Archives for posts with tag: Beverly Hills
Laurence Merrick 2

Life imitating art?

One of the many unusual figures whose life trajectory intersects with the Manson Family saga is Laurence Merrick, an Israeli Defense Forces veteran who, as critic Bryan Thomas relates at Night Flight, was sent to the U.S. in 1960 “to speak in support of Zionism, and while he was fundraising in New York City, he met his future wife, a dark-haired aspiring Broadway showgirl and wannabe actress named Joan Huntington.” From there the pair “came out to the west coast, and set up the Merrick Studio, located at 870 N. Vine St. in Hollywood, California, and for a time it was an inexpensive place for actors” – including Vietnam veterans – “to learn lessons about their craft.”

The Merricks were subsidized by the government, too, which enabled them to make a lot of money running the school. They bought a nice house in Beverly Hills and then decided to put their studio profits towards making their own movies, which they could then cast with students from the school, a win-win situation for everybody.

Laurence Merrick

Merrick, Thomas writes, is “probably best known for co-directing the legendary 1972 documentary Manson with Robert Hendrickson, which […] ended up garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Feature-Length Documentary.” The Israeli “was also well-known in Hollywood […] for the fact that one of his students, Sharon Tate, would later be killed by members of Manson’s Family, during August of 1969, the same year he spent fourteen days directing [the biker film] Black Angels.” Note the interesting choice of words, too, when Thomas relates that Huntington viewed her husband’s movies as “training exercises”.

A 1977 UPI article states that “Merrick became interested in the Manson Family because actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered with four friends by the group, had been a student at his school” – implying that Merrick only took an interest in Manson after the killings had taken place; but Merrick and Hendrickson had begun conducting interviews with Family members “before and after the shocking murders that rocked the nation in 1969,” Thomas indicates (italics added). As his account of the making of Black Angels tantalizes, the totality of Merrick’s involvements with this movie, Tate, and the Manson Family strains the limits of what can be dismissed as mere “synchronicity”:

In fact – in yet another example of the parallels that existed between Southern California’s biker and hippie countercultures – members of Manson’s Family would occasionally drop by Paramount Ranch, located at 2813 Cornell Road, in Agoura, California, and visit the set while Merrick and his cast and crew were filming scenes. […]

Merrick’s script focuses on two biker gangs at each other’s throats, a white motorcycle gang called Satan’s Serpents — led by Chainer (once again played by Merrick’s favorite leading man, Des Roberts) — and a black motorcycle gang, called the Choppers (their leader was played by Bobby Johnston, whose biggest role previous to this one was as a prison guard in In Cold Blood).

The film’s title, Black Angels is actually the name attributed to the highway patrolmen who observe the two rival biker gangs from a distance, waiting for the race-motivated war for turf to explode.

Merrick recruited a real black biker gang to play the Choppers in order to provide authenticity.

The main plot concerns one “Black Angel” in particular – a lieutenant for the highway patrol named Harper (Clancy Syrko, who also edited the film) – who wants to see all of the biker gangs wiped off the face of the earth, and he plots to pit the two gangs against each other so they will end up in a race war leading to both of them being destroyed. […]

Black Angels

It’s interesting to note that this film’s concept of pitting white against black in a race war, in the year 1969, is very similar in some respects to Manson’s concept which he called “Helter Skelter”, an apocalyptic war arising from racial tensions between blacks and white, which he believed was foretold in Chapter 9 of the book of Revelations in the bible (as well as hidden messages he believed he heard in the Beatles’ “Revolution #9”).

Makes you wonder what kinds of conversations they were having at Paramount Ranch between members of the cast and crew and some of Manson’s followers.

There were also many interesting cameo appearances, including a real member of Charles Manson’s gang, Mark Ross (he plays “Singer”), who later claimed to write a theme song for the film that was never used […]

The film’s tagline “God forgives, the Black Angels don’t!,” incidentally, was borrowed from the hugely successful 1967 Italian spaghetti western, God Forgives… I Don’t.

Another tagline – and perhaps another reference to Manson? – was “A portrait of the family.”

Speaking of Manson and his family, again, it was during the film’s production that Merrick was invited to head over to Spahn Ranch, with a 16mm camera, in order to film the Manson family on their own turf.

Merrick also shot footage of them at Devil’s Canyon, their Barker Ranch hideout in Death Valley, and then later – during the Manson trial – at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles, in addition to other locations.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who did as much as anyone to shape the public’s perception of the Manson Family mythos, participated in the production of Merrick and Hendrickson’s documentary and appears onscreen.

Guess What Happened to Count Dracula

Des Roberts as Count Adrian in Merrick’s Guess What Happened to Count Dracula?

Merrick’s previous movie, Guess What Happened to Count Dracula?, concerns the occult, mind control, and, at least subtextually, acknowledges Jewish power in Hollywood – and it only intensifies the Tate-LaBianca resonance of Merrick’s work, even featuring a minor character named Sharon. Thomas continues:

The movie featured several of Merrick’s students in key parts, and chiefly concerned what happened to Dracula’s son, Count Adrian (Des Roberts, who plays the vampire while sporting a wicked John Carradine-style goatee). Roberts and his musical partner, Andy Wilder, also provided the film’s musical score.

The film was shot at the Magic Castle in the Hollywood Hills, a mansion built in the 1920s which had been renovated for performances by magicians.

One of Merrick’s students owned the place, and had invited Merrick and his wife over for dinner, which left a lasting impression, and when the couple began thinking of locations where they could shoot their Dracula movie, they both remembered the Magic Castle, which was just about to undergo a renovation. […]

The movie also contains a subplot straight out of the then recent box office smash Rosemary’s Baby, when one character — an actor named Guy (just as John Cassavetes’s character was in Roman Polanski’s film), played by John Landon — is all too willing to sell his soul in return for being given a successful acting career.

It’s also interesting to note that Merrick’s film features a “surprise” ending that was clearly inspired by Polanski’s previous film, 1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, when Polanski’s future wife Sharon Tate sprouts fangs in the film.

According to Horrorpedia, “more obscure X-rated edits of the film [Guess What Happened to Count Dracula?], with an emphasis on male gay sex, were released as Does Dracula Really Suck? and Dracula and the Boys.”

Adding to the mystique of Merrick’s Manson documentary is the fact that it features Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme caressing a rifle and explaining, “You have to make love with it; you have to know it […] so that you could pick it up any second and shoot.” This interview took place several years before Fromme was convicted of (supposedly) having attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in Sacramento. Merry Prankster and founding Yippie Paul Krassner claims that Manson sent him a letter instructing him to get into touch with Fromme around 1971:

I called, and we arranged to meet at her apartment in Los Angeles. On an impulse, I brought several tabs of acid with me on the plane. […]

The four of us [Krassner, Fromme, and her roommates Sandra Good and Brenda McCann] ingested those little white tablets containing 300 micrograms of LSD, then took a walk to the office of Laurence Merrick, who had been associated with schlock biker exploitation movies as the prerequisite to directing a sensationalist documentary, Manson.

Squeaky’s basic vulnerability emerged as she kept pacing around and telling Merrick that she was afraid of him. He didn’t know we were tripping, but he must have sensed the vibes. He may even have gotten a touch of contact high. I engaged him in conversation about movies. We discussed the fascistic implications of The French Connection.

Was Fromme “afraid” of the Merrick from the effects of the LSD – or did she have other reasons? This brief encounter, whatever its meaning, in combination with Fromme’s participation in Merrick and Hendrickson’s Manson constitutes another Israeli connection to an eccentric piece of American political assassination drama following the various Jewish and Zionist intrigues surrounding the murder of John F. Kennedy.

Bizarrely, Merrick himself was murdered in an outrageous episode further dissolving any distinction between reality and theater. Bryan Thomas relates the bizarre incident:

Dennis MignanoThen, in 1977, Merrick’s life would intersect fatally with a potential acting student named Dennis Mignano, who – much like Manson himself – had really wanted to have a music career, but when that didn’t pan out, the struggling rock singer decided to take acting lessons.

That decision had led him straight to Merrick Studio – which by now was teaching classes in acting, directing and cinematography – where he applied to be a student.

He believed that Merrick – due to his association with Manson, bikers, and magic – was the perfect person to help him launch a successful acting career (Mignano had reportedly been obsessed with magic as a child).

Mignano filled out an application to be a student, and then was told he was eligible for government assistance to pay for his tuition, but he had to wait for three weeks for the application to be processed.

Mignano grew irritated and felt like the delay was yet another setback and a disappointment, but he waited, and while he did so he watched episodes of a 1976 TV mini-series called Helter Skelter, which just happened to be re-airing on TV.

The TV series may have played a small part in reminding him that his life was now intertwined with Merrick’s and he then became obsessed with the idea that Merrick had actually placed a curse on him.

On January 26th, 1977, he went to the school and waited in ambush for Merrick to appear in the parking lot for a few hours and then pulled out a pistol and shot 50-year old Laurence Merrick in the back.

Mignano then fled the scene, and much like the opening scene of Richard Rush’s 1980 action film The Stunt Man – which, and get this, starred actor Steve Railsback, who had played Charles Manson in the Helter Skelter mini-series – he, by pure chance, happened upon a movie being shot mere blocks away, on Willoughby Ave., and the killer blended in with the crew (just as Railsback’s character did), pretending to be part of the film production team.

Merrick, meanwhile, staggered into his office at the studio, telling his students “Some son of a bitch shot me and I don’t even know why!” Some of the students thought they were witnessing an impromptu acting exercise, but quickly realized that their teacher was dying in front of them.

Merrick was rushed to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, but he was pronounced dead within an hour. Students at the Merrick Studio Academy of Dramatic Arts said that Mignano had been hanging around the building all morning, asking them questions about Merrick and his Manson documentary.

Mignano confessed to the crime in 1981 and was confined to a mental institution. Six months after his murder of Merrick, Mignano’s sister Michele, a topless dancer, was also murdered – a case that remains unsolved. Questions about Merrick remain, as well. Why was his actors’ studio receiving government funding? Did his work on behalf of Israel end after he left New York for Los Angeles – or did it continue in some capacity as he interacted with the Manson Family and completed his films?

Rainer Chlodwig von K.

buzz-aldrin

Buzz Aldrin with Mickey Rooney

In 2002, Buzz Aldrin made the news again when he punched moon landing skeptic Bart Sibrel in front of Café Rodeo at the Luxe Hotel in Beverly Hills. Sibrel, making a nuisance of himself, had planted himself in Aldrin’s path and demanded that the astronaut swear on a Bible that he had landed on the moon in 1969. Aldrin’s reaction was that of a self-important and temperamental actor rather than that of a disciplined man of science. Aldrin discusses the episode in his 2009 autobiography, Magnificent Desolation.

Like most Americans, I’m quite skeptical about conspiracy theories. I’m someone who has dealt with the exact science of space rendezvous and orbital mechanics, so to have someone approach me and seriously suggest that Neil, Mike, and I never actually went to the moon – that the entire trip had been staged in a sound studio someplace – has to rank among the most ludicrous ideas I’ve ever heard. Yet somehow the media has given credence to some of the kooky people espousing such theories, and my fellow astronauts and I have had to put up with the consequences.1

Hollywood, indeed, alluded to the possibility of a faked lunar landing as early as the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, and the 1977 thriller Capricorn One concerns the cover-up of a faked Mars mission.

The media treated Aldrin like a hero again, however, after assaulting conspiracy theorist Sibrel – and it is interesting to note that the story received news coverage coinciding with the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Here is Aldrin’s account of the “Blow Heard ‘Round the World” in his book Magnificent Desolation:

Because of the publicity the hoax theorists have garnered, occasionally even in a serious interview a reporter will broach the subject. One September morning in 2002, I was in Beverly Hills at the Luxe Hotel, filming a television interview for a Far Eastern TV network, when the interview began going in a direction that I knew was out of bounds. At first I tried to be cordial, adroitly answering the question, assuming the interviewer would recognize my reluctance to talk about inanity, and bring the focus back to a bona fide space subject. Instead the interviewer began playing a television segment that had aired in the United States on the subject of hoaxes, including a section suggesting that the Apollo 11 moon landing never happened. I was aware of the piece and had been livid when it originally aired. I did not appreciate the interviewer’s attempts to lure me into commenting on it. Lisa [Cannon, Aldrin’s stepdaughter] had accompanied me to the interview following her early morning triathlon training in the Santa Monica Bay, and she immediately recognized that this was a flagrant violation of our willingness to conduct the interview in good faith, so she called a halt to the production. We weren’t belligerent, but we did not linger long over our good-byes, either.

lisa-cannon

Lisa Cannon

We left the hotel room and walked down the hall to catch the elevator, only a matter of seconds away. I pressed the button for the ground level, and Lisa and I looked at each other and smiled. It had been a strange morning already. When the elevator doors opened on the ground level, it got worse.

As we stepped out into the hotel foyer, a large man who looked to be in his mid-thirties approached me, attempting to engage me in conversation. “Hey, Buzz, how are you?” He had his own film crew along, with the camera already rolling to document the encounter.

I greeted him briefly, acknowledging his presence, and kept moving – standard procedure for life in Hollywood. As Lisa and I walked through the foyer toward the front door of the hotel, however, the man kept getting in my way, peppering me with questions, none of which I answered. Lisa took my arm and glared at the man. “That’s enough,” she said, as I could feel her pressure on my arm guiding me toward the door. “Please let us alone; we’re leaving now.”

We stepped outside under the hotel awning, and the film crew continued right along with us. Lisa’s car was parked across the street on Rodeo Drive, but there was no crosswalk nearby, and the traffic was brisk.

Meanwhile, the “interviewer” had taken out a very large Bible and was shaking it in my face, his voice becoming more animated. “Will you swear on this Bible that you really walked on the moon?”

I looked back at the man and gave him a look as if to say, Will you swear on that Bible that you are an idiot? The man was becoming more virulent, inflammatory, and personally accusatory in his outbursts. I tried not to pay any attention, but he was saying things like, “Your life is a complete lie! And here you are making money by giving interviews about things you never did!”

astronauts-gone-wild

Mardi Gras will never be the same after this.

Lisa approached the cameraman and insisted, “Please turn off that camera! We’re just trying to get across the street to our car.”

I’m a patient man, but this situation was silly. “You conspiracy people don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

Lisa spied a break in the traffic, so she grabbed me by the arm again, and said, “Buzz, let’s go.” We started walking across the street, but the large man kept getting right out in front of us, standing in the middle of Rodeo Drive, blocking our path as his cameraman kept rolling film. Lisa seemed nervous about trying to go around him, while searching for her keys to unlock the car with the man in such close proximity, so we turned around and walked back to the bellman’s station outside the hotel.

“Okay, this is ridiculous,” I said to Lisa and to the bellman. “Call the police. This guy is not letting us get to our car.”

I was under the awning, and Lisa turned away from me to approach the cameraman again. “Please turn that camera off,” she said. Meanwhile the large man was nearly screaming at me, “You’re a coward, Buzz Aldrin! You’re a liar; you’re a thief!”

Maybe it was the West Point cadet in me, or perhaps it was the Air Force fighter pilot, or maybe I’d just had enough of his belligerent character assassination, but whatever it was, as the man continued to excoriate me, I suddenly let loose with a right hook that would have made George Foreman proud. WHAAP! I belted the guy squarely in the jaw.

While I prided myself on staying in relatively good shape, it was doubtful that my septuagenarian punch did much damage to the follow, except perhaps to his ego. But he was not at all concerned about the punch, anyhow. It was obvious that he had been goading me in that direction, and he seemed ecstatically happy that I had finally grown exasperated and hit him.

“Hey, did you catch that on tape?” he called out to his cameraman. That was all he cared about.

Lisa turned around and walked back to me. She cocked her head slightly, looked up at me, and asked quietly, “Buzz, what happened?”

I looked back at my stepdaughter rather sheepishly, and said, “I punched the guy.”

“You what?” Lisa’s hand instinctively flew to her mouth in disbelief, as though already postulating in her mind any potential legal ramifications.

The film crew and “interviewer” hastily packed up and headed for their vehicle. They had gotten what they were hoping for – and more. Before the night was over, the film of me punching the guy was on the news and all over the Internet. The interviewer went to the police, threatening to file assault charges against me.

In the meantime, Lisa contacted our legal representative, Robert O’Brien, and told him everything that had happened. Robert suggested that we hire a criminal lawyer, just in case the encounter actually led to charges.

On the following Tonight Show, Jay Leno included the incident in his standup routine, cheering, “Way to go, Buzz!” They doctored up the video of my punch, and edited it to make it appear as though I had given the guy about twenty rapid-fire punches instead of the one.

David Letterman also came to my defense in his opening remarks for The Late Show, and threw in a double feature on the story the next night, since they had “dug up” some old archival footage of a reporter accosting Christopher Columbus, accusing him, “You didn’t really cross the ocean and land in the New World. You’re a liar!” And of course, Columbus decked the guy.

By then, television networks and evening entertainment news programs were calling, suddenly wanting me to appear on their shows. Ordinarily I would have been delighted, but our legal advisers said, “No interviews.” Eventually the matter died down. The city of Beverly Hills did not bring charges against me, and there were witnesses to the harassing behavior that provoked my response. It still cost me money to hire a lawyer to defend myself, and the hoax advocate received the publicity he sought, so I suppose, in the end, he won. But the punch provided me with some satisfaction, at least, and I was gratified by the calls and notes of support. CNN Crossfire commentator Paul Begala gave me a thumbs-up, and many others sent encouraging messages. Ironically, some of the most supportive words came from my fellow astronauts, to the effect of, “Hey, Buzz, I wish I’d punched the guy! Finally, somebody has responded to these hoax theory perpetrators.” More than my knowledge of rendezvous techniques, more than my actions under pressure during the initial lunar landing, more than anything in my career as an astronaut – it seemed as if nothing elevated me more in their estimation than “the punch.” From that day on, I was a hero to them.2

Some have alleged that the scene was staged and cite, for instance, the fact that Aldrin and Sibrel went on to collaborate on the 2004 documentary Astronauts Gone Wild. It is strange, too, to note that Sibrel, in publicizing a theory that ought to hinge on forensic examination and logic, instead decides to interject religion into the showdown, obnoxiously brandishing his Bible and thereby setting himself up for ridicule by progressives. The cameraman is also careful to get a clear shot of the restaurant’s sign and street address, which – if, indeed, this confrontation was a hoax – might have been a condition set by the Luxe Hotel for permission to use the Café Rodeo as a location. Begala’s response, not the typical one for commentary on an assault, was to give the “thumbs-up”, the gesture made synonymous with film criticism by Siskel and Ebert. Lisa Cannon, the woman seen with Aldrin in the video, has been credited with a “significant role” in “developing Buzz Aldrin’s brand”.

Regardless of whether the “Blow Heard ‘Round the World” was a planned event, it served as an object lesson for the public during the politically crucial period following 9/11. As Aldrin’s account makes clear, the media treated him like a hero for punching Sibrel. Aldrin also makes a very deliberate reference to his military service in describing his thought process leading to the moment of violence. The takeaway for the audience is that hitting “conspiracy people” is the laudable thing to do in these turbulent times following the destruction of the World Trade Center. Laugh at them if possible, but punch them if they become too insistent. This was before the advent of YouTube, when critical analysis of the 9/11 matrix was in its comparative infancy. Connecting “conspiracy people” with superstition, socially awkward behavior, and lack of patriotic reverence would pay off in preconditioned public responses as inconvenient scrutiny of these events would become much more common over the years.

apollo

Destination Moon

Notwithstanding his touchiness about the reality of the Apollo mission, Aldrin is eager to emphasize his connection with the entertainment industry, and one of the chapters in Magnificent Desolation is titled “Pop Goes Space Culture”. He boasts of his friendship with science-fiction illusionists like James Cameron, the director of The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss. “For several years, Lois and I had been spending a lot of time driving up to L.A. on business and to attend a variety of Hollywood events in the evenings,” he writes, adding that they eventually moved into “a luxury high-rise condo along the Wilshire Corridor of Los Angeles, just west of Beverly Hills, because so much of our business was now connected to the entertainment industry.”3

“A little-known Hollywood fact is that my name had already been firmly ensconced in Hollywood lore long before Lois and I moved there,” he continues. “On the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame, at the corners of Hollywood and Vine, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and I have not one star but four, one on each corner of the intersection. Actually, our ‘stars’ are in the shape of moons.”4 Recognition on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame is a rather unexpected tribute for a veteran of NASA’s Apollo 11 program – either that or a tellingly fitting one.

Rainer Chlodwig von K.

Endnotes

  1. Aldrin, Buzz; and Ken Abraham. Magnificent Desolation. New York, NY: Harmony Books, 2009, p. 281.
  2. Ibid., pp. 282-285.
  3. Ibid., p. 256.
  4. Ibid.
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