Beast Meets West
Horned, fanged, cat-eyed and pointy-eared, the colossal green head glowered down on both lanes of I-10. Tempe Diablo Stadium, over the parking lot of which the Dante-esque visage floated, had never seemed so aptly named. "I don't think this is the home of the Anaheim Angels today," remarked the publicist for American Movie Classics.
It looked more like the home of a fallen angel. Given the proximity of the millennial rollover, I found myself imagining jittery fundamentalists thinking that the judgment trump had blown early, and wondering by what oversight the rapture had missed them. But despite the striking resemblance, this was not the head of the devil. The nine-story-tall balloon, designed by Cameron Balloons of England -- the same outfit behind the Breitling Orbiter 3, the first balloon to make it around the globe -- was a likeness of the title character from the low-budget 1957 horror picture The She Creature.
Her visit to Tempe Diablo on Tuesday, October 5, was part of a national tour to promote AMC's "MonsterFest," that excellent cable channel's annual Halloween horror marathon. The tour is slated to wrap up, appropriately, at the Halloween festival in Salem, Massachusetts.
Affectionately known as "Cuddles," the She Creature was the creation of a magazine illustrator named Paul Blaisdell, who, during the mid- to late '50s, was engaged to design, build and usually to wear a series of monster costumes for low-budget horror and sci-fi films. With the exception of 1958's It! The Terror From Beyond Space (now generally recognized as the prototype for Alien), the movies in which Blaisdell's foam-rubber-and-paint monsters appear -- The Beast With a Million Eyes, The Day the World Ended, From Hell It Came and It Conquered the World, among others -- are negligible as cinema. The monsters themselves, however, are unforgettable and stylistically unmistakable -- lurid freaks bursting not so much with malevolence as with a sort of lovable cosmic irritability. They are pure kitsch icons; only the '50s could have produced them.
Blaisdell's bulbous-skulled aliens from Invasion of the Saucer Men, for instance, are the archetypal bug-eyed space invaders. Cuddles, with her scales and claws and prominent breasts, was Blaisdell's magnum opus, however. The suit, with one variation or another, appeared not only in The She Creature but also in such faves as Voodoo Woman, How to Make a Monster, Teenage Caveman and The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, as well as a couple of TV shows.
Most of Blaisdell's work was for American-International Pictures, the studio of Sam Arkoff and James H. Nicholson and Roger Corman, the first studio to figure out the profitability of targeting films at the teen market. Little of this profit was passed on to Blaisdell, and he left the movie business for good in disgust after a salary dispute in 1960. He was still in his 50s when he died in 1985, having spent the last two decades of his life working as a handyman.
Here's one of the reasons I prefer to believe in ghosts: I'd like to believe that Blaisdell, after decades of bitterly -- and not wrongly -- thinking himself cheated by the movie business, can somehow see the face of "Cuddles" now glaring down from above on America, and know that his artwork has been given the deluxe star treatment at long last.
"I know he'd've loved it. He might not have admitted it, but he'd have loved it." So says Blaisdell's assistant and friend Bob Burns, by phone at his home in Burbank, of the AMC Cuddles balloon. Burns, an enormously genial fellow who keeps a small museum of Blaisdell artifacts in his back room, donned the She Creature suit himself for two television appearances, on the local L.A. shows Gene Norman Campus Corner and Louis Quinn's Corner.
Burns worked as Blaisdell's assistant on many of his films, during vacation time from his regular job as a film editor for CBS. Under the rubber masks, he's one of the title characters in Invasion of the Saucer Men, and he also doubles for actor Lyn Osborne during his death scene in the same film. Burns is looking forward to the "Blaisdell fest" on AMC on Friday, October 29. It starts with the documentary Attack of the 50 Ft. Monstermania (for which Burns was interviewed) at 6 p.m., followed by It Conquered the World, featuring Beulah, Blaisdell's "giant space cucumber," at 7 p.m., followed by Cuddles in The She Creature at 9:15 p.m.
"What was so great about Paul, that I always admired, was that he did it by the seat of his pants, and imagination," Burns recalls. "This was in the early '50s, before there were all these makeup schools and textbooks and stuff on how to do everything. He and [his wife] Jackie built the suits. It was amazing what this guy could do with a pair of scissors and foam rubber, just like rubber that you used to stuff your couches with in those days. He would airbrush his monsters with highlights and shadows, 'cause he knew they were gonna light 'em flat -- that's the only way those guys knew how to light in those days -- so Paul wanted to make sure the highlights and shadows would always be there. On to the She Creature, he even built these stomach hooks. He could work his stomach muscles, and make these claws move in and out. They were going to use it, and then [director] Eddie Cahn decided that no, it would be too gory, too horrible."
A shift in B-movie fashion put Blaisdell out of the monster business. "The monster thing started to die out, and they wanted to do things cheaper. They came to Paul about doing some picture called Beast of the Haunted Cave [an early effort by cult director Monte Hellman]. And Paul said, 'I think I've proved myself; I want more money.' And they said, 'Nah, you'll take what you always get, or we'll get some high school kid, and give him screen credit, and let him play the monster.' And that's exactly what they did."
Blaisdell and Burns then partnered on a magazine called Fantastic Monsters of the Films in 1962."I came up with a thing called The Devil's Workshop where Paul would write articles about how to build this stuff -- how to make your own mask, or build a miniature set. 'Cause kids were asking about this stuff."
Blaisdell's luck in the magazine game would be even worse than his luck in the movies. "It was going great for seven issues until the publisher guy burned his place down and ran off with all the profits. That was the final blow for Paul. He was just so bitter by then. He ended up, actually, just doing handiwork around Topanga. What a waste."
Burns, meanwhile, kept his day job as an editor, but began an odd sideline as a "gorilla man," appearing in an ape suit in innumerable TV shows, including My Three Sons, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and Truth or Consequences, as well as Ray Dennis Steckler's shlock movies Rat Phfink and Boo Boo and The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters. In the '70s, he became a regular as "Tracy the Ape" on the CBS Saturday morning kids show The Ghostbusters.
Burns' simian pursuits led to an odd episode here in Phoenix in the mid-'60s. "I was going to be on The Munsters," he recalls. "They were going to add me, as a gorilla, to the show in the third season, as Eddie Munster's new pet." Alas, there would be no third season. "We didn't realize at the time, or at any rate I didn't realize at the time, that the show had already been canceled."
Burns did, however, make a personal appearance in his ape suit with Eddie himself, Butch Patrick, in Phoenix. "This was '65 or '66, and we were supposed to make an appearance at one of the first big shopping malls. So I dressed in the gorilla suit on the plane -- there were a couple of nuns in the back of the plane who thought that was the funniest thing they'd ever seen -- and when we got there, and it was like 125 degrees that day, and we had to ride in a convertible out to the mall. I thought I was going to melt. So we get there, and I'm roaring at the crowd, and I see a little commotion out there, but I don't think anything of it.
"So afterward, the mall cops come up and ask me if I want to prefer charges. I didn't know what they were talking about. It turned out they'd caught this kid in the crowd, and he had a squirt bottle full of liquid lye, and he'd been trying to get close enough to squirt it in the eyes of the gorilla suit. He was 9 or 10, and he said he just wanted to see what would happen. I said I didn't want to press charges, but I guess the mall did anyway -- they didn't want it happening again."
Tough town, Phoenix. Where is that kid now?
Cuddles the She Creature had a hard time in the Valley, too. Her October 5 visit to Tempe Diablo was on the same day as the Diamondbacks' first playoff game against the Mets, so only a handful of curious spectators and journalists, myself and New Times staff photographer Paolo Vescia among them, turned out for this oddball attraction.
The tour had been going well, we were told by Kevin, the AMC PR guy. At an appearance in Minnesota, Cuddles was piloted across the state line into Wisconsin, where she was set down in a cornfield. "It was really freaky," said Kevin. "All these little kids came running out of the cornfield to see us. It was like Children of the Corn. We later found out that there was a soccer game on the other side of the field, but it was really freaky until then."
Bob Burns had turned out for Cuddles' L.A. appearance, at the appropriately primordial setting of La Brea Tar Pits. Kevin said Burns had been treated like royalty, signed autographs and been given a tethered ride.
Paolo and I were supposed to get a tethered ride, too, but it was not to be. We watched as the green balloon was carefully laid out, and a roaring engine pumped a half-hour's worth of propane into it. Slowly, slowly, Cuddles rose from the pavement and began to take shape. Her expressions shifted as her features roiled and billowed in the hot midday breeze. One of her hornlike antennae was crimped in the middle and drooped, refusing to inflate. Cuddles' basket drifted three or four feet above the concrete, but she seemed in no mood to rise higher.
"You know, it must be tough to fly a hot-air balloon when it's this hot out," remarked Paolo. I had never thought about it before, but it turned out he was right. Cameron Balloons of Bristol, England, had made a balloon that could circumnavigate the world, but they couldn't make one that could get off the ground against the heat of an October afternoon in Arizona.
After a while, Kevin the AMC flack came up and told us apologetically that there would be no rides today. "The thermal situation isn't the greatest," he said.
Welcome to the Valley, Cuddles.
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