Edward D. Wood Jr – The Man Who Dreamed Art – By Duane L. Martin

Ed
Wood. What thoughts come to your mind when you hear that name? I would
imagine that with most people, words like inept or silly would probably
be some of the first words that would come to mind, but to the
initiated, words like this never enter into the picture. Who was the
man behind the camera, and what shaped him into the man whose genius
would only be realized after his sad and untimely death? Well, let me
introduce him to you.

Edward Davis Wood was born on October 10, 1924 in Poughkeepsie, New
York to a mother who worked as a jewelry purchaser for a department
store and a father who worked as a post office maintenance man.

His love of film came to him early on in life, and when he was eleven
years old, he received a film camera, a Kodak City Special, as a
birthday gift. He would shoot his own amateur films in his back yard
using friends and acquaintances as cast members, and although they
probably didn’t mean much to anyone except for him back then, I would
hazard to say that if these films were ever found, they would probably
be worth a small fortune today. Unfortunately, as with most people’s
old films, they’ve probably become lost or ruined somewhere along the
course of time. Still though, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see and
experience the world of Ed Wood through the eyes of a young boy and an
old film camera? I’m sure any film historian worth his salt would kill
for the opportunity.

As Ed got older, he began working at the Bardavon Theater where he
started out as an usher, and then later on, was promoted to assistant
manager. This allowed Ed to feed his love of cinema by collecting
countless pieces of movie memorabilia, including stills, posters, lobby
cards and more. It also allowed him to see a large number of films that
covered many genres, which gave him the opportunity to learn things
about filmmaking that the casual film viewer has probably never even
considered.

During his teenage years, Ed fell into full fledged transvestism in his
private life. It’s been said that his transvestism developed out of a
situation where he had an uncaring father and a mother who would have
rather have had a daughter than a son. In an effort to gain his
mother’s love, he wore the trappings of a girl, and tried to appear to
her as the daughter she really wanted. Ed’s desire to receive his
mother’s love led him into a life of wearing women’s clothing, even
after he had left home and gone his own way, simply because he found
comfort in the way they made him feel when he put them on. He
apparently had a particular fondness for white angora sweaters.

Although most people would tend to think that his transvestial behavior
made him a homosexual, or at least showed him to have homosexual
tendencies, this was in fact not the case at all. Ed was not in any way
shape or form a homosexual, and in fact, was just the opposite. He
genuinely loved women. He had many relationships throughout his life
and was married twice. After his long time relationship with Dolores
Fuller ended, he married stage and TV actress Norma McCarty.
Unfortunately, this marriage only lasted just a bit over four months
and ended painfully because of his transvestism. His second wife, Kathy
O’Hara Everett, whom he married in 1955, stayed with him until his
death on December 10, 1978 when he succumbed to heart failure at the
relatively young age of 54.

It was less than two months after Ed’s 17th birthday when the Japanese
attacked Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Marine Corps and was assigned
to the Pacific theater where he reportedly fought in some of the
fiercest battles of the war, and at one point was left with a bullet
riddled leg and knocked out teeth after a hand to hand battle with a
Japanese soldier. A highly decorated soldier, by the end of the war he
had accumulated an impressive number of medals and awards including the
Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Oak Leaf Cluster, the Purple Heart
and a number of others. His stint in the Marines lasted for two years,
and it was during his stay in a South Pacific naval hospital that he
first learned to use a typewriter. His skill with the typewriter grew
quickly, and over time he became a very prolific writer.

Ed was discharged from the service in 1946 at the rank of corporal, and
within a year he had made his way to Hollywood where he became a part
of the Hollywood sub-culture, hanging out with would-be actors, fallen
stars, and a variety of people with ambitions far beyond their means.
He had taken one drama class after returning home from the war, and
managed to find work in some barebones theater productions while also
taking on the occasional job as an extra in various low-budget films.
Once he even took a job as an uncredited stunt performer in a 1950 film
called The Baron of Arizona.

From 1947 to 1948 Ed produced a rather large number of commercials. He
formed Wood-Thomas Productions with his partner John Crawford Thomas, a
man whom he had met on the stage of the Gateway Theater on Sunset Blvd.
where they performed as fellow cast members in a play called The
Blackguard Returns. Thomas provided the offices, the financing, and the
connections, while Wood’s role was that of the dreamer. He was the idea
man in the outfit, and together they made a series of commercials for a
product called PyeQuick and collaborated on a film called Crossroads of
Laredo. Ed had actually made approximately one hundred and fifty five
commercials from 1947 to 1948. His wife Kathy stated that they had
copies of most them when they were evicted from their home on Yucca
St., but apparently they have since been lost.

Crossroads of Laredo, was unfortunately, doomed from the start. The
project was for the most part being financed by Thomas’ family.
Unfortunately, without the money for sound, they envisioned it as a
silent film with the appropriate music to be added in later to set the
proper moods. The film contained one hundred and thirty camera set-ups,
but from all that, they only managed to get twenty minutes of footage.
After two months of shooting, Thomas’ family pulled the plug on the
funding, and Ed walked away from his partnership with John Thomas
without so much as a goodbye.

In 1951 Ed produced a one episode television project called The Sun
Also Sets. The show was all of twenty minutes long and would be his
only job as a producer until 1953 when he became involved in a number
of western themed projects. He produced a short film called Trick
Shooting With Kenne Duncan, and then in the same year he produced
another project for television with a western theme called Crossroad
Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid, and directed another yet
another project called Boots that was apparently either a sequel to, or
a second pilot for Crossroad Avenger. In addition to the film and
television projects he was working on in 1953, he also managed to find
time to write a screenplay for another western themed film called Son
of the Renegade, on which he was credited under the name John
Carpenter. 1954 would see the end of Wood’s involvement with the
western genre after he took the job of associate producer on his final
western themed project called, The Lawless Rider. Although Ed would
never work on another western, his love for the genre continued on
throughout his life.

1953
was a big year for Ed. Not only had he done several television
projects, but he made his motion picture directorial debut with the
film Glen or Glenda?, a docudrama style film that delved into the world
of the transvestite, focusing (although not exclusively) on a character
named Glen, which Ed played himself.
The film, although panned by most critics, was actually a very
interesting, informative, and entertaining look into the world of
transvestism, and it also marked his first ever theatrical work with
film legend Bela Lugosi. Lugosi himself was hesitant about doing the
film because of the subject matter, and he knew if he appeared in it,
it would mark the end of his career in respectable, mainstream cinema.
Unfortunately, those were desperate times for Lugosi, and in the end,
it was Lugosi’s wife who made the decision for him. Lugosi appeared in
the film, and was paid $1,000 for his work. Lugosi and Wood became good
friends and remained so until Lugosi’s death in August of 1956.

After his western period was over, Ed teamed up with producer Alex
Gordon to make a couple of so called “roughies”. Not much was
documented about the shooting of the first film, Jail Bait, but it is
known that Ed managed the production himself with much of the financing
probably coming from Alex Gordon and the rest supplied by private
investors. The film was shot without the backing of the Screen Actors
Guild, and therefore it was considered a scab sort of non-union shoot.
Ed worked quickly, shooting the film in three days using locations that
were more often than not supplied by his cast members, and which also
included an eighteen hour marathon session at the studio. The marathon
session came about because the SAG was threatening to close down
production. Wood managed to hold them off by writing them some
completion bond checks. The checks were worthless, but they held off
the SAG long enough for Ed and his crew to complete their filming.
Eventually the film was distributed by a Texas firm called Howco
Productions, which owned theaters in Texas and Louisiana.

If any money was made from Jail Bait, it never filtered down to Wood or
Gordon, and Ed ended up taking a night production job at Universal
Studios while Alex went on to form good relationships with Sam Arkoff
and James H. Nicholson from American International Pictures, and had
his next ten films produced and or distributed by AIP. Over time, Ed
became resentful and bitter over his exclusion from their little
circle, but continued on, always looking for his next big opportunity.
For Ed, this next opportunity came in the form of his next roughie, The
Violent Years, which he adapted from an original story by producer Roy
Reid. Although the film had the look of a classic Ed Wood film and
shared many of his trademarks in its production, he actually had
nothing to do with the film beyond writing the screenplay.

Ed had no real love for the roughies, so he went on to take advantage
of his relationship with Bela Lugosi and moved into yet another genre
that he had a great love for…horror films. The transfer into this new
genre led to a series of films that would later be known as “The Kelton
Trilogy” because of a single common character, a policeman with the
last name of Kelton, who appeared in all three films.

Investors were few and far between at this point as Wood’s reputation
for borrowing money and not paying it back preceded him. He took his
fundraising activities on the road, inviting potential investors to
cocktail parties where they would meet the cast and hear his ideas for
the film. Occasionally, he would get enough funding from various
sources to shoot a small amount of film, which he would then show to
other potential investors in hopes of receiving completion funds from
at least one of them. Eventually, Ed did find his one big investor. The
man’s name was Donald McCoy, and he agreed to fund the film, but there
were a few conditions that went along with the agreement, the first
being that Ed cast his son Tony in the leading role. Ed would later say
that Tony was the worst actor he’d ever had in a film, which you know
is saying something when you consider the quality of some of the acting
in his other films. The other condition was that the film was to end
with a giant nuclear explosion, so as to express his distaste for the
arms race between Russia and the United States. As was promised, the
film ended with the killer radioactive octopus blowing up in a
spectacular explosion provided ever so graciously by a bit of stock
footage.

Bride of the Monster was released in May of 1955, and it would take
more than a year for Ed to get his next project off the ground.
Unfortunately, it was during this period that Ed’s alcohol problems
intensified. It was also during this period that he married his second
wife Kathy, and moved into the Mariposa Apartments, a somewhat run down
apartment building owned by Edward Reynolds who was a leader of the
Baptist Church in Beverly Hills.

Edward Reynolds has acquired the rights to The Billy Sunday Story, and
wanted to produce it for theatrical release, but didn’t have the
funding to do it justice. It was at this point where Ed stepped in and
told Reynolds that they could shoot one of his films fairly
inexpensively and then use the profits from that film to shoot The
Billy Sunday Story. Reynolds agreed, but he could clearly see that
Wood’s drinking problem was out of control, and felt that the only way
to put some stability into Ed’s life was to bring religion into it. As
such, Wood and many of his cast and crew were baptized at the Baptist
church. Production went relatively smoothly, and the only real
disagreement between Wood and Reynolds was the name of the film. The
film was originally entitled Grave Robbers From Outer Space, but
Reynolds objected to the title and as such it was changed to Plan 9
From Outer Space.
Reynolds tried desperately to find distributors for the film once it
was completed, but met with little success. Even after he did manage to
secure a distribution deal, the film made little money and left
Reynolds himself in poor financial condition with little to no chance
of him ever being able to produce The Billy Sunday Story.

It was only a short time later that Ed and his wife Kathy were evicted
from the Mariposa Apartments. Not so much because of the failure of
Plan 9 to produce the intended financial results, but because of the
problems and issues that Ed still continued to experience in his
personal life. There were couch burnings and fist fights and all manner
of bad things going on, so Reynolds was left with little choice but to
evict them from their apartment. It was shortly thereafter that Ed
surrendered all rights to Plan 9 to Reynolds for one single dollar.

Not much is known about what Ed and his wife did throughout the
following year. Apparently they were living a very active social life
and bouncing around from friend to friend going to parties and
generally living off the generosity of the people they socialized with.
It was during this time that Ed managed to work on a few other
relatively minor projects. The Night the Banshee Cried and Final
Curtain were the names of the two actual productions he worked on, and
he also scripted The Bride and the Beast for Adrian Weiss.

Wood’s third and final film in The Kelton Trilogy, Night of the Ghouls,
was funded simply by pure chance. Apparently, Ed was taking a bath one
day when suddenly a Fuller Brush man appeared at the door. Ed invited
him in, and they had some drinks together. It turned out that the
salesman had a friend who had some money that he was going to invest in
some apartments. That friend was Anthony Cardoza, and along with his
funding, Tom Mason, the man who played Bela Lugosi’s double in Plan 9,
also invested a considerable sum of money into the project.

The
shoot was trouble from the beginning. Ed often used the shoot money for
his own personal vices, such as the alcohol he would consume before
filming. Although many of the actors were Wood regulars by this point,
many had become painfully aware of his habits of spending the actors’
pay before the shoot even began, and many refused to work unless they
were paid in advance.

The film itself, once completed, sat in a film lab unreleased for some
twenty years because Ed didn’t have the money to pay for the
processing. Ed claimed in a letter to Anthony Cardoza that he had
managed to get the film shown both on television, and at The Vista
Theater. If true, this would seem to indicate that at least one print
of the film was received by Wood, but was probably lost during the course of one of his many evictions, much the same way his
commercials had been.

1961 brought about the last of Ed’s productions, The Sinister Urge,
which featured his usual cast of regulars. The film was shot in seven
days and then saw a very limited release into B-Movie theaters where it
sank quickly into unprofitable obscurity.

During the next decade, Ed spent his time writing 58 pornographic
novels and saw many of his screenplays turned into films by other
directors. It wasn’t until 1969, when he played the part of the
photographer in the film The Love Feast (a.k.a. Pretty Models All in a
Row) that he made his return to the screen. Unfortunately, by this time
Ed’s alcoholism had become progressively worse. Alcohol became the most
important thing in his life, and he and his wife had faced several more
evictions and had become destitute to the point where he had finally
hit rock bottom. He had hocked everything he could, including his
beloved typewriter, just so he could get enough money together to buy
more alcohol. It had gotten so bad, that after he hocked his own
typewriter, he borrowed one from a friend and hocked it as well.

On or about December 1, 1978, Ed and his wife were evicted from their
apartment on Yucca St. and were only allowed to take with them whatever
they could carry. Most of the things he had collected throughout his
life were lost that day, and about ten days later, Ed died of a heart
attack. He was then cremated and his ashes were scattered into the sea.

Ed Wood dreamed of being a legend throughout his career, but failed to
gain the understanding of the business side of the industry that he
would need to be successful. His constant debts and bounced checks
caused people not trust him, and although he would never admit to it,
he had sabotaged his own career by breaking down those bonds of trust
that he desperately needed to bring his career to the fulfillment he’d
always desired but never achieved. Ed Wood is a legend, and it’s only
sad that the man who dreamed art, was never suitably appreciated in his
own time. Imagine what he could have done if he had ever had the proper
funding and a good system of distribution channels set up. The end
result could have been simply amazing.