Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Once Upon a the Hot Summer

A preface: before I even mention the name of the person whose life experience will be discussed in this essay, I can hear an army of reply guys assembling, ready to volley several “Well, actually...” disputations to the details herein. As a historian, one should be capable of sussing out the messy nuances that binary thinking cannot accommodate, thus I’ve determined which testimonies in the public record can be taken as trustworthy, and which need to be dismissed. As the late Robert Evans pithily said, “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. And nobody is lying.”

In several interviews given to coincide with the release of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD in 2019, writer/director Quentin Tarantino frequently expounded on general topics that influenced the movie – actors, seminal movies, historical events – but also stressed his own personal relationship to its setting of Los Angeles in the summer of 1969, when he was six years old, and how that perspective would impact the production. In an extended chat with Kim Morgan, he stated the following:

[The] jumping-off point was going to be my memory – as a six-year old sitting in the passenger seat of my stepfather’s Karmann Ghia. And even that shot, that kind of looks up at Cliff as he drives by the Earl Scheib, and all those signs, that’s pretty much my perspective, being a little kid…as a little kid – and probably now too, but especially as a little kid – you see what you want to see. You throw the things you don’t care about out of focus and you throw sharp focus on the things you care about – so… I’m looking out the window and see Los Angeles out in front of me and I’m being more selective about what I’m looking at...And so, in doing a memory piece, I create that landscape.

Tarantino details to Morgan that the films that most shaped his vision were Paul Mazursky’s BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE, his follow-up ALEX IN WONDERLAND, and Frank Perry’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, and as such, these were what he showed the cast in preparation of shooting. Several other titles occasionally would be name checked for providing individual bits of color to the effort as well. However, there is another film, previously cited by the director in the past as a particular favorite of its genre, which has never been mentioned in conjunction with OUATIH, yet, in its own way, carries very striking parallels to the memory mandate lain out before, especially in how its crucial architect (if not its actual captain) chose to memorialize a place and a moment of history…

For roughly one week in late July, 1967, Detroit was engulfed in violence that began with what would have been an ordinary shakedown raid on a black-owned after-hours bar, which led to multiple instances of confrontations with protesters and looting, an excessive and militarized response by government authorities, a horrifying set of murders at the Algiers Hotel committed by police under questionable justification, along with a child killed in her family’s apartment by sniper fire, and federal troops occupying the city by orders of the Governor and the President. When it was declared over, 43 people were dead, 1,189 had been injured, police arrested 7,200 citizens, and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

Gail Parmentier was 12 years old and safely ensconced an hour northeast in Port Huron, living in a conservative Catholic household with a father serving as the county’s superintendent of schools, and four stereotypical jock brothers, when these events were taking place in Detroit. According to the 2010 census, the city was still an 84.0% White population, and logic dictates it would have been even higher back then. But growing up in a city that, in its origin, had been Ojibwa territory until they were forcibly removed by the United States government, and the only site in Michigan where, in 1889, an African-American was lynched, she was not insulated from a legacy of racist brutality. And something about those events in Detroit heavily impacted the adolescent, staying in her consciousness as she otherwise went about joining the spirit squad and the student council in her teens.

As she recounted to AP writer Harry Atkins in 1976, Parmentier’s initially staid trajectory of high school to college to marriage veered off track significantly in 1974 when, during her freshman year at Western Michigan University, she made her first contact with the adult film world. “I had a girlfriend who was dating a guy who managed an adult theatre in Kalamazoo. He was supposed to have had [Cyndee Summers] on hand to sign autographs one day. Well, [she] didn’t show, and he asked us if we’d fill in and fake it – pretend we were the girls in the porn film. We really needed the money, so we said we’d do it.” The signing was a relative success, and it put her into the orbit of the theatre’s owner, Harry Mohney, the state’s most powerful provider of adult entertainment. 

Before he met Gail Parmentier, Harry Mohney had already been a teen runaway, spent a year in reform school after pleading guilty to breaking and entering, married, and kicked around several jobs before finding his niche in operating theatres, drive-ins, and bookstores devoted to erotic entertainment, beginning with one in Saginaw in 1966, to running over 100 locations in 10 states by 1973. Mohney was beginning to contemplate direct involvement in the films that would play his nationwide circuit; the first credit affirmatively tied to him as executive producer (under the alias “Harry Dracma”) was DEVIL’S ECSTASY, a Los Angeles-based project originally initiated as a straight horror film in 1972 under the title SABBAT, but reformatted into a porn film before its release in 1976. Ironically, it starred Cyndee Summers, the actress Parmentier was asked to impersonate in her first job for him. Upon meeting this co-ed pretender in 1974, Mohney was quickly smitten with the 18 year-old, and in short order, courted her, left his wife, made her his longtime companion, and coaxed her to transfer to Michigan State in Lansing, where she was installed as a manager at his Cinema X theatre, one of several he owned. Her whimsical impersonation of Summers would be the first of several instances where she would be providing a cover story for her new boyfriend. 

A year later, tiring of grueling negotiations over booking terms with outside producers, Mohney was ready to proceed with making his own film. He had already optioned a 1972 pulp novel, BLACK ABDUCTOR, by pseudonymous author Harrison James (later revealed to be science fiction writer James Rusk Jr.), a lurid potboiler about an heiress kidnapped by Black radicals that so uncannily predicted several details of the Patty Hearst/SLA affair in 1974 (beginning with the main character being named Patricia), the FBI tracked down and interrogated the author thinking he’d been involved in the case. However, Mohney did not particularly care for the story, and recruited an acquaintance using the alias “T. James Write” to concoct a new screenplay using the same premise of a girl abducted by a gang without the plot points of the novel. There would ultimately be an official film adaptation of BLACK ABDUCTOR made around the same time, under the title ABDUCTION, directed by Joseph Zito, who would later make FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER and INVASION U.S.A., and shot by João Fernandes, who had previously operated camera on two of the most famous adult films of all time, DEEP THROAT and THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES.

Parmentier, now using the professional name Gail Palmer, had been present for all of Mohney’s activity, and when his project was assembled, she reached back into her teenage experience to make a narrative contribution that would significantly distance it from the Patty Hearst allusions, and construct it into something much more personal. “I wrote HOT SUMMER [IN THE CITY] when I was in high school. It was a real heavy story which I was impelled to write after the Detroit race riots. That was in 1967. I added the sex later, much later,” she told Charles Faber in an interview for The Advocate on March 22, 1979. After adding her material to the existing T. James Write screenplay, Palmer then made his plan viable by using her MSU student status to borrow the school’s 16mm equipment for shooting, and by recruiting amateur striptease performers from live shows she supervised at Cinema X for the cast, along with non-professionals from her college who were also interested in acting. “The students thought I was kidding, but I convinced them they could make $200 a day. They changed their names, every one of them, so their parents wouldn’t find out. My girlfriend, who was my roommate, was the star; she used the name Lisa Baker. The student body was liberal, and most came to see the film. And they were curious to see if they knew any of the actors. HOT SUMMER had to cause a lot of excitement; it was the first porno film made in Michigan.” Mohney supplied a holiday cottage he owned in Kalkaska as the primary location, and the project was shot over the summer of 1975.

HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY depicts the odyssey of Debbie, a suburban girl about to marry, over two unspecified days in July 1967, before the Detroit riots commence. Upon returning from an engagement party (and refusing to have premarital sex with her betrothed), she is horrified to find her mother in a three-way with her fiancée’s father and another male friend. And shortly after fleeing her home, she is abducted by Duke, an ostensible Black agitator, and his three friends. After an initial violation in their car, she is taken to an isolated cabin, where the men are awaiting a meeting with “The Man,” and is subjected to more humiliations, though Duke frequently attempts to intervene in his gang’s desire to take advantage of her. When the white criminal fixer arrives the following day, with Duke’s previous girlfriend Jody in tow, he pays the gang $20,000 to create a distraction that is intended to draw police and fire departments to the scene, who in turn will be fired upon by hired snipers, with the ensuing escalation of chaos intended to allow local merchants to commit insurance fraud under pretense of riot damage. In the hours before the gang is to initiate the uprising, the tensions fostered by Debbie’s presence will divide the gang, leading to personal violence before the political violence can take place.

When their production was ready for release in the Bicentennial summer of 1976, not only did Mohney create false details for the onscreen credits, he also crafted one huge one for the press. In an article in Macleans published in May that year, Mohney had been nicknamed as one of “The Shy Pornographers” because of his constant avoidance of the limelight, as police trying to shut down adult entertainment desperately wanted to connect him to the product but never could. However, he was already being prosecuted in other cities: he was held liable by a Kentucky court for playing DEEP THROAT at his Covington Cinema X location at the time. So it was certainly in his best interests to stay in the shadows. Thus, a charm offensive was launched where he elevated Palmer, a likeable female, as the overall author of merit, on this film and more to follow, though some industry-savvy people surely saw the directorial credit for “The Hare” and deduced it was Harry Mohney’s alias, since “Hare” was short for Harry, and he owned the shadow production company, Imperial Films. For several personal appearances, print and TV interviews, and cross-promotions, she was presented as the woman behind The Hare, which certainly carries ironic truth. Longtime adult director Bob Chinn, who was on the camera crew of the subsequent films credited to Palmer, described the arrangement in his memoir THE OTHER SIDE OF PARADISE, VOL. 2:

Their front person for company was Harry’s girlfriend at the time, an attractive and bright young lady named Gail Palmer, who had been credited as the director of a film they had made in Michigan [as] well as two of their subsequent features THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF CANDY and CANDY GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. But the true credit for the direction of these films should probably go to Harry...the powers-that-be [firmly] believed that a sexy, attractive female filmmaker and producer would [bring] in a larger audience to their films and I found that I couldn’t fault their reasoning one bit so I cheerfully decided to go along with it...Our deal stipulated that Gail Palmer would be credited as the producer and, if they chose, as the director on all of the films that I did for [them]. It was an arrangement that sounded fine since credits on these films really didn’t mean all that much to me.

Quentin Tarantino’s fandom of HSITC became public knowledge shortly after a semi-clandestine screening during his 6th programming block at the original Austin, Texas Alamo Drafthouse on September 15, 2005; due to local blue laws, the film title was not advertised, and for legal purposes, was presented as a four-walled event by the Austin Film Society and not the theatre itself. A pseudonymous audience member in attendance wrote, “In his intro, QT talked about how he really didn't like porn at all. He got a job at the Pussycat theater when he was 16 and was an usher there for some time, not to mention his years at a video store putting him in constant contact with the stuff...He said he was such a non-fan that he couldn't even remember the few he ever saw which he didn't think were bad, which is really saying something because over the course of the week we've heard him remember the name of pretty much every movie that's ever existed and become obscure. BUT, he says, the box art of HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY finally won him over one night and the movie quickly became his by-far favorite [adult film].” 

In an essay for the Literary Hub offshoot website CrimeReads, writer Olivia Rutigliano observed:

[In] ONCE UPON A TIME, “childhood” is a deliberate theme. The film begins with an evocation of an audience of children, featuring an early-60s interview on the Bounty Law ranch set, with Rick and Cliff explaining how stunts work...The film’s two scariest, most ominous moments, ultimately reveal that this era’s entertainment, and corresponding childhood innocence, is effectively gone. The counterculture movement—which, for this film’s purpose, has turned teenagers into monsters and murderers—has fully overtaken the culture. Cliff goes to Spahn Movie Ranch (brought there by a hippie who insists that she is not a minor and can therefore have sex with him, though he won’t listen—this alternate Hollywood will not harm a child). Spahn Ranch is the defunct set where he and Rick used to film Bounty Law, but Cliff discovers it’s been taken over by the Manson family commune—a horde of squalid, unwashed adolescents, bedraggled and pretending to be self-sufficient in this sinister desert Neverland that was once a dream-factory...When the Manson family members pull up in their rattling old car to Cielo Drive to commit murder at the behest of Charles Manson, they are stopped in their tracks by Rick Dalton, himself...Remembering how much they used to love his seems like they might climb out of their hypnotic detestation...But one of the young women doesn’t remember [his show], and she directs them back to the dark task at hand, with an anecdote about how they have been poisoned by this generation of television. “Let’s kill the people who taught us to kill,” she says...The conflict is a literalization of the culture war—with the counterculture actually turning against the mainstream. 

Thus, while Tarantino as an adult surely has a substantially nuanced understanding of the late ‘60s counterculture, it is easy to speculate how, as a child, witnessing this conflict without this context, while being presented the last vestiges of square-jawed heroism in the popular media, the battles of the Generation Gap looked frightening. After all, the cops, the cowboys, the Army men, they were the good guys, right? They look like all the dads I know. Why were all these people in the weird clothes angry at them?

In spiritual tandem, befitting an idea that was conceived in adolescence, and coming from someone who likely grew up not having any significant exposure to Black people in her formative years, while being raised by conservative Catholic parents who probably meant well but likely made disparaging remarks about minorities or told racist jokes or warned her not to go to certain parts of town where “dangerous” people congregated, Palmer’s emotional ingredients in the HSITC storyline help make the film feel appropriately like the kind of hyperbolic nightmare fantasy a sheltered young white girl living in a cultural bubble might conjure up after seeing the riots on TV or in the newspaper. At one point, during her captivity and abuse, she bleats, “I’ve tried to help...I marched and everything,” desperate to understand why these Black men seem to have a personal vendetta against her, as she believes has spent her formative years being a good, wholesome person. In further connectivity, Duke's gang exhibits the same sort of blind and almost listless groupthink of the Manson acolytes at the Spahn ranch, engaging in behavior explicitly forbidden when their leader Duke is around in the same way the Mansonites steal a look at television when Charlie is away.

While the movie does not take the enormous liberties with the history of July 1967 that OUATIH employs with August 9th, 1969, it does engage in a certain amount of fancy with those events. When the gang arrive at the cabin, idle conversation conveys that it is a Wednesday night, and that their planned uprising is to take place on Friday, which would put it ahead of when it actually arose, in the morning hours of Sunday, July 23rd. Some viewers may be confused when characters talk about “last summer’s war,” which is referencing the lesser-remembered “Kercheval Incident” of August 11, 1966, when a group at the corner of Kercheval and Pennsylvania refused a police order to disperse, leading to three days of rioting. “The Man” that employs Duke and his gang describes for them how they are to create a distraction at the corner of Woodward and Clairmount. There’s no documentation that any agent provocateurs were involved with any incidents during the week of riots. A night spot called the Clair Wood Bar had stood at that intersection, but that was not the after-hours bar raided by the police, which was a block away at Clairmount and 12th St. Ultimately, Debbie's presence is not intended to alter any of the events that will take place during that intense week of clashes; instead it sets her up as a Cassandra to them, her blank demeanor at film’s end suggesting she knows that these men who snatched her in a fit of pique will not survive this incident, and her personal feeling of bleak revelation is going to be the reaction for thousands more as it unfolds in real history.

A particularly piercing feature of HSITC that has made it stand apart from other adult movies, and provides it uncanny kinship with OUATIH, is its prominent use of Top 40 hits of the 1960s, bracketed by what appear to be actual d.j. introductions and back-announcements by Steve Hunter, Mike Rivers, and other personalities from Detroit/Windsor radio station CKLW 800 AM, in its heyday referred to as "The blackest white station in America." Besides the expectedly jarring sensation of hearing recognizable songs underscoring sexually explicit material, there are some deep cut tracks in play – The Five Americans’ “Zip Code” and Martha and the Vandellas “Love Bug Leave Me Alone”- that were regional more than national favorites, and the diegetic placements are often used for mordant commentary - “Light My Fire” plays as Debbie rebuffs her fiancee’s advances, “Everlasting Love” is heard while she is experiencing the exact opposite of such a thing, and in a juxtaposition too grim to not be intentional, as she is being whipped with a belt, a d.j. declares, “The hits just keep on comin’!” When “The Man” appears in the second half and the radio stays off, the music shifts to non-diegetic instrumental cues, many of which appear to also be lifted from mainstream films – one of them is Quincy Jones’ main titles theme for the 1970 Peter Yates drama JOHN AND MARY. While this music supervision was never addressed in any press for HSITC, Tarantino offers a fair equivalent insight about how these choices can be made in his Kim Morgan interview for OUATIH, particularly apropos since both KHJ and CKLW used the “Boss Radio” format:

But one of the things that was interesting to me in listening to the KHJ recordings was the fact that KHJ had a sound, the way the 80s KROQ had a sound, and then other radio stations tried to buy that sound, they tried to take that format and do it in other cities...their Top 40 wasn’t just exactly based on Billboard. It was a mixture of Billboard, it was a mixture of what people called up and would request, it was a mixture of what the DJs liked, and just a mixture of what they thought was good for the KHJ sound...And I realized there’s a whole lot of songs [like] the Buchanan Brothers’ “Son of a Lovin’ Man” – it didn’t go national, but it did really well in Los Angeles and probably a few other markets...I wanted to play [The Box Tops’] “Sweet Cream Ladies” so much but the only place that I figured it could work – but it’s just too obvious – is when the Manson girls walk in front of their windshield. OK, but I might as well be playing “Baby Elephant Walk” at that point – I don’t like songs being on the money.

Adding one more bit of serendipity between the two films is that Mohney commissioned an expanded novelization of the final HSITC screenplay (again credited to “The Hare,” authorship currently unknown but probably “T. James Write” as well), which was “on sale at bookstores everywhere” concurrently with the film’s release, and Tarantino, spurred by his own love of the characters and by fan speculations during OUATIH’s first run, wrote an expanded novelization of his screenplay, just published in this summer of 2021. Granted, plenty of movies of all types have novelizations, but it is generally rare to have the actual creators of those films actively taking a role in the making of what would generally have been considered a mere supplementary marketing product.

There has not been any discussion or other overt indication by Tarantino in any of the press before or after the release of OUATIH that he included HSITC among the dozens of films and other cultural totems that influenced his writing of the screenplay or his execution of the finished feature. However, the surprising number of parallels between the two films -- their inspiration from childhood memory of sociopolitical turmoil, their extrapolation of that naiveté into their stories, their authors unusual early introduction to the adult entertainment business, the use of period music and radio airchecks as dramatic counterpoint, some rewriting of the past, and the controversial reception of those films after their release -- nonetheless makes for one of the unlikeliest and fascinating instances of innovative minds thinking alike.

In the benefit of hindsight, since before the Cyndee Summers stunt and meeting Harry Mohney, as Gail Palmer told a Courier-Journal reporter in 1978, “I’d never had any sexual experiences or anything,” HSITC further functions as a metaphor for the disputed creator's complicated feelings about becoming intimate with this older, worldlier man with questionable ethics, with the shifting behavior of Duke from aggressor to protector standing in for her mentor and lover. Much like Debbie's shock and disgust at the hypocrisy of her upbringing, where her mother is practicing a “do as I say not as I do” stance about sexual behavior, Palmer was a metaphorical babe in the woods when she was swept up into his world, albeit more willingly than her onscreen surrogate. In Palmer’s early interviews, she expounds about her fascination with adult movies and recognition of what benefits others draw from them, while admitting to not enjoying the majority of them herself, and to an extent, Debbie’s frightening initiation into the rough and callous attitudes of her captors can be read as a creative reinterpretation of her real-life discoveries in Mohney's enterprise. And while they were happily bonded during filming and for several years after, her early screenplay eerily predicts the bleak end of that relationship: much like the end of the film, where Duke leaves Debbie behind to live an uncertain future, Palmer and Mohney acrimoniously split in 1984, with Palmer losing all career momentum, and at one point applying for welfare while her name was still being used in advertising as a sales point.

The Palmer/Mohney union was not only a mixed blessing on a personal level, but has forever complicated her legacy in the years since its dissolution, with the turning point being the moment when, as a witness for the IRS against her estranged partner in his trial for tax fraud (and a concurrent palimony case seeking half the revenue earned from the projects they did together), she testified under oath that she did not direct the movies that, for years in the press, she had been credited with, including HSITC. (Let the record show she was never asked about her writing contributions.) From this, many, including her would-be ghostwriter, have used this to dismiss her as nothing more than an empty vessel front for her rich boyfriend. A more nuanced assessment would be that during their relationship, Mohney wanted to make more films, Palmer came up with stories for them, and people such as Bob Chinn were brought in to do the actual blocking of actors and shot plotting. Mohney likely encouraged Palmer to call herself the director not just for promotional window dressing, but also to envelope his young and impressionable paramour into co-dependency, The subterfuge would not just help him keep a low profile, but by alternately financing her ventures and boosting her ego, while insuring that as she’d never actually done an according-to-Hoyle directing job, she’d be unprepared to work independent of him, the arrangement would also keep her bound to him. Palmer detailed for Gannett Newspapers in 1990 that, “Officially [Harry] was a non-person. He never wanted his name on anything – no credit cards, no bank accounts...That’s why I never thought seriously about getting paid for the movies. It would entail agreements, paperwork. I knew how he was about records.”   

In the specific circumstances of determining who did what on HSITC...Palmer talks in enough detail about the genesis of the movie on several occasions, in different ways, that one can reason that this is not data she was “coached” on by anyone. Moreover, “T. James White” and Palmer would collaborate on the screenplay for CANDY GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, thus it is a plausible scenario that the final shooting script for HSITC was a joint effort as well. In the 1990 Gannett interview, it is mentioned that a local TV cameraman was brought onto the production to handle the film stock, so the cinematographer hiding as “R. Leonard Hughes a.s.p.” is probably responsible for the staging. Palmer’s short-lived second career as a rock-n-roll performer, with documented performances with the band “Fourplay,” suggests that she is significantly responsible for the song choices and their placement in the film; Mohney had creative goals, but would have been more practical business-minded than to hijack major label pop songs, that kind of brazen moxie is akin to a younger person like his girlfriend. Again, rather than adhere to an all-or-nothing ethos in the matter of Gail Palmer, a “little of column A, little of column B” conclusion in determining how much can be rightfully assigned to her is the best resolution.

While both Gail Palmer and Harry Mohney, and possibly most of the anonymous individuals who participated in the making of HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY, are still alive, none of them have come forward to talk at length about the film since Mohney’s four year imprisonment for tax fraud, and Palmer’s abandoned attempts at publishing an autobiography. And unlike the Detroit riots of 1967 or the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, the true story may never be known for sure.

What is known and verifiable is that two children of the late ‘60s, each unable to fully grasp the magnitude of the events they witnessed in their youth, went on to work in adult theatres in the last years of their adolescence, wrote stories based on those experiences, integrated the songs and radio personalities of that time into those tales, played with the facts for dramatic effect, and saw them turned into impactful films (and books) that will continue to be hotly debated years after their release.

(Huge thanks to Joe Rubin, Martin Brooks, and Ashley West for providing valuable insider information on the production history and personal details of the talent involved with HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY.)


  1. Loved your very well written article! I'm confused as to the identity of the actress Lisa Baker in HSITC. I've read from multiple, reputable sources, that she is in fact the 1967 Playboy Playmate of the Year, Lisa Baker. Yet that doesn't seem consistent with Gail Palmer's claim that the name was a false one provided by her college roommate. It also doesn't make sense that the advertising of the movie doesn't promote their leading character as a Playmate of the Year. Yet IMDb claims the actress Lisa Baker has the same date of birth as the Playmate Lisa Baker. Love to know if you have any knowledge or thoughts on this?- An HSITC fan

    1. I am inclined to believe that it is not the 1967 Playboy Playmate because as you point out, a salesman like Harry Mohney would have pushed that to the hilt. Since there's virtually no other information about Palmer's ersatz Baker beyond her vague testimony, that is probably why sources like the IMDb and others have not drawn the distinction between the two women.