For an enterprising low-budget Hollywood producer in the mid-1960s, Nashville looked like nirvana. Grand Ole Opry performers were just beginning to sense the power of television and film to promote their music, and the major record labels had not yet taken control of Music Row. What’s more, the drive-in movie trade was still thriving. There was still a market for “B” movies. And when it came to “B” movies, Ron Ormond ruled.
By the time Ormond arrived in Nashville in 1965, accompanied by his wife, June, and their son, Tim, he had been working in the movies for nearly two decades. In Hollywood, he had established himself as a creative forceand as a man who knew how to squeeze every penny out of a dollar. Between 1948 and 1956, he had written and produced numerous low-budget films. He had also directed a string of 28 potboilers, most of them hour-long westerns. His biggest hits had starred Lash LaRue, a flamboyant former hairdresser who dubbed himself the “King of the Bullwhip.”
Working for Howco, a low-rent production company that showcased its films at a string of Southern drive-ins, Ormond had cobbled together makeshift masterpieces such as Mesa of Lost Women, in which former silent-era child star Jackie Coogan played a mad scientist. To this day, Mesa of Lost Women is best remembered for its infamously inept flamenco-guitar-and-piano soundtrack, which would turn up again as the background music for Jail Bait, directed by the past master of sleaze, Edward D. Wood Jr.
An ex-vaudevillian, Ormond had also shot two musicals, Hollywood Vanities (1950) and Yes Sir, Mr. Bones (1951). But he apparently took the greatest pride in projects that he produced and controlled himself. Untamed Mistress, a tawdry jungle epic from 1957, combined parts of a Howco short called Black Panther, actual jungle documentary footage and new wraparound segments about a girl raised by gorillas. A heavy-breathing ad campaign all but promised drive-in patrons that they’d see a gorilla mating with a shapely brunette. “Who would be her mate...MAN OR BEAST?” leered the Ormond pressbook.
The grosses poured in, and Ron never forgot the value of a sensational ad campaign. In 1959 he turned out a Freudian study in sexual repression. This time the pastiche included grisly travelogue footage of Philippine flagellants and arcane rituals, and Lash LaRue turned up to play a glowering hypnotist. Advertisements warned that, “Due to the unusual subject of this motion picture, words cannot describe the contents.” Not to worrythe movie’s title, Please Don’t Touch Me, said it all.
By the mid-’60s, however, Ron Ormond was producing Roller Derby for weekly television, and he was developing an ulcer.
Hollywood, quite literally, was making him sick. Just in time, he discovered Nashville, where he would spend the rest of his days. Settling in here, the Ormond family would eventually earn a reputation as “Nashville’s first family of film,” and they would go on to create one of the most colorful, and most curious, chapters in Music City’s history. Theirs is a story that brings together everything that is truly Nashville: It is a saga that includes Ralph Emery, the United Methodist Church, Minnie Pearl, some strippers and a man in a gorilla suit.
In the opinion of Michael Weldon, author of the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, the definitive study of film history’s outer limits, Ron Ormond’s name should rank right up there with sleazemeisters such as Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis. According to Weldon, Ormond’s films “just need to reach a wider audience.”
Even so, Ron Ormond and his family production company, the Ormond Organization, have achieved a modest renown that continues to spread. Ormond’s movies are sought after by video collectors, and an Ormond retrospective is even being discussed for a film festival this fall.
It’s safe to say that Ormond movies are unlike any other movies ever made. They belong to a time before VCRs and cable, a time when maverick independent moviemakers risked their family fortunes to piece together financing for picture after picture. On the fringes of the big business of moviemaking, only one criterion applied: Could it sell?
Ormond pictures could sell, and they sold big. They scored with beasts, beatings and buxom babes. They filmed country when country wasn’t cool. Their artistic credo was spelled out in blazing letters on the covers of their mid-1960s pressbooks: “It’s Exploitable!”
June Carr was born into a New York show-business family and hit the boards at age 14, at the height of the Roaring ’20s. Her father, Cliff, ran Coffee Cliff’s, a famous Broadway nightspot where Legs Diamond and other touts would congregate after hours. Before she was 25, June had appeared on stage alongside great vaudevillians such as Bob Hope, Milton Berle and Edgar Bergen. Her travels carried her to London, where she danced the Lambeth Walk on the arm of the Duke of Windsor. By anyone’s standards, June’s life was a glamorous one, but her world changed forever during an engagement at the Capitol Theater in Portland, Ore.
A charismatic master of ceremonies and magician by the name of “Rahn” Ormond was listed on the same bill, and June was immediately smitten. She predicted on the spot that, although she had never met the mystery man before, he was the man she would marry. Three short weeks later, her prediction came true.
Ron and June forged a lasting personal and professional partnership. She helped Ron polish his act, and together they packaged variety shows and took them on the road.
The Ormonds travelled extensively in the Southern states and spent their time between engagements with their families, who had relocated to Southern California. In 1950, June gave birth to their only child, Tim. The baby’s godfather was Ron’s friend Bela Lugosi.
A chance meeting with Lash LaRue led to a promotional road tour. That tour, in turn, led Ron to cross paths with Joy Houck Sr. and Francis White, who together owned Howco, a flourishing film company that counted the Consolidated Theatre chain among its holdings in the South. Ron boldly offered Houck and White a script for Dead Man’s Gold, a vehicle tailored for Lash LaRue. The project was approved for production, and Ron’s film career was under way.
Now in her 80s, June Carr Ormond remembers her involvement in Ron’s films, even from the earliest days. “I did interior decorating if we needed it; I did all the costumes,” June recalls, surrounded by memorabilia in a room of her modest West Nashville home. “I did the makeup for everybody. I handled all the dialogue. I would sit behind Ron to keep track of continuity. Usually, a man and wife get on each other’s nerves when they work together. But Ron relied on me for a lot of different things, and I always gave him encouragement.”
June helped organize personal appearance tours for cowboy stars Lash LaRue and Sunset Carson and for The Three Stooges. But she really came into her own in the late 1950s, when she began to take Ron Ormond’s own independent features on the road.
In those days, every exploitation film had its own attention grabber. For Untamed Mistress, June paid a man to dress up in a gorilla suit. Then she chauffeured the beast down city streets in an open convertible, passing out fliers with the theatre location and showtimes. Decades later, Tim Ormond, who continues to initiate independent film projects, can still remember the sight of the guy in the gorilla suit, sipping a Coke through a straw inserted into one of his gorilla-suit nostrils. June recalls that Untamed Mistress “was the first road-show picture we ever handled, and we made $90,000 in three months in Texas. So we were off and running.”
To promote Please Don’t Touch Me on the drive-in circuit, June sold “personal hygiene booklets,” which “dealt with sex education in very clinical terms.” She remembers that there were “two separate bookletsone for the women, one for the men. A taped pitch played during the intermission, which was about three minutes long.” The pitch asked patrons to blink their headlights if they wanted a booklet, and the drive-in lot would be flooded with highbeams. “We would make up to $1,000 per night on book sales alone,” June says proudly.
The Ormonds frequently passed through Nashville during their road-show escapades, and June recalls that they had always liked the city. What’s more, it was a place where they had developed connections. Among the Ormonds’ Nashville friends were Smiley and Kitty Wilson. Smiley was a talent agent; one of his fledgling clients was a girl singer named Loretta Lynn.
After Please Don’t Touch Me, Ron Ormond was growing increasingly disenchanted with Hollywood. He had to wait another five years before he could mount his next independent feature, White Lightnin’ Road (1965). Ormond’s film, a white-trash epic, was a rip-roaring retread of Robert Mitchum’s hooch-haulin’ 1958 classic Thunder Road. Racing sequences for White Lightnin’ Road were filmed at the Atlanta International Speedway. Other location footage was shot in rural Cummins, Ga., 20 miles north of Atlanta.
The Ormonds’ life was changed, however, when Ron discovered that Nashville was home to an inexpensive film-editing facility housed at Trafco, the filmmaking arm of the United Methodist Church. In short order, the Ormonds moved their base of operations to Nashville. With the help of Smiley Wilson, they wasted no time in getting their first Nashville project in front of the camera. Forty Acre Feud was a humble corn-pone musical, but major Opry stars agreed to perform in the film for only $250 per song.
“All of the people here when we first came to Nashville were very congenial and nice,” June Ormond recalls. “They all wanted to get into the movies. We turned down offers to become personal managers of big country stars because it would have tied us down. We wanted the freedom to be able to take off and go anywhere whenever we chose.”
After raising money from various local backers and booking their talent, Ron and June proceeded to film their slight story of feuding country kinfolk at Bradley’s Barn, the legendary recording studio. The cast read like a Who’s Who of Opry stars. There are endearing, if stiff, performances by Minnie Pearl, George Jones (lip-synching with sideman Johnny Paycheck), Loretta Lynn, Ray Price, Skeeter Davis, Roy Drusky and Bill Anderson, among others. WSM disc jockey Smilin’ Eddie Hill made an on-screen appearance, and there were comic turns by Ferlin Husky and Del Reeves.
Reeves remembers that he was “hot as a firecracker” at the time because he had a smash hit, “Girl on the Billboard.” Still, he says, he “thought the world of Ron,” whom he remembers as professionaland tightfisted. “Minnie Pearl was [playing] my mother,” Reeves recalls, “and we had this scene in the kitchen. There were some apples sitting there, and I was supposed to go over to the sink and eat an apple. We kept having to do the scene four, five times, and we were down to one apple.” Ron called for another take, and Reeves was about to sink his teeth into the last piece of fruit when the director’s voice came booming across the set: “Don’t eat that damn apple!”
Nobody claims that Forty Acre Feud was high art. “We knew we weren’t making Gone With The Wind,” remembers Bill Anderson, whose band appears in psychedelic-colored suits. “What we did in retrospect stands as one of the first times that country artists were seen as well as heard. There was very little country music on television. Film was one of the only ways for the fans to put a face with a name and sound.”
Before Forty Acre Feud, country music had been primarily confined to westerns and the odd bi-opic. Roy Acuff had appeared in some hayseed flicks for Republic Pictures in the 1940s, and Hank Williams’ widow, Audrey, had helped produce an obscure musical called Country Music On Broadway in the early 1960s. But Forty Acre Feud did booming box office at rural drive-ins and demonstrated that there was, in fact, an audience for low-budget country-music movies. It also helped establish the formulaic mix of corn-pone humor and country music that would later guarantee the success of television’s Hee Haw.
By 1966, the Ormonds had transformed their Battlefield Drive home into a small studio complex. They were a mom-and-pop-and-son operation. June and Tim were Ron’s actors, his technical team, his publicity department, his distribution staff.
During production, they would hire extra marketing staff and personnel, who would assist June in booking the movie-of-the-moment throughout the country. In the morning, employees would receive rigorous instructions from June, who drilled them in every facet of independent film distribution. In the evening, Ron mapped out shots, rehearsed actors and edited.
Already, the Ormonds had identified three surefire ingredients for boffo business on the Southern drive-in circuit. White Lightnin’ Road roared along with fast cars and hot women; Forty Acre Feud was packed with a slew of bankable country stars. In a stroke of inspiration, the Ormonds decided to combine “B” movie best of everything in one film. Before they even had a script for their next feature, they knew what it would be called. Girl From Tobacco Row was a title that would burn itself into drive-in marquees across the South.
Once again, the Ormonds stocked their cast with local talent. In the role of Blinky, a squinty gangster who waves a pistol, Ron cast Ralph Emery, then a WSM deejay with little acting experience. “I always thought the only reason I got a part in the picture was that I could promote it on my radio show,” Emery says. At the time Emery and country star Tex Ritter were co-hosting an all-night radio show on WSM, so Ormond signed Ritter to play the preacher in Girl From Tobacco Road. Ritter took his role so seriously that between takes he phoned his own pastor, asking for technical advice. His demands, however, were few. “One thing Tex insisted on was a hot lunch,” Emery recalls. “I don’t think we would’ve got one otherwise.”
Shooting commenced at the Ormond Organization’s primary lot: the Ormonds’ backyard. In his book More Memories, Emery remembers filming a fight scene that required him to use a boulder to “kill” another actor. The thrifty Ormonds spared the expense of a papier-mâché boulder by using a real hunk of concrete, which a groaning Emery would have to heave at a terrified cast member.
In retrospect, Girl from Tobacco Row serves as a summation of the Ormonds’ entire career. It features all the classically exploitable elements: guns, gals, gags, gore and good country music. But the movie also contains traces of a spiritual fixation that haunted Ron Ormond all his life. The action reaches its climax at the foot of a church altar, where Snake, an escaped convict, finds salvation in death. Girl from Tobacco Row provided an odd mixture of lurid backwoods melodrama and dead-earnest spiritual elevation. It was a foretaste of the work to come.
Ron Ormond had three passions: his family, his movies and his hobby of flying. Formerly a colonel in the Air Force, he was an experienced pilot and owned a small commuter plane. Nevertheless, shortly after he, June and Tim took off for the Louisville premiere of Girl From Tobacco Row, their aircraft’s single engine overheated. The plane smashed into a cow pasture near Donelson. “It was weird,” Tim remembers. “I looked over, and my mom and dad were just lying there with debris all around.” Unhurt, Tim scrambled over a fence for help. All three Ormonds survived, but extensive injuries kept Ron and June in the hospital for six weeks.
For Ron Ormond, the plane crash was an epiphany. He had always considered himself a seeker, a pilgrim on the pathway toward universal truth. As far as Ron was concerned, the crash was a direct sign that God had other plans for the Ormond Organization.
Still, the Ormonds had one final exploitation masterpiece left in them. By the late 1960s, exploitation films had gotten progressively rougherthey were either grotesquely gory, as in the gruesome style of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast, or they were borderline porn, as in the raunchy style of Russ Meyer’s Vixen. The Ormonds hated the work of both Lewis and Meyer, but it was hard to ignore their success at the box office. With typical carny spirit, the Ormonds decided to beat the big guys at their own game. They figured that a movie with monsters and strippers would practically sell itself.
Michael Weldon describes The Monster and the Stripper as “one of the all-time classic exploitation movies.” One thing is certain: It is definitely the wildest movie ever shot at a production facility owned by the Methodist church. Ron and June rounded up a cast of exotic dancers led by one Georgette Dante. Each dancer was allowed to perform her specialty number in garish color, accompanied by swanky “swinger” music. One of the strippers was none other than June Ormond, who reprised a union-suited fan dance from her vaudeville days. When asked if the Methodists knew what was going on at the Trafco studio, Tim just smiles.
When it came to casting the monster, Ron had to look no further than his next-door neighbor, the towering rockabilly singer Sleepy LaBeef. “It was typecasting!” roars LaBeef, whose popularity has enjoyed great resurgence in recent years. For three weeks, LaBeef skulked around a swamp near Tullahoma, wearing nothing but a loincloth, ragged false teeth and a fright wig. LaBeef takes part in the movie’s most notorious moment, a scene in which the monster rips off the arm of one of his pursuers and then beats the guy to death with his own dismembered limb. The pursuer was played by Nashville music executive Cecil Scaife, who worked promotion for Columbia at the time.
Though the movie opened to killer business, the related hassles of independent distribution and financing soured the Ormonds on exploitation filmmaking for good. After experiencing firsthand the vagaries and dwindling returns of the faltering exploitation business, Ron Ormond embarked upon the most unusual chapter of his career. He dedicated his life and talent to Godand set out to prove it.
Born in Louisiana to Italian parents, Ron (né Vic Narro) changed his name to Ormond, in homage to his mentor, magician Ormond McGill. It was after Ron underwent medical treatment for bladder cancer in 1959 that he and McGill embarked on an eight-month spiritual journey to the Far East. The two documented their travels in journals and photographs, which were published later that year, in book form, as Into The Strange Unknown. A travelogue of arcane rituals and unexplained phenomena from India to the Philippines, Into The Strange Unknown was New Age mysticism before the term had even been coined. Ron may have been spiritual, but he was also practical. Throughout his career, he would reuse footage from the the spiritual odyssey to flesh out his films, from Please Don’t Touch Me to The Sacred Symbol (1984).
In the wake of his family’s escape from the airplane crashand a second forced landing in 1970Ron decided to use his filmmaking talents to spread the Word of the Lord. Ron had been introduced to Estes Pirkle, a staunch Southern Baptist firebrand who led a congregation in New Albany, Miss. A dour man who spoke in an unwavering monotone while delivering grisly hellfire-and-brimstone sermons, Pirkle was intrigued by the idea of using film to attract a wider congregation. Ron leapt at the chance.
Pirkle was under the impression that Ron was simply going to film one of his sermons. Instead, the Ormonds delivered what is perhaps the most confounding piece of homegrown budget-conscious surrealism ever filmed, an awe-inspiring work entitled If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971).
A wild vision of what would happen if America were taken over by godless Communists, Footmen used every exploitation shock gimmick ever devisedonly, this time, they were being used to save souls. Pivotal scenes featured Christians being indoctrinated, tortured, raped, and slaughteredusually by Cecil Scaife, who plays a leering Russian “commissar,” complete with jowly sideburns and an indeterminate accent. In one scene, children’s eardrums are punctured with bamboo spears so they cannot hear the word of God. Another scene reveals the Communists’ insidious brainwashing techniques: In an empty lot, elderly churchgoers are forced to sit on folding chairs while loudspeakers drone, “Communism is good...communism is good...Christianity is stupid...Christianity is stupid....” When one poor lad fails to renounce Jesus, his head is lopped off with a machete.
The blood looks as if someone had spilled a vat of red fingernail polish, and Pirkle’s parishoners turn out stilted performances, but Footmen’s blood-spattered scenario and its unrelievedly grim tone apparently sent impressionable viewers screaming for the altar. Ron was making films to literally scare the hell out of peopleand he succeeded beyond all expectations.
The Ormonds made only three pictures for Pirkle. Each of them had a minuscule budget, and each was a “soul winner.” They were shown in churches, where each screening was immediately followed by an altar call. One of their colleagues estimated that “a million-plus souls” worldwide had come running to devote their lives to Jesus after viewing the Pirkle-Ormond films. The irony is that the Ormonds’ religious movies were even more lurid than their drive-in epics. The Ormonds had created an entirely new cinematic sub-genrepassion plays for passion pits.
Cecil Scaife, who went on to found his own company, Music Inc., credits the success of the religious productions to Ron’s experiences as an exploitation director. “Ron was fast, and he didn’t waste time,” Scaife explains. “He had it calculated and all of his locations were carefully chosen. He had the typical Hollywood director lookcharismatic and handsome, full of energy. Ron and June were like a precision drill team.”
After a falling-out with Pirkle, the Ormonds were contacted by Dr. John R. Rice, a fundamentalist Murfreesboro minister who published the religious newspaper The Sword of the Lord. For Rice the Ormonds made The Grim Reaper (1976), a religious horror movie that featured June, in hideous makeup, as the witch of Endor. “I’ll never forget when we filmed The Grim Reaper down in Mississippi on location,” says Scaife. “Ron got this big gravel pit and filled it full of old tires and set it on fire. It was unbelievable the effect these burning tires had. It looked like the reincarnation of hell.”
Ron Ormond would dedicate the remaining 10 years of his film career to making religious pictures, averaging almost one film per year. He would continue to make spiritual safaris, visiting the Holy Land and other sacred sites.
By this time, Tim had virtually grown up in front of the camera. He appears as a child in White Lightnin’ Road, then as a teenager in The Monster and the Stripper. In The Burning Hell he is a full-grown young man. (To this day June weeps when she sees him on screen in that particular film.) While Ron was away on his journeys, Tim took over the family business.
In 1980, Ron’s cancer reappeared. For the last year of his life, despite severe pain, he and Tim worked together on It’s About The Second Coming. “We were really close during that time,” Tim remembers. “Even in as much pain as he was in, he was full of ideas and advice. He was always excited about making a movie.”
It would be his last. Ron died on May 11, 1981. A memorial service was held at the Broadway Chapel. He was quietly buried at the Bill Rice Ranch near Murfreesboro.
As one crusade ended, another began. Three days after Ron’s interment, filming commenced on The Second Coming. This time, the Ormond in the director’s chair was Tim.
During production of The Second Coming, Tim orchestrated what would be the most expensive single shot of his career to date. At a private horse ranch near Percy Warner Park, dozens of white horses carrying riders in glowing white robes were assembled in formation in order to suggest a vision of Christ’s army riding through the heavens. At Tim’s command, the actor playing Jesus charged forward on his steed, brandishing a sword. His soldiers rode behind, their robes a brilliant white. As the majesty of the spectacle began to transfix the cast and crew, the mood was suddenly broken by the crackle of a police scanner. Through the night came the panicked voice of a nearby park ranger: “Somebody’s up here making a commercial for the Ku Klux Klan!”
Somewhere up in heaven, Ron Ormond smiled.
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