Sunday, March 12, 2017

Confessions of a Gazzarri Dancer: an interview with De De Mollner

As readers of this blog would know, it focuses primarily on the music, culture, architecture and fashion of 1960s Melbourne (or Batmania, as it came so close to being called once upon a time). However, for this post, I’m making an exception – one I think you’ll understand once you start reading. After all, in many ways, it does fit the remit: the decade is right, and there are go-go boots galore! But this time, instead of Melbourne, the action takes place in Los Angeles…

That’s right, folks, today our time machine is taking us to La La Land, back when it was one of the most movin’, shakin’ places on the planet. Our guide is dancer, actress and all-round groovy chick De De Mollner—who was not only there when it was all going down, but was movin’ and shakin’ with the best of ‘em.
Shindig! 65: look out for it at your local newsagent
Best known for being one of the Gazzarri Dancers on iconic 60s teen music show Hollywood a Go Go, De De was friends with many of the era’s most influential musos (from Frank Zappa to Sonny Bono, The Byrds to Buffalo Springfield), as well as some of the hippest movie folks (Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Roman Polanski), artists and other countercultural types. I wrote an article about her for the latest edition of British music magazine Shindig! (issue 65, out now in the UK), but since my word count could only accommodate so much from our interview, I’m posting the overflow here. It’s simply too fascinating (and often funny) to remain unpublished! Put it this way: De De calls it how she sees it.

With the exception of some necessary background info, I won’t be duplicating anything from the article, though: so please be sure to grab a copy of the mag if you can track it down (not so easy here in Oz). Consider this a companion piece to the magazine article, rather than an alternative to it.
De De Mollner in action on the set of Hollywood a Go Go (photo: Time/Life)


Like the Shin-diggers on rival Los-Angeles-produced show Shindig! or the Hullabaloo Dancers on the NYC-based program of the same name, the Gazzarri Dancers were the resident dance troupe on Hollywood a Go Go. De De and her long-time best friend Mimi Machu were the first two girls recruited, after being spotted on the dancefloor at popular Sunset Strip nightclub Gazzarri’s -- by the club’s owner Bill Gazzarri himself. Gazzarri pointed them out to his friend Al Burton, HAGG’s producer, who invited them to dance on the show, which was in pre-production at that stage. Obviously recognising star potential when he saw it, Burton didn’t even make De De and Mimi audition.
Where it all started: Gazzarri's Supper Club
As it happened, the two friends were the only members of the troupe to last from the first episode (which went to air in Southern California on KHJ-TV in December 1964) to the very final show, which screened in February 1966. Other key Gazzarri Dancers included Jacqui Landrum (who also choreographed many of their routines), Dale Vann and June Fairchild: all of whom are well worth a Google search in their own right. Meanwhile, plenty of other girls appeared on the program for shorter stints of time. 

“We went through a lot of people,” De De reflects. “That’s how it is: there’s always one arsehole in every group. You can’t get six people together without one being a weirdo! There were always girls coming and going, who never clicked, so we just had a little clique of our own. Then I brought in Jacqui – she became a really good friend of mine; I lived with her for a while. I don’t think we had any problems after that.”

Hot dawg! This video showcases the Gazzarri Dancers as they get down to Thee Midniters on episode 34: De De is the first girl featured

As default leaders of the Gazzarri Dancers, De De and Mimi called the shots. If a girl pissed them off, she was out. Unlike the heavily stage-managed, commercially driven world of entertainment TV today, the dancers were left virtually to their own devices as far as choreography, outfits and internal dynamics were concerned.  

Explains De De: “It’s so interesting when I think of it now. We really did whatever we wanted. It was amazing … People ask me, ‘Didn’t you do a lot of photo shoots and stuff?’ No, we didn’t do anything! No-one was promoting us on that show at all. These days of course, we’d have our own line of clothing but then, we had nothing.”

She’s right. Watching Youtube videos of the Gazzarri Dancers in action, it’s impossible not to be struck by their marketability. For one thing, they’re total foxes – although not in a dollied-up, artificial way. These gals are wild, spontaneous and natural; even in men’s clothing (which they frequently wore) they’re still sexy as hell.  Not surprisingly, they got mountains of mail from admirers and had fan clubs around the world after the program was syndicated not only nationally but internationally. 

The clip below, one of Hollywood a Go Go's most viewed Youtube videos ever, goes some way to explaining the Gazzarri Dancers' global appeal. 

The most Hollywood a Go Go’s producers did to capitalise on the girls’ growing popularity was to give them higher billing in the opening credits. Very few promotional photos seem to have been taken, which is both mystifying (given their obvious photogenic qualities) and frustrating. Still, their ‘untamed’ vibe, and HAGG’s low-lit, nightclub atmosphere in general, ensured that the show got banned in some places!

“I think it came through the TV that we were crazy!” De De laughs. “We never thought of ourselves as wild. But we did think of ourselves as way beyond anything that was on TV, that’s for sure. Instead of trying to be some hotsy-totsy go-go girl in a miniskirt or something, we were just out there! No-one had ever seen this kind of thing before; some people couldn’t handle it.”

But far more folks dug it. “I’ve had people who watched the show and saw us dancing, they say ‘We just feel the energy’. And that to me is so great, because that’s all it was. It was so real; it was so unconscious. You’ll never see me do anything for the camera – you’ll never see any of us doing anything like that. It was simply us dancing our guts out. You look back on the videos now and they’re so cool, and you think, ‘Why were people so freaked out?’” 

To get an idea of just how different the Gazzarri Dancers were to the other shows’ go-go chicks, check out their head-flinging, hair-whipping wig-out to Sandy Nelson’s ‘Drums a Go Go’ below…how they didn’t break their necks or dislodge an eyeball or something is anyone’s guess.

A constellation of stars

Of course, the Gazzarri gals weren’t Hollywood a Go Go’s only drawcard: let’s not forget the artists themselves. De De and the gang got to dance alongside performers as diverse and talented as Ike & Tina, The Walker Brothers, Chuck Berry, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, Jerry Lee Lewis, Freddie Cannon, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Bo Diddley, Dee Dee Sharp (whose “Mashed Potato” clip is extra-noteworthy for De De’s astoundingly cool mashed potato moves!), Fontella Bass, The Turtles and a long, illustrious etcetera. 

Anyone who’s watched footage from the program would have noticed that, more often than not, the Gazzarri Dancers look like they’re having their own party, almost oblivious to the artists they’re backing. One of the few exceptions is—unsurprisingly—Chuck Berry, who makes it his mission to flirt with some of the girls during his performance of ‘Maybelline’. 

So did that incorrigible lady-killer try it on with De De? “I can’t even remember Chuck Berry!” she says. “I remember dancing with him but I don’t remember hanging out with him or even talking to him. I guess I was just somewhere else – I don’t know what I was doing!” 

Fact is, De De was into a different scene. “My boyfriend was Michael Clarke from The Byrds, and I was more into that. The Byrds, The Buffalo Springfield … these were all people I knew in Hollywood... I was really into The Lovin’ Spoonful; people like that. Dylan was an idol to me. That’s where I was at the time, totally into that.”
De De (centre, rear) at a Byrds gig at The Trip, Sunset Strip, around 1965 (photo courtesy of De De Mollner)
One guest on the show who did make a lasting impression on her was the Duchess, guitarist with Bo Diddley’s band (not to mention all-round inspiration and style icon). “She was fantastic! I remember when they came on, I thought she was the greatest. She WAS the greatest! I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, this woman’s too cool for me!’ Totally ahead of her time. And there were very few people like that. A lot of them were just flash in the pan, but then there were people like Bo Diddley … rock solid, totally great.”

 'Let the Kids Dance', complete with big-talkin' intro from host Sam Riddle

In the Shindig! article, De De talks about becoming friends with Tina Turner after meeting on the show, as well as the time she hung out with The Rolling Stones backstage at the TAMI Show several months before they appeared on Hollywood a Go Go. Asked who her favourite Stone was, she replies: “Mick, of course.” Turns out the reason for that came a few years post-HAGG, when they crossed paths in London out celebrating Cat Steven's hit song ‘Wild World’. At one point, De De and Stevens’ girlfriend Patti D'Arbanville were sitting on the hood of his new black Citroen quaffing a bottle of champagne when they were approached by the cops, presumably to be reprimanded. “When they saw Mick, they said ‘have a nice day’ and we kept on going!” she recalls. 

Squares beware!

De De is on record as describing the host of Hollywood a Go Go, Radio KHJ DJ Sam Riddle, as “a big joke” and “so unhip it hurt”. (See what I mean about calling it like she sees it!). But when I ask why she thought he was so square, she reveals that her opinion of him has softened.  “I didn’t get along with Sam Riddle because I really thought he was a square – and he was, basically. But the more I talk to Randy, who was in The Challengers and has become a good friend of mine [The Challengers were one of the show’s most regular acts, along with house band The Sinners]… he’s told me a lot about Sam that has made me think differently about him.”

Unbeknownst to De De at the time, Riddle “was instrumental in getting a lot of the talent on the show. He did a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about which was really cool, so I think I was probably a little hard on Sam. He just wasn’t as hip as us!”

Well, come on: not too many people were as hip as the Gazzarri Dancers! De De laughingly agrees: “No-one was as hip as us – we started it all, babe – we were there and we knew what was going on!” The video below confirms it...

Always ahead of the curve, never afraid to push the envelope, De De’s high-spirited exploits back then read like a Russ Meyer movie script. OK, so she never killed anyone, but there’s a touch of Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill! in some of her stories, mixed with a dash of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. In the Shindig! article, she reminisces about:
  • almost causing a riot walking down the street in a Mary Quant mini-skirt
  • raising hell with Mimi in their pre-HAGG days: two gorgeous teenagers, accompanying older men to swanky restaurants, excusing themselves after dinner to go to the ladies…then doing a runner!
  • cruising Sunset Boulevard in her fastback Corvette on the hunt for cute boys to take home for the night (when she wasn’t doing that, she and Jacqui Landrum—who also had a Corvette—would race each other around the Hollywood Hills)
  • dancing on Hollywood a Go Go under the influence of LSD (still legal at that point).
“A lot of people have said to me, ‘You’re lucky you weren’t killed’, but I never had any trouble. I was very daring obviously: I was running all over the place and did everything. I was probably lucky that nothing bad ever happened,” she reflects.
Lock up your sons! De De circa 1968. (Photo: Henry Diltz)
Speaking of LSD, here’s a tantalising teaser: “I turned The Beatles onto acid for the first time.” W-T-A-F?!

De De was tripping at a party, and The Beatles were there. They noticed something was up, and asked her about it. “The next morning, I woke up and they asked, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ I told them I’d taken this stuff. And they were like, ‘Can you bring us some?’ Only John Lennon really wanted it. So I went back and gave it to him. I never talked to him again but I know he took it. Ringo became one of my neighbours later but he wasn’t even involved in this. That’s all I can tell you…” 

Make no mistake: young De De was at the heart of the rock’n’roll storm—and loving it. But did her parents have any idea what their feisty, fearless daughter was getting up to?

“None whatsoever. No idea,” she says. “I’d left home at 18, and I was going to college, then I moved to Hollywood to do the show … They had no clue. I didn’t really talk to my parents for 10 years because I was very political at that time, and they voted for Nixon and I couldn’t handle it. Later, we became very close again and I took them all over the world. My dad [Art Mollner] was a gold-medal winner in basketball in the Olympics in 1936—that was Berlin, that was Hitler—so I took him around the country to raise money for basketball. We played basketball all over.” All’s well that ends well, then. 

Life after Hollywood a Go Go

And speaking of endings, Hollywood a Go Go’s finale came without warning in February 1966. One Saturday morning like any other, the dancers turned up to tape an episode and were told it was to be their last. No reason or explanation was given. “We had no idea it was going to end at that time,” De De recalls. Fortunately, this final episode (number 58) is on Youtube in its entirety: one of only two full episodes to have come to light (the other is episode 6).

Following the show’s demise, the girls formed a dance troupe they named The Movement. My article goes into more detail about that: suffice it to say, this was no ordinary dance troupe. Instead, it was politically motivated and, sadly, too radical even for those radical times. Eventually, frustrated at not being taken seriously, girls decided to disband. De De then got into movies—a logical progression, really, since she was tight with Jack Nicholson (even living with him for a time), Harry Dean Stanton, Warren Beatty et al. In fact, before any of these now household names were famous, they’d been mad HAGG fans!
Go-going, go-going, gone...

Easy Rider and movie mayhem

Perhaps the most beguiling anecdote from De De’s cinematic adventures is how she was almost in legendary 1969 epic, Easy Rider

I was actually in Easy Rider but got cut out! I was cut out when they took the film away from Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, and put Jack in because there was no story. You know, it went on and on and nothing happened. The only thing they really had was the ending where they’re both killed, but they had no storyline…”
De De's easy-riding buddies, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda 
It’s well documented that the film blew out to four, even five hours, before being whittled down to the 95-minute version we’re all familiar with. So there must be loads of extra footage floating around out there, right? (To get an idea of what ended up on the cutting-room floor, check out the Wikipedia entry about Easy Rider, which even mentions De De’s scene in passing). 

“I did this scene where I was at a drive in with another guy, and I was making out with the guy, then Dennis and Peter drove up next to us. So I’m making out with the guy but I’m looking at Dennis…and all of a sudden, I say ‘Wait a minute’ and get out of the car I’m in, and into the car with the two of them. It was a great scene, believe me. And I saw it – I went in and saw the thing! But then they took the whole film away from Peter and it got cut out.” So close and yet so far! One can only hope it turns up one day, along with all the other lost scenes.

“I always wondered where that footage went,” she remarks. “Lots of times they’ve said they have extra footage from Easy Rider and I think ‘Where is that scene?’ I’ve never seen it again.”

De De has nothing but fond memories of Dennis Hopper. “I just adored Dennis—he was crazy, of course, but great. These were the people I grew up with, they were my friends… All of them were like 10 years older than me. Great times.”

Then there was Jack.

Jack Nicholson was one of the greatest people I’d ever met. He changed my life for sure. Definitely. He taught me everything I know about film. My nephew, who’s like my son, is a film-maker now. When he was little I took him to see all the films Jack had taken me to see….Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Visconti’s Death in Venice. Or Roman Polanski (who’s a very good friend of mine): he made so many great movies, but Cul de Sac is by far my favourite film of all time. Jack turned me on to all these people.”
Roman Polanksi and Jack Nicholson larking around on the set of Chinatown
And how’s this for an explosive disclosure? “I have many stories about Jack and Roman, but I don’t think I’m going to be talking too much about them. I’m very upset that Roman can never come back to the United States. I know exactly what happened at Jack’s house, but it had nothing to do with Roman. It’s just unfortunate it all played out the way it did.” (Well! That’s certainly a different perspective on an infamous incident that’s been rehashed so many times it’s practically Hollywood mythology. I suppose I could’ve asked for more info, but somehow it didn’t feel right...)

Anyway, De De’s acting career continued in Europe, when she moved there for several years after Easy Rider. One of the biggest names she worked with was French Nouvelle Vague director Eric Rohmer, but once again, her moment in the spotlight was sabotaged.  “I was on the movie set for Claire’s Knee. My boyfriend at the time was a guy called Pierre Cottrell and he was the producer of the film… but I was taken out of that film too!” Another near miss! 
Ready, boots? De De circa 1968 (photo: Henry Diltz)

The dark side of a decade

As a decade that will forever be associated with some of history’s greatest music and art, not to mention its grooviest fashions and revolutionary social changes, the 1960s are extremely easy to romanticise (guilty as charged!). And certainly, De De recognises what a golden era it was. “But when you’re living it, you don’t know that. You think, ‘Oh yeah, this is what life is.’ But now, thinking how it all went down … oh my god, it was such a special time!”

But it wasn’t all peace, love and flowers. On 9 August 1969, disciples of Charles Manson slaughtered five people (including Roman Polanski’s actress wife, Sharon Tate) at 10050 Cielo Drive, quite near where De De was living with Mimi and Jack Nicholson. De De remembers being completely freaked out.
RIP: Sharon Tate at the house in Cielo Drive she shared with Roman Polanski
“Rudy Altobelli, whose house it all took place in, was one of our best friends, and I’d been over to his place many times,” she says. She’d even met Charles Manson when record producer Terry Melcher took him to a party there. “Rudy couldn’t stand Manson, and he kicked him out. So Manson just added that house to the list of people he wanted to get back at.”

Of course, by the time the four Family fuckheads turned up to wreak revenge, Polanski was renting the house from Altobelli … and the rest is history. After the murders, De De and Mimi went into their garden and screamed for half an hour, to see if anyone would hear them if something similar ever unfolded at their place. “No-one came. So Jack bought a gun. We were terrified because these were our friends that had been killed, and we had no idea who’d done it.”

Then, less than a week later, came Woodstock—another low point, in De De’s opinion (for different reasons, obviously). “By the time Woodstock hit, that was it,” she says. “Carloads of people were coming in, they had no idea what was really happening.” What had once been the counterculture was now well and truly mainstream, idealism had given way to imitation, and she was over it. 
Some of the Woodstock hordes
“It just became way too much. I went to Europe at that time, ‘cause I didn’t want to hang out here.” 

Her disillusionment was fuelled further by witnessing firsthand how growing fame was affecting her friends. 

"Bob Dylan was a friend of mine – he went insane because people were just looking at him like he had all the answers. All of a sudden people are coming to him and asking ‘What are we gonna do?’ and he’s like ‘Are you kidding?!’ He told them whatever they wanted to hear; he made up every fucking lie he could get his hands on!”

Jack Nicholson also copped it badly as his star rose:
“Jack was the most gregarious guy I’ve ever met; he’d talk to everyone. But the more famous he became…he’d just put those dark glasses on and that was it, he never talked to anybody. What can you do? All of a sudden you can’t go outside without thousands of people screaming at you. And the more people that know you, the worse off you are. There’s always someone who’s gonna have some weird fixation about you, it’s really scary.” 

What a difference half a century makes

One of the remarkable things about the Hollywood a Go Go videos available on Youtube is how fresh and timeless they still feel. Yet at the same time, they’re a vivid reminder of how much has changed in the 50 years since the show folded: musically, culturally, politically. 

So what does De De think of the current music scene compared with that of her youth? Is there anyone around today that she enjoys listening to? Brace yourselves, readers…

“I must say I’m not crazy about the music of today,” she observes. “I really loved Amy Winehouse but she’s dead. So I don’t know who I like; I can’t think of anyone who turns me on. That’s why I’ve gotta listen to the old music. It’s sad, ‘cause I’m waiting for somebody who might be great. But these people are so…creepy. I can’t get behind them…Justin Bieber…they just make me sick. I thought I might like Coldplay but they’re way too boring!” Couldn't have put it better myself...
No caption needed
Fact is, you can take a girl out of the 60s, but you can’t necessarily take the 60s out of the girl. Even today, De De wears her radical heart on her sleeve; not surprisingly, she loathes US President Trump, and is stumped as to how such a world-class “idiot” came to power. 
“I don’t know how it happened!” she exclaims. “That’s one of the big mysteries I talk to all my friends about. We have theories … but I really have no clue. I feel so bad.”

Similarly, the relentless pursuit of money so prevalent in Western society today dismays her. “I grew up with such a free, wonderful experience, and now it’s just all kind of muffled—it’s all about money. It was not about money then: nobody even knew what selling out meant. Jack would never do a commercial – he’s never done one in his life. It’s integrity. I mean, you have your art, why do you have to sell out? Money isn’t everything, believe me.” 
De De these days: on the beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where she now lives


So there you have it: De De Mollner uncut! But this (admittedly lengthy) blog post is just the tip of the iceberg. Can’t you just imagine what a wild ride her memoirs would be? Sadly, De De is reluctant to put pen to paper.

“I wrote a synopsis once, of a book I wanted to write with all these vignettes. I’ve had some crazy stuff happen, and have a lot of funny stories about people who are famous. But after I reread it... I don’t know …I’m talking about Warren Beatty, we used to play tricks on him … at the time, I thought it’d be fun to write, and I showed it to people and they said I should write it, but…” She trails off.

She does let slip, however, that she might be persuaded to change her mind if she were to co-write a book with her old heart-breaking, go-go dancing partner in crime, Mimi Machu. “I’d love for Mimi and I to write a book,” she says, “but we don’t talk at all anymore. Our friendship just didn’t work out.” 

I haven’t gone into much detail about De De’s friendship with Mimi here, as it’s covered quite extensively in the Shindig! article. In a nutshell, the two girls shared an incredible bond from the age of 11, and were pretty much inseparable until it all imploded. Understandably, De De still grieves the loss of such an important, formative friendship.  

“It was devastating. I feel really bad about it but there’s nothing I can do. I’ve given up on ever getting back what we shared,” she says sadly. “I spent at least 15 years of my life with Mimi every day, and it’s really hard not to be able to talk to her. There was a great friendship and then there was a total jealousy thing about Jack.”

De De explains that she tried to resurrect their friendship a few times, to no avail. She’s aware that Mimi lives in Hawaii these days and is doing fine, but doesn’t feel she can reach out again after her earlier attempts failed. “She knows where I am if she ever wants to get hold of me, and I’d probably deal with it again. Because there’s not much time left now.” 

Thanks a million to the wonderful De De Mollner for being so generous with her time and memories. Thanks also to my buddy Bags for suggesting that I interview De De and running the idea past her for me.

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