I once caught a few minutes of a 40s-era Bowery Boys film on cable. It’s no surprise that I can’t remember the title. After about five minutes of humor that was clearly set in a different universe than my twenty-year-old head, I reached for the remote.
Today, I’ve finally caught up with Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters, after years of viewing-but-not-giving-in to Sinister Cinema’s VHS release. So what’s the connection? Lemon Grove Kids is Steckler’s homemade homage to Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and the rest of the Bowery Boys gang. I still don’t get the Bowery Boys’ sense of humor and that doesn’t bother me. As for the Lemon Grove Kids? It’s random, bizarre genius.
Initially conceived as a full-length feature, Lemon Grove Kids was turned into a short lived series of half-hour episodes (four total, but the final short was never finished) that hit screens on Saturday morning kiddie matinees. This film collects the three finished episodes (The Lemon Grove Kids, The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady from Outer Space, and The Lemon Grove Kids Go Hollywood!) and splices them together, complete with knock-out individual opening and closing titles. Enough with the backstory. It’s time to let loose and marvel.
Gopher (Cash Flagg aka Ray Dennis Steckler) and Slug lead a ragtag group of Hollywood kids (played by both real kids and adults acting like kids) through a series of caffeine-fueled adventures, tinged with dimestore monsters, French saboteurs, grasshopper aliens, and a cartoon sound effects LP. Along the way, we meet the villainous Duke Mazaratti, glistening movie star Cee Bee Beaumont (Steckler’s then-wife Carolyn Brandt), and the psychic, Swamy Marvin. As the Lemon Grovers get into mischief (a foot race against the West Lemon Grove Kids, outwitting monsters, and foiling gangsters, respectively), Steckler bombards the screen with rapid edits and a “living cartoon” sense of invincibility. No one gets hurt, despite the completely fantastic situations. There’s even a “black out” section, featuring lightning and a stalking mummy — the cue for some hired local schlub to stalk the theater aisles with a cheap monster mask.
Don’t try looking for parallels to other films. Aside from the intended Bowery Boys influence, this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Steckler manages to combine a manic pace with effective editing and truly eccentric characters. It’s one hundred different diverging ideas, all corralled into a time bomb of energy. There’s shades of Ray’s nutty Rat Pfink A Boo Boo from 1966, but even that schizo gem wasn’t this far gone. Lemon Grove is an impossible melding of Mad Magazine, Famous Monsters, and Inspector Clouseau — all on a 16mm budget in Steckler’s California neighborhood. Although the shorts are aimed at kids, the weird subject matter defies that point. It’s like a beat-era Sid & Marty Krofft show, but a million times cooler. The third episode seemed to take a dip with original ideas and a lack of fantastic elements, but that’s a minor bump. I mean, where else can you see director Coleman Francis (Beast of Yucca Flats) and Bob Burns (professional ape-man and monster historian) strut their stuff against Rat Pfink? In color? Ready, steady, GO!
Lemon Grove Kids is not only a testament to the effectiveness of creative discount filmmaking, but a living Polaroid of the times in which it was produced. It’s also a ton of fun. A tip of the hat to you, Mr. Steckler. Truly unique films like this one make the world a much better place.