Such is the adult film industry’s desire for mainstream recognition that when Quentin Tarantino spuriously declared Hot Summer in the City (1976) his favorite sex film, breathless film fans scurried away to write about an obscure, low budget, interracial, rape-oriented roughie.
When ‘Hot Summer in the City’ was first released, their identities were concealed by a series of noms-de-porn: the film’s director was listed as ‘The Hare’, the writer was ‘T. James Write’, and a individual producer credit was nowhere in sight.
But shortly after the film was released, Harry and Gail changed tack: they realized that revealing the truth, or at least a version of it, could be an effective marketing tool to drum up more curiosity and, by extension, money. So Gail emerged from the shadows and granted a slew of interviews for newspapers proclaiming that she – a young attractive female student at Michigan State – was in fact the movie’s director.
The media loved the concept, and yards of column inches were spent slobbering “Pretty Young College Student Makes Porn” headlines in the ensuing years. The ploy worked: though the film itself was truly terrible, managing to be both comically amateurish and deeply offensive at the same time, it became a genuine commercial hit.
But how true was the marketing-friendly version of how the film was made?
Almost twenty years later, Gail gave a fuller account of the making of ‘Hot Summer in the City’ – in more detail than she had ever told the press – to her autobiography ghostwriter, E.D. Daniels (the pseudonym of writer Peter Sagal). (You can read more about Peter’s experience of writing of this unpublished book, ‘Candy Goes to Hollywood: The Gail Palmer Story’ here.)
Peter later admitted he created a more dynamic, cultured, liberated, and – let’s face it – interesting version of Gail for the book. But the facts on which he based the story still came from Gail herself – and many of them have been corroborated.
Almost a further twenty years after the book was written, Gail told her version of events behind ‘Hot Summer in the City’ once again – this time to The Rialto Report. Remarkably, the details were almost the same as in her autobiography.
This is Gail’s version of what happened – from her unpublished autobiography, ‘Candy Goes to Hollywood: The Gail Palmer Story’.
We’re very grateful to Peter Sagal for having shared his unpublished Gail Palmer manuscript with us in its entirety.
The Making of ‘Hot Summer in the City’
By Gail Palmer (and E.D. Daniels)
At the time, I was still plain and simple Gail Parmentier, a student at Michigan State. My own induction into the rank of flesh-peddlers happened, like everything else in my life, without me understanding exactly what I was getting into.
I was hanging around the apartment, bored to death in the lap of luxury. Harry (Mohney) didn’t seem to care: at least he knew I wasn’t out somewhere cheating on him. Then a young man, a student at State, moved in across the hall. A few weeks later, Harry was railing about how he didn’t like me staying home all day, flirting with that dumb jock. I should get a job. Fine with me, I said, I’m bored to tears anyway. What kind of job?
“They just lost their cashier down at Cinema X: you can go help out for a while. Go down and tell them I sent you. No, wait a minute… don’t tell them I sent you. Don’t tell them you even know me. I think the guy down there is stealing from me; you can check up on him.”
Harry was a demented, raving paranoid, but I guess in his line of work it made sense. Harry’s suspicion now rested on the manager of Theater X, and the next day I went down to apply for the job of cashier. The manager’s eyes lit up when he saw me.
The theater was located in an incongruously nice part of town, with a popular bar across the street. But the theater itself was the worst vision of some puritan crusader: disgusting in every particular. The walls were all peeling paint and crumbling plaster, except for the spots that were covered with ‘split beaver’ shots from the cruder men’s magazines. The carpet was old and ratty; the seats torn and stained in ways I don’t like to remember too clearly. Even the parking lot was filled with garbage. It was everything I could do to keep my skin from crawling away and joining the Temperance League every time I sat down in the box office.
Each day I kept my own count of the take and gave it to Harry to compare against the count the manager submitted to (Harry’s holding company) Modern Bookkeeping. Harry had been right: the manager had been skimming. Harry was afraid to fire anybody, because a disgruntled employee might turn state’s evidence against him, so he chewed him out and demoted him to the sexual novelties warehouse in Durand. Now all he could steal were cheap plastic dildos…
Harry needed a new manager. He picked me.
“I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“The people who do it for me aren’t exactly brilliant, Gail. You’re smarter than any of them. Besides, they’re a bunch of thieves. I can trust you.”
And so I became the manager of Cinema X.
These days, the porno theater is fading into memory for most people, accustomed to the convenience and privacy of home viewing. But in 1974, when video-tape recorders were still $5,000 items, and private screening rooms were hard to come by, if you wanted meat, you had to go down to the butcher shop. Was it a dirty, filthy thing to do? Well, judging from the way Cinema X looked, you might as well slap a big “pervert” sign on your forehead every time you walked in.
Harry thought that filth was central to the porn theater experience: “It’s supposed to be that way. That’s why they call them ‘dirty movies’ ” he said, an aesthetician of sleaze. But I wouldn’t stand for it, for lots of reasons, not the least of which I didn’t have time to take a two hour bath every night after work. I rolled up my sleeves, and, armed with a Midwesterner’s sense of propriety and lots of Harry’s money, cleaned the place up. Harry believed all his customers were scum. I thought they were all like me: Midwesterners who didn’t know the first thing about sex and were very interested in finding out. I gave them what I would want in a porno theater.
I pulled down all the garish freak show signs out front, the neon blinkers readings NUDE GIRLS NUDE and XXX SKIN FLICKS. Instead, I put up a classic movie marquee which read CINEMA X – THE FINEST IN ADULT ENTERTAINMENT. We cleaned up the parking lot, and lit it. We sandblasted and painted the exterior – I wanted a theater that you might take a sweetheart to.
The interior, I practically gutted, and if I could have just blown out the walls and rebuilt them as well, I would have. I tore down all the tattered porno shots (the fired manager had drawn little balloons coming out of the models’ mouths, saying things like “Buy Me In the Bookstore!”), put up new plush wallpaper, and frames for ‘Coming Attraction’ posters. New carpeting and drapes, re-upholstered seats in the theater, and a thick red curtain around the screen. I bought a popcorn machine and put Juju-fruits and Snow-caps in the thoroughly sterilized candy counter. I even bought uniforms for the ushers and trained them to be polite.
“Call them ‘Sir,'” I said, “And make sure you greet them with a smile.” They looked at me as if I had asked them to kiss the customers on the lips.
Harry was beside himself, of course, over the tens of thousands of dollars I’d spent, and when business didn’t seem to pick up during the first few weeks after the re-opening, I thought I was going to lose the first real job I had ever had. So I determined to drum up some business. I liked remaking this theater, I liked doing this work. I didn’t want to go back to being a kept woman.
People coming out of the other X-rated theaters in town found handbills stuck under their windshield wipers. “Two for one night at Cinema X!” “Half Price Before Five at Cinema X!” I started running different gimmicks: Monday was “Bring a Dirty Book” night, with a dollar off admission with a men’s magazine. (I re-wrapped the magazines in plastic and sold them in bulk over in the bookstore.) Wednesday was Ladies’ night. “Bring your wife, bring your mother, bring any woman and you both get in free.”
And I started to stage live acts, strip shows between screenings. Most strippers came from booking agencies in Detroit, but I soon found out that dealing with these hard cases was a nightmare. If you wanted three girls for an evening, you had to book six, because half of them wouldn’t show up. And if they did manage to make it to the stage to blankly grind through the first show, chances were they’d vanish before the second. Besides, they were expensive, and Harry would start squawking long before I saw any returns. So I decided to find some fresh faces.
I placed an ad in the Lansing newspaper, a lot like the ad that I had answered, the one that started all of this.
“Wanted: Attractive Women… Pay starts at $400 a week…”
I got a flood of responses: nutrition majors, nursing majors, all kinds of freshly scrubbed Midwestern girls. There weren’t a lot of people struggling through a small state college who could afford to turn down that much money. Besides, this was the Seventies, and it was kind of ‘liberating’ to them, I suppose. I took these girls into the darkened theater, gave them costumes which I had made myself (I knew all that sewing would pay off someday) and told them how to take them off. All my experience in cheerleading and dance classes began to pay off in an unexpected way. “Hands in the air, girls, smile, now DOWN with the bra strap, SHAKE your… your bosoms…” They warmed to it, they smiled, then the smiles became delightfully wicked. These were nice girls, of course, always had been. And they were sick to death of it.
From the back of the theater, I’d watch the girls do their clumsy bumps and grinds, and, like them, I’d see how all the men in the audience would be just transfixed, helpless, overpowered. Dancing provided the girls with the same power turn-on I experienced vicariously – in all their young prim Michigan lives, they had never been able to make a man squirm. Pretty soon I didn’t have to recruit any more. The girls found me.
The shows became more and more elaborate, more choreographed. I’d have a dozen girls, loud music blaring, stripping off their letter sweaters (“X” of course) in perfect unison. Some of the girls discovered a creative streak in themselves: there was Evelyn, who did a little girl on roller stakes number, and another girl who came out and took a bath, letting some lucky patron apply the bath oil. Those that couldn’t dance I used in other ways: I set up Lansing’s first topless shoe-shine stand at ten bucks a buff. Even tennis shoes, no one cared how clean their shoes got. Their eyes never got that far down.
Pretty soon, we were so busy we had to open a second theater. The live shows were irresistible to the men, of course, particularly when word got around that you could see real, live “co-eds” take off their clothes down at Cinema X. But I had also anticipated a nationwide trend: the hip legitimization of porn, Porno Chic. People in the upscale urban groove were watching Deep Throat and bragging about it at cocktail parties.
Even in Lansing, Michigan, I managed to make porn if not trendy than at least acceptable. My main audience were the regulars, the raincoat brigade, or as I called them, the “connoisseurs” – the guys who would line up every Wednesday, when we brought in new films. I got to know some of these lonely men and I found them polite, even deferential. Some would tell me about their lives, or show me family snapshots. “That’s my wife, there,” said one of them, showing me a photo. “Been gone ten years now.” I asked him why he didn’t remarry, he told me that he’d never find another one like her. Or perhaps nobody real could compare with his celluloid darlings. The others would complain to me that their wives wouldn’t have sex with them, or they couldn’t find the time to get a date. I don’t know why they found it necessary to explain themselves to me – some incipient shame, perhaps?
But I brought others into the theater – men and women. In fact, my ladies’ nights were among my more profitable ideas. Harry was against it, of course, thinking that it we let both the woman and the man accompanying her in for free, then nobody would have to buy a ticket. But many more single men came by on Ladies’ night than any other night – as if actual real live women made the whole thing more titillating. For most of these guys, female sexuality was an impenetrable, endlessly fascinating mystery. Maybe they hoped to catch some of the female audience members getting into it, getting turned on – an ultimate voyeur’s trip, watching someone watching.
And the ladies came, too – sometimes whole gangs of them, bowling leagues playing hooky. I introduced male strippers for Ladies’ Nights – this was long before Chippendales, so I fancied myself quite the pioneer and the women went nuts. The men would usually stare at the girl strippers in rapt silence, like they were receiving some kind of benediction, but the women whooped and hollered like cowboys when one of my guys took the stage. One randy lady rushed the stage with a ruler, demanding a measurement.
To this day I don’t know when somebody in downtown Lansing decided I had crossed a line (“You mean there are naked men dancing down there? Indecent!”) but some gnome somewhere decided to pull my plug. It was on a night on which I had hired the whole state college football team for a special finale. We had the usual mass-stripping-cum-cheerleading number to end the show, and then right at the climax, with bouncing tits everywhere you looked, the houselights snapped on and ten policemen (rather young, gonzo looking policeman, you might have noticed) came pouring down the aisle, blowing their whistles and shouting. The audience screamed – partly from terror, I’m sure, as there were at least a few people there who were busily imagining headlines in their mental composing rooms – and then the cops got on taking their uniforms off. The audience screams got louder, and the ladies bayed like wolves.
It was right about then that the real cops arrived.
At first, of course, everybody thought it was just Practical Joke, Stage Two, and nobody listened as the cops screamed for everybody to put their clothes on. Some of the girls even tried to pull the real cops on stage and get their clothes off. Everybody got arrested, but eventually all the boys and girls and audience members were released and sent home. I was booked, though, along with some of my staff members and my lawyer, who had rushed down and tried to challenge the cops.
Harry, true to form, had escaped.
“Who are you?” snarled a cop at him.
“I’m just the janitor,” he said, meekly, slipping away.
The city charged us all with indecent exposure, based on an allegation that three of the female dancers had removed their G-strings. Everybody has their own definition of obscenity, and in Lansing, Michigan, it was pubic hair. We could flash as many tits as we wanted, we could hock naked breasts at a penny a pound, but the slightest snatch of snatch Was Beyond the Pale…
The trial was a grave shock to me, far more upsetting to my moral equilibrium than anything I had done or seen in pornography. Because my father was a cop, I had grown up with cops, and I knew that Cops Never Lie. These cops lied without breaking a sweat. We knew the law and we weren’t stupid; we would never allow our dancers to drop their drawers. So the cops just said they did and dared us sleazoid pornographers to contradict them.
Fortunately, we were successful sleazoids and could afford excellent lawyers. They asked the cop who claimed that he had seen the girls completely naked what color their pubic hair was.
“Um, brunette,” he said.
All three? All three. We then put the girls on the stand to testify, under oath, as to the nature of their nether hairs: Red, blonde, and none at all.
The highlight of the trial, however, was when we put one of our most loyal customers, an elderly fellow, on the stand for the defense. He claimed he saw absolutely no bare beaver that night, or any night.
“Couldn’t you have been looking the other way, or at something else, when the girls dropped their g-strings?” the prosecutor asked him.
Our customer was indignant. “Are you kidding? After I paid six-fifty to get in? I’m on a fixed income, young fellow. If that girl had showed me her thing, I would have seen it. That’s what I was there for.”
The place erupted. All charges were dismissed. Back at the Cinema X, we put up a marquee: “NOW SHOWING: POLICE HARASSMENT.”
We were back in business.
But what kind of business?
At the center of everything, between the strip shows and the peep booths and the shoe shine girls, were the movies, and the movies, generally, were either bad or expensive or both. For many years the staple of pornography had been the ‘loop,’ or the endlessly repeating film of anonymous sex. Not much different than what you might see in the peep booths, a loop might have the man say to the woman, “Let’s fuck,” but that was about it in terms of story. At the other end of the scale was the new wave of porno features, with characters and stories. ‘Deep Throat’ was the most famous – as millions of proto-Yuppie self-styled swingers discovered, it’s quite over-rated, but at the time it was revolutionary. Starting around 1972, there emerged a handful of filmmakers making movies that were, and remain, the closest that porn has ever come to art. Actual characters having actual conversations that even – for minutes at a time – might be about something other than sex. Or, at least, they were about sex in a more sophisticated way than my connoisseurs were used to.
None of these movies, like Behind the Green Door (shown at Cannes, believe it or not), The Opening of Misty Beethoven, or The Devil in Miss Jones, or The Autobiography of a Flea (this was the only one of those first movies to be directed by a woman), could measure up to the Hollywood standard. The acting was atrocious, and the technical aspects were below film-school level. But compared to what porn audiences had seen before — and with very few exceptions, to what’s come afterwards, every one a ‘Citizen Kane.’
Now that we’re all used to it, it’s hard to remember the shock and thrill that these first porn features provided. We’re all used to the false sense of intimacy that movies and television create. We see other people in their daily routine, or, even more often, in the throes of physical or emotional crisis. You begin to think that you know these people, these actors or stars. That same familiarity, when created in porn, made for a whole new voyeuristic thrill. Now it wasn’t just anonymous bodies – it was people, real people, who had “personalities” and “characters” and “problems” and you get to see them have sex – right there, in living color. In addition to providing at least some stimulus for the brain as well as the genitals, for once, these new features pumped up the porno high. It wasn’t some tawdry, anonymous bimbo, with stretch marks and a look on her face that pleaded for help, it was Misty Beethoven or Marilyn Chambers or – her bruises covered by makeup – Linda Lovelace. Real women, having real sex and seeming to love it. For the connoisseurs, these movies were a miracle from God.
For Harry, they were an aggravation, because they cost a lot of money. The audience demanded them; would flock to whichever X theater in town had the latest high-style release. But there were only a few outlaw filmmakers making the movies, almost all of them in San Francisco, and they had a monopoly. Harry had to either pay up, or go back to the loops and take his chances that to the “connoisseurs,” sex was sex.
But I knew that there was no going back. I had printed and distributed a survey to my customers, asking what they liked in porn movies and what they wanted to see. (We offered a free pass for each completed survey, so we got a statistically reliable sample.) I found, to no one’s surprise, that people wanted better plots, better dialogue, better acting, and of course, better and more explicit sex. In the section for “what I want to see,” rape came up surprisingly frequently – especially among the women – in addition to the usual array of group orgies, anal sex, oral sex, and black-white sex.
The solution to our problem was simple – to me, anyway.
“Let’s make a movie ourselves,” I said to Harry, one night in bed. “We could do it for the same amount of money you pay to the filmmakers, but if we make it we get to keep all the profits.” I had worked the figures out on a yellow pad, and Harry was impressed. I had other motivations, as well, although I didn’t share them with Harry. I didn’t like most of the movies that we showed, even the features, because of the paucity of imagination when it came to women. Basically, women were either nymphos or closet nymphos waiting to be discovered, or, to use the parlance in porn, “opened.” (The story of “Deep Throat,” for example: a girl doesn’t enjoy sex. A doctor determines that her clitoris is in her throat, and she should give blow-jobs to get orgasms.) I wanted to see a movie in which sex was part of a larger story, the same way in which a song fits into the plot of a good movie musical.
But mostly, of course, I wanted to make a movie. Managing the theater was fun, and challenging, and I did it damned well, but it wasn’t what I had been dreaming of, back when I was 16, three years and a lifetime ago. I had wanted to be Famous, to be an Artist, to make movies. So what if Harry wasn’t Daryl Zanuck? He was all the mogul I had.
Harry’s first creative idea, as Producer and Director of our as-of-yet unnamed film, was to steal a plot. “Go check out the bookstore, ” he said to me. “We’ll steal one from there.” I looked through the racks of cheap, porno novels; most of them were so silly as to make the movies seem like serious cinema. ‘The Horny Housewives,’ that sort of thing, written by suave-sounding pseudonyms like Alex Satin. One of them, though, titled ‘White Captive,’ gave me an idea.
While I was still in college, I had written a short story for a creative writing class, which had been based on a news account I had read. During the 1968 riots in Detroit, a group of black youths had kidnapped a white girl. My musings about who they were and what they wanted led to the story, which I showed to Harry. I don’t know if he had any opinion on the writing, but he loved it as a basis for our movie.
Who knows why, but at the time black-white sex was a special thrill to some of our audience. (Maybe it was the weird erotic energy around the whole Black Liberation movement – the handsome Panthers in their sunglasses and berets, their white patrons batting eyelids at them.) The peep booths that showed black-white loops (marked B/W for easy identification) were among Harry’s most popular, judging by the number of sweaty quarters we found in the coin boxes.
And then there was the added attraction of rape, which we thought our audience – men and women – would really go for. Harry told me to write a script based on my short story, and we were off. I bought a book on screenwriting and sat down with my short story; I threw in sex scenes where I thought they made sense and ended up with a forty page film-script, which I called ‘Hot Summer in the City,’ after the Lovin’ Spoonful song.
It’s very hard for me to watch ‘Hot Summer in the City now’ – society has changed a lot, and I’ve changed even more. I now have a much clearer idea of what rape is – that it’s not a sexual act, but violence. But at the time, there was the excitement of writing a movie, there was Harry enthusing about how much the rain coat brigade liked “the rough stuff,” and there was that damned survey. That the women reported “rape” as one of their fantasies made perfect sense to me – maybe it was my repressed background, but I understood very well the fantasy of an aggressive lover, of being ravished. It took the responsibility off my shoulders. What I didn’t realize was that there’s a vast difference between a fantasy ravishment and the painful reality of rape.
Rape was at one time fairly common in porn films, although usually it took the form of a man forcefully coming on to some shrinking violet until she realizes that she “enjoys it.” (Plot for Behind the Green Door, the 1972 classic that introduced Marilyn Chambers: Girl is kidnapped and made the center of a live sex show.) What we did with ‘Hot Summer in the City’ was a different thing; we were going to play to the most aggressive and stark fantasies that we imagined were out there. Whether we went too far, I imagine, depends on your particular bent. For some people, we didn’t go far enough. For many, though, what I’m about to describe will be difficult to accept; it’s difficult for me to talk about.
The story concerned a white girl kidnapped by black militants on the eve of the Detroit riots. They kidnap her, and have forced sex with her while taking her to their cabin hideout. There, she is made to wash the dishes – shades of autobiography? – before she’s raped again. However, the leader of the gang takes a liking to her, and refuses to participate. Later, he and she have a much more tender love scene – I was trying, I think, to make a contrast between Bad Sex and Good Sex. The next day, the militants are met by a rich white guy who gives them money to start the riots, so he and his cronies can collect on the insurance. (This was my social commentary angle.) Conflict arises with the arrival of the leader’s girlfriend, who’s jealous of the white girl, and after a few more rough sexual sessions she tries to kill the white girl, but is stopped – violently and lethally by the leader of the gang. Then they’re off to Detroit, but not before the leader gives the girl her freedom despite what she knows… true love, of a sort, triumphs.
The script in hand, I went about trying to produce the thing. Harry found a cameraman at a local TV station who was willing to shoot the film, once we gave him enough assurances that no one would ever know, and Harry himself had a vacation cabin we would use for our primary location. He had a lawyer check the statutes, and there was no law against making dirty movies in Michigan. I guess no one ever thought anybody would want to.
I was still a registered student at Michigan State at the time, so I went down to the Audio Visual department, and checked out a 16mm movie camera and some lighting for the weekend. The only problem remained the casting. I had been so successful in getting fellow students to strip for me, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to get them to go a step further. I asked some of my strippers if they could ask around for some good looking Black students, and they got me all the volunteers I needed. One of the strippers, Evelyn, even sent her boyfriend along. I hired ‘Duke Johnson’ to play the lead role of the gang leader, along with ‘Coke Chain’ and ‘Shorty Roberts,’ all good looking Black students who claimed that they were sexual dynamos and completely ready to do it on film. I also hired a small, funny looking guy I named ‘Stitch,’ to play the odd man out in the gang, the militant wanna-be.
‘Duke’s’ angry girlfriend was played by a dancer and massage girl from Detroit named Black Orchid, but for the central role of the kidnapped girl I wanted to use someone special. We wanted an air of innocence, and the dancers I knew were just too hard looking. As for the co-eds I’m sure I could have found a bunch of them willing to do it, but the fact was they would all be too eager. We needed somebody who didn’t look or act like a porn actress, who looked as if she didn’t even want to be there, and I eventually found her through a dancer’s booking agency in Ohio. Lisa Baker had just gotten into the business, and was willing to do just about anything, but she still looked wide-eyed and girlish.
I offered Lisa a thousand dollars for the weekend’s work. Harry was furious. “I bet she would have taken six hundred,” he said. “She might have,” I answered, “But I figured we should pay people what’s fair. I wouldn’t do this for a million dollars.” The other actors, who we thought had less onerous duty, we agreed to pay around $300 for the weekend. Casting and pre-production completed, we were ready to light the lights and make some movie magic.
On Friday, I rounded up the cast and crew, picked up the camera equipment from the school, and then Harry and I drove everyone out to his cabin, six hours north of Lansing. We stopped at a local store out there and picked up necessary supplies, food, beer, and a few coils of rope.
We got to the cabin, opened up some beers and looked at each other. Until this point, we just assumed that Harry, the Pornographer King, would direct. But he obviously had no idea what to do, or where to begin.
“Let’s go over the script,” I said, and we all sat down at a table to rehearse. The guys really got into their roles, spitting out more far more “motherfuckers” and other such ad-libs than I had written. And they haughtily criticized my representation of the black vernacular. “We don’t say ‘pussy,’ we say ‘hole,'” sniffed Duke. “White guys say ‘pussy.'” “That’s fine, I wasn’t aware of that,” I said. Live and learn.
We decided to do the ‘dramatic’ scenes first, and then move on to the sex later. Harry had no idea what to say to the actors, and the cameraman didn’t care about anything but the lights. It fell to me to set up the scenes, coach the performers through them – I sat there with these amateur ‘actors’ and two professional sex workers and talked about motivations and emotions and I loved it; it reminded me of the days back when I engineered high school theatricals, but this was better. This was for real, this was outlaw cinema.
The actors were enthusiastic, if a bit wooden, and we didn’t have any real troubles with the ‘drama’ part of the movie until we brought in a friend of Harry’s to play the White Man. He acted as if someone had just whacked him really hard on the back of the head with a hammer – in a constant daze, and utterly unable to remember his lines. We had to write them on any available surface on the set – on playing cards, the stacks of bills he gives to the ‘militants,’ the palm of his own hand. He even had difficulty reading his own writing.
We finished with him as quick as possible – we relied a lot on ‘reaction shots,’ to keep the camera off his stuporous face – and as the sun was setting on the first day of the shoot, we ran out of scenes we could shoot with everybody’s clothes on. Harry, the Old Pro, took charge.
“Okay, time to do the sex scenes,” he said. The guys looked at the floor - I noticed that they were all clumped together, away from the girls, like the boys at a sixth grade dance.
“Okay,” said Duke.
“Right,” said Shorty.
“Right,” said Coke.
“Yeah, okay,” said Stitch.
Nobody moved. Black Orchid yawned. Lisa looked vacant. The cameraman was the only person in the room who seemed excited. Harry gestured for me to follow him into the bedroom.
“Okay, we’re going to shoot the X scenes now,” he said.
“Right, well, you gotta get some of them together and tell them what to do.”
“How do I do that? Do I tell them to start… doing it?”
“Yeah, of course. You’re the one who’s been doing all the talking, so talk ’em into it.”
We went back out into the main room. I put on my best ‘taking charge’ face, the very one that had commanded such respect from hordes of high school cheerleaders and amateur strippers: “Let’s go.”
They stared at me.
“All right,” I said, “Stitch and Black Orchid go first. Let’s start, guys.”
I guess I started with them because Stitch seemed to be the best actor I had, and even though I knew that both girls were pros, Black Orchid seemed far tougher. So they stripped, and went through the requisite shrieks and cries and pushings and proddings that made for foreplay in this particular story, but when it got down to it, they just stood there like statues, stiff as plywood. Stiff, that is, with one important exception.
“You understand what you’re supposed to do?” I said to Stitch. What he was supposed to do was throw himself on Black Orchid and ravish her like she’d never been ravished before. Right now, he didn’t look capable of ravishing a bundt cake.
“Well, we seem to be having some trouble here.”
Stitch shrugged: what can you do, it’s got a mind of its own…
I pulled Black Orchid aside. “Can you do something for us, here?”
Black Orchid, with the insouciance of a true professional, stubbed out her cigarette, crossed the room, dropped to her knees, and gave him a truly professional blow job. We all looked somewhere else. But it had absolutely no effect on him, at least none that we could see. Black Orchid got up, lit another cigarette, walked over to Harry, and said to him, “I think you’d better give it a try.”
“What?” sputtered Harry.
“I think he likes boys.”
We all turned to stare at Stitch, who wouldn’t look us in the eyes. I looked closely at him – I noticed, for the first time, I swear to you, that his delicate eyebrows had been plucked.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I yelled.
“I wanted to be in the movie,” said Stitch. “My husband told me he thought it would be really cool.”
Harry and I had a conference; if he just couldn’t get the necessary organ to cooperate, at least we could film him performing oral sex on her, whatever his natural reticence. At least that would be something….
No it wouldn’t. “I ain’t going down on her,” announced Stitch. “Black guys don’t eat pussy,” explained Duke.
“You mean, ‘hole,'” I said.
Duke glared at me. “White guys do that,” he said. “We don’t.”
“Nope, we don’t,” said Shorty.
Great. It was a Black Thing. My fake militants were finally showing their political consciousness. They were willing to portray psycho-rapist-killers on film for pocket change, but they had to draw the line at cunnilingus. What would people think?
Meanwhile, steam was starting to waft from Harry’s ears.
“Okay, drop it. Let’s try the scene with Duke and Lisa. Into the bedroom… ”
This was the Big Tender, as the folks in the Industry call it: the nice ‘n’ gentle sex scene that was, in my young mind, supposed to make up for the various brutal rapes that surrounded it in the film. I figured that this would be the easiest sex scene to do, and I knew that at this point we needed to get something going.
So Duke, looking grim, and Lisa, looking vague, take off their clothes and get onto the bed. And nothing happens, outside of a patently fake kiss or two. I can generate more heat kissing my forearm. We had a cameraman so eager to get his lens on real sex that he almost fell onto the bed, and absolutely no sex to be seen. Instead we have two giant hunks of fish. I put romantic music on the stereo. Now we’ve got fish with a soundtrack.
“Everybody out,” I say. I turned to our putative stars. “Okay, you two get comfortable with each other, do what you want. When you get something going, call us.”
We all went out to the hall and closed the door. Ten minutes later, we heard Duke’s strangled cry for us to come in. We rush in, leap for the camera to turn it on… and Duke’s flag falls to half-mast, than flutters to complete slackness. He grins at us, embarrassed, then motions for us to go out again. He sends us out of the room. This happens five times.
And it happens with Shorty, and it happens with Coke. You’ve heard of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which holds that the act of observation changes the event being observed? The act of observation in this case changed the Event in this case in the following way: it shriveled three proud penises into tiny tuftlets. After hours of this constant coitus interruptus (and even that is flattery to these guys) we threw in the towel. We had all the grabbing, kissing, posturing and shouting that we could ever use. We just had no real sex, and fatally, no “money shots,” that essential staple of the porn film, the wet shot, the on screen ejaculation. Without money shots, we’d become the laughing-stock of perverts from coast to coast.
Harry and I told everybody to get some sleep, and we’d try again in morning. We all retired to our various bedrooms and couches for all I knew our actors spent the entire night doing in private what they couldn’t manage for the record – and Harry and I had a strategy session.
“We need a stand-in,” says Harry. “We’ll do some inserts.”
“What’s an insert – I mean, is it something other than what I think it is?”
“An insert means you cut to somebody else’s cock at the moment of truth,” said Harry.
“Yeah,” said Harry. “You go back to Lansing and dig one up.”
“Where?” I protested. “This is not something you can look up in the Yellow Pages.”
“Try the theater,” he said. “Guys there are always springing boners, right and left – that’s what they’re there for. Just make sure you get somebody who can do the deed.”
I slept for an hour, then drove back to Lansing and spent the early hours of Sunday morning cruising the stalls of Cinema X. Finally, a Black man wandered in – he looked reasonably healthy. His name was Ray, I made my pitch, and he didn’t believe me for a second.
“Look, ask the cashier who I am, whatever you want,” I said, “But do it fast.”
He did, and if he had been grinning any more when he came back, the top of his head would have fallen off. “Let’s Go!” he said.
“Uh, there’s one thing we have to check on, first. Could you step into my office, please?”
I got safely behind my desk before I said anything to him. “Um, I need to see you, uh, come. So I know that you can, with somebody watching.”
Ray dropped his pants and took a step forward, an expectant look plastered on his face. “By yourself, please,” I said.
He then did something I didn’t expect. He walked into the closet, and shut the door. I had one of those truly surreal moments. Had he meant to walk out on me, and gotten the doors confused? Had he expected me to follow him?
A few minutes later, he leapt out with a raging erection, and in a few strokes of his hand managed to produce a very convincing orgasm. He was hired.
We got back to the cabin early in the afternoon, and Ray went right to work. We recreated each of the sex scenes from the day before, and at the key moment Ray would go into the closet, emerge with his penis hard as a length of PVC piping, and cheerfully plug whatever ‘hole’ we pointed him at. Most men – most professional sex performers, I would learn later – would have trouble producing four on-cue orgasms in a single afternoon, but whatever “Right-On Ray” had going for him in that closet seemed all the inspiration he needed. “I’m going in there to see what he’s got,” Harry grumbled, a little jealous.
So this was my first experience with filmed sex: a drafty room, confused and bored participants, and sexual episodes as passionate, inspired, and original as a fire drill. Stitch jumps on Black Orchid, fakes as much passion as he can down to getting his own pants off, then we call cut, Stitch gets off, and here comes Right On Ray, out of the closet, and we zoom in the camera so we can catch every detail of the subsequent hydraulics. The women, their faces safely off camera (except, of course, for the blow jobs) stared at the ceiling and thought of their paychecks, I guess.
The end result was a film which, in addition to its essentially offensive subject matter (numerous rapes, racist depictions of black men as despoilers of white women and black women as violent, jealous bitches) wasn’t even very good as pornography, in my view. I had intended to make the sex better by making it a part of a story – but the story detracted from the sex, and the sex made it impossible to follow the story.
My mistake was, I think, to try and bring realism’ into a porn film. I had wanted to make the sex a plausible part of the story, and if anything, I had succeeded far too well: the rapes are too violent, too intense, too real to be enjoyable as fantasy sex, and the air of impending violence created by the storyline made it that much more real. Pornography should take place in a kind of sexual utopia, where nothing hurts (except when we want it to) and everybody’s willing, where you never get a cramp in the small of your back, and you never fall off the bed. ‘Hot Summer in the City,’ is, if anything, too real to be good pornography, and too pornographic to be anything else. Pornography has nothing to do with the real world, or at least, it shouldn’t. This was a lesson I took to heart in all my subsequent movies, much to their benefit.
But: at the time, all we knew was that we had spent $40,000 making this movie by the time post-production was done, and Harry was determined to make it back. We had long ago decided to use pseudonyms in the credits (I was ‘P. James Write,” Harry was “The Hare,” one of the nicknames his sycophants used), but we printed up five hundred prints of the movie, commissioned an inflammatory poster (the copy read: “Honky bitch, you won’t know what real integration is until you have some nigger cock…”) and sent it out to the theaters.
It was a monster hit.
It broke every record in Harry’s theaters, the ones set by ‘Deep Throat.’ It turns out I had underestimated people’s enthusiasms for the ‘rough stuff’: we even got letters from grateful women asking when we were going to have another movie with more big, Black men. But the thing of course that made ‘Hot Summer in the City’ into a minor phenomenon in porn wasn’t the sex, and it wasn’t the actors, and it sure wasn’t the story. It was me. Because when the media found out that it had been made by a 20 year old former cheerleader, they went berserk. And I finally got what I wanted: I became famous.
We staged a gala premiere for ‘Hot Summer in the City’ at the Cinema X, with more stars than there ever were in our peculiar heaven: Black Orchid, edgy and contemptuous, Lisa, still vague despite her gymnastic debut, Stitch, getting cheers from a cabal of men who did not appear to be regular customers. But, it was fun. We poured some wet cement and stuck our feet in it (some might ask, why the feet? Among many reasons, other parts are harder to clean.)
We poured champagne and staged a little awards ceremony after the screening: Stitch won Best Actor, which, I imagine, he deserved. No special award for Right-On Ray; he had to fade back into anonymity, the Lone Ranger riding off into his closet.
Harry, of course, remained anonymous – maybe he imagined IRS forensic experts hauling a slab of concrete with his handprints on it into court – so I fronted for the film. I was already a celebrity with the connoisseurs at Cinema X, a sort of den-mother dominatrix, so they were thrilled to see me moving on to bigger and better things.
Everybody seemed to love the movie. A few old school fans, though, told me that they thought the story wasn’t that great – “So write me one better,” I said, and in two weeks I had a pile of manuscripts on my desk. Each of them was more repellent than the last, every lascivious term brutally misspelled.
For the second ‘premiere’ the next week at his big theater in Detroit, Harry wanted a slightly more classy event. We hired searchlights, bought better champagne, and advertised, too. “Starring Michigan State Students!” read the ad Harry placed in the local swingers paper, next to the ads for escort services and massage. Harry – knowing that we weren’t going to bring in the raincoat brigades by virtue of the film’s sexual heat hoped to bank on the appeal of amateurism.
It was also somewhere along in here that Harry and I made a fateful decision. Harry, true to form, did not want his name or face connected to the film in any way. (He was remarkable in this: an ego the size of a planet and an utter horror of fame.) In fact, he had set up a new front company in the Dutch Antilles, called Caribbean Films, to be the nominal producer of the movie. But eventually the film would need a name behind it, and we agreed it should be mine. Or, if not quite mine, a workable substitute. I had reached that first plateau of the porn career: the choosing of the pseudonym. Most women in those early years chose names that sounded realistic but vaguely erotic; so Linda Marchiano became “Lovelace.” But for my nom de porn, I chose “Palmer.”
Why something so prosaic, and so close to my actual name? Because I didn’t trust myself to remember something radically different. I didn’t want to have some interviewer call me “Ms. Sauvage” and have me just blink at them for a minute until I remembered that it was me.
So the Detroit local press who showed up for the premiere were introduced to Gail Palmer, the ‘director’ of ‘Hot Summer in the City.’ That credit really wasn’t much of a lie; if anybody had done anything like “directing” on the set, it was me. I was a little tentative with the press, because despite my experience with Hot Summer, I didn’t really feel that I knew what I was talking about. I found out later that neither did anybody else in porn.
“So you made this with Michigan State students?” the reporters asked me.
“Sure. The three black guys are all at…”
“Well, how did you find them?”
“I’m a student there myself, and…”
“You are?” They all stepped a little closer. “Does the school know you’re doing this?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, they know I made a movie, because I used their equipment to make it … ”
“You did?” they all said, and, just like in ‘The Front Page,’ they all ran for the phones to file their story.
‘MSU Coed Produces X- Rated Movies’ by Harry Atkins
Associated Press Article
Gail Palmer, a 21 year old Michigan State University junior, was repulsed after seeing an X-rated movie for the first time, so she did something about it. She made one of her own…
Miss Palmer’s credentials read more like those of the venerable ‘girl next door’ than of porn queen. She was raised a Catholic on the East Side of Detroit [not true, it was East Detroit, a separate city] and her father, today, is superintendent of a small school district…
That article, which appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times and many other papers in December 1976, started my public career. My life in porn was to be carried out in two arenas; one in the Industry itself, and the other in the media’s bear-baiting pit. From the publication of that article onwards, I became one of the media’s favorite spokespeople for pornography, even though they could have found people far more enmeshed in it than I.
On one level it’s easy to understand: without being overly boastful, I can say with some certainly that I’m more pleasant to talk to than Larry Flynt. I was young, attractive, female, and apparently normal. (That ‘girl next door’ moniker was trotted out by every feature writer and talk show host in the country, as if they were the ones to think of it. Tom Snyder: “Gail Palmer is the typical American girl next door, if the thing they’re doing next door is making porno movies.”
For some people, I guess, I must have represented the embodiment of their worst fears about the sexual revolution, like Charlie Manson confirmed people’s paranoia about Hippies. “Oh, my God, Bob, these kids are making fuck films!” But for most, I was a welcome relief from the stereotyped pornographer: the misogynistic pinkie-ring-wearing mouth breathers. You know, people like Harry. I was fresh faced, giggly, attractive, unembarrassed. People were allowed to draw various hopeful conclusions: maybe porn wasn’t so bad after all…
For my part, I mainly just told the truth to anyone who asked. I never lied about my background, or my enthusiasm for the form. “I feel this is just a stepping stone, you know? A way for me to make money,” I told the AP reporter. When ‘Detroit’ magazine came to interview me for a big weekend feature, I told them that “very few of these movies, or very few of the scenes in these movies, do anything for me.” I didn’t lie about the grubbiness of it all, the down and dirty nature of the work. I told them all about the weird way in which I had fallen into the business via impersonating a porn star, and about how I had cleaned up Cinema X.
What I did not tell them, however, was that I was the live-in lover of the most powerful pornographer in the Upper Midwest. Although he was my patron, my financier, and my partner, I never mentioned his name or his existence. Instead, Harry and I concocted an alternate autobiography from which he was surgically removed. The AP story, for example, relates the episode about standing in for Cyndee Summers, then says: “Before long, Miss Palmer became friends with the manager, who was impressed with her business sense and offered her a job managing his firm’s theater in Lansing.” Eventually, I just started telling reporters I just walked into Cinema X to get a summer job.
As for the making of ‘Hot Summer’, I concocted a nebulous group of “investors” who backed me because of my pluck and daring. From the ‘Detroit’ magazine interview: “I just sort of sold them on the whole idea. Because I told them how I could promote it and why it would be good right now and stuff like that.” I never named them and was never asked to. Everyone understood without me saying so that this would be impossible; such gentlemen would not want the limelight, of course.
Why hide my relationship with Harry? First, of course, there was Harry’s constant fear of notoriety. But we also knew that Gail Palmer, filmmaker, would be much more intriguing to the press and to the audience if she were a self-made woman, out there alone in the big bad world. (Also, it didn’t hurt if I appeared to be sexually available.) For my part, I didn’t think we were telling too big of a lie. Except for the money he provided, Harry hadn’t been any help at all with Cinema X, or, really, the making of the movie. He had been the door I walked through into pornography. What I did there, for better or worse, I did alone.
Maybe if any of the reporters had known more about the porn industry at that time, or if they had chosen to do a little digging, they would have questioned my story. But they didn’t really care; in fact, they wanted it to be true. My job was to convince them it was, by my presence, energy and attitude, and judging from the fact that no one discovered the truth until I chose to tell them, I guess I did a good job. I was a publicist’s dream, and a reporter’s fantasy: the whore with a heart of gold and a virginal smile. “Student Makes Porn Films With School Equipment!” Everybody was thrilled to death.
Except the school.
I got a call on our answering service one day; the Dean of Students would like to speak to me. I was only taking one course at the University but I was terrified, and didn’t return the call, jumping when the phone rang again. However, when I answered it, I am amazed to find that I was speaking to Zolton Ferency, head of the Lansing office of the ACLU, professor at Michigan State, and a major figure in state politics — he was to be a Democratic candidate for the governorship a few years later. Ferency assured me that if I were interested, the ACLU would be glad to take up my case with the University.
I don’t even know how Ferency knew I was in trouble, but he offered to get me out of it. “I understand that some students recently showed Deep Throat at a film festival. Now, it makes little sense, from a civil liberties point of view, that they would allow the showing of such a film, yet threaten to expel you for making one? And at a state-funded university – it raises grave Constitutional concerns.”
Ferency made a few statements to the press, and the school administration dropped the matter. Meanwhile, the letters columns and editorial pages were filled with rhetoric either lambasting me as a sexual deviant or praising me as an independent, liberated young entrepreneur. I was quite the cause celebre. This was as exciting as Michigan got.
All the controversy over me and ‘Hot Summer in the City’ led to boffo box office, as it inevitably does. (Nothing contributed to the success of ‘Deep Throat’ as much as the suit Coca-Cola filed about the film’s use of their song ‘I’d Like To Teach The World to Sing’ during a dildo scene.) I headed off my first press junket, a tour of all of Harry’s theaters, where I would inevitably be interviewed by members of the local press, and met at the theater by a long line of connoisseurs, eager to get my autograph. It was a strange reprise of my first tentative toe-dip into pornography, my impromptu impersonation of Cyndee Summers, except now they were coming to see me. Or Gail Palmer, anyway, which was a reasonable facsimile.
I never lied to the raincoat brigade either – with the important and permanent exception of my “marital status.” If they asked me if I got turned on by the action on set, I told them no; if they asked me if I would appear in any of my films, I had to disappoint them. Actually, taking my clothes off for a camera, or even doing some soft-core sex, didn’t completely repulse me in principle (I had my only brush with the buff later in the year, as you shall see.) I just couldn’t imagine doing it in the conditions under which we had made ‘Hot Summer.’ I told interviewers that if I ever did appear in a porn film, it would have be for a project so amazing that Catherine Deneuve would do it, too, if she had the chance. Needless to say, such a project never came along.
On thing almost every man asked me was how they could get into porno movies. To this day, I can’t walk down the street without some clown coming up and offering his services – a few billion of them even offer to work for free. Lucky me. Usually, I told them it was a lot harder than it looked. Not one of them believed me.
Despite the weird arenas I found myself in – a tour of the front lobbies of the major porn palaces of the Midwest - I loved it. It was version, at least, of the fantasy that I had entertained ever since childhood: fame, adulation, the strobe lights flashing and the microphones being stuck in my face. My youth and naivete’ allowed me to overlook the seaminess of it, and with the classic immortality of youth, I never assumed that any of this would come back to haunt me. Instead, I believed just what I told the interviewers: that eventually I would leave this behind and move on to legitimacy.
Porn was not going to be my life.