Bright Lights Film Journal

In a Garden of Tin Men: Marion Eaton (1932–2011) Remembered

“Marion’s character in Thundercrack!, the daft and delusional farm widow Gert Hammond, harkened back to a much more handcrafted Tennessee Williamsesque archetype. She infuses Gert with real pathos as well as genuine creepiness in a series of hauntingly photographed monologues that transcend the film’s threadbare conceits.”

Despite her decades of being active on both stage and screen, the death of actress Marion Eaton on April 6th, 2011, at the age of 79, went virtually unnoticed in the acting and indie film communities. Between 1945 (as the eight-year-old Marion Cramer) and 1984, she had major roles in at least 80 plays, produced mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, but they were all essentially forgotten, as live theater will be. Her film work, from the mid-'70s on, has also been largely overlooked. Much of it was for her friend Curt McDowell, who made deeply personal films that were not easily accessible to a broad public. The fact that he has been erroneously typed as an exclusively gay filmmaker, or remembered primarily in connection with the San Francisco scene, has also tended to marginalize his legacy. And hers.

It was Marion's first feature, the XXX-rated Sip the Wine, in 1975, that won her the most recognition and cast her as something of a contemporary of Marilyn Chambers. Upon its release it drew big crowds to the Mitchell Brothers' three Bay Area adult theaters and was being appraised in the media as something different, a quality effort in the adult film genre. SF critic John Wasserman called Marion the best actress he had ever seen in a pornographic film. She was even interviewed together with Marilyn in an exhaustive piece for the summer '76 issue of The North American Review, but she was cut from very different cloth, refusing to exploit herself by posing nude for the piece or even using her name in print. Nor did she consider herself a porn star, shunning the term. She had approached the role as an actress, and it was "erotic realism" — playing characters who have sexual feelings, as people do in real life — that she and the other cast members had sought to explore, not porn.

Marion never managed to land a breakthrough role or to achieve any kind of wider platform as an actor or writer, and it's a pity. She was much more articulate and versed in discussing issues of onscreen erotica than either Marilyn Chambers or Linda Lovelace and was a genuine creative soul.

Via a contact from Sip the Wine she was told about auditions in San Francisco for a role in Thundercrack!, tried out, and got the part. This was her first encounter with Curt, who was directing, and George Kuchar, who was assisting in several capacities. A freaky mix of bisexual hardcore porn, classic haunted-house melodrama, and verbal comedy, it was tailor-made for the midnight-movie audience but doesn't fit easily into any genre. Marion's theatrical delivery that she'd cultivated growing up in live theater set her apart from the rest of the cast, a spirited rabble of younger non-actors who had sex in various combinations and gamely spouted reams of Kuchar's florid dialogue with a mix of endearing nonchalance and feverish overacting. The film channeled the rambunctious sexual anarchy coursing through the city's underground milieu of the '70s, but Marion's character, the daft and delusional farm widow Gert Hammond, harkened back to a much more handcrafted Tennessee Williamsesque archetype. She infuses Gert with real pathos as well as genuine creepiness in a series of hauntingly photographed monologues that transcend the film's threadbare conceits. It was simply one of the great performances in underground cinema history, darkly hilarious and truly tragic all at once. And it was not as easy as it looked. In Kuchar's short from 1979, Blips, Marion is given the spotlight again, but here, playing a less exquisitely drawn character, her studied delivery doesn't work and freezes the film in its tracks. Yet, despite her stellar performance in Thundercrack!, this film, too, was fated to remain a dated artifact anathema to mainstream sensibilities.

Her most sustained film performance for Curt was in Sparkle's Tavern, an autobiographical feature that mixed melodrama with fantasy elements. In Hollywood they write scripts by committee and hire script doctors, but that wasn't Curt's way — he penned this one while high on LSD camped in a tent in Yosemite National Park. Marion helped him get it off the ground in 1976, but it took nine years to complete and wasn't totally finished until 1985. A chaste anomaly amongst McDowell's better-known forays into experimentalism and unrepentant gay porn excess, it received spotty festival exposure and has become the very definition of obscure.

The rest of her film roles consist of bit parts in the short films of George and Mike Kuchar, and small roles and cameos in a handful of commercial features, mostly produced by Dan Ireland, who was a fan of her work with McDowell. Her work in "legit" moviemaking got her a SAG card later in life, but the sum total of her film performances never added up to a career or even a living, and at the time of her passing she was completely unknown to the mainstream moviegoing public, albeit fiercely championed by the tiny segment of the film buff community that was aware of Thundercrack!

Her relationship with McDowell was many-sided. He was an intensely social person and introduced her to the salons and back alleys of bohemian San Francisco. She was a confidante, a collaborator, and a source of financial support to him through much of the '70s and '80s. She supplied cash at various points to get Sparkle's Tavern made, including $5,000 to get the finished print liberated from the film lab. She appeared in his 1982 experimental short Taboothe Single and the LP, and contributed in other ways to his post-Thundercrack! filmmaking activities. On July 29, 1986, he signed over to her the rights to distribute Sparkle's Tavern, Thundercrack!, and Taboo in a handwritten note. "I trust you, Marion," he had scrawled at the end. This was a turning point on various levels for both of them. He had been diagnosed with AIDS that spring, and she recently had a 17-year relationship come to an end and was being evicted from her apartment for non-payment of rent.

Marion ended up moving "home" to the north shore, across the bay to Mill Valley. Broke, she now survived by scrubbing floors and taking care of elderly invalids, and found lodging on a spread called Goldie Land at 341 Miller Avenue. This property, originally a working farm now largely parceled off to neighboring lots, was owned by a 90-year-old eccentric named Henry who had named the place after his pet rabbit. He rented out the rooms in the old back house. Marion got the ground-floor room, while the second floor was inhabited by Charlie Deal, an erstwhile housepainter and handyman whose ability to fashion guitars out of toilet seats had gained him a cult reputation in rock circles. The grounds were checkered with vegetable gardens and leafy passageways that Henry had bedecked with crude art brut-style animal and spirit figures he created out of tin and wood, and the locals love to stroll by and view his handiwork. He was one of Mill Valley's beloved local characters, living in his own Henry Darger-like world of fantasy. That's where Marion was living on June 3, 1987, when Curt died. The San Francisco underground scene that he had been such a central part of had now largely come to a close. It was the end of an era.

By the end of the '80s, even her best-known achievement, the performance in Thundercrack! was all but forgotten. The fact it was in black-and-white, mixed explicit straight and gay sex, and so willfully violated all the conventions of standard pornography had always stacked the deck against any kind of commercial success, and now, with AIDS rampant and even its director dead from it, the wacky promiscuousness it celebrated was another strike against it.

But by the start of the '90s, Marion was still willing to embrace it. In 1989, I had published a long interview with George Kuchar in a film publication called Pandemonium and had focused a lot on Thundercrack! I was keen to meet the star. In the summer of 1990, George and I drove over from San Francisco to Mill Valley to rendezvous with Marion (this trip is documented in his video diary entitled Kiss of the Veggie Vixen). She showed us around Goldie Land, and we peered into her small 12 x 12 room in the back house. It was a bit rustic and just big enough for a double bed, but seemed light and pleasant enough at first glance. There was no way we could all hang out there, so she showed us around town and later we went to a restaurant.

On October 29, 1991, I and my German friend Johannes Schönherr traveled to Mill Valley to meet and interview her, checking back in to Goldie Land. As for the rabbit, it had died the month before. It shook everybody up, "made me crazy" noted Marion by way of apology for the previous pause in her correspondence. At that point she was working as Henry's unofficial housekeeper and secretary. She had her own plans. Since the previous fall she had begun memorizing poems of Edna St. Vincent Mallay with an idea to perform them at some point, and she hoped to get film acting parts again. Toward this end she updated her resume and had a new head shot taken. She asked me to spread the word among directors — as if I knew anybody — and asked for contacts to John Waters and David Lynch. (I had never had contact with Lynch but recommended her to Waters, though I couldn't imagine she was his style or that she could or should reprise her role as Gert Hammond — her one claim to cult stardom. Thundercrack! had been pure quicksilver, a snapshot of that specific moment; that city, that karma, that time . . . those people and their talents and mental states. Nothing that had sprung from that film could ever be replicated or reprised.)

But there were too many distractions to make much headway. For one thing, she was being harassed by the IRS for long-ago back taxes even though she was living in poverty and had nothing. Their letters, demanding response within ten days, caused her panic. How to communicate with these faceless bureaucrats? She didn't even have a typewriter, nor even a phone. You called the main house and Henry would shake the clothes line, upon which he had attached a cowbell, and she would come to the front house to get the call. So she was not really connected to the modern world in any functional way. She sent the IRS long handwritten letters, but they ignored them. At one point she speculated that she should create a performance piece called The IRS Visits Goldie Land and perform it in public, and then maybe they would pay attention to her.

Henry was also a source of endless bother. Through the previous fall, several of his friends had fallen ill, and Marion was charged with the daily task of writing letters and going out to purchase endless get-well cards and mailing them off. Her handwriting style was slow and painstaking, and this would take her most of the day. Some of these old geezers got better but more got sick, and she had less and less time for her own affairs. One morning she thought she caught a breather until Henry started banging on her door, getting her up early to pen a letter to the garbage company in praise of their garbage man. Letters always had to be written now! Time was a wastin! . . . And one never knew when he would get the urge to create more new characters for the farm. "Just last week," she notes in a letter dated June 1, 1991, "he made a tin man and hung him suspended in a big old wagon wheel. He made me write on the one side 'Hold me tight' and on the other side (yes — he has a face on both sides — 'one to look forward and one to look backward.') 'come dance with me.' This now is our front garden box office for the street audience." Tending the back vegetable gardens was the one thing she did like to do.

She was a meticulous archivist. She had written daily since 1975 and had documented all aspects of her life and experiences. She made copies of all her correspondence, kept journals, saved clippings, and pasted intricately scrawled sticky notes on everything. Much of her stuff went into storage after she left San Francisco, and the rest now filled all the spare nooks and crannies of her small room. The space under the double bed and the one tiny closet were jammed with tons of folders, boxes, and packages that held documentation. If she wanted to get a specific folder of letters, she had to pull out five boxes and then repack everything exactly as it had been previously arranged or chaos would overwhelm her. She literally didn't have an inch of extra space, and the low ceiling added to the claustrophobic feel of the room.

Again, since it was not big enough for three people to relax in, I, Johannes, and Marion drove into town and conducted the interview sitting on a bench in a wooded park, and then treated her to dinner at an Italian restaurant. The interview here would form the basis of my text about her in the 1994 book Desperate Visions, reprinted in different forms in a handful of other marginal publications. For his part, Johannes was already hatching plans to have her present films in Europe. All of this, in addition to the aforementioned material in Pandemonium, would add up to a minor "Marion Eaton revival," although there was only one movie that was even known to the general public, and that barely so.

The European tour took shape, with myself and George Kuchar's brother Mike also slated to participate.

At the end of March 1992 I purchased tickets, and Marion and I flew from San Francisco to Frankfurt, then on to Nuremberg. Mike Kuchar arrived a day later. Our first gig was at the LGA club in Nuremberg, and after that we headed out on our separate schedules. For a month this frail 60-year-old woman trained around Europe, loaded down with knapsacks of clothes, 16mm prints of McDowell's Thundercrack! Sparkle's Tavern,and Taboo, as well as a monstrously heavy volume of the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. This was before roller suitcases were readily available. There were many overnight train rides involved, and it was brutally exhausting. It would have driven even a much younger person insane, but she soldiered on.

One harrowing leg of the journey involved an overnight trip from Copenhagen to Munich in a compartment with partying teenagers, but the most storied excursion was from Vienna to Groningen, Holland. She was scheduled out of Vienna on the midnight train, but it arrived an hour late full of Croatians fleeing Yugoslavia and bound for various points in Germany. This was the beginning of the Yugoslav War. No sleeper car was available, needless to say. Her compartment was crowded with people sleeping, drinking, and smoking, others eating bread and salami. She was exhausted but couldn't sleep, and there was no food or water available. Old people crowded the compartments, weary and frightened, while young children ran and jumped about. She missed her scheduled change in Munich by several hours.

She finally caught a Cologne-bound train and found herself seated across the aisle from a young Croatian, about twenty-six, who spoke perfect English. He told Marion he had just come from Yugoslavia, where he had vainly tried to coax his parents into returning with him to Cologne, where he had a teaching job. He had a newspaper showing pictures and obits of fellow countrymen killed in the conflict. He was deeply depressed. The tragedies of his recent life were harrowing, and for a while Marion's own inconveniences seemed trivial in comparison. "I felt at a loss to comfort this young man," she later recalled, "who was suffering 'grief beyond thought,' — a phrase used by Edna St. Vincent Millay in her poem that begins with the line, 'Out of night and alarm  . . .' Having no words of my own adequate to speak to such suffering, I offered to share a prayer with him through reciting this poem which pleads for an end to the horror of man's inhumanity to man." The train pulled into Cologne (two hours late), and they parted company with an emotional goodbye. "We had a big embrace . . . I felt like a surrogate mother." After several more changes, she arrived in Groningen at 8 p.m. The show was at nine but she had to get something to eat so there was no time to recite any Millay as she apparently often did before the films played. "I was pleased that I had made all the connections," she declared, "but I also had the haunting feeling that the real drama was on the train."

She had varied experiences in other cities: after Groningen, she smoked hash and recuperated in Rotterdam, did her wash in a laundromat in the mean-streets Vesterbro neighborhood of Copenhagen while a junky overdosed in front of her . . . bunked in a punk squat in East Berlin and was reunited with Johannes and myself in Amsterdam on May 1st (tourist hell) as we wandered the town desperate to find our road-weary friend a hotel room and a place to wash her clothes. Without luck.

Audiences were fairly large and enthusiastic, but Thundercrack! was such a torrent of freaked out dialogue that it was never certain whether people who spoke English as a second-language understood a fucking thing. Later in Wiesbaden, a capacity crowd watched it in stone silence and applauded politely at the end, all claiming that they loved it, but you had to wonder. But in London she finally got her due as a capacity crowd jammed the legendary Scala Cinema in King's Cross where the film had played a monthly slot for a decade and had achieved iconic status. She did an onstage Q & A, and not even a lone nutter who began disruptively screaming about the evil of AIDS before he was given the bum's rush could mar her evening. It was the crowning experience of the tour.

Now that it was over she returned to the bucolic serenity of Mill Valley, back to Goldie Land, enriched, blitzed, exhausted. The local paper even did a piece on her as she posed for a photo with knapsack, film can and volume of Millay poetry clutched in hand.

Henry finally passed away at the end of 1993, and this brought new distractions as local fans besieged Marion to preserve the now overgrown grounds. His son, Vernon, took over and allowed Marion to stay on rent free if she would take care of all the loose ends in the wake of his father's death. He still had his job in Oakland, so he was only there on the weekends, and that was fine, but she still wanted to get out. As she writes in a letter of March 2, 1994, "a few days ago when I found myself polishing up a picture of a 3-D Virgin Mary that lights up when you plug her in, I realized that I had to get out of here and move on." She was, however, financially in no position to do so, and in a later missive admits she was lucky to still have the place.

Not long after the trip to Europe, the booker of Seattle's Pike Street Cinema, Dennis Nyback, invited her up to be part of a Kuchar Brothers retrospective. After Europe she had returned the prints to the McDowell Foundation, but now needed Thundercrack! and Sparkle's Tavern back for the Pike Street gig. The dates approached, yet there was no contact from the Foundation, which she found insulting and nerve-wracking. She did finally receive the prints from them, but the ill will between the two parties was such that she never gave them back again. I was now married and living in Denmark and running a small co-op style film distribution, and so she simply mailed them to me and I put them into my rental catalog. We both thought this was a good idea. It would be a chance for her to earn some recognition and make some much-needed cash. Her control of Sparkle's Tavern had never been in dispute, though Thundercrack! was more of a gray area. Yet who could dispute her right to benefit from the film? She was its star and had laid her flesh and talent on the line in a film many would have rushed to disown. One could only imagine Curt would approve. George, perhaps the one person who might have a competing claim to the film, was totally supportive of what we were doing with it. And nobody was hearing anything from the Foundation, which was functioning more like dead storage.

Throughout the '90s, my goal was to send her as much money as possible. Anybody who knew about her living situation at Goldie Land, where she had nowbeen for almost a decade, would have done the same. Her letters are full of lavish thanks for getting rental residuals, and in the case of Thundercrack! European video and DVD distribution deals. (On the advice of a video marketer, the distributors of the first release in 1995 didn't use any original artwork from the film but created an absurdly misleading composite of a woman shown from skirt-down flashing a pair of good legs. Marion got an immense kick out of that. The release flopped.) Almost every expression of thanks begins with "Just in time!" It was clear that any amount of money that arrived at any point was "just in time!" During this period I was not only her distributor but her friend and correspondent. She gifted me with the black slip she wore in Thundercrack! I had it in a picture frame until the glass cracked, then stowed it in a box in the back reaches of the furthest closet: It resides there now. Occasionally I suffer pangs of fear that it might get eaten by moths but quickly console myself with the knowledge of how appropriate and fabulous that would be if it did happen.

What I was able to send her was nothing close to a living wage, and she continued to hold out hope of landing acting jobs. She continued to focus on the poetry project, and in 1995 she began performing pieces publicly, but that didn't pay anything. On the other hand, between 1988 and 2002, she landed six bit parts and cameos in commercial feature films. In her mass of correspondence I have found evidence that she paid union dues of $1,160.50 on September 23, 1997, to keep her SAG card. I believe she was advertising her services in some trade publication because at some point in the late '90s or at the start of the 2000s — nothing exists on paper about this occurrence, so the date is vague — she made contact with an African American gentleman who produced films. One afternoon he showed up at her flat, dressed in an immaculately pressed white suit. He seemed so fastidious that she even laid a towel on the edge of the bed for him to sit on. She explained her qualifications, but he seemed to cool considerably when she mentioned that she had been in a pornographic film. Ah . . . that could be a problem. But not such a problem that it didn't dissuade him from raping her then and there. One might surmise that he thought a woman who had appeared in a pornographic film was fair game.

I'm pretty sure she never reported it, and told very few people. George knew. It had been a shattering experience for her, the irony not lost on her that participation in an XXX film made her unusable but didn't prevent her from being unrapeable. She told me about it on my next trip to SF from whence I took the public bus over to Mill Valley. We had lunch sitting out on the exhaust-blasted patio at Carl's Jr. down the street from Goldie Land. That's where she wanted to eat, and neither of us had a dime at that point.

Life went on.

In 2002, after being on a waiting list for years, she was informed that she was next in line for occupancy for low-cost housing for the elderly and disabled at a complex called Kruger Pines on Knoll Road. And at some point later that year, she moved in to a third-floor apartment there. Finally she was out of Goldie Land! Most people couldn't have suffered a week in that place, and she had been there 16 years! She was also now receiving some social Security, and I was assured by her friend Mary that she would have a decent existence in her old age. Minor drawbacks of the new place, like having a young schizophrenic neighbor two doors down who savagely screamed "Fuck you!" off his balcony on bad days, were easily shrugged off. "It's a comfort to know this isn't directed at me" she noted in a letter dated June 22, 2003, "and he doesn't have a key to my door." And now, living on the third floor, she had a balcony, one that offered a beautiful view into a shady cove of tall trees that obscured the exhaust and noise from the nearby Redwood highway.

She was thrilled with the little things. "I am very grateful to finally find myself in an adequate living space with washer and dryer for my dirty laundry always available. . . . (And) I have a bath tub . . ." I had sent her a copy of my book Land of a Thousand Balconies, which contained a chapter about her European tour, and it stirred memories. "I truly love the simple pleasures: a hot bubble bath and reading an enlightening book written by a good friend who knows where I've been in past years better than I." Her handwriting was steady and even, perhaps indicating the greater amount of peace of mind her new abode afforded. (In Goldie Land she had referred to "the emotional turmoil and/or fatigue that may sabotage my spelling and handwriting.")

That European trip had occurred more than ten years ago, but it still loomed large in her personal mythology. That 738-page book of Millay poems she had lugged around with the dirty laundry and films had been the start of her new creative life, while the spools of celluloid represented a past she was no longer actively engaged in. "It has been a long road onward since that 'grand tour,' to continue to memorize, search and develop a genre of my own," she noted in the same letter. Previously she had performed Millay largely in local bookstore cafes, public rooms in churches and community centers, but her gigs were getting a bit more high profile. On April 5, 2003, she performed at the "Science of Mind" on Balboa street in San Francisco, and on May 18 she traveled to Monterey to perform, and did a reading in Carmel sponsored by the Tor House Foundation that preserves the legacy of poet Robinson Jeffers. If it took a bit of extra courage to continue to develop ideas on Millay and perform farther afield at age seventy-one, it was memories of the European tour she drew on to provide that. "It gave me courage to go on and do these risky projects even in my old age."

The last time I saw her was around 2004. I took the bus over from SF and found my way to her new apartment building, nestled on a wooded rise above the freeway. She showed me her new place, and we talked while she cooked dinner. She had space now, she even had a deep closet. This was a point of pride, and we both carefully examined it. She had something for me — a dress that she pulled out neatly pressed on a hanger. It was the one she had worn in Sparkle's Tavern. She wanted to give it to me, but I gently dissuaded her. It wasn't practical: I was living in a small housing-project flat in Denmark and had no place to store artifacts. Getting it back to SF would be awkward enough: It was dark now, and I had to catch the bus back. The bus stop was on the side of a busy highway with deep ravines on either side . . . I would be a curious sight holding up the dress as the glare of headlights illumined me out of the darkness. It seemed impractical, so she hung it back up in her closet.

At some point prior to this she had been visited by Melinda McDowell, Curt's sister who had also appeared in a number of his films, including Thundercrack! After decades of having nothing to do with her brother's work, she was now back on the scene and had taken over the holdings of the Curt McDowell Foundation, which was then dissolved. She was keen to reassert rights and to market the films, particularly (or perhaps only) Thundercrack!, which had the most profit potential. She asked Marion to relinquish all rights and interest in her brother's work. Marion had moved on and didn't want any hassle. She agreed. I think that was an opportunity to make a formal break with that part of her past, although talking about it that night I sensed no regret or bitterness. However, several years later, when Jennifer Kroot was researching her documentary It Came From Kuchar (2009), she contacted Marion, but she refused to have any part of it and gave the impression she regretted the whole thing. George, too, reported she was distant at the end, and they really had almost no contact in those last years.

My communications with her also ended soon after this last visit. It was a nice last impression to have, although I didn't know it was a "last impression" until I learned of her death last year, shockingly months after the fact. There was not even a notice posted on the official Thundercrack! website (managed by Melinda).

I have no problem with the fact that she turned her back on this at the end of her life. I think back to that European tour in 1992. How great was that that a sixty-year-old woman would still have the courage, enlightenment, sense of humor, and strength to stay with a film like Thundercrack!? But how many times are we supposed to revisit and embrace periods of our past? Maybe she just felt tired of being identified with these films. Maybe she came to feel exploited, or just wanted to move on. Who knows?

Anyway, she didn't owe these films anything. They owed her.