By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
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Making the movie wasn't much different. "He was such a con man," Gililland says. "It was a very ragtag operation." During Rock It!'s climax--when the gangsters and the kids rumble laughably before the big club-saving benefit--Carroll had to bust the production's only breakaway guitar over a bad guy's head. The first take was for naught because of the wrong film, and the shattered guitar was taped back together. On the second take, one of the thugs--all of whom were recruited from the ranks of wrestlers who worked the Sportatorium--forgot to pull his punch, and the kid he smacked could be heard swearing, so that was scratched. The prop guitar was now mostly tape, but a third take and some editing saved the day.
"Working with the wrestlers was fun," Gililland says. "They were a hoot." Indeed, next to the rockers, the heavies are the best thing about the film (admittedly not saying much), their beefy builds and ruined faces perfect for their parts. Johnny Dobbs played the part of "Crackers" Louis, the main badass; his career as a "heel"--the bad guy back in the days when pro wrestling was framed in terms of morality plays rather than hyperkinetic Jolly Rancher commercials and stupid haircuts--prepared him well for the role, although his elocution was less than inspired. One of his best scenes is poolside at the gangster chief's (suspiciously suburban) hangout, wearing his shoulder holster and swimming trunks.
As can be imagined, Tiger was a difficult man to deal with. The California director--Murray Douglas Sporup--banned him from the set the first day of shooting. One of the investors in the film--who was also in one of the movie's featured musical groups--disavowed all connection with the film after its March 21 Dallas debut in 1957. "When the movie came out," Gililland reports, "the reaction was so bad that everybody was pretty ashamed and embarrassed. It was so terrible." In fact, Gililland remembers going to see the movie at the old Rialto in the rain--glad for the excuse to hold his coat over his head.
Still, there were no real bad feelings or ill will; it had been a wild, youthful adventure. Gililland ran into Tiger in the early '70s. "He looked about the same," the bespectacled guitarist--legally blind since birth but able to get around--recalls. "He had no time to talk--he was working another con of some kind, I'm sure--and I didn't hang around that long, but we'd [the actors] sat around since and talked and laughed about it so much that it was impossible to have any hard feelings. He truly was a lovable scoundrel, and for us, he was just a part of growing up. We had great stories. We weren't too happy with it at the time, but it was a great experience to look back on." Tiger hasn't been seen in the area since.
Gililland camped out on Tiger's doorstep for a week before he got his money--fifty bucks, "not at all bad for a 17-year-old's week's work." Gradually, people drifted apart. "I never really kept up with any of them after that," Gililland admits. Kay Wheeler, Rock It!'s female lead, who does a very strange "rock 'n' bop" catwoman-dance at the film's close--went on to found the very first Elvis Presley Fan Club; she moved out of the area several years ago.
Johnny Carroll went on, underappreciated, to a middling career in country and rockabilly that never matched his talent. Like many here, he was more popular in England and Europe; he died in 1995. Paul Menard of the Bon-Aires went on to success as a radio DJ; Leroy Cooper--the great big guy playing sax with the Deacons--went on to become a mainstay of Ray Charles' band. Joe Johnson--also of the Deacons--went on to become a major power locally, one of the first black acts to play for white club audiences. "He was so popular that he had three or four bands that'd gig as the 'Joe Johnson Band,' and he would play a set with each," Gililland says, "traveling from club to club."
Ironically, the filler that Tiger used to cover up--or at least compensate--for the moviemaker's utter lack of skill was what got Rock It! its passage to cult status. Of the movie's 77 minutes, less than 30 involve actors actually talking or doing something to advance the plot; the rest is bands playing, often three or four songs in a row. "The music was very good, for the time," Gililland says, and he's right: Carroll was an inspired performer who--given the right breaks, of which Rock It! was definitely not one--might have rivaled Carl Perkins or even Elvis. The black acts--Preacher Smith and the Deacons, Rosco Gordon and the Red Tops--had a sharpness and professionalism that the kids could only dream about, and other acts like the Bon-Aires and the Cell Block Seven were excellent representations of their times. Rock on Film called the music "surprisingly quite good" [italics theirs].
"Nobody knew what they were trying to do," Gililland explains. "Nobody knew what rock was, and so they were looking all around for what would appeal to the kids. That's why you've got all sorts of music--Dixieland (the Cell Block Seven), rockabilly (Carroll and the Hot Rocks), doo-wop (the Bon-Aires) and straight-ahead R&B (Gordon and the Red Tops, Preacher Smith and the Deacons). They were trying to get it all in there."