Fred Halsted Goes to Iowa (and Gets Stranded on VHS)

Two (rather blurry*) images of Fred Halsted in the late 1970s:

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The first is from El Paso Wrecking Corp., part 2 of Joe Gage’s “working man’s trilogy” that charted a gay sexual geography across the highways and truck stops of America and constitutes a landmark in working-class queer sexual culture.

You’d think the other image shared a heritage, but no, far from it: this is Fred Halsted in his only mainstream film role, a PG-rated comedy about women’s basketball shot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and released in 1979 as Dribble.

None of this makes sense. Though I suppose few would confuse Dribble for a porn title.

I learned of the film’s existence while reviewing some files on Halsted; it received a brief mention in a 1979 Advocate interview:

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That caught my attention. Halsted was burned out on porn at the time, having also recently made his stage debut in a play called News for Tennessee (as in, Williams). But okay, that at least made some sense. The film, not so much. I became determined to track it down.

Dribble popped up on VHS in 1982, retitled Scoring, and hasn’t drawn much attention since. Wikipedia offers a brief profile that mistakenly attributes it to Troma (which has another film with the same title)**. There’s a nicely researched essay on a dead-minor-league-sports-teams history blog (I’d add a “!” but considering what I’m writing about, it would hardly be fair) about the basketball team whose owner apparently funded the movie as a failed promotional ploy here. And Temple of Schlock, one of the best sources on forgotten regional and exploitation films of the 1970s, has a tremendous set of newspaper documents about it. But none of this mentions Halsted at all, even though he somewhat surprisingly got his name on the movie’s poster (borrowed from TOS):

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Finding a copy, or at least an affordable one, isn’t easy, but I landed one for ten bucks on ebay, a onetime rental at Video Park on Flamingo & Pecos, which the gods of Google tell me was in Las Vegas. The American video cover art is disappointingly dull compared to the Japanese video that must have come out around the same time:

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scoring

The film itself is even more dire. The opening locker room scene gives a sense of what Debbie Does Dallas would look like with a PG rating, all flat affect and broad humor. Probably the most clever moment comes on a team bus, where one woman reads The Hunchback of Notre Dame; another leans over and asks, “is that the Knute Rockne story?” Lulz like a Godard film from 1972, here. Usually the jokes aim even lower—more par for the course is a middle-aged florist whose son grows some weed and gets him high, which manifests in some half-assed air-dribbling, true Iowan reefer madness. It’s all pretty painful to watch, even the upside-down-car-on-a-shopping-cart scene.

Usually low-budget regional films from the era before the great neoliberal enclosure movement of the 1980s that privatized everything except the clouds at least promise some nice visual documentation of local scenery, but aside from one driving scene in downtown Cedar Rapids, we don’t even get that. If you want to see Iowa in the 70s caught on film, you’re better off with Dick Van Dyke in Cold Turkey (which was Des Moines, not Cedar Rapids, to be sure). The one nice thing I can say is that otherwise incompetent writer-director Michael De Gaetano shoots basketball games with an impressively active camera that gets into the middle of the action (there was apparently an article about the film in American Cinematographer in 1979, which kinda boggles the mind). Otherwise, it’s a total wash.

And what of Halsted? Ah, sweet disappointment: he enters around the 15-minute mark, playing a character listed in the end credits as “Highway Psycho.” Fittingly so: he enters stage right in a jeep, swerving at a van carrying our protagonists of the good team Vixens for no apparent reason. Fortunately, they’re riding with the florist, who carries a cheap-looking mutant venus flytrap (one wonders if De Gaetano, whose previous films were grade-z sci-fi/horror, was planning a Little Shop of Horrors remake)—which he throws at Halsted, who screams and runs off the road. In the next scene, Halsted shows back up at the diner where the team eats, punches the florist out, but then gets knocked out himself by their female coach. Exit Halsted—with another 75 painful minutes remaining.

I kept hoping he’d show back up, but no dice. We do get a more high-profile cameo from real-life basketball star Pistol Pete Maravich, who comes across as a charmless, sexist jerk, but the sad fact is, Halsted himself offers no particular gravitas in his non-sex debut (there’s another film debut here, credited surreally alongside our FH, though he too leaves little impression that he’ll later ascend to a television presidency):

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Of Halsted’s approximately five short lines of dialogue, none are delivered with distinction, and even the suspiciously slow-motion punch he throws is no paragon of choreography. We are left, I am afraid, with the impression, albeit one founded on slender evidence, that pornography is really where his talent best showed.

The single other point of interest in Dribble/Scoring is a brief scene late in the film, on the military base where the Vixens are to play against the men’s team in the climactic game (I’ll withhold spoilers, but you won’t lose money betting with your gut here). The general in charge tells an underlining, “I don’t want any faggots running around this base. I have enough trouble keeping those glory holes in the men’s room boarded up.”

A homophobic joke typical of 1970s fare, to be sure, but am I entirely off base in reading further into it? This is, after all, a film featuring gay porn icon Fred Halsted, whose last acting role was in a hardcore picture that prominently featured actual glory holes (the aforementioned El Paso Wrecking Corp.). Surely someone behind the camera knew this (edit: indeed; see below***). Whether I am making this more interesting than it really is through an act of wish-fulfillment projection, I am not sure, but I can’t help but read this as some sort of willfully perverse in-joke (did mainstream audiences in 1979 even know what glory holes were? I don’t know; I also refuse to speculate about the fact that the actor delivering that line is credited as Dick Hardiman, in his single screen role). During his brief appearance, Halsted is certainly filmed within the precise iconography of Joe Gage’s films:

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Oh wait, that last one is Joe Gage again. See what I mean?

Whatever the case, the story behind the scenes was assuredly more interesting than the one onscreen. Halsted would shortly return to porn. It’s sad to think of him playing out his  final years trapped in a smut trade he longed to escape; sadder still that the available evidence does not support a theory that going mainstream would have been a viable avenue of escape. Such is the unavoidable conclusion of Dribble.

* I’m shooting my TV with my digital camera, so Criterion collection visuals, this ain’t

** I stand corrected; though it seemed reasonable to assume the Wikipeeps had simply conflated this movie with Troma’s 2004 film, never underestimate Lloyd Kaufman’s capacity for dribble: they own it indeed (though to what end, even they don’t seem to know). I thank the esteemed folks at Vinegar Syndrome for the correction. 

*** I am informed by reliable sources that director Michael De Gaetano is indeed gay, so that helps explain Halsted’s otherwise odd presence here and the knowingness of the nods to the Joe Gage aesthetic. De Gaetano also brought an interesting moment of sexual confusion to his 1977 supernatural thriller Haunted. Queer subtext in exploitation films that are assumed by default as hetero-oriented might be an interesting field of investigation; the work of David DeCoteau springs to mind, among others…

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