Discover more from samgeorgeworld
I WAS SHELLEY FABARES
A NOT-SO GIRL HAPPY ADVENTURE IN HAWAII
Funny, how you can forget one of the craziest episodes of your life, only to have the most unlikely thing trigger a memory, unlocking piercing mental imagery, and even dredging up palpable emotions, long buried. Or perhaps repressed. In either case, for me that trigger was coming across a film poster featured in a book about 1960s pop culture. The film was 1965’s Girl Happy, a Ft. Lauderdale spring break romp starring Elvis Presley as swinging nightclub singer Rusty Wells, and actress Shelley Fabares as Valerie, his wholesome [read: virginal] love interest. “Elvis Makes The Beach A Ball!” ran the poster’s tag-line.
Trust me, this will all make sense.
The year was 1981 and Matt and me were trying to make names for ourselves as professional surfers. Not doing too badly, either, considering how inconsequential we were at the time. D. David Morin, the editor at a short-lived but culturally prescient publication called Action Now, even put us on the cover of the September issue—an arresting image which featured Matt, smug in a white tux and carnation, with me dripping wet and in orange surf trunks, pointing at the camera and challenging:
"Sure You Can Surf, But Can You Dance?"
The cover blurb pretty much summed us up: we were dancing as fast as we could. Dancing to surf. But did anybody care?
Wonder Woman did. Turns out actress Linda Carter, buxom star of the kitschy ‘70s fantasy series, was shopping in a convenience store in Palm Springs when she saw the issue of Action Now on the newsstand. While waiting in the check-out line, she picked it up and thumbed through to the profile. The accompanying pictures and quotes inside matched the frivolity of the cover and Linda was amused by it all enough to call a close friend of hers, producer Allen Carr, to tell him about these two interesting brothers she’d read about. “Yeah, really cute,” she told him. “Right up your alley.” Carr, of course, was still riding high on the success of Broadway’s Le Cage aux Folles and the box-office mega-hit Grease, two of his most recent projects, and was apparently always on the lookout for new talent. At Wonder Woman’s suggestion he had his people find an issue of Action Now and then had them contact our people (our sponsors at Stubbies) to set up a meeting at his home in Bel Air. A big project was in development, Carr's secretary said, that Matt and me would be perfect for.
We drove down from Santa Barbara in my truck, turning from the relative safety of the southbound 101 onto Sunset Blvd, and into completely unknown territory—I knew little of what went on east of the freeway. Carr's mansion was off Cañon Drive in Bel Air and it was stylishly opulent, set back from the immaculate pavement and curb under wide branching oaks, and framed by red brick walls, the ivy trimmed just so. We pulled up to an imposing, wrought-iron gate and presented ourselves to a security guard on a TV monitor, who admitted us up a long, winding driveway that led to a courtyard next to a pool, complete with cabaña. We were met there by Elliot, Carr's secretary. He was tall and had a mincing, dancer's gait; he looked a little like a young Robert Preston. Elliot wore a striped shirt of Indian cotton, unbuttoned and knotted just above his lean, impeccably tanned belly. Cut-off Levi shorts—very short—and no shoes. He welcomed us and brought us into the main house where we waited in an ornate living room for Mr. Carr. Elliot informed us that this home used to belong to the actress Ingrid Bergman; perfect for grand entrances. Carr suddenly swept into the room, flamboyant, all aflutter, a short man, pudgy to the point of corpulence, dressed in striped Bermuda shorts and a long white silk shirt, untucked and flowing like a gown. With his dimpled knees and flying hands, only an open, good-natured face with lively eyes kept him from looking ridiculous. Carr greeted us like old friends and then ushered one and all into a small side kitchen, where sitting at a table he served lemonade and chocolate-chip cookies from a large, stainless-steel industrial fridge. There he told us about a film project that we were all going to work on, an Australian production called "Ironman". Later in the week we’d be meeting the writer, Everett de Roche, and director Simon Wincer. We were to consult on the story, which involved a California lifeguard traveling Down Under to compete against the Aussies in their Ironman lifeguard competitions (if I showed any aptitude at all, Carr wanted me to play the Yank.) Then it would be off to Carr's beachfront estate in Hawaii to hole up and work on the script, as well as meet with Grant Kenny, Australia's real Ironman champion—that country's Michael Jordan at the time—who would be paddling in the annual Molokai Channel surf ski race.
Sounded great. More importantly, it sounded legit. I mean, we weren’t completely naive. Keep in mind, when to sign our contracts later that week Carr had summoned us, one at a time, into what he said was the office in his bedroom. It was dark in there, the Rubelli linen curtains drawn over the floor-to-ceiling windows, and as Carr, wearing a silk caftan, lounged on a mattress the size of my apartment’s living room, I sat at a large teakwood desk and went over details of the deal. It was awkward as hell, but I signed without asking too many questions and hurried back out into the light. In his turn, however, Matt couldn't help noticing a framed picture on the night stand next to the bed. It was a headshot of a young actor named Scott Strader, whom we'd previously met at the mansion and who was being cast in Carr's upcoming Grease II.
"Before I sign anything, Allen," Matt said. "I’m letting you that if I ever see a picture of us in your bedroom, all deals are off."
"Of course," Carr coyly acquiesced.
So, off we went to Hawaii. I was competing in the upcoming Pro Class Trials at Sunset Beach later that month, and I figured if nothing came of the Hollywood junket, it still meant a ticket to the Islands. A First Class ticket, at that.
The trip over with Carr had its quirks. Waiting for our flight in one of those Ambassador lounges at LAX, the sort we’d ordinarily never see the inside of, we sat in comfortable chairs drinking free Cokes and regaling Carr with stories of how we were more accustomed to traveling. One Queensland hitch-hiking tale he found particularly amusing, as was the account of how in Durban, South Africa, Matt entered and won a disco dance contest, performing solo, no less, first prize being just enough Rand to pay our hotel bill and get us on to Rio for the next leg of the pro tour. While all this was going on we were joined, much to our surprise, by comedian Richard Pryor, an acquaintance of Carr’s, who was headed to Hawaii for some R&R. Frail and wan, the legendary funny man sure looked like he could use it. But he sat and listened for a few minutes, appearing as if genuinely interested in our precarious existence, asking us about surfing and those big Hawaiian waves.
My very first First Class flight passed in a whirl, drinking from glasses, eating off ceramic plates with real cutlery and white cloth napkins. Carr seemed to enjoy the flight as much as we did, noticeably preening as the stewardesses (they were still called that back then) playfully flirted with us, the youngest passengers in this section by at least 15 years. When we eventually disembarked to Honolulu, however, the rarified company we’d found ourselves in really asserted itself. Upon arrival, Mr. Pryor didn't board the Wiki-Wiki shuttle bus like everybody else, but had a Rolls Royce Phantom III limousine waiting at the gate, complete with liveried driver and red carpet rolled out. As Pryor hurried by he spotted the two of us in line for the bus—Carr had gone ahead in a special limo of his own—and while the rest of the passengers murmured recognition, he stepped over to ask us if we needed a ride to the terminal. Sure, we said. Unexpectedly, Pryor sat up front next to the driver, while Matt and I, after creeping gingerly on the red carpet, slid onto the back with the champagne and cut flowers. Just then I looked out of the Phantom’s window to see some Santa Cruz guys who had come over for the season on the same flight, but unlike us were relegated to economy class: Vince Collier, Richard Schmidt and his brother Dave. As they boarded the Wiki-Wiki bus I could see that Vince, wearing a stained Haut Surfboards t-shirt and surf trunks, was good and drunk. He peered down at me sitting there in the Rolls and ruefully shook his head.
"Fuck, man, “ he said. “I hope our ride shows up."
We were eventually delivered to Carr's beachside estate at the foot of Diamond Head. This place was a real surprise, and once you turned off Black Point Road and through the electronic gate, it was like pulling into some Zen hideaway. Stylish to the point of sublimity, designed completely in elegant Japanese fashion with sliding paper walls, every room, even the bathrooms, designed with an ocean view of the broad reef that wraps around Diamond Head from Kahala. Straight out in front was a surf spot called Tongg's: a fat left with a short, hollower right. The grounds were landscaped with an impressive bonsai garden, and the ancient gardener, bent over in his blue coveralls and broad-brimmed straw hat, had, as a boy, been brought over from Japan by schooner to tend the tiny trees. He and his stunted charges had both grown old here in this private little world and how a Hollywood producer somehow got his chubby hands on it, I’ll never know.
But this was where we were to work with de Roche and Wincer. And we actually did for two whole days, collaborating with the pair to hammer out what we all agreed was a reasonable movie treatment. Although Matt nor I had yet to begin writing for a living, we did know enough about Aussie lifesaving culture, as well as being ‘Seppos’ in Australia, to effectively contribute to the story. De Roche was also an American who'd been living in Australia for some time and, while he didn’t surf much these days, had in 1969 penned an article about Queensland surfing for SURFER Magazine. Simon Wincer was just starting out as a director, his work on "The Man From Snowy River", “Free Willy” and "Lonesome Dove" still years in the future. We all hit it off right away, the pair good-naturedly indulging we two neophytes, who had no qualifications other than being engaging storytellers. Yet I sensed their underlying unease with the arrangement, as if they somehow knew that this ride we were on got its start in Carr’s bedroom.
On the third day a boat trip was planned out to Koko Head and Portlock Point to watch Grant Kenny win the Molokai paddle race (which he did with startling regularity), a celebratory dinner party to follow later that evening. We drove a mint-condition, convertible Jeep down to the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor in the morning, Elliot, Matt and me. There we were joined by Carr, who arrived with five young men in their early-to-mid 20s in train. Good guys, all very handsome, personable, students from University of Hawaii, I figured. In shape, too; maybe a water polo team, interested in the race. We all put out in a 40-foot Grand Banks-type trawler with a broad fighting deck in back and a tall flying bridge, chartered from a skulking Frenchman named Gubert. It was a bright, hot Hawaiian morning, mild trades ruffling the water in the channel that cuts through the reef next to Magic Island. The surf at Ala Moana was flat—not a soul out—but as we motored past a clean little set rolled in out of nowhere and peeled across the bowl.
"A good omen." I said and Carr, seated in a canvas captain’s chair in the shade of the deckhouse, raised his mai tai tumbler in assent. The boys were spread out in various languid poses, while Elliot, busy below deck, prepared lunch from a big white Coleman cooler. Matt and I perched up in the flying bridge, watching all the Waikiki surf spots sail by: Number Threes, Populars, Canoes, Cunhas, Castles. I love watching the backs of waves from boats.
An hour later we took our position off Portlock and dropped anchor, waiting for the race front-runners. A pleasant morning had turned into a glorious day, and while the other guys seemed content to lay in the sun and drink Carr's beer, Matt and I stripped to our Speedos (we both grew up watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, in which all Calypso crew members wore Speedos) leapt up on the rail and dove overboard into the clear, blue water. Twenty feet down it was quiet and cool and the boat's hull, viewed from below, looked like a silver spearhead, pointing into the wind. We both popped up next to the boat and to much applause from Carr and the boys. From that point, it didn't take much to set Matt and me climbing to the top of the flying bridge and showing off our diving prowess: back flips and inward one-and-a-halfs, tuck position. Someone had put on some music—“The Tide Is High”, by Blondie—and as we heaved over the stern swim step and scampered back up to the flying bridge Carr, having moved his chair out into the sun and now toasted pink, laughed and said we looked like a couple of pirates. In fact, were a couple of pirates, in his opinion. At that moment everything seemed so festive, such a lighthearted romp, what with the music, the boat, the blue sea, white clouds, handsome boys and nefarious skipper.
"This is just like an Elvis movie," I said, laughing and shaking off after my last dive. "Except with no women. I mean, where are all the women? Where's Shelley Fabares?"
Dead silence. No laughter. The tape deck clicked to a halt. Tiny wavelets, rippling in from beyond the reef, pattered against the hull. Elliot looked up and winced. The boys volleyed sideways glances, holding their breath. Allen Carr sat in his canvas chair nursing his drink, a puffy mandarin on his royal barge, gazing fixedly out to sea. Three long beats. Nothing. And it was then, standing there in my red Speedo, the gentle trade wind raising goosebumps across my wet and shiny flanks, that I realized this was an Elvis movie. And that I was Shelley Fabares.
Why it had taken me this long to get it, I can't say. I know I wanted to go to Hawaii. I wanted to make a movie. I wanted to be a famous surfer. But here I was, parading about in my Speedos in front of a Hollywood producer so gay he was giddy, on a boat full of beautiful boys, far from shore, playing Mr. Pirate.
I knew right then that Matt and me weren't going to be making any movies.
And I was right. Following the sulky hour that followed my transgression, Matt and I swam to shore—a mile to shore—where, meeting de Roche and Wincer, we were introduced to race-winner Grant Kenny and his dad Hayden, two classic Aussies, and kindred spirits with whom we got along with immediately. They ended up giving us a ride back to the estate just in time for the big dinner party. I remember walking into the main living room and there were all the boys, decked out in finery. There, too, of all people, was Jack Lord, Steve McGarrett himself, wearing a long-sleeved Hawaiian shirt with an ascot. Everybody was smiling, but nobody seemed at ease, all talking too loudly and making too much of a show of enjoying themselves. Tired of being on display, Matt, Grant and me paddled out to Tonggs for a quick sundown session and we got some hot little waves. I was riding my very first Thruster, the first one Al Merrick ever shaped, and it was a backside revelation. By the time we paddled back in and rejoined the party, we found that Carr, disappointed with our bad manners, had suffered an anxiety attack and retired to his room. Just like that the party was over, figuratively and literally. As McGarrett and the boys promptly took their leave, Elliot took us aside and gently explained that, due to scheduling problems, he and Mr. Carr would be leaving for the mainland soon and would Matt and me please arrange to find alternative accommodations in the morning.
The front gate clanged behind us at 9:00 am and we walked off toward Waikiki carrying our boards. I never saw nor heard from Allen Carr again. Years later I read he had suffered another anxiety attack following his disastrous television production of the 1989 Academy Awards, in which Rob Lowe, fresh from his video sex scandal, sang an abominable duet with Snow White. Devastated, Carr, the one-time super producer and A-list impresario, was rarely seen in public again, and died of liver cancer in 1999. Everett de Roche and Simon Wincer simply disappeared from my world. I think they eventually got their movie made, but without any of our help. What Wonder Woman and Steve McGarrett made of it all, who knows? And the last time I drove by Diamond Head I looked for the beautiful Japanese house, but it was gone, the lot subdivided, the address now home to two ostentatious faux-Island Style mansions.
I often wonder what happened to the old gardener.