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'Ed Wood' Gives Reprise to Ed Wood Pal

November 18, 1994|DAVID KRONKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Conrad Brooks, whom the New York Times once called "the John Gielgud of B-movies," stands in the center of the Nuart Theatre lobby beside a folding card table stacked with memorabilia. He's peddling publicity stills of his appearances in Ed Wood Jr. films for $5 a pop--"These are rare shots," he tells prospective buyers--and trying to interest patrons in a video titled "Deadly Amazons"--"My latest starring role," he explains.

Brooks is the guest of a midnight screening of Wood's transvestite opus, "Glen or Glenda," a movie even less coherent than his most famous work, the legendary (if awful) "Plan 9 From Outer Space," and is loving every minute of it. He compares the appearance to the days, back in the '40s, when stars such as the Dead End Kids and the Three Stooges would make barnstorming runs on movie houses across the country: "People would love that, to have a celebrity appear in town."

He's even given the opportunity to introduce the movie, and field questions from the scattered filmgoers. One woman asks, was Bela Lugosi really an addict?

Brooks semi-dodges the question, not wanting to speak ill of a colleague, no matter how dead he might be, before answering. "Yes, but he was very cool about it."

Another woman poses a more philosophical query: Why have Wood's films achieved their cult status? His reply is purely pragmatic: "Because people keep coming to see them."

A man asks Brooks' opinion on "Plan 9," in which Brooks played a befuddled policeman. "I was paid for what I was doing, so it was fine by me," he answers, like a true Hollywood professional.

Tim Burton's recent biopic, "Ed Wood," has given Brooks, now 64, a renewed cachet, however modest, around town. Before the Nuart gig, Brooks spent several weeks with his card table and stills at the Los Feliz Theatre, selling 15 to 20 photos on a good weekend. Had the film been more of a success--critical adulation couldn't bring it much more than $5 million at the box office--he might be doing even bigger business.

He chose Los Feliz because of its proximity to the location where he, at age 17 in 1948, first met Wood, near the auteur's home by the Vista Theater. Over tea at a diner near his Atwater Village apartment, Brooks recalls that momentous encounter.

"He considered himself a movie producer even then--even though he hadn't made a movie, he's telling us how important he's gonna be," Brooks says, with the amiable, almost nervous laugh that frequently punctuates his conversation.

That first day, Wood revealed to the teen-age Brooks and his brother Henry how he enjoyed being a girl. "We went into his apartment, and he went to the washroom, and came out as a woman," Brooks recalls. "We were from Baltimore, and he figured that we were a couple of Eastern boys, and we could understand."

Wood was eventually evicted from his Los Feliz-adjacent address, and Brooks headed back to Baltimore, only to return to Hollywood and run into Wood again in 1952. Wood was then preparing to shoot "Glen or Glenda," and cast Brooks in a variety of small roles in the film--a newspaper reporter, a banker, an accuser in the dream sequence, whatever.

"Ed told us the rushes were great, that Paramount was gonna buy the picture," Brooks remembers. Of course, that didn't happen, and Brooks was assigned other roles in other Wood fiascoes before finding work in other low-budget efforts: Recent entries on his resume include "Bikini Drive-In" and "Misfit Patrol." He also makes the rounds of sci-fi conventions, keeping the Wood myth alive.

Brooks calls Wood "a classy guy, very classy" and "a star-maker," but recalls the filmmaker's later years, the descent into skin flicks and alcoholism, with a sense of wistfulness.

"He would have these minor heart attacks," he says, adding that he would spring for Wood's booze and cigarettes. "I was there. I'd say, 'You gotta go to the doctor,' and he'd say, 'No, just pour me a glass.' He'd take a shot of liquor and be OK a few minutes later. But I thought he'd go right then and there."

Brooks loves Burton's film--he has a cameo as a bartender, and says, "After 40 years, it's the first good film I've ever been in."

More importantly, he's enjoyed the chance to parlay his association with Wood into an opportunity to meet his public. "People come and see me, and they're so excited. . . . Some of 'em don't know what to say, they're kind of shocked."

Ed Wood--and "Ed Wood"--have given Brooks a renewed purpose in his life. "People ask me questions, and give me a chance to talk," he says. "Now I feel I really did something in Hollywood."

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