Thursday, February 18, 2010

Surf's Up! with Donna Loren at the Egyptian

It was cowabunga time for one-night only last Thursday at the Egyptian Theater, with a double feature of two 1960’s American International sun-and-surf outings, Muscle Beach Party and the best of the Beach bunch, the fast-paced, diverting Beach Blanket Bingo. The relatively small turnout or about 60-70 patrons (more classic movie buffs might be up for this sort of thing in June or July) still worked up a substantial amount of enthusiasm for this colorful double bill. As a terrific bonus, powerhouse vocalist and Beach alumni Donna Loren was in attendance to join in the fun, and offer the audience a taste of her great vocal abilities.

The fun-in-the-sun formula that proved so successful in these breezy entertainments hadn’t quite gelled with the second in the Beach series, 1964’s lackluster Muscle Beach Party, which offers viewers scant signs of life. Even if expectations might not be high, when the combined shticks of Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett and Morey Amsterdam can’t muster a smile, the unoriginality is apparent. Although Muscle Beach is a prime location for the series’ detractors to point to, among the film’s assets are a well-oiled lineup of male pulchritude led by Peter Lupus, Annette and Frankie competing for the biggest hair in the movie, swirling, shrugging Candy Johnson doing her best to imitate a blender, Dick Dale pairing up with a bopping Donna Loren for "Muscle Bustle" and Little Stevie Wonder making his film debut and grabbing the biggest kudos with his spirited rendition of “Happy Street.”

At intermission Donna Loren took the stage and, after explaining how her 1963-1968 stint as the “Dr. Pepper Girl” led to her involvement in the Beach Party films, she performed a melody of songs from the movies, and a new number, “Love it Away.” Loren’s phenomenal vocal prowess is virtually undiminished, and she belted out the numbers with great finesse (she can still add an unparalleled rumble to her vocal rhythms). Her huge voice couldn’t be completely ignored during her busiest years as a performer, but one wonders why this primarily unknown mega-talent didn’t hit much bigger, especially as Loren’s attractive, fresh-faced look and upbeat manner were ideally suited for the 1960’s teen scene (perhaps if American Idol had been around during this era, Loren would’ve been a surer bet for major stardom). Afterwards, a Q&A with the audience was conducted. Loren was queried regarding her fondness for Dr. Pepper, and she admitted she doesn’t go in for any soft drinks, stating “I’m a tea drinker.” I asked Loren how she obtained her impressive run on Shindig: she stated she just auditioned and was chosen, and found the experience very rewarding. She started on the show at 17 singing “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and missed out on her senior year of high school due to all her professional activity (besides the Shindig gig, Loren was still was honoring her Dr. Pepper contract, as well as turning up in the Beach Party movies). Check out Loren as the embodiment of a hip teen via her assured, sensual performance of “Shakin’ All Over”:

Someone asked for specifics concerning the shooting of the beach movies; Loren claimed she had a good working relationship with director William Asher but, as one of the few genuine teens in the cast, she observed more than took part of any wild shenanigans taking place on the set among the twenty-somethings in the cast.

Bingo represents this unpretenious series' finest hour, with its lighthearted script consistently blending laughs (this time out, Rickles gets a chance to really cut loose with his special brand of insults, targeting Frankie and Annette at the local hangout) and upbeat, catchy musical numbers (the ingratiating title song sets the fun tone for the film). Paul Lynde manages to make every line sound amusingly snide, and other key Bingo players include Harvey Lembeck reprising his role as Eric Von Zipper from the first Beach Party, Deborah Walley as a sexy parachuting siren who puts the moves on Frankie, Walley's then-husband John Ashley as her jealous partner in the skies, Buster Keaton getting a few opportunities to demonstrate his genius, a luscious starlit-eyed Linda Evans as Lynde's singing protégée, and Michael Nader as a surfing beachboy, nearly twenty years before costarring with Evans on Dynasty. Bingo even features a genuinely sweet subplot concerning the hapless Bonehead’s (Jody McCrea) romance with a comely mermaid, Lorelei (Lost in Space’s Marta Kristen). McCrea may not take to the screen as effortlessly as father Joel, but he did inherit a substantial amount of his dad‘s sincerity, which helps sell this fantastic storyline. Loren briefly appears to sell her signature tune, “It Only Hurts When I Cry” with polish and style then, unfortunately, disappears for most of the rest of the film. Kubrick cult figure Timothy McCarey had fans clapping when his name appeared onscreen, and everyone applauding his audacious work during the end credits. He’s a fearless, unguarded and completely original actor, and he's both hilarious and deeply disturbing as South Dakota Slim, a nefarious associate of Von Zipper’s.

Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello may not possess the strongest personalities or rival the great screen teams, but their appealing, wholesome chemistry is a pleasure to watch. It’s clear this is one cinematic couple fully at ease performing together, and when they casually duet on the endearing “I Think, You Think” or Annette fumes over Frankie’s innocent flirtations with Walley or the bevy of bikini beach babes constantly twisting and twitching around him, their forthcoming pop iconic status is a given. Bingo itself offers a nostalgic time capsule view of carefree youthful exuberance just prior to the more rebellious “Flower Power” era, giving off an infectious summertime vibe that will make you want to catch a wave, or sing along with Donna:


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