Everyone knows about Ed Wood, the Z-grade Hollywood filmmaker who made “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” a movie so bad that it became legendary.
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp immortalized the man and his work in their terrific biopic “Ed Wood” which won Martin Landau a well-deserved Academy Award for his portrayal of a down-on-his-luck Bela Lugosi, who ended his career on a low with “Plan 9.”
Connecticut had its own Ed Wood, an actor, director and entrepreneur named Del Tenney who made a series of truly awful pictures in the Stamford area during the 1960s, the most notorious of which is “Horror of Party Beach,” a 1964 drive-in quickie about an atomic mutation that terrorizes Stamford (“party beach” was actually Shippan Point).
Tenney redeemed his reputation in subsequent decades with his leadership of the Hartman Theatre in Stamford, a regional theater that produced many notable plays including the last stage appearance by Henry Fonda.
Tenney got the ball rolling at the Hartman and then Ed Sherin took over, raising the theater’s profile with productions such as “Hedda Gabler” with Jane Alexander and a pre-Broadway production of “Steaming” that launched Judith Ivey as a stage star.
Yesterday, I got word from Howard Sherman — the longtime Connecticut public relations man who went on to head the American Theatre Wing in New York City — informing me that Tenney died in Jupiter, Florida on Feb. 21.
Sherman sent me the obit that ran in The Palm Beach Post which said Tenney “passed away quietly” at his home at the age of 82.
Tenney was born in Iowa and relocated with his family to Los Angeles when he was 12. As a young man he found extra work in two notable films, “Stalag 17” and “The Wild One.”
He moved to New York City, worked a lot in summer stock and on Broadway and became an assistant director on East Coast films.
“Horror of Party Beach” mixed two of the most popular genres of the early 1960s — the Roger Corman shockers and the beach pictures that featured Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Tenney also threw in a biker gang subplot for good measure (anticipating another movie fad of the decade which would be launched by the success of Roger Corman’s “Wild Angels” in 1966).
According to Wikipedia, the gang in the film was played by the Charter Oak Motorcycle Club of Greenwich.
The web encyclopedia also notes, “The monsters for the film were constructed at Gutzon Borglum’s (Mt. Rushmore) sculpting studio. There were two monster suits, and when they dried, one was too small for the stuntman. Production assistant Ruth Glassenberg Freedman had a son, Charles Freedman, who was 16 at the time. He fit perfectly into the suit and thus portrayed a monster in the film.”
“Horror of Party Beach” was a favorite of the Mystery Science Theater gang and still pops up on cable programs devoted to the lost drive-in fare of 50 years ago. It remains a hoot-and-a-half for anyone with a taste for kitsch.
Tenney was a truly “independent filmmaker” long before that title became fashionable.
Here’s a link to a Stamford Advocate profile from 2002: