In the Spring of 1969, the Cincinnati press had what seemed like a fun little story: an upcoming drive-in flick was featuring some local talent. Purportedly about some kind of creature attacking a night club, The Exotic Ones would be made a little less exotic by the presence of Donna Raye, a graduate of local Woodward High School, and her husband Gene McFall, who taught at Covington Holmes Junior High just across the Ohio River in Kentucky. To make the occasion even more special, the news announced that Raye would be making a personal appearance at the Twin Drive-In, just down the street from her alma mater.
The ad’s first appearance on Tuesday, April 29th raised a red flag—a large, disgusting, gore-soaked red flag. In a big blood curdling font are the words, “REGURGITATING HORRORS,” followed by a warning, “Unless you can stand VIVID REALISM, IT MIGHT SNAP YOUR MIND!” A snarling figure lustily looks out from an inky abyss, a cartoon woman in brassiere and stockings runs in terror, a giant hand with claws hovers over a bloody corpse, gore drips upon a newspaper with the headline, “Monster Mangles Nite Club Stripper.” That much was advertised in The Cincinnati Post. Its competitor, The Cincinnati Enquirer, ran all the carnage but clumsily censored the strictly verboten combination of the words “stripper” and “mangles.” The headline of the “New Orleans Times” was just…a blank space. Later in the week, the Enquirer ran a tamed ad with the headline, “Monster Pursues Nite Club Dancer.” Regardless of the state of the beast’s pursuit, or what kind of club it had turned into its hunting ground, one question remained unanswered:
What kind of film had our Donna got herself into?
To put it simply, Donna was in a film produced by the Ormond family. To put it much more complexly, you’ve got to read Jimmy McDonough’s latest book, The Exotic Ones: That Fabulous Film-Making Family from Music City, USA - The Ormonds. McDonough, for those not initiated, is one of the preeminent chroniclers of our modern cultural visionaries. He has written about figures like Andy Milligan, Russ Meyer, Tammy Wynette, and Neil Young—a dysfunctional ersatz family if ever there was one. What is the through line between these disparate virtuosos? Against the grain types, who carve out sometimes difficult art from their tumultuous lives? Artists that have managed to prismatically refract this pigsty world into something at least approaching beauty? Perhaps, it’s just that McDonough finds them interesting enough to obsessively document their lives.
The Ormonds were certainly interesting enough. As an actual family, the Ormonds were comparatively functional, even if their film output suggests otherwise. Husband and wife Ron and June were like Ozzie and Harriet but with more mystical beliefs, weirdo friends, and a healthy dose of fire and brimstone. Their son Tim was like Ricky, but he didn’t enjoy singing which is a shame because I really dig the tune the 18-year-old sings in The Exotic Ones, “The Hurt Goes On and On.”
The Ormonds’ films ranged from B-Westerns to hillbilly musicals to jungle adventures with gorillas galore. They dealt with mad scientists (Mesa of Lost Women), marital problems (Please Don’t Touch Me), moonshine (White Lightnin’ Road), and the Red Menace (If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do?). Their story is a testament to entrepreneurial gusto, family bonds, and the power of exploitation. Anybody who has ever wanted to put on a show independently—either by making a picture or projecting one—will undoubtedly be infected with this lively tale. Or maybe that’s Ron’s hypnotic suggestion coming through…
McDonough’s research on the family—or The Ormand Organization, as they branded themselves—commenced almost 40 years ago, when he interviewed June for a Film Comment article. It’s June that forms the heart of this book; her long monologues are woven into each chapter. And she is a pip—hard working, opinionated, always looking for a sales angle. She clearly developed thick skin and nerves of steel early. Born to a burlesque comedian father and a dialectician mother, June Carr was destined for show business. The book devotes plenty of space to her formative years from when she went out in her early teens to begin dancing on the vaudeville circuit, eventually working with the likes of Bob Hope and Milton Berle. Her career stalled due to a simple conflict: June had too much spirit for the cesspool that is the entertainment industry. (The sordid, but unsurprising, details are all in the book.) Then June met a handsome magician and “world renowned psychic” on the same bill as her and they were married in a whirlwind.
“June Carr, fiery female dance comic, aided and abetted by a handsome young man, pounds her grotesque dancing across with laudable fury. The young lady should land high with her comic potentialities.” – Review of June’s 1931 vaudeville act in The Cincinnati Post
That wand waver was Ron Ormond or, as he sometimes billed himself, Rahn Ormand. After touring together in the early 40s, June and Ron Ormond started organizing live appearances for cowboy stars Sunset Carson, Eddie Dean, Peggy Stewart…and Lash LaRue. It feels a bit redundant to say there are some great Lash stories in this book. I mean, is there a Lash story that isn’t great?
Booking Western stars led to booking The Three Stooges which ultimately led to producing their own pictures. These were mostly Lash La Rue cheapies, but eventually they tried their hand at old-time variety shows for the boonies—Kentucky Jubilee, Varieties on Parade (with Hollywood cast-off Tom Neal), and the totally démodé Yes Sir, Mr. Bones.
Things got much stranger with the notorious Mesa of Lost Women in 1953 and the shocking and schlocky Untamed Mistress three years later. By the time a lashless Al La Rue appeared as a psychiatrist curing a woman’s frigidity in Please Don’t Touch Me, the Ormonds were sailing on the dangerous high seas of exploitation. This period culminated in the regurgitating geek-show known as The Exotic Ones.
All of this came before a religious awakening—again, all the dramatic details are in the book—and a spate of unabashedly bible-thumpin’ Southern Baptist pictures, including the notoriously violent If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do? and The Burning Hell starring the minister Estus Pirkle.
I’m just giving you a mere sketch of the story; Jimmy McDonough’s chunky 10-pound 5-ounce baby has all the facts. With fire-eating/man-eating burlesque dancer Georgette Dante on the front cover and scarily clean-cut Estus Pirkle on the back, you know the contents are complicated. (If you can heft the tome, I suggest holding it in front of your face and acting out the part of either stripper or preacher.) The publisher is dead serious when they describe it as a “Luxurious large format quarter-bound hardcover book in heavy duty slipcase with ribbon page marker and gold page edges.” In other words, you will not be reading this book in bed. In fact, it’s probably best read from a pulpit.
I haven’t even touched on my favorite parts of the book. There’s the image of Pirkle driving across the country in his station wagon, eating massive quantities of peanuts, a mannequin of The Grim Reaper in the back seat. There’s the man donning the gorilla suit for Untamed Mistress sipping Coca-Cola through a straw stuck in the nose. “So he was one of the first people who snorted Coke,” quipped Tim.
More than anything, reading about the grassroots distribution of the religious pics is fascinating. Churches took the films worldwide, even if they had to project on a white sheet in a remote village in the Philippines. Pirkle’s paperwork on The Burning Hell suggests that over 6 million people viewed the film.
In a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, McDonough states of his tireless research, “If you don't want to strangle the author with your bare hands by page 738 then I haven't done my job.” To that I say: McDonough has failed. Sure, I wanted to yell at him when he is overly cautious to make sure the reader knows he isn’t cosigning the more politically incorrect aspects of the Ormonds. I may have wanted to slap him in a couple of instances when meticulous research gums up the momentum of the story. But strangle him? No. McDonough wrote the greatest book possible about The Ormonds and had it published with gilded edges. I think I’m in heaven.
Back to Donna Raye of Cincinnati, for a moment. She wasn’t interviewed for the book, and McDonough notes, “In later years Donna became very religious and was said to be embarrassed by the movie.” This is understandable; The Exotic Ones is a tacky movie, to put it lightly. However, the film charms due to the committed performances by June, Ron, and young Tim as well as the fascinatingly coarse Georgette Dante and rockabilly star Sleepy LaBeef as the swamp monster. McDonough describes Donna Raye as “a charismatic presence,” and I couldn’t agree more. I keep going back to the scene where Tim sings “The Hurt Goes On and On” while shining his boots in front of the caged monster. Donna walks into the private moment and converses with Tim, letting her oh-so-comforting twangy accent out. The scene ends with her giving the clearly smitten Tim a peck on the forehead.
Inexplicably, Tim was embarrassed by his singing, going so far as to cutting out most of the song when the movie was released on video as The Monster and the Stripper (this has been restored as best as possible in the Blu-ray released in conjunction with McDonough’s book).
It’s such a cozy scene amid absolute chaos, but I suppose the hurt can indeed go on and on.
Jimmy McDonough's The Exotic Ones is available from FAB Press: go get it.