Cult Fiction Drive-In
I almost could not believe what I was seeing the first time I visited the website for the Cult Fiction Drive-In show, which billed itself as an “Underground Film and Cult Cinema Convention”. Not only was this a show dedicated to the grindhouse and drive-in films I grew up with and hold dear and not only was it being held in Florida but it was actually going to be in my back yard (figuratively) in Jacksonville! Scanning the guest list made this incredible event seem almost too good to be true. I made two resolutions that day – to get the word out about this show as much as possible and to follow its progress over the next six months to see exactly what we would end up with for the final event.
I didn’t waste much time fulfilling my first goal and with the assistance of some of the more hardcore film fans I know in the area I quickly started work on the second one. We followed the publicity for the show closely and checked the website often for updates and announcements. The guest list started off astounding by my qualifications with the likes of Russ Meyer ladies Kitten Natividad and Eddy Williams plus the star of I Spit on Your Grave, Camille Keaton. These were followed shortly there after by Ilsa herself, Dyanne Thorne, and even a reunion from the original Inglorious Bastards – Bo Svenson, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and director Enzo Castellari (who also directed some other cool Italian films like 1990: The Bronx Warriors and Great White). The list continued to get better with the additions of Jim Kelly and one of the top female actors in the blaxploitation genre, Pam Grier! There were a couple of what I considered to be missteps like a Critters and Warriors reunion but these were more than compensated for by the rest of the impressive lineup.
As the show grew nearer, problems began to crop up in a quick succession. The first came with the quiet removal of guest Bill Smith, an actor who has been in a ton of exploitation films including Grave of the Vampire, from the list. Next was the unavoidable (and extremely disappointing in my book) cancelation of Kitten Natividad due to a broken leg. Then, about a month out, a major bombshell was dropped when no less four guests, including heavy hitters Svenson, Castellari, and Edy Williams were dropped from the lineup simultaneously for various reasons. Things were starting to look shaky but, to the credit of the promoters, they were able to do some hasty damage control and added Sid Haig, John “Martin” Amplas, Lynn Lowry, and John Waters’ actress Mink Stole in record time. This wasn’t exactly a one for one substitution by my estimations but it went a long way towards filling the void.
When the big weekend of May 20-23 finally arrived, my friends and I were approaching the event with what could best be described as cautious optimism. There were rumors of poor advanced ticket and vendor table sales and concerns over the convention’s location on the cusp of Jacksonville’s less than hospitable downtown area but as dedicated Fanboys, we were determined to make the best of whatever we ended up with. Fortunately I had some good company lined up in the form of my out of town friends including Brandon Merkley from St. Augustine, John Miller from Tampa, and Jon Houton from St. Petersburg. Jacksonville would be well represented by me, Alex Ojeda, Dan Tuchmann, Ken Fees, and Richard Blair over the course of the weekend.
I had a busy afternoon planned for Friday. After a pre-con lunch with Alex, I headed over to the bus station to pick up John Miller. No sooner had I gotten him back to the hotel, which was thankfully close by, and checked in then it was time to pick up Jon Houton at the train station. Brandon caught up with John and I on the way out so when we returned with Jon we were ready to roll. We paid our admission ($40 for the weekend, $25 per day, plus $5 for unlimited parking at the hotel which isn’t a bad deal for that area) and headed inside. The one combined room for dealers and guests was large and the tables were very spread out with ample aisle space in between. It appeared about 80% of the vendors and all of the guests, except for Pam Grier who was coming later and Dee Wallace who was not scheduled until the following day, were there.
It was already around an hour and a half into the show when we began our perusal but there could not have been more than 30-40 people total in the large room. Reviewing the merchandise, it was mainly T-shirts and trinkets with a few bootleg DVDs and miscellaneous items thrown in. One vendor had a lot of photos and mostly reprint posters and another with a little of everything had a small but nice selection of vintage movie posters priced pretty close to standard retail. I only noticed one seller with a decent display of older toys and models but neither the price nor selection was anything that could not be found online or elsewhere very easily. I did see one table with an interesting group of older VHS tapes in the large boxes with garish artwork made famous by companies like Continental, Scimitar, and Wizard Video but his prices seemed a little high. I made my sole vendor purchase for the show early on when I bought a Grindhouse Releasing T-shirt and bowling shirt combo for $25.
It didn’t take very long for us to thoroughly cover the dealers but the guests were another matter. It was a tough decision on where to start because we wanted to meet so many of them but fortunately there were not big lines at any of their tables. We decided to start with the lovely Camille Keaton since she starred in on of Brandon’s favorite films, I Spit on your Grave. She, like many of the guests as we would discover shortly, had a very impressive selection of original memorabilia related to her career including one sheet posters for Spit under that title and it’s rare initial release, Day of the Woman. She was selling the Woman posters for $300 which Brandon could not resist but I settled for the more common Spit version for $50 (increased to $100 a short time later) which included her signature. I also got her to sign my Wizard Video poster for the film which is very similar but has the blood red logo of this long defunct home video company at the bottom.
Camille was sandwiched between the equally lovely Lynn Lowry from I Drink Your Blood, Sugar Cookies, Score and a host of other films and one of the greatest living black exploitation actors, Fred Williamson. We visited Lynn next and I had her sign my one sheet of David Cronenberg’s They Came from Within plus the pressbook from the I Drink Your Blood / I Eat Your Flesh combo release while Brandon purchased a pressbook from Radley Metzger’s Score with a great shot of her on the cover. She told us an interesting story about how she originally wasn’t supposed to be in the creepy climax to Within (aka Shivers) but they called her back for filming at the last minute (note to David Cronenberg – smart move!). After posing for a few photos and talking about some of her other films, we moved to the other side where I traded Fred Williamson a poster for 1990: The Bronx Warriors and a set of lobby cards for his film Black Eye in exchange for him signing my posters of 1990, Black Caesar, and The Legend of Nigger Charley. He told us about some of his films which started out as just regular action movies with predominantly white casts but the studios would change the advertising campaigns after the fact to sell them better as blaxploitation. So much for truth in advertising!
Right down from Williamson was another blaxploitation hero, Jim Kelly, who stared opposite Bruce Lee in his most famous picture, Enter the Dragon. I had him sign a one sheet from his infamous kung fu film Black Belt Jones as well as a combo poster for Dragon and Hot Potato. Apparently Kelly is a relative newcomer to the celebrity guest business and still learning the ropes. When Jon tried to purchase his Black Samurai poster he had on the wall behind him he told him he couldn’t part with that until he got copies made so he could sell those like the other guests were doing.
We moved to the other side of the room and started with George Romero regular John Amplas who turned out to be about as much of a “regular” guy as you could ask for. While he is best known for playing the pseudo-vampire lead in Martin, Amplas has had a long and varied career in roles that took him in and out of some heavy makeup. I brought along a one sheet from a very low budget non-Romero zombie picture he made called Blood Eaters (aka Toxic Zombies). He had never seen this particular poster before but pulled no punches about the film’s short comings even though the end result is a fun movie. Jon got him and Day of the Dead actor Gary Klar to sign a huge subway poster from that film and even later brought down a replica head of one that movie’s zombies!
By this point in my convention going career, I had pretty much resigned myself to thinking I was never going to have an opportunity to meet, Dyanne “Ilsa” Thorne. The Ilsa series (She Wolf of the SS, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks, Tigress of Siberia, and the retro-fitted Jesse Franco flick Wicked Warden) were legends on the grindhouse circuits in the 70’s. I first discovered the over the top sex and violence fests on home video at the dawn of the age in the mid 1980’s and was instantly hooked by not only their high exploitation factors but also the production values and much of the acting which exceeded most of their peers. Ms. Thorne was there with her husband, actor and musician Howard Maurer, and a huge table full of just about every type of photo or memorabilia a Fanboy like me could ask for. I noticed a rare advanced one sheet for She Wolf behind them on the wall and was told how they had a very limited number of items sent to them by John Dunning, co-founder of Cinepix (with Andre Link), the Canadian answer to film companies like American International Pictures. Sadly, Mr. Dunning is in poor health and liquidating many of his prized possessions but I was honored to transfer this poster, as well as a double feature for She Wolf and Harem Keeper, from his collection to mine.
Our final stop on the initial guest run was John Waters’ actress Mink Stole. I have to say that having met Waters several years ago and watching many of his films, I was shocked at what a pleasant normal person Ms. Stole is! She seemed a lot more like your next door neighbor or a friend of your mom’s than any of the crazy characters she is known for playing. We talked about the high mortality rate of many Waters’ regulars and what an unusual bunch they were. I had her sign a limited edition Polyester poster I had from the local screening I met Waters at and then had to drag Brandon, who counts Pink Flamingos among his favorite films; away from the table (he managed to find his way back there many times over the weekend)!
At any type of show with this many guests it’s just a foregone conclusion that one or two of them will turn out to be jerks – charging too much for their autographs, refusing to pose for pictures, or often just griping about every little thing. I can honestly say though that there wasn’t a misbehaving celebrity in this whole bunch and it was almost scary just how gracious everyone was. While I wasn’t getting autographs from all of the guests, they proved to be such nice people that I ended up talking to almost everyone. To my surprise, I discovered that Larry Bishop is the son of comedian and Rat Pack member Joey Bishop and lovely Liane Curtis is the daughter of none other than Jack “Flesh Eaters” Curtis! I told Ms. Curtis how her father’s film was a staple on our local 44 Creature Feature program and was considered a childhood must watch.
As though intentionally building up the excitement and anticipation, the first lady of blaxploitation cinema, Pam Grier, did not arrive until a little after 7PM. There was a small line eagerly awaiting her arrival but it moved quickly even though no one was rushed. Ms. Grier was very friendly and accommodating to her fans and cheerfully posed for photos with everyone who asked (who wouldn’t?). I had her sign both a one sheet and a lobby card for of my favorite films of hers, Scream. Blacula, Scream, where she stared opposite the late great William Marshall. Jon had an equally cool poster for Bucktown which also featured fellow guest Fred Williamson.
During the weeks leading up to the Cult Fiction show, I had exchanged several E-mails with Camille Keaton and we had tried to make arrangements for dinner one evening. She had plans for Saturday but thought that Friday would work until she realized that the show went until 10PM and that the restaurant I had suggested closed around the same time. As a consolation, I offered to make a food run and bring it back instead. Since Lynn Lowry was seated nearby and had been so nice to us earlier, I invited her too and John, Jon, and I headed off for take out. In route, we spotted Fred Williamson leaving the outdoor screening of his film Inglorious Bastards and John approached him about dinner as well. When he declined our invitation, John rapidly switched tactics and asked him if he would like to have a drink after the show to which he readily agreed!
We were in Fanboy heaven as the four of us (Brandon had returned to the fold after harassing the poster dealers relentlessly while we were gone) sat around eating dinner with two beautiful cult queens and listing to stories from their long and interesting careers. If we weren’t already in shock by this point, we definitely were by the time John returned from his room with a bottle of Hennessy Cognac and Fred Williamson suggested we retire to his suite to enjoy it! We sat around intently listening to this 74 year old living legend of film and football explain his philosophies on choosing characters and films as well as giving us the inside scoop on just about every actor he has ever worked with and a few he hasn’t. The alcohol was starting to take effect and I knew it was time to wrap it up when Fred declined my offer of a refill lest he start to throw us off the balcony! As we four shell shocked Fanboys staggered away from an incredible evening, Brandon (remember this was his FIRST show) expressed his amazement at the proceedings and I told him that even if I returned in the morning to find this show gone I had already had a weekend’s worth of fun!
Thankfully the Cult Fiction show was still there on Saturday although the attendance level did not seem to have picked up that much from the night before. I arrived around 1PM with Dan Tuchmann in tow and remembering all too well why I don’t drink Hennessy very much any more! Jon was already at the show giving the dealers another once over including a few that had not been set up the night before and we were joined shortly by Brandon and Alex Ojeda who was making his debut. Howard Mauer caught me on the way in asked if I was going to the Ilsa panel (try keeping me away) because he was planning to auction off a couple of rare items. After a quick pass of the room, we regrouped and headed over to the panel area.
The Larry Bishop panel was running a little late when we got there and found Ken Fees already in attendance. After it wrapped we got to listen to some great stories from Dyanne Thorne but, because of the panels running over and a tight schedule, Howard decided to do the auction as a silent one back at the table. He did tempt us though with an original script from Ilsa: Tigress of Siberia and a prop whip used in the same film plus a rare poster I never got a good look at. I told him I wanted to see the other panels but would join him afterwards to talk business. I then settled in for the tag team of Camille Keaton and Lynn Lowry followed by Fred Williamson, who, as John pointed out, told a lot of the same stories we had heard the night before, and finally Pam Grier who amazed us with all of things she has done in her life including completing her education and writing a new book.
On a break between the panels I ran into Tampa’s own Andrew Allen who had just checked in and was dragging his suitcase up to his room. I stopped long enough to fill him in on what he had missed and even though I chastised him for arriving so late I still commended him for making it. He was a fleeting image for the remainder of the show and missed the summit meeting but we were at least able to hang out together around the dealer’s room for a short while later in the day and compare notes on the show.
Following the panels, we returned to the dealer’s room so I could check on the auctions. Howard had already sold the poster for more than I would have probably paid for it but the whip and script were still on the block. The prices on both were well within the limits I had calculated but, unfortunately, my competition on the whip was Jon who was milling around the table like an expectant father! After verifying that the proceeds from this transaction were going directly to John Dunning, I made an offer on the pair I correctly anticipated would not be countered and completed the sale. I also took this opportunity to invite Dyanne and Howard to be the guests of honor at the Fanboy Summit I had planned for a little later that evening and they graciously accepted!
By this point, my crew and I had thoroughly inspected every inch of the dealer’s room multiple times and spent just about every dollar we were going to. Dan visited with the Critters cast for a few minutes and said they were the coolest group of guests he has ever run into, especially Don Opper who shares his passion for collecting books. Ken picked up a couple of T-shirts and Brandon made sure there wasn’t a vintage piece of movie memorabilia in the place that he had missed. He concluded his purchases for the show with a rare one sheet for the Roger Corman classic Galaxy of Terror which he immediately got Sid Haig to sign. As the guests began to wrap up for the day, we moved outside and waited for Dyanne and Howard so I could chauffer them a few miles away to our summit meeting.
After sending most of our group on ahead, Jon and I escorted our guests to my regular hang out, Gene’s Seafood, which was only about five miles from the hotel. There we met our final member for the weekend, Richard Blair who had missed the show up until this point but managed to make it to the meeting with his wife and family. Once we were all assembled it was Fanboy fun for all as we discussed all manner of subjects but I found myself glued to one end of the table with Dyanne and Howard. I tried to work the room on a couple of brief occasions and it looked liked everyone was having a blast and feasting on some awesome seafood. Later reports confirmed everyone had a good time until we officially adjourned around 9:30. Cindy and the core group remained behind while Dyanne signed a few last minute autographs including the rest of my posters from the Ilsa films and the script I had purchased earlier that day. She did not have a marker that would sign the whip so she invited us back to the hotel so she could retrieve one. John, Jon, Brandon and I ended up hanging around with the duo for another hour or so listening to all manner of show business stories before they finally decided it was time for bed.
Brandon had to head back to St. Augustine but I stuck around for a little while longer with Jon and John at the hotel bar. They were both leaving early the next morning and I had come to the conclusion that I had seen all there was at the show and needed to take care of other business on Sunday. We all agreed that from the stand point of an attendee this show was short on merchandise but incredible where the guests were concerned. The lower attendance worked in our favor as it meant that we had more opportunities to visit with the guests. It was a toss up as to who was the nicest but every one of them went out of their way to be appreciative of their fans. The attendees I spoke to outside my group were equally enthusiastic about the event and the comment I heard almost universally was the hope that there will be another. Even though it would be hard to top this show for me personally I would love to see the promoters try. I think Brandon summed the whole weekend up rather succinctly when he described it as, in a word, epic!