News Column

Susan Hart's little corner of Halloween

October 30, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 30--RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- A piece of Susan Hart's past rose up and frightened her husband one dark Wednesday night.

Not so long ago, Roy Hofheinz Jr. bustled late into the family kitchen while his wife Susan sat alone watching "Jeepers Creepers 2" in the living room. Roy's eyes fell upon the glowing, foot-wide alien bat-creature on the kitchen counter. The next thing his wife heard was: "Susan! Stay where you are!"

Roy had been alarmed by a glow-in-the-dark collectible based on "It Conquered the World" (1956), one of the cult B-horror and science fiction movies that Susan owns -- not in the sense that one owns a DVD, but in the sense of copyright, trademark, you name it. She licenses toys and collectibles based on those films, and the bat-thing had just arrived for her approval that day.

"I have a Saucer Man here, about a foot tall," Hart says by phone from her California desert home, looking over the collectibles she's licensed from "Invasion of the Saucer Men" (1957). "He's real handsome."

How Hart, now 72, became a glamorous Hollywood comedic foil, acted opposite Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Frankie Avalon, then wound up owning full rights to drive-in fare like "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein" and "The Amazing Colossal Man" (all 1957) is a tale worthy of the movies.

Hart was born Dorothy "Dot" Neidhart in Wenatchee, one of five children of George and Dorothy. Called Dot by her friends, she studied tapdance with Wenatchee instructor Nelle Albersworth and ballet with Joan Shelton, sang in revues at the Liberty Theatre, and thrust herself into every local talent competition she could find.

"I was very competitive, and I enjoyed it, win lose or draw," she said. Among her memorabilia is a plaque from the Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program, a touring talent contest that reached Wenatchee when Hart was a schoolgirl.

At 9, she encountered a touch of glamour when her sister began dating the brother of Noreen Nash -- the Hollywood actress who'd been crowned Apple Blossom queen in 1942 under her given name, Norabelle Roth. The Roths and Neidharts mingled at a party while Noreen was visiting Wenatchee, and that's how Susan realized movies could be a career.

"She was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen in my life. I was absolutely stunned with her. ... I thought she was like something out of a storybook come to life."

But by then Susan was divided between Wenatchee and Palm Springs. Her mother was ill with tuberculosis, at a time when desert air was a recommended tonic, so the family spent four to five of the colder months each year in the California desert. Susan barely graduated from Palm Springs High School, but she and a girlfriend saved enough money to travel to Waikiki, where Hart learned to surf. Her skills and looks attracted an agent-photographer, who snapped her surf action and signed her to a one-year contract after she returned to California.

That's how Dot Neidhart became Susan Hart, on her agent's advice. "I said, 'I've gotta keep a part of my last name. My dad would kill me.'"

TV came first: In 1961 "The Joey Bishop Show" marked her debut, followed by parts in "Laramie," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." In 1963, she starred in her first feature film. The movie was "The Slime People," and it was famously awful.

"This is what the cultists love," Hart says today. "You could say you did 'The Pride and the Passion,' you could say you did 'Gone with the Wind,' but if you say, 'I did "The Slime People,"' people go, 'YOU DID "THE SLIME PEOPLE?"' There are so many aficionados out there for these cult films."

Hart appeared in two episodes of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and was courted for a recurring part. ("The gossip that I got much later was that they were thinking very strongly about marrying Jethro off.") But at the same time, Columbia Pictures tapped her to play a native Hawaiian in "Ride the Wild Surf," a beach party film that also starred Tab Hunter, Barbara Eden and Fabian.

The main studio behind the beach genre was American International Pictures, founded by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, which had successfully catered to the teen moviegoing market. Early rushes from "Ride the Wild Surf" found their way to Nicholson, the man credited with much of AIP's creative and marketing savvy. He sought her out for a new contract -- and very soon, for marriage. The two wed in 1964, and Susan appeared in four AIP films from 1964 to 1966.

Jim and Susan traveled often as he oversaw AIP co-productions in Spain, Italy and the U.K. Their son James Jr., now a New York composer, was born in 1965. Barring a few TV appearances into the late 1960s, Hart's acting career came to a close.

"It was a little bit rough being the wife of the creative head of something, and also going out and working for other companies, and being a mother and all that," she said. "I kind of decided I couldn't do anything really well if I did all three."

She turned to music, lending her voice to several singles and joining MGM as a contract singer for three years. She wouldn't get a hit, though, until 1981, with "Is This a Disco Or a Honky Tonk?," which hovered low in the charts. ("I think it got to No. 94 with a bullet or something like that.")

Nicholson left AIP in 1972 and set up his own production company at 20th Century Fox, but died that same year of a brain tumor. Hart acted as executive producer to steer his final two projects to the screen: "The Legend of Hell House" (1973) and "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" (1974). She also helped establish a pediatric cardiology chair in his name at UCLA's medical school.

From Nicholson's death through the 1980s, Hart held part ownership of several films her late husband had produced under a limited partnership for AIP, eventually becoming sole owner of 11 of them. Hart remarried in 1981, to Harvard professor and China studies scholar Roy M. Hofheinz Jr. Today, Susan Nicholson Hofheinz tries to visit her old hometown of Wenatchee at least once a year -- although summer fires have scotched her plans the last two years.

Since fully securing the rights to her films in 1994, she's guarded them in a series of federal court copyright lawsuits -- some of which have entered legal textbooks as courts defined "fair use" of filmed materials. Hart wouldn't discuss her lawsuits specifically, but said, "Let me put it this way: I defend my rights vigorously, or I will end up not having rights."

None of Hart's owned films are currently in print as legitimate DVDs or Blu-rays, although she says she'd like to put them out in that format. She often licenses the films to play theatrically, like a recent New York Film Forum double-bill of "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" and "It Conquered the World." The Saucer Men appeared, with Hart's permission, in the opening of "The Simpsons'" latest Halloween episode.

And there's always the collectibles. For Christmas, gewgaws based on "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" and "War of the Colossal Beast" (a sequel for which Hart owns the character trademark) are forthcoming. And aside from her surf movies, Hart can now be seen on home video in the movie she'd rather forget. "The Slime People" hit DVD in March, featuring Hart in a new audio interview.

The original production was fun, even if Hart was hired for two weeks and only got paid for one; even if the makeup man stopped coming to the set after the first day; even if, once in a while, nobody brought film to run through the cameras.At one point, Hart said, she and her roommate/co-star Judee Morton wondered what they'd gotten themselves into.

"Then we both looked at each other and said, 'It's a movie! Who cares!'"

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Susan's cinema

Former actor Susan Nicholson Hofheinz, aka Susan Hart, owns outright 11 films produced by her late husband, American International Pictures founder James Nicholson. Aside from horror and sci-fi titles, her catalog includes two Westerns and a gangster flick. Four of Hart's movies, including "It Conquered the World," were directed by low-budget maestro Roger Corman. She does not appear in any of them. Click links to view trailers.

* "Apache Woman" (1955)

* "It Conquered the World" (1956)

* "The Oklahoma Woman" (1956)

* "The Amazing Colossal Man" (1957)

* "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein" (1957)

* "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" (1957)

* "Invasion of the Saucer Men" (1957)

* "Naked Paradise" (1957)

* "Terror From the Year 5000" (1958)

* "The Eye Creatures" (1965)

* "Zontar, The Thing From Venus" (1966)

Film appearances:

* "The Slime People" (1963)

* "A Global Affair" (1964)

* "For Those Who Think Young" (1964)

* "Ride the Wild Surf" (1964)

* "Pajama Party" (1964)

* "War-Gods of the Deep" (1965)

* "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine" (1965)

* "The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini" (1966)

Reach Jefferson Robbins at 509-664-7123 or robbins@wenatcheeworld.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JRobbinsWW.

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(c)2013 The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.)

Visit The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.) at www.wenatcheeworld.com

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