Dolemite

When the first public announcements came out about the production of a Rudy Ray Moore biopic, My Name is Dolemite, excitement about the project was instantly palpable and spread out among a wide spectrum of movie lovers. Naturally, most people reacted to details such as comedy legend Eddie Murphy making his first high profile film amidst a decade of only sporadic activity, director Craig Brewer returning to feature filmmaking after a long sojourn in television, and a new screenplay by the multiple-award-winning writing team of Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. But significantly, and to the likely surprise of most modern film press and publicists with only a cursory knowledge of the cult figure being profiled, audiences of all backgrounds felt a special pleasure over all these talents coming together to immortalize the production of a beloved seat-of-the-pants action comedy and the determined individual who made it happen.

If he had not made the film that made him iconic, Rudy Moore would still be a person of interest (if not a biopic subject) as one of a game-changing wave of comedians who earned a following through the newly emerging medium of the long-playing record. Comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff details in his landmark book The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy how Redd Foxx, at the prompting of the  Black-owned Dooto record label in 1956, became the first performer to release an undoctored recording of his stand-up act on physical media, which sold one million copies in over a year’s time despite receiving little mainstream press and no radio airplay. The sustained success Dooto found releasing follow-ups from Foxx led them to sign more Black comedians, including Moore, to their label. These artists established a subgenre called the “party album,” which, as he described to writer Nathan Rabin, were, “[Records] that are made with a lot of risqué comedy on it. And people gather at the house for the weekend sessions with their beer, and each one brings something else – liquor and whatnot – and they sit up and get together and play these records, and they have a ball with them.” Rival labels followed the trend and elevated similarly-styled bawdy white comedians as Woody Woodbury and Rusty Warren. The steady sales of these independent releases drove the major labels to sign and push rising stars as Bob Newhart and Lenny Bruce, and while comedians themselves were not getting rich from the album sales (Dooto reportedly paid talent $100 a recording), these albums brought visibility unavailable from radio or television, and made small touring careers viable.

 

 

Dolemite is far too cool a movie and a character to be considered any sort of “rat-soup-eatin’ [expletive deleted],” but it is fair to say that both were realized through the process of making stone soup. In the documentary The Legend of Dolemite, Moore described how a “beer joint and liquor store wise man” named Rico frequented the Dolphin’s of Hollywood record shop Moore was working at, telling wild boasts of a hero named Dolemite; in exchange for food, Moore taped Rico’s raunchy tales, adapted them in his own voice, and turned Dolemite into an alter ego. In between his raunchy patter, Moore would flesh out a Dolemite performance with recitations of ribald poems as “Shine on the Titanic” and “The Signifying Monkey” that had been passed around orally for generations. When he was inspired to create a movie for his persona, Moore envisioned Dolemite having a female retinue worthy of Super Fly, martial arts prowess worthy of Black Belt Jones, a vengeance oath worthy of Charles Bronson, and most importantly, took a page from Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and self-financed the project. “I took what money I had and shot what we could. I ran out of money, so I went back on the road doing shows.” In turn, he recruited a bevy of neophytes to work on it, including a screenwriter who had never written a script, a director who’d never directed, and a cinematographer that had just graduated college and never shot a feature. Almost all locations were either fabricated within the Dunbar Hotel where Moore was residing, provided by supportive merchants, or used on the fly without permits. The company spent 13 months in and out of production with this constant shoot-tour-shoot process. Yet miraculously, all these unlikely elements and collaborators ultimately blended to yield an entertaining stew that has nourished fans for years.

The enduring popularity of the ersatz “bed-shaker, slat-breaker, and baby-maker” owes much to Moore’s tacit understanding with his audience that Dolemite’s life is theater and he is fully in on the joke. The history of entertainment is full of literal pretenders who, with a combination of enough money and trophy women, plus a four-wall booking, want to convince the industry, their friends, and themselves, that they are Masters of the Universe, and live in their kayfabe. Whereas Moore understood the appeal of Dolemite was in his inherent ludicrousness: a virile, invincible, womanizing superhero conceived by a neighborhood madcap with no teeth, given corporeal form by an unathletic confirmed bachelor in his mid-’40s. In the manner of his English contemporary Benny Hill, for as much as he enjoyed putting on flashy clothes and rattling salty patter in the company of pretty ladies, in his private time Moore attended church and doted on his relatives. The dissonance between Moore’s calm reality vs. Dolemite’s wild “pedigrees” is relatable to anyone in his audience who has been mostly content with their lives but occasionally hankered to live bolder and brasher for an interval; all are aware they don’t have the looks or the temperament to inhabit that lifestyle, and look a little silly in the uniform, but it’s damned fun to pretend. In a 2002 profile for the Chicago Reader, writer David Whiteis made this observation:

With his nuanced performance, Moore made it clear that imparting culture shock is a craft. A lifetime of signifying and shouting in raucous nightclubs seemed not to have diminished his voice: it was bull-like when he bellowed, piercing when he broke into a falsetto shriek, theatrically lugubrious when he sobbed and moaned. Moore recited his verses in cadences so effortless they sounded conversational, playing with phonetics the way a jazzman riffs on notes and tones, setting up a phrase with a flurry of front-loaded words that end in vowels or soft consonants, then ramming it home with a short-vowel-hard-consonant capper: dick! stick! rock! cock!

In modern times, Dolemite also provides a snapshot of sections of Los Angeles that weren’t often immortalized on film, and many of which do not exist in the manner they had before. The Dunbar Hotel on 4225 S. Central, whose declining popularity in the ‘70s facilitated Moore’s ability to shoot there, has been preserved and renovated into a multi-generational living community called Dunbar Village, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. But the Ralph’s supermarket on 1650 Martin Luther King Blvd. where Dolemite defeated crooked cops, closed in June 2013. The Total Experience nightclub on 4345 Crenshaw Blvd., which spawned a record label and The Gap Band, is boarded up and hosting nothing but wild postering, and the nearby Maverick’s Flat club, owned by The Candy Tangerine Man star John Daniels, closed in 2016 and is still for sale. You can buy a Fatburger in just about any part of town, but the original Mr. Fatburger stand at 3021 S. Western Ave., where Creeper the Hamburger Pimp professed to kicking his own ass twice a day, may still be physically present, contractually integrated into the housing project built around it, but no XXLs are being served there. Dolemite was a fantasy but his environment was real and vibrant, and suggested rich history before the film crew arrived, as the film now preserves that era’s history for present-day viewers.

It was Moore’s fortitude to reimagine himself as not just another undistinguished roustabout comic but as a giant silver-tongued legend that made him the real thing over the remainder of his life. And many who watched his spectacular life determined that if he could do it, so could they, spurring countless hot-button comedians, game-changing musicians, and low-budget filmmakers. Thus, experiencing Dolemite and its impact on its creator and its audience is a smile-inducing, rile-reducing, guile-defusing, style-choosing, and profile boosting embodiment of the street motto, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

Additional Posts