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The race. The risk. The danger. It’s worth it all to be…King of the Mountain

February 15, 2013

King of The Mountain (1981)

Wednesday, February 20th 

Film starts at 8:00pm

at Lady Jay’s: 633 Grand St, between Manhattan & Leonard, Bklyn, NY 11211

Free popcorn, Juke Box Meccanica, $2 Bingo for Prizes. PRIZES!

Don’t forget to visit the concession stand! This week’s menu of Eggplant Parmesan, Garlic Bread & Mixed Greens by Happy Homesteader and a steal at only $8 a plate. Food’s on by 7:30, so come hungry and come early!!

This week’s film review brought to us by Kerry of NYC Vin Moto. Happy Birthday, Kerry!

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When I was a young kid I heard stories. Not the good kind of stories that inspire you to want to be a knight, or go on a great quest, or do good deeds. These were more like hushed whispers by vehicular ner-do-wells and other creatures of the blacktop at night about a place. A stretch of public road. An amateur race course. As a North Eastern kid in the heart of Queens, NY street racing was always a quickest line from point A to B proposition. There was a stoplight, and a straight stretch of road and a crosswalk that doubled as a finish line a 1/4 mile up. And I could hear them from my kid bedroom at night, echoing mighty at the launch fading to a whimper after the finish. It was short but frequent and there wasn’t a lot of time to digest it all in between the night flights overhead into JFK and the occasional ambulance. The 1980’s were probably the last era when it would be considered mildly socially tolerated to have an unmuffled big block American dinosaur as your street car, and for you to let it roar at night….well it was only natural for dinosaurs to roar. And then I hear this whisper. A race with turns? the hell you say, why would anybody want a race with turns? While NYC, specifically Manhattan, was at some point before the decline in the 70’s a mecca of wealth and sports cars – Queens rarely saw it. It was a land of GTOs and Shoebox Chevys. Ladder bars and pizza cutters backed by big racemasters. The closest to exotic one regularly saw in this gridded wasteland was maybe someone had a corvette. Or a Z28, or a pink dodge challenger. So this whisper was a story. A myth of guys who wanted to race longer than 1/4 mile, who saw value in what was otherwise an obstacle. It didn’t happen….did it?
And then came cable television. And Car Craft. And Hot Rod….and puberty.
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 Nobody races for longer than a straight quarter stretch….who has that kind of room? I was a city kid. The world was short, measured in blocks and traffic lights and houses and apartment buildings. The concept of a road without feeder roads let alone without stoplights for you to get going and hold a good clip, that wasn’t a highway, didn’t really exist. I mean, even long island had stop signs. But thanks to cable television and their desire to fill their hours with just about anything they could I saw it first hand. The whispers weren’t just true – they were better than I imagined. At least Hollywood made them seem better. Cannonball Run, Speed Zone, Banzai Racers, The Gumball Rally, The Wraith…. and on and on, street racing had been a popular genre in the 1980s and then it fizzled and places like HBO and even local channel 11 PIX picked them up cheap (or so I am told) so by the late 80’s they were on all the time. And then there was King of the Mountain. It took place on Mulholland. The whispers all mentioned Mulholland. California was the promised land of car culture and in its heart is a stripe of asphalt with only promise of high speed thrills. I saw this film probably when I was about 11 or 12, was in awe at the junky corvette, was wondering why the drunk dad from Rumble Fish was always yelling, and thought “doesn’t everybody know silver vw bugs aren’t fast, no matter how big the flares are?” (I had yet to learn of the magic that is supposedly housed within the bathtub 356 Porsche skin – but I wouldn’t be far off, the car in the movie is a fake). And then I got old enough to drive, moved to Long Island, and I forgot that the movie even existed, and I ground out what little speed one can from a terrain of stoplights and grid system roads and no room to really go anywhere. But every on off ramp taken way too fast held a little tingle of magic and I didn’t know why.
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As an adult more than 20 years on, I have rediscovered this film. But more importantly I discovered all the marginally true stories behind it and it is now more fascinating than I can ever remember. I will stop and tell you dear reader that if you come to this film expecting to find the car movie masterpiece (that has yet to be made), this film does not live up to the hype. It doesn’t even really add to the hype of the Mulholland myth, other than to confirm that the place really existed and that it had names for the turns and landmarks like a professional race course would: Grandstands……Deadmans…..Carl’s…..Identicals….and so on….
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But, once you know the fabric from which this film is cut, it adds so much to the car movie zeitgeist that even the Fast and Furious movie chain can’t squander with cheesey stunts and Vin Wasshisname. Rather than just tell you the plot, I am going to tell you why you should care to see this movie. To give you some more backstory the movie is based on an article entitled “Thunder Road” that appeared in now defunct New West Magazine in 1978. A reproduction can be read HERE. Consider it a primer on the “more than you ever wanted to know but still unbelievably cool” road you are about to embark.
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 Dennis Hopper. This movie premiered in 1981 to almost empty movie houses nationwide. However what those poor souls missed was the chance to see Dennis Hopper at the height of his bender. Filming of this movie would have run back to back with Hopper’s role in Apoclaypse Now. It first blush it just looks like Hopper is stuck in character. Instead of being a burned out, obsessive, overzealous, half crazed photojournalist he is a burned out, overzealous, obsessive, half crazed southern California street racer post traumatic accident. This isn’t post downfall rehab mellow drunk Rumble Fish Hopper. And it isn’t pseudo mellow on the way to the top of drug mountain Easy Rider Hopper. This is 3 grams a day, 30 beers, a couple of lids, and Cuba Libre’s for breakfast King of the (drug) Mountain Hopper. It is one of his best performances because the role called for Dennis Hopper, not a person pretending to be what he was living, and he delivered in full force and complete honesty. But remember this is a true story, Hopper is supposed to be someone else, right? Meet “Crazy” Charlie Woit. “Crazy Charley”….”Mulholland Charlie”…. like any good myth there are bound to be variations, even in nicknames. But there are always the same details. Charley worked out of a garage in Hollywood, nothing all that spectacular about it other than Bud Ekins and his van was a sometimes client in the 1970s. I wish I could tell you it was a finely tuned race shop that only turned out special cars but by all accounts I have read – it was tune ups and brake linings for be-curlered Hollywood housewives. Charley began making fast trips down Mulholland sometime in the 1960’s using a 1951 GMC pickup – giving sports-car guys hell at the time. Not just because they had to suffer the indignity of losing to an bead up second hand pickup but that they had to dodge beer cans being tossed out of his window the entire time. Not the easy to open pull top cans but the kind of cans one has to open with a can opener making two triangle shaped openings before the nectar flows. You heard me, dodge MULTIPLE beer cans. Dennis did a fair number of his own stunts and the method actor he is meant a sixxer riding shotgun. At one point Hopper disappeared in the Big Block tire shredder Vette with only a few minutes of film loaded in the in car cameras to shoot some B roll and didn’t return for over an hour or however long it took him to drain the fresh sixpack he grabbed before he got in the car – the legends from just his filming of this movie almost rival that of Charley……almost.
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Harry Hamlin. A month after King of the Mountain came out Hamlin would become famous for his role as Perseus in that juggernaut of terrible cult movies “Clash of the Titans”. Prior to that his only other big screen appearance had been in “Movie Movie”, a spoof of 1930’s films. I am not sure what I can say here about Hamlin himself except that he is beautiful cardboard. Everything from his hair to his ‘roos screams 1979 hasn’t gotten the message that it is 1981 yet. The real legend on which he is based is far more interesting than Hamlin has acting ability to convey. This is one of those rare times where Hollywood doesn’t go far enough, where it waters down the truth to make is sale-able to a market that doesn’t understand why someone would spend the amount of money most would spend on a house to build a car that doesn’t win any trophies, doesn’t “compete” on a race course, and if it does its job properly makes sure the driver stays an unknown. The man “Steve” (Hamlin’s character) is loosely based on is Chris Banning. The car he built is a silver chopped top Porsche 911 RSR, basically a full boat competition race car with headlights and license plates and little else. To put this in perspective Porsche RSRs were responsible for almost all sports car championships Porsche won in the 1970’s that didn’t go to exotica like the 917. But that is too radical, too “gearhead” for a mainstream audience so Hamlin drives a (fake) 356 speedster with “California” wheel flares and wide Centerline autodrags. A VW kit car as a pale stand-in for a real competition bred machine built solely for the enjoyment of the driver (and whatever hapless victim come passenger dared pass through the right side door hole)….It just makes you feel cheap once you know. Chris Banning once said “To be the fastest on the hill, it requires three prerequisites, a high performance car set up for Mul, being an excellent driver who knows the road backwards, forwards, and upside-down, and a devil-may-care attitude about living. There were only a select few who met these requirements.” Hamlin is none of those things. But he is entertaining.
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The Plot. Something about a music career, blah, blah, blah…..who cares. This is a cult car movie, you didn’t come here for the plot you came to see cars and women. Speaking of which….about the only cool quirk is Deborah Van Valkenburg’s character’s choice of a Citroen DS as her ride, suggesting a deeper sadomasochistic dark side that doesn’t come through at all in her portrayal….I mean every Citroen DS I have ever seen, heard about, thought of, dreamed about, or read about in a magazine has all suffered the same fate of sitting on the shoulder of some road or highway bleeding out deep red hydraulic fluid like a deer whose last thought was “I wonder if those headlights are friendly”. I mean you really have to like pain to cast even one positive synapse in the direction of a Citroen DS. Also she has probably the second best line of the movie where she infers that Hamlin’s character is kind of a mewling little pussy bitch….in a playful way. Love it.
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The Cars. This is what is great about the movie. Forget for a second that half the racing scenes could be recreated with four flashlights and a dark room….the cars are where you really get a feel for what illegal road racing was like in the early 1980s in California. Sure there are your staple American Muscle screaming chickens and GT ponies, but….. here there be Datsuns!!!!! of the 240 and 510 variety. Sure there is a yelling yellow Ferrari but there are also Capri’s, RX3s, Fiat X1/9s, VWs, lots of Porsches (914, 356, 911s, RSRs, etc)…..you know the really weird stuff that doesn’t get its due unless your mom circa 1981 makes an onscreen appearance. What is great is that with the exception of the hero cars and the yellow Ferrari, most of the vehicles are actual canyon racers. There were many groups that frequented the mountain in those days MRA, SCCRA, TVL, etc….and the Southern California Canyon Racers Association were the scenery. What is also hilarious is that the stunt crew for this film are also scenery, comprising most of the musicians in the plot stuff we don’t really care about. See if you can spot William Forsythe, I never can. Awesomely Elvira’s alter ego of Cassandra Peterson is the neighbor…..ah the awesome randomness of bad 1980s movie magic. But yeah….cars, it is what we are here for. The final chase scene makes it all worth it, I’m not going to ruin it for you but it is “surprise” Vette vs Porsche. But all the other scenes – the shop scenes, the other cars…the speed parts, oh the speed parts – seeing a chromed out Sun Tach in action is something I have missed since Autometer dominated the market with their modern mat silver and black monster tachs. The Vette, it is almost a character in its own right. By all accounts, if the internet is to be believed, Charlie’s actual vette wasn’t that far off from the red and primer monster you see on the screen, except it was Marina blue and primer and a 1966 model instead of the 67 used for the movie. Part time stunt man Jeff Robbins (whose handiwork you can partially see in the car chase in Ronin) supposedly sold Charlie the ’66 vette in the early 70’s. Charlie then began making passes in the car modding it slowly until a chance conversation in one of the Mulholland turnoffs lead to him getting an impromptu education on how to build a Grand Sport from the man who spearheaded the program in the early 60’s – Dick Guldstrand. From that point on it was flares and primer, tires as wide as a steamroller’s press, and a howling big block facing no restriction. Hopper’s red 67 does a pretty good job of standing in for the legendary vette, so much so that many think old promo shots and screen captures are often mistaken for the legend maker itself, since no pics of the legend have surfaced to date (but are rumored to be out there). The real car is long gone, its fate another hazy legend. All agree Charlie perished in it just like Hopper’s character Cal does in the ’67 (roughly 4 years before Charlie’s actual death supposedly), but each time the story is told the how and where get fuzzy. Some say he went over in a different canyon, others that he was testing it out on the freeway and hit a wall when the suspension failed, but few only know the truth and they ain’t saying. Either way, that junky red ’67 inspires bad thoughts, lots of bad thoughts, about the lateral g forces that can be generated by a land based vehicle.
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Well that about covers it, I guess. Except one last thing. And I caution you dear reader, don’t open this door if you have obsessive compulsive habits regarding vehicular awesomeness and like seeing sunlight but check out this thread on the pelicanparts forums: (Porsche 911).
It is nothing more than actual racers (Including Banning himself) sharing stories, resurecting the 911 RSR, a deep history lesson on the Mulholland canyon, awesome pics of rare weird shit, a brief discussion of how a bunch of guys who used to race Lola T70s on the street became the film Bonza Runners about a cop seeking revenge for his brother’s murder and featuring NO lola T70s at all, a forensic analysis of the garbage that lies at the foot of the canyon upon which Mulholland is perched (spoiler it is a lot of Porsche 911 parts and motorcycles – most either abandoned or maybe just misjudged the turn), and so…..much……more……Again I caution you, you may begin to surf ebay motors while reading the thread for Datsun 510s or 240z cars – or maybe a BMW 2002 or some other bit of 1970’s handling awesomeness.
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 Also check out Chris Banning’s book “The Mulholand Experience”. All the best parts of the Movie, 99% less Hamlin.
– Kerry
NYC Vin Moto
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim L. permalink
    May 29, 2013 3:39 PM

    Charlie Woit was my uncle. We called him Chili. In the early 80’s he started a business out of the house selling gold mining equipment. He’d set up a stand at the Saugus Speedway swap meet on Sundays. It was called The Gentle Buzzard Mining Company. He had a lifted green 1963(?) Oldsmobile Holiday with huge off road tires and would take us out to death valley to adventure in the desert and visit his gold mine and various ghost towns. He passed away in his Corvette after running off a cliff on Vasquez Canyon road in Canyon Country. We never believed it was an accident. That road was no match for him. Miss you Chili.

    Like

    • James Lambert permalink
      December 27, 2014 5:18 PM

      Quite ironically my name is Tim L. also. I grew up part time (parents were divorced) on Stanley Hills Drive in the Hollywood Hills, across the street from Charlie. He was two years older than I and I did not hang out with him very much until I was about 11 years old. During his early Mulholland cruising days, I rode with him a few times on Saturdays on Mulholland, enough to realize that although his handling of the beefed up truck was adroit, his judgement seriously sucked by going around blind hair pin turns, entering them on the wrong side with face distortng G-forces prevailing. I wasn’t uncomfortable with his handling the truck, but I could not help but think that “if” there was even a casual driver coming at the wrong time around the curve from the other direction that we would probably have a head on collision, each on two wheels. I stopped riding with him thereafter, unless I was helping him do tree work with his truck.

      My father, Robert E. Lambert, born in Whittier in 1918, was an “animal mentor” for him and in some ways a father figure, I believe. Charlie and my father liked reptiles, all reptiles. Charlie used to hang out with my Dad and they “talked snakes” a lot. I listened but kept my distance from all reptiles other than frogs and toads. They all gave me the willies. Occasionally Charlie went with my father, brother and I to the Mojave Desert or Thousand Oaks for rifle shooting (mostly 22, but Charlie also had a couple of ancient, single shot, high caliber rifles, like the kind with a rolling block, our Dad had a childhood 4-10 shot gun, but it was mostly just 22 caliber rifles. We went shooting up somewhere in the hills of Thousand Oaks San Bernadino County at an abandoned dump site. We just popped off at bottles, cans and trash, rarely bringing a target with us. can’t see a target hole made by a 22 from three feet let alone 150 feet. The activity was more for the noise, comaraderie and smell of gunpowder than competitive accuracy. Charlie liked doing that, he did not interact with his own father at all.

      Once he told me that his father had attempted to kill him (which I recall at the time as seeming rather understandable, in many ways Charlie was pretty self-centered, self righteous, judgmental, bossy and very willful. I rarely saw his ailing father, a spectral-white, stumbling, bent, silent, broken man. The few times I shared New Years at his house, his father faltered down the half stair-steps to the downstairs dining room, smiled and seemed totally zonked on medications. He always endeavored to talk to me but I could never, ever, ever understand a word he mumbled. Charlie’s mother was a very strange experience also.

      She hailed from a heavy-duty Rebel State, like Georgia or Alabama, most likely Georgia, and she held a brilliant, ante-bellum, hatred for Billy Yanks, once when smelling like Sherry she showed me a suitcase of Confederate bank notes that she claimed would soon be valuable because the “South is going to rise again!!!” she said with total conviction. Charlie was taught to be prejudiced against blacks by her, even though they had a very good black lady who kept the household together and healthy. She was the only sane human being in that house or in the street upon which we lived. She was the only person that I can remember from that part of my life who did not seem seriously damaged and a decent human being to boot. Charlie lived to torment her by announcing that he was going up on the three story house to fix the TV antanae, she would worry about the risks of the height, he made a manikin of his clothes and when she was doing dishes he threw the manikin off the roof and screamed. Poor woman ran out upon seeing the “body” land in-front of the kitchen window, utterly destroyed by the reality of the prospect.

      As I said, it isn’t difficult to imagine the confrontations that Charlie must have had with his powerless father. Another curio was their money situation. That always defines the spinal curvature of every story and every life. The Woit’s spine was an emulation of the father’s. Someone put it in my head that Charlie’s father had been Jack Benny’s accountant and that he had some kind of stipend for the rest of his life. I never knew what happened to handicap Charlie’s father. I assumed it was a stroke, Charlie might have even said so.

      In the early 1980’s, my brother called me to tell me that Charlie had killed himself by running his vehicle into an over pass wall in Mojave after having a fight with his girl friend or wife, (at least that is my rather misty recollection of the picture). My father grumbled to me that my brother was urging our father to write an “in memory” for Charlie for the funeral service and grudgingly muttered that “I am not Keats”.

      I feel a deep sorrow in the memories refreshed by the article about the “King of the Mountain”. Charlie was a remarkable mechanic and inventor, full of imagination and love of life. He was a so-so friend, very independent. I liked but distrusted him. He was basically a good guy. He seemed fair and kind to animals, except insects which he would blow apart with firecrackers in a Japanese second. His mother and father were totally incompetent as such, both appeared drugged-out on something most of the time. Charlie was quite sober, I think. I never saw him weirded out by a mysterious substance other than the passion for living. I learned some solid personal traits from him, most importantly he insisted upon being his “own man”. I owe him this tribute. I wish that he had been happier, lived longer and ohhhh, what greatness might he have experienced as a father?! He was just coming around, I think. My father told me in 1981 (I think) that Charlie and his wife, or girl friend, had visited him in Berkeley. Charlie announced his refusal to be prejudiced against Blacks any longer. Which at the time I found odd, again one of those ironies, because my father and step-mother had struggled to untie the effects of Charlie’s mother’s southern bigotry for years. The irony is that by 1981 my father and step-mother were becoming prejudiced against blacks due to the prevalent, urban sub-culture of impoverished black culture in which we are all still in mired. Whites refuse to comprehend their part in the whole and the hole, we refuse the responsibility of taking care of our brothers and sisters and most of all, thereby, ourselves.

      James Lambert (nick name Tim Lambert), (jamestimlambert@gmail.com) 12-28-14

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  2. October 26, 2015 3:37 PM

    Howdy Tim,

    I was born in Hollywood and raised in Nichols Canyon. I just read a lot of old information you wrote about Charlie Woit on the Internet.

    I knew Charlie, we did a lot of “Crazy” things together in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
    I have to find the photos I have of Charlie & Pat and the “Big Olds”, in the town of “Ill Repute” near Death Valley. Charter members of the Mulholland Rollers, Charlie, Doug Snyder and I built and raced several cars, I still have one. One of these days I’ll match the many photos with the stories and put them on my web site. We still have our Hollywood home and Almor Liquor Store on Sunset.
    Check out the web site, http://www.tigerjoe.com

    See Ya,

    Tiger

    Like

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