Saturday, February 14, 2009
"Cable’s Commander USA Talks About His Video Vault, Origins"
by David Cuthbert
“My favorite movie,” says Commander USA, “is ‘Doctor of Doom.’ Oh yeah. It’s a Mexican classic. It’s all about this mad doctor in Tijuana, see, and he’s involved in inter species brain transplants. This woman comes to work for him and he puts her brain into a wrestler’s body, and then into a gorilla! Boy, you can’t beat those Mexican movies.
“I like ‘The Braniac,’ too. You ever see that one where the monster sucks people’s brains out with this long tongue? What a guy! And women wrestler movies. Oh yeah. Vampires and women wrestlers were very big there for a while.”
They still are on “Commander USA’s Groovy Movies,” the Saturday afternoon schlockfest on cable’s USA Network. Each week, superhero Commander USA (“Legion of Decency, retired”) takes us into his video vault somewhere beneath a shopping mall in the wilds of New Jersey.
Bad knees forced the commander out of the superhero business, which wasn’t all that much, to hear him tell about it. “When the superheroes were dividing up the territory, Superman got Metropolis and I got Topeka, Kansas,” he says. “But heck! Being able to leap tall buildings isn’t much in Topeka. I think the tallest building is four stories.”
The commander enters his video vault with a trench coat over his red-white-and-blue superhero costume. He’s somewhat past his prime, with a bit of a paunch and a decided leer. His ever present cigar comes in handy for drawing the face of Lefty, the commander’s hand puppet. Lefty is the commander’s right hand. Literally. (“I met Lefty when I was on vacation in the Finger Lakes.”)
The commander’s video vault is the ultimate House of Schlock, with an endless supply of terrible movies to feed the multitudes of ravenous trashophiles coast-to-coast.
The movies the commander shows usually aren’t listed in any of the standard movie guide books. Leonard Maltin has never heard of this week’s attraction, “Bloodbath at the House of Death,” a British gem from 1985. But Jim Hendricks can tell you all about it.
Hendricks is the 42-year-old actor who created and plays Commander USA and shares with him a fondness for bad movies.
“’Bloodbath at the House of Death’ is actually pretty good,” says Hendricks. “It’s a very elaborate spoof, with Vincent Price and Pamela Stephenson. It’s about tracking down murderers in this little town and there are these whistling monks. They do a song about who was murdered and how to the tune of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’ And some of the best parts of the movie take place at this pub called the Duck and Pullet.”
Hendricks was a struggling actor who was driving a cab when he answered an open audition by the USA Network four years ago. “They said, ‘Bring your own character’ and I had this character I’d done on radio in Junction City, Kansas, called Uncle Willie.
“Uncle Willie was playing rock and roll and telling kids stories at 2 in the morning. We had a lot of fun with him. So I took Uncle Willie to the audition. I had him in a trench coat buttoned all the way to the neck, you know – one of those guys.
“Well, the producer hated Uncle Willie. He wanted a superhero in the worst way, and I guess that’s what he got.
“We tossed some ideas back and forth and came up with a retired superhero who was really Uncle Willie in tights.
“We went on the air in January of ’85 and we’re finishing up our fourth season. Originally, the commander showed two movies and two serials. We were on the air for five hours! It took a lot of preparation and production time.
“Now we show just the one movie, and what goes on in the video vault usually ties in to what’s going on in the film. That means we actually have to watch the movies. When we showed ‘The Witchmaker,’ we had a couple of witches on who where trying to upgrade their image with a membership drive. Or maybe it was a dis-membership drive.”
Offbeat hosts for bad movies have been making something of a comeback lately, probably prompted by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Al Lewis of “The Munsters” has been doing his geriatric vampire Grandpa on WTBS and the commander’s been getting some competition in New York from a new fella name of Morgus.
Hendricks would, however, like to get Elvira into his video vault. “Can you imagine how the commander would react? He’d probably break out in a rash!”
“When I first came on,” he recalls, “they gave me a 13-week contract and said, ‘Maybe.’ And that was fine with me, you know. I was used to low-paying jobs that fulfilled you artistically where you changed in the hall. A paying job for four years was unheard of to me.
“I really enjoy this guy a lot, but with show business, you never know. It could be Pink Slip City tomorrow.
“But heck, I’m not worried. I’ve still got my hack license.”