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Several years ago, my childhood buddy and I decided to write a true account of the real little rascals of WASHINGTON HEIGHTS and what it was like to grow up in the most unique neighborhood in New York. We offer for your approval”, (as Rod Serling would say), one chapter (presented in three parts). This segment is entitled “THE MOVIE COMPANY”…co authored by James Clarke and Samuel Garcia.
And we’d drooled over the beauty of the guest star, a very young Suzanne Pleshette. She was God’s gift to teenage boys. We remembered small off-camera details like Suzanne complaining about having no place to change. One of the residents offered her apartment as a dressing room and she replied, “Aw, awright.” We remembered that the night the film crew completed the shoot, Jim Clark and Paul Crouch secretly returned to the park. Fire and police personnel investigated the site of a car fire the following morning. A witness had reported a body…of course we all knew it was the film dummy. No one ever implicated a culprit, however, Jim and Paul went into seclusion for a month.
We were all to become movie makers and movie stars. And it was going to happen now.
Naturally, our cameraman would be Gasper after all, it was his camera. We’d all chip-in for film and processing. It’s worth mentioning that a video camera was the stuff of science fiction. It was unheard of. As a matter of fact, the only time the word video was ever used was when someone was referring to Al Hodge, the actor who played “Captain Video” on Dumont television. As it was, a home movie camera was rare. Maybe not to the more elite, but to a bunch of kids from the Heights it definitely was. Even in the Heights, we’d sometimes rub elbows with an actor. Richard Egan’s sister lived in Jimmy’s building, the actor would sometimes stop in for a visit. We were mesmerized by his red, Ford hard-top convertible with white leather interior. Another actor who was no stranger to the Heights was Guy Williams of “Zorro” fame. He’d attended George Washington High School.
The screening room would be Robert Vargas’ apartment. Gasper may have owned the camera but Robert owned the only projector around. Now that the logistics were taken care of, we immediately dove into the script. It was as if someone had declared a deadline. Everyone contributed bits and pieces to the plot. The girls were also very much involved in the planning and filming. Transitions from one scene to another were planned. We were to have a stunt team, special effects department, and were also to employ makeup (a can of rubber cement and an eye patch). The film camera angles were all mapped-out in order to avoid editing. All scenes had to be perfect in one take. We did not have the facilities or budget to achieve Hollywood standards. As it was, we were five dollars over budget. It was necessary to purchase a second hand film splicer.
We had watched the Masters film at Wadsworth Terrace and we learned a few tricks. Nando and I were in the same gym class in school and were pretty successful at staging fight scenes using Marshall Art flips and throws. We’d gathered crowds at beaches and street corners. Now we’d see how convincing it would appear on film. The story included extortion, murder, revenge, and plenty of action. The word went out to gather everyone we could muster from 181st street all the way up to Inwood. Casting and filming would begin next day. As it turned out, the easiest undertaking was the casting. Movies of the times and even our immediate surrounding seemed to reflect ethnic tensions. Why should we be any different, (for movie purposes, anyway)…Irish guys on one side, Puerto Rican guys on the other. My brother Lito had the perfect name for the flick, “The Spics and the Mics don’t mix.” The show was on…
The film’s outset featured a panoramic view of the Heights…Highbridge Park Watertower, and the George Washington Bridge adorned the horizon. The camera panned the rooftops then dropped to street level to focus on a nearby alleyway in which our opening scene was about to unfold. At the street level all attention converged on the alleyway. Within, two gang members plotted a heist. Just outside the alley, out of view of the two thieves, a silent eavesdropper listened-in. When the plan was finalized the thugs walked out of the alley only to run into the Paul-Pry. In order not to leave behind a witness to their planned robbery, the plotters decided it would be wise to do-in the busybody. The action begins. A struggle ensues and the slippery snoop slips away. The chase which follows is witnessed by a bystander, the salacious Carol Sullivan. She watches in horror as the young victim played by Emilio is chased into a hallway. The camera picks up the action on the roof where in an attempt to hide, the would-be informant clings along a ledge of a roof wall by his finger tips. The scene of the teen hanging off the rooftop was shot from an adjoining roof eight feet below. The camera aimed at the hanging fugitive as he is discovered by the thugs. We see his fingers being pried loose one by one. He begs for mercy, screams and drops out of camera range. The next shot forces the cameraman to street level where he picks up a very well assembled dummy suspended off another similar ledge giving the impression that it’s our would-be stooge. This time the dummy is six flights up. Someone hollers, “Action!” The camera rolls and the dummy plummets five stories before its’ right shoe is caught on a clothes line and the stuffing stretches out twelve feet from clothes line to the backyard floor. It looked great on film. Makes you wonder how movies like “Plan 9 From Outer Space” ever made the silver screen. As the story unfolds, we continued shooting around the neighborhood. Having witnessed the slaying, Carol Sullivan reports the incident to the victim’s friends. In following sequences the guys are filmed recruiting their garrisons. The troops are shown running out of alleyways, hallways and malt shops leaving their girlfriends behind. The camera picks up this assembly in a great array of camera angles ranging from worm’s eye-view to bird’s eye view. Gasper kept the camera running as we proceeded towards the park around the bend. The mob was snowballing as we marched. We were looking very much like a scene from “West Side Story.” People we’d never seen were joining in. By the time we reached the park, there were close to 30-40 people, half of which had no idea what was going on. We took a few minutes to comb our “pompadours” and explain what all the hoopla was about before the next shot. lace decorated with backless styled items for the wedding
The following scenes involved a meeting with “Mr. Big” to be followed by a rumble. Mr. Big was played by Jimmy Hood. Jimmy was the local electronics whiz (by today’s standards, the resident nerd). He worked for Harvey Electronics so long that he was able to field-strip a UNIVAC computer in five minutes. Given the resources, he probably would have beaten the Russians into outer space single handedly. Physically resembling a six foot “Alfalfa,” we were forced to call upon our makeup and wardrobe departments to make him appear mean. An eye patch and a “Frank Nitty” hat, and the show went on. He was a new Person. He performed his part masterfully. Mr. Big’s bodyguard was played by a mean looking dude named Bob Hraseneck whose appearance was enhanced with the aid of a scar which ran from ear to chin. This was done with the help of some rubber cement. A confrontation between gang members over the execution of a holdup was written in. To this day, Jim’s Clark’s back feels the pain from an injury he sustained when he was flipped head over heels into a park sandbox during the filming of this scene. The big heist scene was next. We had received full cooperation from the business establishment which was to be the target, the “Bungalow Bar Ice Cream Truck.”