Not A Curve They Wouldn't Take!
Intending to dispose of Fireball 500 with a single paragraph after seeing it on the MGM-HD channel, I was drawn like moths to a flame when trade mags informed me of its having World Premiered in Charlotte. There was sense in that, of course, as Fireball 500 addresses stock car racing and moonshining, both well-known North Carolina obsessions. Plus it’s an American-International picture. Which means I can write about Jim and Sam and what they were up to that Summer of 1966 when big things were (as always!) on the horizon for AIP. Motion Picture Exhibitor suggested, perhaps indelicately, that Fireball 500 was an obvious attempt to add melodramatics to the somewhat tired "Beach" films. Well, the fun and sun cycle was winding down, as rentals on that Spring’s Ghost In The Invisible Bikini (a disappointing $745,000) convinced Nicholson and Arkoff to retire surfboards and seek new direction for beach-nuts under contract. Problem was where to place Frankie, Annette, and others with Malibu sands no longer burning. Sergeant Deadhead proposed wacky in khakis Avalon as 1965’s incarnation of service clowning with roots back to silents, but 60’s teens weren’t much interested (a weak $679,000 in domestic rentals), while Funicello’s continuing service in Disney comedies attracted lots more youth money than her stuff for AIP, thanks to aggressive Buena Vista marketing and appeal to younger children and parents who brought them. Trends and changing of them were never so convulsive as in the mid-sixties. A seeming brilliant idea at conception might be yesterday’s spent fish by release time. Nicholson and Arkoff were still wiping egg off faces over a recent scheme hatched, as it turned out, about three years too late. They’d announced in January 1966 that live variety troupes made up of youth players from AIP’s "Beach and Bikini" series were set to appear nationwide. The shows would be booked into all phases of the personal appearance field, including concerts, fairs, theatres, industrials, and one-nighters, according to press releases. Initial reaction to the announcement of the forthcoming live shows is so enthusiastic that several units will be on the road at one time, said AIP spokesmen. Each show would be self-contained, carrying its own lighting and stage equipment. It was to be the first time a major motion picture company has developed and produced a stage attraction featuring its contract players "live" on a show tour. First buses were scheduled to depart in early Spring, just as Ghost In The Invisible Bikini was going into release. Did passengers realize they were headed toward an already changed cultural landscape?
I’d love knowing what happened to the caravans. Maybe they were scuttled before launch. I asked Milton Moritz, who was AIP's head of advertising and publicity for 25 years, and he recalled that there was some thought to tour them in conjunction with "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine," based upon the reaction we received when we did a presentation at the Theatre Owners of America convention, but that nothing much came of the idea other than some good press. Fireball 500 was meanwhile in production during March 1966. That moved fast and was ready for release by June. Some of AIP’s best money came out of the Southeast. Fireball 500 was customized for us. Hot cars and cycles were shaping up as the in thing for summer. Nicholson and Arkoff threw a New York luncheon for showmen in mid-June and brought along a print of The Wild Angels (set for July release). They figured on at least 12,000 bookings for it and Fireball 500 (pretty accurate estimate on the latter, as Fireball got 11,559, while Angels scored a wow 15,383 dates). Sam said he wanted to do bigger pictures because the small ones were treated like programmers. He and Jim smelled cash among disaffected youth and were planning what Nicholson called a "Protest Series" to begin with an unspecified LSD project. For two pictures so closely aligned and out of the same company, Fireball 500 and The Wild Angels could not have been more different. Fireball was tentative and played safe, casting Frankie Avalon and Annette superficially against type, but hedging bets with upbeat songs from both and AIP’s customary brakes on sex and violent content. Angels, however, was something new and disturbing, a seeming refutation of ethos that guided AIP over its past twelve years. An era really was closing at that luncheon, even if it didn’t seem apparent to those in attendance. One incident thought minor at the time speaks volumes from hindsight. Peter Fonda was there to help pump The Wild Angels. Joining circuit vets at one of the tables, he was taken aback when they jokingly suggested that a haircut might be in order (Fonda’s locks were near-shoulder length). The young actor, soon enough to revolutionize the biz (if briefly) with Easy Rider, stalked off in a huff.
North Carolina’s esteemed governor Daniel K. Moore kicked off Fireball 500’s saturation booking into 108 regional houses with an appearance at Raleigh’s North Hills Steak House, where he issued a proclamation commending AIP for recognizing the intense spectator interest in stockcar racing … through the production of this motion picture. Starlets Mary Hughes and Salli Sachse (shown here on arrival) were also on hand. They’d come from Charlotte’s World Premiere the previous day (June 7), that city’s track being used for Fireball 500’s background racing footage. Governor Moore gauged aforesaid intensity right, for Summer 1966 represented a summit of patron demand for souped-up shows. My scrapbooks for those months are brim-full of all-night super-charger ads, some stacked one atop the other as in these Charlotte drive-in bookings. I’d hate to have shared roads with patrons roaring out of such poor example setters for driving youth. Our local Starlight was always good for triple dash-and-crash marathons throughout most of warmer months. Sometimes they’d park racing heaps at the entrance for added stimulus. I don’t know about others of you, but our moviegoing rituals were dominated by this stuff. For all its emphasis on stock cars and moonshine, Fireball 500 lacked essential verisimilitude of ozoner classics Thunder Road and Thunder In Carolina, Frankie Avalon being no Robert Mitchum (nor even a Rory Calhoun). So-called mountain roads he traveled were, I suspect, closer situated to California coastlines, and co-star Fabian is at one point transported from a Dixie speedway crack-up to treatment facilities clearly marked Cedars-Sinai, a 3000 mile ambulance ride that would seem unnecessary if not hazardous. Fireball 500 aimed to toughen up the boy idols, with Avalon and Fabian scrapping in way meaner fistic encounters than any engaged with Eric von Zipper’s gang. The picture wound up supporting far more profitable The Wild Angels at drive-ins through remaining months of 1966, with Fireball 500 collecting domestic rentals of $1.572 million to Angel’s $4.290.
Every movie has an afterlife. For Fireball 500, there is the enduring fascination of its title vehicle. I never appreciated how celebrated that car was among motor buffs. Turns out the Fireball was designed by "King of the Kustomizers" George Barris, who also created, among (many) other things, the Batmobile, The Munster’s Koach, and The Monkee-mobile. There was also a plastic Fireball model kit (you might have guessed) that Barris still sells at his website (though at the moment his Fireball 500 is out of stock). Somebody out there is looking for everything, it seems. I found a video of a Canadian collector who traced the whereabouts of Barris’ original car built for Fireball 500. He followed its trail via fellow enthusiasts from Kansas into Washington state, intent from childhood on someday owning the unique speedster. Finally, he landed it. A reunion of Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and the car took place in London, Ontario, some forty years after Fireball 500 was released. To see the enthusiasm of these people makes me almost want to take up collecting cars. As it is, my Fireball 500 hangover led also to Frankie Avalon’s website, where his busy concert schedule (with Fabian!) has them appearing, this very weekend, in Newport News, VA, a five and a half hour drive from me. Tempting. Could I reason Ann into going? Probably not. Wonder if Frankie would remember me from the time we met in a Disneyworld hotel lobby and I asked him about working with Buster Keaton on the beach films. No? It was just 1981 … seems like yesterday to me. He turned seventy less than a month ago, by the way.
Many Thanks to Milton Moritz for info on AIP's proposed Star Tours