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Feed Me!

[whitespace] Little Shop of Horrors
Plant on the Premises: Mel Welles (pictured far left in the original 'Little Shop of Horrors') returns to the role of Mushnick in Scotts Valley Performing Arts' production beginning this week.

The original star of the cult classic 'Little Shop of Horrors' comes to Scotts Valley

By Richard von Busack

THEY SAY THAT A WEED is just a plant that man hasn't found a use for yet. Still, Audrey II is a flower most gardeners wouldn't want to cultivate. "That no-goodnik plant," as she has been called, was the anti-heroine of The Little Shop of Horrors (1959), one of the first and most beloved cult movies. The one-set wonder of a film, spawned by director Roger Corman and writer Charles Griffith, grew like a weed into an off-Broadway musical, followed by a Hollywood film adaptation of that musical in 1986.

The musical play is being revived by Scotts Valley Performing Arts beginning April 9. In this little-theater production is a special cast member--Mel Welles, the man who was the original Mushnick of Mushnick's Flowers and who will perform the role for the first time onstage.

The plot, briefly: There's Audrey, the horticultural freak, with her snapping jaws, her preference for (human) blood-meal and her plaintive whine, "Feed me! Feed me! I'm starving!" Seymour (Jonathan Haze), a clerk at a blighted skid-row flower shop, raises Audrey II from a seed, little knowing just how exotic the plant is. With the rare plant, Seymour hopes to win favor both with his boss, Mushnick, and with Audrey I (Jackie Joseph), the sweet-faced, malapropistic cashier at Mushnick's. ("I think you're a fine figurative of a man," she reassures Seymour.) Unfortunately, the plant only thrives when Seymour feeds it blood.

Today, Mel Welles lives in Los Angeles, where he acts and teaches. He's also the proprietor of a dandy webpage complete with animation, memorabilia for sale and a sound bite that boomed out Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in B-flat and scared the bejesus out of my cat.

Through the website, Scotts Valley Performing Arts' Jon Rosen got in touch with Welles, eventually working up the nerve to ask the actor/director if he'd like to appear in the musical. Welles' Gravis is gratis; he's doing the performance as a benefit for the fledgling theater company.

"I said yes for two reasons," Welles explains briskly over the phone. "First, for the fun of playing the part and, second, to help out Scotts Valley Performing Arts, to give a shot of adrenaline to the community theater, to help get it going."

Welles has had a number of different careers. He worked as a speech pathologist, a Greenwich Village writer freelancing for the men's magazines True and Argosy, an actor with Clark Gable in Soldier of Fortune (1955). He helped set up the second government-owned television station in Canada. Some years after the death of his wife, Merri (who plays a streetwalker fed to Audrey II in the Corman film), Welles went overseas, directing Joseph Cotton in Lady Frankenstein (1970). But The Little Shop of Horrors was his most famous accomplishment.

"The part was written for me," Welles says. "Mushnick was a character I used to do at parties, sometimes all the way through the party. He was a combination of different Jewish businessmen that I used to know from the theatrical district in New York. It's my favorite part--because nobody ever wrote another part for me."

Welles runs down the circumstances of The Little Shop of Horrors, which are legendary in cult-film circles. Charles Griffith wrote the script in 24 hours. The film was shot in 48 hours, with the proposed title The Passionate People Eater. Welles remembers: "The exteriors were all shot by Griffith and me. For extras, we hired skid-row winos at 10 cents a piece. Three of them would get together and spend the money on a 29-cent bottle of wine. For the death scene in the railroad yard, we went to the Southern Pacific railway station and got the engineers to back up a train from where the actor was lying on the tracks. Two bottles of Scotch it cost us; the next day 20th Century-Fox paid $15,000 for the same service."

Griffith plays a robber in the film and was also Audrey's voice--he meant the voice of the grouchy plant to be an homage to Jackie Gleason. "Griffith's still alive and living in Australia, where he has grandkids," Welles says. "I just got a science-fiction novel from him that he's writing, called Looking at Forever. One of the best novels I've ever read."

Griffith wanted to write a horror comedy, like his previous film, the neglected beatnik horror/satire A Bucket of Blood (1959)--a film that's a natural for a double bill with The Little Shop of Horrors. Welles insists that Little Shop is the first horror comedy. "A Bucket of Blood was neither chalk nor cheese," Welles says. "It was supposed to be a horror film, but the way Dick Miller played it was more like pathos."

The film was a tough sell to distributors at the time. It didn't get released for a year and a half. Welles says that distributors were afraid of bad taste. For example, there's the film's Lenny Bruce-style running joke about the customer Mrs. Shiva, who is always in shiva (Hebrew for "mourning") for one or another dead relative. "About 92 percent of the distributors were Jewish," Welles explains. "The film wouldn't faze anyone today. Irreverence is very acceptable now."

EVENTUALLY, The Little Shop of Horrors was released on a double bill with Mario Bava's Black Sunday, advertised only as "Plus Added Attraction." It was only years later that Bava developed a reputation as a master horror director, and Black Sunday was not a hit at the time. By contrast, The Little Shop of Horrors generated great word of mouth. "When Roger saw that happening," Welles remembered, "he moved the picture in general release; it played 18 weeks in a theater near UCLA."

Since then, it's been seen by 40 million people, Welles claims. A musical play version spread into 18 national companies, and the musical was eventually made into a film with Bill Murray, Rick Moranis and Steve Martin.

"The 1986 Little Shop of Horrors isn't a remake, it really isn't," Welles insists. "It's a theatrical musical adaptation. In the new film version, the plant is Satan, he's evil. Rick Moranis' Seymour is corrupted by the plant. The original Audrey is just hungry. In the original, Seymour maintains his innocence. There's still a sense of fun."

Welles had been up to play Mushnick in the 1986 film, but he was turned down by director Frank Oz, who Welles says didn't want to have anyone from the original film. "They cut down Mushnick's part. Vincent Gardenia, who played Mushnick in the 1986 film, had two songs. He plays mafiosos a lot, so you'd think that he couldn't sing. But he was a trained opera singer. He had both his songs cut. He must have been sore as hell.

"Anyway, look at the TV Guide," Welles says. "Our version gets two stars, the one that cost $27,000. The one that cost $25 million only gets one star."

The Little Shop of Horrors will be the fourth production by Scotts Valley Performing Arts, the local troupe that previously put on Bye, Bye Birdie, The Odd Couple and a musical review. They've previously performed on the stage at Bethany College--"which is very broad-thinking for a fundamentalist college," says Rosen, the production's director--and will open the play in Felton this weekend. A grant from the Packard Foundation purchased the young company's lighting and sound equipment, but the troupe doesn't have a permanent home yet. "Which is why the show is so important to us," Rosen says.

Suggested motto for this new production: "Feed us!"

The Little Shop of Horrors begins with a gala opening on Friday (8pm) at the Felton Community Hall, 6191 Highway 9, Felton. The show continues April 10 at 8pm and April 11 at 2pm and runs through April 25. Mel Welles will not be performing at the Saturday matinees. Tickets cost $16/$12 ($20/$16 for the gala). For info, call 438-SHOW.

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From the April 7-14, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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