Prior to this past weekend, if I had been asked to make a list of the top ten people I would most like to meet, David F. Friedman would have been on it. Thanks to Andy Lalino and the organizers of the Gasparilla Film Festival though, Mr. Friedman no longer qualifies. They were thoughtful enough to plan a 45th anniversary screening of the legendary Florida-lensed gore film Blood Feast, complete with producer Friedman and director Herschell Gordon Lewis in attendance. As soon as I received word of the event I was, as Mr. Friedman would say in true carnie lingo, “with the show”.
I had made my plans well in advance for this visit, ever since Andy had first clued me in. The big screen presentation of Blood Feast was practically enough in itself to justify the trip. Factor in an opportunity to spend time with Nolan Canova and the Crazed Fanboy crowd, a chance to see Herschell Lewis again and meet David Friedman, and this became a must do! There were a few unexpected twists leading up to the event but in the end it was one unforgettable weekend.
Having not visited Tampa in some time, I decided to make this as leisurely a trip as possible. The original plan was to maximize my lounging and visiting time, corrupting it with just enough organization to get me to and from the Blood Feast program. The first complication I ran into was when I mentioned to Bill (The Giant Spider Invasion) Rebane that I would be seeing Herschell Lewis in the near future. Bill was in the middle of scheduling a phone interview with Herschell for a proposed DVD release of a film they had worked on together. What Bill started as Terror at Half Day, with Herschell in the crew, ended up on the screen as Monster a Go-Go after Lewis cobbled enough footage together to make a co-feature for his film, Moonshine Mountain! Never being one to pass up a chance for an upgrade, Bill asked me if I would do a video interview with Herschell to discuss the film. Fortunately, all other parties involved were agreeable so this addendum was quickly tacked on.
At the literal eleventh hour of almost 11PM on the Friday before my trip, Andy Lalino contacted me with some incredible news. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Friedman were agreeable to a lunch with ten or twelve of their biggest fans provided we moved our previously scheduled Fanboy Summit from Chili’s to a location closer to their hotel – Carmine’s in Your City. Multiple madly dashed off E-mails and frantic phone calls later, the Fanboy fractions aligned themselves and an even more historic luncheon was in the works!
In route to Tampa with my wife Cindy, while still dodging last minute phone calls, I found out I couldn’t check into my hotel until at least 1PM. Since the lunch was at 12:30, our accommodations were obviously going to have to wait and we headed straight to the restaurant. Andy had not made reservations and a large crowd was anticipated so we decided to get there early and hold down a table for everyone. The next group to arrive was the famous filmmaker contingent of Herschell, David, and the latter’s niece, Mica. Herschell knew me on sight so I quickly escorted the group back to our table and waited for chauffer Andy to arrive from parking the car. Once again my luck came through and I ended up with David Friedman sitting beside me at the table and Herschell perched directly across from him next to Cindy.
Andy arrived next, followed closely by Nolan, Chris Woods, Terence Nuzum, Lisa Ciurro, Lonnie Dohlen, and many others. Nolan had the foresight to sit at the head of the table on my left side so that he could actually get in a minimal amount of conversation with me. I was so busy being enthralled by David Friedman’s stories that an earthquake could have hit the restaurant and I doubt I would have noticed. Among other things, I was treated to a verbatim recitation of one of the road show hygiene lectures originally used to sell “sex education” booklets to rural rubes! Even Herschell took a relaxed back seat to these orations, only chiming in when Dave stopped to give him credit for something!
Somewhere in between these ribald tales of the road to filmmaking and distribution, I had an outstanding crab cake appetizer the size of a small loaf of bread! The main course was an excellent Cuban sandwich that was so large I shared part of it with David! Apparently Carmine’s is an old haunt of his due to its proximity to a hand-rolled cigar shop he likes to frequent on trips through Tampa. Needless to say, Chili’s was not missed!
As lunch wrapped and we wandered outside, Herschell and Dave signed autographs for the quality crowd gathered and Cindy and I made our temporary goodbyes to everyone, fully expecting to see most of them later in the evening. As awesome as this mid-day meeting had been, it was time for me to accompany these two cinematic legends back to their nearby hotel and switch this Fanboy dream day into high gear!
Once I had relocated to the lobby area of the Hilton hotel and commandeered a table in an out-of-the-way corner, Herschell and David joined me for some serious conversation. First I filmed the segment for the Monster a Go-Go project as Herschell displayed his excellent memory for just about everything! We discussed how the film was stalled by financial problems as it neared completion and how Herschell rescued it from almost certain obscurity. In the interest of cost cutting, only enough unobtrusive additional footage was filmed to pad the finished product to feature length and a narration track was added in attempt to explain everything that was missing! The resulting motion picture isn’t much from a continuity standpoint but it does have historical significance and a lot of unintentional laughs!
As an interviewer, one of the most pleasant experiences you can have is discovering a subject who carries on the entire process by themselves. This gives the person who would normally do most of the conversational steering a chance to lean back and enjoy the ride instead. In the past, I have been fortunate enough to encounter a few individuals like this but they are by no means the norm. David Friedman, on the other hand, not only interviews himself but started without me! Andy had cautioned me prior to the meeting that Dave was impaired in both sight and hearing. What he didn’t say was that Friedman’s mind is still sharp as a tack and he is a runaway freight train of film history!
Before I could even get my tape recorder warmed up and my notes collected, David was busy unfolding the posters I had brought with me and immediately launched into an entire soliloquy dedicated to one of the most notorious films he was ever associated with (and believe me that is saying something), Ilsa – She Wolf of the SS! I got the recorder running post haste and spent the next two hours nodding my head and only occasionally commenting when absolutely necessary! In spite of my minimal input, the conversation still covered everything I wanted it to and then some.
As the interview drew to a close, I felt I had taken up as much of Mr. Friedman’s time as Fanboy etiquette would allow. At 84 years of age, I would have completely expected him to be ready to take a nap by this time after the morning he had just come from and the evening he was headed to. My attempts to make a polite departure were immediately met with protests to the contrary and Cindy and I ended up spending another hour with this fascinating individual before he finally had to get ready for dinner. If I am fortunate enough to reach David Friedman’s age and find myself even half as active as he is, I will consider myself lucky!
Following our incredible hotel visit, it was time for Cindy and I to go stake out our own accommodations. By this point we had been going non-stop for nearly ten hours since we left Jacksonville that morning. We unpacked, changed clothes, and headed back out for a quick dinner before the evening festivities. At Andy’s suggestion, we attempted to be at the Channelside Theaters by 7:30 but ended up arriving closer to the reception’s official start time of 8PM.
As we entered the theater, one of the regular employees directed us to the “red carpet” entrance reserved for patrons of the film festival. It was a cute setup and one of many nice touches furnished for the event. Inside the reception room was a small selection of snacks, a limited but free bar, and for some reason a video projector showing the awful John Travolta remake of the John Water’s classic film Hairspray! If you are going to have a video presentation at an event like this, at least try to have something related to the guests you are honoring. After visiting the bar, Cindy and I relegated ourselves to the balcony area where a woman in a nurse’s uniform (Krista Grotte of “Filthy” fame — Nolan) was giving out complimentary barf bags with a decal commemorating the event on them! This was a great tribute to both the dubious hygiene road shows of the past and one of the original promotional gimmicks for Blood Feast involving the stomach distress containers.
Once the Lewis and Friedman dynamic duo arrived and stationed themselves out on the balcony with us, there were never less than 15-20 fans hovering around them at any one time. Cindy and I, along with Lonnie Dohlen who arrived a few minutes before the guests of honor, visited with David Friedman’s niece Mica and generally enjoyed watching all the other fans have fun. I didn’t have the heart to tell them about the lunch the three of us enjoyed earlier in the day or the hotel visitation Cindy and I had recently returned from!
The 35MM screening of Blood Feast took place in a standard stadium style theater that contained 300 to 350 seats by our estimations. By the time the lights went down and the pioneering gore show blazed across the screen, the theater was at 75-80% capacity. After 45 years, Blood Feast may not pack the visceral punch it once did, but the audience still enjoyed the over-the-top effects and the broad range of acting talents!
At the conclusion of the film that would eventually make them Fanboy favorites, David Friedman and Herschell Lewis took the stage and fielded questions from the attendees. A newspaper critic moderator (Steve Persall of the St. Pete Times —Nolan) was on hand but really had little to do as the two geriatric showmen provided the audience with behind-the-scenes stories more interesting than anything they had ever put on screen. The critic did serve as a foil in a closing act designed to give Lewis an opportunity to exact his vengeance on reviewers who had “slaughtered” his films in the past. As Herschell pantomimed cutting the critic’s throat with a phony blade, a bulb of blood in the victim’s hand was supposed to pump grue down the front of his shirt. Apparently the tube became blocked and when enough force was finally used to dislodge the offending substance, the pressure sent an eight foot geyser of gore splattering onto the white movie screen and sent Andy and other festival staff scrambling for the Windex!
It had been one long but enjoyable day for Cindy and I and we knew the trip back to Jacksonville would come earlier than we would have preferred. As Herschell signed a few last minute autographs, I shook hands with Dave and thanked him again for sharing his memories with us. It was difficult to navigate our way out of the theater because we kept running into fans like Chris and Lisa, who had arrived just in time for the movie, and visiting on the way out. This day had been a dream come true for an exploitation fan like me. Words cannot express my gratitude to the promoters of the Gasparilla Film Festival and especially Andy Lalino for giving us this opportunity. It was also great to see my Fanboy brothers again and meet my new sister, Lisa Ciurro. Hopefully our next gathering will be less hectic and we’ll be able to pontificate on fandom more!