Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pomp and Circumstances Beyond Our Control: Returning to Rock 'n' Roll High School

June’s almost here, so thousands of eighteen-year-olds in rented gowns and mortarboards will soon be traipsing across the stage of their high school auditoriums. I trust all of them will be on their best behavior. But as a former Roger Corman person, I can’t help associating the teen years with the anarchic spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

I’m also thinking about Dick Clark, known forevermore as “the world’s oldest teenager.” By championing teen-friendly music on American Bandstand, Clark helped establish the teen market that continues to drive the entertainment industry. Clark’s death on April 18 marked the final fadeout of a vision of teens as rambunctious (perhaps), rock ‘n’ roll crazy (certainly), but also ultimately wholesome. This is a view that Rock ‘n’ Roll High School emphatically challenged. It’s a curious fact, though, that in a roundabout way Dick Clark was responsible for the Rock ‘n’ Roll High School script that many of us know and love.

It seems that fledgling screenwriter Joe McBride had just sold Roger Corman a script called Rock City. It was a takeoff on American Bandstand, involving a local TV show on which a no-talent kid (think Fabian) becomes a pop sensation, wins the heart of a girl dancer, and goes off to Hollywood. The script also contained a satiric version of Dick Clark in his role as avuncular emcee. McBride’s project was a go until the real Dick Clark chanced to visit the offices of New World Pictures. Roger unwisely shared the script with Clark, who put the kibosh on it, thus ending McBride’s chance to get Rock City produced.

Fortunately, McBride (who’d hung around New World long enough to snag the role of the “drive-in rapist” in Hollywood Boulevard) had become accepted by Cormanites as an expert on teenagers and their music. I’ve already written about Joe’s key contributions to the script of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, but his memories of filming the movie’s climax are worth preserving. The location was Mt. Carmel High School, a Catholic school in Watts that had been condemned because it was not earthquake safe. Roger paid a priest $1000 to rent the campus, but didn’t disclose specifics about the film’s ending. Director Allan Arkush had first suggested using a miniature, but Corman replied, “Are you kidding? It’s too expensive to build the miniature. You’re going to have to blow up a real school.”

The idea was to create a showy series of small bangs and booms. A crusty old SFX guy put smoke pots in the school windows, adding explosives that would be triggered by the flip of a switch. Joe prudently watched from across the street, but the school lawn was filled with actors and Ramones, plus 300 teen extras. When the switch was flipped, a gigantic fireball erupted – twice as big as what anyone had anticipated. Joe told me, “Luckily nobody got hurt, even though there was broken glass and windows were flying out, and some of the trees caught on fire and the American flag caught on fire. . . . All these people came out of their houses in their pajamas, because nobody had bothered to tell them we were gonna blow up the school. It was pretty funny to see all these people totally freaking out.”

The teen extras, who’d been bussed in from Orange County, were supposed to leave by 10 p.m., but they were persuaded to stay on until 3. Too bad some of them were taking SATs in the morning. At any rate their college years certainly started off with a bang.


  1. Another excellent look back at the old world of New World. I'm surprised Dick Clark had enough oomph with Mr. Corman to get the deal squashed - was Mr. C looking to possibly cast Mr. Clark as his own character? And, happy ending - it did lead us through to Rock n Roll High School - one of my faves!

    Do you think Mr. McBride would have a copy of Rock City lying around that I might read?

  2. Speaking of Dick Clark, he was a producer on some exploitation pictures, too, amazingly enough. Stuff like the biker flick THE SAVAGE SEVEN (1968) and THE DARK (1979) among them. Casey Kasem is in the latter film as a pathologist. Kasem played some bad guys in trashy movies too like CYCLE SAVAGES (1967).

    Great story, Beverly!

  3. Thanks to you both. I'll have to ask Joe McBride if he can spare a copy of Rock City. (If he's like most writers, he's got a copy stashed somewhere, but he might not want to part with it.) Yes, Dick Clark definitely produced exploitation films, the first being Psych-Out, which I probably should discuss one of these days.

  4. Joe McBride wrote back to me about the current whereabouts of ROCK CITY. He says, "“Anyone who wants to read the script can find it among my papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society." So, Mr. Craig, I see a road trip in your future.