“Murder, Mystery & Mayhem”: A 1981 Landmark Theatre Short Starring Peter Ivers

By on April 15, 2015

“There are thousands of tales of film exhibition in Los Angeles,” director Douglas Brian Martin tells us in his recollection about this short noir trailer he directed in 1981. “This is one of them.”

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Doug Martin: “I was working as Art Director of Landmark Theatre Corporation, tasked with art directing and designing advertising and promotion for the nation’s largest repertory theatrical concern when the news came down. Landmark was going to present a Film Noir Festival at the Sherman Theatre. My job was to fill seats.

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The late, lamented Sherman Theatre was a smallish theatre, almost personal, no balcony, set on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, a then sleepy suburb in the San Fernando Valley.  As a Festival Theatre the Sherman differed from the rest of the Landmark Theatre Corporation holdings in that it showed exclusively Film Festivals –10 weeks at a crack of films all on a theme or subject – Japanese Film, the Best of the 70s, British Film, Science Fiction, etc.

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For the Science Fiction Festival at the Sherman I had urged and pushed through Landmark giving away promotional posters of a ‘science fiction monster’ destroying Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower at the same time. The Science Fiction Festival sold out every night. For ten weeks straight.

Convinced creative promotion (the poster giveaway) helped garner record sales for the Sherman, for the Film Noir Festival, not wanting to repeat promotions and eager to put to use skills from working on countless student films and mentoring by one of the greatest storyboard artists in the history of motion pictures, I pitched a film noir theatrical trailer for the key promotional device in addition to the printed calendar which in those years adorned just about every refrigerator and/or bulletin board in southern California.

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I promised the trailer would pack the house and it would not interfere with my day job running the art department.  Hell, it would cost basically nothing as I was already on salary. My pitch was accepted and with little to no budget my neck was on the line.  I contacted my twin brother Steve to co-produce and the fun began.

I wrote and created detailed stoyboards of the ‘story’ – a ‘noir guy/detective’ in noir environment who, while drinking while driving his car to Sherman Oaks, is barraged by images of noir situations – a beautiful doll holding a gun and martini, a man with a cigar badgering, a woman crying over a dead man, a woman getting slapped, etc. – until he arrives at the Sherman Theatre where the marquee displays information regarding the film festival, he exits his car, approaches the theatre, and a hand in the box office pushes forth a ticket.  The thin string of a‘story’ would be supported by voice over with noir-ish soundtrack.

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My brother brought in Sean Kelly, a cinematographer from the San Fernando Valley, in on the action.  At our first pre-production meeting I went over the storyboards and Shane kept saying ‘No problem’ in addition to repeatedly performing a magnificent Redd Foxx impersonation.  Renowned photographer Jules Bates signed on as lighting director.  Jules said he only had modeling lights from a strobe set.  Shane said ‘No problem.’ Our shooting location was the vacant shipping section of Landmark Theatre Corporation corporate offices, the alley behind, and the Sherman Theatre.

Marion Lovewell agreed to perform makeup and hair duties so we had a cinematographer, a lighting director, makeup and hair, producers, a director, and locations, one of which was awash with neon and flashing lights.  We needed screen talent and got lucky. Peter Ivers agreed to be the ‘noir guy/detective. ‘ actress Tara Strohmeier the Doll, editor Carol Oblath consented to be slapped, producer Stuart Cornfeld would be the Turk, attorney Jay Statman waved cash, sexy Catherine Badin would be a sexy dark fortune teller, Chris Morris, Robin Wrathall, Lee Parker and others from Landmark would play memorable nourish bits. Plus, Cindi Dietrich as a Blonde to melt for.

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I made a presentation to the rock band DEVO, they took a look at the storyboards, and agreed to lend Bob Casale and Bob Mothersbaugh (BOB 1 & BOB 2) to produce an original score for the project. Unreal.

My brother and I wrote the hard boiled narration – typical noir sensibilities of dark nights, sleeplessness, dirty ashtrays, dames, someone turning up the heat, a monkey wrench in my stomach, etc. gave a tone that was sure to fill seats. All credit must go to my brother for the line ‘Sherman Oaks was pulling me like a magnet.’

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The actual shoot went smooth, hard, and fast – it had to, as we had only enough film for one take of every set up. With a Fez on, Stuart was a noir Turk, we couldn’t get a statue of a Maltese falcon so we used a stuffed cobra (my Hitchcock moment – I had my brother Steve in a baseball cap look up at the shadow of the cobra, it was like a cameo), Catherine played dark and sexy, Carol got slapped but good, Tara looked like a girl with a gun and a drink you’d do anything for, Lee waved a hammer at a man bound in a chair, Robin cried over a dead body on the floor, Cindi kissed the camera and corks popped. Can’t have too many pretty women.

The pre-planning with Jules and Shane paid off as we were able to quickly realize shots with silhouettes, silhouettes & live action, live action, car interiors, actors, actresses, all between 9PM and 3 AM on a Friday night.

In the office. After work. Peter in his ‘room’ and driving the car was accomplished quickly by swiveling lights, waving cardboard to approximate traffic, my brother bouncing on the bumper of the hard boiled car – Jules Bates’ Nash Metropolitan — for a bumpy ride.

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I had designed exterior crane shots of ‘noir guy/detective’ entering his car but having no crane went on the roof of the office with Shane to figure out how to make the shot.  We found a ten foot long 2”x 8” board and by having Shane lie on the board cantilevered over the edge of the building holding the camera with me standing on the board holding Shane’s belt and Lee Parker standing on the board holding me holding Shane were able to film the required shots.

I asked Shane if he was okay on the board. His reply? ‘No problem.’ I yelled action, action occurred, Shane created beautiful shots  of Peter entering and driving off in the Nash Metroplitan. Looked like the storyboards. Looked like a million bucks.

On the terrazzo sidewalk in front of the Sherman Theatre, one of L.A.’s finest tried his best to disrupt the filming – no permits, no insurance — until my brother told him it was a student film. The cop left and said he would be back in 15 minutes.  We only needed 14 ½ minutes to get the shots we needed.

For the hand pushing out the ticket there was supposed to be a lit cigarette in an ashtray and a gun nearby in the ticket booth but when the decision was made to use Jules Bates’ famously mangled hand – missing fingers by teenage explosive experiments – we lost the props.  Don’t need a gun or cigarette when you have missing fingers and a skull ring.

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My brother talked Stephen Semel into cutting the footage together – afterwards Stephen said it was simple, he just followed the storyboards.  Way past midnight at a stand up moviola awash with cigarette smoke was a fitting environment to see the trailer become something.  We locked picture. For the first time we had an accurate duration and could prepare for recording the audio. I bought another carton of cigarettes to replace the carton I had used up in the last couple of days and nights.

Steve and I created a detailed time chart for the audio track production keyed to screen action such as gunshots, door slamming, marquee appearance, etc. This time chart became the zero or baseline of the trailer.  All related to the chart and the chart related to all.

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In a cramped weirdo recording studio (the actual studio Phil Spector threatened The Ramones with a gun in) located in, wait for it, Studio City, we recorded Chris Morris performing the voice over — his dry voice was perfect and his drier delivery was flawless.  The Bobs arrived and with Devo synthesizers and an ancient Fender rhythm box crafted an atmospheric noir score complete with sound effects.  They worked very quickly, with little talking, with confidence, without the benefit of watching the footage, matching the timing on the chart.  Audio was fed through a 24-track board on 2” tape. The Bobs mixed the music/effects tracks down with the narration to a perfect mix as if it was no big deal.  For them it wasn’t.

My brother enlisted the help of editor Howard Smith to cut the negative and got a veteran timer to create a master to display Shane’s cinematography perfectly.

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We produced four prints – one for each local Landmark Theatre – and unleashed them upon the public.

I was reminded by the VP at Landmark that if the trailer was a dud I was history. I went to a Landmark movie theater to see the trailer in action, wondering if I had just lost my job. Theatre employees behind the candy counter looked at me sideways and I figured I was going to get fired.

What I got was a real surprise. More of a present, actually. The trailer, a theatrical device to fill seats, was gaining applause in theatres BEFORE THE FEATURES WERE PROJECTED. The trailer was getting rave reviews.  I kept my job and the film festival indeed broke attendance records.

The Murder, Mystery & Mayhem trailer would not have existed had it not been for: Insanity of youth believing you can do anything; Insanity of working 80 hour weeks to make such a thing; Generous sharing of brilliance by Shane Kelly, Jules Bates, Marion Lovewell, Stephen Semel, Bob Casale, Bob Mothersbaugh, DEVO, Lee Parker, Peter Ivers, Jay Statman, Stuart Cornfeld, Catherine Badin, Carol Oblath, Tara Strohmeier, Robin Wrathall, Lee Shamberg, Cindi Dietrich, Landmark Theatre Corporation (especially the art department), and my brother Steven M. Martin. It was a blast.

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The success of the Murder, Mystery & Mayhem trailer led to me directing and producing three John Waters trailers – one in support of the Shock Value Film Festival (banned in Texas as obscene!), one thanking the patrons of the Nuart Theatre for making Divine a Filth Goddess, and a No Smoking trailer where John Waters exhorts the audience to smoke anyway – as well as other projects for Landmark Theatre Corporation.”

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Douglas Brian Martin designed and directed many rock videos, was a member of the Viacom Interactive Television Laboratory designing in the 1990s what the internet today has become, has design directed key art for academy award winning films, created onscreen graphics for academy award winning films, art directed and designed myriad record covers and books, design directed publications on Man Ray and Russell Forrester, has had products at the MoMA, and is currently design directing projects, both print and media, for various clients.

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We also asked Night Flight contributor Chris Morris, who narrates,  for some of his impressions:

“This little gem, a trailer for a 1981 film noir festival at Landmark Theatres’ Sherman Theatre, was screened at the company’s L.A.-area houses. It stars the late Peter Ivers, musician and ‘New Wave Theater’ host; I did the voiceover narration. (I was Landmark’s publicist and in-house writer at the time.) I can be seen at about 1:52 of the clip, which was written, produced, and directed by fellow Landmark slaves Douglas Martin and his identical twin brother Steven Martin.

Stuart Cornfeld (‘The Turk’) went on to produce The Elephant Man and my favorite Hollywood spoof Tropic Thunder, among many others. ‘The Doll’ is, then a B-movie actress of some repute; she was later an editor at the Los Angeles Reader. Jules Bates, legendary photographer of the L.A. punk scene, did the lighting. My pal Jay Statman is visible at 2:00. Bob Mothersbaugh and the late Bob Casale of DEVO did the music. You could do stuff like this with people like these on the cheap in those days.”

Chris Morris is currently prepping two books for publication: the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue, due from University of Texas Press in September 2015, and Together Through Life, a personal look at Bob Dylan’s albums, forthcoming from Rare Bird Books in January 2016. He will contribute a chapter to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s book about L.A. punk, scheduled for publication in spring 2016.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, 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.