During the summer that our nation turned 200 and I turned 13, the rampant galas and ovations, speeches and celebrations held little interest for either my brother or me. Todd, five years my senior, was far less taken with Tall Ships and parades than with the ship-shape, feathered-blonde coed who regularly paraded past our house in a red-and-white-striped halter top and blue vinyl shorts. Watching her strut her star-spangled stuff as he cut the grass out front, Todd tightened his grip on the handle of our old manual mower till it bent, and though both of his hands were thus occupied, another part of him couldn’t help but salute.
Todd’s main aspiration for his last summer at home seemed to involve a three-step plan: 1) get to know Ms. Vinyl Shorts, so that he could 2) go out with Ms. Vinyl Shorts, so that he could 3) get into Ms. Vinyl’s shorts.
We were filming my latest Philip Corcoran Production, Lost Island, the eight-minute movie through which I explored a question that has tugged at innumerable great minds through the ages: what would happen if an island full of gigantic bears, alligators and woolly mammoths were to dislodge itself from the center of Lake Michigan and drift southward to the Milwaukee shore? (The answer: very bad news for one Midwestern municipality.) I, with comparatively few hormones thus far in play, was free to operate on a higher plane. Amidst all the Bicentennial blather, destiny beckoned, and I—a budding Super-8 auteur—answered the call. Journey back with me, now, to a sunny June afternoon that found my friend Avery and me kneeling side by side in the sand of Atwater Beach with a tripod, a movie camera and a Prehistoric Scenes model kit.
So there I was with my frequent partner in cinematic crime, hunkered down over his foot-long woolly mammoth model. We were preparing to shoot Lost Island’s climactic sequence, in which a massive, municipally-engineered earthquake buries the last marauding mammoth in several tons of concrete, steel and sand. (The city, at this point in the film, was in ruins anyway, so inducing a ’quake to bring what little was left crashing down upon the attackers seemed to the mayor a reasonable course of action.)
“I don’t know about these ‘ruins’ of yours, Phil.” Avery was pawing through the large mixing-bowl full of rocks, tinfoil balls and scraps of corrugated cardboard I’d intended to serve as the remnants of Greater Downtown.
I made an adjustment to the mammoth’s trunk, then glanced over. “What do you mean?”
“Well, these pieces here look a lot like…aluminum foil.”
“So?” I retorted. “Aluminum is a metal. There’s metal in buildings. Case closed.”
“And this,” he continued, holding up one-half of a styrofoam egg carton. “What the hell’s this supposed to be?”
I stared at it for a moment, then looked him in the eye. “Modular housing.”
Female laughter, lilting and light, sounded from behind us and off toward the lake. I turned to see a pretty young brunette sitting perhaps 50 feet away, perched on a jetty with a book in hand. The moment my eyes found the girl, her own eyes returned to the page. She seemed to be about our age but did not look familiar to me.
Avery was eyeing her, too. “You know her?”
“Huh-uh.” He paused. “Ya think she was laughing at you?”
It pissed me off that he didn’t say “at us,” but I let it go. “Nah. Prob’ly something she read…”
The girl placed a pen to her book—a diary; a journal?—and began intently scribbling away.
“…or wrote,” I added.
“I’ll bet she’s with Variety. Prob’ly doing a behind-the-scenes piece on the groundbreaking art direction of Lost Island.”
“Shut up.” I looked at him. “She’s not even watching us.” I returned my attention to the mammoth…but continued to think of the girl. She was cute, all right, with her coltish legs and her lemon-yellow shorts, and her pubescent breasts budding underneath her baby-blue T. And her long, reddish-brown hair falling down her neck and over her shoulders. And…what if she was watching? Just in case, I decided to show off a bit by shifting into serious-director mode: “All right, Avery, let’s do this—let’s get the stop-motion sequence. You move the model, and I’ll shoot.”
“Check.” He shifted over to a spot beside the mammoth, positioning himself just out of frame.
I squatted behind the camera. “This scene is key. So take your time moving the limbs, and let’s get it right!”
He looked at me, perturbed…then looked a bit higher.
“How,” a sweet yet savvy voice behind me inquired, “would an elephant wind up on a Milwaukee beach?”
I turned all the way around to gaze at the girl, who was, as it happened, even cuter up close. “It’s…a woolly mammoth,” I told her.
“Oh,” she said with a wry smile. “Well, that explains it.”
Our bold interloper lingered for quite a while that day, making small talk and watching us shoot. I was less nervous around her than Avery seemed to be—and less nervous than I’d have expected. It helped that she’d met me in a context to which I was accustomed and which, by its nature, imbued me with a certain authority and sense of control. What’s more, the girl had a bemused yet affable manner that set me at ease…and she seemed to like me, too. By the time she wished us luck and ambled off, I had her name, her phone number and, to all appearances, her interest. I also had a burning desire:
To cast her in my next film.
* * *
Stefanie Slocum was my age, but we attended different schools, for while my family lived in a shoreline suburb just north of Milwaukee, hers lived in the city itself—a fact that rendered her both worldly and a tad dangerous. In truth, only 16 blocks separated our addresses…but hers had that exotic urban zip code. To my mind, those five numerals conjured a whole string of “Kojak”-worthy images; visiting Stefanie’s house at night doubtless would entail walking a gauntlet of street toughs and stoolies, sassy-mouthed hookers and hopped-up junkies, with a siren or two blaring somewhere close by.
Stefanie had a winsome grin and a pair of unusually high-placed eyebrows that gave her a look of perpetual surprise. She was, as luck would have it, an aspiring actress and fellow film buff with a weakness for old musical comedies—not exactly P.C. Productions’ stock-in-trade, but as far as she could tell, my little operation was the only game in town. So, yes, I had an “in” with her, and that surely didn’t hurt. But as we came to know each other over the weeks that followed, it grew clear that our friendship was based on more than mere “professional” convenience.
One other thing: she addressed me as Philip—never Phil. Though sometimes, when discussing my movies, she called me “P.C.,” as if I were some big-time Hollywood honcho. Which, of course, thrilled me to no end.
The first time Stefanie visited my home, I poured us some Hi-C, grabbed some wafer cookies and took her straight to the basement for a screening of the half-dozen P.C. Productions I’d produced up to that time. First came Snow Kong (1974, 3 min.), in which a King Kong model kit rampaged (with the aid of oft-visible fishing line) across a backyard snow bank. Taking a page from Orson Welles, I’d shot the action from a low angle in hopes of rendering the snow bank glacial and Kong colossal. But because I was operating Kong-strings and camera simultaneously, each with one outstretched arm, the end result was a rather odd meditation on the cloud-filled January sky—with a blurry plastic gorilla head popping sporadically into view at the bottom of the frame.
“It was,” I reminded her, “my rookie effort.”
“Pretty avant-garde,” Stefanie quipped, “whether you meant to be or not!”
Next came a supernatural-horror trilogy: Werewolf! (1974, 5 min.), Death of the Werewolf (1975, 4 min.) and The Werewolf Lives Again! (1975, 5 min.). As I pointed out to my guest, each of these entries added another key component to the P.C. Productions repertoire: in the first case, live human performers; in the second, a tripod; and in the third, a script.
Affirmed Stefanie: “All wise additions, P.C.”
The next film, Were-Bear of Oshkosh (1976, 6 min.), had been shot on location during a Christmas-week visit at my grandparents’. Its high point was a stunning shot of the full moon rising eerily over Lake Winnebago, followed by the dramatic battle between the bell-bottomed Were-Bear (a masked and moderately inebriated Todd) and a six-foot-long, taxidermied sturgeon.
“Not a fair fight!” Stef objected.
“Why, ’cause they’re on land?”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “Talk about ‘home-field advantage’!”
And then, at last, I proudly screened the just-completed Lost Island. The stop-motion-animation sequence that Stefanie had watched me film was rudimentary and herky-jerky—but it was still animation and, thus, a kind of magic: the mammoth appeared to stride across the beach of its own accord. Stef was genuinely impressed…at least, until the tinfoil and egg cartons.
“O-o-o-oh,” she giggled, “look at that cool modular housing!”
Before she departed, I clued her in on the plans for my next film: an action-packed epic entitled Prehistoric Planet of the Apes. “It may have come to me in a dream,” I mused aloud, “or maybe not. All I know is that one morning last week, I woke up asking myself this question: ‘What if the Forbidden Zone on the Planet of the Apes contained the secrets not only of Man’s past, but also of Earth’s?’ I mean, picture it, Stefanie….”
And by God, from the look on her face…she was!
“Ape scientists,” I continued, “staring in awe at living, breathing dinosaurs…!”
“Gorilla soldiers,” she cut in, “doing battle with…saber-toothed tigers!”
“Yeah!” I nodded emphatically. “And primitive cavemen, meeting up with…with….”
“…with…other primitive cavemen?”
I threw out my hands. “The possibilities are endless.”
I didn’t cast her that day; I was, as yet, only halfway done with the script. Finishing it proved to be a monumental task, for this time around I was working on a much bigger canvas, scripting a movie that would clock in at just under half an hour—as long as all of my other films combined (and, in case the networks were interested, a suitable length for TV).
Of course, with Stefanie on the scene, Prehistoric Planet of the Apes would prove pioneering in another way as well. Though not the first of my movies with a female cast member—my older cousin, Barb, had appeared in The Werewolf Lives Again!,incongruously towering over her lycanthropic attacker—it would be the first to feature an actress who wasn’t related to me.
When I finally phoned to offer her the female lead, Stefanie was elated; you’d have thought the call had come from Twentieth Century-Fox. I decided to wait until later to go into any detail about the part, which was, I said, “still in development.”
Just as I hung up, Todd grabbed the cast list out of my hand and gave it a look. “A chimp? You’re makin’ your girlfriend play a chimp?”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I said, “and Dr. Zira is not just any chimp.”
He dropped the sheet into my lap. “Right.” Then, under his breath: “Douche bag.”
Such was the extent of a typical brotherly conversation during the Summer of ’76, for we harbored disparate ambitions that had little to do with one another. Nor was I the only one whose efforts were meeting with success. Todd, by mid-July, had accomplished Step 1—her name was Vicki; she’d just finished her freshman year at UWM; she liked “tennis, Peter Frampton, and cats”—and he’d even succeeded in setting up Step 2: a date. In fact, they were to go out the same Saturday that Prehistoric was scheduled to begin shooting.
That day found me ensconced in the cellar, mulling over the synchronicity of it all while using liquid latex to attach brown crepe hair and facial “ape-pliances” to the delicate features of my visibly disappointed leading lady. I was quite proud of these appendages—a lower muzzle, upper muzzle, nose piece and brow—which I’d fashioned from a sheet of foam rubber. (When the first reel came back from Fotomat, Stefanie did appear convincingly simian—as long as she looked toward the camera. But when she turned to either side, the attachments flattened out, and she resembled less a kindly chimp psychologist than a somewhat forlorn 13-year-old girl with great slabs of packing material inexplicably epoxied to her face.)
“You know, Philip,” she said as I affixed a huge, sloping brow to her own small, currently knotted one, “this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I mean, as an actress….”
“Stef, you have all the best lines.”
“I know. But no one’ll see my face as I’m speaking them!”
“Do you know what Kim Hunter said?”
She scrutinized me with cool blue eyes. “Kim…?”
“She played Dr. Zira in the first three Apes films, and she considered that portrayal to be the…the crowning achievement of her career. She said that acting with the makeup—through the makeup—was more challenging than anything else she’d done. Including Shakespeare. And that,” I concluded, adding a final tuft to Stefanie’s beard, “is why I…I had no choice but to give the role to you.”
“I see.” Behind her muzzle, there surfaced a smile. “Nice speech…P.C.”
* * *
Stefanie appeared in only two more of my films; her school’s drama club offered acting opportunities—and a thespian community—with which I simply couldn’t compete. But P.C. Productions marched on without her, resolutely cranking out superfluous re-hashes of other people’s horror and sci-fi premises for the next 31 months.
By 1980, though, something had changed. A peripheral concern became primary; what had been latent took on laser-like intensity. Three months shy of 17, I found myself tossing and turning through more nights than not, wrestling my sweaty sheets into submission, my head filled with visions not of werewolves but of women. And as for mammoths, well…there was something woolly I very much wanted, but it was fairly small—and didn’t have a trunk.
Todd, by now, made his home several states away, yet in a sense he lived on in my room, my bed, my own feverish head. Thinking back one sleepless early-June night, I grasped at last his fixation with the lithe and lovely Vicki in all her vivacious, vinyl-cheeked glory. I thought about Stefanie Slocum as well: a smart, sweet, pretty girl who had liked me, listened to me, made time for me…and whom I, in return, had made into a chimp.
Switching on the bedside lamp, I squinted out across the room; as my eyes adjusted, they fell upon the dresser-top Zira, Cornelius and Dr. Zaius action figures staring back at me in dusty silence. I grabbed my pillow and hurled it at the trio, knocking two of them—Zira and Zaius—to the floor. They landed, as if to taunt me, one atop the other in a rough approximation of “69.”
“Damn you,” I muttered, Heston-like, through gritted teeth. “God damn you all to hell!”
I wanted a woman. A human woman. I wanted to hold her hand—then everything else. I wanted to stroll with and roll with her, amuse and arouse her, dine with and devour her. I wanted to put away the Playboys and the paperbacks and find out for myself what “supple” and “dewy” really meant.And I wanted it today. For, like an astronaut plunged through a time warp, I’d crash-landed in an upside-down world where apes were insignificant…and dates ruled.