Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Essay: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Sergeant Pepper (with Huntz Hall on the Cover) March 14, 2017

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On Sunday night, June 11, 1967—the week in which I was to graduate from high school--I was sitting in my bedroom with a group of my friends listening to a satirical program on KPCC FM, an alternative radio station in Pasadena, California. The program—Radio Free OZ—mixed music and comedy in a subversive and groundbreaking way. (Peter Bergman, the host of Radio Free Oz, would go on to found the Firesign Theater, one of America’s first satirical comedy collectives.)

On this Sunday night we were gathered in my bedroom because I was the only one of us with an FM radio. We came together because Bergman’s program had announced that he would read the names of the people on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Even with teenage eyes none of us could quite accurately discern all the faces on the album cover’s collage.) Imagine my surprise when, reading left to right in the top row, Bergman read the name of my father, Huntz Hall, as figure number 12.

We were stunned. I was stunned. Though as a member of the movie gangs the Dead End Kids, the East Side Kids, and the Bowery Boys my father had been famous from the 1930s through the 1950s, his reputation was in a bit of a lull in the 1960s, and my friends and I thought we were the only people under 50 who knew who Huntz Hall was.

In 1935, six teenage actors appeared on Broadway in Sidney Kingsley’s social-realist drama, Dead End. They played a mixture of tough street kids living near the East River in New York, under the shadow of the affluent apartments of Astor Place. The play was a stage hit, and the boys traveled west to Hollywood in 1937 to appear in the film version starring alongside Humphrey Bogart, Joel McCrea, Ann Sheridan. This film was such a success that they were signed to a contract at Warner Brothers studio where they made several movies with Bogart, James Cagney, John Garfield, Ronald Reagan, and others. They became a teenage sensation. A look at movie magazines and newspapers of the 1930s will confirm what my father always said later in life: “We were the Beatles of the 1930s.”

The Dead End Kids lasted at Warner Brothers for a few years, then moved to Universal Studios where they morphed into the East Side Kids. Their movies morphed as well, from A pictures to B (budget) movies, second features played mostly for comedy. After World War II they left for Monogram Pictures and became the Bowery Boys, making an additional 48 films between 1946 and 1958. As the group changed, original members dropped away. By the time of their last iteration, the Bowery Boys featured two of the original actors: Leo Gorcey (the star) and my father, Huntz Hall, as his partner and sidekick. By the time the final Bowery Boys movie appeared in 1958, Huntz Hall was the only original Dead End Kid left.

When the Bowery Boys ended, my father was no longer a star but continued (until his death in 1999) to be a steadily working actor. Though he was no longer mobbed on the street at a “Beatle of the 1930s”, Huntz Hall was known to my generation mostly through the Saturday morning reruns of East Side Kids and Bowery Boys movies on television. He and Leo became the favorites of a generation of ensemble comedians (Second City, Saturday Night Live). And he also became a countercultural hero because of his arrest for possession of marijuana in October of 1948.

In the late 1940s, Los Angeles police started going after high-profile Hollywood people for marijuana possession. (Robert Mitchum’s arrest a month before Huntz Hall’s made front page news.) In the same sweep, police found marijuana stashed in the back yard of my father’s Hollywood apartment. Mitchum was eventually convicted and served two months in jail. Though the two coffee cans full of dope found by the police were his, Huntz Hall was acquitted and went back to work.

In 1967, the year of Sergeant Pepper’s release, Huntz Hall was somewhat remembered as an old-time movie star, but he was famous within pot-smoking circles because of his bust for possession of marijuana. He was in a sense a real cult favorite.

I called my father (he lived in New York then) the day after I heard his name read on the radio and asked him if he knew he was on the record cover. Indeed he did, and he saw his picture there as something of a life lesson.

Five years earlier, Stanley Kramer had tried to cast Huntz and Leo in his all-star comedy movie, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Leo agreed readily. My father asked for too much money. Leo made it into the picture, my father did not. He realized he had overplayed his hand. He decided he would be smarter the next time a great offer came around.

Months before Sergeant Pepper appeared, someone from Brian Epstein’s office called asking for permission to use Huntz Hall’s face on the album cover. The office had also called Leo Gorcey asking for a release. This time it was Gorcey who asked for money. My father had wised up, and asked instead for four autographed copies of the record. Gorcey was turned down (hence the empty space next to my father where his image originally lay.) Huntz Hall got his four autographed albums and his visage remained on the cover.

Over the remaining years of his life, I talked with my father about the Sergeant Pepper cover and the reasons he thought he was on it. On several occasions he told me that though the Bowery Boys were not known in England, the Beatles had seen the movies on American television and loved his and Leo’s comedy. He always felt that his place on the album cover was a tribute to his status as a pioneer of offball screen comedy.

While his reasoning is probably true, I believe there is another explanation for Huntz Hall’s face on the Sergeant Pepper cover, and it lies in the marijuana plants arrayed in front and to the side of the Beatles in the picture. Marijuana became its own subculture during the Beat and Hippie years of the 1950s and 1960s, and my father became more famous within that subculture as a dope smoker than as an actor. (He never liked his druggie reputation and in fact once sued the author Terry Southern for representing him as a drug addict in the novel Candy.) But despite my father’s protestations, I have always thought Huntz Hall’s face on the Sergeant Pepper cover a coded message saluting the early users of hallucinogenic substances. He stands there along with Lenny Bruce, William Burroughs, and Edgar Allan Poe as an exemplar of the creative artists whose creativity was enhanced by using marijuana. Together they form a kind of brotherhood of dope-smoking forbears.

A lot, of course, has changed since that June night in 1967 when I heard the list of names on Radio Free Oz. My father lived another thirty-plus years, and through not only the increased distribution of the Bowery Boys movies but also his influence on the improvisational comedians of those decades he is perhaps better known today than he was then. Because they are saddled with often melodramatic plots the Bowery Boys movies don’t hold up that well as films, but the comedy parts are as funny as ever. Unlike other highly rehearsed comedy duos (Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello) Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall were probably the first two screen comedians to improvise directly in front of the camera, and comedians of my generation learned a lot from watching their movies. So the question, “Why is Huntz Hall on the Sergeant Pepper cover?” does not seem quite so urgent in 2017 as it did in 1967.

If the cultural reputation of the Bowery Boys is more settled now than it was then, so is the social position of marijuana use, at least in the United States. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized some or all uses of marijuana, and the drug’s in-joke cultishness has modulated into general social acceptance. So those who were once seen as outlaw pioneers of drug use have been domesticated, seen today perhaps not as renegades but simply as those who were somehow ahead of their time.

Five days after that night in my bedroom, my friends and I did graduate high school in June of 1967. I have gone on to have a very different life than my father. After some initial flirtations with show business, I became an Episcopal priest, got a Ph.D. in English, and served for a time as a teacher of English and American literature. Over the forty years of my own career I served as parish priest, high school and college teacher, seminary and cathedral dean. In almost every job I had, there would be a moment when someone in a get-acquainted exercise would ask me to tell them something about myself they probably wouldn’t know. To say that people were shocked to learn that their priest or teacher or dean’s father was on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would be an understatement. My father’s face on the cover is as surprising today as it was then, a gift for which I will always be grateful.

The Reverend Canon Gary R. Hall, Ph.D., retired as Dean of Washington National Cathedral in 2015 and lives with his wife Kathy in Los Angeles.