Tura Satana RIP – appreciation by Ian Johnston and interview by Marc Isted
TURA SATANA INTERVIEW BY MARC ISTED
(Gratefully reprinted with the full permission of Mr. Marc Isted Copyright ÃÂ© Marc Isted 1992) Introduction and occasional notes by Ian Johnston.
To mark the passing of the late, great Tura Satana (July 10th, 1938 ”â 4th February, 2011), here is Marc Isted’s 1992 interview (previously published in Michael J. Weldon’s wonderful Psychotronic magazine) with the iconic cult star actresses who electrified the cinema screen in sexploitation film director Russ ”ËBosomania’ Meyer’s 1965 rural black and white masterwork Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and in Ted V. Mikels’ unforgettable pictures The Astro-Zombies (1968) and The Doll Squad (1974).
In Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, a contemporary Jacobean melodrama and arguably Meyer’s finest picture, three well endowed go-go dancers, led by the inimitable, voluptuous Satana as the karate expert Varla, rampage across a Californian desert in turbo charged Porsche’s, breaking the spines of any hapless men who get in their way.
The mesmerizing Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which reveals more about American society in its 83 minute running time than the collected works of Gore Vidal, underperformed upon its initial release. However, through the subsequent decades, championed by numerous filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino and John Waters, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! has become widely beloved by audiences around the globe.
In 1983 The Cramps covered the rousing title tune of the feature, originally performed by The Bostweeds, on their vital Smell Of Female EP, insuring that the cult appreciation of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! continued to grow apace with a new post punk generation.
Despite the virtuosic visual flamboyance of Meyer’s mercurial camera and editing, it was the image of the formidable Varla/Satana, a ”Ëbuxotic’ with long black haired and black clad in skin tight jeans and leather gloves (”Ëa superwoman belted, buckled and booted!’) that has probably most assured Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’s abiding status in cinema history.
She was born Suvaki (which means Tura in Cheyenne Indian) Yamaguchi in Hokkaido, Japan. Her father was a silent movie actor and her mother a contronistonist circus performer. With her father’s Japanese and Filipino ancestry mixing with her mother’s Scotch-Irish and Cheyenne American Indian blood, Tura’s exotic good looks were assured. Having spent some of World War II in Californian Japanese internment camp, Tura and her family relocated to Chicago.
By the time she was 13, Tura had headed for Los Angeles with a fake ID, working as a blues singer and a B-girl. Nude modelling for silent film star and 3D photographer Harold Lloyd and a career as a highly respected stripper/burlesque dancer followed, beginning in Illinois, performing as Galatea, the Statue That Came To Life. Below is Tura Satana’s own highly revealing account of her amazing life, as related to Marc Isted. For further information consult Jimmy McDonough’s definitive Russ Meyer biography, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws (Jonathan Cape).
Tura Satana died on 4th February 2011, in Reno (her home for many years and where Marc Isted conducted his interview), Nevada from what her manager Siouxzan Perry revealed to be heart failure.
“After the war we were relocated to Chicago. I was 10 years old. I got raped by five guys. After that my father started to bounce me off the walls until I learned to protect myself. That’s how I learned Karate. Then I went and studied Ikido with Mr. Mugutchi in Hawaii. I think he’s still there, although most of the people I knew have fallen by the wayside, they get over it and I stay the same. I think they’re going to hate me.
But I studied that and got a gold belt in Ikido, but never tried for a belt in Karate, because my father bounced me off the walls, or I bounced him, one of the two. We finally got to the point where I could bounce him. He was 300 and something pounds and large but I finally got to the point where I could.
“A long time ago, before I started dancing, I was about 14 or 15 in Chicago. You either had to belong to a gang or die. We had leather motorcycle jackets, jeans and boots and we kicked butt. A lot of things on TV now portray what we used to do as kids, teenagers. Like they carry razor blades in their hair now, well, we used to strap them behind our necks, carry switchblades in our boots, always wore gloves, because you never knew who was going to punch you.
“I think three of the girls who were in our gang are no more. They were Valerie, Rose and Eve. There were five of us, the three I mentioned and Angie. I used to go under the name of Kitty and kept them all in line. Like I said, I was doing Karate at home and was good at it. None of the other girls were. Come to think of it, none of the guys in the neighborhood could either. So it came in very handy.
I guess you could say I was a juvenile delinquent, I got sent to reform school because they said I was incorrigible. But what you must understand is at the time the war was just over and anyone that looked Oriental, and me being part Japanese, really got hassled. I had already been married once. I was married at 13, the second time I was 26, but then he died and now I’m on my third marriage. I have three sisters.
My youngest sister was a dancer also and she was in the movie ‘The Human Duplicators’ (as Lonnie Sattin). I have two daughters. My oldest did a cameo role for Ted V. Mikel’s Ten Violent Women. Apart from that all I can tell you is now I’m a grandmother. One daughter has three kids.
“When I first went to high school the senior girls ganged up on me and they said, ‘We don’t want you in our school,’ so I asked, ‘Why not?’ and they said it was because their boyfriends were watching me. They didn’t like that so I wound up in a big fight and broke a couple of arms and a few ribs and ended up in reform school. God, they used to make us do embroidery, basket weaving and crocheting, just what I needed to learn!
When I first went in there were a couple of girls who were like ‘the big cheese,’ of course they weren’t for long as I wasn’t going to let anyone kick my butt. Pretty soon, none picked on me. One of the girls who was called Angel, she must have weighed 200 pounds and stood 5’11”. I weighed 130 pounds, and stood 5’5″. So weight and height ways she had me whipped, but thank God for my father. He taught me not to let anyone step on me. So I quit school fairly young and started dancing at 15. It was the type of thing where I decided I had to go back to high school and I did four years in one year. So at least I’m not dumb.
“When I got probation from reform school, the judge took an interest in my singing. I had four and a half octaves and could go all the way from bass to high soprano. Judge Hess wanted me to study singing because she had heard me. I studied for a while, but I wanted to dance. I never took any dancing lessons. Everything I did was strictly with feeling. I used to do lots of splits, flips, knee slides, backbends and series of turns. People used to go, ‘Wow!’ Even before rock’n’roll got really into it, I used to do it. I used to spin tassels while I was working, I could lie on my back and spin one at a time, you know. That used to get quite a reaction from a lot of people. I told my sister, someday I’d fly!
“I met Elvis when I was working in Louisiana, he came into New Orleans during Mardi Gras. He was a young singer and he liked my routine, or rather my gyrations, so I taught him how to do it. He dated me for six or seven months, but then he was on the road and so was I. Then when I was in L.A., I started seeing one of his bodyguards, Sonny West. Elvis and I played cool, because Sonny didn’t know we’d known each other.
One of my oldest friends is Wayne Newton. He lived at my house for a while. I always take in waifs and strays. There have been so many nice people. Like James Arness when he was still doing Gunsmoke. He had a horse called Apache on his ranch. I used to ride. Of course, I like to ride in the nude and that was the only place I could do it without a bunch of people around. But he really was a sweet man.
I used to go out with Rod Taylor; he’s an old lover of mine. I won’t say the names of the others, because one of these days I’m going to write a book and tell everything. One of these days I’ll have to get a tape recorder, because I don’t think in sequence. But there have been so many nice people over the years.
“The cheapest costume when I was dancing cost $15,000, and that was just a plain one. When I was at the clubs, I’d stay for weeks at a time and I’d average $1500 a week, I couldn’t complain. I made good money, but I spent it just as fast. I had a good manager but no longer have an agent. The only place that has my number now is the Screen Actors Guild, and I don’t think they give them out. I knew all the big strippers: Rose Le Rose, Maxine Martin, ‘The Skyscraper Girl’ and Stunning Smith, ‘The Purple Lady’.
All the ladies I knew are no longer in the business except for Tempest Storm, she’s up in High Sierra in Tahoe. Of course there is one that I don’t get along with very well. In fact me and her had a big knockdown, drag out fight in St. Louis, Missouri. Anyway, her name was Princess Domain, ‘The Cherokee Half-Breed.’ She used to have a boyfriend with her and they both decided my boobs moved too much when I walked.
So she came up behind me and started to scratch, I mean she literally scratched my chest up to my shoulder, which was the worst thing that she could have done because she came up from behind me. Her hand was there, she was scratching up, I took her and threw her up against the wall. Her boyfriend comes at me and I give him a Karate kick right in the crotch, it was fun and games. I said, ‘You ever lay your hands on me again and I’ll break both your legs.’ After that she and I never worked together again.
“There were some clubs I worked that were run by the ‘syndicate’ or the ‘outfit,’ but I had a good rapport with them. They never asked me for anything and I never asked them for anything. I did my job very professionally, which they liked. There were a couple of guys in Chicago, I won’t mention any names, but I did them a couple of favors and after that I could do no wrong. If I wanted anything all I had to do was call them. There were also a lot of people who pretended they were, total losers. Then there used to be some guys who would follow me around the country when I was dancing.
There were times when I found people in my closets and hotel rooms. I’d see them come in the windows off the fire escapes. It’s something you get used to but you don’t want to accept it. I met Candy Barr (the star of the famous ’51 porno reel ‘Smart Alec’). The first time I went to the Silver Slipper, I was following her in. Then she went to Dallas. Then so did I. It was like we were following each other around. I worked at Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club there. Also I worked in St. Louis and Hawaii a lot, I don’t know why.
They used to call me a local girl in Hawaii. I wasn’t born there, but I love the Hawaiian people. I used to play there six months out of the year. I worked The Forbidden City and The Bertini Follies. It was fun. Now it seems all the people I knew are dead. I’m just waiting for me to go. I figure I’ve got a long way to go yet.
“Traveling around the country I learned an awful lot. When I was working in burlesque it was one of the best schools I was ever in because it taught you a moral code, you never walked around without any clothes on, as soon as you came off stage you’d have a robe put on you and you were always covered.
You made your living taking it off on stage but you didn’t show it backstage. Most of the comics and straight men were husbands and wives, so you didn’t fool around with anybody else’s husband or boyfriend.
It was a better school backstage than you get out on the streets because everyone would think if you were a stripper or exotic dancer, they would say that she was ‘loose’ or ‘immoral,’ but I spent more time alone than I did going out with people. Most fellas, I found out later, I asked them, how come you come and watch my show and talk to me but you never ask me out and they said it was because they were afraid, and I asked them why they were afraid of me, and they told me it was because I was a very over powerful female.
I could not understand that. I always had a lot of fun onstage and cracked jokes and I had just as many girl fans as men. The women weren’t inhibited by me, just the men. They only time I really got to know people was in Hawaii, because the local people would see me on the beach and say ‘Hi,’ it was very friendly. Working two to three weeks at a place and traveling around the country, you don’t have time to develop friendships or a rapport with people. It was kind of a lonely life to lead. I got married and divorced, married, divorced…”
In the early 1960’s, Tura Satana began playing small roles in films and on television shows. Her first feature appearance was in Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed? (‘1963), a comedy starring Dean Martin and Elizabeth Montgomery. It was also the first film for Carol Burnett. “I played a stripper in the Tijuana Nightclub and I also did the choreography for Carol Burnett because she did a strip-tease after me. We all had a lot of fun. I still talk to the director Danny Mann, he’s a very good friend, in fact every director I’ve worked for I had a good rapport with afterwards.”
Also in 1963, Tura Satana played a prostitute in Paris in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce, starring Shirley MacLaine. Her next role was as an unaccredited dancer in the 1966 James Coburn spy flick, Our Man Flint. “Remember the two dancers in the nightclub? Well, I was both of them! It was fun. When I played both dancers, one with hair up and one with hair down, we figured we could get away with it because when I dance not many people know what my face looks like, but they can tell from the neck down!”
Tura Satana’s first TV appearance was on “Hawaiian Eye” starring Bob Conrad. She played a secretary. “Warner Brothers were my parent studio where I did Hawaiian Eye, then I went to MGM for The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. I had small spy parts in both U.N.C.L.E. shows. I have a picture of myself with Noel Harrison. I played one of the guards and Noel said to me, ‘Can you really do all that Karate stuff, I bet you could pick me up!’ So I did and that’s the photo. I was a regular on The Greatest Show on Earth, a web girl or dancer with Jack Palance.”
Then immorality beckoned with the celluloid masterpiece Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The go-go dancer stars in the picture were Tura Satana, Haji (who had starred in Russ Meyer’s 1965 Motorpsycho) as Rosie and Lori Williams as Billie.
“I’d heard about Russ Meyer’s films, but I didn’t know he did them. I’d heard about Eve and the Handyman and The Immoral Mr. Teas but they were not my forte, so I never bothered to see them. But Faster, Pussycat was different from anything he’d done before and I guess it was something he wanted to try out. It really turned out well; I just wish I had residuals from it. Compared to the things I was doing at the time (mostly TV), the part was quite different so I said, yes, I would like to try that.
It was interesting to read but there were some things that I thought didn’t work out. Some of the dialogue, so I would talk to Russ and say can we try this? There was only one big argument. I turned around and busted my hand. I had a bad temper…not anymore. I think I’ve mellowed out.
“There were so many pictures around, but most of them were guys doing the rough and tumble, which made it strange for girls to be doing it. Girls say they really like my part because it shows we can do it too. When it was first released it did nothing. Then, when Russ re-released it, it took off like gangbusters and I’ve had people ask me for posters and stuff but I’ve only got mine. I still have my basic outfit.
I have the blouse and the jeans, but I don’t have the boots anymore, they went the way of the world. Russ still has Stuart Lancaster’s wheelchair. He went back and got it. He found it on a junk pile. I heard there’s a band calling themselves Faster Pussycat that had used the film as a backdrop for a video. My husband found out about them, he was doing security at a place they were playing. He said they were very loud, he didn’t appreciate the noise.
“Apparently Lori Williams married some guy in Pennsylvania, but the family were very clannish and she got divorced. From what I understand, Sue Bernard (the Playboy centerfold who played the nice girl, Linda) works at an advertising agency or something like that. Susan didn’t get along with us. She had her mother with her, who was one of those types of women, ‘Don’t come near my daughter, you’re liable to give her something.’ The only way I could get anything out of her acting-wise was to literally make her hate me.
I had to get very physical and brutal, very sarcastic in order to get anything from her, pulling teeth to get a reaction. But it seems like any of the good stuff she did in that film was when I was getting nasty with her. The rest of the time, all she did was cry.”
“Ted Mikels saw my show at the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas. I worked at the Aladdin Hotel for Minsky. I worked for him in the East as well, New York and New Jersey. Ted saw my show when a woman got upset with her boyfriend for watching me. She picked up a huge glass ashtray and she throws it at me, missing my face by an inch, and it shatters all over the floor. Needless to say I got a little unglued, I took one step onto the piano then into the audience and I had her by the throat and I say, ‘What the hell did you do that for?!’ ‘He was watching you.’
So I say, ‘Listen, what you’ve got to remember is that I’m warming him up for you later, so get off my back, you ever do that again and I’ll break your neck.’ She must have weighed 180 pounds, I picked her up with one hand I was so angry. Then a security guard grabbed me, which made me even wilder so I threw him in the orchestra pit. I finished my routine. The glass had to be swept up, of course.”
Next was her role as the evil, vicious, deadly Satanna in Ted V. Mikels 1967 opus, The Astro Zombies. John Carradine played the deranged Dr. DeMarco and Wendell Corey played the FBI man who opposed him. “John Carradine was such a love. In the movie the dresses were all my own and I said I had to have body make-up because of the cutouts.
I was standing there being made up in my bikini underwear and nothing else, he comes in and says, ‘Oh my God, if only I was 20 years younger’ so I said, ‘If only I was 20 years older.’ So he says to me, ‘Oh, you made my day.’ He was a fine actor, though, what ever he did, he gave his all. It’s too bad his sons haven’t done half as well. David’s a little flakey, but John was so professional.
“Ted and I have always been great friends. Ted, with all of his wives! He’s got about six pairs of my shoes. He always had a thing about my shoes. He thinks a woman’s legs should end in high heels. One of the dummies he has is called Tura. He’s a great person to work with; he has a very clever mind. I’ve never had a penny from Astro Zombies’ or Doll Squad.”Â
Some have noted the similarity between the popular 70s TV series Charlie’s Angels, produced by Aaron Spelling, and Ted V. Mikel’s low-budget Doll Squad (1974), a picture concerning the exploits of an all-female team of deadly assassins. “Aaron Spelling told me he saw Doll Squad but thought that three girls would be sufficient. But when you think about it, The Doll Squad had only three main characters, me, Francine York and Sherri Vernon.
The rest of the girls were just there. The dance routine was an old dance routine, except it was a very short version. That was one of my own costumes too. Unfortunately Ted cut most of my best stuff out of The Doll Squad, where we did a lot of Karate kicks and throws and stuff like that.”
“I nearly died after The Doll Squad when I got shot. I was shot in the stomach by my ex-boyfriend. I told him to go but he didn’t want to go. He felt he should have his cake and eat it too, so he shot me. So I spent some time in the hospital for that. (Years later) at a Variety Arts Theatre show for Ted, they showed some of the things from Astro Zombies and The Doll Squad and the two main stars of The Doll Squad (Francine York and Michael Ansara) were there, but they didn’t want to talk to them, they wanted to talk to me.
They wanted to talk about Astro Zombies and Faster, Pussycat. I said, ‘But, hey, Pussycat, that’s a different director,’ but they said, ‘That’s OK, we don’t mind.’ I even had guys who wanted their chests autographed. One guy at the festival said, ‘Why don’t you start selling your bras, T-shirts, etc.?’ So I said, ‘And what am I going to wear?’
“When I quit dancing I worked in a hospital for four years. I managed a doctor’s office (in Hollywood) for eight years. I also worked for the police in L.A. as a radio patrol operator relaying calls to patrol cars. I was in an auto accident back in 1981 and I broke my back, so I’ve been out of action for a while. In fact, I’ve just started walking around again, which makes it a little hard. When I was younger I used to sing, but now I don’t at all, especially since the accident, they had to cut through my throat to fix my neck.
I spent three years in the hospital after the accident. I had two major operations and about 15 others. I even had to go to Canada for one of them. My husband’s a retired policeman, a sergeant from the L.A.P.D. He’s originally from Estonia. Very old-fashioned. He doesn’t like Faster, Pussycat. He says that he likes his wife to be feminine, so I say that I am feminine. He says it doesn’t show me up very well. I say that’s what people are into right now. He thinks girls should be the weaker sex, so I say I am, but he says that you couldn’t tell that in the picture.
He prefers me in Irma la Douce. Me and Marilyn have a lot in common. Her first husband was a sergeant in the police force too. At least I’m not going to end up like she did, anyway. It’s a lot easier to take when they’re retired, except sometimes he still treats you as if you were going through an interrogation.”
During 1988, Tura Satana was interviewed for Jonathan Ross’ Incredibly Strange Film Show, for interview segments dealing with the careers of Russ Meyer and Ted C. Mikels.
“I haven’t seen the Ted V. Mikels show yet. Russ showed me his. I got a little ticked off with him when he said I broke his rule of no hanky-panky on the set. There wasn’t any hanky-panky while the show was going on, which was probably why everyone was so frustrated. Afterwards, after filming, the hanky-panky started. We never had any time while filming.
I talked to Russ about a sequel to Faster, Pussycat, showing supposedly where I come out of the hospital recuperating after getting hit by the truck, and Haji meets me out front because she didn’t die of her stab wounds. I told Russ it would be a pretty neat idea. Haji and I were talking about it, and Russ said, ‘Well, I haven’t seen you for a while and you look great, we really could do a sequel.'”
Copyright ÃÂ© Marc Isted 1992