Meanwhile, Back at Musso and Frank's...
- Patron: This place is not so good for vegetarians.
- Coco, pointing to Bunny: It's perfect for this vegetarian.
- Bunny: My vegetable is alcohol.
- Coco, pointing to cherry garnish: and it comes with fruit!
Shortly into “Mondo Hollywood,” we are introduced to an actress named Margaretta Ramsey. She is an attractive, middle-aged redhead who sometimes like to sleep out on the lawn of her house with her daughter, near their swimming pool, and starts every day with a yoga sun salutation. She discusses being a stage actress, and, indeed, has the slightly exaggerated mannerisms and precise diction of somebody trained for the stage. She also lets us know that her face was destroyed several years earlier in an auto accident and then rebuilt surgically.
And there isn’t much else available about Ms. Ramsey. She appeared in a few b-pictures, and it is possible to track down a few critical plaudits for her stage work online, and the trail ends there. Alas, her legacy is most likely locked up in the archives of professional theaters and in the undigitized back issues of newspapers, and would take some real digging to discover. Perhaps in the next few years, as these sorts of things increasingly find their way online, there will be more to lean about Margaretta Ramsey.
About six minutes into “Mondo Hollywood,” we meet the first of the film’s many Hollywood oddballs: a bearded man hanging from the Hollywood sign and doing calisthenics, and then flinging carrots down to a burlesque dancer named Jenny Lee (“The Bazoom Girl”), who likewise does calisthenics. A song on the soundtrack, accompanied by a slide whistle, cowbell, and bike horn, introduces the bearded man: “My name is Gypsy Boots / I live on nuts and fruits / I live in a hut / I feel like a nut / I’m the Gypsy Boots!”
For a film that focuses on Hollywood’s oddballs, “Mondo Hollywood” couldn’t start more squarely. After the opening credits, we are thrust right into the Hollywood Palladium at 6215 Sunset Blvd for a meeting of the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, where Connecticut’s Senator Thomas J. Dodd addresses an assembled crowd, who have come to the event dressed in formalwear that looks very 50s, and sit behind American flags, looking worried — all but for the Crusade’s founder, the Australian-born Fred Schwartz, a grinning, squirrely man.
Just at the end of “Mondo Hollywood’s” closing credits, we see a shot of the Hollywood sign, but it’s an unusual image. Below the sign, and seemingly as large as it, is a white cross. In photos, you don’t usually see a cross crowding in on the town’s most famous symbol, so what the heck?
The cross in\s in the shot because the image is taken from an unusual angle, although one often seen by LA residents — the cross sits on a small hillside at 2580 Cahuenga Boulevard, off Highway 101, on the Cahuenga Pass that cuts through the Hills between the Los Angeles basin and the San Fernando Valley. The cross reappears in the film, at the very end, when skydiver and actor wanna-be Jim Arender visits it to look thoughtful. Since it’s a recurring landmark in the film, I shall discuss it here, but also because it has one of the strangest occult conspiracy theories that I have heard connected to it, which I shall detail shortly.
Let’s take a brief break from “Mondo Hollywood” to discuss one of Hollywood’s least public group of residents: coyotes.
Hollywood Boulevard is, strictly speaking, in the foothills of the Hollywood Hills — the Hills end at about Sunset Boulevard — and, as you arc further and further up toward the summit, the Hills become wilder and wilder. This is especially encouraged by Griffith Park, which is larger than people often realize. At 4,310 acres, it’s the second-largest city park in California, and is more than four times as large as Central Park. Some of the residents of Griffith Park are human — there is a long history of homeless people camping out in the park, and porn shoots will set up makeshift, cardboard tented exterior shoots off the main trails. But the Park teems with wildlife as well, including mule deer, Pacific rattlesnakes, Cooper’s hawks, skunks, opossums, an occasional mountain lion, and, of course, coyotes.
“Mondo Hollywood” opens with two summations of the character of the place that gives the film its name. The first, intoned over a panorama of Hollywood as taken from the Hills, is spoken by Theodore Charach, an aspiring actor who sounds a bit like Vincent Price with a pronounced lisp, and who I shall detail more later. Charach says:
“Some towns are build of marble / some cities built on schemes / only one is built of magic / only one that’s built on dreams: My world … my world of Hollywood.”
And then, following a few clips of the Goodyear Blimp that will provide the film’s occasional overhead views, the movie’s theme song starts. It is this theme, and the people who made it, that I want to discuss.
I’ll be spending the next dozen or so entries on one topic: The 1967 documentary “Mondo Hollywood” by filmmaker Robert Carl Cohen. The film is widely available online, and, thanks to that, has enjoyed something of a resurgence of interest — in its own time, it was dismissed as pornography, and even banned by the French government.
Going by its name alone, you could be forgiven for thinking the film is an exploitation documentary, or even a pseudodocumentary. Following the international success of the 1962 Italian film “Mondo Cane,” which actually nabbed several Academy Award nominations, pretty much any film with the word “mondo” in its title could be counted on for exploitation. Nudity was generally abundant, as in 1963’s “Mondo Nudo” and Russ Meyer’s 1966 film “Mondo Topless.” Films of this sort tackled sadism, animal cruelty, religious obsession, and a variety of other taboo subjects, and often took great liberties with the truth, sometimes staging scenes outright.
Herbert Gold’s huge book on dining isn’t about Hollywood, per se. When he first published the thing, over a decade ago, he only included about a dozen entries from within Hollywood’s borders, and, but for Musso and Frank, most of those were far from Hollywood Boulevard. But when you author something this monumental — and the book is monumental, filling more than 300 pages — you’re not just reviewing restaurants, you’re making a statement about a city. You see Gold’s representation of the city in what he chooses to cover, and what he choose to leave out, and it’s interesting to see how the book’s sampling of Hollywood restaurants fits into Gold’s larger picture of Los Angeles.