Dayton Pt. 2: Twyman Films

Sunday, November 21, 2010

His name was Tony Heriza. Like me, he was a very recent college grad, from Antioch College in Yellow Springs. Julia and Jim were teachers there, and now Tony and a lot of their students and others were living as a collective in this home. They called it “Media House.” They all worked straight jobs and contributed their salaries to the collective, and were mutually involved in political projects in their off-hours. And in a weird fluke, Tony was also starting a job at Twyman Films the next day, just as I was.

The next morning, I met Jim and Julia and a lot of the others. My immediate impression, was that everybody was very nice, and pretty similar to a lot of the people I had been acquainted with in Madison. The right politics, and sort of defined by having the right politics, in the same way that some people define themselves by their jobs or their artistic pursuits. These were people who appeared to think that if they did some good things, they could make the world better. My close friends back home had similar politics, but they were more the kind of people who didn’t think things were going to get better unless you burned the whole thing down. The Media House people were really smart, had admirable goals, and weren’t cynical. But by then, I‘d been through my Jewish period, my rock band period, my musical theatre period, my political action period, and now had moved on to the filmmaking and not terribly political period of my life. But there were some pretty girls in the circle of left-wing action around Media House, and I knew that I was going to be a very lonely guy during my sojourn in Dayton if I didn’t join in. Choosing whether to be a Media Houser was a non-question. It provided an instant circle of friends.

Twyman’s was an easy walk from Media House and Tony and I were there in minutes. I learned that Media House wasn’t in suburbia at all, in fact the neighborhood was kind of crummy. (To prove Media House’s street cred, Jim proudly told me there was a crack den next door.) Twyman’s was a modest two-story building in front of a slightly rundown street, next door to a McDonald’s.

I had always thought that Twyman’s was a pointless company, for me anyway. I never booked films for my film club from them once, and I didn’t know anybody in the sixteen film societies in Madison who did either. What was the point? They didn’t have a single film that wasn’t available somewhere else, often for less money. Their attempted marketing stratagem, which didn’t bowl me over, was that their prints were better. I didn’t find this terribly compelling.

Tony’s job was downstairs in their projector rental shop, as I would, during the half of the day I wasn’t designing the catalog. It was very hard for me to find my bearings and be there, in a new city, working my first real job. All these weirdos worked there. I never had to deal with people like Elva Mae the accountant with her huge magnifying glass always pressed in front of her face. She was this big eye. It was a huge comedown to realize how little money was left after they took the taxes out of my hefty $160 weekly check.

The film bookers sat around a circular table. The phones rang incessantly and they would spin the booking books back and forth like a lurching top. Left! Right! Right! Left! And the phone would be ringing and ringing. They’d have the phones in one hand as they spun this hoop of doom. If Dante had taken a gander at this instrument of torture there’s no way he would have been able to deal. “No! No! Take it away, please! Of course, what I didn’t know then, is that I would one day be toiling at this whirling dreidel of damnation.

You had to sit outside Alan Twyman’s office for awhile waiting for your meeting. He went to offices in New York and elsewhere and they would always make him wait, so he figured that was how it was done with important people. What he never figured out was that the people in those offices actually had jobs. All the time I worked there I couldn’t really see what he did. There was an office manager, Harold Bowman, who handled the staff. I suppose that he had to make the deals with the various companies that gave Twyman their movies. That couldn’t be more than a few days work a year. So he did some thumb-twiddling in there until he felt sufficient time had passed for you to be summoned into his office. And he didn’t mind if you looked in there and saw that he was virtually motionless. Perhaps he was pondering some new concepts in print enhancement.

Alan was very good-looking, carefully groomed, snappily dressed, sort of prissy, with a pronounced self-importance. He acted like he fancied himself a big-time film mogul, the lord of this third-tier sector of the motion picture industry. He was always distant, but sometimes he could have a dry wit. The firm was passed down from his Dad, also called Alan Twyman. I think one of them was called Alan P. Twyman, and the other one was Alan T. Twyman. The elder was referred to by the staff as “Mr. T.” Once there was absolute pandemonium when Twyman Senior turned up for a visit. Elva Mae would started bellowing, “Mr. T’s in the parking lot! “Mr. T’s in the parking lot!”

The younger Twyman had taken over recently, and was executing some big plans to take the company into the future. In addition to my redesign of the catalog, he’d hired this guy named John Geoghegan as a copywriter. Geoghegan was a slickster and had some kind of academic credentials, as he had been a professor somewhere. I was jealous of him because he was going to write all the time, while I was going to be a designer half the day, and spend the other half in the rental shop. My design room was upstairs in the room that housed The Permafilm Machine, the technology that gave Twyman its amazing prints . What was PermaFilm? I never found out, but at Twyman’s it was somewhere between the formula for Coca-Cola and the Holy Grail—and boy did it stink! All day long I breathed in PermaFilm vapors, which couldn’t have done me any good.

I rented a basement apartment in the shadow of a highway for $100 a month plus a $25 security deposit. The first night there, I had to get up to go to the bathroom and I turn on the lights. The entire floor was covered with huge roaches. They had scurried out in all directions from under my bed. There must have been over a hundred of them, and their pals kept coming out from under the bed. How was I going to live in this awful place?

The answer came the next day when I came back from work and found the back door to the apartment lying on the floor. Gone was my radio shack cassette player, and everything electronic. The worst loss was my electric shaver. That night I hiked to the local 7-11 and bought a cheap Bic disposable razor. I’d never used one of them before, and my first attempt wasn’t pretty. I went to work the next morning with four or five deep slices on my face.

When I came home the next day I saw there was an apartment available across the street. The landlady lived nearby and I signed a lease immediately. It was huge, on the second floor, and had a little balcony that overlooked this well-tended flower garden. Of course, this was pricey, $125 a month, and meant that I lost my $25 deposit to the Roach-and-Ripoff Hotel, but it was well worth it.

Around this time I took the bus back to Madison to pick up the stuff I couldn’t fit in the duffle bag. The plan was that my on-and-off girlfriend Barbara (referred to at the beginning of  this blog) was going to drive down to Dayton with me, spend some time, and then drive the car back afterwards. Unfortunately she took this time to tell me that she was breaking up with me. It was traumatic, but in retrospect she picked the right time. Very soon I was going to be in New York City and she was going to be on the west coast. But it was tough to forego the romantic trip I had in mind, and drive back to Dayton with my mom instead.

Sometimes Twyman would come upstairs and talk to me while I was working. Once he pointed out that there was a guy downstairs getting a blowjob in his car.  He went on to explain  that Dayton was considered the prostitution capital of Ohio and men drove there from all over the state to sample its delights. As I said in last week’s post, the hookers would stand by the bridge and wave at the cars. So you know what the city did while I was there? They outlawed waving in Dayton. I am not making this up. I remember reading a newspaper editorial saying that this law might make people think that Dayton wasn’t a friendly town.

One day, I was hauled into Harold Bowman’s office. He looked me up and down and asked me a ton of tough questions. I had no idea what I had done wrong. It eventually came out that Elva Mae, probably jealous, told him she caught me sleeping up in the PermaFilm room. I proclaimed my innocence, but it was my word against hers and she’d been there a hundred years. And who knows? Maybe I did conk out after breathing too many PermaFilm fumes.

Anyway, after that I was taken out of the rental shop and put to work booking movies at the spinning round table. Whenever things get so bad I can’t take it, I think of those days, renting Chaplin shorts to high school teachers. Show business is so exciting.

Twyman was always talking about “exclusive product.” We had to get some films that nobody else had. Eventually he bought a Mexican film called “Chac.” It was a good film, but I didn’t really see how it was going to make a lot of difference for Twyman. Having “Chac” didn’t seem like much competition with, for example, the entire Paramount library.

I had planned to spend the summer of 1975 in Dayton, but ended up staying until Christmas, as I wanted to save up a nest egg. As I mentioned before, the Twyman Catalog helped me score a freelance job at UA Classics and my eventual career launch at New Yorker Films.

A few years ago I read that Alan Twyman had died. It brought back a lot of memories and made me really sad, as I knew that Alan was a bachelor and the Twyman line would end with him. What happened to Twyman’s? While writing this I did some Googling and I couldn’t find anything except my reference to the company’s name in last week’s blog, and some quotes from Alan in tributes to Raymond Rohauer. As far as the internet goes, that’s it. Twyman Films is gone, aside from my memories and the memories of all the other people who worked there. Maybe little companies like Twyman’s aren’t the biggest stories in film history, but it did last through two generations and that should mean something. It should mean a lot. Alan Twyman was a good guy who loved and knew a lot about classic films and deserves better.

I close my eyes and I am up on the second floor in front of my drafting table. Behind me the PermaFilm machine clicks and hums. Downstairs, the film booking carousel is spinning. 16mm reels are packed into heavy duty boxes and prepared for mailing. John Geoghegan is writing something that amuses him. Tony is showing a school teacher how to thread a 16mm projector. Elva Mae verifies that the accounts are all in order. Alan Twyman is thinking about the future, and Mr. T. is in the parking lot reminding us of the passage of time.