“All Dolled Up”: Night Flight’s exclusive interview with director Bob Gruen about his New York Dolls documentary

By on February 10, 2017

All Dolled Up: A New York Dolls Story features amazing, rare live clips and revealing interviews that were filmed by acclaimed New York-based photographer Bob Gruen and Nadya Beck in the heady days of the band’s ascension in the 70s, intercut with “backstage banter and late night debauchery.” See the incredible early days of the band that influenced generations of punks and rockers now on Night Flight Plus!

The feature-length doc captures the Dolls during some of their early performances in New York at Kenny’s Castaways and Max’s Kansas City, and then follows the band on their tour of the West Coast, where we see footage from the Whisky a Go Go, “The Real Don Steele Show,” Rodney Bingenheimer’s E Club, and much more.

Along the way, we hear ripping versions of “Personality Crisis,” “Who Are the Mystery Girls?,” “Babylon” and more NY Dolls tunes.

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We recently asked the film’s director, Bob Gruen, to tell us about the film:

NIGHT FLIGHT: The early 70s footage we see in All Dolled Up was first released in 2005. How was it archived for all those years? Was it lost footage that you’d stored away and forgotten, or did you always plan to assemble it into a film? Was there any connection to it coming out in 2005 after the band re-formed to play shows in 2004?

BOB GRUEN: There was a rough half hour version made at the time but the managers of the Dolls had in the ’70’s could never come to a reasonable agreement to let us release the footage commercially. In 2004, when the Dolls got back together for a reunion at the Meltdown festival in London they had a new manager who made a deal to allow us to re-edit and release the footage. The footage we used in the early edit and more is in the new version.

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NF: What were your plans when you and your wife Nadya bought the Sony Portapac video tape recorder in ’71, did you plan to follow bands around? Can you describe the camera?

GRUEN: The Sony Portapac video recorder was the first portable video recorder available for consumer use. The camera was about 15″ long by 6″ high and 3″ wide, and it attached via a thick cable to the tape recorder which you carried on a shoulder strap. The recorder used 1/2″ open 5″ reel tapes which were threaded through the rollers and around the recording head.

The camera weighed about 3 pounds and the recorder weighed about 20 pounds. The internal battery only worked for 1/2 hour, so we usually carried a bigger extra battery on a belt that would last about 2 hours. We could plug it in when it was stationary.

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I felt that video was going to be very important and so I convinced my dad to loan me the money to buy a recorder and started to tape the groups I was working with. I was friends with the owners of Tramps and Max’s Kansas City and so had access to make many tapes there. There was no commercial market for these tapes because they could only be shown on the Portapac machine connected to a TV.

A few years later when Cable TV arrived I would show my tapes on the NY cable station which was required to have two channels open for public use. We had to wait for many years before having the technology which enabled the high quality required for DVD production.

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Bob Gruen, with Yoko and John Lennon

NF: You actually met the NY Dolls through your friendship with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, right? Can you tell us a little about that?

GRUEN: I met the New York Dolls because they had the same managers as the Elephant’s Memory group who were the back-up band for John & Yoko’s recordings in 1972. When John produced an Elephant’s Memory album, I went to the band’s management to show them my photos and was told I should go to see another of their bands – the New York Dolls.

I first saw them play at the Mercer Arts Center in early December 1972, and then returned to see them again there with my wife Nadya and two members of the Elephant’s Memory for the New Year’s Eve show – and we were fans from then on. In fact, Stan Bronstein from the Elephant’s Memory plays the saxophone solo on the NY Dolls “Human Being.” My relationship with the NY Dolls members developed into lasting close friendships.

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NF: The footage that opens the film is from The Lipstick Killers, which we’ve read was filmed on 29th Street in NY, in 1974. What can you tell us about the shoot? Did you direct all of that footage?

GRUEN: I directed and made the footage we call “The Lipstick Killers” as an opening sequence for the NY Dolls Valentine’s Day show at the Academy of Music on 14th Street.

The idea was that instead of the traditional hearts and flowers, the NY Dolls would dress as gangsters and ‘massacre’ the audience (referencing the famous Chicago gangster killings). We lucked out and got a warm day in January to film the band, and then licensed some old newsreel footage.

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The newsreels were of a 1920’s beauty contest; a little history of Babe Ruth; a prison riot, and then a report about a gang called ‘The Lipstick Killers’ who would put on makeup before going out to do nefarious deeds.

The film ends with the band running into the Academy of Music, at which point the band are running down the aisles in the same gangster style suits with toy machine guns, to “massacre” the audience and start the show.

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NF: The NY Dolls obviously liked to play dress-up and also played a lot of famous shows on specific dress-up days, like Valentine’s Day and Halloween (their show in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel), which we see in the film. What can you tell us about some of those gigs?

GRUEN: The NY Dolls were a lot of fun to work with because they loved to dress up every day and loved to be filmed. The Halloween show was at the Waldorf because I happened to be talking to one of the managers as he was planning to book a show at the shabby Diplomat hotel and so I flippantly said “why don’t you go big time and do it at the Waldorf?” I didn’t expect him to take me seriously!

The evening was really great because their audience already liked to dress up and what better excuse to go over the top than Halloween?

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I remember there was also a costume contest and the prize was three nights in a motel in Newark. The contest was won by three people who were dressed as a horse and rider.

The famous DJ Wolfman Jack came as a Vampire to broadcast his radio show that night from the Waldorf Ballroom.

The promoter oversold the tickets and the crowd got so big that they broke some doors trying to get in and after that the Waldorf barred Rock & Roll shows there for many years.

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NF: Tell us about the NY Dolls’ trip to Los Angeles? That was in the summer of ’73, right? The band really seemed to be enjoying themselves, lots of groupies, etc. Any good stories? The Whisky? “The Real Don Steele” TV show? Rodney Bingenheimer? (The NY Dolls were in Los Angeles several times in 1973 & 1974.)

GRUEN: The NY Dolls went to Los Angeles in the summer of 1973. When they arrived at the notorious Sunset Marquee on the first trip, the lobby was filled with groupies Rodney Bingenheimer had rounded up to meet them.

When the self-proclaimed “Queen of the Groupies” Sable Starr met Johnny Thunders it was love at first sight, and they were together for several years. The NY Dolls had just finished a sold out week at New York’s Max’s Kansas City club and then played a sold out week at the Whisky A Go Go.

They got very little sleep as their trip was a non-stop party. Since it was very hot in L.A., David Johansen only wore a jockey bathing suit most of the time, going out to eat, or to a radio station get-together.

When they taped a performance at the “The Real Don Steele” TV show, Rodney brought groupies to dance like go go girls behind the band. They also taped a performance for the national TV show, “Midnight Special,” but this time without the dancing girls.

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In March of 1974 they played a show at the Santa Monica Civic Center. They used my “The Lipstick Killers” film to open their show. I thought this didn’t make sense since it was filmed specifically for the Valentine’s Day Massacre show in New York, but the kids loved it. Sable explained to me that was because “if you’re in a movie, any movie, you’re a star.”

They came back to Los Angeles in July 1974 to act in the Ralph Bakshi film Hey Good Lookin’. Bakshi would film live actors and then have the studio artists paint over them in each frame turning the film into a very real seeming cartoon.

The film is about a gang in Brooklyn, and the NY Dolls played a band the gang went to see. Unfortunately, although they were very good on the set their scenes were omitted from the final edit of the film. In October ’74, they opened a show for Iggy Pop at the Hollywood Palladium.

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NF: David Johansen has a funny bit in the film, where he describes the three kinds of California kids he’d met. Anything to say about that?

GRUEN: David was surprised by the seeming air-headedness of the kids in California, and says “California kids are like eggs… they come in three styles, once over easy, sunny side up, and scrambled, mostly scrambled.”

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NF: What can you tell us about the Dolls’ New York fan base? Any good stories, particularly about some of the band’s fans we might see in the film?

GRUEN: The fans in New York ranged from young excited kids to famous artists. Most of them drank or took drugs or did quantities of both so it was a very loose and happy crowd. But also an intelligent crowd.

The Dolls songs and stage patter related to current events with a very sarcastic New York attitude. They were very fashion forward.

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NF: How about the Mercer Arts Center, what can you tell us about that particular venue? The “Oscar Wilde Room”?

GRUEN: The Mercer Arts Center was the ballroom area of the old Broadway Central hotel. The ballroom entrance was in the back, on Mercer Street. There was a big staircase leading up one flight and there were several rooms; the old coat room was used to sell mostly new English clothes, bright plastic mini skirts and platform shoes, still very new in New York.

The Kitchen area was used by an avant guard video company that is still in existence and still calls themselves ‘the Kitchen.’ The Oscar Wilde Room was the old ballroom, not really very large, but with bleacher style seating on one side that I remember as being so steep it was almost vertical.

There was no stage to speak of and the audience would crowd around the band in the middle of the room.

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Johnny Thunders and Sable Starr

NF: We’ve read that, back in the ’70s, if you were part of the rock scene and went to clubs like Max’s or CBGB’s, fashion was a really big deal, probably bigger than it is now, and that audience members were usually were wearing red, white or black, the colors embraced by the NY Dolls — which isn’t clear in black & white footage — and sometimes stripes and polka dots and stars. Is this something you could talk about a little?

GRUEN: The NY Dolls fans would always dress to party every night. The NY Dolls didn’t just dress for a show, but like most of the people in New York at the time they dressed in eclectic attention getting styles. Lots of black of course, and also bright colors or polka dots or maybe some aluminum foil or clear plastic things.

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NF: Can you tell us something about their photo shoots? Any good stories?

GRUEN: The photo on the cover of their second album Too Much Too Soon is a shot I made of them live at the “The Real Don Steele” TV show in Los Angeles. While I did shoot them in the studio several times, most of our group photos were made in the moment, in a dressing room or hotel.

They were very easy to work with since they each individually had a good sense of style and how they would work with the look of the other members, and they enjoyed dressing up and looking good.

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NF: Did you go to all of their NY shows? When they opened for Mott the Hoople at Madison Square Garden? Did you go to their taping of “Midnight Special,” which is mentioned during the film?

GRUEN: I went to as many NY Dolls shows as I could when I wasn’t on assignment somewhere else, making a living. I was a big fan and had fun seeing them play. They didn’t have a mainstream following so I wasn’t getting much money from their photos. I had to work with other bands that record companies hired me to shoot.

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NF: You screened the footage you’d shot for the band at some point, what did they think?

GRUEN: The NY Dolls loved to see themselves in my videos. In those days it was very rare for a band to see themselves at all. To be filmed was very expensive and required setting up a screening with a projector and screen.

With the video, the tapes were relatively inexpensive ($10 per 1/2 hour) and they could see them on any TV I connected the tape recorder to: in a dressing room, hotel or apartment.

Like the other groups I worked with, they really enjoyed seeing how they looked onstage. It also helped them improve their act.

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NF: You shot over forty hours of footage, right? Was there anything you left out that you wish you’d been able to include? (Anything included in the DVD “bonus” material that we should know about?)

GRUEN: Between the two videos, Lookin’ for a Kiss and Lookin’ Fine on Television, I think we’ve used most of the interesting footage. With inexpensive video we could shoot for a long time, and – in retrospect – not all of the footage of that time is that interesting!

Thanks, Bob Gruen!

Click here to read about Bob’s recent project, We Are Not Afraid. He produced and directed the full-length video showcasing the campaign’s efforts to use music to help eliminate hate, violence, and discrimination around the world.

Watch All Dolled Up: A New York Dolls Story — and we’ve also got Looking For Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders too! — on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.