Writing a historical fiction is like journalism, except you get to color in the details, I figured.
After taking my first weekend screenwriting class three years ago, in February (2014) completed my first feature length script. I’m a admittedly a little stir crazy as I share my baby seeking refinement.
It’s hard to tell how long the road before me is. It’s next to impossible for a Hollywood outsider to sell their script. It’s hard enough to get it read. Should I try to secure the money to produce it myself, it means many long nights juggling my play job and my newspaper job.
So it was with mixed feelings I scheduled a meeting with former Sacramento County Undersheriff Larry Stamm, someone with intimate knowledge of my subject matter and whose recollections might force a major rewrite.
“Pink,” my screenplay about the 1969 trial over all-nude dancing at the Pink Pussy Kat beer bar in Orangevale, started as a small project. My 2011 screenwriting class at Access Sacramento encouraged people to write a 10-page script for submission into it “Place Called Sacramento Film Festival.” Without a better idea, I turned to the newspaper archives about this intriguing trial. Using the newspaper stories as my guild post, I constructed a story to fill the middle, imagining the dialogue and what happened around the court dates.
I submitted the script. It was rejected.
My explanation at the time was it was too sexy for the “family friendly” contest. That may be true, but it was also true there was little character depth to the 10-minute version. Undoubtedly, that’s a tough bar for any 10-minute film. Without the constraints of a 10-minute requirement, the script quickly grew to 17 pages as I added by everything it was missing before.
Pink wasn’t a full-time obsession. I wrote and produced my short zombie comedy “Dance Step of Death” in 2012 and stayed busy with my other projects, including performing improv.
New project and ideas would manifest, but I kept returning to “Pink.” I interviewed two of the reporters who covered the trial and it grew to 27 pages. At 27 pages, the characters were really starting to take shape. I showed it to a few people, three of which urged me to develop it to feature length.
At feature length, it has the potential to make money. As as short, there is no even remote chance of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. However, getting the movie made as a full-length movie is dramatically more complicated than my happy little short.
I pressed on.
As I went along, I found myself struggling over the facts. The trial became a national story after the judge Earl Warren Jr. ruled the jury needed to see the dance to determine whether it violated community standards and included testimony from the famous San Francisco stripper Carol Doda. Despite its notoriety at the time, very little exists about it in accessible online archives. That fact is worth noting in this age where it often seems anything worth knowing has a wikipedia entry.
I found a few newspaper clippings, one radio story, and a reference to it in Doda’s wikipedia page, but there was little else. I couldn’t find the two stars of the drama -- Susanna Haines and Sheila Brandenson. The district attorney that handled it was dead, as was the the club’s owner Leonard Glancy.
In the absence of the gritty details, as the script grew from 27 pages to its current 116 page feature length form it was clear I needed to make some choices. The way I figured it, make a compelling story even it that means condensing a timeline, inventing a backstory and making a villain.
That villain is Sheriff John Misterly.
I knew some things about Misterly. It’s well documented he set out and succeeded in running the biker groups out of the county. The phrase most often associated with Misterly was “son-of-a-bitch.” While I didn’t have the specific facts, like whether he personally threatened people, it seemed in keeping with what I did know. I typed and slept on things, then typed some more. Scene by scene things fell into place, until I was happen. I sat on it a week to make sure I didn’t wake up with a new scene that had to be inserted.
On Feb. 15 I declared my script done, minus the scores of rewrites that lay in store. I set out getting the script proofread and started polishing.
Then without warning Sacramento Historical Society Member Dave Reingold contacted me about my script. He too had an interest in this bit of history for a project he working on about the history of Burlesque. The chapter on the Pink Pussy Kat trial is a big of an addendum to his work. Among his gifts was contact information for Larry Stamm, who was a detective during the Pink Pussy Kat’ legal entanglement.
It was then with excitement and trepidation that I arranged to meet Stamm. Would new information force me into a major rewrite? This effort was already my longest sustained writing project and I’m admittedly dieing for the fame and fortune that comes with a hit movie.
I’m happy to report that John Misterly in real life is just as bullying as in my based on real events fiction.
Stamm explained that just as “Big John” ran off the biker gangs, he was dead set on getting the adult clubs out of his community as well.
Stamm said officers were under standing order to make their presence felt at the adult establishments when there wasn’t something else pressing to be done. That included asking to see their alcohol license, checking patron’s ids, checking for code violations and giving people leaving a sobriety test.
“It was a time where people who were in the money saw an opportunity to come to cowboy town Sacramento and turn it into a big city,” said Stamm, of the influence of San Francisco culture and proliferation of adult clubs in the county.
Stamm didn’t have all the answers, while he was a detective and said he’d been there 10 to 20 times, he was not on the unit tasked with shutting it and the others down. I asked whether there was any history between Big John and Leonard Glancy, the owner.
“If there was any conversation, it was Misterly telling him to get the hell out of our community,” Stamm said.
He did nice colorful details that do come with working for the man. He mentioned it practice of chewing on cigars, his driving a big black Chrysler, and his Martini lunches.
But more than the details he offered a better understanding of Big John’s motivation and drive. I went away knowing the more fine tuning of the character is in store, but thanks to Stamm Big John will be richer fuller, more contextualized villain.