Nov 1, 2016
The out-loud life and silent death of Teenagers From Outer Space creator Tom Graeff
Tom Graeff was a charming fellow. He was handsome and chiseled, a would-be sci-fi auteur whose biggest contribution was, according to one trusted critic, “silly, ponderous and trite.” He’s been called the gay Ed Wood, but that misses the point of a real, if misapplied, talent. Graeff was also far madder and sadder than the fellow played by Johnny Depp.
Openly gay long before Stonewall, preaching bisexuality on the radio as panacea for our many sexual ills, he tried to legally change his name to Jesus Christ II. Quakers had him committed.
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And then, in 1970, he left this world, but no one noticed and the world went on its way making up stories about the crackpot writer-director of one of the weirder films then playing on post-midnight television with all the monotonous regularity of a sign-off sermonette. By the time I found out what finally happened to Tom Graeff, the filmmaker was well on his way to becoming a minor gay icon and his Judge Crater-like disappearance in the wake of a cratered career a mystery to which only I knew the answer for a long, long while.
Keep Watching the Skies
Tom Graeff managed to helm only one feature film from immaterial idea to final cut to general release. Out of the hundreds of low-budget science fiction movies released in America during the early Cold War, Teenagers from Outer Space (1959) is one of a relative handful with any kind of life outside period camp or low-rent irony. Object of affection by the rivet-headed crew at Mystery Science Theater 3000, this oddity survived scorn, neglect, a lapsed copyright, and the fannish embrace-that-kills to attain a certain wistful regard among that fragment of the public still willing to sit through a black-and-white movie.
Film critic Andy Klein remembered Teenagers as one more quasi-freakish B-grade sci-fi entry hurled into the drive-in circuit to cash in on the success of I Was a Teenaged Werewolf. Genre historian Bill Warren, author of the magisterial SF study Keep Watching the Skies, is unaccustomedly warm: “The film indeed has almost nothing to recommend it. It is silly, ponderous and trite, but occasionally there are glimmerings of intelligence real enough that I’m still curious as to why Tom Graeff never made another film.” Michael J. Weldon, in his oft-cited Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, cackles in customary clipped eldritch tones of saucers, ray-guns and giant lobster monsters bred for food, while some TV screening of Graeff’s one-dose oeuvre was another documented occasion where Lester Bangs lost his shit entirely. Raving in the March 1973 Creem, the eminent rock critic spun an absurd tale of Graeff’s having to apologize over making the movie at all or maybe it was some PR hype he’d swallowed out of a Romilar bottle. Meanwhile, at “every commercial break, the Dialing for Dollars host would snicker and practically apologize about ‘this, uh, movie we got today. Boy, I sure don’t know where they got this one.’ But fuck those people who’d rather be watching The Best Years of Our Lives or David and Lisa.” Indeed.
Okay, We Get It, Let’s Roll this Joint
The Warner Bros. logo is missing from most prints of Teenagers, which opens with a steely-eyed reporter posing at an observatory telescope comparing the earth to a speck of food floating in a ravenous ocean to some scholarly fellow who grunts sympathetically through a verminous-looking beard. Smash-cut to a flying saucer making a vertical landing and screwing itself into the ground before offloading some bad-tempered types in war-surplus flightsuits, their leader Thor (Bryan Pearson) pausing to turn a deathray on some friendly mutt, flensing all meat from its neatly folded skeleton. Awesome, and probably the shot that sold this $14,000 indie movie to Warners.
What comes after is a singular hash of sci-fi clichés, clotted social commentary, sexy young people, insanely cheap fx, and some of the worst acting even seen in a major-studio release, along with the kind of burn-it-up narrative gonzo oft-found in much better low-budget B-movies of the era. Turns out these aliens are packing a load of giant cattle they intend to let range Earth to fatten for their own totalitarian mess-halls beyond the stars. We only see these creatures indirectly; a neat effect achieved using the magnified shadows of live lobsters. Meanwhile, rebellious Derek (“David Love” a.k.a. Chuck Roberts) grabs a raygun and deserts to join the human race, his wanderings in flightsuit along Sunset Blvd. and environs providing moments of startling pathos. The kid winds up renting a room from Betty (Dawn Anderson) and Grampa Joe (Ed Wood favorite Harvey B. Dunn) and he and Betty exchange tender, precarious affections. The whole thing goes smash at the finish, with Derek martyred for a barely discernible Greater Good and credits roll at about 86 minutes, depending on the print. Graeff himself plays, what else, the reporter.
Back in the mid-1990s, I was in grad school in San Diego and sending in occasional pieces to Scarlet Street magazine, whose wit and scholarly bent I dug immensely. Publisher Jessie Lilley had heard that Tom Graeff, who’d vanished from Hollywood sometime in the late 1960s, had committed suicide in San Diego county “around 1972.” A story she and editor Richard Valley had run on Graeff contained more than a few errors and the pair wanted to sweeten an upcoming mea culpa with some fresh research, so I wrangled copies of the coroner’s investigation and the autopsy report.
The latter is merely an innards recital, as the body of a 41-year-old well-nourished white male suicide is cracked open (as the law demands) and kidneys are weighed, intestines unspooled, and livers and lights sorted and found unremarkable. As a genre of writing, such reports are, for all their Dantean way with viscera, juiceless with this one devoting many pages to documenting the superb state of the departed’s husk. Tests for alcohol and barbiturates were negative and studies indicated death by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Graeff’s final mise-en-scene was reviewed in sharp detail by M.L. Murphy, San Diego Co. deputy coroner. On the morning of Dec. 19 1970, Murphy found the decedent “lying across the front seat of a 1970 Chevrolet Impala sedan.” in a dingy garage near some low-rent houses along Olive Ave. in La Mesa. A 1960 Corvair was parked alongside, a length of hose connected to the tailpipe and leading to the right rear window of the other car, whose own exhaust was pumped into the left. The garage had been sealed from the inside. At about a quarter past six a.m., Graeff’s neighbor, Karen Balding, 23, was “awakened by an alarm clock placed outside the window somewhere near the residence. When the noise persisted, she went outside and found the alarm clock placed outside the window at the decedent’s residence. There was an envelope visible in the window, addressed to her.” The note contained diffidently worded instructions on disposal of the rented Impala. The older car’s engine was still turning over when Ms. Balding ran to a neighbor’s house and police were called. The Olive Ave. apartment had been rented in the decedent’s name for the past month, but he had not resided there.
A Long Beach friend confirmed the object of their attentions had recently threatened suicide and “was homosexual, well educated, sensitive, and had become despondent regarding ‘the state of man and his environment’.” That, along with the livid, monoxide-gorged residuum of Thomas Lockyear Graeff, scriptwriter from Los Angeles, was enough to convince the San Diego coroner of suicide. As far as the movie industry was concerned, he’d simply vanished like Ambrose Bierce. In the years since his death, Teenagers went on to win an odd nook in the odder hearts of horror/SF movie fandom, but the sizable cottage industry that grew up around chronicling genre minutiae failed to turn up any word of what had happened to the guy who made the movie.
The article was never written and Richard Valley died in 2007 after years of ill heath, his ambitious project for a Graeff biography unrealized. The zine subculture that produced Scarlet Street contracted into oblivion and I carried around this paper corpse tucked in a manila envelope though one vicissitude or other until encountering online one Jim Tushinski, of the Tom Graeff Biography Project. Like me, Richard Valley, Lester Bangs, Bill Warren, Tim Burton, SF documentarian Elle Schneider, the dorks of MST3K and many unheralded more, he’d stared long into this particular abyss.
The Project is a staggeringly detailed, warmly sympathetic attempt to reconstruct Tom Graeff’s life as curated by Tushinski, a documentary filmmaker. It turns out Jim had the death certificate and had even been to the now-dilapidated garage on Olive Ave., but didn’t know the details of Graeff’s final exit. After four years of relentless pursuit of every last scrap of information and tracking down everyone who knew this inspired maniac, he was happy to have me fill him in over the phone.
Turn Me On, Dead Man
Jim sighed when I finished, as one would over the antics of an endearingly silly brother. “He was such a character. I feel like I know him, because I’ve talked to so many people who’ve known him, read some of the letters he wrote and the treatises he wrote about various things. He was a very organized, very meticulous person. He talked a lot about killing himself for quite a long while, but the people around him thought he was kidding and saw it as bids for attention. He was asking about various methods. He thought pills might be a good thing and he talked about the car and told a friend of his he was carrying a hose around with him. Everyone got tired of hearing it about it all the time.”
Indeed. Having heard so many stories about Graeff’s last exit myself over the years, I half-suspected the fucker of faking at least one suicide before La Mesa police found him in the bucket seat. At what point did Jim deal himself into this story?
“I was first interested in the movie. I first saw it on television and I was terrified by the disintegrations!” Jim exclaimed, that familiar sense-of-wonder Ray Bradbury knows so well overtaking his voice. “It dawned on me all of a sudden that people are made of flesh and bone and can die. I watched that movie whenever it came up, buying copies on first VHS, then DVD. I’d been hearing rumors about Tom for years, read really wild things on the internet. One of the first things I found out was that Tom and David Love/Chuck Roberts were lovers! I was so excited to hear of such a wonderful thing. I read the article in Scarlet Street. I started doing my own research after that, got ahold of Brian Grant, who played Thor, Ursala Hansen, who was Brian’s ex-wife and became good friends with her, visiting her several times. Through her I got hold of Dawn Andersen and got the two of them together after 50 years. I just started racking up. Found some actors who worked in the film and people who worked in other films with him and I came across a friend of his who contacted me through the website, asking me to please help him get those film prints back. He had a lot of memorabilia; scripts, notes, photographs of Tom. He knew him well the last three years of his life. Through him, I found other people who knew him then and it just grew from there. I discovered things about Tom that nobody knew! What happened to him after he left Hollywood.”
Let’s get back to that, I halted him, pursuing my own agenda for a moment. What is it about this man that exerts such fascination?
“For me, he reminded me of myself,” said Jim, putting it simply and directly. “Here was a guy who made films on his own, almost singlehandedly, and never gave up. Until a certain point he saw he couldn’t do any more. It was sort of an artist fighting against the system and doing something everyone tells you you can’t do. That and he was gay and pretty open about his relationship with Chuck and then later on when he got involved with some of the early gay rights groups in Los Angeles. He never pretended this wasn’t the case and everyone he ever worked with knew it. I’d felt a lot of this myself and that really cemented me wanting to find out as much as I possibly could about him.”
Tom was born in Ray, Arizona, in 1929 and his parents moved to Los Angeles when he was one or two years old. His father bopped around from job to job and the family had settled in Corona del Mar by the time Tom went to UCLA in the late 1940s and became one of the first admissions to the film program. He was a terrible student, flunked out numerous times and was put on warning numerous times, but finally graduated largely because of the work he’d put into his featurette, A Toast to Our Brothers, a movie he shot with his Delta Chi fraternity brothers.
The Noble Experiment came after, a woolly fantasy concerning a magic “GetAlong” formula that sweetens humanity’s nature. It was premiered at the Lido Theater in Newport Beach in 1955 and was not a success. “There’s one surviving print which we’re trying to get into the UCLA archives,” Jim said. “It’s Tom’s favorite of his three films. He really thought that it said something. He’d show it with his short, Island Sunrise.”
Shot at Stardom
“Noble Experiment got him noticed by B-movie powerhouse Roger Corman, who offered him a job as an assistant on Not of This Earth (1957), a tightly scripted thriller that today forms a considerable part of the Corman cult. “He’s in the movie as a car park attendant who gets killed by the alien. Some of it is his voice and some is dubbed. Corman has nothing but nice things to say about him. Graeff’s script Killers from Outer Space began to make the rounds.
“He changed the titled a number of times over the years before the movie was bought by Warner Bros.,” Jim allowed. “He was not very astute business-wise, but he was very good at getting what he needed for free, having actors work and not pay them. Most of the actors who worked with him have stories on how they were gonna get this and that from him and not get anything. Bryan Grant gave Tom $5000 for he and his wife to play roles in the movie and eventually sued to get the money back. There was a long, complicated court trial about that and I have the records.”
Despite bad legal noise, Tom eventually sold the movie to the brothers Warner as The Boy From Out of This World. “That was the title he wanted,” Jim continues, “But Warners changed it to Teenagers From Outer Space.” The reviews were bad, and though some few praised the director’s obvious sensitivity, the reception was a disaster. “It showed as a second feature, mostly in drive-ins,” said Jim. “Bryan and Ursula saw it at a neighborhood theater in L.A. somewhere and remembered people howling with laughter. They snuck out of the theater. This was supposed to be Bryan’s calling card in Hollywood and there was no way he was ever gonna get another job. So, that, I think, precipitated Tom’s first nervous breakdown.”
I Was a Teenage Jesus
“What Tom would do it put out a lot of ads,” Jim resumed, “Pay for things to be put in the Hollywood Reporter and the Free Press and the Hollywood Citizen, a great old paper eventually bought by the Times. Around Thanksgiving, 1959, Tom took out a full-page ad in the Times claiming to be Jesus Christ.”
“I have a copy of the first one, but the second one’s vanished. There’s an interesting little story in Time magazine about this. The ad is a long, elaborate explanation of how this came to happen. Then he showed up at the ad office of the Times on Christmas Eve, with another ad announcing he’d be speaking at different churches, where he would proclaim and explain. When the editors at the Times found out about it, they flipped and pulled it from any further copies so it’s not in any archives.”
I asked Jim why Tom was like this. “I think, it was the nervous breakdown,” he said after a pause, “I think the failure of Teenagers destroyed him in a lot of ways. He wanted to do things, to be somebody, and I think he suddenly realized filmmaking wasn’t going to do it and he needed to be something much bigger than a film-maker in order to change the world. Nobody knows what happened to Chuck Roberts, but he vanished sometime after Teenagers. Chuck’s leaving probably caused a lot of heartache for Tom and this was on top of the failure of the movie, so, around about Thanksgiving, Tom began hearing voices, seeing things, receiving messages from God. He decided in order to really make a difference, he had to be Jesus Christ.”
He’d tried being Tom Graeff, filmmaker, I noted feeling hollow, and look where that got him. “The thing was,” insists Jim, “Everybody who saw him preach on the steps of the Presbyterian Church on Gower said he was very lucid, didn’t seem crazy at all. They locked the doors of the church when they heard he was coming, so he did it on the steps.” The moviemaker showed up in a big convertible with disciples and passed out leaflets explaining that everybody should be writing to Nikita Khrushchev and to the governor of California asking for justice for Caryl Chessman. Most of his talk that day was about Chessman and nuclear problems with Russia.” Soon, the entire world was bound to come as little children to the new messiah.
“He later tried to change his name to Jesus Christ II,” Jim deadpanned. “I have all the documents and court records. It was opposed by a Christian organization that was horrified at the suggestion. The judge said no. There were some articles about that and, through all of this, everyone who knew him said he was perfectly lucid.” People who believe in such chimeras as tolerance and non-violence are often so, but Graeff would know fewer such intervals as the years passed.
Angel, Angel, Down We Go
Jim outlines a disintegration that at ten years must have seemed eternal. “He applied to take classes at Pendle Hill, a Quaker school in Pennsylvania, was accepted, attended 1962-63 and caused nothing but problems. The retreat’s elders didn’t take to their new charge telling people he was the reincarnated Christ. He’d also send tracts he’d written on Pendle Hill stationary to notable Quakers, who wrote back telling of receiving weird communications. “The widow of the then-president remembered for me what an awful time they’d had, since they just could not get rid of Tom. Finally, they called the police, who threatened him with arrest if he came back. He barricaded himself into a dormitory.”
Tom landed in jail and stayed there about two months. Once out, he went back despite warnings, so he was put in a mental institution. “I can’t find any diagnosis,” remarked the diligent researcher. “It appears as if he was given electroshock treatments in some county hospital that’s since been torn down.” Tom was released to his parents and brought back to California in 1964. He wound up working with low-budget sci-fi maven David L. Hewitt on Wizard of Mars (1965) as editor. Reports of Graeff’s doings are thin until 1968, when he’d apparently picked up a newer, younger circle of friends impressed by his movie-biz connections. Tom was flogging a screenplay called Orf, which he offered for sale in via an ad in Variety for the then-unbelievable price of $500,000.
Tom was interviewed by Times gossip columnist Joyce Haber, who ridiculed his pretension. Tom retaliated with an open letter to A-list director Robert Wise in the Hollywood Reporter, which angered Haber, who raked up the old scandal about Tom trying to change his name to Jesus Christ years before. “Tom became persona non grata in Hollywood,” said Jim, “No one would give him money.”
“A number of things contributed to his suicide, including the fact he couldn’t get Orf made,” Jim noted sadly. “Instead, he made a long-playing record of a lecture he’d given about how man is truly bisexual and touted it as a cure for sexual problems. It was sold mail-order and apparently broadcast several times on local radio stations in 1968 and 1969.” Tom belonged to a number of early gay rights organizations in Los Angeles and, according to Jim, liked to spy on people having sex in Griffith Park. He had an unhappy facility for falling in love with unavailable straight men and, in fact, became obsessed with one, following him to San Diego before being spurned.
This is Where I Came In
“Someone who knew him in Los Angeles came down to see him and was shocked at how Tom was living,” remembered Jim, filling in on the last months of his subject’s life. “Tom never had a paying job and nobody knew how he made his money, but he could sell anything to anybody and always lived well. He ended up on a dead-end street. I think at that point there was nothing left for him. He’s tried to be somebody important and couldn’t. He tried to love somebody who didn’t love him back. I don’t think he saw any future for himself.”
“I see Tom as one of many, many people who came to Hollywood trying to do it their own way and were crushed.” Jim said, summing up. “Teenagers has become a cult because of its complete earnestness and because of David Love. I think a lot of people who saw that movie saw a labor of love that one person put together for this young man.”
The Graeff cult has Jim to thank for working to preserve Tom’s films and ephemera, much of which is at the UCLA Film and Television Library. He hopes, in time, that such diligence will result in a biography of the doomed filmmaker, a man whose life is a kind of urban archeological puzzle, with hints of the weird and the fantastic tucked just below the surface. For Jim, what Tom has to say to us is simple, “Don’t put everything you are into your visions because that will end up destroying you.”