LA Plays Itself
Story: Kelli Fuqua Hart & A. J. Epstein
PHOTO of A. J. Epstein BY KENT LACIN
Andrew Epstein has had many lives. Author. Writer. Photographer. And having traveled all the way from Los Angeles, Ocala Magazine’s newest Creative Director tells all about his life amongst the stars.
“No One is Getting Fat Except Mama Cass” (Lyrics from Mama and Papas’ Creeque Alley)
Every story has a once-upon-a-time-beginning and so does Epstein’s. The stars aligned, planets moved in and positioned themselves and Andrew was born; and then instantly adopted at birth, making many therapists very rich over the years. It also sent a pattern for the rest of Epstein’s life. He collected creative friends who were all larger than life.
Epstein had a cousin, someone between a left over beatnik and an early hippy. He played in numerous Chicago bands. Young Epstein linked up with his musical older cousin and started taking photos of bands in his last year of high school. Epstein never looked back.
His cousin was in the house band of a folk/rock/blues bar in Chicago’s Old Town, called Mother Blues. While not really old enough to be in any bar, everyone seemed to not notice the young photographer, and so his rock photographer career started.
His cousin introduced him to a large, and very cool lady with a great big voice and sang in a band called “The Big Three” back then. The big lady whose name was Cass Elliot, pre-Momma and Papas, was a folk singer at Mother Blues. Cass was always encouraging Epstein’s photography and art.
Epstein shot the musical groups and also design posters for the club. He also met, at Mother Blues, another young folk singer from Texas named Janis Joplin, Pre rock goddess.
Epstein was adopted into a unique family. His dad worked for the mob in Chicago. His mom had her ups and downs in life and his grandpa Sam remarried a woman named Pearl who was the bookkeeper for the original Chicago Roller Derby for over 20 years. Pearl and Andrew, as outsiders in the family, former a bond. Grandma Pearl often took little Andrew to go see the derby on the south side after telling his parents she was taking him downtown to see Santa.
Andrew floated between collage, designing record covers for Blues and jazz legions’ such as Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy Waters, and blues legion Willie Dixon. Epstein drove Willie to his gigs on the south side for years.
Cass often told Andrew to get out of Chicago and come west to California. One day he was shoving snow in Chicago and with his earnings from his early rock photography and designing he took Cass up on her offer and found himself “crashing” on Cass couch, unfortunately witnessing the breakup of the Mama and Papas.
The introductions to the early LA music scene were amazing, and for the first time Epstein found himself sitting with people like Warren Betty, Julie Christy, the Smother Brothers, and others Cass invited to the table.
No she didn’t choke on a ham sandwich!
Janis Stole my Girlfriend
Years after moving to LA and SF, Epstein ran back in to Joplin the empress or rock blues when she was filming in San Francisco. Epstein and his girlfriend were invited backstage to share a few drinks when, before Epstein’s own eyes, Joplin hit on his girlfriend and took her home.
Not holding a grudge, Epstein met up with Joplin at the Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood, just a few days before her death. “She was acting happy but very erratic,” Epstein remembers. “I could tell she was high on something. One minute she was laughing and the next crying. Epstein gave her a ride back to the Chateau Marmont, where her last words to him were, “Hey F***er, I’ll see ya later, “ paired with a slug.
The Blonde Bomber
Because of Andrew’s camera and knowledge of the roller derby soon was traveling with the biggest star of the derby ever, Joan Weston “The Blonde Bomber” herself, for a story in Playboy. Joan and Epstein clicked and Joan selected Epstein to shoot her life in the original derby. He was in the process of working on a book when Joan came down with Mad Cow Disease and died.
Bette Takes a Bathhouse
In the 1970s, Epstein was floating between LA, SF, and NYC. A young Bette Midler would finish a performance in Fiddler on the Roof, catch a cab, and perform at the Continental Baths, singing raunchy little sets and Chatanooga-Choo-Choo’ing in her hula skirts.
The legendary Continental Baths was a gay bathhouse located in the basement of New York City’s Ansonia Hotel. There, gay and straight men would be wearing nothing but towels and would sit pool side for Bette’s bigger then life transformation into the Devine Ms. M. Midler, who earned herself the nickname “Bathhouse Betty.” She sang show tunes while her pianist, Barry Manilow, tickled the keys.
Epstein was invited to the bathhouse by famous author of the Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo, who was a mutual friend to both he and Bette. Standing in towels, Epstein, Russo and photographer friend Robert Mapplethorpe watched as Midler played her ukulele and belted out absurd lyrics.
Soon after hearing Midler, and a introduction by Vito, Epstein saw her perform again, but this time at Mister Kelly’s in Chicago, a show that completely flopped on Chicago’s straight and older Gold Coast customers.
Asked by Vito “keep Bette entertained,” Epstein and Midler spent the day sorting through thrift stores. On this day, he was able to capture a candid shot of the young Bette in his Chicago home.
By age 30, Epstein was well known in the celebrity scene as the art director for a famous film magazine called Moviegoer owned by Esquire. Epstein hired all of his soon to be famous photography friends to shoot for the magazine, and again quietly continue to document the larger then life personalities surrounding him. Soon he was setting up photo shoots for Tom Cruse, Glenn Close, Pam Grier, Chuck Norris and Jeff Bridges. He was able to get a rare glimpse into the real world of celebrities that most people are never
fortunate enough to know. “Some of those glimpses are good and others I’d have rather not seen,” says Epstein.
Caught Blue Handed
Jeff Bridges was patiently waiting on-set as a photographer and stylists prepped for his shoot. Epstein happened to notice that Bridges had blue paint under and around his fingernails. Epstein concluded, “He must have either been doing a project at home or he’s an artist.”
Epstein was right. Bridges is an artist/photographer and loves painting. With this new information, Epstein staged the set with canvas stretchers and a simple stool and brought to real life a timeless, personal photo of Bridges.
Books and Looks
Although sometimes considered an airhead, Terry Garr is far from the ditsy blonde she has often portrayed. In the midst of a late photo shoot, Garr’s car needed to be moved to keep from blocking an entrance. Epstein volunteered to move the car and noticed a large stack of books in the backseat.
“These weren’t books an airhead would read,” described Epstein. “These were books on politics and philosophy. These were impressive books.”
Back on set, he asked her about her love for reading and she must have sensed his confusion. Garr responded, “I’m a smart girl. But, when you act like an airhead, you get what you want in this town.”
Her advice, Wait Until I’m Dead
Known for her meticulous appearance and syndicated advice columns, Ann Landers had issues with impromptu photography. Wanting every hair to be in its place, Landers was not the type to be caught off-guard in her syndicated national column, or in life.
One afternoon, in her office, Epstein and Landers were engaged in conversation about the birth parents Landers was helping Epstein find. As a result of something off-the-wall said by Epstein, Landers started laughing uncontrollably, Epstein was able to catch the moment on-camera.
Landers heard the “snap” of the shutter and quickly proclaimed, “Alright kid, I’ll give you that one. But don’t you dare print it until I’m dead!”
Landers never wanted a less than posed picture of her to surface, so Epstein respected her wish. Years later, after her death, Epstein did publish the rare photo he had taken of the younger, laughing, casual Landers. Ann’s daughter happened to see the photo and contacted Epstein. “This is the very best picture of my mother I have ever seen,” she said.
In his years, Epstein has experienced a whirlwind of opportunities, insights and shocks. From working with the likes of the “Grand Old Master of Tattooing,” Cliff Raven, who eventually brought tattooing to an art form, to designing production backdrops the Pointer Sisters, getting lost in his Bronco, jam-packed with Kay Starr, the Four Lads and their drunk music conductor in a snow storm on the Jersey turnpike that wound up at a bar performance by an Elvis impersonator, Epstein has lived a very eventful life and has started his own publishing company called Spaghettibrains Press.
With the new popularity, Andrew’s classic derby photos have proved to be pure gold, and he still does the derby current selling his popular version of his time with the Derby. The Book “The Blonde Bomber” is selling very well theses days at the derby games.
Epstein left the fast lane of LA so that he could come to work for the popular Ocala Magazine. He was excited to work alongside the publisher, who he had previously met 10 years ago while in town visiting his photographer friend Djamel E. Ramoul. Ramoul was the magazine’s talented photographer for 9 years. Propelled by the Great Mandella (The Wheel of Life), Epstein moved to Ocala.
What he brings to Ocala is not only experience, but also a rich city culture that will benefit our already amazing small town.
For more info about the Blonde Bomber book visit www.theblondebomber.com
all photography © 2013 Andrew J. Epstein