Last of the Freaks: The Carl Franzoni Story as told to John Trubee
In 1973 I bought the Freak Out! double LP by the Mothers of Invention at a little record shop on Palmer Square in my hometown, Princeton, NJ. Its first song, "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," was written for someone named Carl Orestes Franzoni who, according to Zappa’s liner notes, "is freaky down to his toe nails. Someday he will live next door to you and your lawn will die." The lyrics decried America’s culture of mindless conformity and consumerism, with lines like:
"Mister America walk on by your schools that do not teach
Mister America walk on by the minds that won’t be reached
Mister America try to hide the emptiness that’s you inside
When once you find the way you lied
And all the corny tricks you tried
Will not forestall the rising tide of HUNGRY FREAKS, DADDY!"
This song became the anthem of my alienated and disenfranchised youth. I carried its lyrics around in my head for years.
Across the continent and nearly three decades later, I wandered across the campus at Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, CA. It was May 2001. I headed into the student lounge to check out an art exhibit and noticed a strange-looking older man sitting on a sofa. He had short pants, leather vest, a leather hat festooned with various buttons, tattoos covering his arms and other exposed flesh, assorted wrist bracelets, beaded necklaces, and a presence that screamed that he had seen and done much in his life. One aging earth mother hippie-type woman was introducing him to another, asking "And have you met my friend Carl Franzoni?" My ears pricked up. A little later I walked over and introduced myself to Mr. Franzoni and it turned out that he was indeed the one for whom "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" was written. I was privileged to get better acquainted with Carl after that. He’s 68 and today lives in Santa Rosa. His has been a colorful life-a young hood from Cincinnati who reformed, relocated to San Francisco in the late ’50s, then gravitated to LA and, with Vito Paulekas, was a dancer/scenester/catalyst in the explosion of music, psychedelia, and mayhem on the Sunset Strip in the mid 1960s. Franzoni toured as a dancer with the Byrds and the Mothers of Invention in both bands’ early days.
I interviewed Franzoni at his artifact-strewn apartment on Sunday evening, November 17th, 2002.
SCRAM: I’d like to start when you first arrived in LA and were involved in a mail order business.
CARL: My first job was Cecelia Desteffano of Hollywood. My partner was a guy named Joe. He brought me to Hollywood. There was a man I worked for in Menlo Park/Redwood City up in the Bay Area. They said to me, "Do you wanna get into a business?" I had a girlfriend that I met in a twist club, Cecelia. She had three children and a husband and lived in Menlo Park. She was tired because her husband was just a straight guy and there was no "oomph!" in her life. She was a really good-looking woman, very Italian-looking. Well, I had a lot of girlfriends in that twist place-the Peppermint Lounge in Redwood City. Cecelia came in there one night, so I said, "Why don’t you come over to my place sometime?" My brother John and I were home and she knocked on the door and I said to John, "Take a walk." I got her in the bedroom and I’m taking her apart. Now she was really the old style woman: she wore a girdle, panties, her girdle held up her stockings, high heeled shoes, always made up really well like a secretary-and she was just a homemaker. So I took her apart. What I mean by that was that in order to fuck her I had to go through the girdle and go through the panties-but I got her. And she got off like she had never gotten off. Three kids and she’d never gotten off with this guy. She was married for twelve years with him. I had other girlfriends, but she wasn’t gonna let me alone. And I like her a lot. I have an Italian thing anyway. If a woman’s Italian… So my friend Joe said, ‘"My mother has got a thing for her tits. If you come and talk to her you’ll see that my mother who’s 56 or 57 has got tits like Marilyn Monroe’s."
SCRAM: Was this about 1960?
CARL: No, this was ’61 or ’62. I went and met his mother. She was in her yard. I remember there was a low picket fence and she came out and she was watering or something. And I’m looking at this woman and I’m thinking, "How in the hell did she get tits like that?"
SCRAM: Were they big, or pointy, or what?
CARL: They were like a young woman’s breasts. So I asked Joe, "How did this happen?" He says, " She sent to Milan, because she heard there was a bust-developer there that works." We sent for one. The mail order house sent back a bell jar with a tube and an atomizer. Very simple idea. Today if it was used it would ruin the business of breast implants. I used it on my own chest and it blew up into the bell jar. All you have to do is do ten or fifteen minutes with this bell jar daily, and it’ll work! It stretches your tissues and it’s like a super exercise.
SCRAM: The blood comes in and fills up the tissues?
CARL: And you’re amazed by it. Then we got another thing from that idea and it was for the penis- the penis pump. But it never worked like the other did. So Cecelia Desteffano sells her house because she wants to come to Hollywood with me, and she fronts the business. We all moved to LA, including Cecelia and her daughter. The two boys stayed with her husband. My partner’s name was Scallacci, Joe Scallacci-the same name as the famous murderer Scallacci. Probably from the same family. I think they were Sicilian.
SCRAM: Where was your mail order business office?
CARL: My office was on Melrose Avenue. Not the Melrose Avenue where all the shit’s going on right now. Vito did one of his first things there and the band Love came out of Melrose Avenue. It was west of Fairfax, not east of Fairfax on Melrose.
SCRAM: Were the sales of penis pumps very good?
CARL: Well, yes. The bust developer was very successful, but we could never find enough names [sales leads from mail order lists]. I think there was one other company that had the breast pump, but they didn’t know how to advertise it like we did. What we did was mail a pink folder to women. It looked very personal. We used Cecelia’s picture. She was very voluptuous, good-looking, very Italian-looking girl, like somebody from Cleveland. Black raven hair and big brown eyes. I had these partners, but Cecelia put up the money. She had her money from her divorce so she could afford a nice apartment for us right off of Third Street, then she moved to south off Sepulveda with a 4-bedroom apartment. She had her girlfriend with her, who Joe liked, so it was like we were a foursome. One day I’m with Joe and we’re having lunch on Sunset Boulevard and we go to this place called Ben Frank’s. It’s still there, a modernistic-looking place. We’re sitting there and there’s three hippie kind of girls-but there’s not hippies yet. We’re businessmen and they’re bohemians. Now I had been in North Beach with the beatniks before I went to LA, so maybe these were beatnik women. They wore crazy clothes, not like the usual, and they way that they painted themselves was very different. So we’re having lunch, talking, and I’m looking at this girl and she’s small and has black hair and brown eyes-she’s Italian. I know it, okay? So I said to Joe-he knows, he’s Italian himself-"let’s go over before we go and talk to them." I said, "Listen, I’m looking at you from across the room and I’d like to speak to you or get involved with you somehow. Is that possible?" And she said, "Yes! I’m a painter and I’m painting at Vito’s studio, he’s my mentor. Would you come and see my paintings and I’ll introduce you to my friend Vito?" And as I’m walking away she said "And bring your friend." Her name was Mary Mancini. Joe and I decided to go there.
SCRAM: Where was Vito’s studio?
CARL: 303 North Laurel, at Beverly. Eastman’s Gym is upstairs. It’s a funky dress shop with sculptures in the windows. We go in and then make a sharp right and see a fluorescent light in the basement. We go down and it’s like no place you’ve ever been. It’s like if you opened a Mayan tomb, with little things painted all over the walls. Then you see half-done sculpture, and there are two painters sitting there. One of them is this woman Mary Mancini. She was a schoolteacher — but they couldn’t let her teach, because the girls at the Catholic school where she worked liked her too much and she liked them. She had lesbianism going within her world and she was also a whore. I was interested in her painting and I bought the first one I saw there. I paid $350 for it. I was trying to get in her pants, true, but after a while that wasn’t the object because I saw her predicament. I took her into our business. I told the other guys about her and they made her their secretary. She found me a secretary that was very Catholic and I told her that if I had a secretary I was gonna fuck her. So she’d better get ready. The one she got was a Chicano girl and she couldn’t stand me-so I said "Mary, I’ve got to get another secretary, and I don’t want her to be upset with me because I’m interested in her and she’s not." So she went off got me another secretary who I married. Cecelia Desteffano was gone by now.
SCRAM: What happened to her?
CARL: She tried to commit suicide because I wouldn’t pay attention to her anymore. I tried to bring her into Vito’s scene and get her to understand my life was changing. I wasn’t a dancer yet, but I was going to dance classes, and I was finding that thing with a group of people.
SCRAM: Were you dancing at Vito’s studio?
CARL: Well, no. He had time in the Coronet Theater on La Cienega Boulevard, and upstairs there was dance studio. People that were in West Side Story used the facility. The main guy dancer from that film, we would comp off of each other. He would see what we were doing and we’d see what he was doing. Both of the classes were really good. We’d watch each other for a while, but you can’t stay in a dance class very long. They want you to get out. They don’t want you to steal from them. Anyway, I’m doing this stuff and Cecelia doesn’t want to go along with it. She wants me to be a straight businessman. To me it was boring because I was seeing and finding other things. La Dolce Vita was in theatrical release at the time, all those Swedish movies, and Fellini. If you saw those movies, it would change your life. Plus, all the artists that were coming to Vito’s place: Richard Avedon, Bert Schoenberg (who had done paintings on Sunset Boulevard), Valerie Porter, who was to became my girlfriend later. It was becoming a grand scene. Before I showed up Vito had a lot of movie stars that would come there and sculpt. Joe De Santis and Jonathan Winters and Mickey Rooney. Vito would hang out with them. Once in a while I’ll see these guys on TV. The movie Around the World in 80 Days has most of these people that Vito knew at this time. Anyway, Cecelia couldn’t make the grade. I get a phone call and she’s in the hospital from a suicide attempt. I go to the hospital and I look at her and I go "Listen girl, lemme tell you something. You got three kids. You don’t have to fuckin’ kill yourself for me. What the fuck am I? Don’t think that you have to do anything like that? Why are you ending your life? You’re a beautiful woman!" I kind of yelled at her. "It’s just the end of a thing. We can’t make it. You’re not interested in what I’m interested in." So it was cool. She had given me a brand new MG two-seater sports car, and I gave it back to her. I said, "I can’t accept this car from you because our love affair is over."
SCRAM: You told me that when you first met Vito and his crew you’d just go to watch them dance, but you just hung back and didn’t dance for the first six months?
CARL: Yeah, for about three to six months I just went with them to different places. We went to a rock ‘n’roll place on Fairfax Avenue and I would just kinda peek in, but I wasn’t ready to dance yet. Then we switched places to [the Purple Onion on] Sunset Boulevard where Bert Schoenberg had that billboard outside, that painting of a sunburst or whatever the hell it was. He was really famous in Hollywood at the time. Everybody wanted to own a Bert Schoenberg painting. It was a very funky place, right across the street from Ralph’s on Sunset Boulevard near La Brea. I started dancing in there; I just let it go. Also my answering service was near there-yeah, everybody had to have an answering service…
SCRAM: That’s something from a bygone era. Now everyone has answering machines or digital voicemail. How weird.
CARL: Yeah, it cost you a fortune.
SCRAM: When you did your business you gave people the phone number for your answering service and they’d leave a message with an operator? That seems like the dark ages now.
CARL: Right. Anyway, that was where I really got into the dance. Then we moved to the Whisky. There were no white bands yet. There were black bands and only black bands-Motown and that stuff was just hummin’. And Elvis Presley was just barely Elvis Presley. He was still a kid, y’know. There were no clubs on Sunset Boulevard. There was nothing there. Further down there were two clubs-there was that place at Vine and Sunset, it’s still there, the Palladium. And across the street from that was where they shot the old TV show Queen For A Day, the Aquarius Theater. The Palladium is where the black bands played the most. Then Gazzari’s was open, and then there was one that was run by this woman who owned the Body Shop-[The Galaxy.] That’s where Tina Turner and the Iron Butterfly turned out. It was up near the Whisky. And then there was this little tiny club where the Doors played for three months [the London Fog]-nobody even thought about them. Somebody from the Whisky came over, ’cause the Whisky was turning. The Whisky was straight, it was just a dance club. It was women in the box. Frank Zappa had to play a straight number to get in there. They would yell at him if he played something crazy. There were no Byrds, no Buffalo Springfield, there was nothing. They were in incubation in the garage, all of them. Back in Hollywood we were dancing to records or R&B black bands. They got pushed out of Hollywood because of the white music. We would dance to whatever they had. The dancers Vito had at his class would go out at night. We’d have a destination; we would meet there. We would go out a couple of times a week and then it got more frequent. We became more and more popular and each club vied for our attention because if we would go there the club would become famous.
SCRAM: Because you brought all this energy and all these people…
CARL: And brought a dance that nobody else had ever seen. We were giving an original dance here. These were artists that were dancing. We were doing an art form.
SCRAM: How large was your average group of people with whom you’d go out to the clubs?
CARL: Well, I’d say no less than ten, but I remember one time when Herbie Cohen let us into the Shrine Auditorium, he let a hundred of us dancers in there. He counted us as we went in; Frank Zappa’s on the stage. But the band we most liked to dance to was the Gauchos. The Gauchos were from Fresno. I tell people about the Gauchos all the time. They were an eleven-piece band with horns. They did "La Bamba" like nobody else-they put "La Bamba" on the map because they had brass for it. They were a tight band, they wore uniforms and when you danced to them you got so fucking high from it. I remember the club that was the Playboy Club-we shredded it! We were dancing on the bar and we were dancing on the tables. The place was almost ready to come apart! Anyway, that’s what was going on in Hollywood at that moment until somebody said "Listen, there’s a band that needs a job."
SCRAM: Are you referring to the Byrds?
CARL: That was the Byrds. They were a bunch of funky asshole dudes; they didn’t know what to do with themselves. They had gone to San Francisco and had all of their equipment stolen out of their station wagon, which was parked out in front of the club. They had their tires stolen. They came out and there was nothing there. The thieves had ripped that thing to shreds.
Wanna read more about Carl’s adventures with the Byrds, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper, Dick Clark and Johnny Carson? Pick up Scram #17