BLACK SHAMPOO REUNION
By Mike White
The first came from Quickband, it was a DVD called AFROCENTRICITY which features seven short films by African-American directors. I was happy to finally have an opportunity to see Charles Stone III's short TRUE-the basis for the popular "Whassup?" Budweiser commercials. But, I was absolutely elated to see that this disc featured THE GIFT, directed by Tanya Boyd aka "Brenda St. John," the love interest from BLACK SHAMPOO.
Since her role as Brenda in BLACK SHAMPOO, fellow-Detroiter Boyd went on to notable roles in "Roots," JO JO DANCER YOUR LIFE IS CALLING, and "Days of Our Lives." All the while, Boyd continued to satiate her love of the theater. In 1998 Boyd fulfilled a longtime dream and moved from one side of the camera to the other, directing THE GIFT. While the rest of AFROCENTRICITY isn't "all that," Boyd's piece is standout. A remarkable first film, THE GIFT is a rich black and white short about a blind sculptor who refuses an operation to regain his sight.
Currently working on developing her first feature-length film, Boyd took time to speak to me from her Gold Dust Production offices.
Cashiers du Cinemart: Are you directing and writing your new feature?
Tanya Boyd: I brought in another writer who I really like. I wanted a fresh, young approach. I met a writer, her name is Joanne Morris. She is just great. We're going to collaborate on this one as far as the writing goes. Hopefully, I'll direct it. I came up with the idea so that I'd have another project to direct. But, because I've never directed a feature, that makes it a little difficult because THE GIFT was the first film project I had ever done as a director. So, people still aren't very sure about me. They liked the film-so far I've gotten a lot of good response from it but they're saying, "But can you do a feature?"
I feel I can do it. Right now I'm over at "Days of Our Lives" preparing to do some directing over there. That is the hardest medium there is, that multi-camera set-up. It's so fast and so technical. I feel that once I have that to add to my director's reel then, hopefully, it'll be easier to convince people that I can do a feature.
CdC: I read that before THE GIFT you had directed plays.
TB: Yes, my background as an actor is in theater. Then I started directing theater by a fluke. I didn't set out to direct, it just happened. I was working with a theater company where one of the directors walked off of her project. They were trying to get the production ready for a festival. Suddenly I got a call from the artistic director of the company saying, "What am I going to do? I've got ten actors looking at me and I don't have a director!" I told her, "Don't worry about it. Tell everybody come back to the theater tomorrow and I'll direct it." After I hung up the phone, I asked myself, "What did I just do?" Okay, calm down, there are no accidents, obviously I'm supposed to look into this.
The next day I went to the theater and had ten professional actors looking at me like okay, what are you going to do? And, it just happened. It happened and it did very well. In fact, they said that the play was one of the best of the festival. From that the artistic director trusted me - I didn't dare tell her that I didn't know what I was doing when I got there!
I found that I really liked it. I mean, acting had always been my passion but there was something about this that went even deeper. I know it sounds really corny but I've always been able to see beyond what's in front of me; the potential of something. And, I was just able to see the outcome from the moment that I accepted that play. It was the same thing with THE GIFT and all the other theater projects that I directed; I felt very comfortable. I think a lot of it had to do with that I was an actor. I know the process that actors need to go through. I know how I want things to be as an actor. I mean, I don't have all the answers but I pretend like I do! And things usually work out and let everything reveal itself.
CdC: When was this first play that you directed?
TB: Around '93.
CdC: That was about the time that you got onto "Days of Our Lives," yes?
TB: I got onto "Days" in '94. At the time, I belonged to a great theater company in Hollywood, The Mojo Theater Ensemble. I was directed by our artistic director, Michelle Martin-a great director in her own right. I did a couple of plays for the company and, during that time, I was also working on "Days of Our Lives." I'm kind of a workaholic. I'm a singer also and there were times where I'd go to one session, leave that and go to another session, leave that and do a performance on stage. That's just the way it is and the way it's always been.
CdC: Are you still acting in "Days"?
TB: Yes, as a matter of fact I was on the show yesterday. I was under contract for five years but now I have a reoccurring role, once every few months or so. That was a blessing in disguise because I wanted to do other things. Now, I can go in as a director, which is what I'm doing. They're teaching me multi-camera and allowing me to learn at their facilities. I'm loving it because I have everything available to me and it's free! I don't have to pay college tuition and I'm learning from some of the best teachers in the business! It's been wonderful for me to learn lighting and to go to editing. I love to edit; I said that if I wasn't going to be a director that I'd definitely want to be an editor.
CdC: When did you get into acting?
TB: I guess it really clicked for me when I was about seven. I knew it was what I wanted, I just didn't know how I was going to get there. My Mom and my Aunt really had an interest in the arts. At one point my Mother had a radio show-this is years ago-where she did poetry, some of the things she wrote. She'd recite on the show. My Aunts were very involved in drama all through high school and college but they all were married and had kids and that was that. But, my Mother would always take me to the movies when I was a kid. So, I grew up with movies and television, I'm of that era. As a child I was extremely shy and I opened up the most when I'd go to the movies. That was my escape, I guess.
I would sneak out of school and go to the movies. In those days you could go to the movies and stay all day, they didn't make people come out and leave like they do now. I'd sit there and learn all the lines of the lead actress. All of the winos who hung out and slept in the theater at night would still be there in the morning and they were my audience. I'd get up and say the lead actress' lines and it was really something. They would applaud me, they got to know me and they'd cheer me on.
I'll never forget when I left Detroit. The last words I said to some people that I knew, who had tried to tell me what I could or could not do, "The next time you see me, I'm gonna be in the movies!" Sure enough, a year and a half or two years later, I was. I was on a television show that was very popular and people all over looked at it. When I went home these same people said to me, "Girl, you said you were going to be in the movies! I'll be damned!" I mean, I was just as shocked as they were, believe me. I knew it was what I wanted to do. It was just; how do I go about getting there? So, I went from Michigan to New York and New York to Los Angeles.
CdC: What was it that you were on, on TV?
TB: "Roots." It was my first big project. I was on about two episodes.
CdC: But, before that you were in a couple movies...
TB: Let's see, did I do film? Well, yeah, but we don't really talk about those movies. We don't talk about those. They were "B" black exploitation that were really kind of tacky.
CdC: I have to tell you. I'm a huge fan of BLACK SHAMPOO.
TB: Oh my god, I could kill you! That wasn't me, that was my twin! [Laughs]
CdC: My friends and I get together every year and watch it on December 26th. This year will be our twelfth year.
TB: Are you serious? What is it about that film that you like so much?
CdC: It was one of my first blaxploitation films and it's just so...offbeat. I've never seen another film like it.
TB: Thank God! Wow. That's really something. You know, a friend of mine came to my house about a year ago with a tape of that movie. I hadn't seen it since I did it. That was when I first came to Los Angeles.
CdC: Now, did you do BLACK SHAMPOO first or BLACK HEAT?
TB: I never did a film called "BLACK HEAT."
CdC: Sorry, it was probably known by a different name. It was originally called THE MURDER GANG, US VICE or GIRL'S HOTEL. You played a reporter named "Stephanie" and your boyfriend was "Kicks Carter."
TB: Oh my goodness, yes! I never saw it! I never saw that film. I don't regret doing those things because they were the first things that I had ever done. In those days being an African American female, those roles were the only things available. My whole goal was to get my Screen Actor's Guild card. Once I got my card, that was that. I didn't look back and started doing other things. I guess that just shows you that your past will catch up with you!
Cashiers du Cinemart: So tell me all about your book! First off, what's with that title?
Skip E. Lowe: It's called The Boy With The Betty Grable Legs and it's subtitled "From Here To Hollywood." I used to work strip clubs when I was a kid at seventeen, eighteen years old. I worked in Chicago, for the Mafia. I used to work as an M.C. You'd come home at like four in the morning because the clubs are open late.
Then I worked in Cicero and Calumet City. That was really raw-they had the girls take off everything there. I used to have a lot to do with the girls because I was the "head man" watching the girls at night. Evidently what happened when I used to work for them-it's all about that in the book.
And, also, I worked for the military. I didn't work for them. I entertained the troops in Vietnam and Germany. I was with the Everly Brothers, Phil and Don, for about six or seven years as an M.C. and comedian. I worked with Johnny Ray, Joanie James, Sheckie Green (he's also from Chicago). I worked with a lot of big singers.
Then I stayed in Europe a long time, hanging around there. I went all over Europe, working the military bases so I could see Europe. Then, finally, Vietnam came and I went to Saigon. I stayed in Saigon and I worked in Da Nang and Le Trang and all the bases. This is where I met Martha Raye and Mamie Van Doren. Martha wasn't entertaining there - she was working as a nurse - and I stayed with her there.
CdC: What timeframe are we talking here?
SEL: I was living in New York and I left there in about 1960 to visit Paris. Then I was in London at the time that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I was working the Blue Angel with Noel Harrison (Rex Harrison's son). And I met the Beatles. Paul McCartney-he was going with an actress by the name of Jane Asher. A lot of chic people used to come there. Then the night that President Kennedy was shot I was with a girl there, a singer, and we both decided to go back to Paris.
Back in Paris I worked with Josephine Baker. She was slipping at the time. From there we went to Germany and then I started doing the bases there. The war in Vietnam started getting hot then. I went over there about...1967 and stayed there until 1972. After I left there I landed in San Francisco and wound up staying in California.
CdC: What did you do once you got to the West Coast?
SEL: I did showcases. You present singers and comedians. Some of my finds were Michael Feinstein and Yakov Smirnoff-you remember Michael Feinstein? He used to work for me. He came from Ohio. There's a lot of good singers, I can't even think of all the names of people I helped along the line.
So, anyway, I did the "Skip E. Lowe's Talent Showcase." It became very popular around L.A. I worked all the clubs and hotels. I still do it every once in a while. I just closed the Passion and I'll probably open at the Roosevelt.
CdC: Then you got involved with Roger Corman's studio for a while?
SEL: Yes, I did for a while. I met Edy Williams and her husband, Russ Meyer, was doing a movie. I met Christian Brando through her, Marlon's son. Marlon and I got very close. It's in my book.
CdC: I really enjoyed some of your films from the seventies, like CAPONE and CRAZY MAMA. My favorite, though, has to be BLACK SHAMPOO.
SEL: That's your favorite? Wow! I have never really seen the film, you know. I do a lot of movies that I've never seen. I did about four of them just recently and I don't even remember the names of them. I just go and do them, you know. I heard the music is great in that.
CdC: How did you get involved with your cable access show?
SEL: Some man saw me do my show at the Hyatt and said to me, "Why don't you do a public access show?" When I started I was the very first in Hollywood. The very, very first. I started with the close-ups. My shows are filled with tight close-ups.
CdC: What was it like being a child star?
SEL: I came out to Hollywood when I was nine years old. It's all in my book. It's all the odysseys of my life. I did BEST FOOT FORWARD, that was my first movie. Then I did a movie with Jane Powell-it was her first movie-SONG OF THE OPEN ROAD.
CdC: Did your parents push you into show business?
SEL: My mother did. My mother was very mothery, tough lady. You see, I'm half Jewish and half Italian. My mother was Jewish and she really wanted to push me. I stayed in Hollywood until I was twelve and then my mother took me to New York and I stayed with my Aunt Sadie who worked at a club called Sammy's Bowery Follies. I worked there for a while as a singing newsboy. When I got to be about sixteen or seventeen I worked up at the Catskills in the mountains. Then I got booked into Pittsburgh and from there I went to Chicago and I started working strip clubs.
CdC: When you were overseas, what kind of material would you do?
SEL: I was doing very, very clean material. Singing, I do singing. I'm an Irish Tenor. I used to sing songs like "Yankee Doodle Dandy," you know, George M. Cohan. "Danny Boy" was my big, big thing in Vietnam. No dirty material. That's why the military loved me.
CdC: How did you get involved in Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA?
SEL: That was when I was working in Rome. I played a cameraman. I had blonde hair and a scarf and I looked like one of those guys running around. Do you remember when she got off the plane? I was one of the paparazzi.
CdC: You still haven't answered my question about the name of the book.
SEL: The girls in the clubs in Chicago, backstage I used to have boxers and I used to take my pants off and run around the backstage. And, the girls used to make fun of me; "Oh, here he comes, the boy with the Betty Grable legs!" I have great legs and that's it.