by: Christian Niedan
Part three of an eight part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers and cult figures. The series continues with television producer, columnist and Los Angeles historian Alison Martino…
Out of a thick fog, amid a dimly lit Los Angeles Boulevard, steps a suit-clad storyteller ready to spin a tale about the dark side of “Tinsel Town.” The mysterious raconteur is none other than American gossip columnist and television host A.J. Benza, and the shadowy scene is the opening of the one hundred and fifty two episodes of Mysteries and Scandals on the E! television network, during its run from 1998 to 2001. The show featured a composite of interviews with friends, family, colleagues, and witnesses of each episode’s infamous subject: entertainers and celebrities whose careers/lives were impacted/ended by murder, sex, drugs, drinking, and more. While Benza was the onscreen face of the series, it was unseen producers gathering archival photographs, and asking often-elderly interviewees pointed questions — and coaxing out useful anecdotes — that did the real legwork for each episode. Among those producers was young L.A. native Alison Martino.
In 2013, I began re-watching full-length episodes of Mysteries & Scandals on Martino’s YouTube channel, which inspired a long phone interview with her for my film-themed website, Camera In The Sun. At the time, Martino was in the midst of collecting a massive visual archive of her hometown’s rapidly-disappearing architectural past, via her photograph/video-sharing Facebook page, Vintage Los Angeles. A major focal point for VLA was the thirteen-story Capitol Records building near the intersection of Hollywood and Vine. Beyond its iconic aesthetics, the vinyl-record-stack-shaped structure has a personal connection for Martino, housing the record label of her late father, singer/actor Al Martino — who portrayed crooner Johnny Fontane in The Godfather, where his scandalous fling with a young actress leads to a bloody horse’s head not so mysteriously appearing in a jealous producer’s silk-sheeted bed.
Writing is a strong suit for Martino, who was frequently contributing unique stories about her city to Los Angeles Magazine when we spoke in 2013. The tone and subject choices that Martino and her colleagues pursued for Mysteries & Scandals were partially-inspired by the salacious hearsay of a legendary book of Hollywood gossip by filmmaker Kenneth Anger entitled Hollywood Babylon. First published in France in 1959, Hollywood Babylon didn’t get a wide U.S. release until Rolling Stone’s Straight Arrow Press republished it in 1975. In the book, Anger retells scandalous stories from the first fifty years of L.A.’s film industry, and features a cover photo of a smiling Jayne Mansfield in a cleavage-baring dress. Mansfield’s car crash death is among those detailed in the 1975 edition of Hollywood Babylon, along with accompanying photos. A variety of fame-era pictures appear within each chapter’s subject, and the book also includes a smattering of graphic post-death images as well. The visceral impact of this format created a lingering popularity for a book that has defied its multitude of disputed factual details. Having read Hollywood Babylon myself, I noticed Mysteries and Scandals reinventing many of the same incidents in its own style when I re-watched the series in 2013, and Martino noted the book’s influence:
Alison Martino: “That was our bible. I produced a show called Beverly Hills Babylon for Mysteries and Scandals. So it was definitely a Babylon-style show. We just got really lucky with that show. The timing was great, our host was just perfect, and we were shooting on the Boulevard. See, we shot every show on the Boulevard, and we had A.J. Benza come out of a dark alley with a smoke machine. It was supposed to play like this guy telling you these tales in a dark alley on the streets of Hollywood. But back then, permits were really easy to get. Very cheap. Nobody was on the streets of Hollywood past 11 o’clock at night. So we would start shooting sometimes at midnight, until about four in the morning. And there was nobody. Not even a car would drive by. Today, you couldn’t even shoot there at four in the morning. It’s just people everywhere. The permits have gotten a lot harder to get. When Johnny Grant was around Hollywood, he used to help us shoot out there. He loved our show, was a big supporter of it, and we interviewed him a bunch of times. We interviewed A.C. Lyles over at Paramount. You know, of the people we interviewed for that show, I’d say eighty percent of them have passed away.”
“By the end, we got Janet Leigh, Martin Landau, Dennis Hopper, Rod Steiger and Steve Allen. You’d end up spending forty-five minutes to an hour with these amazing icons, and would never have thought Hollywood had changed that drastically. Luckily, Mysteries and Scandals documented their stories. I think when Jack Lemmon walked through the door, I about fainted. I mean, they wanted to do the show. They really wanted to be a part of that show. At first, we thought it was gonna be a little too scandalous to get the big, big stars. But once they saw the episodes, and that they were done with integrity… Yes, they were done in a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek Hollywood Babylon style. But it gave the show some punch. It was only a half-an-hour show — which on TV is only twenty-two minutes. So they moved really fast, and we were able to produce a lot of them in a short amount of time. Six weeks for each show.”
Out of the one hundred and fifty-two episode run, Martino told me she had three favorites:
Alison Martino: “My father, the singer Al Martino, got his start because the singer Mario Lanza gave him a song that Mario thought would be perfect as my dad’s first hit. It’s called ‘Here in My Heart.’ So Mario’s a big part of why my Dad went out to L.A. And when I started the show, I saw the list of names that we were gonna do, and Mario Lanza was on that list. I begged [series creator] Michael [Danahy] to let me do that particular show, because there were other producers that wanted to do it. But once I told him my father was basically godfather to the Lanza kids, I was able to produce that show. I got to interview one of the Lanza sons, and interview my dad. That was really amazing. Then we shot at Holy Cross Cemetery, where Mario Lanza is buried. Again, today this could never happen. I don’t believe they’d ever allow a film crew on a cemetery lot. Maybe in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, because they have events there now. But fifteen years ago, you’d walk through the cemeteries, and there was nobody there. It was sacred ground. So imagine a film crew coming in with a smoke machine. Anyway, that’s a very special show to me. And when my dad passed away, we had never gotten plots for the family. So the first place I thought of was putting him there. It had everything to do with my producing that show. It was a meant-to-be kind of situation. Now he’s where Mario Lanza is buried.”
“My second favorite one is a story I did on Paul Lynde from Hollywood Squares. That was a big one. Because we did “The Golden Age,” mostly. And then when we got to about one hundred and forty episodes, we started moving into the ’70s. I wanted to do Paul, because he was such an outrageous character. Not so much scandalous. But he’s got his own story. And I was able to interview Peter Marshall, Phyllis Diller, Charlotte Rae — they all came to my aid, and gave me Hollywood Squares footage, and outtakes, and photos. I spent a whole evening with Phyllis Diller at her house. Those were the days. It was such an amazing experience just producing that whole show, every episode. I miss it so much, and I think VLA is the closest thing I have to that. I’m able to share those stories, and share those shows, so they’re not totally forgotten.”
“A third favorite is “Beverly Hills Babylon.” Because I grew up in Beverly Hills, and it was the first show we did on a city. We usually did people. But I thought, ‘Hey, we could move this into doing shows about cities.’ And that’s kind of where the show was headed. But then, unfortunately, a new regime and president came into E!, post 9/11. They canceled basically every show on the network, including ours, and then canned us all.”
Author’s Note (Update): On May 14th, 2018, Book Castle – Movie World in Burbank closed after fifty one years, with Alison Martino commemorating the event in a post for Vintage Los Angeles that expresses her love for both film memorabilia and books. In the post she wrote: “I first discovered Book Castle – Movie World in 1982 after a trip to Universal Studios. I was one of those young kids completely obsessed with movies and asked one of the tour guides where the movie stills came from that were inside the tram rides. He told me either Movie World in Burbank or Hollywood Book & Poster Co. on Hollywood Blvd. My poor mom. She was forced to take me to both after school for the next few years. All my allowance went to movie memorabilia. Movie World had everything. I had never seen so many gigantic movie posters up on their walls…it was exciting. And every conceivable SciFi or classic film book…many organized by authors. My bedroom walls and shelves were saturated with it all. Amazon and eBay will never be able to duplicate the smell of a book store online, nor the scavenger hunt while searching for rare books, movie posters, and vintage magazines and pamphlets. Enjoy your retirement Steve Edrington and thank you for allowing me downstairs to search for old copies of the Hollywood Free Press years later. End of an era. Thankfully we still have the Larry Edmunds Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard!! It’s the last one left!”
Continue with Part 4: The Necromancer!