A sneak peak at Samantha Cornwell's full report, which will appear in the first issue of the Ad Hoc zine.
Hollywood is no stranger to the high profile murder mystery. In a world where celebrities are elevated to the level of gods, an early death can cause a collective pause. When murder is involved, and an unsolved one at that, those wheels of stasis and speculation can spin in place for an eternity.
One such case was recently reopened by the LAPD. Musician and Television personality Peter Ivers, host of the defunct variety show New Wave Theater, was found bludgeoned to death on March 3, 1983 in his Skid Row loft. It was a few weeks before the close of Los Angeles’s excuse for Winter, and the temperature was just below sixty degrees.
Throughout the day, as news of his death spread, friends from the underground music scene and the elite Hollywood world crowded his living space in disbelief. He had been expected in the recording studio with collaborator Franne Golde that morning. His absence had certainly lead to some rumbling, but nobody could have ever guessed that Peter had met such a gruesome fate. The rumor mill pointed fingers at the likes of director Howard Ramis-- who was close with Peter, and early on the crime scene-- and New Wave Theater producer and David Jove, who was allegedly fearful that Ivers would leave the show for another opportunity. These stories, however, were likely the stuff of speculation.
Some might call it a stretch to refer to Ivers as a celebrity. His name was not known in most American households, and still isn’t. Oddly enough, I became familiar with him and New Wave Theatre while working on an assignment for a content farm that I wrote for under a pseudonym. He was the creative, iconoclast son of an upper-middle class family from Brookline, Massachusetts. Paul Ivers (née Isenstein), who was Peter’s adopted father, had made his fortune in the textile industry. Reportedly, he never related to his son’s unconventional genius.
Ivers graduated from Harvard University in 1968 with a degree in Classics, and set about pursuing a career as a mainstream recording artist. Unfortunately, his oddball sensibility, which drew everywhere from barber shop quartets to free jazz, did not jibe with that of the average mid-'70s rock fan (most notably resulting in him being booed off the stage while opening for Rumours era Fleetwood Mac in a diaper). Still, Ivers was a very meaningful figure to a small but captivated audience. Doug Kenney, the originator of the National Lampoon enterprise, was in his close circle of friends at Harvard and in Hollywood; through him, Ivers had become acquainted with the likes of John Belushi and Chevy Chase. Radcliffe graduate Lucy Fisher, who was Peter’s long time girlfriend, ran Zoetrope films when it was founded by Francis Ford Coppolla, and has gone on to produce films such as Memoirs of a Geisha and and the upcoming Great Gatsby adaptation.
When Peter and Lucy moved to their Laurel Canyon home, Peter was quickly taken under the wing of experimental pop composer and Brian Wilson comrade Van Dyke Parks, who saw Peter as a kindred spirit. It seemed that Peter was the kind of figure who was considered a genius by everyone around him, but had a hard time translating that to mainstream success.
His most celebrated creative act may have been the composition of the song "In Heaven Everything Is Fine," featured in David Lynch’s Eraserhead and recently re-released in seven inch form by Sacred Bones, as part of that label’s reissue of the soundtrack. But the Peter Ivers persona reached Southern California households, then national households, as the host of New Wave Theater-- an unconventional take on the conventional variety show conceived by producer David Jove. As my YouTube browsing history can attest, it is one of the most exciting Internet trap doors that a person can fall through.
From 1980 until Ivers’ death in 1983, New Wave Theater showcased a wide range of punk and new wave acts, many from Los Angeles, with short, surreal sketches in between. There were bands that you have likely heard of-- X, Fear, Dead Kennedys, The Gun Club, Black Flag, The Mentors-- and bands that never received much recognition beyond their local scene (Red Wedding, The Fibonaccis, The Ju Ju Hounds, The Surf Raiders, Mnemonic Devices...). The show began on a public access network, KSCI 18, dedicated to broadcasting only "positive" news and programming. SCI stands for Science of Creative Intelligence, which is taken from the teachings of Transcendental meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Although this was likely a coincidence, it is quite fitting that Peter hosted a show on a channel founded under these principles, since he was an early Western adopter of Yoga and a student of Eastern philosophies. Later on, the show was picked up as the closing piece to the USA Network’s Night Flight, which was like a proto Adult Swim.
Long before viral video, public access television provided a space for unconventional programming with relatively low production costs. Although the geographic span of the audience was nothing like that of the Internet today, having air time on a local public access channel was a surefire way to attract the attention of a self-selecting, niche audience. New Wave Theater, particularly in its public access days, was an important outlet for Southern California’s underground music community. “It was showcasing and putting a spotlight on that underground alternative scene,” says Red Wedding member Michael Ely on the phone from Tuscon, Arizona. “It was giving each and every one of us an opportunity to express our voice and be heard."
Michael and his life partner Spider Taylor were the founding members of the glamorous new wave outfit, with Michael on vocals and Spider on guitar. Red Wedding only performed on the show twice, but they get fanmail in connection with those appearances to this day.
On their first time out, Red Wedding played their signature post-punk battle cry, "So We Make History". Peter Ivers, shirtless and wearing a head scarf that makes him reminiscent of a glam sheik, growls the name of the song as Elvira, the evening’s guest host (or "ghost host," as guests were called) mugs seductively by his side. Although Michael’s vocal stylings and wardrobe are distinctly gothic, his eyes communicate a nervousness and vulnerability. The segment is edited in the show's usual style, cutting back and forth between the band's performance and footage ranging from international street scenes to the moon landing and the moments before a man is executed. Often nonsensical, these cutaways capture the anarchic, anything goes spirit of the time. I tell Michael that as a viewer I identified with his unabashed humanity.
When Cassandra Peterson, aka Elvira, calls me from her Hollywood Hills home, it takes a moment to process that I am actually speaking with the Mistress of the Dark. "I was so into the whole new wave thing," she gushes on the other end of the line. It is clear that her memory of the era is blurred, but she recalls it with humor and enthusiasm. "Before I was Elvira, right up until '81, I was working for Don Kirshner's rock concert, so I was going around to every club scouting groups. I was seeing Nina Hagen, and Oingo Boingo, and I even took a trip to New York to see the Talking Heads at CBGB's."
New Wave Theater was a space that had a tendency to bring together strange bed fellows. Because of Peter's ties to Hollywood and the comedy world, he was able to bring in ghost hosts ranging from cult figures like Elvira to solidly mainstream actresses like Hair star Beverly D'Angelo. Doug Kenney was a regular guest, playing the prepster/straight man foil to the wild antics of Peter and the punk musical guests. Although the look of the show was very anarchic, behind the scenes the production was very tight and professional.
Following a short game of cat and mouse, I was able to track down pianist and former New Wave Theater guest D. J. Lebowitz after his weekly bar gig in Oakland, CA. He gave me a pretty animated description of the scene: “David Jove, the producer, was the one who was barking his orders at everybody, telling them what to do. I didn't meet Peter Ivers until pretty much when I was actually performing. But David would have a band set up around this warehouse. He'd go from band to band to band, and he'd move the cameras counter clockwise. And Gun Club was there, and 45 Grave was there, the Weirdos were there, and a bunch of other bands. Each band would play a song, and the camera would record it, and then he would move on to the next thing.”
Lebowitz, who is currently based in the Bay Area, is perhaps best known for his piano covers of punk rock anthems by the likes of The Ramones and Dead Kennedys. “A lot of people couldn't understand what I was doing,” he tells me with equal pride and frustration. “If they were into rock 'n' roll they wanted to hear a band, not a piano player. If they wanted a piano player it had to be real schmaltzy music from the '20s, '30s, and '40s.” Although he tells me that Punk Rock is the reason he moved to Los Angeles, when we discuss the scene at that time, it is clear that he regards himself more as an enthusiastic outsider than an integral player.
To some extent, he and Peter, who tended to not have much contact with the musical talent outside of his delineated role, may have shared this quality. However, like many of the performers, Lebowitz was fascinated by Peter’s presence. “I just thought of him as a real-cutting edge person,” explains Lebowitz. “He had those funny glasses, where he could make the little beadie light flash. He was dressed kind of funny.”
To be continued...