Thrill of a Lifetime

The life of Will "The Thrill" Viharo -- the Bay Area's undisputed B-movie lounge king -- would make a good B-movie of its own

Maybe life was a movie after all, and when we died we just walked off the set and returned to reality. Maybe we were taking the illusion too seriously.

-- Vic Valentine inLove Stories Are Too Violent for Me

It could have been directed by B-movie maker Edgar G. Ulmer.

Scene 1, Take 1, "The Great Ocean's Eleven Boycott": A well-dressed but steely-eyed and determined group of protesters stands outside the picturesque Jack London Cinema. They have placards that read "Say no to remakes!" and "Get original or get new jobs!" Some customers approach the ticket booth, then think better of it; others avoid eye contact with the protesters, clearly intimidated by the demonstrators' God-given savoir-faire and fierce resolve. Hard-bitten protest organizer Will "The Thrill" Viharo delivers a rousing speech that prompts the manager of the movie house to beg forgiveness and pull the offending film title from his marquee.

In reality, of course, it looks quite different. Only five of the 16 protesters are dressed to impress. (The others are clad, as The Thrill's wife and lovely assistant, Monica Cortés Viharo, might say, simply to avoid being naked.) The placards are paper signs that wobble in the breeze. The Jack London Cinema is a modern-day multiplex, and the manager couldn't care less about the protest. There is no marquee, and there is no crowd. And, of course, there are no demonstration permits, so a slowing cop car is cause for anxiety.

But that's show biz on a shoestring budget, and it's doubtful Will The Thrill, the Bay Area's undisputed B-movie lounge king and producer of the "Thrillville"cult-cinema series, would have it any other way.

Viharo chats up the cop, who, luckily, is a Frank Sinatra fan. After a minute, the officer gets back in his car and the black-and-white rolls off, leaving Viharo's motley crew to protest the remake of Ocean's Eleven, which fallaciously replaces Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and Angie Dickinson with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, and Julia Roberts.

"Frankly, I thought I'd be out here alone," says Viharo, regarding the numerous reporters who are milling about with incredulity. "This was just supposed to be a personal statement."

The personal statement -- Boycott the anti-Rat Pack remake of Ocean's Eleven! -- has adorned every e-mail Viharo has sent out over the last six months. As the release date for the movie drew near, Viharo found himself at the center of a media flurry that included local dailies and commercial radio stations, Entertainment Weekly, and a documentary filmmaker from France -- representatives of a mainstream press that typically overlooks Viharo's movies.

"That's kind of my MO," says 38-year-old Viharo. "Once I don't give a shit, once I just give up and start being myself, I can't get left alone."

Last year, in another such case, when KABL-AM (960), the local oldies radio station that plays standards by such artists as Louis Prima, Keely Smith, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin, changed its format to adult contemporary, Viharo wrote an impassioned letter of protest to local newspapers throughout the area. It got a response, so he and his wife, known as Monica "Tiki Goddess" to "Thrillville" audiences, took petitions to the big-band concerts at Lake Merritt "for the blue-hairs to sign." Soon, the Viharos had gained enough public support to cause KABL to reverse its programming decision, a pretty unusual move in commercial broadcasting. Thus began Viharo's role as local pop culture custodian.

A lot of people just don't get it. Viharo's not doing it for a lot of people.

"I actually cried when I heard KABL was changing," says 28-year-old Monica, who stars in Rob Nilsson's raunchy new film Scheme C6.Elegantlydressed, as always, Monica perfectly complements the Viharos' small Oakland flat, which is overflowing with vintage movie paraphernalia and pop culture flotsam. "KABL was, like Will said, the soundtrack to our courtship. On our first date, I had KABL on the preset of my car radio," she says. "That's what really hooked him."

"I thought I was the only one," says Viharo, smiling at his wife while dozens of B-movie starlets beam down at him from the autographed pictures overhead. (Monica's head shot is among them.) He leans back on his red velvet couch and sips eggnog while Sinatra sings Christmas songs and a dozen large candles flicker in the fireplace. He sighs with contentment.

"When I went to Will's house for the first time, he brought me coffee in a cup and saucer," says Monica, showing me a cup set with acorns painted on the side. "How many men offer you coffee nowadays, much less in a matching cup and saucer?"

"I'd had that cup for a very, very long time," Viharo says with a wink. "I was waiting for someone to offer it to, but no one ever came over."

Offering a lady coffee is something Viharo learned from watching old Rat Pack flicks. He learned a lot of things from watching old movies, which is one of the reasons he cannot abide remakes. "The Rat Pack sort of helped me reinvent myself," says Viharo. "Pop culture, and Frank Sinatra in particular, sort of saved my life."

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