Saturday, February 23, 2013


"Blood and guts, that's what the people want." - Moe DiSesso, rat wrangler
It didn't take much cajoling to get my buddy to drive us to the local drive-in to see the killer rodent movie called WILLARD. It was the summer of '71 and we were sophomores-soon-to-become-seniors in High School looking for kicks like any other "valley dudes" of the time. I was not quite done yet being a Monster Kid, but adulthood -- and the requisite raging hormones -- was calling, so I was interested in a few other things . . . like sports for instance (Ha! Ha! Thought I was going to say "sex", weren't you?).

So, on this particular Saturday evening my buddy and I headed out in his beat-up but running Plymouth Valiant, to the heart of the San Fernando Valley and the well-frequented party mecca known as the  Van Nuys Drive-In. We were outfitted with our packs of Camel non-filters and two "sixers" of Brew 102 (the cheap stuff). Along with the Woodlake Bowl, which was tucked comfortably in the upper middle class neighborhood of Woodland Hills between Canoga Park and Calabasas, the drive-ins were the best places to go for underage soft-core hoods like ourselves to kick back, smoke cigarettes, drink beer that we'd suckered someone into buying for us, and talk about those strange and troublesome creatures from another planet -- chicks.

Well, we found ourselves within a block or two of the theater, cruising with the top down in the warm suburban air, and thinking we were damn cool. I remember being able to see the "Van Nuys Drive-In" sign from where we were. The afternoon sun was dropping but it was still pretty bright out. All of a sudden, I hear a "shit!" from my buddy. I look over and he's gazing into his rear view mirror with his mouth open and a half-smoked Camel hanging from his bottom lip. I looked back and saw the none too familiar sight of a black and white, cherry top spinning it's universal message to "pull over". We did, and all coolness suddenly faded to shriveling, sniveling fear. Crap, we had beer behind our seats, fer cryin' out loud!

The police officer who was driving got out of the patrol car and walked -- no, swaggered -- up to my buddy's side of the car. "License and registration, please!", he demanded, and with a suddenly palsied hand, my buddy reaches into his back pocket for his wallet.

Now, one thing I didn't tell you yet was that my bud had a big brother who was a cop, who some time ago had given him one of his business cards to clip on the back of his driver's license for times exactly like this. I think they called it a "courtesy card", and back then it was still okay to do that -- these days, they'll haul you in for suspected bribery (what's this world come to?)! "Hey are you Dave's little brother?", the cop asks. "Yeah, yeah! my buddy says," and suddenly we're all happy and relieved. Then, the cop looks over to me and says, "You, get out of the car . . . right now!"

Needless to say, I did as I was told, and was lucky enough not to have crapped my shorts right then and there. Jeez, we're good kids -- really we are! was all I could think of at the moment. Then I looked down the few yards to the cop car and saw the cop's partner in the passenger seat . . . laughing his ass off! I was thinking, WTF, when I noticed it wasn't just any cop -- it was my buddy's big brother!

After this somewhat inconvenient delay, we made it inside the drive-in, with beers and smokes still intact, and with the promise to "sober up" before the end of the show. This we promised with an alacrity that bore no falsehood, I can assure you. A word of caution, though, for underager's of today -- if you're thinking you could get away with something like this these days, have a safe trip back to earth.

It was finally dusk and, after the obligatory Pink Panther cartoon, the opening credits for WILLARD came on. For the next hour-and-a-half we were engrossed in the trials of Willard, a somewhat dysfunctional young man, played by Bruce Davison, who was getting screwed out of his job and money by unscrupulous villains (among them the late Ernest Borgnine). Also starring Elsa Lanchester and Sondra Locke, the movie has become known as being the first in the onslaught of animal invasion flicks of the '70s. One of the hallmark scenes is when Willard, after cornering Ernest Borgnine and confronting him about his evil-doings, orders Ben (his alpha-rat) and a horde of others to "tear 'im up!" Sloshed on a few Brew 102's, we cheered for the rats, of course.

And, yes, by the time the movie was over and it was time to roll, my buddy and I were sober and full of snack bar junk food. We hung our window speakers on their poles, drove over the parking humps of the car lot, and out into the warm San Fernando Valley summer night . . . and feeling pretty damn cool again, I might add.

Here are a couple more pages from my monster scrapbook, along with an image of the movie poster and a few color publicity stills from the movie, WILLARD. I've also added a clipping from the Valley News & Green Sheet about Moe DiSesso, the animal trainer who was Ben's, Socrates', and a host of other rats' "wrangler". Coincidentally, his monster menagerie of animal actors was not too far from the Van Nuys Drive-In. Hmmm . . . now that conjures up images of a potential stunt that not even a cheap thrills huckster like William Castle could come up with . . .

1 comment:

DRB in Karloffornia said...

Great story! It brought back a lot of memories of my own. I love the lobby cards you included in the post. WILLARD was an excellent movie.


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