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Wild Guitar

South Dakota cowboy, B-western stunt man, army pilot - Arch Hall, Sr.'s biography reads like the plot of a movie. In fact, part of his life was the basis for a movie, The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961), from a novel by Hall's army buddy William Bowers, and starring Robert Mitchum as the roguish Archie. But Hall's movie cult status came not from his own life, but from the series of low-budget schlock films he produced between 1961 and 1965 under the banner of his production company, Fairway Productions. Aimed at a drive-in audience and starring his teenage son, Arch Hall, Jr., the films cost as little as $15,000 to $35,000 to make and were each shot in just a few weeks. Rather than specializing in any one genre, Hall's films sampled the exploitation spectrum, and several others as well: The Choppers (1961) was a juvenile delinquent drama; Eegah! (1962) was a monster movie, and featured Richard Kiel (who would later play "Jaws" in two James Bond films) as the title's hulking caveman; The Sadist (1963) was a suspense thriller (inspired by serial killer Charles Starkweather); The Nasty Rabbit (1964) was a spy spoof; and Deadwood '76 (1965) was a western.

Wild Guitar (1962) was the teen-idol/beach party movie, with original songs written by star Arch Hall, Jr., and performed by him and his band, the Archers. The younger Hall plays a South Dakotan named Bud Eagle who heads for Hollywood looking for stardom, and becomes an instant sensation. Signed by an unscrupulous, Colonel Parker-esque promoter (played by Arch Hall, Sr., using the stage name William Watters), Bud is exploited, cheated, abducted and brainwashed, before he emerges triumphant in the musical beach-party ending. In a recent article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, John Beifuss described Hall's low-rent Elvis appearance in the film: "Hall - his escarpment of hair dyed almost platinum blond - resembles an adult Jonny Quest as played by Michael J. Pollard after a growth spurt." To help promote Wild Guitar, Hall and his band toured drive-ins where the film was playing, with co-star Nancy Czar along to go-go dance with the fans.

Ray Dennis Steckler made his directorial debut with Wild Guitar, as well as playing the weaselly henchman Steak, under the stage name Cash Flagg. Steckler would go on to direct such exploitation classics as The Incredibly Strange Creatures That Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1963) and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966), as well as various horror and softcore adult films. When last heard from, Steckler was running a video store in Las Vegas.

Steckler wasn't the only aspiring filmmaker who got his first break from Arch Hall, Sr. "What he lacked in finances and everything, he sort of made up for by finding interesting and talented people to contribute," Hall's son recalled. Renowned cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977) and Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider, 1969) began their American careers at Fairway Productions. Zsigmond's first credit was as a second unit cinematographer on Wild Guitar, and he was the cinematographer on three other Hall productions. Kovacs was an assistant cameraman on The Nasty Rabbit. Crew members, family members and acquaintances often played bit parts in the films. Marilyn Manning, the leading lady of Eegah!, was a secretary in the office of a chiropractor who was a tenant in the Fairway complex. Helen Hovey, who had a role in The Sadist, was Hall's niece.

Hall was so good at making films with minimal budgets that, according to his son, "At one point, Warner Bros. offered my dad a position as a producer because they saw that this guy was working with nothing, and he was coming up with something." But in spite of Hall's talent for economy, what ultimately defeated him was that he did not control his own distribution. According to Hall Jr., "There was just no affordable way for an independent producer to audit or refute the reports that were submitted by distributors." He claims that his father was cheated by distributors, and by the late 1960s, Hall was broke and Fairway Productions was history. Unwilling to be an employee, Hall refused the job at Warner Bros., and never made another film. However, a few years before his death, Hall appeared, billed as William Watters, in Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us (1974).

Hall Jr. left films behind for a career as a pilot with the famous Flying Tigers air cargo company, flying all over the world. After he retired, he wrote a novel, Apsara Jet, about a Vietnam war veteran involved in illegal drug trade. As an homage to his father, Hall used a variation of his father's producer pseudonym, Nicholas Merriwether, for his own pen name. As the Fairway films gained cult status, Arch Hall, Jr. enjoyed a mini-revival, thanks to the 2005 release of a CD, Wild Guitar!, a compilation of songs from his movies. He even picked up the guitar again, after more than 30 years, and Arch Hall, Jr. and the Archers played at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans in 2005, and in Memphis in 2006.

Director: Ray Dennis Steckler
Producer: Nicholas Merriwether (Arch Hall, Sr.)
Screenplay: Nicholas Merriwether (Arch Hall, Sr.), Bob Wehling
Cinematography: Joseph Mascelli
Editor: Anthony M. Lanza
Music: Arch Hall, Jr., Alan O'Day
Principal Cast: Arch Hall, Jr. (Bud Eagle), Nancy Czar (Vickie), Arch Hall, Sr. (as William Watters) (Mike McCauley), Ray Dennis Steckler (as Cash Flagg) (Steak), Marie Denn (Marge), Robert Crumb (Don Proctor), Virginia Broderick (Daisy), Al Scott (Ted Eagle).

by Margarita Landazuri