When he was 25 years old, Rick Harrington wrote a novel about a time when women have taken over the Earth. No one wanted the book, and so he turned it into a screenplay. No one wanted that, and so 35 years later, he made the movie himself.
Now he was 62, his first movie was about to premiere and he was sitting at his desk with two lines on hold, drinking cold coffee from a jar.
"I'm sorry if I seem harried," he said. "This is just the busiest week of my life, that's all."
Again, the phone rang. On one line, the Baytown Sun wanted an interview, on another, a theater manager wanted to arrange a promotional quiz and on a third, a cast member wondered what she should wear to the opening. Entry Level Male was about to open in seven Houston theaters, and Harrington thought if he could just get 10,000 people into those theaters in one weekend, then his movie wouldn't be canceled and maybe it would crack the top 50 in the country. Maybe other theaters would show it, and the money would come rolling in, and he could make more movies, and Rick Harrington would become at his age something more than an entry-level moviemaker.
"We're below the lake now, crawling up through the mud to make it to the bottom," he said. "We've got to perform or watch it go up in smoke."
But almost everyone was betting against him. The problem wasn't just that Entry Level Male had been shot with 500 volunteers, one 30-year-old camera and a single lens, or that Rick Harrington had directed the movie he had written, and had also narrated part of it and helped to edit it and to build the props and clean out the studio. It wasn't just that the entire cost was probably less than what some movies in the cineplex had spent on food for the cast.
It was all of these things. And it was this:
"People may make fun of people who have no money and say, 'This is like Ed Wood.' That's okay," said Harrington. "Ed Wood was not the world's worst director by any means. Ed Wood had a lot of good ideas."
Ed Wood, you may recall, was the creator of Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster. Eventually, he became the alcoholic director of nudie monster films, and after he died in 1978, the critics voted him the worst director of all time.
Rick Harrington was unsure how the critics would receive Entry Level Male. His art has always been the commercial kind, and he has never sought critical success and rarely has agreed with the critics who bestow it. Where he tends to see great humor and depth, they tend to see nothing at all, and this was never more true than with Ishtar, Rick's all-time favorite movie.
"Colossally dunderheaded," the Hollywood Reporter called it. "A truly dreadful film," said Roger Ebert. Ishtar is generally considered one of the biggest flops of all time, but Rick's wife, Sharron, calls it "our Rocky Horror." They know all the lines and return to it again and again. "There's a lot of Rick and me in that movie," she said. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman are hapless songwriters who go to Morocco to find work and who find themselves instead wandering through the desert without water, singing and laughing as airplanes try to shoot them down.
"They're on the brink of annihilation, and they're so happy!" said Sharron, laughing again. "Never mind that they're no damn good, that they write horrible stuff and can't sing worth beans. The point is they're so happy doing what they're doing that they don't know."
A lot of people have said, 'Rick, you're on the edge of the big time,' " said Rick. "But I guess I've never cracked the edge. You see, I started in Hollywood and worked my way down."
He wrote his first romance when he was five, about two buttons that fell in love. Rick learned how to yodel and tap dance, and at 14, became the Singing Cowboy on a Rockford, Illinois television station. He went off to study drama in California, and after he was named state yodeling champion there, someone noticed him, and he was cast in a non-yodeling role in a movie called Hell's Crossroads. Rick still remembers his first line. Just as the director told him, he kept his eyes on the horse's ass, and when it passed the camera, he shouted:
"It's Bob Ford! They got Bob Ford!"
He acted in a couple more movies -- all lost now, even to him -- and then the studio was sold, and he was let go. He came to Houston then as an actor at the Alley Theatre, and by 1966, he had also been a singer of Hawaiian music in Polynesian bars when Sharron found him managing promotions at Channel 39. He was tall and handsome, she remembers, with this "wonderful, creative, wild energy" and a script called Love in a Hot Air Balloon that he was sure would deliver him.
She didn't get the weather-girl job she came for, but Rick had sensed her energy as well, and he called her up and asked her to become his assistant. Not long after she began making commercials with him, Sharron began arguing with him. She was deep into philosophy and theology at the time, and when he came to her, saying "This is great! You've got to see this!" invariably, she said, "I was appalled. This was crass commercialism!"
They were both divorced with two children. "I really love strong women," says Rick, and under the guise of asking for her ideas, he began their courtship. Her creative standards fell a little and his came up, she said, and they learned to get along. Before long, they had moved in together. With "one foot in hippiedom," Sharron thought marriage was a sham, but with the other foot in the '50s, she wouldn't raise her children with a man she wasn't married to. So she moved out. Time passed, and the heart grew fonder, and in accord with the hard and fast laws of romance novels, Rick called her one day, and she swallowed her principles, and "we decided we were far more productive together than apart." They would go on to become romance novelists together, and if it was as they wrote for Harlequin, Rick's proposal to Sharron sounded something like this:
" 'My love, I'm not good at speeches,' he said, huskily. 'But I think the universe was made for love. I believe that we, you and I, female and male, are what make this planet go round. And I want you to marry me -- immediately -- for richer, for poorer. We'll work everything out.' "She found enough breath to whisper, 'Yes! Oh, yes.' "
Soon after the wedding, Rick quit his job to pursue his artistic vision. As Rick Harrington Films, he began making commercials and public service announcements for everyone from the Harris County Medical Society to Deerbrook Forest Chrysler-Plymouth to CheesePop Popcorn Topping.
He had a way with advertisers. "He's not carrying a cross of any kind," said Sharron, and he would quickly make any changes the client wanted. Still, there was always a shortage of money, and Rick became a master of make-do. That would be his daughter doing the Vanna stroke on the new car; that's his wife and daughter skipping across the field, blissfully unaware of horrible diseases only you can help to stop. In one United Way spot, a friend who was playing a drunk in the gutter was also required to hold the hose that poured rain upon his head. In Planet Earth, Do You Read Me?, a film on birth defects that was shot entirely in Rick's living room, chromosomes are floating through outer space, and Rick's voice has that eerie Ed Wood ring to it as he speaks of "the future, that musty repository of hopes and dreams that we're moving toward on a great spaceship called Earth in a universe we understand more than the bodies we inhabit ...."
It happened eventually that Rick got bored shooting these little films. As he later wrote, "I was bringing life to other people's dreams and submerging my own. And what was that dream? It was more or less a wishful fantasy about acquiring a tall ship and founding a living, touring ship museum to celebrate the history of the Gulf Coast. Well, that was quite a goal, considering the fact that neither Sharron or I had ever sailed on anything -- even a Sunfish."
Just as with the films, the Harringtons gathered together all their friends and family and launched an adventure that most people said they would never, could never do. The ship they bought in 1976 was a 152-foot schooner, built in Norway at the turn of the century. "I don't know what it is about wooden ships, but they do have spirits," Sharron said, with tears in her eyes. And Rick confessed, "We can be kind of goofy."
They called her Artemis after the goddess of the moon and wild animals and hunting. Sharron learned to converse with the boat; it spoke to her in a Norwegian accent. She recalls the sunrises and sunsets from that time, the dolphins off the bow and the diamonds in the water at noon. And Rick remembers that "we were always sinking. We were always sinking. A wooden ship is only as good as its caulking, and we were always sinking. Oh my, the pump went out. Oh my, we hit something. It was always something."
By this time they had a young daughter named Seanna who galloped around the ship dressed as Wonder Woman, capturing the visiting boys with her golden lasso. A couple of times, the ship was so swamped, they weren't sure they would make it, said Seanna, and as the helicopter came for them, she recalls telling her mother, "This is why we should have a house on dry land."
But they had sold their house to keep Artemis afloat. The touring ship museum never could support itself, and after three years, when the Harringtons had sold everything but an old convertible, a few cameras and a buffalo nickel collection, they decided at last that it was time to sell Artemis. They were careful with her suitors. They picked a sailor with "the right vibrations," but Artemis would not be deterred from her death wish. On a stormy night in May 1980, 150 miles off the coast of Tampa, she lay down in the water finally and dived until she came to rest, 1,500 feet from light and hope.
The Harringtons grieved as though they had lost a family member. In the next 90 days, they wrote a memorial to the ship and published Artemis, Proud Before the Wind in the hopes that it would reach ten printings, make a million dollars and raise Artemis from the deep. The book was printed only once, and only friends bought it. On the last page was the last word from Artemis, as heard by Sharron:
"YA, LONG IT HAS BEEN SINCE WE HAVE TALK .... IT IS INTERESTING TO OBSERVE SOME REACTIONS -- I DON'T FEEL VERY DEAD .... I FEEL TOO A MUSEUM SHIP I STILL AM AND WILL REMAIN. WE CAN TALK AGAIN -- AND MORE. I AM STILL WITH YOU."
Seanna got her house on dry land. It looked out onto the West Sam Houston Tollway and twice had been gutted by fire, but her parents thought it had "wonderful vibes," and was a wonderful deal besides. They worked it over and moved in.
The flavor of the sea stayed with them. Seanna grew up on dried squid and seaweed. They never got through dinner without the phone ringing, "because my dad always had a deal going," said Seanna. He went back into the film business. His energy became one with the spirit of the house. He counted everything -- the stairs, the steps across the room, the number of checks and pages he had written. He picked his nails to the point that his fingers were often wrapped in Band-Aids. He liked Twist-A-Plot books and was a great fan of Star Trek.
When the children were struggling with the usual woes of childhood, Sharron would tell them, "Isn't it wonderful that we're all struggling together?" Seanna says her parents never discouraged her. They didn't want to disappoint her, so they told her from the start the truth about Santa and the tooth fairy. They gave her the freedom to express herself, even when expression meant wearing a sheet to high school and wrapping her hair around bones and telephones.
Seanna is 23 now, a model and a waitress at Armando's. She likes bright colors and "happy, happy things," like the Brady Bunch movie, "not the first one but the second one. I just thought it was fun!"
In her spare time, she's also a jewelry maker. Her father wears one of her bracelets on his right wrist. She says she's a lot like him, and it's probably true that his experience making a movie is not unlike what she goes through to make her jewelry.
"I stick it in there, and if it fits, it works," said Seanna. "But this is an art gallery, and people always ask, 'What is this supposed to mean?' And I'm, like, at such a loss because I don't want people to think I'm some fud who has no meaning. So I say it means whatever you want it to."
The unique talent of Vivian Stephens, says Vivian Stephens, is her instinctive understanding of the American intellect and attention span. Modern romance novels, says the romance editor, descend from the literature of Jane Austen but in a way that has been popularized and Americanized. It's the relationship between art and pop art, or between cheese and Cheez Whiz. In other words...
"I always say, think of it like a peanut-butter sandwich," she said. "The whole culture has a taste for peanut butter, and it has never gone out of style. The bread might change a little, but at the core, you always want peanut butter. When you're writing romance, you write the best romance you can, so that the reader says, 'That was the best peanut-butter sandwich I have ever had.' "
Rick Harrington had been writing romances all his life, and they had gone nowhere until he and Sharron attended one of Vivian Stephens' lectures in 1981 and learned the magic formula -- that a man must meet a woman, and a woman must lose a man, and man and woman must then be drawn together again along a route that titillates all the senses.
"It worked!" said Rick. He and Sharron went home and focused their passion on paper. Their creative differences spilled over again, and their arguments grew fierce. When one would make a change in the text, the other would change it back, and soon Sharron would be standing on the table, wagging her finger in Rick's face and arguing for the sake of her art. Occasionally, the children were called upon to mediate. Sharron would go to her daughter, CeAnne, and say, "Here, read this. And try not to think it's your mother who wrote it."
But they finished the book finally, and after fashioning the pen name Rianna Craig from all the names of their children, the Harringtons put their manuscript in the mail. After the Harlequin editors cut it in half, processed and packed it, Love Match appeared in May 1984 as number 56 in the American Romance line. It is a book in which the men are strong and the women really like it, a book of "damp pink buds" and firm swords and gasping thunderclaps. "Her full, slightly open lips" parted to receive "his warm soft lips" and "wildly his lips plundered hers."
That sort of thing. It came with a coupon for four more books just like it. Vivian Stephens said she couldn't remember Love Match, which meant it was nothing unusual.
The Harringtons wrote one more Harlequin together, and then Sharron was sick of it. She turned 50, and her insurance premiums doubled, and she curtailed her writing to take a regular job with "fabulous benefits." After nine years of selling makeup, she still swears that "I am not at heart a Maybelline rep" and says that it is books that keep her going. For her birthday this year, Rick recorded seven novels of their favorite author, Dick Francis, and Sharron plays the tapes as she drives, patiently waiting during the emotional parts when her husband has paused to weep.
Ten years since the last Harrington novel was published, Rick continues the life of art unabated. The ideas come so fast they keep him awake at night, and there's a pad by the bed to stop them from getting away. Each morning, he writes for about half an hour. He can type 100 words a minute but said he slows down to about 45 when he's writing, "which is normal speed, I guess. You don't want to rush it when you're composing."
He has been utterly obsessed with his movie during the last two and a half years, but in that time, he has finished three novels, plus a sequel to Entry Level Male, and a screenplay he has chosen to call A Cold Day in Hell.
"I love writing," said Rick. "Words can make people sing."
Short and bald, Joel B. Carroll looks very much like the lost twin of Larry "Bud" Melman. Back in the '60s, he was working for the United Way, overseeing an ad at Ben Taub Hospital in which a patient was being wheeled into the emergency room. The doctors didn't think it looked realistic, "so they splashed blood on Rick, and he turned white as a sheet, and that was the first time I met him."
Joel went on to work with the March of Dimes and the Living Bank and to his present position as fundraiser for the Salvation Army. Over the years, he and Rick collaborated on many public-service announcements, and Joel came to the opinion that Rick is "way ahead of his time."
It was not an uneducated opinion. Joel adjusted his glasses and looked soberly through their dark frames and said, "This figure will astound you, but in my lifetime, I have seen 22,000 movies." He watches three to five a day. Just behind Citizen Kane, he said his favorite is Night of the Living Dead, in which "people die and come back to life and have to roam the countryside eating other human beings."
Sometime after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released, Joel agreed to help Rick produce their own horror film.
"It was something like Blood Shack," he tried to recall. "No, it was Blood Shed. Two words. Rick knew this snake trainer near Conroe, and I personally detest snakes, and we thought they'd be pretty scary."
He has broken records raising money for the Salvation Army, but for some reason, he couldn't raise a dime for Blood Shed. People said, "Not right now, Joel. Wait till you prove yourself," and they said it again and again, and Joel realized eventually that he was getting old and might never have the chance.
He decided he was going to fund the bulk of a movie by himself. Rick brought him a pile of scripts, and it was Joel who chose Entry Level Male. The plot had no sex or violence, but "I said, 'This is the one. This will sell right now. Hell, women are taking over the world anyway. This isn't futuristic at all!"'
On November 13, 1994, all the Harrington friends and the friends of their friends gathered in the Bagby Street studio of a dear old friend. Rick told the cast they would be paid on a "speculative contingency deferred" basis, and he probably could have used just one of those words, but he used all three because it seemed more generous.
The captain's suit that Rick wore aboard the Artemis became the costume for the lead character. The windows they were installing in their house became part of the set. For 10 percent of the normal cost, the Harringtons bought 45,000 feet of leftover film from the sitcom Coach. The studio was not soundproof, so someone stood outside with a walkie-talkie and the film was shot in the intervals between passing cars.
"Every time I had to do a scene," Rick said, "I had to think, 'Okay, how can I do this and spend absolutely no money?' And so I compromised and got through it, compromised and got through it."
They had one camera and one lens. The movie gets darker as it goes on because they began with ten lights and finished with four. Most of the special effects involve Christmas lights. They had a fog machine they were unable to regulate, so rather than ignore it, they added a line that made heavy fog a kind of lie detector.
Vivian Stephens, the romance editor, served as the Galactic Judge, but she had no power. Her part was filmed in less than a day, and after each scene, she would say, "Rick, I'm really not satisfied,' and he'd say, 'You might not be, but I am. We're done."'
Seanna was cast as a space cadet. At one point, she is supposed to receive a kiss, "but for some reason, I kept giggling and turning my head, and he'd get a mouthful of hair." That, too, was a take.
It went on like this every weekend for five months. Perhaps Rick Harrington's most amazing achievement was that he was able to hold so many people together for so long. He made it look easy. Except for some grumbling about Sharron's vegetarian meals, said Seanna, everyone was generally like, "Oh goody goody goody. Can I sweat some more?"
After they were gone, Rick and a wild-haired Panamanian named Pat Coakley sat down at an ancient editing table. One of the belts broke. Then another one broke. Eventually, they had to replace more than 50 belts.
Rick's son died of a heart attack, and grieving, Rick worked on. After he underwent prostate surgery, Rick worked from his bed. Two and a half years and more than $100,000 of Joel Carroll's money later, Entry Level Male was ready for its debut.
"I'm looking forward to getting a good review from Public News," Rick said in September. "You might say, 'Well, Rick, you're a dreamer.' But who knows?"
All those who came for previews were led up the studio stairs into a small viewing room. Rick would sit down beside them and watch his movie for the nine-trillionth time, laughing at all his jokes and checking to see if the critics were laughing, too.
"This isn't a kids movie," he warned. "You gotta think a little bit." Rick called the film E*L*M for short, because he thought it looked kind of technological and futuristic. The movie is set in the present and flashes forward to a story told in flashbacks. Some of the flashbacks are lies, and you're supposed to know to disregard these. If you pay close attention, you come to understand that women have taken over the future world, and that men, because they "are almost entirely ruled by their penises," exist only in harems. The single exception is Roger W. Rigian, the only man with a job, and a man on trial now for "machoism," letting his penis lead him astray.
If there is a theme to Rick's work, he said it is "feminist issues." He truly does believe that women are much stronger than men and are destined to take over, but his film is not an effort to convince or persuade, and it's hard to tell what kind of effort it is. At first, you figure that Rick has dipped his Star Trek into the peanut butter and emerged with a sci-fi romance. But then, moving back and forth in time, you realize you're not going to get any sex or violence, dammit. You find yourself running into Clinton and Rush Limbaugh and a young Einstein, and someone named Cherry Apple-Day and all those "Media Maniacs." None of these people says or does anything especially significant, and you don't understand why they've appeared, and the movie begins to feel kind of random, kind of like a dream.
"I don't know exactly what I'm getting at here," but is was meant as a parallel to the modern male-dominated world, said Rick.
He had just delivered his film to Baybrook Mall, when he stopped on the way back to pick up a copy of Public News. Michael Bergeron's review was on page six. Read it, he said.
E*L*M may be the most inexpensive feature film ever shot on 35mm film stock ....
The premise ... is something that a writer could take and really run with. But scripter/helmer Rick Harrington only walks with this idea ....
In its attempts at political and sociological humor E*L*M is just plain sophomoric. Acting is generally abysmal, with few exceptions ....
It would be nice for a locally made film to put Houston on the map, but E*L*M is not that film.
By then, Rick had parked his Ford back at the studio. He sat stunned, staring out the window, talking as though to himself.
"Well, Michael chose to say what he chose to say, didn't he? Oh my. It was a hell of an effort. We did it, and we just go on with the next one .... Wow. That poor guy. He really didn't like it too much .... Well, a review is what it is -- a guy with an opinion .... God, didn't even mention Jeanne -- she's a good little actress. And the lighting .... the poster ....' "
"Do you know that saying by Sartre about the flower in the dung heap?" Sharron asked. "Well, Rick has always had this thing that if there's a pile of shit in the barn, there must be a pony in there somewhere."
The only praise in Bergeron's review was for a "snazzy ad campaign and a dazzling display of self-distribution." Rick vowed the next day that, with a few dots in between, the words "snazzy" and "dazzling" would forever connect E*L*M with Public News.
"Michael Bergeron -- what a great guy!" said Rick with a smile. And he told a volunteer to send flowers.
It was Rick's stepdaughter, CeAnne Jones, who was responsible for the dazzling distribution. As a film distributor, she had helped bring the world "all the turtle movies, seven or eight Freddy Kruegers and two or three Jasons." She added to her credits Entry Level Male, and the movie opened in Houston on September 20.
The night of the premiere was not what Rick had hoped, but he never let on. At the Harrington home, the stars in their evening black climbed into two white limousines. After one of the limos was jump-started, they were all on their way to their big-screen debut.
"We'll just breeze in and try to bring a positive atmosphere," said Rick, on the way to Memorial City Mall.
They made a great show of getting out of the limos. Rick had hired a couple of cameramen, and they got out first and turned their lights upon the stars and gave the arrivals an authentic feel. Joel stepped out wearing an outrageous orange sports coat. "Takes guts to wear this," he said, but then Seanna saw him and cried out, "You have the coolest clothes!" and the executive producer strode into his premiere with a beautiful woman on his arm.
No one clamored for their autographs or even stopped them to ask who they were. Inside, five minutes before the show, there were only eight people in the seats. Each of them was vigorously thanked, and then the stars waved and departed for Tinseltown.
"Uh-oh," said Michael Rhoads, the entry level male, "we got a crowd, kiddos."
"You're not kidding," said Seanna. "They're all kids!"
At the Cinemark Tinseltown, the limo doors opened onto a horde of jumping, screaming, delirious children. The stars were thoroughly mugged for their autographs, but the theater remained empty. Rick stood apart from the crowd, quietly regretting that he ever wrote the "f" words that brought his movie an R rating.
At Deerbrook Mall, the children formed a wall around Seanna. Some wanted to know where she got her shoes, some wanted to tell her that they were going to be famous, too. "Here," said one girl, handing over her paper. "Sign it, 'I love you forever.' " Seanna did that, and then one of the boys presented her with a teddy bear, and she said it was the sweetest thing that ever happened to her. He posed, blushing deeply, with his arm around her and his baseball cap on backward.
"She's a natural," said Sharron, standing proudly by.
Rick had raced to the theater. He was handing out fliers as fast as he could.
"Show your mom and dad and have them bring you," he said to the children.
"You're leaving?" he said to an old couple. "You haven't seen E*L*M!"
"You have to see it in the next three days," he said to a Hispanic woman, "or it will disappear forever."
At Armando's, Seanna had waited on Beau Bridges a few days before, and he had said he might come to her premiere, but he didn't. One of the extras who used to dance for the Rockets said she had called Charles Barkley and Jeff Bagwell and all her friends and told them to come. They didn't.
Rick had been up since 4:30 that morning, selling his show. In the limo in the dark, he stared out the window, yodeled softly to himself and fell asleep.
"Let's go in and see if people are laughing," Seanna said at Meyer Park.
But no one was laughing in there, or even smirking. The audience was quite silent, and so was Rick, leaning against the door, until the cast began to howl. There they were, their faces at least ten feet tall, their own voices booming out at them. This was extraordinarily funny! They laughed, and Rick began to laugh, too, and it was clear that Entry Level Male was truly a magnificent film.
Five of the seven theaters canceled the movie on Monday, but "Good God, no, I'm not disappointed," said Rick.
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If his publicity did not pack the theaters, it did bring him the attention of would-be directors from all over the city who wanted his advice. Rick had signed up two new investors, and he had heard from those people who understood his art, like the woman who saw the entry level male as Christ at the crucifixion.
"She got all the nuances and metaphor sequences where God and the universe come together in time and space," Rick said, happily. And if he never knew all that stuff was in there, he would never let on about that, either.
One week later, Entry Level Male quietly disappeared from the big screen. Rick believed there would be other cities and midnight runs and cable and video. He still thought E*L*M could earn millions of dollars. When the money comes in, it will be A Cold Day in Hell for him, or maybe he'll do the E*L*M sequel in which Roger Rigian returns from "the ass end of never" with "an elite band of alien female commandos." Maybe the kids would like that one.
"I'm afraid I don't think about retiring," said Rick. "I don't have the time for that. E*L*M is just the beginning.