Turning a corner in the Tenderloin, Henry Rosenthal takes off his sunglasses and wipes his brow. It's a sweltering hot Saturday, and the movie producer has been combing Skid Row streets all day looking for the hard-drinking retiree who's the subject of his latest film project.
Along for the ride are myself and Gregg Gibbs, the Los Angeles playwright, painter, and performance artist who's writing the screenplay. Gibbs is nervous because he's played a central role in creating the worldwide acclaim for the prodigious drinker: Peter J. Haskett. Yet Gibbs has never met Haskett.
“What am I going to do? What am I going to say to him if we find him?” he says, running his finger down a hotel registry on Geary Street looking for Haskett's name.
Haskett is known to thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people as Peter of the Raymond and Peter: Shut Up Little Man tapes, 15 hours of drunken rants between Haskett and his roommate, the late Raymond Huffman, that were covertly recorded by their next-door neighbors in the late '80s.
For nearly five years, the recordings have been copied and recopied and mailed all over the world, creating international celebrities of Raymond and Peter and fans as far afield as New Zealand. The two men's rants have inspired a play, written and directed by Gibbs, and an odd compendium of memorabilia — a comic book, T-shirts, a compact disc, even a Macintosh screen saver. Rock stars from Faith No More and L7 to the Breeders and Possum Dixon have sampled the tapes on their albums. Actress Martha Plimpton keeps a picture of Raymond on her mantel. And in the next year or so, the outlandish lives of Raymond and Peter may hit the big screen. Three different independent film projects are fighting among themselves for the right to tell the story. The actor Judge Reinhold has told Rosenthal's team that he wants to play the minor role of Tony Newton, Raymond and Peter's sometime roommate.
Which brings us to why a producer, a playwright, and a reporter are spending a sunny Saturday trekking through the Tenderloin.
Gibbs and Rosenthal aren't being entirely straight with me, but I suspect their lawyer has told them to convince Haskett to sign over the rights to tell his story. I later learn that I'm right.
I'm here for a different reason: to figure out what happens when the dark, pathetic lives of two losers are swallowed by pop culture and morphed into an exercise in art, irony, and merchandising.
As we walk in and out of Tenderloin bars, hoping to find some clue about Peter's whereabouts, I can't stop thinking about the merchandising of Charlie Manson T-shirts.
Rosenthal's thinking about a perverse artifact, too.
“You know guys,” he says to Gibbs and me. “I haven't had this much fun since I went looking for John Dillinger's penis.”
When he was 17, the 40-year-old producer tells us, he went searching the nation's capital for the dead gangster's member. After a furtive search of the Smithsonian Institution and the medical museum of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Rosenthal learned that the story about the FBI cutting off and saving the allegedly awe-inspiring schlong was a canard.
Peter J. Haskett has indeed become a pop-culture artifact. But that's the extent of Rosenthal's metaphor. The object of today's search is no fiction. Haskett's life has been appropriated, edited, turned into absurdist theater, packaged, and sold over and over again. But he is very real, a fact Rosenthal and I will learn when we finally track him down in a lonely Tenderloin hotel room.
There, bathed in the aroma of booze, coagulated cooking grease, and GPC menthol cigarettes, the movie producer will finally meet the 67-year-old former advertising executive and convince him to sign over the rights to his life story for an undisclosed amount of money. Rosenthal will also confront for the first time the imponderable sorrow of the life he's purchased and the story he's committed himself to tell.
“It's much more complex than the tapes let on,” Rosenthal says to me the day after we meet Haskett. “It's just so … sad. The whole thing is just so eerie.”
It's not the first time a fan has come too close to the despair behind the phenomenon. Last year, Kelley Deal of the Breeders told Rolling Stone, “Raymond and Peter are sad. The eavesdroppers who recorded it are sad. The label that released it is sad. The people who buy it are sad. And I'm sad for listening to it.”
Eight years ago, Raymond and Peter were living off welfare, booze, and corned beef hash in a ratty apartment in the Lower Haight. The only people who knew about them were the neighbors in the 15-unit building at 237 Steiner who were forced to listen to them screaming at each other. Their greatest joys in life — other than fighting and drinking — were their two dogs, Chewey and Pierre, a Pomeranian and a Cocker-Pomeranian mix, respectively.
Raymond and Peter got Exxon credit cards in the dogs' names, and Peter once applied to the Bay Area Reporter, trying to get a job for Chewey as a “dog reporter.”
Their fights were always loud, always annoying, but also sad and funny. Haskett, who is gay, displays a bitchy elan, and his put-downs verge on high camp.
For example: “Giggles, giggles, giggles, you dirty little man. You always giggle falsely. You don't have a decent giggle in you.” When Ray ruined their evening meal, it became, “You've crucified the dinner!”
But Peter's classic line — which serves as the title of the play, the CD, the comic book, and Gibbs and Rosenthal's movie — was “Shut up, little man.”
“Little man,” of course, was Raymond, who died in 1992 of a heart attack prompted by colon cancer, pancreatitis, and alcoholism, according to the medical examiner. Ray, whose sexuality is still open to debate, hated gays and had a much more limited, cruder vocabulary than Peter. With him, it was cocksucker this and cocksucker that. However, when he was alone, he would launch into dark soliloquies: [page]
“I love people. I love the world. I love a lot of things. But I sure can't love a piece of shit.”
Much of this I know firsthand. For three years, between 1991 and 1994, I lived in the building next to Raymond and Peter's apartment. My bedroom window was a mere 15 feet from their front door. Many a night I would lie awake on my futon, listening to Peter yelling, “Shut your goddamn mouth!” over and over and over, like a riffing victim of Tourette's syndrome.
More often than not, though, my four roommates and I would be in the kitchen throwing together a meal on the cheap — pasta or burritos — and through our closed window we'd hear the familiar strains of urban life.
Raymond: “I'm a man, I'm a man. But you ain't nothing but a cocksucker. A cocksucker ain't a human bein'.”
Peter: “Shut up, I'm trying to watch Angela Lansbury.”
We'd rush over, pop open our kitchen window, and have a few laughs about the peculiar logic of inebriation.
By the time we found our front-row seats, Raymond and Peter were already on the verge of underground fame. Their role as the Abbott and Costello of boozing had already been fixed in 1987 when two twentysomethings, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D., moved in next door. (Eddie Lee and Mitchell asked to be identified by their long-standing pseudonyms.)
Two recent college graduates from the University of Wisconsin, Eddie Lee and Mitchell took the first apartment they saw when they moved out to San Francisco. Only after they signed the lease did the landlady mention the “loud neighbors.”
Soon Eddie, whose paper-thin bedroom wall abutted Raymond and Peter's living room, was being roused from slumber by brawls next door. Eddie Lee says he went by one evening to ask for some peace and quiet and Ray threatened to kill him.
“I was a killer before you were born, and I'll be a killer after you die,” Eddie Lee recalls Raymond saying.
This encounter, coupled with the skull Raymond and Peter kept in their window, frightened him, Eddie Lee says. To amass evidence of threats, Eddie Lee and Mitchell say they began taping the fights next door with a crude boombox. They went as far as to dangle a microphone into Raymond and Peter's window.
By 1989, when they left the apartment, Eddie Lee and Mitchell had become completely obsessed with Raymond and Peter.
“After a while, we became them,” Eddie Lee says from Seattle where he works in a used-book store. “We would emulate them all the time. Our friends thought we were crazy. We annoyed the hell out of them all the time doing our Ray-and-Peter routines. Mitchell would rush home from work so he could hear them.”
Eddie, who was the driving force behind the taping, was predisposed to memorializing the bizarre relationship between the two households. An art student, he was particularly enamored of the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, a group of artists including Yoko Ono who made their lives performance art.
So it's natural that Eddie Lee and Mitchell once subjected their pickled neighbors to the tapes, placing a boombox outside Ray and Peter's front door. This only led to a new argument. “Listen to yourself, Ray. You sound stupid, little man.”
Later, Eddie Lee and Mitchell provoked Raymond and Peter by calling and taping prank phone calls. On one occasion, they pretended to be the Nova Express Times newspaper conducting a survey on alcoholism.
But most important, they collected the critical pieces of information that would eventually feed the lore of Raymond and Peter.
They discovered that Raymond kept a huge stuffed rabbit in the house, to which he would cling while drinking and watching television. One day, Eddie Lee went to their apartment with a couple of 40-ouncers to make up and Ray answered the door, dried corned-beef-hash puke all over his shirt. Both images appear in the comic book and at least one of the many “Shut Up Little Man” T-shirts. The rabbit plays a prominent role in the play.
But for the most part, Eddie Lee and Mitchell kept the tapes to themselves, maybe sharing them with a few friends. It wasn't until after they moved out of the city — Eddie Lee back to Wisconsin for grad school and Mitchell to South America — that the tapes seeped up from obscurity and into global awareness.
In 1989, Eddie Lee and Mitchell's friend Rich Whitaker, who played in the band Poop Shovel, went off to New York to cut an album for the Comm Three label. In his bag were a few Raymond-and-Peter tapes. Whitaker gave the tape to someone at Comm Three, who passed it on to a friend in Iowa. The person in Iowa knew members of the San Francisco band the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, and the tapes quickly made their way back home.
Around the same time, Eight Ball Comics publisher and artist Dan Clowes placed an ad in his comic asking for original audio vŽritŽ tapes, and Eddie Lee and Mitchell dispatched some of their Raymond-and-Peter recordings. Clowes sent a 30-minute recording titled “Where's the Police?” to a friend in Los Angeles who was in a workshop with Gregg Gibbs. Gibbs got ahold of the tape and in 1990 began producing a short experimental play titled Shut Up! Little Man.
In San Francisco, the tapes caught the attention of Seymour Glass, the publisher of the underground zine Bananafish. Glass, a friend of some of the Thinking Fellers, had a tape one of the band members wanted: a recording of Dion MacGregor, a show-tune composer, talking in his sleep. The MacGregor tape was rare but well-known among audio verite fans. MacGregor's nightly dissertations, mostly about songwriting and theatrical productions, were so lucid and detailed that the recordings were transcribed and published in a book, Dion MacGregor Talks in His Sleep, illustrated by Ed Gore. [page]
After hearing the Raymond-and-Peter tape, Glass proposed a trade with his friend in Thinking Fellers: Raymond-and-Peter for Dion MacGregor.
“I grew to appreciate the rhythms of Ray, his soliloquies,” Glass says. “They take on a musical quality. Soon I would listen to him more than I would my music albums.” Answering those who think it bizarre that two drinkers can become a pop-art sensation, Glass quotes John Cale: “If the term art offends you, don't use it.”
Glass found Eddie Lee in Wisconsin in 1991 and interviewed him by phone for Bananafish. Along with the interview, Glass ran a transcript of one of the tapes, a picture of Raymond, a notice of Gibbs' play — which by then was playing in coffee houses in L.A. — and a PO box where people could send $6 for copies of the tapes.
By now, the tapes were cataloged in eight volumes, bearing titles like “Where's My Vodka?” “A Night in the Stoney Lonesome,” and the ever-popular “You Think Your Mother and Father Were a Couple of Boys and Fucked and Made a Boy.” Mitchell and Eddie Lee set up their own PO box in Ohio and started selling tapes, too.
With Glass and Gibbs working the Raymond-and-Peter machine from both halves of California, and the boys working from the Midwest, it was only a matter of time before the two old men from 237 Steiner became known far and wide. So far and wide, in fact, that in 1993 a man from Radio New Zealand traveled to the Lower Haight and interviewed Peter and Tony, the sometime roommate. That tape also became a cult classic and inspired an eight-hour Raymond-and-Peter marathon on Radio New Zealand.
“When I first heard the New Zealand interview, my first impression was, 'Oh shit, why can't people leave things alone?' ” Eddie Lee says. “Why can't they be into not knowing, the enigma of it? When there's a mystery, you are able to create things. But then I heard the tape and I thought it was fucking brilliant, it's better, it adds, like, backstage with Ray and Peter.”
The year before the New Zealand interview, Glass and a friend published the comic book, a compilation of Raymond-and-Peter stories illustrated by 16 different San Francisco artists. The comic disappeared fast from underground comic book and record stores.
Glass also convinced his friend Johan Kugelberg at Matador Records to produce a compact disc, a greatest hits if you will, of Raymond and Peter. The 72-minute CD disappeared from stores as quickly as the comic book.
In 1993, Gibbs had honed his play and presented it at an art gallery in Los Angeles. Brief mentions of the Raymond-and-Peter tapes also began appearing in mainstream press articles about the then-emerging Jerky Boys phone-prank fad. Gibbs took his play to New York in 1994, where it ran for 10 days at the Thread Waxing Space in Manhattan. The New Yorker honored the event with a preview and a color illustration of Raymond and Peter.
On both coasts, the play was a hit among celebrities. In New York, Tama Janowitz, Peter Max, and Martha Plimpton attended. In L.A., the play drew Judge Reinhold, the members of L7, and Justine Bateman. Johnny Depp made reservations three times but was a no-show each time.
By the time the play closed in L.A., movie producers were taking meetings with Gibbs, Eddie Lee, and Mitchell.
Raymond was dead, his body claimed and cremated by the county coroner. Peter was falling deeper and deeper into drink. But the chroniclers — man, they'd arrived.
Searching for Peter, I return to the Lower Haight looking for my my old neighbor Jill. She lived two doors down from Raymond and Peter for almost seven years, so I'm thinking she might know something about the story behind the fights, behind the tapes. She may also know Peter's whereabouts.
I ring her bell from the gate below and she comes to her window, hair askew, clutching her pink terry-cloth bathrobe at her bosom. It's 3 p.m.
Jill, who refused to tell me her last name, has a tangential connection to the Raymond-and-Peter hoopla. She can be heard screaming at them on some of the tapes, and she has been interviewed several times by two of the competing film projects. Along the way, she's managed to turn her link to the story into a moneymaking venture — a fact which I'm about to find out.
As we walk into her house, her precocious 10-year-old daughter, Laila, comes over, anxious to show me her new hamsters. As three or four — I lose count — of the adorable little furballs climb over my shirt sleeve, their mouths suckling at the air, Jill becomes totally unhinged.
“What's in it for me?” she screams from across the living room.
“This one is my favorite,” Laila says, seemingly unaware of her mother's floridly weird moment. “He walks funny because I accidentally sat on him.”
“What's in it for me?” Jill repeats in an increasingly hysterical tone. “Peter is going to be a star, and what about my acting career? What are these movie people going to make from it? Everyone is going to make money but me. I'm 44, and I've been fucked over my whole life. I'm finally learning to be selfish. So what's in it for me?”
“Uh, you tell me,” I answer.
“To me it's worth 50 bucks,” she says.
She finally gives me a totally useless interview at a local cafe. I learn later that she's milked cash from Gibbs and Rosenthal and the Zebra Films people. [page]
Gibbs and Rosenthal visit her a few days after me and hear the same speech. After negotiating a $20 fee, Jill returns to her apartment and dons a blond wig and sunglasses (she says she's afraid of Peter) and takes the two men on a fruitless trek through the Tenderloin. By now, she's probably made at least $200 off her association with Raymond and Peter.
A lesson quickly learned in the Raymond-and-Peter universe is that the squalor and acrimony of their lives are less spectacular than the avarice their minor celebrity has created in others. The fight to secure a piece of the action, to own and control the story that spewed forth from 237 Steiner, has produced some compelling insights into the dark side of humanity — more so than Raymond and Peter ever could.
Ever since the recordings catapulted from quirky underground fad to valuable media commodity, people have been stepping on each other's necks, slandering one another, and exploiting whomever is within reach to win exclusive control of the material. Strewn in the wretched wake of the Raymond-and-Peter legend are shattered friendships, betrayals, Hollywood chicanery, and accusations of intellectual thievery. Everyone's hired lawyers, and the threat of a lawsuit hovers over the nascent Raymond-and-Peter movie like a rotten can of hash.
Currently, three different teams of filmmakers are planning on making a movie about Raymond and Peter: Rosenthal's crew; a San Francisco outfit called Zebra Films, which claims to have already raised half the necessary funds and actors for all the parts; and McClatchy Films, the L.A. company that's working with original tapemakers Eddie Lee and Mitchell on a story about two Gen Xers who move next door to two drunks. All claim some legal right to tell the story. All say they are the only one with a defensible claim.
Sitting over lunch at a SOMA cafe, Mitchell wastes no time in displaying the acquisitiveness that surrounds the three movie projects. I ask who's going to take care of Peter, since he is, after all, the nucleus of the phenomenon.
“Peter takes care of himself,” he says. “He has his whole life. This phenomenon has left him behind. He's over and done with and withering away in a Tenderloin hotel.”
The battle for the Raymond-and-Peter legacy began in earnest in 1993. While producing the L.A. play, Gibbs became close with both Eddie Lee and Mitchell and conferred with them for months by phone about different aspects of the performance. On opening night, he flew the duo down to L.A. and Eddie Lee created an art exhibit for the opening, displaying a bottle of vodka, a can of hash, and a pack of Kool 100s, Peter's favorites. Laila even contributed a drawing of Peter yelling, “Shut up, little man. You ain't even decent. You're drunk.”
When Eddie Lee and Mitchell first met Gibbs, they had never laid any legal claim to the tapes. In fact, as Gibbs points out, the tapes they sold carried the following disclaimer: “You may freely use the material on these tapes for whatever personal or artistic purposes you desire. In fact, in the crusade to spread the gospel of Pete and Ray [we] encourage it.”
All that changed one night after the play, when Gibbs was approached by a film outfit called the Wegman Co. But things always change when Hollywood sharks start asking, “Who owns this?” and talking about huge sums of money.
At first, Mitchell says, Gibbs was doing all the talking to Wegman. He says Gibbs led the company to believe he was the primary author of the Raymond-and-Peter story. He proposed that he receive 50 percent of the contract and that Eddie Lee and Mitchell receive 25 percent each.
When Wegman presented the deal Gibbs suggested to Eddie Lee and Mitchell, the duo's punk-anarchist ethos quickly evaporated. They made it clear to Wegman, now called McClatchy Films, that they made and distributed the tapes and helped create the mythology around Raymond and Peter. They also started realizing that they needed legal representation. A friend from home put them in touch with Matthew Rosenberger, a Philadelphia entertainment lawyer.
After Wegman consulted with its attorney and Rosenberger, the film company decided that if anyone owned the rights to the material it was Eddie Lee and Mitchell. Eddie Lee says Wegman told Gibbs it would pay him an agents fee of $20,000, a far smaller figure than had been discussed prior to Eddie Lee and Mitchell's involvement in the project.
Gibbs flipped out, Eddie Lee says. He hired Century City entertainment lawyer John Mumford to craft a retaliatory legal argument: The tapes were not copyrightable because they represented an invasion of Raymond and Peter's privacy and did not constitute an original work. Gibbs' play, Mumford pointed out, was derivative of the tapes but constituted an original work. Gibbs copyrighted his play and proceeded to forget about Eddie, Mitchell, and the Wegman Co.
Meanwhile, Eddie Lee and Mitchell sold the rights to their story to Wegman for a little more than $1,000 each. They also secured a copyright for the tapes.
Rosenberger, the attorney for Eddie Lee and Mitchell, says Gibbs' copyright is invalid. He tells me that the tapes, while made without the consent of either Raymond or Peter, are legal. He says the two retirees were so loud that their expectation of privacy was seriously diminished, if not rendered irrelevant. He also says the tapes are edited and arranged so uniquely that they now carry Eddie Lee and Mitchell's creative stamp, making them worthy of a copyright.
Armed with this argument, Wegman threatened to seek an injunction against the New York production of Gibbs' play. After a few letter exchanges between Mumford and the Wegman legal team, the threat evaporated. But one thing was for sure: War had been declared between Gibbs and the “boys,” as he calls them. [page]
Even the soft-spoken, ethereal Eddie Lee, who protests that he's above the wrangling, can get worked up over the mundanities of making a movie. When I tell him Gibbs is working on a movie and he plans to call it Shut Up! Little Man, he blurts, “He must be crushed. He must be destroyed.”
Gibbs refuses to discuss his falling-out with Eddie Lee and Mitchell, except to say, “I really liked them. It's a shame that movie company drove a wedge between us.”
The feud between the “boys” and Gibbs would be the first of several ugly rights battles. Next up was Mitchell's best friend at the time, David Stein. Mitchell had given Stein a copy of the compact disc as a present, and the next thing he knew Stein had hooked up with a movie producer named Patrick Lavache and was writing a script based on the CD.
Mitchell says Stein knew he was working with Wegman on a film but still rejected pleas to cease the project. Stein and Lavache incorporated as Zebra Films and went looking for Peter to secure the rights.
They found him in his Tenderloin hotel in 1993 and took him out on a drinking binge. From 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Lavache says they barhopped across town, buying Peter gin after gin until they ended up in a Castro District bar and started talking rights. Completely trashed, Lavache says, he and Stein got Peter to sign away the rights to his story for $10.
“We left him there in a Castro bar,” Lavache says.
Once they had secured the contract, Zebra Films attacked Mitchell and Eddie Lee as the two tried to work with a record label to re-release the Shut Up Little Man CD.
Zebra had a San Francisco entertainment lawyer phone Ectoplasm Records, an imprint of Matador, the label that produced the CD, threatening to sue for copyright infringement if the CD was released. Ectoplasm ceased the re-release. But Zebra dropped the threat and the record label is going ahead with the project.
Lavache has also accused Rosenthal of stealing the idea to do a Raymond-and-Peter movie from him — a charge Rosenthal emphatically denies.
Lavache says he asked a video distributor he knows to show his script around to producers in the hopes of generating financial backing for his project. He contends that the distributor gave the script to Rosenthal, who used it to generate his own project. He says Rosenthal acknowledged receiving the script when he and Lavache met at a film festival in New York last year.
But Rosenthal denies ever receiving Lavache's script and says he got involved with Shut Up! Little Man last fall when a producer he knows in L.A. put him in touch with Gibbs.
Last week, Lavache and Rosenthal had a meeting of the minds. Rosenthal says he called Lavache and tried to sort through the mess, and for a brief couple of hours the two were contemplating merging their two projects. But then Rosenthal consulted his attorney, Mumford, who told the producer that Lavache's contract with Peter is worthless because Peter was drunk when he signed it.
“You can't liquor someone up and get them to sign something,” Rosenthal says. He also suggests that Lavache and Stein stole the idea from Gibbs. “They admitted to me that they wrote their script after they saw [Gibbs'] play in both New York and L.A.”
Today, all three film projects — Rosenthal/Gibbs, Zebra Films, and McClatchy Films — have some legal claim, some document, to show that they have the exclusive right to tell the story of Raymond and Peter.
“I guess we're all in a big mess,” Lavache says after learning that Peter signed a contract with Rosenthal, too.
Queen Itchie, the publisher of the zine Everything I Touch Turns to Shit and Garbage, says she moved to San Francisco from Lexington, Ky., a few weeks ago because of Raymond and Peter. Actually, she says she would have moved anyway. It's tough to live in Lexington with a name like Queen Itchie.
“But my dream was to buy a big bottle of gin and get drunk right there in front of Raymond and Peter's house,” she says. “It was part of the reason for the whole trip for me, a pilgrimage for better things.”
Eddie Lee says he gets five letters a month from Raymond-and-Peter enthusiasts who have just come back from “the tour” — which includes buying booze at O'Looney's Market (corner of Steiner and Haight) and buying smokes at Walgreens (corner of Fillmore and Haight) just like Raymond and Peter did. Some go as far as getting drunk in front of Peter and Ray's house.
What could inspire such devotion, such fascination, such twisted homage?
Queen Itchie likes them because they remind her fondly of her drunk Irish uncles.
“They would always take me on their knee and pat me on the head and call me 'Pea-nut,' ” she says. “And when they did call my by a Christian name, it was always wrong.”
With Itchie, it's nostalgia. For Gibbs, Raymond and Peter enable him to flex his cursory knowledge of art movements.
“I'm like Rauschenberg making a collage,” he says. “I used William Burroughs' technique of cutting up tape and rearranging it.”
Sitting in Rosenthal's office, swirling around in a chair and occasionally slapping Rosenthal's desk, Gibbs goes on to compare his play to Ubu Roi, the original absurdist play by Alfred Jarry.
He begins by mentioning that Raymond eviscerates Peter at the end of the play. “That's the guts of man,” he says. “Ubu Roi is about the immorality of modern man. Jarry talked about the boodle, the belly of Ubu, the malevolent king. It was his greatest treasure, his boodle. But it was the guts of man. In my play, when Pete is saying, 'I'm a man, I'm a man,' it's like Ubu. And in the end Ray is pulling the guts out, taking away his manhood, taking away his boodle, as a retribution.” [page]
Gibbs' speech rolls on. “The movie will be a homage to Eugene Ionesco and queer theater. It's Ubu, Beckett, and Bukowski. It's essentially a mystery about what you can never know. You only have so much you can know about Pete and Ray. It's all fragments. You can't put the pieces together. What started the fight? What argument led to this never-ending fight? It's not just about them. For me, it's about the history of theater.”
Rosenthal is no more original when he tries to explain his vision for the project, also falling back on artistic references. “It's Beckett, Tarantino, Bukowski, and Mamet all wrapped in one,” he says.
But originality has nothing to do with the cult of Raymond and Peter. Why else would Gibbs and Rosenthal get hopelessly trapped in other artists' ideas? Why else would people abandon their authentic lives and travel to San Francisco for a vicarious ride in Raymond and Peter's degradation? At a certain level, the Raymond-and-Peter thing is about the inability to create, the death of ingenuity.
“It's a case study in how capitalism moves in a postmodern space,” Eddie Lee says. “It's this tiny little event, and all of a sudden there are vultures on vultures on vultures. There is something in biology called parasitoids, parasites on parasites. That's what's going on here. That's what Gibbs is.”
But didn't a kind of theft — the surreptitious taping — precede the whole dispute? Shouldn't the story belong to Ray and Peter? Isn't that why the fights over ownership are so tense and unsettled?
Eddie Lee cuts in.
“When you say theft, that moralizes it in a way a postmodern person wouldn't,” he says. “It's simply appropriating an utterance that is in a public space.”
He refers me to the British Marxist John Fiske, who postulates “The Theory of the Popular,” about how things enter the public arena and people make any use of it they want.
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.
“Will we make as much money as they are advertising on TV for the Lotto?” he asks, adding that he wants Brad Pitt to play him and Hugh Grant to be Pitt's understudy.
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.” [page]
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.”
At one point during our meeting, Rosenthal appears to have a similar realization. He gets this look on his face that says “I don't want to do this anymore.” He clicks off his camcorder and sets it in his lap.
I continue the interview, asking why Peter left advertising.
“I'm disabled,” he says.
He pauses a long while and looks at me as if I have just taken him somewhere he doesn't want to go anymore. He reaches under his bed and pulls out a pile of yellow legal stationary. On one page is a list of medications with names too long to pronounce without practice. Next to most of the meds is written the word “Anxiety.” On another page the word “Thoughts” is written across the top and underlined. “I want to die,” is thought No. 1. “I wake up every morning and wonder when I am going to die,” is thought No. 2. On a third page is a list of several suicide attempts.
Mustering one last reservoir of voyeurism, I spread the pages out on the bed and Rosenthal films them. I feel sick. Rosenthal looks sick. We are sick.
Still, I have to ask. I have to go deeper. This is what I wanted, right? The real Peter.
“Why do you say here that you want to die?” I ask.
“Well,” he says, “what have I contributed to the world except to sell more Alka-Seltzer and Black Label beer?”
After his first meeting with Peter, Rosenthal is in a quandary about how to proceed with his project. “The Peter that's in that room isn't the Peter on the tapes,” he says. “[The real Peter] gets this quixotic little smile, this gay smile, this sparkle in his eyes. This is the kind of balance I want to try and bring to the script.”
But after a few more meetings, Rosenthal's quandary seems resolved.
He's on the phone telling me how chummy he and Peter have become since they met. “He's been calling me almost daily, summoning me to his room,” Rosenthal says.
Peter seems to be under the impression that he's been contacted to work on a screen treatment. He's been giving Rosenthal writings over the past few days. But Rosenthal is happy that Peter has taken to him because it undercuts Lavache's hold on the rights.
I ask Rosenthal if he is still disturbed by what he saw in the first meeting, if it has still changed his view of the movie.
“I have to keep it very clear in my mind that the Peter I'm coming to know and the project are two different things,” he says.