Sunday, July 25, 2010

Leon Russell and the Shelter People -- "Stranger in a Strange Land" (1971)

How many days has it been since I was born?
How many days 'til I die?
Do I know any ways that I can make you laugh?
Or do I only know how to make you cry?

I know I'm jumping around a lot here, but work with me, folks -- we've got a lot of ground to cover before Friday night.

Let's just forget about the previous post for the time being.  Pretend it never happened.  Can you do that for me?

Go back to the previous one -- the one where we all headed off to Galena and had two or three beers at Nina's.  OK?  Just click here if you need to refresh your memory, or if you didn't read it in the first place.

So we'll pretend it's late on a Saturday night, and Nina's is closed.  We've grabbed a tall boy for the road, backed out of our angled parking place (careful not to make a U-turn in Galena, which is a sure way to get ticketed), and found our way back to Route 66 and Joplin.  So what now?

It's time to turn on the ol' Zenith and watch Mazeppa, of course! 

"The Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting" show -- featuring Gailard Sartain (a/k/a Dr. Mazeppa Pompazoidi) -- aired on Tulsa television from 1970 to 1973.

The show began around midnight or 12:30 on Saturday nights -- after the local news at 10:30 and the late movie.  The "film festival" part of the show was usually an obscure old horror movie.  But the reason we watched were the extended skits and live commercials that Sartain and his sidekicks (the best known of whom was Gary Busey) did during breaks in the movie.

Here's the show's opening (and closing) credit sequence:

I rarely made it to the closing credits, which usually ran about 2:30 AM.  By that time, I had "fallen asleep" (i.e., passed out) in the recliner in my parents' living room.  Eventually, I would awaken (thanks to a painfully full bladder), half-blind from the combination of the bright lights I had left on and my failure to remove my contact lenses before beginning to slumber.  Mazeppa would be long gone, and all that was playing on the TV was a screen full of snow and static.

Tulsa native Gailard Sartain -- whose name appeared in the show's credits as "G. Ailard S. Artain" -- went on to fame and fortune after his stint as Mazeppa.

He was a regular on "Hee Haw" for almost 20 years.  But he also appeared in a number of major motion pictures -- including The Buddy Holly Story (he portrayed the Big Bopper, while his Mazeppa pal Gary Busey was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of the title character), Mississippi Burning  (a drama about the 1964 murder of three civil-rights workers that starred Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe), Robert Altman's Nashville, and the neo-noir film The Grifters (where he had a memorable sex scene with Annette Bening).  I also remember him as a regular on The Cher Show in the mid-1970's.  

Last and almost certainly least, he played Jim Varney's sidekick, Chuck, in the "Ernest P. Worrell" movies and television -- knowhutImean?  

I first stumbled across "Mazeppa" while visiting relatives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  (That was before we got cable.)  I will never forget a skit titled "The Severed Hand."  It started with a short film about a persistent door-to-door salesman, whose hand was severed when he tried to hold a female customer's door open as he continued to pitch her whatever he was selling and the woman (played by a show regular known as Judy Judy) finally just slammed the door shut on him.  

The severed hand fell into a wastebasket, but (with the help of some crude special effects) soon thereafter crawled out and started following the woman around the house.  After a couple of minutes, the hand caught up to the fleeing woman, pounced on her, and grabbed her by the throat -- as the screen faded to black and the words "To be continued" appeared.

Sartain and Judy Judy were sitting together on the Mazeppa set when the film ended, pretending to speculate as to what would happen in the next installment of the film.  Sartain reached out toward Judy, supposedly to brush off a small piece of food or some other debris that she was not aware was on her face, but she slapped his hand away.  He kept reaching for her face until she became so upset that she bit off his entire index finger and spit it out on to the table they were sitting at.  (The camera moved in quickly for a nice, tight close-up of the severed digit -- if memory serves, it was the index finger.) 

 After a moment, you realized that Sartain had been reaching for her face with the same fake hand that had been used in the movie -- but until that realization dawned on you, you really thought she had really bitten off his real finger.

Sartain and Busey (who went by the name Teddy Jack Eddy on the show) did a number of memorable skits.  Here's one featuring Sartain as an overbearing high-school coach who is punishing a wise-ass student for his failure to suit up for gym class.

Busey graduated from Nathan Hale HS in Tulsa in 1962, a year before Sartain graduated from Will Rogers HS.  Busey always has been a piece of work.  I once met an old Miami Vice stuntman who had worked as a stuntman on one of Busey's movies, and he reported that Busey was just as crazy as everyone said.  (The stuntman was pretty crazy himself, so that was really saying something.)  This was after Busey's near-fatal and helmet-less motorcycle accident in 1988, which fractured his skull but didn't slow him down much.

Sartain and his fellow cast members did all the show's commercials live.  Seven-Up was a sponsor, as was the Der Wienerschnitzel fast-food chain and a local store called Rebel Jeans.  Mazeppa used a tag line for the Rebel Jeans spots that parodied the Mattel Toys slogan of that era:  "You can tell they're Ruh-BELL -- they're SWELL!" 

I remember that Sartain frequently picked on Bokchito, a tiny town in southern Oklahoma that I used to drive through on my trips to and from college.  For example, while doing a Rebel Jeans commercial, he would pretend to be a truck driver who was delivering a trailer full of tire irons to Bokchito for the annual "Hippie-Hardhat Friendship Festival" there.

When I was an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission in the late 1970's, we had a summer intern from the University of Tulsa's law school.  His father had been one of the news anchors at the station where Sartain and Busey had worked as camera operators before "Mazeppa" went on the air.  According to this student, the two of them were constantly begging station management to give them a show of their own.  

The two were notorious for their practical jokes.  Once, as the floor manager was counting down the last few seconds of a commercial break before the news anchors would be back on the air, Sartain and/or Busey threw a live snake on to the anchor desk.

Where did the name "Mazeppa" come from?  I actually researched that at the Rice University library.  Ivan Stepanovych Mazeppa was a 17th-century Ukrainian nobleman and Cossack general who allied with Sweden and Poland in a war against Russia in hopes of winning independence for the Ukraine.  (The Russians won.)  Byron, Pushkin, and Victor Hugo all wrote long poems about Mazeppa, while Tchaikovsky composed an opera called "Mazeppa"  and Liszt wrote a symphonic work named for him.

In Byron's poem, Mazeppa is punished for becoming involved with a Polish count's wife by being tied naked to a horse that was sent galloping across the Polish plains -- an ordeal that almost killed him.  According to Sartain, he learned about Mazeppa when he found an old newspaper with an article about a 19th-century dancer who had herself bound to a horse that she rode across the stage in honor of Mazeppa.  As for "Pompazoidi," he just made that up.

Near the end of the Mazeppa TV show's run, the cast travelled to Joplin to put on a live show at Memorial Hall.  I'm not sure how many people in Joplin had cable TV in those days, but I'm pretty sure very few people in Joplin watched the show -- except for we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters) who were returning from a night of beer drinking in Kansas.  

As I recall, about a dozen paying customers showed up for the performance.  Sartain was bitter -- he insulted Joplin and everything Joplin-related over and over, complaining that he hadn't taken in enough from ticket sales to even pay the Will Rogers Turnpike tolls back to Tulsa.  He even passed the hat -- I recall that some wisenheimer contributed a comb.  

For many years, I had a small poster advertising that Joplin show.  (Sartain is a cartoonist of the R. Crumb school, and he may have personally drawn that poster.)  I need to do some serious exploring at my parents' house this weekend to see if I can locate that bad boy. 

And here's a link to the official Mazeppa website, which offers four DVDs full of Mazeppa's skits -- I have the first three, but haven't watched much of them.  (I'm a little afraid of being disappointed.)  

Oops -- I almost forgot the song, didn't I?

Leon Russell (real name: Claude Russell Bridges) was also an Oklahoma native, and like Sartain he attended Will Rogers HS in Tulsa.  

Russell once appeared on "Mazeppa," but there seems to be no recording of that episode, so his performance is lost forever.  (Who knows?  Maybe he performed this very song.)  And before he became an actor, Gary Busey played drums on some of Russell's records (under the "Teddy Jack Eddy" pseudonym that he later used on "Mazeppa").  Since the rules are that each post on this blog starts off with lines from a song I like, a Leon Russell song seemed like a good choice for this one.

Russell has had a long and storied career as a session musician, songwriter, and solo artist.  He's performed with everyone -- Eric Clapton, Elton John, George Harrison, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker, and Bob Dylan, among others.  

I particularly like his two rather obscure albums with Marc Benno.  They called themselves the Asylum Choir, and you'll be hearing more about one of their songs someday soon.  

I could go on and on about Russell and this song, but it's late and I have many posts to do before I leave for the reunion.  So if you want to know more, just enter "Leon Russell" into Google and knock yourself out -- or just click here.

Here's the song:

And here's a video of Russell performing the song in concert:

Click here if you'd like to buy the song from iTunes:

Or click here if you prefer Amazon:

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