In 1982 I was a struggling young film student in San Francisco and Doris Fish was a sort-of-famous drag queen from Sydney with a few thousand dollars in the bank and dreams of being a movie star. We were just children, really, when we started on the road to glamour that became Vegas in Space. I was just out of my teens and Doris, Miss X, and “Tippi”, consorts in the Sluts-A-Go-Go theatrical drag troupe, were not much older. “Let’s make a movie,” we giggled! “It’ll be fun,” we tittered! Little did we know that the next ten years of our lives would be given over to the toils and triumphs that awaited us. Driving under the influence of glamour, film theory, pharmaceutical stimulants and an addictive love of vivid colors and bad acting, we devoted all of our time, money and youth to the completion of our cinematic fantasy. In the course of chasing this whimsical caprice, all my dreams came true and I found what, for most of the 1980’s, was to become my artistic family.
I began making super-8 films when I was fifteen, after reading for the first time about how movies were made in the 1971 World Book encyclopedia my daddy had bought me and deciding that when I grew up I wanted to be a movie director. I started with short spoofs of Robert Altman films like Two Girls and zany parodies of surrealism like Lina (Wertmuller) Meets Her Sister, and continued learning the rudiments of film technique with simple, wacky films like Krafty Catalina the Genie, in which a genie washes up on shore in a Kraft Catalina Salad Dressing bottle and wreaks havoc on the friends of the teen boy who attempts to use her magic for his own nefarious ends. That epic called for plenty of jump cuts and lap dissolves as the genie’s hapless victims dissolve into thin air and are transformed into dolls. Then there was Trouble in Paradise, 1981’s autobiographical half-hour Super-8 single-system synch-sound epic. In it a clueless New Wave Marin County girl and her two roller-skating gay Hollywood friends in jumpsuits sniff too much toot and are boiled to death in the hot tub by the vengeful little sister. ”Everyone take your clothes off for the camera!” was my motto then.
I enrolled in the film program at San Francisco State University, so by the time I met Doris at the age of twenty I was already an experienced filmmaker. I was introduced to Doris through her legal wife, Lori Naslund, who had married Doris at City Hall (in Doris’ male persona, Philip Mills, of course) so Doris could stay in the country and not get shipped back to Australia. Lori had a hard drinkin’, dark-haired Italian barmaid girlfriend named Sarah Cecchini and was interested in filmmaking. Back then film students used to have parties where we would bring our films, set up a projector in the living room, and show them to each other. Lori came with Doris and some other people and we showed Trouble in Paradise. What I think impressed Doris was that I had used some bird calls from an LP as sound effects, clumsily dubbed over the dialogue, to set the bucolic and serene Marin County scene. Doris thought those gigantic-sounding chirping birds were hysterical.
I was already at work on my next project, a 15 minute 16mm sound epic called Rollercoaster to Hell—“the tragic story of the growing menace of narcotics addiction and its hideous consequences on teenage America.” I was studying the techniques of the American film noir at the time and tried to apply them to a comic-book “reefer madness”- type story, set in the 50s, in which teenaged Eddie Anderson, played by my roommate Matt Barton, a friend from high school on whom I had a sad and epic obsessive crush, goes from his first hit on a marijuana cigarette—“tea, pot, Mary Jane, you square”—to “popping Jive-H” in a matter of days.
It was on the set of Rollercoaster to Hell in March 1982 that I first worked with Doris. There was a big scene in the clubhouse near the high school that served as a sanctuary of teen drug vice, and I needed extras. Amidst the assorted hop-heads and juvenile delinquents, Doris showed up in full drag, saying, “Look, Phil, I’m an older artistic woman,” which to her translated as a long black “beatnik” wig, black sweater and beret and some crumbled up grocery bags stuffed into her stockings. It was perfect. I later learned Doris had a particular fondness for portraying elderly, decrepit and unsightly characters.
As the scene played out, Eddie was puffing his fateful first “roach,” lit by none other than the “older artistic woman.” Eddie is immediately addicted to all forms of narcotics and begins his descent into hell. But the scene had no real ending, so I directed everyone to just dance wantonly around because they are “stoned on pot,” as Eddie sits in the corner slobbering on himself. Doris, taking her cue on what would be the beginning of a long and illustrious star-and-director relationship, spun around the basement and collapsed in a in heap on the floor as the camera whirred away from above. It was the picture-perfect conclusion to the sequence and even in a tiny role, Doris was already a scene-stealer, hurling herself to the floor in the name of art (or at least in an attempt to satisfy her pathological need for attention).
For a short student film, Rollercoaster to Hell was something of a hit. I was still in school but the film was exhibited theatrically when Marc Huestis booked it as the short to play at the Roxie with his trashy early-80s cult film Whatever Happened to Susan Jane, which was set against the wild and madcap drag New Wave performance art scene that was then burgeoning in San Francisco. Better still, it played on Channel 2’s Creature Features, the legendary local television program that showed horror movies every Saturday night. I appeared on the program with the film in an episode entitled The George Lucases of Tomorrow or something like that, in which they showcased student films with a fantastical edge. This, indeed, was a dream come true for me. I had spent my youth watching Creature Features and never dreamed I would be on it!!! During my interview segment with host John Stanley, I shyly announced I was commencing production on my first feature film, a “Barbarella-style outer space comedy in collaboration with the famous drag queen Doris Fish”. Here I was just twenty and already on TV announcing my first feature film! Not only that, I had what all the other film students lacked—stars! I liked the direction in which my film career was moving.
Sarah Cecchini, Doris’ wife’s girlfriend, was the barmaid at the Hotel Utah and every day after classes I would race to the bar to partake of the free cocktails she so generously dispensed. Over gin gimlets Sarah would share with me conspiratorially that “Doris wants to make a movie with you.” At first, it was a remake of Valley of the Dolls, which I am ashamed to admit at the time, meant nothing to me. (Oh, I learned, I learned later.) Then it became an outer-space adventure musical comedy called Vegas in Space. Apparently, Doris had just returned from a trip to New York where she had bought a thousand dollars worth of fun fur in magenta, lime green, yellow and hot pink and her mind was already racing with ideas for the Barbarella-style outer space sets. In my typically practical fashion I asked, “Well, we’ll need a script and a budget,” and Sarah said, “I’ll set up a meeting.”
In the fall of 1982 I met Doris and Miss X, her chief associate in their performing “women’s art collective” Sluts-A-Go-Go, for our first production meeting. We had buckwheat pancakes at the authentic ‘50s diner It’s Tops on Market Street. They didn’t have a script, really, but they had tons of concepts thought out. They spun the plot for me—a crew of spacemen from earth are sent on a secret mission to the Planet Clitoris, an all-female pleasure planet where a crime wave has struck. As no men were allowed to touch down on Clitoris, they would be ordered by the Empress of Earth to take gender reversal pills, swap their sex and go undercover as traditional mid- 20th century showgirls from earth on a secret mission to retrieve the stolen girlinium gems.
|Photo by Daniel Nicoletta|
And they already had the entire movie cast! Doris would play Captain Dan Tracy / Tracy Daniels, the beautiful, plucky commander who comes to love being a woman; Miss X would play a dual role as Vel Croford, Empress of Earth and the Empress’ sister Veneer, the seemingly wicked Queen of Police with, of course, a heart of gold. Doris’s roommate Ginger Quest would play the dithering ruler of Vegas in Space, the green Empress Nueva Gabor, and Miss X’s roommate “Tippi” would play the dainty yet suspiciously scheming Princess Angel, official hostess of the glittering resort planet. And everyone who lived on Vegas in Space was some sort of outer space royalty. The supporting roles of the crew of the USS Intercourse were to be filled by both men and women: Lori Naslund, Doris’ wife, as “the blonde,” chanteuse Ramona Fisher, X’s next door neighbor, as the brassy brunette, and Sluts-A-Go-Go pianist Timmy Spence taking the role of Lt. Dick Hunter.
I was thrilled at their offer to direct my first all-star motion picture, yet slightly wary of what we were getting ourselves into. By then I had made many films and knew the pitfalls. But after some practical talk about things like schedules and budgets, I, of course, jumped at the opportunity and said yes. We decided to begin shooting in the spring. It would be a short film, thirty minutes, maybe. Doris would design all the sets, makeup, costumes, and wigs, and there would be “special effects” consisting of toy rockets on a string flying over a city made of perfume bottles and lipsticks. Doris and X went off to write the script while I commenced with the production planning.
I needed a crew and found them all among the ranks of my fellow San Francisco State film students. After my preliminary movie successes (why, I was still a junior in college and had already been on Creature Features!) it seemed some very talented guys were interested in working with me. I recruited Robin Clark, a creative genius with gels and lights and electricity; as Director of Photography, Al Gonzalez, who had his own 16mm camera, to shoot the film and bearish, jovial Todd Ritchie to record the sound. Boy, that was a great team. This little project ended up taking a year and a half just to film (I’m getting ahead of myself here) and my dedicated crew hung with me and with the project and me until the very end, through considerable sacrifice and to the detriment of their health, sanity and pocketbooks.
As Doris’ and Miss X’s handwritten pages came in, I typed them up. I remember we had twenty-five pages but no real ending when we scheduled the first scenes to be shot in March 1983, in various rooms in Doris and Ginger’s flat at 422 Oak Street. And although the screenwriting books tell you it’s a page a minute, that script was so dense there was at least a one-hour movie there (and I did have the nagging thought “What can you do with a one-hour movie?"). Be that as it may, Doris and I opened a checking account with Doris’ nest egg and founded our little production company, Fish/Ford Films.
|Photo by Daniel Nicoletta|
At that time Doris was making a good living as a call boy; on more than one occasion we’d be having a production meeting in the kitchen at her flat, the doorbell would ring, Doris would disappear for twenty minutes and return with a check for me to put into the production account. It was only later Doris was to quip, “No one ever told me you couldn’t make a feature film on a prostitute’s salary.”
I had grown up reading Mad Magazine and watching horror movies. In preparation for Vegas in Space we watched endless Grade-Z ‘50s sci-fi movies like Destination Moon and Queen of Outer Space. These films and a deep commitment to the ‘60s Batman TV series were my primary influences as a director along with a large dose of Barbarlla thrown in, of course. Doris’ Tracy Daniels and her chestnut hair are the very essence of Jane Fonda. Looking back now I can see so many lines here and concepts there that were innocently appropriated, in some cases anyway, without us even being aware of it — echoes of Trog, The Bad Seed, John Waters, Ed Wood, Mad Magazine, German Expressionism, The Jetsons. Miss X played Queen Veneer and her Sister Vel Croford straight out of Mildred Pierce. Ginger Quest confided in me one night that her characterization of the Empress Nueva Gabor was based on Elizabeth Taylor (“I ask it of Caesar, I demand it of you”) in Cleopatra.
The first scene we shot never made it into the movie. It was set in the “Communications Room.” Doris had pasted some construction paper to the wall in the 10 foot by 10 foot entry hall and set up some gigantic mirrored stalactites. In this scene, Empress Nueva and Princess Angel were monitoring the arrival of the USS Intercourse as it closed in for its touchdown on the planet. As the scene climaxes, the first of many tremors strikes. It took Robin about six hours to set up the lights and it took Doris seven hours to put the two queens in drag. I had devised an elaborate dolly shot using a platform on wheels that Robin and I had “borrowed” from the university. The shot started in tight close-up on ““Tippi”’s” oh-so-beautiful face and slowly dollied out to reveal the Communications Room in full. Well, in that cramped little hall there wasn’t much room to maneuver our makeshift dolly, but after a day or so we finally got the scene “in the can” and sent it off to the lab.
Imagine my outrage when I received a call from the lab the next day alerting me that they’d had a power failure while processing my film—already we were facing the most unbelievable odds—and that the negative had been “over-processed” and pretty much destroyed. “Print it anyway,” I snarled. When we screened the rushes it looked positively madcap, changing color and density and contrast from green to blue to red to white. Well, Doris loved it and I said, “Oh, let’s just keep it in that way. It looks artistic, ‘unlike anything anyone has ever seen before,’” an attribute to which I found myself aspiring throughout the making of this film. I did switch to a different film lab but that scene stayed in the film until the close-to-final cut when I decided, I guess, it just looked too “amateurish.” Besides, we couldn’t re-shoot because we had already moved on to the first real scene in the film, the spaceship interiors and the sex-change sequences!
For the opening scene of the film, The Spaceship Sequence, Doris had found the set pretty much intact and purchased it from a commercial display store. The USS Intercourse interior consisted of several panels with all of the required accoutrement—dials, gizmos, keyboards—already in place and drawn on to great cartoon effect, along with numerous Christmas lights poking through holes for that blinking spaceship look. The shooting process was slow going at first but soon we got into a rhythm that became the pattern for the rest of the shoot.
First Doris would build the set, and then I would block the scene, visualize the compositions, and create a shot list while Robin began lighting the set. We’d rehearse with the actors a little and then they would have to go off and get into drag while we continued lighting with stand-ins. Hours or days later, when the queens were finally dressed, made up and bewigged, we’d turn the lights on and prepare to shoot. Finally, after numerous rehearsals for the actors, camera and soundman, the glorious sound of film clattering through the camera would be heard and we were on our way.
One problem we faced, though, was maintaining enough electricity to keep the fuses from blowing. The aged Victorians in which we were filming accommodated only two or three 1000 watt lamps before the circuits blew and we were plunged into darkness. That wasn’t nearly enough to light the faces and makeup of the film’s beautiful, starring drag queens, so cinematographer Robin Clark cleverly learned how to “tie-in” to the electrical lines outside the flat. It was very dangerous. I remember he had to stand on a rubber mat, tie a rope around his waist and have someone standing by to pull him to safety in the event that he was electrocuted. I thought that was so brave of Robin! Anything, including the risk of death by electric shock, for the sake of art!
|Photo by Daniel Nicoletta|
During these interminable days the actresses not being used huddled around the kitchen table, in and out of various states of multi-colored outer space drag, smoking cigarettes or munching on pizza. When we were finally ready to shoot, I would laugh at myself as, instead of “Quiet on the set,” I would holler down the hallway, “Quiet in the kitchen!” Oh, it was great being a big movie director!
Early on Timmy Spence deduced that this film was going to take a long, long time to complete. He wasn’t doing a lot of drag then and decided that instead of his character’s sex change being a success, Lt. Dick Hunter would overdose on gender reversal pills and dissolve into thin air, thus reducing his appearance to a cameo. Was that a wise move on Timmy’s part? Only history can judge; but he did do a stunning job writing, scoring, and singing the epic title song, Love Theme from Vegas in Space.
Next, we shot the scene on the “balcony” overlooking Vegas in Space in which Miss X as Veneer, Queen of Police, demonstrates the color dial to Doris as Captain Tracy Daniels. You see, the atmosphere on the Planet Clitoris is too thin to hold color by itself, so in some districts the color fades out and they have to use the “color booster” dial to turn it back up. Like all of the special effects, for reasons both aesthetic and economic (it was the pre-digital age), this one presented a technological challenge – how to get the scene to go from black and white to color again as Queen Veneer turned the color dial. I had always had a great love for early cinema which shaped my vision for this film. I realized I really didn’t want to utilize any film effect designed after 1902 when Georges Méliès presented his A Trip to the Moon.
|Photo by Daniel Nicoletta|
A few weeks later our first “crowd scene” was scheduled (in this film ten was a crowd). The film climaxed with Debbie, Sheila and Captain Tracy, the dazzling secret agents undercover as traditional Mid-20th Century Showgirls from earth, performing their act onstage at the Mt. Venus Vanity Lounge. For this scene, Doris constructed the lounge interior at a little South of Market performance space known as 544 Natoma. I remember that ‘80s drag legend Ethyl Eichelberger had played there just before we’d booked it for our one-week shoot. We hauled over the lime green, pink and yellow fun fur in my brown Ford Fairmont and stapled it to the walls. Doris spray painted some paper plates and tacked them to the walls to serve as Fleur-de-Lys accents, and for the stage set she constructed a gigantic “mobile” which, she explained to me, was a homage to “I’ll Plant My Own Tree”, the number performed by Susan Hayward as Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls. The one thing that disturbed Doris was the floor of the stage. It was blonde wood and decidedly low-tech looking and so, ever on the lookout for a means of explaining away the obscure, she insisted on adding a line for the Empress Nueva Gabor: “Wait’ll you see the Vanity Lounge! It’s super! I put in a new antique floor. What’s it called? Wood!” Oh, we thought that was funny!
For the lounge scene we invited every drag queen we knew to appear. Amazingly, we didn’t know many; that would change later, of course. The only catch for these queens was that they would have to also be available later to appear in the preceding, yet-to-be-lensed, Cocktail Party scene. Not long before Vegas in Space, Doris had appeared at Theater Rhinoceros in a Genet-inspired straight play about drag queens, directed by Chuck Solomon, called Torn Tulle. Doris invited her co-stars from that show to appear in the Vanity Lounge scene. They were Alexis Rahill, who I remember being spectacularly untalented, and Beverly Plaza, a denizen of the black and white planet who was unfortunate enough to end up with a grey face. Beverly later appeared for many, many years as the emcee at San Francisco legendary female impersonator club Finnocchio’s. Also featured were Ramona’s friend and collaborator, Jeanette Szudy, as well as Ida Lee, an elderly actress acquaintance of mine who’d appeared very briefly as the mother in Rollercoaster to Hell and was enthralled with the idea of wearing tooth paint. Appearing as party guests were Sluts a Go-Go stalwarts Frieda Lay as Empress LaLa Galaxy and “assistant director” John Canalli (who later would produce our weekly TV show, The Gay Cable Network) as the piss-yellow Princess Jaundice. As everyone was a queen or empress from another planet, Doris tried to make their looks as outré as possible, using primary colors for the makeup foundation, green and blue wigs, weird costumes and glow-in-the-dark eye shadow she bought in bulk directly from the Day-Glo Corporation. Onstage Ramona and Lori wore a pair of gigantic matching bejeweled mermaid gowns Doris claimed to have found in the trash, as if a gift from the Goddess, right outside the back door at 544 Natoma.
As usual, everything went very slowly. As we built and lit the set, Doris started putting everyone into drag. Doris had decided she was personally going to put on everyone’s makeup, which guaranteed that everyone would look stunning but presented some logistical challenges. She ended up creating something of a production line, having each person apply their own green or blue foundation as she applied the highlights, eyeliner and lips. Each person would move down the line and when every one was entirely ready Doris would have to get herself into drag. On more than one occasion, by the time Doris was herself was ready to appear before a camera, the beards of the extras had started to grow through their heavy foundation and we’d have to call it a day, wash everything off and start all over again the next night. Needless to say this entailed, I swear, days and days of waiting on everyone’s part. A few people had jobs they had to go to (if they hadn’t yet lost them) so mostly we’d shoot all night with the group and do close-ups during the day with whomever was free.
It was around this time that I became involved with stimulants. I had dabbled in trucker Benzedrine in high school and toyed with prescription diet pills in college (this was the pre-Betty Ford era) but it was during Vegas in Space that one of the extras who shall remain nameless (okay, Frieda Lay) first got me excited about using crystal. I don’t want to paper the entire cast with meth use, but the crew did come to rely upon it (how could they not?). Eventually they let me know I had to include in my budget a provision for “speed and beer.” Doris and Miss X did appeal for “food and sleep,” but their ministrations, I am afraid, fell on deaf ears.
After wrapping up at 544 Natoma we went back to the Oak Street flat where Doris constructed the Throne Room set in the living room. In the script this was known as the Pink Plush Room (somewhere there was a reference by Princess Angel to the “Pink Flush Room” but I’m afraid that gem got cut out of the film). Doris bathed the tiny room – floor, wall and ceiling – in pink fun fur, placed a throne at one end flanked by two glowing lava lamps and, voila, the sumptuous lair of her Royal Highness the Empress Nueva Gabor. I remember we only had enough pink fun fur to cover one side of the room, so we shot every scene from one side and then tore the fur down, stapled it up on the other side and shot each of these same scenes from that side of the room.
After filming the pre-show cocktail party in the Pink Plush Room, we finally let all the extra outer space queens go home. All this had taken weeks and weeks of their time, and I was still in college—I don’t know how I did everything! Nevertheless, we moved on to the scene where our protagonists first meet the Empress. That was the first big scene that featured Ginger Quest as the Empress and Miss X as Veneer, Queen of Clitorean Police. In this scene the girls are introduced by Princess Angel to the Empress, who explains that her girlinium gems have been stolen and the planet has been plunged into chaos. At that, Queen Veneer bursts in and after some queeny bitchery they all agree to work together on this caper.
I didn’t really know these queens and they didn’t really know me, but I so admired their fierce vision and commitment to their art, and I know they respected my commitment to their film. I very quickly realized I was becoming part of something really very special. Everyone soon felt like family to me, and I began to see without doubt I would be collaborating with Doris Fish and Miss X and ““Tippi”” and Ginger for a very long time (in the end it lasted close to ten years). And I also saw how serious everyone was about their acting!
We had some fabulous “rushes parties” and it was at those affairs we came to believe that we were onto something spectacular with this film. The rushes just looked fantastic and marvelous, bursting with bizarre and wonderful color. I would get the work print back from the lab, rush back to San Francisco State late at night, and transfer the dialogue audio tracks and synch up the film on a university editing table. I owned an antique interlock projector which allowed us to project the film we’d shot in synch with the sound, and so everyone involved would come over to Doris’ house as we projected the rushes on the wall. Doris would video tape the projected images for later analysis with her Betamax camcorder (somewhat of a new thing in the early 80s) and oh, how we would shriek and howl with laughter at those rushes parties. And we all looked great! It was film, not video, and Robin had taken such care and applied such artistry in the lighting. For a drag queen to see herself projected in such a stunning fashion onscreen was better than heroin! It was then that Doris and Miss X and I and everyone agreed that we sort of, maybe had a real movie here and that we absolutely had to keep writing and shooting until it was something resembling a feature length film.
But by then we were all pretty exhausted, and Doris was broke, so we had to take a little break. In May 1983 I graduated from San Francisco State University and was named Film Department honoree, which meant that of all the graduates of the Undergraduate Film Program, I had the highest GPA. I assure you I was more surprised than anyone! I guess that just shows what a smart and ambitious speed freak can do. In any case, I was very, very happy to finally be a college graduate and able to focus full time on my movie director career, while more or less paying the rent doing phone surveys for a market research company where Ramona Fischer had gotten me an evening job.
By August we were ready to begin again, this time in black and white! Doris and X’s concept of the script included a large section in the middle of the film set in Queen Veneer’s Gothic Detention Center on the Dark Side of the Planet. Miss X in particular was rather fond of the films noir of the 1940s and wanted an opportunity to act in black and white, since the rest of the film featured a dazzling array of sparking colors, she explained, this black and white sequence mid-film would allow the audience to give their eyes a rest. But before moving on to the Detention Center sequence, we shot our first exterior.
As Captain Tracey and Queen Veneer travel to Veneer’s personal complex on the dark side of the planet, they trek across the planet and up and over Mt. Venus. This scene was shot outside on a summer afternoon in Corona Heights Park, a rocky, mountainous park halfway up Twin Peaks, overlooking San Francisco’s Castro district. We got into drag, piled into my car, and drove up the hill, pulled our cameras and microphones and reflectors out and off we went. You can imagine the stares from the local gays as we turned their neighborhood park into an exterior film location. The wind was fierce that day, but I do love how this scene looks in the final film. It think it’s hysterical when you first see the top of the ridge of Mt. Venus, then a wisp of Queen Veneer’s pony tail peeks over the mountain as the two space queens emerge over the edge of the crag and make their way down the rocky hillside, made ever more treacherous by the high heeled boots they were wearing, all the while acting, acting, acting!
|"Tippi" in drag as "Drag" |
Photo by Daniel Nicoletta
Actually, the Detention Center scene is one that we ended up shooting, in its entirety, twice (I think it came out much better the second time). The first time we shot it in the summer of 1983, Doris built the set in Miss X’s flat on Market Street near Sanchez because, I think, Doris was a little tired of living on a movie set and needed a break from that. So the Detention Center was built in X’s tiny living room and we went through the entire grueling ordeal of shooting the sequence only to have the all film come back from the lab entirely blank! Black! Empty! Evacuated! There was nothing there! On the film! As you can imagine, by this time I was beginning to think the goddesses of the motion picture laboratory were conspiring against us and our bewigged brainchild. None of the lab technicians or my crew could offer a plausible explanation, but these obstacles only caused us to increase our determination and to soldier on in spite of the blow this terrible, unexplained mishap made to both our budget and our morale. The great lesson in this adversity, though, is that a year later we shot the Detention Center scene again—the version that actually appears in the film— entirely re-written and it turned out much, much better both technically and artistically.
And so we trudged forward with the production in this manner, gathering every few months for a week or so to shoot a scene or two until Doris was broke, then oooohing and aaaahing over the rushes and reveling in what a great film we were going to have someday as we tried to figure out how we were going to get the money to shoot the next scene. (Never mind how we would get the money to complete it.) We were forever trying to find new money. In addition to Doris’ prostitution earnings, my father contributed his winnings from a small Irish Sweepstakes prize and a big chunk of funding came from Doris’ friend Cheryl, a big, burly, bearded Australian queen who seemed to run some kind of real estate/cocaine empire.
One day Doris said I should go over to Cheryl’s house and pick up a check for $5000 (one of several installments we received from him), and so I dutifully did as I was told. Cheryl answered the door to his flat bottomless, wearing only a T-shirt. Clearly, he had been partying. “I’m here for the check, Cheryl,” I said cheerfully. I was steered by my teetering host to a chair and we watched some Lucy on TV and made small talk. All the while Cheryl made no mention of his lack of pants and after Lucy was over I rubbed my hand together and said, “Well, I must be going, Cheryl.” He gladly handed over the check and I was on my way. I wasn’t sure if any sexual favors were expected for the $5000 check (Cheryl was definitely not my type so that was, in the end, beside the point) but I figured he was just relaxing at home with no pants after a long night of fun. I mean, this was show biz, wasn’t it? I’m sure other directors had to jump through bigger hoops than the sight of Cheryl with no pants in order to get their film projects funded, didn’t they?
In October it was back to Doris and Ginger’s flat on Oak Street to get a few more scenes in the can. In the very same two rooms where we’d filmed everything else, we spent a few weeks completing two more scenes – the sequence where Tracy gives her crew their “beauty boosters” (more jump-cut costume changes!) and the scene in Princess Angel’s private boudoir which became known to us as the Doom Room.
Doris and Ginger informed me one day that we were going to have a dream sequence in the film (which I was all for as we were trying to stretch it out to feature length). In the scene in the Girl’s Quarters, Sheila is seen tossing and turning on her chaise lounge, and then we dissolve to the dream sequence, which was jam packed with spinning psycho-whirls, flying dolls and gloved arms popping out in every direction at the poor girl’s face. The whole thing was put in the film solely as a means of feeding Captain Tracey a great punch line.
“Oh, Captain,” says Sheila (her delivery straight out of Dorothy Gale), “It was awful. I’ve never had a nightmare so vivid, so real.” “Calm down,” reassures Doris as the Captain. “It was just a Bad Dream Sequence.”
Doris and Ginger also came up with the idea of shooting this scene with Doris’ home video camera. MTV was new then and “Rock Videos” were all the rage so I decided to put every terrible, low-rent MTV cliché I could think of into it. I also studied dream sequences in other films, such as the Salvador Dali dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and read Freud and Jung in search of every trite and hoary dream sequence concept I could dredge up. The end result was a mélange of luridly painted eyes and gloved hands popping out at poor Sheila, ghostly Princess Angel apparitions luring her over a rocky cliff and even a Sheila doll used to simulate the ultimate, “I’m falling, I’m falling,” dream sequence cliché.
While we were doing the movie we all got involved in another production, Marc Heustis’ live soap opera with a beatnik setting, Naked Brunch. We all acted onstage at the 181 Club in this wildly popular nightclub event, and through that we met many people whom Doris wanted to put in the film. Luckily, during a break from Naked Brunch we were getting ready to film our biggest scene yet—the Plasworld Mall sequence. This is a long scene at the beginning of the film where the girls wait with Princess Angel for their audience with the Empress. In this scene we were able to cast many of our new friends from Naked Brunch: Silvana Nova as Plasworld shop girl Wynetta Whitehead, Arturo Galster (then very famous for his “A Tribute to Patsy Cline”) as the arriving Empress Noodles Nebula, and as escaped convict Babs Velour (and Miss X’s real life new girlfriend!), Sandelle Kincaid. At the time she was using her given name professionally, Sandahl Hebert. Pandering to the pervasive, but rather unsophisticated, idea that a drag queen dating a real girl was a virulent source of scandal, Doris quickly dubbed her “Scandal Sherbert.”
I visualized the Plasworld Mall as a vast space that was a whirl of activity with intergalactic queens arriving and departing. This time we stapled up the industrial sized rolls of white plastic in the cavernous performance space Theater Artaud, a theater in a converted cannery in the then forlorn East Mission district. One problem with Artaud I did not take into consideration, though, is that one wall was entirely glass—What was I thinking?—and so, once again, we could really only shoot at night, otherwise the careful lighting designed to create the subtle effect of an airport terminal would be completely ruined.
In the end my sanity was just about ruined, also. The shoot seemed endless, and when it was over I counted and realized I had been awake for ten days. It seemed everyone else was able to go home and get out of drag and sleep for a few hours, but I just kept shooting and shooting and shooting film. At one point I decided we needed a chase sequence, which was not in the shooting script I assure you, between Angel and Veneer leading up to the climax in the Vanity Lounge and so I said, “Everyone, we need a chase scene that isn’t in the script.” Well, my devoted crew just couldn’t make it that night so they gave me the camera and the audio recorder and told me to shoot it myself. Troupers that they were, Miss X and “Tippi” of course suited up and showed up. In the final film, the chase in the Plasworld Mall is speeded up in the optical printer in order to give it a pixilated, comical “fast motion” effect. But that night when we shot that scene, it was just the three of us. “Tippi” and X got into drag, I switched on the massive banks of light, started the tape recorder, slung the camera over my shoulder and said, “Okay girls—fight!”
I myself appeared in a few scenes in this Plasworld Mall sequence as one of the many vulgar and provincial tourists. Until now, I been rather coy about identifying myself in this role, but if you look carefully in the spaceport mall sequence early in the film you will see I am the blue-faced tourist with the big blue hair, flouncing around with a parasol. I directed this very complex dolly shot with Susan Kay, a high school friend of mine, as the tour guide. It was a long, long speech that I wanted to get in a single shot, and Susan just could not remember her lines. We kept dragging her across the floor on her dolly and she kept flubbing up. We have lots of behind the scenes video of the making of Vegas in Space and years later I watched myself directing this scene and it seemed to go on for days, my face painted blue, wearing a ridiculous gown with no wig, awake for ten days, barking orders at my bedraggled and exhausted crew and cast. I guess I was pretty demented. On the video executive producer Doris, out of drag, paces in front of the camera and mutters as I stalk around in the background barking orders and mock-frets “What am I doing here? Phil says it’s all going to be okay, but I don’t know.”
I had moved into a flat on Oak Street one block up the hill from Doris and Ginger and we shot the starcruiser cutaways with Janice Sukaitis and Arturo in the basement there. Basically, we put them in a trash can on the stolen dolly, put a terrarium on top of them, built a cardboard spaceship around them, lit a cherry bomb out the back and pushed them around in front of a pink cyclorama. When we shot Janice Sukaitis as the Martian Lady Driver, her starcruiser caught on fire. I still have the behind the scenes video of her screaming, “Get me out of here! It’s on fire!” But no one was hurt.
I spent the summer of ‘84 editing at a little studio in the Sunset District. Smoking was not allowed but I chained smoked then and the owner was pretty mad that I had disobeyed. Anyway, I soon had to pack up all the crates of work print in order to shoot our final big scene, Queen Veneer’s Gothic Detention Center redux. That was shot at The Farm, a combination commune/performance space under Highway 101 at the intersection of Potrero Avenue and Cesar Chavez Boulevard. Once again Doris rolled out the gigantic sheets of plastic to create the illusion of an ice palace of sorts which served as the private lair of the Queen of Police. This was shot in black and white and is my favorite sequence in the finished film.
After the madness of the Plasworld Mall shoot at Theater Artaud, it seemed, as a film crew, we finally knew what we were doing. I recall this shoot being five days of genuine pleasure. Tommy Pace, one of Doris’ favorite performers, appeared as Mrs. Velour, the mother of fugitive Babs Velour. Everyone was getting a little tired, though. One night Miss X said she had to go home because her hood was on too tight. And poor “Tippi,” who was recruited to wear a rubber mask for hours in order to play Veneer’s familiar, the monstrous draglodyte, reportedly had to spend a few days in an institution upon the completion of that particular shoot. So when, after a year and a half, the production finally wrapped up and the film was, as they say, officially “in the can”, we were all pretty happy.
Thus began the staggering seven years post-production process (the standard post-production schedule for a Hollywood film with a budget is about six months). I hired a flatbed editing table, set it up in my bedroom, and did a first cut of the film. In 1986 we did a work-in-progress screening presented by the Film Arts Foundation at the Adolph Gasser screening room that was a sensation. We screened the edited work print in a very, very rough cut, the spliced film rattling through the projector with no music or sound effects and the very loud clanking of footsteps banging on the sets, I remember, generated peals of laughter. Later, the wizards at earwax productions, who did our audio post production, would magically remove all such errant sounds. I was delighted that people were lined up around the block and, for the first time and for the next five years, San Francisco was abuzz about this outer space drag queen film that was going to be completed any day. For the second half of the ‘80s Vegas in Space was the most famous unfinished film ever.
After the work-in-progress screening it was decided we needed a video trailer in order to showcase the project and to raise the necessary completion funds. The trailer cost thousands of dollars and took a year to make. Doris and I shot a pretty funny introduction. We had a photo session and, as I had decided in the editing room that I needed a few things to pick up the pace, we shot some inserts and cutaways in ’86 in the front room of the flat I shared with Miss X at 3567-18th Street. And so, at the very end of the film, as everyone crowds around the battered body of the dead Princess Angel on the floor of the Vanity Lounge, you’ll see close-ups of the stars inserted into the long shot which were actually photographed three years apart. I guess I am the only one who can see how much everyone had aged between the two shots. But then, I’m the only one who can see a lot of things in that film, I suppose.
Time marched on. Doris and Miss X and “Tippi” and I did a lot of theater together. I directed The Bad Seed to fine reviews and sold-out houses at Theater Rhinoceros; Doris and X did a lot of West Graphics greeting cards; film critic Craig Seligman wrote an article about Doris in the San Francisco Examiner. She got sort of famous for a few months and appeared on the NBC TV show Partners in Crime with Linda Carter and Loni Anderson. And Doris appeared to rave reviews as Madame Irma in a take-me-seriously production of Jean Genet’s The Balcony. But all the while I was softly depressed that our film continued to sit on the shelf and I worried if it would ever, ever see the light of a movie screen.
Finally, I decided I needed to hire an editor to get it to the final stage. We also had yet to shoot the opening miniature spaceship sequences. Of course, we were broke, and the completion of this would-be drag cult movie seemed so very far off, and so, just to keep things moving, I decided we should have a benefit show to raise money to finish the film. That took a year. In January 1989, we presented the Sluts A-Go-Go Still Alive!, the Last-Chance All-Star Greatest Hits Benefit commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Sluts A-Go-Go’s first appearance at the San Francisco Gay Community Center in 1979. That show was really special—it was a four-hour chronology of all the Sluts’ routines and numbers and scenes made famous onstage over the years and a drag feast for our small but devoted clique of fans. And, it netted $6000, a fortune to us at the time and enough to hire editor Ed Jones to do a nearly final cut of the film, to tighten it up, and to shoot the tabletop spaceship miniatures effects Doris had built in my living room.
|Timmy Spence on the Red Carpet|
Unfortunately, in the course of that shoot I got fired from my job at the motion picture lab. They’d wanted to get rid of me for a long time, anyway. Finally I got caught in the vault too many times with a straw up my nose, I suppose, and I soon found a better job. But that did slow things down because I had been getting an employee discount on film processing and printing services.
Soon it became clear, after a few years of denial on my part and silence on her part, that Doris was suffering from AIDS and that she was not doing well. As we began to prepare a benefit tribute to her, Who Does That Bitch Think She Is?—a sensation of a show which is another chapter altogether—it became for me a race against time to finish the movie. I needed a big-time investor and, after going down a few dead ends with potential benefactors, finally found one in comedian and patron of the arts Laura Milligan. In January 1991, Laura, an angel if there ever was one, happily agreed to “invest” whatever we needed in order to complete our little dream movie. I will forever be grateful to Laura Milligan. After eight years of glamorous toiling, we were able to finish the film—final cut, titles and special effects, sound mix, score and publicity campaign—in a mere nine months.
|Ginger Quest and Lulu at the premiere|
|Miss X and Ms. Bob|
Vegas in Space was a bittersweet victory but, you know, I have always been surprised how far the little film we shot in our living room has gone down the lane of cult film legends. All my movie director dreams came true and then some, thanks to Vegas in Space. In 1992 we all went to Park City to see the film play to sold out houses at the Sundance Film Festival, and it ended up playing at more than 30 film festivals around the world. It took me to Europe twice ― to London, Torino and Frankfurt—and Miss X and his lovely missus Alison to film festivals in Cannes and Vienna. The film was picked up by schlock exploitation-miesters Troma, who distributed it all over the world, thanks to the efforts of the darling and lovable Marty Sokol, Troma’s man in Hollywood who spent two years non-stop tirelessly peddling our beloved little film. It played at theaters on the Ginza in Tokyo, appeared on USA Network and Showtime and Entertainment Tonight. The Los Angeles premiere was at The Hollywood Palace at Hollywood and Vine and was covered by E! Network. The after-party, at Dragstrip 66 in LA, was raided by the fire marshals and police with helicopters.
I have never ceased to be amazed when I learn every few years how Vegas in Space comes to touch someone in a special way. When it showed on USA Network, a very tall, handsome and darling young man from Austin, Texas, saw me on TV and fell for me from afar. He tracked me down several years later and we carried on a delightful long distance affair for many years. That bit of serendipity taught me never to underestimate the power and the value of appearing, however briefly, on nationwide TV. And I was flattered when, many years later, in 2002, a New York stage producer inquired about developing Vegas in Space into an off-Broadway musical/opera. Although after a year of talks nothing came of it, it sure was nice to be asked.
|At the Sundance Film Festival |
(photo by Brook Dillon)
After Vegas in Space I became associated briefly with another screenplay, the gay gangster epic BoysTown—it was 1993 and Queer Cinema was very, very in—and was driven by Marty Sokol onto the backlot of Universal Studios to go to pitch meetings at Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman Productions. Then Laura Milligan invited me to develop a film with her based on her standup comedy. I guess she figured if I could turn Doris Fish into a star, I could do it for her, too. So I gave up home and job in San Francisco and moved to Hollywood to pursue my dream of being a movie director—which lasted for about a week. I was confronted about my drug problem (boy, was that a surprise; I had never hidden my meth use) and was sent home with a small settlement and my tail between my legs.
|Fifteen years later, Peaches Christ hosts the cast reunion (November 2006)|
|PRF, Ramona Fischer and Ginger Quest|
And so, even though in the end I never did become a famous and successful movie director, I have no complaints. Vegas in Space was indeed my big break. We set out to make a fabulous and stupid movie and we succeeded. Because of that film and Doris Fish’s fantasy of being a movie star, all my dreams came true and then some, and I got to do a lot of things most people only imagine. Hopefully, the name Doris Fish will never be forgotten in the tatty, yet glamorous, irrational annals of cult film history.
All photographs by Robin Clark unless noted otherwise
Video by Doris Fish, Miss X, Ginger Quest
and Esther K. Paik
and Esther K. Paik