The first time I saw Tura Satana was through the fuzz of our tiny black and white TV. And no, I'm not a hundred years old. My mom was never a big proponent of new technology, so even in 1982 we still had an archaic black and white set. I was finally old enough to stay up late on Saturdays to participate in my mother's late-night movie ritual. This was well before I started rolling my eyes at her or trying to avoid being seen with her in public. Our relationship was warm and as fuzzy as the black and white pictures that flickered into our living room. She would usually drift off to sleep pretty early. Left on my own, I would end up watching gothic horror movies that scared me and invaded my dreams.
One night, I turned the dial just in time to catch an image that would be forever imprinted in my young and impressionable mind. Tura Satana, the fox on the screen, clad in black from head to toe, with a cinched waist, knee high boots, hefty cleavage and a dangerous snarl plastered across her beautiful face, dug her heel into a man's chest. This lady didn't resemble my spinster English teacher, or the boring neighbor ladies who tended to their husbands and homes, or my aunt's who sat around on plastic covered furniture as they gossiped and sipped Turkish coffee. She was nasty, powerful and dangerous.
The images of fast cars, chicks wearing hot pants and go-go boots, and the miles of sun- drenched desert depicted in Russ Meyer's Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! came to represent California, at least in my mind. The seeds of the California dream were planted. It was a dark, beautiful and mysterious tangle of conflicting ideals and visual images. My mom woke up and promptly turned the television off, deeming the content of my California dream far too adult for my innocent eyes. But as I stared at the blank screen, I realized something had already transpired and the film became inextricably linked with the notion of an alternative lifestyle that seemingly only existed in California. I never knew the title of the film or who the mysterious woman was, but I knew I would never forget them.
Years later, when I was actually living in California, I realized pretty quickly that Modesto was about as far removed from the romantic imagery of my childhood as one could get. I lived in the most boring town on earth, where the only nightlife option on a Saturday evening was to descend into the parking lot of the local theater and play out our own "Midnight Movie" ritual. Week after week, we came to see the same scratched print of the The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
One weekend, someone booked a special screening of a Russ Meyer film, and within seconds I recognized the woman that had left such an impact on me as a young girl. There was Tura Satana in all her glory, being projected larger than life on a fifty-foot screen. Varla, the character she played, was a tough, independent woman who could take care of herself and took no shit, even if she was a bit of a psychopath. Once again the image appeared to me at a defining moment -- just as my own feminist ideals were beginning to take shape and my interest in B-movies was born.
So when I recently found out that Tura Satana was going to be a special guest at Midnight Mass for a screening of Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to go and see my idol in the flesh. When I arrived, the line was already wrapped around the block. The smell of clove cigarettes hung in the air as I walked past drag queens dressed-up in full Varla garb; older post-punks sneaking hooch and looking fashionably bored; death rock kids huddled in groups and smoking cigarettes; and B-movie aficionados ready with their favorite memorabilia for Tura to sign. As I was parking my bike I caught a glimpse of HER. I expected her to be a giant, to be six feet tall -- bigger than life. But in reality she was a tiny little lady, with a big smile on her face. Wearing an outfit that resembled her costume in Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Satana walked down the red carpet in front of the Bridge Theater and into a mob scene.
I had gone to Midnight Mass during its humble beginnings, so I was completely unprepared for the glitz and glamour in store for the audience. Since 1998, this midnight summer screening series has featured cult classics like John Water's Desperate Living, Doris Wishman's Double Agent 73, and Paul Verhoeven's modern romp Showgirls. The official mistress of ceremonies, Peaches Christ, presides over the spectacle, which has included lap dancing and a wet t-shirt contest. For this special evening, Peaches Christ, the hostess of Midnight Mass, pulled out all the stops with the pre-show entertainment, unveiling her new single Idol Worship, a live floorshow complete with a gaggle of wild go-go dancers and a clip reel of Tura Satana's cinematic legacy. The house was packed; there was electricity in the air and a sense of anticipation, knowing that Tura Satana would soon grace the stage.
The minute Satana walked onto the stage, the audience went wild. People were genuinely excited and probably shocked to be in the same room with an icon whose image had graced the cover of countless posters, t-shirts and B-movie magazines. I have to admit I was pretty star-struck. Satana proved to be just as amazing in real life, as the image plastered across the screen. She was funny, feisty and incredibly gracious during her interview, which was an intriguing mix of gossip, banter and intimate details from her personal life. Tura shared her experiences growing up Asian American and having to protect herself from the anti-Japanese sentiment she faced in the U.S. following World War II. She talked about learning karate in reaction to a vicious attack and learning to take care of herself at an early age. On a less serious note, Satana displayed the astonishing muscle control she learned to exert over her cleavage after years of tassel twirling in her legendary career as a burlesque dancer. She revealed her clandestine affair with Elvis and flashed a diamond ring he had given her as a gift. After the interview concluded and the lights went down, Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! was projected and Tura Satana's persona lit up the screen. She was a giant again. Her iconic image was still as powerful as the first time I saw it on a tiny black and white TV.
Check out the last Midnight Mass show of the summer, which will feature the San Francisco Underground Short Film Festival on August 20th. Find out more at peacheschrist.com.