Remembering Ed Wood

Ed Wood Trading card from the Authors collection




Its funny how we can learn so much about people when Hollywood decides to tell their story. I never heard of Ed Wood until Tim Burton created and directed the movie “Ed Wood.” Burton’s movie was filmed in black and white with great attention to detail to period clothing and styles. The movie immediately captured my imagination.  Having been a child of the 1960’s I was in a great position to see television come of age. In 1965 there were very few color TV’s in homes and stations were always seeking to re-invent the way they presented programming and were in constant competition with Movie theaters for profits. Much of what was presented was lower quality programming. Big dollar famous movies with first line actors sometimes took as many as two years to appear on a television network, and back in the day all we had were a handful of major networks who provided programming on as few as five or six broadcast stations.


In the early afternoon and late night, networks would air monster and horror movies which were my personal favorites. All in black and white film format. I had already heard of some of Wood’s work and had seen his infamous “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and I once saw his movie about a cross dresser trying to come out of the closet “Glen or Glenda” (1953) in a drive-in theater in Oakland California in the 1980’s


Burton’s tongue and cheek film tells the story of a misguided cross dresser who tries to find his place in Hollywood while producing low budget films. Somewhere along the way he manages to run into the famed actor Bela Lugosi who had been both a leading man and great supporting actor in many Universal monster and horror movies.  Burton takes great creative license in the telling of the story and after Ed Wood hits the big screen it generates some controversy, particularly where he characterizes Bela Lugosi (Played by Actor Martin Landau).  Burton is however kind to his trouper Ed Wood (played by Johnny Depp) and only touches upon his downfall by examining his eccentricities as an angora sweater loving transvestite.

But Ed Wood’s true story is very elusive.  I think my deepest connection to Ed Wood was the fact that he was a guy who obviously tried really hard, and was sincere in his approach to film. But lacked the success to pull together the elements that he needed to be a a decent director and producer.

Much of own life reflected Ed’s shortcomings in so many ways, that I feel that we are kindred souls. Despite his lack of big success, Ed made Plan-9 from outer Space. A film that would go onto be known as the best worst film ever made. A title which no other film carries. Plan 9 is Ed’s eternal epitaph and in my opinion was used as a model for many other alien / UFO genre films (though I am sure no other producer would admit it).

But I think one Ed’s greatest successes was linking his name to Bela Lugosi. It is almost surrealistic that Bela should be so successful himself, and having worked with a Director like Tod Browning in his early career under the banner of Universal Studios and then landing like a wounded bat on Ed Woods sound stage is truly ironic. Though, the last three names names mentioned, Browning, Lugosi and Wood, all had some things in common. For one thing they all worked in film. But like so many creative people in Hollywood, they had a destructive side to their own personalities. A fact that was inescapable for all three. Much of the following information was found on the internet, though many things have been written and documented on Wood’s life. For the hardcore horror fan, we suggest further reading.

Ed Wood was born in Poughkeepsie, New York. According to internet sources, Wood’s second wife, Kathy O’Hara, Wood’s mother Lillian would dress him in girl’s clothing when he was a child because she had always wanted a daughter. This obviously contributed to the fact that Ed was a heterosexual crossdresser. During his childhood, Wood was interested in entertainment and pulp fiction. He collected comics and pulp magazines, and loved movies, He enjoyed Westerns and anything involving the occult. He would often skip school to watch pictures at the local movie theater, apparently where the theaters would disgard lobby cards and stills from the day’s movie to be thrown in the trash by theater employees, allowing Wood to salvage them to add to his extensive collection. In 1936,on his 12th birthday, Wood received his first movie camera, a Kodak “Cine Special”. One of his first pieces of footage, and one that gave him much pride, according to various sources, Ed found himself in at the crossroads of history as he filmed the airship Hindenburg as it passed over the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, shortly before its famous 28 fiery demise at Lakehurst, New Jersey. One of Wood’s first paid jobs was as an Usher at a local cinema, and he also sang and played drums in a band. He later became part of a singing quartet called “Eddie Wood’s Little Splinters”,and he learned to play a variety of string instruments. Military service Ed Wood’s service in the military would become part of his legend.

In 1942 He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, just months after the Attack on Pearl Harbor, and was assigned to the 6th and 7th Defense Battalions, he reached the rank of Corporal before he was discharged. He was involved in the Battle of Tarawa, among others, and during the war, he lost his two front teeth to a Japanese soldier’s rifle butt and was shot several times in the leg by a machine gunner. Wood later claimed that he feared being wounded in battle because he wore a women’s bra and panties under his uniform. In 1946, Wood was discharged from the military after which he joined a carnival. (This is an ironic coincidence where his relationship with Bela Lugosi is concerned, because the Director Tod Browning who directed Dracula in 1931 had also spent time with the carnival) Ed’s several missing teeth and disfigured leg wounds suffered while in combat combined with personal fetishes and acting skills made him a perfect candidate for the freak show.

Wood played, among others, the geek and the bearded lady. As the bearded lady, he donned women’s clothing and created his own prosthetic breasts by inflating his nipples with air. Much like Tod Browning, ED would frequently draw from his carnival experiences in his works, most notably the semi-autobiographical novel Killer in Drag. 29 Directing and screenwriting In 1947, Wood moved to Hollywood. He wrote scripts and directed television pilots, commercials and several forgotten micro-budget westerns with names such as Crossroads of Laredo and Crossroad Avenger: The Legend of the Tucson Kid. In 1948, Wood wrote, produced, directed, and starred in Casual Company, a play from his unpublished novel which was based on his service in the United States Marine Corps. It opened at the Village Playhouse to negative reviews on October 25. In 1952, Wood was introduced to actor Bela Lugosi by friend and fellow writer-producer Alex Gordon, Ed’s roommate at the time, who went on to help create American International Pictures. Contrary to the Tim Burton film’s events, Wood did not meet Lugosi in a coffin store, nor was Lugosi ever known to use foul language when referring to rival actor Boris Karloff. Lugosi’s son, Bela Lugosi, Jr., has been among those who felt Wood exploited the senior Lugosi’s stardom, (there is also a youtube video in which Lugosi Jr. clarifies his fathers history after the release of the movie Ed Wood) taking advantage of the fading actor when he could not refuse any work,while most documents and interviews with other Wood associates in Nightmare of Ecstasy suggest that Wood and Lugosi were genuine friends and that Wood helped Lugosi through the worst days of his depression and addiction. This last fact can be confirmed as there is a video interview online in which Lugosi was interviewed after his stay in rahab, and he specifically mentions Ed “Eddie” Wood, by name and mentions his collaborations with Ed. In 1953, Wood wrote and directed the exploitative semi-documentary Glen or Glenda (originally titled I Changed My Sex!) with producer George Weiss, which starred Wood (under the alias “Daniel Davis”), his girlfriend Dolores Fuller and Lugosi as a god-like narrator. The film was loosely based on transsexual 30 Christine Jorgensen. While panned by critics then and now, though many praise the camp qualities, the film is notable for having a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of LGBT related issues at a time when most media was deeply hostile, making it groundbreaking. Jail Bait In 1954, Wood directed and produced a crime film, Jail Bait (originally titled The Hidden Face), along with co-writer Alex Gordon, which starred Lyle Talbot and Steve Reeves. Bela Lugosi was supposed to play the lead role of the plastic surgeon, but was busy when filming started and had to bow out. Bride of the Monster In 1955, Wood produced and directed the horror film Bride of the Monster (originally titled Bride of the Atom), based on an original story idea by Alex Gordon which he entitled The Atomic Monster.It starred Bela Lugosi, Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson and Loretta King. Following the making of this film, Lugosi turned himself in to the state hospital for treatment for his drug addiction. Plan 9 from Outer Space In 1956, Wood produced, wrote and directed the science-fiction film Plan 9 from Outer Space (originally titled Grave Robbers from Outer Space), which starred Lugosi (in his final film), Tor Johnson, Vampira (Maila Nurmi), Tom Mason (who doubled for Lugosi in several scenes) and Criswell as the narrator. The film was premiered at a small screening in 1957, and was only released theatrically in 1959. In 1961, it was sold to late night television, greatly expanding its audience. 31 The Violent Years In 1956, Wood wrote and produced the exploitation film The Violent Years (originally titled Teenage Girl Gang) with director William M. Morgan, starring Playboy model Jean Moorhead. Night of the Ghouls In 1958, Wood wrote, produced and directed Night of the Ghouls (originally titled Revenge of the Dead), starring Tor Johnson, Criswell, Valda Hansen and Kenne Duncan. The film was only released (marginally) in March 1959, and then promptly vanished from sight for nearly three decades, when it was resurrected on home video. The Sinister Urge In 1960, Wood wrote and directed the exploitation film The Sinister Urge (originally titled Racket Queen), starring Kenne Duncan, Duke Moore and Carl Anthony. Filmed in five days, this is the last mainstream film Wood directed, although it has grindhouse elements. Ironically, his career would soon spiral downward into a blur of “smut racket” nudie flicks, softcore pornography and end with Xrated novels and films. The scenes of teenagers at a pizza place were shot in 1956 for the unfinished juvenile delinquency film Rock and Roll Hell (a.k.a. Hellborn). This includes a fight scene performed by Ed Wood himself (uncredited) and Conrad Brooks. Orgy of the Dead In 1963, Wood wrote the screenplay for Shotgun Wedding, an exploitation film about hillbillies 32 marrying child brides, and Wood’s transitional film, once again combining two genres, horror and grindhouse skin-flick, was 1965’s Orgy of the Dead, originally titled Nudie Ghoulies. Wood handled various production details while Stephen C. Apostol of directed under the pseudonym A. C. Stephen. The film begins with a re-creation of the opening scene from the then-unreleased Night of the Ghouls. Criswell, wearing one of Lugosi’s old capes, rises from his coffin to deliver an introduction taken almost word-for-word from the previous film. Set in a misty graveyard, the Lord of the Dead (Criswell) and his sexy consort, the Black Ghoul (a Vampira look-alike), preside over a series of macabre performances by topless dancers from beyond the grave (recruited by Wood from local strip clubs). Together, Wood and Apostolof went on to make a string of sexploitation flims up to 1977. Wood co-wrote the screenplays and occasionally acted. Venus Flytrap (1970), a US/Japan horror film, was based on an unproduced Wood screenplay from the 1950s. Books and novels Beginning in the early 1960s, Wood wrote at least eighty lurid crime and sex novels in addition to hundreds of short stories and non-fiction pieces for magazines. Titles include Black Lace Drag (1963) (reissued in 1965 as Killer in Drag), Orgy of the Dead (1965), Devil Girls (1967), Death of a Transvestite (1967), The Sexecutives (1968), The Photographer (1969), Take It Out in Trade (1970), The Only House in Town (1970), with Uschi Digard, 33 Necromania (1971), The Undergraduate (1972), A Study of Fetishes and Fantasies (1973) and Fugitive Girls (1974). (In Nightmare of Ecstasy, Maila Nurmi declined Wood’s offer to do a nude scene sitting up in a coffin for Necromania.) In 1965, Wood wrote the quasi-memoir Hollywood Rat Race, which was eventually published in 1998. In it, Wood advises new writers to “just keep on writing. Even if your story gets worse, you’ll get better”, and also recounts tales of dubious authenticity, such as how he and Bela Lugosi entered the world of nightclub cabaret. In a December 2010 published article at Mondo Film & Video Guide, indie print publisher Feral House, who in the last few years had re-printed dozens of Wood’s novels, ended sales on all Wood titles when Wood’s estate requested a cease and desist due to uncertainty about whether Wood wrote all the novels published under his name or not.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s