SHOT ON A SHOE STRING BUDGET in the heady and hedonistic depths of early-70s New York City, The Telephone Book is a combination of Times Square sexploitation and East Village psychedelia.
Writer/director Nelson Lyon and producer Merv Bloch set out to make an ambitious independent midnight movie in the vein of Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, films which garnered an unlikely crossover success in 1969. The mainstream and the underground seemed ripe to converge at the subject of sex. Influenced by the salacious romps of writer Terry Southern and Al Goldstein’s Screw magazine, which was the avatar of high-concept hardcore porn in print publishing, Lyon came up with a script about a girl who falls in love with the world’s greatest obscene phone caller. Backers signed on for $150,000 in exchange for a percentage of the picture, but the movie never made a profit. It was panned by conventional critics and the downtown art scene snubbed it. The Telephone Book was left out on the stoop of exploitation cinema like an old copy of the Yellow Pages.
The Telephone Book lingered in obscurity for decades, only gaining recognition in the last few years, when Hello Film, a German company, saw the trailer on YouTube and immediately became interested in releasing the movie in Europe as a box set with tie-in photo book. To track down a print and secure the rights, they got in touch with producer Merv Bloch.
MERV BLOCH WENT to the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and graduated City College film school. His first job was in the movies through a family friend in the Teamsters, who secured Merv a job driving a sound truck for MGM’s location shooting of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. On the wall of Merv’s Central Park West apartment hang snapshots taken on the sly of Hitch at Grand Central Station and Cary Grant at the Plaza Hotel. “I just did my thesis paper on Hitchcock and was now standing ten feet away from him. What a thrill.”
Merv was the light man for his uncle’s nightclub on 48th and Lexington, Basin Street East. “Barbara Streisand, Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles, Benny Goodman, it was the end of the great saloon days in New York.” He soon got ad work in the creative department at Columbia Pictures and Paramount, and moved up to creative director at MGM before forming his own ad company, Rosebud Studio, Inc. “Posters, trailers, TV, radio, featurettes,” Bloch explained. “Remember featurettes?” Not DVD extras, but the little docs produced on set which ran on prime-time TV as a promo filler when the movie-of-the-week ended before its slot time. Rosebud would go on to manage the ad campaigns and artwork for 1970s hits like Paper Moon, Saturday Night Fever and Heaven Can Wait, and won industry awards for the trailers of several Woody Allen movies. Rosebud operated lucratively into the late 1990s, when the advent of digital media caught up with Rosebud’s analog, cut-and-paste aesthetic. Today, Merv lectures on the art of trailer-making and movie advertising for the New York Public Library, film studies programs, and repertory events. Merv created a short-lived WWII espionage TV actioner, Jericho (1966), which ran for 20 weeks on CBS opposite Batman on ABC. But “my work was movie advertising,” Bloch insists. “I produced one film, as seminal as it was, it went down the drain. So I never left my day job.”
Merv Bloch with Orson Welles
Merv had hired Nelson Lyon as a copywriter at Rosebud. In the office, Merv and Nelson would josh about making a movie. Profits from the ad company allowed Merv to raise some money. But they needed an idea. Merv jibed, “Let’s do the telephone book!” It was an old joke in the entertainment business, about the producer so successful he could make a hit show of the telephone book. Steven Spielberg quoted the adage at the 2012 Golden Globes. “So we started with the title.”
“Nelson was wild and profane,” remembers Merv. A regular at the Warhol Factory, Nelson was a friend of edgy downtown filmmakers including Paul Morrissey and Robert Downey, Sr., whose films Putney Swope (1969) and Chafed Elbows (1966) reflect the blue sensibilities of Borscht-Belt exploitation found in The Telephone Book. The movie dips its brush into the palate of numerous Sixties New York fringe scenes: the underground gendertwist chic of Jack Smith; the slasher soap-operas of Andy Milligan; the dirty boner comics of Mad magazine; and the incendiary routines of stand-up agitator George Carlin. Warhol Factory babettes Ondine, Ultra Violet and Geri Miller appear in the movie, while a pivotal sequence plays out as a phantasmagoric gross-out cartoon. “We didn’t want to do a mainstream movie,” says Merv, “but we also didn’t want to do a really low low-budget underground picture.” Also, “We were all into pornography at the time.”
IN 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to protect the constitutionality of “obscene” materials, where one had “the right to satisfy his intellectual and emotional needs in the privacy of his own home.” Directors who would later helm Hollywood blockbusters were making a name for themselves in sex and gore “sinema.” John G. Avildsen, who won an Oscar for Rocky, released Cry Uncle! (1971), a nudie-cutie film noir spoof, and Wes Craven, of the Scream franchise, grinded out The Last House on the Left, which according to the bible of Times Square exploitation Sleazoid Express, “set the new standard in onscreen brutality.” Obscenity was a hot issue, when movies like A Clockwork Orange (1971), Carnal Knowledge (1971) and Where’s Poppa? (1970) were slapped with an X-rating. The public perception of porno would shift in a major way in 1972, when the skin flick Deep Throat premiered to fanfare at the New Mature World Theater on West 49th Street at $5 a ticket (the equivalent of about $25 today). The movie was charged with obscenity in Manhattan Criminal Court, and the judge deemed it without “social value.” Regardless, Deep Throat was a huge hit; dirty enough for buzzards on Forty Deuce but classy enough for Silk Stocking tastemakers. Jackie O. and Lee Radzwill went to the opening night screening. The Telephone Book was “a year ahead of Deep Throat,” but one year after the first Times Square movie to depict shots of real close-up coitus, Sexual Freedom in Denmark, an early documentary by career rear-entry impresario Alex De Renzy.
The actress Genevieve Waite, who made a splash in the rude-boy sexual coming-of-age melodrama Joanna (1968), was originally cast in the lead but dropped out two weeks before the shoot at the objection of her boyfriend Papa John Philips. Diane Keaton, Sue Lyons and Jill Clayburgh auditioned but wouldn’t agree to nudity. Nelson then found “a girl from a soft drink commercial with a voice like Betty Boop.” The actress was Sarah Kennedy, whoshe immediately got the part after agreeing to take off her clothes. The fact that she was a second cousin of the Camelot Kennedys (which caused some family fury and attracted a bit of publicity) was just gravy.
PHOTOS OF THE FILM SET in Merv’s scrapbook depict roistering debauchery. For the shticky orgy scene, the girls “were hired from a talent agency that casts porno actresses.” Problems arose in the editing room, and it was decided the film must be cut with additional inserts. “It was not holding together too well a year in editing. I was in meetings with film companies on ad campaigns all day, then doing the work, then a hit of coke and going to the editing room to get this picture finished properly, I thought.”
The intercut scenes of confessional obscene phone callers were shot six months after principal photography. The original finale was “awful,” says Bloch: “It didn’t blow you away!” The filmmakers were in a jam to depict “the ultimate obscene phone call.” “How the fuck are we gonna do this?” Merv remembers asking. “We don’t have an ending for the picture!” They eventually hired gonzo cartoonist Leonard Glasser who saved the ending with a nasty flipbook of giant tongues and finger-fucking skyscrapers. The provocateur movie animator Ralph Bakshi was “reportedly upset because we beat him to an X-rated cartoon.”
STILL, THE MOVIE “never gained cache. Every market was a disaster except Los Angeles. There were lines around the block at the Vogue Theater on Hollywood Blvd.” Merv designed the film poster and crafted the trailer. “I thought it was gonna go through the roof.” Merv counted on a plug in the punk scene by Andy Warhol, who starred in a sequence later cut from the movie. “Warhol plays Intermission,” and sits in a silvery Mylar theater eating popcorn for one minute. But the scene ran too slow, and Nelson did not intend a deadpan art installation but a nerve-wracked raunch-o-rama, so they cut Warhol out. “As a result maybe he was pissed off” and distanced himself from the picture.
The morning after The Telephone Book premiered, Merv sat at the Russian Tea Room waiting for reviews to come in. At a neighboring table sat Peter Bogdanovich waiting for reviews on The Last Picture Show. While Peter B. celebrated critics’ raves, Merv despaired over lambasting reviews. “We’re doomed.” Audiences were walking out. Construction workers were tearing down the posters on the street. “We were so mind-fucked into believing it was a comedy until we screened it for an audience and nobody was laughing. I’d sit in the back of the Astor Theater and squirm in my seat.” The movie opened at the Lincoln Art on 57th Street, which, like the Astor, soon shut down. “I’d love to say I was responsible for both theaters going out of business.”
The Telephone Book is a sordid but savvy satire, tapping the early connection between communications technology and sex. To make the movie of the telephone book is to make an obscene movie. The blandest of all texts triggers an uproar over good taste. Virtual interface by rotary phone is a sick joke. The anonymity of the obscene phone call offers the thrill of intimacy without the risk of personal exposure, liberating the perversity of both the caller and answerer. The film’s obscene master-baiter, who goes by the quotidian alias Mr. John Smith, is portrayed by actor Norman Rose, a renowned voice-over artist and narrator who Merv says had the “voice of God.” Rose also had a contract as an announcer for the U.S. Army, which dropped the actor after his involvement with The Telephone Book. The filmmakers skewed the familiarity of Rose’s voice to American audiences by casting him as the ultimate obscene phone caller who schpiels like a Millbrook House guru. Sex over the phone, argues Mr. Smith in a florid, picaresque and mischievous soliloquy, is better than the real thing. “Nuns are good. They are very good listeners.” The Supreme Court had recently held that the line “between the transmission of ideas and mere entertainment is much too elusive for this Court to draw, if indeed such a line can be drawn at all.” The government “cannot constitutionally premise legislation on the desirability of controlling a person’s private thoughts.” The Telephone Book provides a broken window into those private thoughts.
Andy McCarthy blogs at The Shine Box.
The Telephone Book is playing at 92YTribeca at 7:30 on Wednesday, January 25. It is followed by an on-stage discussion with Merv Bloch.