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April 15, 2017

Account supports ruthless depiction of “Big” John Misterly

As a journalist solidly into my second decade at the craft, it only made sense that I’d lean on a true story to ease my way into screenwriting.
Writing historical fiction is like journalism, except you get to color in the details, I figured.

After taking my first weekend screenwriting class in February 2014, I completed my first feature-length script. I’m admittedly a little stir-crazy as I share my baby, seeking refinement.
It’s hard to tell how long this road I face really is. It’s next to impossible for a Hollywood outsider to sell an original script. It’s hard enough to get it read. If I try to secure the money to produce it myself, it means many long nights juggling my play job and my newspaper job.

So it was with mixed feelings that I scheduled a meeting with former Sacramento County Undersheriff Larry Stamm, someone with intimate knowledge of my subject matter and whose recollections might force a major rewrite.

“Pink,” my screenplay about the 1969 trial over all-nude dancing at the Pink Pussy Kat beer bar in Orangevale, started as a small project. My 2011 screenwriting class at Access Sacramento encouraged us to write a 10-page script for submission into its “Place Called Sacramento” Film Festival. Without a better idea, I turned to the newspaper archives about this intriguing trial. Using the newspaper stories as my guide posts, I constructed a story to fill the middle, imagining the dialogue and what happened around the court dates.

I submitted the script. It was rejected.

I told myself that it was too sexy for the family-friendly contest. That may be true, but it was also true that there was little character depth to the 10-minute version. Undoubtedly, that’s a tough bar for any 10-minute film. Without the constraints of a 10-minute requirement, the script quickly grew to 17 pages as I added everything it was missing before.

“Pink” wasn’t a full-time obsession. I wrote and produced a short zombie comedy, “Dance Step of Death,” in 2012, and stayed busy with my other projects, including performing improv.

New project and ideas would manifest, but I kept returning to “Pink.” I interviewed two of the reporters who covered the trial and the script grew. At 27 pages, the characters were really starting to take shape. I showed it to a few people, three of whom urged me to develop it to feature length.

At feature length, it has the potential to make money. As a short, there is no even remote chance of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. However, getting the project made as a full-length movie is dramatically more complicated than my happy little short.

I pressed on.

As I went along, I found myself struggling over the facts. The trial became a national story after Judge Earl Warren Jr. decided that the jury needed to see the dance to determine whether it violated community standards. Warren also included testimony from the famous San Francisco stripper Carol Doda. Despite its notoriety at the time, very little exists about the trial in accessible online archives. This trial predates Wikipedia, after all.

I found a few newspaper clippings, one radio story, and a reference to it in Doda’s personal Wikipedia page, but there was little else. I couldn’t find the two stars of the drama — Susanna Haines and Sheila Brandenson. The district attorney who handled it was dead, as was club’owner Leonard Glancy.

In the absence of the gritty details, as the script grew to its current 116-page, feature-length form, it was clear I needed to make some choices. The way I figured it, make a compelling story even it that means condensing a timeline, inventing a backstory and making a villain.

That villain is Sheriff John Misterly.

I knew some things about Misterly. It’s well documented that he set out and succeeded in running the biker groups out of the county. The phrase most often associated with Misterly was “son-of-a-bitch.” While I didn’t have the specific facts, like whether he personally threatened people, it seemed in keeping with what I did know. I typed. I slept. I typed some more. Scene by scene, things fell into place. I sat on the script for a week to make sure I didn’t wake up with a new scene that had to be added.

On Feb. 15, I declared my script done. The first draft, at least. Scores of rewrites lay in store. I set out getting the script proofread and started polishing.

Then, without warning, Sacramento Historical Society member Dave Reingold contacted me. He too had an interest in this bit of history for a project he was working on about the history of burlesque. The chapter on the Pink Pussy Kat trial is a bit of an addendum to his work. Among his gifts was contact information for Larry Stamm, who was a detective during the Pink Pussy Kat’s legal entanglement.

With excitement and a bit of trepidation, I arranged to meet Stamm. Would new information force me into a major rewrite? This effort was already my longest sustained writing project and I’m admittedly dying for the fame and fortune that comes with a hit movie.

I’m happy to report that John Misterly in real life is just as bullying as in my fiction.

Stamm said that just as “Big John” ran off the motorcycle gangs, he was dead-set on getting the adult clubs out of his community as well.

Stamm said officers were under standing orders to make their presence felt at the adult establishments, when there wasn’t something else that needed to be done. That included asking to see alcohol licenses, checking patron’s IDs, looking for code violations and hitting guests with sobriety tests as they left.

“It was a time where people who were in the money saw an opportunity to come to cowboy town Sacramento and turn it into a big city,” said Stamm, referring to the the influence of San Francisco’s culture and cash on the proliferation of adult clubs in the county.

Stamm didn’t have all the answers. Although he’d been to the club from 10 to 20 times as a detective, he was not on the unit tasked with shutting it and the others down. I asked whether there was any history between Big John and Leonard Glancy, the owner.

“If there was any conversation, it was Misterly telling him to get the hell out of our community,” Stamm said.

He added valuable, characteristic knowledge that could come only from someone who worked for Misterly, like his practice of chewing on cigars. Stamm said Misterly drove a big black Chrysler, and was known for martini lunches.

Still, though, more than these details, Stamm offered a better understanding of Big John’s motivation and drive. I left knowing that more fine-tuning of the character is ahead, but thanks to Larry Stamm, Big John Misterly will be a richer, fuller, more contextualized villain.

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