Bill’s Bizarre Bijou
By William D. Carl
This Week’s Feature Presentation:
SKATETOWN U.S.A. (1979)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable—then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes!
Somewhere between the innocence of roller-skating at a rink and the anarchy of punk rock, a strange new fad corrupted the youth of America. In the late 1970s, disco was still topping the charts, and roller-skating to dance music seemed like a natural extension of the whole SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) atmosphere of the time. Thus was born the fad of roller-disco, which lasted for about the same duration as a Britney Spears marriage. It did, however, inspire the Holy Triumvirate of roller-disco movies. The so-bad-it’s-fun Olivia Newton-John fiasco, XANADU (1980), and the Linda Blair-starring “Romeo and Juliet on wheels” horror, ROLLER BOOGIE (1979) both emulated the first, and still the best by default, roller disco movie, SKATETOWN U.S.A. (1979). SKATETOWN U.S.A. is a fascinating and freakish time capsule of a film, full of the music, fashions, and hairstyles of Malibu in the late Seventies. If a future spaceman was to dig up a VHS copy of this baby, they’d be scratching their heads in confusion and wondering how society didn’t collapse in the early Eighties. And that is exactly what makes SKATETOWN U.S.A. so fabulous in this jaded new century!
First of all, we must simply list the cast of this monstrosity. We have top-billed Scott Baio from TV’s JOANIE LOVES CHACHI (1982 – 1983)and teen sex comedy ZAPPED (1982) as the manager of skater Greg Bradford (oddly, also in ZAPPED), whose sister is played by Maureen McCormick (Marcia on THE BRADY BUNCH, from 1969 -1974). The rink is owned by midget Billy Barty, whose career spanned from 1933’s classic Busby Berkley musical GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, to Sparky the Firefly on THE BUGALOOS (1970 – 1974), to WILLOW (1988). Barty’s son runs the place and is played by African-American comedian and perpetual Hollywood Squares guest, Flip Wilson (the TV variety show, FLIP (1970 -1974) and the movie, THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH,1978). Wilson also plays his own mother in the film, sporting showgirl drag and utilizing his old Geraldine shtick. There is a gang at the rink, the toughest gang ever to wear roller skates and perform roller-ballet with perfectly feathered hair, and they are led by Patrick Swayze in his first film appearance before he went on to fame with DIRTY DANCING (1987) and GHOST (1980). To watch his perpetually puzzled face, you’d never peg this guy as someone who would one day become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Other than when he’s skating (and he is quite good), he just looks like he wants to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Also in the gang is ex-sweat hog Ron Palillo [from TV’s WELCOME BACK KOTTER (1974 – 1979), and such ‘classicks’ as HELLGATE (1990) and SNAKE EATER (1989)]; Ruth Buzzi from ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN (1967 – 1973) is a church lady; and Sidney Lassick (ALLIGATOR and THE UNSEEN, both 1980) is her friend. Joe E. Ross from CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU? (1961 – 1963) is a rent-a-cop, and Judy Landers, the blonde bimbo from DR ALIEN (1989) and HELLHOLE (1985), is a ticket taker. Murray Langston appears both as The Unknown Comic (from the popular TV talent show, THE GONG SHOW, 1976 – 1980) with a paper bag on his head, as well as a drunk. (Soon to be) Murdered Playboy Bunny Dorothy Stratten (she died in 1980) also appears and whines her few lines at the cafeteria— “Can I have my pizza, please?” You also get cameos from stand-up comedians Bill Kirchenbauer, Vic Dunlap, and Denny Johnston, as the white-afro bewigged disc jockey.
As far as the plot goes, well, there isn’t much. It’s a typical Saturday night in the disco roller palace, SKATETOWN U.S.A. The neon is lit, the D.J. spins the tunes, and customers swoosh in on a ramp under a dozen mirror balls. The new guy from Malibu wants to win the disco contest. Swayze’s gang, the West Side Wheelers, also want to win (and let me just say that as a proud and out gay man, this is the GAYEST gang ever! The extent of their criminality includes sprinkling itching powder on a Frito Bandito wannabe and wearing cute matching outfits. Oooh, such a scary gang! THE WARRIORS (also 1979, hmmm) had nothing on these guys). People come. People go. Drugs are taken, and it all ends with a skate-off on the pier with, I kid you not, motorized roller skates. But this isn’t about a storyline. SKATETOWN U.S.A. is really only concerned with kitschy guest stars and lots of music.
And, honestly, even though much of the music is from the dreaded disco genre, these are easily many of the best songs from that time. A quick perusal of the film’s stellar soundtrack gives us BOOGIE WONDERLAND (Earth Wind and Fire), SHAKE YOUR BODY DOWN TO THE GROUND (Michael Jackson), BOOGIE NIGHTS (Heatwave), the utterly awesome BORN TO BE ALIVE (Patrick Hernandez), UNDER MY THUMB (Rolling Stones by way of The Hounds), BABY HOLD ON (Eddie Money), AIN’T NO STOPPIN’ US NOW (McFadden and Whitehead), I WANT YOU TO WANT ME (Cheap Trick), and ROLLER GIRL (John Sebastion). In addition, we get a live concert performance from Traffic’s Dave Mason, who performs the title tune as well as the classic FEELIN’ ALRIGHT. It’s actually quite hard NOT to tap your foot while watching this movie.
A lot of the comedy falls incredibly flat, such as Bill Kirchenbauer’s shell-shocked Vietnam-veteran doctor, but it all zips by in a wave of neon colors and loud music and some pretty great (and a little terrible) skating. I’d blame the script, if there actually was one. It’s accredited to Nick Castle, who started his career by playing The Shape behind the Shatner mask in John Carpenter’s classic HALLOWEEN (1978). Castle went on to direct a few fun flicks like THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984) and TAP (1989) before unleashing the terrible movies MAJOR PAYNE (1995), and the disastrous MR. WRONG (1996), and effectively ending his directing career. I hear he’s working again with Carpenter on the new ESCAPE FROM NEW JERSEY, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Probably the main culprit for the failure of the comedy bits to generate any laughs would be the director—William A. Levy. Why should we expect anything of quality to come from the man who brought us BLACKENSTEIN (1973), WHAM BAM THANK YOU SPACEMAN (1975), and THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES TO WASHINGTON (1977)? In any case, the atrocious lack of intentional laughter is more than compensated for by the veritable cornucopia of unintentional humor. How can you not do a spit-take during a romantic scene between munchkin Billy Barty and Flip Wilson in whore-drag? How can you not break into giggles when Marcia Brady makes out with Arnold Horshack? How can you stop the chuckles when shirtless Patrick Swayze dances while yanking off his belt and using it like a horse whip during a dance number? How can you not giggle uncontrollably when the hunky hetero hero does a roller disco routine in white pants and a skin-tight pink tank-top to the Village People’s MACHO MAN, without even a trace of irony? You can’t. Maybe, we aren’t supposed to. Maybe the kitsch is the point.
Some favorite lines:
“I take home the trophies AND the women!”
“We have delicious tuna milkshakes and buffalo lips on toast that smile at you.”
“I’m celebrating my vasectomy. Wouldja’ like a drink?”
Is SKATETOWN U.S.A. a good movie? No, not by any standards known to man. Is it a great, campy, over-the-top nostalgic piece of kitschy entertainment? Oh, hell yeah! Crank up the volume, put on your mood rings, feather your hair, and enjoy the sheer silliness of the whole glorious mess.
I give SKATETOWN U.S.A. three pink tank-tops out of four.
© Copyright 2012 by William D. Carl