollywood is a place where when they don’t need you any more, that’s it. They have the motion picture home now, thank God, to save some of these people. In Hollywood you work for five or ten years and then what? Do you go out and pump gas? Actors can be on a hit television series for three or five years and then it’s over. During that time maybe they made some enemies or said the wrong thing and suddenly no one wants them. I worked with a number of the major studios. I even had an office for a while at MGM. I worked with a number of key players including Harold Robbins. They all wanted to meet me but no one ever wanted to do anything with me. I was typed as a cameraman. I started off as a cameraman and I worked as a cameraman. I did the “Wide World of Sports”, I did a series called “The Professionals”, I filmed over one hundred commercials. I did all these things as a cameraman but it never lead to another job as a director. I had to go home and put money in a sock until I had enough saved up to start another picture.
ET: So you gave up on Hollywood?
RS: By the time I did “Body Fever”, I had found myself at a point in my life where I just decided to have some fun. I didn’t really care any more; the damage from Hollywood had been done. As I am sure you know, I didn’t start out acting in that picture but I ended up acting in it. I didn’t have enough money to do that picture correctly but I finished it. The very first day on the set in San Pedro, the assistant cameraman had $25,000 worth of lenses and he took his eye off them and someone walked away with the case. We had one lens left to shoot that day and it was a bad lens!
ET: Let’s jump forward a few years to my personal favorite of yours, “The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters”. It was your tribute to the films of The Bowery Boys.
RS: Yes that is exactly what it was intended to be, a tribute.
ET: You did three short films in the series, what order were they filmed in?
RS: “The Not So Great Race” was the first one.
ET: (Laughs) Actually that was “The Great Race”.
RS: (Laughs) “The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady” was second and “The Lemon Grove Kids Go Hollywood” was the third one.
ET: It was in between the second and the third films that you were contacted by Huntz Hall.
RS: His wife threatened to sue me if I wore the baseball hat again. So I didn’t wear the hat in the third one because I didn’t want to have any problems. I almost made a movie with him. We talked about it but he wanted too much money. A lot of people say I make movies about other movies and that might be true to an extent. Movies were my escapism as a child and I wanted to recreate the films that I liked to go see the best that I could. I think we did a wonderful job on “The Lemon Grove Kids” and I don’t think we came that close to the Bowery Boys but, let’s face it, a lot of people think we did. If nothing else, we did the East Side Kids/Bowery Boys in color and even they never did that!
ET: Was “The Lemon Grove Kids” originally intended as a series of vignettes?
RS: No, when we made “The Great Race” in 1967 it was intended to be a feature. I still have so much footage from that it’s incredible. All we knew is that we wanted to make a Bowery Boys movie but we didn’t know what direction we wanted to go in and we didn’t have any money to do it with. I just decided at some point that their wasn’t enough there to make a feature. I could have done it and I probably still could with all the footage I have. If I went back now and edited that in to a feature, it would look nothing like the one that ended up on the screen. I just love “The Lemon Grove Kids”, even to this day. I did a fourth one but I never finished it.
ET: Do you recall the plot of the fourth film?
RS: It’s a secret! It would complete the trilogy!
ET: (Laughs) The four-film trilogy!
RS: (Laughs) Yes, Ray Steckler’s four-film trilogy. I would love to put that on the video box cover! Let me tell you, there is a fourth film there.
ET: So after you filmed “The Great Race” you decided to scrap the idea of a feature and go with the shorts instead?
RS: I just decided to do the first one as a short and see if we could sell the idea. We tried to sell it as a television pilot but no one was interested in it. They thought with the dialog looping it was too amateurish. When it got out to the theaters, no one gave a darn about that. They didn’t care if it was looped or not, they liked what they saw. I was in the theaters when it played, everybody loved them! I put the Green Grasshopper one first and then added footage to the end of “The Great Race” with all the thunder and the lightening. That was in the part with the mummy so they could have the guy in the mummy costume come out in the theater.
ET: The live section was done at the end of the third segment in the film?
RS: No, there were only two segments in the film. “Go Hollywood” was never shown in the theaters, that only came out on video. The film only ran about an hour in the theaters. There were times when we actually rented a Bowery Boys film to play with it.
ET: Was “The Great Race” the last film you did with George Morgan?
RS: Yes, after that I went with Keith A. Wester. He had done the sound for me on “Rat Pfink and Boo Boo”. He was nominated for six Academy Award for Best Sound, but he never won. The most recent was “A Perfect Storm”. He passed away recently.
ET: He also played Marvin Marvin in “The Lemon Grove Kids”.
RS: He was Marvin Marvin in the first two and Swami Marvin in “Go Hollywood”. If I was to re-release the film I could say “starring Keith A. Wester, six time Academy Award nominee”! He was very good in “The Lemon Grove Kids” and he’s done a lot of other things too.
ET: You finished the final segment of “The Lemon Grove Kids” in 1969. How long after this was the film released to the theaters?
RS: I have to tell you, it was not very long at all. A fellow named Joe Karston had been doing road shows of my pictures since 1966 or 1967. He did “The Incredibly Strange Creatures” first (retitled “The Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary”) and then “The Thrill Killers” (retitled “The Maniacs are Loose”). He came to me after that and said what have you got? I showed him “The Lemon Grove Kids” and he said that would be good for matinee shows. A lot of theaters back then enjoyed booking a matinee show just for Saturdays.
ET: How many years did that play as a matinee?
RS: That played for about five or six years. I think it all washed out about 1975 or 1976.
ET: That played for longer than I realized. You had a theater employee dressed as a mummy run through audience when this film played. What did you have for the others?
RS: When they did “The Thrill Killers” they dressed like the Cash Flagg character. When they did “Strange Creatures” they had people dressed like the zombies except for the first six months when I went on tour with the film. Then for “The Lemon Grove Kids” they did the mummy.
ET: Did you have to go back and film inserts for the mummy section?
RS: Yes. There was originally a mummy in “The Great Race” played by Bob Burns who also played Kogar the gorilla for me in Rat Pfink. Bob came back and did the mummy for me again in the insert footage. There was a girl in that scene with the mummy who had played a dancer in “The Incredibly Strange Creatures”. Her name was Cindy Shea and she was best friends with Carolyn Brandt from the time we moved to Hollywood. She was in the hospital with cancer and did not have long to live. She knew we were shooting that day and she actually left the hospital, she walked out. Somehow she got there and she walked up that big hill. I can still remember seeing her and I don’t know how she did it. She just said I want to be part of your movie please, just do something. I don’t know if I would have shot that scene the same way if she hadn’t shown up when she did. She was just wonderful. Less than a week later she was gone and I never really got over that. Someone wanted to be in one of my pictures that much.
ET: Didn’t Ron Haydock play Rat Pfink again in that same segment?
RS: Yes and he was also the guitar player in “The Great Race”
ET: I picked up a really cool CD called “99 Chicks” by Ron Haydock & the Boppers that has the “Rat Pfink” tracks on it. Are you familiar with that?
RS: That’s the one on Norton Records.
ET: Right, there are some great photos in the CD booklet too.
RS: Those came from me. They contacted me and I sent them some items on Ron for the booklet.
ET: There is one I have never seen before of him on the hood of a car holding two masks. What are they from?
RS: One is the head from “Thrill Killers” that rolls down the stairs. I’m not sure about the other.
ET: How about the shot of Ron performing on stage dressed as Rat Pfink?
RS: That is from the tour we did to promote the film. We went around to supermarkets with Ron dressed as Rat Pfink and another guy doing Boo Boo because Titus Mode was not available. It was also me, Carolyn Brandt who was my wife at the time, and my 81-year-old grandfather. We went all over the place trying to drum up interest in the film. We shot some color film of those appearances that I put on the end of the “Rat Pfink” video.
ET: There is also a picture in the booklet of a pulp novel called “Caged Lust”. It looks like Bill Ward style artwork on the cover and it is credited to Vin Saxon. Is that for real?
RS: Oh yeah. Vin Saxon was, of course, Ron Haydock. He must have written fifty of those things. One was called “Ape Rape”. They were very strange.
ET: Well with a title like “Ape Rape” I’m not surprised.
RS: You have to understand, that was how Ron made a living towards the end of his life. They would pay him $500 to write one of these things. The books are very rare now because they only printed about 20,000 of them to begin with. I think Norton must have a whole collection of these things somewhere. They came to me looking for one of his titles but even I didn’t have it. Ron Haydock made movies for me but no one else would give him a chance. I not only gave him a chance, I hocked my house to make those movies and to record those songs because I believed in him. Then he got screwed up with depression a couple of times thinking that no one cared about him. I cared about him. I say this, if you go through your whole life and you only have one person who cares about you, who is willing to sacrifice for you, then you are well ahead of the game. That’s honestly what I believe and when Ron killed himself there was no reason for him to do that except he felt he wasn’t wanted.
ET: Hold on, did Ron kill himself? I thought he died in a car accident hitchhiking back to California from visiting you in Vegas?
RS: It wasn’t an accident. I had given him a plane ticket too but he wouldn’t use it. I could talk about the whole story but I don’t want it changed. If enough people want to hear about it, I’ll tell you. It’s not a story that puts Ron Haydock down, he was my best friend. I think my career almost came to a halt when he died.
ET: Whatever happened to Mike Kannon who played Slug in “The Lemon Grove Kids”? I thought he was great in the Leo Gorcey part.
RS: He became a security guard at the Romane headquarters of Howard Hughes. He was the one who got tied up when Hughes was robbed and they got all his papers. He also acted in “The Getaway” with Steve McQueen. He was a fine actor.
ET: One of your later films actually takes its title from a character in “The Lemon Grove Kids”, how did you come up with the idea of “The Chooper”?
RS: Herb Robins played the character in the “Green Grasshopper” segment and that’s what he did, he went “choop, choop, choop, choop, choop”. So he became “The Chooper”.
ET: (Laughs) That’s it? That’s all there was to it! I saw a video box for the film one time and they had this elaborate definition for how a Chooper was a legendary evil spirit!
RS: Nah! Whatever we had, that was what we made a movie with. I said hey we’ve still got a Chooper suite so Ron became “The Chooper”! It didn’t even fit him, it was too small. My whole philosophy is when it’s someone else’s money your spending that’s a whole different ballgame than when it’s your own. Before you make a movie you look around and see what you have, not what you want to go get. Think about all the things you don’t have to spend money for and then write your story around them, because now you’ve already saved $20,000. If you look at my films you will see the same things here and there because if it was still good, fine, then we used it again.
ET: Was “The Chooper” released to theaters?
RS: It played in one theater in Denver,Colorado but was really just straight to video.
ET: So you were eligible for the Academy Awards?
RS: (Laughs) Yes, that’s a good line!
ET: Right after “The Chooper” you did another film called “Bloody Jack” that so far remains unreleased.
RS: Yes that had Herb Robins, Carolyn Brandt, and myself in it. It was a basic serial killer plot. Charlie Smith returns and all the women he knows start to get killed. This guy is obsessed with Charlie Smith but rather than kill him he kills all his friends. It was great stuff. It was shot on 16mm with sync sound and everything. It could still be saved. It needs to be edited and scored. We had a flood a while back and the film went in to storage and I haven’t done anything with it since.
ET: How do you have a flood in Nevada?
RS: Well the guy next door was putting in a barbershop and he did his own plumbing. He was gone and a pipe blew. We couldn’t get in, we couldn’t find the landlord, and the water came in here fast! I had to get the stuff I could save out of here fast and it all went in to storage unmarked.
ET: So “Bloody Jack” was your last film until “The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher” in 1979?
RS: Yes, even though the setting was Hollywood we filmed most of it in Las Vegas and no one realized it. Then we did “The Las Vegas Serial Killer”. A third one was shot but Pierre Agostino, who played the killer, didn’t want to do it. He said he didn’t want to die for a third time and he never came back. I think we were going to call it “The Return of the Hollywood Strangler”. There is also a fourth one we shot that still needs to be edited called “The Son of the Hollywood Strangler”. I shot that whole thing on 16mm and never put it together. Then I took the two guys from the “The Las Vegas Serial Killer” and made a movie called “The Las Vegas Thrill Killers”. That was around 1993
ET: So there was about a four-year gap between that and your most recent film, “Summer Fun”. How did that one come about?
RS: Well that actually started as an idea Ron Haydock and I had in the 60’s for a film about these characters called Flip and Flop. Ron said let’s do this film called “Flip and Flop”, of course I would play Flop so he would get top billing! We would have played two detectives and we get hired for this case. The whole key to it is they say we have to go to Africa. We look at each other and say OK and in the next cut we’re in Africa! I would have loved to have done that but we never got around to it. We actually shot part of another jungle picture with Ron and Carolyn and myself. We had Bob Burns in the gorilla costume and he finds a little girl in a plane wreck. We go to Africa to find this girl who is now grown up. We shot all the footage and I still have it but we never made the movie.
ET: So the Flip and Flop characters got carried over into “Summer Fun”?
RS: Only the names, really. The characters are not the same. We had Herb Robins in that and he got a lot of people involved from around Lake Tahoe. We brought some of the cast with us from Las Vegas and of course my daughter Bailey is in it. One girl in the film was Miss Mississippi and she came in the finals of the Miss America contest. She was just in the lead in one of the new Power Rangers shows.
ET: I’d rather be in one of your films any day! Speaking of cheesy science fiction shows, what do you think about your films being shown on “Mystery Science Theater 3000”?
RS: I think it’s just disgusting. I think the people that wrote that should be ashamed of some of the things they said. If they want to poke fun at my films, that’s fine. We went out and made a movie and they have a right to say what they think about it, but some of things they said in that show were just disgusting. I don’t even like to talk about it because it upsets me so much. They never had the rights from me to show the pictures. The guys that do that show just have no respect for what a filmmaker goes through with very little money. You give up a lot to make a movie like “Strange Creatures”, time and money. I did not need the kind of racist, sexist and even anti-Semitic remarks those guys made. I just think they were wrong to do it. I hope they made a lot of money off that and then spent it unwisely. The show is off the air now so it really doesn’t matter. Let me ask you something, have you ever heard me knock anyone before?
ET: No, I can honestly say in anything I have read or seen about you, you have never said an unkind word about anyone. I can also add that I know first hand from talking with other filmmakers that you are not alone in your sentiments towards that show. Fortunately “Mystery Science Theater 3000” has been canceled and that is all in the past. Let’s talk about the future now. You have your website up and running. Do you have plans to expand it?
RS: Yes, I have a lot of stuff to put up on that. I have some reproduction lobby cards that I need to get on there. It isn’t doing that well and I’m not really sure why. I still go on tour and I sell a lot of stuff that way. I’m also selling some films on eBay. My seller ID is Steckler movies.
ET: Last time we spoke you were working on a new film. Is that still in production?
RS: Yes, now I am calling it “Steckler’s Eleven” and I am going to get eleven people that I worked with in the past back together. I found Mike Kannon, he’s retired and living in an apartment in Hollywood. I talked to him on the phone and he seemed a little tired but he is 70 years old or close to it. I have Robert Blair who played the lead in “Wild Ones on Wheels”, Jim Bowie from “Rat Pfink”, and Herb Robbins from “The Thrill Killers”. John Waite who was in “Summer Fun” is in it too. I may get Carolyn Brandt to be in it just to make it to eleven.
ET: You have a tape out now of two unreleased films, “Face of Evil” and “Slashed”. Where do these fit in to the Ray Dennis Steckler filmography?
RS: I started a film with an actor friend of mine named Will Long. About three or four days into the film he caught hepatitis and within a few days he had died. It just shocked me and I had to put the film aside. Fortunately I had shot a scene from the beginning, a scene from the middle, and a scene from the end of the film. So I had those but I had nothing else. A few years later I started another film with a girlfriend, a stripper named Lovie Goldmine. I starting making a slasher movie with her and about fifty percent of the way through the film she told me she had to leave town immediately. She took her kids and disappeared and I never heard from her again. She was a wonderful person. I hope she sees this and contacts me. I didn’t have the ending filmed so I had to fake it with Carolyn Brandt playing her part. I crossed footage between the two films. It was an experiment so in both movies you see some of the same footage. It really blows your mind. I made twenty-five copies of these films on video and then I destroyed the master.
ET: Two of your films, “Rat Pfink and Boo Boo” and “The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters” have recently been released on DVD by Media Blasters. Was there any reason these two were chosen first instead of your more well known films like “The Thrill Killers” or “Incredibly Strange Creatures”? Aside from the fact that these two are my favorites that is!
RS: I did that. I did it to build up momentum. I wanted to get people interested and then work my way up to the bigger pictures. “Blood Shack” is coming out next. The DVD will have both versions of the film, “Blood Shack” and “The Chooper”. I do the commentary on “Blood Shack” and Joe Bob Briggs does the commentary on “The Chooper”. The DVD will also contain a special interview with Carolyn Brandt. “Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher” will be next. It’s already done; I just recorded the commentary last week. After that I will probably have them put out “Body Fever” and “Creatures”.
ET: Any reason the “Rat Pfink and Boo Boo” DVD did not contain the color footage that is available on your VHS tape?
RS: I’m not sure why they didn’t use that but they may go back and do a special edition DVD at some point and put that on it.
ET: Why did they choose to use a recreated photo for the cover of the “Rat Pfink” DVD instead of an original still or artwork?
RS: That was Media Blaster’s decision and I really don’t know why they did that. They did a much better job with “The Lemon Grove Kids” and I am really happy with the way that turned out. I let them handle the marketing and I just supply the material.
ET: You have put together a lot of great interview tapes of yourself with all kinds of interesting rare footage. Do you plan to migrate those over to DVD?
RS: Probably not because the quality really isn’t there. These are mostly things people grab at shows and the lighting is bad, the sound is bad.
ET: Not even a greatest hits type DVD?
RS: Well I have thought about putting all the shows together in a DVD box set for my fans at a price they could live with.
ET: When “The Thrill Killers” is released on DVD, will it have the alternate version of “The Maniacs are Loose” included?
RS: That is something we are talking about right now. We are also talking a possible re-release to the theaters to coincide with the DVD release and also a possible sequel. My friend Louie Espolito who wrote the novel “Mafia Cop” is working on the story. Mad Dog Click gets out of jail forty years later and he’s now an old man. His days of murder are over and he retires to the small town ofReading,Pennsylvania. He tries to put his life back together, which is not easy to do after being in jail for forty years. A relative of one his victims is now a homicide detective who decides to frame him for murder. So Mad Dog Click is going to get framed for a murder he did not commit. Things are going to get more interesting from there but that is the thread of the idea. If the DVDs sell well enough and there is enough interest, they may be willing to do the sequel.
ET: So if enough people contact Media Blasters, they will do a sequel to “The Thrill Killers”?
RS: Have people contact Media Blasters and let them know that they would like to see the sequel to “The Thrill Killers” called “Mad Dog Click”, starring me. Media Blasters is considering doing it but I want people to give them some input. Let Media Blasters know that we want Cash Flagg back. We want Cash! I want cash too but that’s beside the point!
ET: I can’t wait to see it! Thanks for your time Ray, it’s been a pleasure!
RS: Mine too, thanks.
Special Note to all Crazedfanboy readers: The next move is up to you!
If you would like to learn more about Ray Dennis Steckler and his unique films, visit www.raydennissteckler.com. Mention this interview from Crazedfanboy.com and Ray will personally autograph your video purchases!
If you would like to read more about the life and times of actor/singer/pulp author Ron Haydock, please write to Ray and let him know, so he will tell me and I can do the piece! Ray’s postal and E-mail addresses are available on his website or you can send an E-mail to Crazedfanboy.com to have it forwarded.
Finally, if you would like to see a sequel to “The Thrill Killers”, please drop Media Blasters an E-mail at www.media-blasters.com (while you are at it, tell them you want to see more Ray Dennis Steckler movies on DVD too!). What are you waiting for? Get busy writing!