A Maryland actor saw his spaceship come in with awful 1959 film

July 07, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

From growing up a baker's son in Fells Point to a featured role in the worst movie of all time to being a guest of honor at the Baltimore Film Forum -- it's all in a life's work for Conrad Brooks.

And the best part? At 63, Mr. Brooks is more popular today than ever. And he's having the time of his life.

Tomorrow night, he'll be the guest of honor at a BFF screening of "Plan 9 From Outer Space," the "Gone With the Wind" of bad movies, a film no American who claims to be culturally hip can afford to ignore.

Next weekend, he's off to a personal appearance in Richmond, Va. Later this month, it's back to Baltimore for Fanex 8, a convention of horror and fantasy film buffs that will feature the world premiere of Mr. Brooks' new movie, "Bikini Drive-In." And then he's headed for Tampa, Fla., to begin work on his next

feature, "Brain Robbers From Outer Space."

Conrad Brooks is a schlock movie buff's dream. A more personable and engaging man you'll never meet. His energy level appears boundless, his enthusiasm almost tiring. And for fans of Grade-Z horror films, he's a living, breathing, talking connection with the Golden Age of the 1950s.

"I enjoy talking about Hollywood," Mr. Brooks says from his daughter's home in Hagerstown, on a visit from Los Angeles. "It's great memories, it was wonderful and it was good to me. I made a few bucks. For a guy that didn't intend to be there to begin with . . ."

Mr. Brooks, his wife Ruth looking on, doesn't bother finishing the sentence. He doesn't have to, for the thought is clear: For a guy who didn't intend to be in Hollywood to begin with, the man who started life as Conrad Biedrzycki on Washington Street has done pretty well for himself. And he owes it all to one man, almost universally revered as the worst movie director of all time.

Conrad Brooks has made a career out of his connections with Edward D. Wood Jr. Never heard of Ed Wood? That should change in a few months, when "Batman" director Tim Burton's new film, "Ed Wood," hits movie screens, with Johnny Depp starring as the maestro of bad cinema.

Ed Wood is to Grade-Z movies as Ingmar Bergman is to art films. A failure in his time, Ed Wood did not live to see himself become the stuff of legend. His movies are so uniformly bad, they're wonderful. And his masterpiece was 1956's "Plan 9 From Outer Space."

Voted the worst movie ever made in an early-1980s poll, "Plan 9" tells the tale of alien beings deathly afraid that humans will unwittingly destroy the universe with their newfound knowledge of nuclear weapons. After repeated warnings to stop the escalating arms race are ignored, the aliens are forced to implement "Plan 9," which involves bringing the dead back to life and subjugating the human race.

The film's plot, however, only hints at its glory. "Plan 9," for instance, stars Bela Lugosi, who died several months before filming started. But the resourceful Wood simply used some test footage of Lugosi, in his "Dracula" cape, walking through a door and around some trees.

He then hired a double and told him to hold the cape in front of his face whenever he was on camera. The illusion might have worked, except the double was noticeably taller than Lugosi and wore his hair differently.

"Plan 9" goes downhill from there -- or uphill, depending on your point of view. Flaming plates are used to portray flying saucers. The same set is used for a police station and the interior of a spaceship. Calling the dialogue stilted would constitute flattery (one alien, to the lawman holding a gun on him: "You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!"). The whole things looks like it cost about $17.50 to make.

And Conrad Brooks, in his role as one of three policemen who encounter the living dead in a cemetery that wouldn't scare a 3-year-old, saw it all unfold.

Mr. Brooks and his brother, Henry, met Ed Wood in 1948, during their first visit to Hollywood. They returned to Baltimore two years later, but the movies were in Mr. Brooks' blood and he returned in 1952. Meeting up with his old friend, he became a staple in the director's pictures.

Mr. Brooks had appeared in two Bowery Boys movies when Wood gave him a supporting role in "Glen or Glenda?" an autobiographical film about a transvestite that was the director's first theatrical film. Mr. Brooks acted in pictures other than Wood's, but "Plan 9" was definitely the high point of his career.

So how does it feel to have been featured in the worst film ever made? Just fine, says Conrad Brooks, marveling in his peculiar brand of fame.

"But," he recalls, "Ed told us from the day that we met him, 'These pictures are going to become world famous.' "

FILMS AND FANS

For information on the Baltimore Film Forum's screening of "Plan 9 From Outer Space," as well as other details of its summerlong Ed Wood film festival, which runs Fridays through Aug. 19, call (410) 889-1993.

For information on Fanex 8, at the Sheraton North Towson, July 22-24, call (410) 255-5186 or 665-1198.

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