Profile: Tura Satana

Kevin Killian


“I don’t beat clocks—I beat people!”

Late one night last month on a whim, we decided to catch the midnight show at The Bridge Theater here in San Francisco, where Tura Satana was said to be appearing along with a showing of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer, 1965). For days we’d seen her photo, featured prominently in our local free weeklies, still giving attitude even though a Grandma.

“Let’s get there a little early then,” we said to each other, with the inane pride of those who feel they don’t really need to.

Oh my God, when we pulled up to Sixth Avenue around 11:15, heaps of slim youngsters, some dressed in extravagant, Cockettes-esque costumes, were jamming the sidewalk outside the small theater—it was like looking through the glass of an ant farm and seeing ants dressed as Bea Lillie in Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Daisy Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard. Needless to say, we felt chagrined, especially when a regretful usher assured us we couldn’t get in because we hadn’t gotten our tickets online weeks ago.

“But this was a whim,” we said, as though this might excuse us. He flapped a hand to indicate a little rush line, at the corner of Geary and some tiny little alley through which a summer wind whipped wintry chills through the populace. The kind of wind you’d see in an ABBA video – Lutheran, icy, just miserable.

We settled in like cattle—moody, defeated cattle.

Luckily we spotted a friendly face in the line, a few bodies ahead of us, the fiction writer Steve Gilmartin who lives over in the East Bay somewhere. Steve had gotten there way before us, and had actually seen Tura Satana already arrive up the red carpet. Her bright yellow Scion was still warm at the curb, underneath the overhanging marquee. Silly car—you just couldn’t picture La Satana exiting from it, but Steve said oh yes she did.

“Well, how does she look?” His eyes crossed in memory. “Just as she did forty years ago!” Then, judiciously: “Maybe there’s a little more of her. But outside of that everything is exactly the same.”

I looked into the absent space she had left, stardust a-twinkle in her wake, about eighteen inches above the pavement. A fervent, Scarlett O’Hara resolve grew within me: I had to get into that screening! But it didn’t look promising. “So what’s your guess, Steve? Think we’ll get in?” You know, the lame kind of question you ask others in situations like this. They’re supposed to provide you with cheer and encouragement (“Oh sure. Sure, I feel it in my bones”). That’s the social contract, right? Instead he looked about us, at the mob who already had tickets, lining around the corner in their gala costumes, at the cabs piling up on the street, and shook his head grimly. “Nope. No way.”

Deflated, we stood in the wind a bit longer, wrapping scarves and shawls about us in a visual reminiscence of the Ellis Island scenes in Godfather II. Then I noticed a Yellow Cab sidle up to the curb; from it emerged four trim gym guys—two couples it looked like, with tremendously skeptical expressions. Eavesdropping my ass off, I managed to infer that one of them, “Brad,” had early on secured four tickets, for it was supposed to be camptastic, but now at midnight the other fellows were more into doing what they loved best—group sex? No, their passion surprised me. The hobby of all four, apparently, was going to rundown neighborhoods and spotting suitable properties to buy up. And it’s much easier, so much more enjoyable after midnight when there aren’t a lot of people around. “Todd” shrugged.

“Scott says it’s only window shopping, but in this case,” he flared, “we’re buying the whole window.” Anyhow they were in no mood to stay cooped up indoors, not with whole swatches of the Sunset to trawl for bargains, so when I approached them with a ten dollar bill they gave up two of their ducats just like that. “Thanks, bye,” I screamed, as though I’d only stopped awhile for a chat. We cut out of the line and turned over the tickets to the exhausted usher and nabbed the last two seats. Onstage the indefatigable transvestite, “Peaches Christ,” was gyrating and miming to her new single, “Idol Worship,” backed by twenty worshippers who double as dancers. Peaches Christ has been running these monthly midnight shows for eight years at this theater, and by now her audience knows what to expect: lots of hullabaloo, music, fun and soul. The little lobby beat like a strobe, hung with large Aubrey Beardsleyesque promo photos of Peaches, and by the men’s room I saw a psychedelic Tura Satana that would tear your heart out.

How would you describe the quality of Satana’s voice, as she growls through lines like, “I don’t beat clocks—I beat people”? When she speaks, people in the audience scream out loud. I suppose she’s terrifying. You wouldn’t want her to whisper in your ear in a dark alley. There’s a flatness to her voice, a levelness that seems almost to simulate the desert landscapes of Faster, Pussycat, its shallow lakes and its endless patches of bad road. She doesn’t carry a lot of vibrato. It just comes to her. She doesn’t care if you think she’s an actress playing a part. Let actresses do that. Sometimes she forgets to act tough, and a quality of —well, of nothing— emerges from the shape on the screen. In person she seems like a good-natured sort, ready to take a joke, but her humor doesn’t come across on screen in the beats between her speeches. She doesn’t seem all that present.

Before her triumphal procession onto the stage, the curtains parted and a montage played of all her best parts in the movies. Now I have seen this device used before, for all kinds of stars from Karen Black to Kim Novak, and I can say without hesitation that this montage was the lamest ever made! But I feel for the montagist, whoever he is.

Satana actually made but a handful of films, and apparently Montage Guy didn’t have access to one key one, Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed (with Dean Martin, Carol Burnett and Elizabeth Montgomery). Satana’s role in Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce only lasts under four minutes screen time, so the montagist had to gather what amounts to video captures of two to five seconds apiece. In some of them she appears to share the screen with Jack Lemmon, but it’s so rapid you can’t be certain.

Elsewhere there’s a brief shot from In Like Flint where she dances in a stripjoint as James Coburn watches her intently, and another low-budget epic where she’s just evil. Inept at acting, but evil. She shoots one guy in the chest as he’s sitting in an armchair. The audience cries out each time we recognize her face and her body. She never looks very young. She must have been 30 at the time that FPKK was made, and she looked forty, so now she’s, what, 70? She was born in Japan and spent her childhood in an internment camp—okay, maybe she’s 65.

When she came out I thought the roof would blow off The Bridge.

Well, 65 must be the new 35 because she looks pretty much the same! Thank God I brought my camera, I thought. Peaches advised us that Tura Satana had been her heroine…well…ever since forever, and that the very first “Midnight Mass” in this theater, all those years ago, had been Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

The circle was coming around with a vengeance, and we all felt it. She was now trying to persuade Tura to write her memoirs because, what a story she had to tell! She had after all dated Elvis, turned down his offer of marriage, and watched from afar while he—like a rockabilly version of Vertigo’s Scotty Ferguson––re-modelled Priscilla Beaulieu, his child bride, into Tura’s strange, alluring image: gobs of mascara, hair teased a mile high, set pout, arms akimbo.

By the end Priscilla looked more like Tura than Tura herself. Peaches prompted her to “tell the snake story.” “Okay, sure, so I was trying to break into striptease in Calumet City, ever been there? It’s the hellhole of the nation.” We tried to extrapolate back in time to guess the date. It was pre-Elvis so it’s got to have been in the mid-1950s. There she was faced with an already famous stripper on the same bill, one who did an act with a huge boa and who demanded obeisance from younger wannabes. I pictured her like Crystal in Showgirls, and Tura in the role of the wide-eyed ingenue Nomi.

But, Tura growled, “I wasn’t having none of that. The darn snake kept escaping into my dressing room, and I hate snakes so I warned her, you don’t do somethin’ about that snake, I’m gonna do something rash.” She paused and looked at the audience, then grabbed her own waist. “So it got out one more time and now, I got a snakeskin belt,” she grunted, and we all started to scream again. The belt glittered like an ancient sign of evil from an old Jim Morrison video. Now let’s hear some questions from the audience, said Peaches Christ. Many of us had our hands raised.

One guy asked if she had ever workd with John Waters. He reminded us that Waters had supposedly called Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! the greatest movie ever made, and that Divine was created in an exact replica of Tura Satana, down to the meaningless, moronic sneer slapped across her face. “I’ve heard that,” hazarded Tura. “But no, I have never met John Waters. Spoke to him on the phone. Never met him.”

“Ask her about the famous guys she slept with!” Peaches suggested. “For example, Tura: Who is the father of your older daughter?”

She looked bemused. “Tony Bennett.” she replied. A woman ahead of me started to sing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

“And how about your younger girl? Who’s her father, Tura?”

“Rod Taylor,” she allowed. I thought I was going to faint. Rod Taylor from The Time Machine and The Birds? The sexiest star in all of the 60s movies––with that cute Australian accent! Rod Taylor who made Do Not Disturb and Darker Than Amber and Zabriskie Point by, oh my God, Michelangelo Antonioni? I should write a whole column outlining my complex feelings for Rod Taylor but suffice it to say, I was thunderstruck. My hands were like limp rags. I kept clapping without reason, like one from David and Lisa.

All of Tura Satana’s memories featured her as the woman who got exactly what she wanted. Russ Meyer prohibited his cast members from having sex during the shooting of his movies, in the belief that their repressed energy would make them sexier in the camera. “I wasn’t gonna go without for that long, no way,” Tura explained. “And I told him so. I couldn’t go a single day without sex.

‘But Tura, we’re way out in the middle of the desert, where are you gonna find someone?’

‘Leave that to me, Russ. That’s my department. You shoot the movie,’ Satana said.

‘Well, then, just do me a favor, don’t let any of the other girls know you’re getting any.”

She was like Paul Bunyan, a Paul Bunyan of sex, and her stories made her larger than life. Indeed, there must be a pluperfect of “larger than life” that she could be larger than.

“Want to know the first girl who made a pass at me?” she paused and Peaches rapidly licked her lips, murmuring, “Of course!"

"It was Ursula Andress,” Satana said (Naturally, it would have to be!). “We were partying at Frank’s house, everyone was singing, Dean, Judy, Jack [Lemmon], everyone, and John Derek was there with Ursula Andress and she saw me at the bar and she comes up to my side and asks me if I’ve had my first girl yet.” Tura explained to Miss Andress that once she had slept with every single man in the world then she would be ready to try her first girl. “Not till then, sweetie.”

It was a bit homophobic but in the grand scheme of things probably never really happened, so why sweat it? Perhaps we enjoyed the mental image of an Ursula Andress at a loss for once, driven to filming Matthew Barney videos due to this long-ago hurt. Then, prompted by Peaches, Tura revealed that she had been gang-raped at age 9 by six neighbor boys, and over the years she had learned aikido, ju-jitsu and karate. Then as an adult she had tracked down all six, individually, and “paid them back.” She didn’t say how, but it was gut-wrenching. “You have to write this book!” Peaches sighed. She announced that Tura was leaving the stage now, and that the movie would begin, but anyone who wanted to chat personally with the star could find her at a table in the lobby during the showing of the Meyer film.

I was on pins and needles for about 15 minutes. The film is great and we were seeing it under optimal conditions, but in the back of my mind anxiety was screaming with red consonants, that I was too weak to meet Tura Satana!

“You’re weak, Kevin, weak!” lectured my superego. Why else was I delaying this “face to face”? Presently mustering all my manhood I crept out of the auditorium during the infamous gas station scene, and down into The Bridge’s tiny lobby, that looks like a maquette for an actual lobby. Minions had set up long tables and piled them high with Tura Satana merchandise. There was a tempting array of photos and stills from FPKK, and lots of fetchingly weird glamour shots from the 1960s. “How much is this one?” I inquired. “They’re all twenty,” he said—was there a hint of apology in his voice? If so not much of one.

Anyhow nothing, well perhaps my death, could have stopped me from buying as many as I could afford. At the very end of the table—like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—she sat. I could see her in my peripheral vision. You know how you’re not supposed to look at Medusa with both your eyes, directly. You put up your burnished shield and watch her reflection in it. That’s how I felt, and this table of photos was her myriad reflections.

Ahead of us a fast-talking dude was trying to interview her for some cable or Internet station, and he asked me to aim his camcorder at them while he put his head real close to Tura’s and chatted madly with her about pop music. It was all about what bands did she follow? “Did Susan approve this?” she kept asking him, referring to her current manager.

“I’ll get approval from Susan later. You like Coldplay? System of a Down?” She seemed torn between displaying what actually sounded like a hardcore knowledge of rock, and not wanting to offend Susan. Finally Susan ran up to me as I held the VJ’s camera like an idiot; I’m trying to act like, who me, this wasn’t my idea.

“What show are you with?” she barked. She was very pretty, like the old time folk rock singer Jackie De Shannon. Aged a bit, of course. For all I know she was Jackie De Shannon now fallen on hard times and finding a new niche managing “underground” talent. “I’m not with a show. This guy just asked me to hold his camera.”

“Turn it off.”

“I don’t know how to!”

Susan put her palms up to my lens. It looked fetching, like Madonna imitating crucifixion in "Like a Prayer. " Oh no, I was thinking, I have really fucked up my chance to meet and charm Tura Satana!

I decided to completely betray my new acquaintance. I laid his camera delicately on the floor, ready to step on it if Susan ordered me to. It continued running, filming something about an inch above ground level.

Finally it was our turn. “Oh my God,” I said, “you are so great.”

“Why thank you,” she drawled. “I love San Francisco. It’s my home away from home.”

“And we love you here.” Why do the lamest, most asinine things come to our lips just when we want to express our devotion? God must be tired of the banal way we worship Him. Up close I could see she wore a womderful jewel on a chain, something pagan and ethnic and—oh, it was a necklace expressing la difference! “Say, Miss Satana, does your younger daughter have an Australian accent?

She blinked, signing my autograph book. Then, “No, but neither did Rod Taylor when I was with him.”