By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
The search for Peter ends at around 10 a.m. on July 19. Rosenthal, acting on a tip he won't share with me, finds the hotel where our quarry lives. I find the hotel at 5 p.m. the same day. But Peter's not home.
I call Rosenthal from the pay phone in front of the Pine Crest Restaurant at Mason and Geary. Ecstatically, he tells me Peter has signed over the rights to his story. "It's a major step forward in the life of the project," he says, adding that Peter was sober when they met. I watch a videotape of Peter's first meeting with Rosenthal the next morning, and indeed he appears sober. Rosenthal and I agree to meet later that afternoon and interview Peter together.
"He's already drunk," Rosenthal tells me as we meet in front of Peter's hotel. "I went up there earlier, and he can't remember what happened this morning."
The two of us climb switchback stairs to Room 301 and knock on the door.
"Come in," drools the voice on the other side of the door.
I enter and introduce myself, explaining why I've come to see him, that I'm interested in how he feels about his strange celebrity.
"I need to find out something," he says, sitting on his bed smoking a cigarette and sipping from a dirty coffee cup. "I need to find out where everybody knows me from."
I sit on the bed next to Peter and look around the room. An empty six-pack container of Pete's Wicked Ale is tacked to the wall. A Siberian husky doll sits on the chair by the window, and on a nearby table sits a glass vase with a lone yellow rubber duck inside. Atop the television is a photo of Chewey and Pierre when they appeared on Channel 20.
Rosenthal activates his camcorder to record the meeting and I start into a lengthy explanation of how the tapes were recorded, the CD, the play, and how three movie versions are under way.
He can't fathom any of it, except that his rights may have been violated.
"Who do I sue?" he slurs.
I make a second attempt, to no avail. "I don't recall any of this at all," he says. He can't remember Eddie Lee or Mitchell. He remembers the Radio New Zealand interview, but can't connect it to the tapes. "I have to be like Ronald Reagan and say I have Alzheimer's."
After more conversation, it sinks in that someone is doing a movie about his life.
Asked about his life, he gives only a skeletal account, much of it already known from listening to the tapes.
Born in Oak Park, Ill., on March 23, 1928. Moved to California a short time later. Illegitimate child of a policeman who got a teen-age girl pregnant. Grew up thinking his mother was his sister and his grandmother was his mother. Served briefly in the Army. Graduated from Northwestern University with degree in advertising and journalism. Worked for several ad firms in the '50s and '60s, handling accounts for Alka-Seltzer, Black Label beer, and Old Gold cigarettes.
He says he met Ray in the '70s at the Spaulding, a residential hotel on O'Farrell Street. Raymond worked at the hotel and would visit Peter's apartment when Peter had parties.
After Raymond was fired for drinking, Peter took him in. The mystery of their relationship -- whether it was sexual or not, what drew two men into their mutual existential hellchamber -- may never be discovered. But Peter makes one thing clear: "I loved him. He was a very important part of my life."
Approaching the issue of Peter's fame again, I mention that people know him as the man who used to say, "Shut up, little man." His eyes grow brighter, and he smiles. "Yeah, I used to say, 'Shut up, little man,' because Ray was a drunk."
He stops and looks me in the eye with a devilish grin, extends his finger into my face, and says, "Shut up, little man." I laugh nervously.
Meeting the real Peter when you're accustomed to the marketed version can be disconcerting. On the eve of the L.A. opening of Shut Up! Little Man, Eddie Lee and Mitchell visited San Francisco and looked Peter up. They found him stumbling down the street and took him to a bar. With Frank Sinatra blaring in the background, Eddie Lee and Mitchell also tried in vain to explain what had happened with the tapes and the play.
"When we first experienced Raymond and Peter, it wasn't funny," Eddie Lee says. "It was depressing and scary. And them having the tapes, having Raymond and Peter become a phenomenon and watch it proliferate, it became something different. Then we went back to see him before the opening night of the L.A. play and, whew, it was a cold blast in the face. [Peter] was asking to see Mitchell's dick. He couldn't understand anything. It really fucked us up. And then we got back in the car that night and had to drive to L.A. for the play, where we watched people laughing and laughing. It was totally strange."