A lost '80s spy spoof finally hits the big screen at the Cinedelphia Film Festival
I.M. Scattergood never achieved the iconic status of James Bond, Matt Helm, Jason Bourne or even Maxwell Smart. But a little more than 30 years ago, this working-class, international man of mystery saved the cinematic world from an evil mastermind known as Prince Radolpho Rightmonger. The cruel dictator lorded over Bastavia, a snow-covered Eastern European nation roughly the size of a Poconos resort hotel, where oppressed people speak in accents more South Philly than Slavic. Rightmonger’s ill-defined master plan involved brainwashing the world’s leaders through the addictive power of 8-bit video games while lounging with a bevy of scantily clad beauties on a heart-shaped bed.
Part spy spoof, part beauty pageant promo reel, part inept video game satire, and all early-’80s time capsule, Video Wars gathered an unusual cast and crew of eccentric Philadelphia personalities at Mount Airy Lodge in the winter of 1980-81 to shoot a clumsily charming “comedy” that was forgotten almost before it was released two years later. The 72-minute film makes its long overdue big-screen debut tonight to open the second annual Cinedelphia Film Festival.
The film’s director was Mario Giampaolo, a native of Udine, Italy, who immigrated to Philadelphia in 1969 to study theater at Peirce College and La Salle University. He directed plays in Philadelphia and New York, and at summer theater festivals back in Italy through the late 1970s, all while running the now-gone Philly restaurants Piccolo Padre and Brera with his father. Giampaolo later directed the PBS documentary India: Love and Devotion and shot footage for other uncompleted films before his death from lung cancer in 2007. But on Video Wars, he was simply a director for hire; as his widow, Paola, puts it, “He was happy to do it because he’d never done a movie before, but the stage was where his heart was.”
The true creative forces behind Video Wars were the producers of Miss Hemisphere, a low-budget Philadelphia-based beauty pageant that remains largely obscure despite a 50-year history. Googling the pageant turns up little more than hometown news stories on young ingénues and a report about a melee that broke out at a 1984 pageant when one member of a male Alaskan dance troupe made an obscene gesture after losing the talent show.
Video Wars was presumably meant to boost the pageant’s name recognition. Although he wasn’t listed in the credits, the prime mover behind the film was Al Roselli, a local impresario then in his late 60s who had founded the Miss Hemisphere pageant two decades earlier. His partner in the enterprise was Maria Rybczuk Little, who won the third Miss Hemisphere title and today is the organization’s president.
Rybczuk Little describes Roselli as having a talent for “anything that was unusual,” mentioning one hard-to-imagine promotion featuring an ice cream-eating lion. “He was one of those very rare people that comes along may-be once in a lifetime who are able to put things together and marry different talents,” she says.
In the film, Rybczuk Little stars as the Soviet agent Natasha and is credited as one of the producers. The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who fled the Second World War, she was a natural entrepreneur who spun off her pageant win into a talent agency, an acting school, a record label and a short-lived Poconos hotel.
Meeting for lunch in early Feb-ruary at an Italian restaurant in Newtown, the Philly-raised Rybczuk Little remained every bit the former beauty queen nearly five decades after winning her crown, impeccably dressed and her black hair styled in a bouffant.
Joining us was her co-producer and co-star in Video Wars, George Mazzacano, whose blue-collar bluntness stood in stark contrast to her old-fashioned elegance. Asking about a possible future for the resurrection of this long-forgotten film, he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in the universal gesture for cash, asking, “Think there’s any chicken in it?”
Despite their apparent differences, the two have remained friends for decades. Mazzacano’s every wisecrack and off-color comment sent Rybczuk Little into fits of red-faced laughter, and a surprising common interest emerged in the form of thoroughbred horses, which both have traded in over the years. “I bought a pony and a wagon when I was 11 years old and went into business for myself,” was how Mazzacano described his start. “I peddled fruit, huckstering on the street.”
Mazzacano somehow parlayed that fruit wagon into buying and selling racehorses and even a sideline career playing semi-pro polo, mostly in Argentina. “I played for the Canadian championship,” he says. “It’s the most dangerous game in the world. I broke my spine, I was paralyzed for five months. I broke my ribs 11 times. After a while you break ’em and you don’t pay no attention.”
Mazzacano arrived at the restaurant with an imposing friend, identified only as Mike, who at one point rose from the table to provide an impromptu character endorsement. “George is the most kindest, generous, considerate man I’ve ever met in my life. I love him. I’d give my life for him to protect his life.”
Under the alias George Diamond, a name given to him by Roselli, Mazzacano was also the unlikeliest secret agent to ever hit the screen. “I’d never acted in my life,” he attests, and shrugs off questions about how he landed the plum role. “Al said, ‘I’m gonna make a movie, and you’re gonna be in it.’ I said, ‘When do we start?’ And that was it. I never dreamed of being an actor, I never even thought of it. Still don’t. That’s a lot of work, that acting. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
As Scattergood, Mazzacano embodied all of the genre’s most heroic traits — single-handedly offing bad guys, bedding beautiful women, mastering gadgets like the “Omni-Directional Sonic Detector, Omni-Purpose Multi-Button Detonator, New Improved Rotational Axis with Combined Sensor and, of course, various guns” — with the grace and manner of a Kensington longshoreman’s son. Mazzacano spends much of his screen time mumbling dialogue and slipping on the snow and ice surrounding Mount Airy Lodge.
“I ruined a $200 pair of shoes going through that creek in the cold weather. But they reimbursed me for ’em,” Mazzacano says, before leaning in conspiratorially to add, “I only paid $150 for the shoes.”
Mount Airy Lodge, which closed in 2001, regularly hosted the Miss Hemisphere pageant, so it proved an ideal location to shoot the film and house its crew. It also explains the frequent cutaways to skiers and other winter revelers that constantly interrupt what little action there is in the film.
In fact, there often seems to be more interruption than action. Plot details are glossed over: The spies, all of whom are known to one another and to the master villain, gather under the unnecessary cover of a video game competition only mentioned when Rightmonger engages the 12-year-old world champion in a showdown on a game that involves nothing but manically slapping buttons while abstract shapes flash on the screen.
But plenty of time is taken to linger over a host of beauty-pageant contestants as they lounge by the pool or change clothes repeatedly. As Mazzacano fondly remembers, the film has “a lot of broads in it.”
All of this is underscored by insistent synthesizer earworms that would be more fitting for an Atari 2600 circus game. That music was provided by Henry Casella, then music director for Mount Airy Lodge as leader of King Henry and the American Showmen (which continues to perform today). The band would play everything from swing to rock to Italian music as well as perform comedy skits to warm up the audience for headliners like Tony Bennett and Jerry Lewis.
“I wrote six songs that had to do with video games,” says Casella, who has never seen the actual film. He simply recorded his contributions based on a synopsis of the screenplay and handed them over, where they were slathered all over the scenes whether appropriate or, more often, not. “Back in 1983, video games were not as sophisticated as they are now and there used to be a lot of synthesized music. The songs that I wrote had some of those synthesized sounds in them to simulate those weird sounds from that era.”
The film culminates in a protracted (an adjective which could describe basically every scene in the movie) snowmobile chase, which also happens to be the sole memory of the production retained by cinematographer Christopher Speeth. Nine years earlier, Speeth had directed his own local obscurity, the psychedelic horror film Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood. His involvement in Video Wars came at the same time that he was designing sound effects for the Robert Venturi-designed treehouse at the Philadelphia Zoo, and was just a job to supplement a laundry list of his own frustrated projects. “I’m surprised it ever got finished,” Speeth says.
It was finished, however, and enjoyed a wrap party at Frank Palumbo’s CR Club, also a favored meeting place for Philly mob associates, which had been the venue for the Jimmy Durante-hosted first Miss Hemisphere pageant. While it never had a theatrical run, Video Wars was released on VHS but immediately sank into obscurity until Cinedelphia Film Festival program director Eric Bresler unearthed it.
“I had never heard of the film until my friend Marco Giampaolo asked me if I could track down a movie that his uncle supposedly made in the early ’80s,” Bresler explains. “I did some hunting around on the Internet and was surprised that it didn’t have an IMDb page; according to the Internet the film is almost nonexistent. About 10 minutes in, I knew that this would be the perfect opening night film for this year’s CFF: It has the Philly connection, it’s an obscure rarity and it’s deeply rooted in the video-era culture.”
• Video Wars, Thu., April 10, 7:30 p.m., $10, PhilaMOCA, 531 N. 12th St., cinedelphiafilmfestival.com.