By Rich Moreland, October 2012
This post is dedicated to two most gracious individuals I had the pleasure of recently meeting.
Decades ago an old high school chum and I went to Las Vegas, the first time for both of us. In those days, Vegas was Frank Sinatra’s“Rat Pack,” rumors of mob control, and hookers on the Strip. One adventurous evening we decided to find a local grindhouse for a new experience, a porn movie. These were the pre-VCR days; adult film was in its infancy and not yet in America’s living rooms. I remembered stag films in my college fraternity and I’m not sure to this day that my pal had ever gone that far. We were truly clueless about filmed pornography.
After some wandering, we found a theater and paid our money with some of it undoubtedly going to an in-house checker who skimmed profits off the top for the mob. We settled in for what is known today as the double bill that birthed pornography’s golden age, “Deep Throat” and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” I remember little about either film, though I did appreciate the artistic adventure of “Devil.” I left the theater never anticipating that one of the performers on the big screen that night would be a someone I would get to know years later.
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I’ve just finished a delightful lunch at Victor’s Delicatessen in Hollywood with people I am fortunate to call friends. Among them is David Bertolino, an off-Broadway producer, and a charming couple, John and Chele Welsh. The Welshs are senior citizens whose love for each other is the stuff of teenage romances. Their marriage of many years is filled with a warmth and adventure that is evident to those who know them. They were especially kind to me when I arrived at their home before our lunch date, but more on that in a minute.
You see, among Chele Welsh’s collection of show business AKA’s (also known as) is Georgina Spelvin whose portrayal of the fictional Justine Jones drove the sexual escapades of the second feature that Vegas evening long ago. To have seen her on the silver screen is one thing; to sit between this wisp of a woman and her husband almost 50 years later is the moment of a lifetime.
The occasion is my way of taking Chelz up on an offer she extended to me a couple of years ago. We established email connections because I am working on a book exploring feminism in adult film and wanted her spin on porn’s early days. She concluded one correspondence by insisting that I save a spot on my “dance card,” as she put it, if I ever got to Southern California. I was cashing in the ticket now.
At our table is Chele’s husband John Welsh, a retired veteran of TV and film. They married decades ago after meeting on the set of an Irish play, The Hostage, in North Hollywood. The other member of our group is photographer Bill Knight who makes my job as a journalist much easier. I’m next to Chelz and across from David, the best seat in this house!
David is along for a reason beyond a good meal and history revisited. He is producing “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal,” a play scheduled to open at L.A.’s Zephyr Theater in mid-January 2013. The show is about the government’s attempt to prosecute the film in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1976. Its theme is free speech and offers a look at porn’s early battles with censorship.
The table conversation turned to the late Gerard Damiano, the director of “Devil” and “Deep Throat.” His talent propelled Georgina (as I’ll now address her for the show biz part of this post) onto a public quite ready to embrace filmed pornography. “He was the sweetest, most wonderful man,” she said, “a real pussycat who just wanted to make movies.”
Today at Victor’s, Miss Jones will meet a modern interpretation of the dust-up surrounding the other film on that notorious double bill because our luncheon is more than a historical check-up. The atmosphere is building to a moment that will enhance the authenticity of David’s play. He wants to recruit Georgina for the show.
Ever the persuader, David explains that he has a cast of ten, with two members rotating in weekly. Temporary actors will play the judge in the Memphis trial and the role of the theater ticket taker where the drama begins. These cameos will include personalities from mainstream studios and the adult business. Hollywood will contribute Adam Glaser, Bruce Villanch, and Christopher Knight, to name a few. Adult film will see its own hall of famers on stage. Hershel Savage, Paul Thomas, Ron Jeremy, Bill Margold, John Stagliano, and Nina Hartley are on the rotating schedule, with Veronica Hart in a permanent role, an impressive lineup for any theater marquee.
For David, Georgina Spelvin is a game changer. She’s the “Grand Dame of Adult Film” and the only surviving member of the original trio who put filmed pornography on America’s cultural landscape. Linda Lovelace died in 2002 and Marilyn Chambers, the all-American girl sensation of “Behind the Green Door,” passed away in 2009.
If she agrees, Miss Jones will once again be in a “devil” of a show the instant her cameo lights up the theater.
At this point, Georgina relates how she ended up in Memphis, revealing the kind of information historians love while filling in the blanks to complete the story.
She was doing a summer stock production of “Anything Goes” in Brunswick, Maine. On the day of the show’s final rehearsal, the casting director suddenly approached her and said, “don’t go to your dressing room.” Aware that something was amiss, the play’s comic urged Georgina to “go back in the wings and say you’re not dressed.” What was going on? Two “suits” had walked into the theater, Georgina explained, “one tall, one short,” armed with an arrest warrant fully listing all her stage names. The feds wanted to their woman, aliases and all!
Theater owner and the play’s producer, Vicky Crandall, informed the Feds that their mission had hit a snag. Ms. Spelvin could not accompany them, Crandall pointed out, her presence was required for that evening’s opening night. The “suits” backed off. An appearance at the Judge’s office the next morning would suffice.
In the meanwhile, the producer suggested Georgina call an old friend, “a local big wig judge,” as Georgina puts it, and “get this straightened out.”
The next morning his honor ruled that Georgina be released to Ms. Crandall’s custody for the duration of the theater’s season. A victory, but Memphis was still on the table.
Georgina later described how a civil liberties attorney in Maine helped her find a Tennessee lawyer. She traveled to the Bible Belt in a converted school bus, the “Dorabelladonna.” An amusing account of this journey appears in her autobiography, The Devil Made Me Do It.
The Memphis lawyer let her park her bus in his driveway and accompanied her to the police station where she was fingerprinted and posed for a mug shot. With true southern grace, Georgina signed fifteen Polaroids for the assembled officers. Even in their most devilish moments, show biz people always create a buzz.
At the trial, she was on and off the stand in a wink. She gave her name, Georgina said, was asked about how much she got paid for “Devil,” and “where the film was shot,” all very quick and without controversy. A free bird at last, Georgina departed Memphis and headed to California via New Orleans.
Forty-six years later, Shelly Graham, a native Texan who sought fame on Broadway in the 1950’s, is an honoree in the pantheon of porn. David promised to treat her like royalty, not unusual for him actually, if she would walk across his stage. Equity rules are weak when it comes to benefiting actors David reminded us. The pay is low and to get simple amenities like water, juice, and fruit is rare. David guaranteed Chelz that her dressing room would be well stocked and pay would exceed equity expectations (a personal practice of his, by the way).
The now seventy-six-year-old turned to John and asked if he’d take time to drive her to the theater. It was the sweetest moment of our gathering. Hubby gallantly acceded to her request with his characteristic smile and everyone headed triumphantly out. Coincidentally, David just happened to a have a script in his vehicle to give to his newest star!
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We left Victor’s and headed back to John and Chele’s home. On the way I played the tourist role to the hilt because they live near the Hollywood sign and I needed to take some pics back to the east coast to impressive my friends. At John’s insistence we made our way to a massive dog park that is just below the historic landmark. I’m forever thankful for John’s lead in this endeavor. Got some great photos and experienced one of the most remarkable settings in recent memory, dogs frolicking with their owners on a hillside with the valley below providing a remarkable backdrop, in fact a real drop for those whose fear of heights acts up in these environs!
Winding down the hilly road we returned to the Welsh’s home. My affection for them had grown. I posed with Chelz and John on the terrace behind their house and just briefly remembered my parents long departed. Bill secured a memory that preserved the three of us in a family-like moment, perhaps routine for the Welshs who are most proud of the lovely terraced hillside that is their backyard, but much appreciated by me, nonetheless.
Before we left, John showed Bill and me a photo of the Hollywood sign a half century ago. It spelled out “Hollywoodland” and the winding hillside road that the Welsh’s call home today was visible in the brownish-gray photo. I’m a historian who plays at journalism so the snapshot’s frozen moment marked the end of a perfect experience for me. My time in Hollywood served as a constant reminder of the history that was everywhere I went. Americans rarely have an institutional memory of what came before them. Not true of the Welshs, they recognize that they are part of Hollywood’s collective past and narrators of it for those who will listen.
Later I sent Chele an email thanking her for her time. Meeting a legend is rare, if it happens at all, I noted, and she is most memorable for me.
I envisioned her and John looking at my message and smiling together.
“Blush” was her typed reply, a singular gesture from the sweetest, most wonderful woman who altered American culture and befriended an academic striving to chronicle a business so many don’t understand.