He was the greatest action star of his day, and one hundred years after his birth Errol Flynn remains as popular as when he died nearly fifty years ago. In recent years Flynn has undergone a critical and popular revival with the publication of several first class biographies, notably Inherited Risk by Jeffrey Meyers, The Baron of Mulholland by his daughter Rory Flynn, and Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone. Warner Brothers has released three DVD box sets with other titles readily available.
The demand for Flynn material is high.
But in the months preceding his one hundredth birthday on June 20, there was a noticeable lack of interest amongst the film industry in celebrating Flynn’s centenary. One man wanted to change that. His name is Jack Marino and he’s a warrior filmmaker. I don’t bestow that title lightly. Jack has paid his dues and is the first to admit that his conservative views are often unappealing to the liberal Hollywood crowd. But one fact remains clear – Jack is immensely talented. He is currently enjoying the fruits of his labor with high volume DVD sales of his directorial debut, Forgotten Heroes, a film he made in 1988 but re-released on DVD after acquiring the distribution rights. Jack is an admirer of Hollywood’s golden age and wanted to do something to celebrate Flynn’s birthday.
Jack brainstormed and came to the logical conclusion that he would host an invitation only affair at his home in Burbank. With his lovely wife Louise at his side, Jack began hatching his plan months in advance. His guest list was selective, if not secret. Jack was acutely aware that Flynn fandom was rife with crackpots and dimwits. Only the crème de la crème would be invited. During this period I spoke with Jack numerous times by telephone. E-mails were flying back and forth at a breakneck speed. We quickly determined that discouraging party crashers would be a priority, although we agreed that attractive, full-bosomed women over the age of consent would be admitted even if they lacked an invitation.
Meanwhile, In Flynn’s birthplace, The Errol Flynn Society of Tasmania orchestrated ten days of events that included visits from Rory Flynn, her son Sean and nephew Luke. These events were highlighted by a film festival, a tour of Flynn’s birthplace in Hobart, the unveiling of a commemorative plaque, and a gala ball. Thanks to this group and the centenary committee, this celebration was a rousing success.
Jack’s party would be the only celebration in the United States. My wife Jan and I arrived two days early and rendezvoused with David DeWitt who maintains the Errol Flynn blog. Joined by Karl Holmberg and his lovely companion, Lorie, we joined Jack and Louise Marino and Trudy McVicker for preliminary celebrations two nights running.
Trudy McVicker is the acknowledged grande dame of Errol Flynn fandom. Friend and confidant to Tony Thomas, Earl Conrad, Lionel Godfrey, Rick Dodd, Don Norman and Lincoln Hurst (to name a few), Trudy is acknowledged in several key books. It is a little known fact that she was instrumental in preparing the manuscript on behalf of Tony Thomas for From a Life of Adventure: The Writings of Errol Flynn. This classic tome might not have seen print if not for her efforts. She does not enjoy the limelight and will undoubtedly chastise me for touting but a few of her accomplishments. Her attendance at Jack’s party is due to my wife’s influence and Jack Marino’s unabashed enthusiasm.
Jack calls his friends “The Mulholland Drive Boys” after the infamous hillside home where Flynn frolicked throughout the 1940s. The home is gone, replaced by a modern dwelling currently owned by Justin Timberlake who declined our request to drink a toast to Flynn on the Mulholland property. Timberlake’s manager politely informed me via telephone that the property (now subdivided and mapped as Flynn Ranch Road and Torreyson Place) was off limits due to insurance liability issues. Fair enough; but a few of us Mulholland Drive Boys made the trek that morning for a quick photo session outside Timberlake’s gated driveway.
That morning we also embarked on a whirlwind tour of Beverly Hills where David DeWitt and Karl Holmberg and I hastily snapped photographs of 601 North Linden Drive where Flynn once lived with David Niven. The Linden Drive home was the site of numerous parties that only bachelors of their caliber could have managed. Then we drove on to Forest Lawn in Glendale where we rendezvoused with Jack and documentary filmmaker Kent Hagen. We may have been the first visitors to Flynn’s final resting place that day, but not the last. And there would be one fortuitous visit later by a man I think is the luckiest Flynn fan alive. More about him later.
These preliminaries all led us down the long hill from Mulholland and into the rolling hills of Glendale before returning to the Marino residence for the main event. The weather wasn’t cooperating. What they call “June gloom” had settled over Burbank and the sky spit rain from its gray clouds. And before we could take a breath and say “Bung Ho!” the guests began to arrive. They came from every corner of the United States, this select group of fans. But these were no average film fans. Jack’s friends are a fascinating, diverse group – actors, writers, photographers, artists, singers, and producers. They come from all walks of life and represent a creative nexus of intelligent, caring people. Their presence made the perfect memorial for Hollywood’s greatest swashbuckler.
I was soon overwhelmed by the number of talented people. I met actor Dick Wieand, (he was Jason in Friday the Thirteenth, Part V, and had roles in the television programs Murder, She Wrote and Knots Landing). Dick is currently featured in television commercials for Advair and is a highly respected professional photographer. Dick is the nicest guy in the world. Actor William Smith, who had the pleasure of battling Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way You Can, attended with his wife Joanne. You’ve seen Bill in dozens of films and television programs. Bill is a long time Flynn fan and tells a great Flynn anecdote. I found him soft spoken and kind and he still has that killer-grip handshake! Karen Figalis, current owner of the former Flynn-Damita residence on Appian Way, spent several hours at the party. I was thrilled to meet the renowned artist Robert Florczak and his wife Annette who impressed me with their intelligence and kindness. They are truly two gifted, and extraordinary people. Steve Latshaw worked double-time setting up a film projection screen so that everyone could watch Mara Maru after the sun went down. And we did, alongside guest-of-honor Paul Picerni who co-starred with Flynn in the film. Thank you Steve!
Louis Kraft, author of Gatewood & Geronimo and Custer and the Cheyenne, who is currently penning a volume about Flynn, had me spellbound. What a fascinating man and splendid author! I heartily recommend thatthose of you interested in American history should hunt down copies of his books. You won’t be disappointed.
Polly Kranjcich made a replica of the pirate flag seen in Captain Blood and she also made several banners and flags that Jack had waving in the breeze. These included a replica of the Zaca’s rooster flag and Flynn’s enigmatic question mark emblem. Polly’s superb artistic effort added a swashbuckling flair to the proceedings. The Jolly Roger flag was magnificent and Polly’s work was admired by all of those in attendance.
Beverly Aadland was unable to attend because of poor health, but she was represented by her husband Ron Fisher and their daughter Aadlanda. Ron and Aadlanda brought along some of Flynn’s personal belongings, including a gold cigarette case, a gold watch and his topcoat, and generously shared them with the crowd. It was a spectacular and magnanimous gesture on their part as many of the gueststried on Errol’s coat and had their photograph taken. The gold cigarette case presented something of a mystery as Karl Holmberg pointed out: “The truly most unusual occurrence of all was the guest appearance of Errol Flynn’s “personalized” cigarette case. That is the enigma of all enigmas in that no one seemed to know what all the symbology was about. Not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics, it held a story within each of the differently arranged clusters of symbols, and taken all together, no doubt, amounted to an even broader statement … quite possibly the end result of the search for the Big Snook …”
And then there was Carl Zetterstrom, the luckiest Errol Flynn fan alive. Somewhere about the time I had only my second beer (I swear!) the Florczak’s encountered Carl at Errol’s grave. Carl had traveled from Sweden, alone, in order to celebrate Flynn’s one hundredth birthday. He had saved his money in order to visit the United States. Florczak was justifiably impressed and immediately contacted Jack via cell-phone and requested permission for Carl to attend. And so history was made as Carl Zetterstom found himself in the company of the sweetest band of cutthroats in California. What makes this all the more endearing is the fact that Carl is a real gentleman. Meeting this fellow was a highlight for all of us.
I don’t recall precisely when I realized the sun had broken free of the clouds, but suddenly the June gloom was dispelled and we found ourselves in the middle of a warm, sun-baked day so typical of southern California. In the weeks since I’ve thought back on that day and there are numerous moments and images I cherish….
- The moment we gathered together and sang “Happy Birthday” to Errol, glasses raised in salute; and our toast to those that have gone before us: Lincoln Hurst, Tony Thomas, Earl Conrad, and Nora Eddington Flynn, followed by a special toast to Rick Dodd in England.
- Jack and Louise Marino because there are no finer people, and being with them on such a momentous occasion was a privilege.
- The moment much later that night when Greg Maradei came up with a can of Japanese beer at precisely the right moment to satiate my parched tongue. We still haven’t deduced who drank all of that alcohol, but when the beer was gone Greg came to my rescue.
- Karl Holmberg and David DeWitt, side by side and engaged in a lively conversation.
- Louis Kraft talking about Lt. Charles Gatewood. I could listen to him talk “history” all day.
- A smiling Trudy McVicker wearing Flynn’s topcoat.
- Dick Wieand telling stories and David DeWitt warning me with a big smile on his face “Watch out for this guy!”
- The moment I raised my glass and toasted my friend Bob Peckinpaugh which elicited a “Who’s that?” response. Well Bob, you’ll have to attend the next party and set everyone straight!
- Introducing myself to William Smith who gripped my hand and rasped “Sit down!” I did, and he said in an actor’s tough guy voice “Now sit here and talk with me for two hours!” Thanks Bill, It wasn’t exactly two hours but we’ll do it again one day!
- Aadlanda, Beverly’s sweet daughter, and her father Ray, two rock solid classy people who added a high level of warmth to the proceedings.
- Joan Marino, Jack’s little sister, who is every bit as intelligent and fun to be a around as Jack.
- Robert Florczak and his wife Annette who were so nice I never wanted to leave.
- Carl Zetterstom who engaged many of us in a vibrant and meaningful conversation and who proved that dreams do come true.
- Steve Latshaw setting up the equipment which made it possible for all of us to watch Mara Maru with Paul Picerni after the sun went down.
- Discussing certain bibliographic points with Karl Holmberg and David DeWitt.
- Nearly 80 people attended this party and I’m still trying to put names with faces!
- Kent Hagen getting it all on film.
David DeWitt told me later: “I looked about me and felt we had all come to a marvelous party; each of us laughed and smiled and felt content; our hearts were warmed by every meeting, every glance and word between ourselves, every sight in front of our eyes… in the background you could hear Flynn’s voice somewhere, Korngold’s music… echoing in the air where Errol lived and breathed in life… Jack and Louise took care of everybody else first before themselves, perfect hosts. We all knew this was a one-of-a-kind moment, and we didn’t want it to end… we were the happiest cats in the kingdom, down by the river Dee… each of us a happy Cheshire cat… I know I was!”
There was much more of course. And there are other tales to tell: the wild rides and the malfunctioning GPS; the Pakistani liquor salesman who insisted I bag my booze (“Da law! Da law!” He cried, “You no break da law!”); the gap toothed Marilyn on Hollywood Boulevard; my encounter with two rather likeable Scientologists who learned from me first hand that L. Ron Hubbard was a brilliant pulp writer long before he created Scientology; getting lost in South Central without a gun; Catalina Island bikini bimbos; and bellowing at two horrified young tourists in the hotel hallway long after midnight “My next book is an action-packed western!” (Yes, I was intoxicated).
The following evening we enjoyed one last hurrah with Robert Florczak who had Karl, Jack and myself enthralled by some impressive rare photographs, including a still from Desperate Journey signed by Ronald Reagan. The four days had passed too quickly. I had a day left, well spent with relatives, and then back to Chicago on Tuesday. It was over, but we had done right by the old sport after all.
A number of guests mentioned the positive influence one of Flynn’s films had on their lives. Flynn’s wild and ultimately tragic life continues to captivate us, but he has been unfairly maligned by two hack writers and Jack Marino isn’t happy about that at all. One of them, an ugly little man in England, is in Jack’s words “The best pro-abortion argument I’ve ever seen!” And while these two hacks have been publicly criticized for their lack of historical accuracy (and fraudulent claims) Jack is coordinating efforts with several researchers and writers to produce ongoing factual analysis of Flynn’s life and career. I don’t know where all of this will lead, but I do know this – Jack Marino is a force to be reckoned with.
There is something intrinsically sad about a party’s end. But we came away from this one grateful to Jack and his wife for having masterminded a heartfelt celebration. Flynn was represented by the best and I suspect the old boy’s spirit enjoyed it as much as we did. But then it was over, and not even the bright California sun could dispel my melancholy. Or maybe I just had a hangover. On Tuesday afternoon I was standing outside of the hotel waiting for my wife when I heard a familiar sound.
Over the sea, hearty and free,
Troubles will soon be over….
Where had I heard that old sea shanty before? A tall figure was approaching me with his back to the sun. I squinted into the golden afternoon light and discerned a tri-cornered hat, a broad shouldered figure in a long coat, tall boots and a belt buckle that gleamed like gold. A pirate in Burbank? Robert Louis Stevenson and Raphael Sabatini and a dozen other writers had created just such a character. As he approached I stifled a laugh for surely this was one of Jack Marino’s actor pals come to play a prank on me. It was just like Jack to pull a stunt like this. They probably paid this poor sod fifty bucks and dressed him in discarded costumes from the Republic Pictures cellar. I decided to go along with it.
“Well, you old cutthroat!” I said bravely. “What brings you to Burbank!”
He squinted at me, this black bearded corsair, and before me shimmered a composite of Robert Newton and Cornel Wilde and Ty Power and Basil Rathbone and Laird Cregar and that amazing Tasmanian his ownself staring at me from out of the past. His eyes gleamed and he flashed a row of teeth white as ivory. He smelled of the sea’s salt spray and rum.
“Captain’s orders.” He said. He pulled a slip of paper from a deep pocket and handed it to me. I marveled at his accent. Not quite English and not quite Australian, but something from those long stretches of sea between the two.
I unfolded the slip of paper and read the words written in black ink: Pirate Party on Catalina Island. Part Two. And after that was written the secret date. When I looked up he was half a block away and fading into the sunlight, and he was singing again. Or had I imagined him? No matter. Captain’s orders. Break out those sails and watch them fill with the wind that’s carrying us to Catalina. The eternal place where all things came and passed, and yet abide forever and would never change. Down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and sky. All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by. I shrugged. Why not? Time flies when you’re having rum.
For Errol, with gratitude.
Thomas McNulty, June, 2009