Blog Spot: 15th November 2019
Cold Cold Coffin and Live From The Astroturf UK Premiere
When Chris Penn indicated in August 2019 a desire to premiere his cult movie ‘Live From The Astroturf, Alice Cooper’ in the UK, I knew I had to offer my help. As an avid follower of the 2015 event, where the Alice Cooper group re-united in his Dallas record store (Good Records), for their longest live set since 1974 in front of just 200 people, and the subsequent iconic 7” (2016) and 12” (2018) live recording releases, seeing the movie was absolutely essential!
Such is the hectic life that Chris leads, and with a specific date in mind (09th October), he’ll readily admit that he would ideally have gotten things rolling much sooner. But that was never going to stop this from happening and merely meant that we needed to be tenacious, sleepless and had to disown our loved ones for a few weeks!
The reason why the date had to be the 09th October was because Chris had identified that this would be a night off in the Alice Cooper solo tour, sandwiched between dates in nearby Brighton and London’s 02 Arena. Those of you familiar with the background to the Good Records performance will know that he pulled the same stunt in Dallas, which greatly enhanced his ability to persuade Alice to attend and complete the full line-up of the 4 surviving Alice Cooper Group members (i.e. Alice, Dennis Dunaway, Michael Bruce and Neal Smith, with Alice’s touring musician Ryan Roxie standing in for the departed Glen Buxton). Make no mistake, Chris wanted to make the UK premiere a big event.
The first hurdle we encountered is that, despite there being over 200 cinemas in London, it was incredibly difficult to find one that was both suitable and available. Firstly, Chris was adamant that, just like Good Records, it had to be an independent establishment. Secondly, it had to be affordable and not leave us in a pile of debt. Thirdly, it had to be reasonably close to where he thought Alice and co. might be staying during their night off. Fourthly, it had to have around 200 seats. With this remit, I got Googling, phoning, emailing and Facebooking. Very quickly, rejections came in thick-and-fast, not because they didn’t want to accommodate us, but because the notice was too short, because Joker was premiering that week or because they were not able to put on a public event due to contractual ties etc.
After a week it became clear that there was probably nowhere in London, one of the world’s largest, culturally-endowed, cities to put on the film. Something needed to give, so we revisited our list of cinemas and scaled back our requirements to those with a slightly smaller capacity. With this, we came across a very special place, The Castle Cinema in Hackney, an exquisite art deco building with an 82-seat screen that had been recently brought back to life after a successful crowd-funding campaign. It was near-perfect, the price was right, plus Alice’s solo tour was built around a ‘Nightmare Castle’ theme. The only catch was that we couldn’t hire the place until 21:00, an hour-or-so later than we hoped (damn you Fleabag and your sold out 19:00 screening).
With the venue booked it was time to get promoting. Chris arranged for the ultra-talented Jennifer Wallace to produce an eye-catching hot pink flyer emblazoned with the iconic image of the OG’s, complete with Union Jack flag, at Wembley Arena in 2017. The event was announced (minus VIP guests at first) and our communications guru, Chris Daniels, shared it to every Alice Cooper Facebook group imaginable.
Just when things seemed to be coming together nicely, the first bombshell hit. Ryan had already committed to attending one of his occasional 'Guitar Clinics' some 5 miles away in Central London between 18:30 and 21:00. This not only meant that he wouldn’t make it for the screening, but also that fans would have to choose between two events. We put our minds to work and concluded that, because we ended up with a cinema less than half the size of our original remit, we’d hold a 2nd, later screening, to accommodate both extra people and those that would attend Ryan’s clinic. Screening a film at nearly 23:00 wasn’t ideal but we figured it wouldn’t stop hardcore fans from coming along, especially with the prospect of star guests being alongside them.
Having dealt with that, bombshell number 2 arrived soon after. Chuck would miss his first shows in nearly 17 years of playing for Alice due to his involvement in a rock 'MegaCruise' with his other band, Beasto Blanco. We couldn’t believe our bad luck! We knew Alice’s attendance wouldn’t be confirmed either way until as little as 24 hours before, so we were in danger of a premiere without any stars to walk down the red, actually make that pink, carpet before the first screening.
But then, our knights in shining armour came to our rescue. Not only did Chris Penn formally confirm his attendance, he also said that he’d be coming over with Dennis Dunaway, Cindy Smith Dunaway (Dennis' wife, sister of Neal Smith and considered by many to be the 6th member of Alice Cooper due to her influential work as a costume designer and group confidant). Not only that, but the event would also be used as the European premiere screening of Dennis' rock cinema short Cold Cold Coffin, starring 'Dr Dreary' (Dennis) himself plus Alice's daughter Calico Cooper. Also coming to promote Cold Cold Coffin was Brian Cichocki (Director and Co-Producer) and Sean Quinn (Co-Producer). To top things off, I was asked if I could chauffeur the team around during their 3-day stay in the UK, which included trips to Brighton (for the Alice solo show) and London (for the premiere and the solo show at the 02 Arena). I named us Team AstroCoffin!
I was ecstatic at this news, I’d met Chris, Cindy and Dennis in 2017 at a book signing during the Alice Cooper Group UK mini-reunion tour, a memorable experience that had left me with a deep admiration for them all. I already knew at this point that it was going to be a great night!
When I greeted them at arrivals, rather than holding up a sign with ‘Cichocki’, ‘Dunaway’ or ‘Penn’ written on it, I used a piece of pink Astroturf (getting some rather curious looks from the public in return). This raised a smile on Team AstroCoffin's weary faces when they eventually emerged!
As we made our way back to my car, I had a Chris Penn moment of my own though. After a long drive down the day before, I wasn’t fully on my game and ended up getting somewhat lost, with team AstroCoffin receiving an unwanted tour of the short stay car park in Gatwick Airport. I eventually got my bearings though and we loaded up prior to the drive to Hackney to check the place out and make final plans for premiere day.
When we arrived at The Castle Cinema, we were all bowled over by the elegance of the place. Unassuming from the outside, with a convenience store located where the main entrance once stood, access was gained up a narrow staircase before opening up into the magnificent bar area. We knew straight away that the place was perfect, it just felt 'right'.
Chris was understandably keen to try out the movie on their screen but we had to first wait for a ‘Mother and Baby’ screening of the Joker movie. What we hadn’t accounted for was that after the screening, many of the mothers would stay behind to nurse their babies so we ended up with the hilarious situation whereby Cold Cold Coffin begun to boom across the room with mothers and their screaming babies fleeing for the exit. I couldn’t help but think of Lenny Bruce’s Birthday Celebration all those years ago! During the test screenings, I tried not to take anything in as I wanted to wait for the following night to see them for the first time in full.
With the team suitably content, we headed off to Brighton but not before dropping into the convenience store below, where Dennis was happy to discover the British-based ‘Buxton’ mineral water brand. He couldn’t resist getting a cheeky picture to send to Glen’s sister Janice.
I took the opportunity to grab a photo with both Alice and Dennis and cheekily remarked to Alice that the only change to the new setlist should be to introduce 10 Minutes Before The Worm! Alice grinned and then turned his attention to my custom Easy Action shirt, taking time to point out who each of the fine ‘young ladies’ with their backs to the camera were.
The night was far from a write-off though, not only did we get to see the excellent new Nightmare Castle show, but Dennis was rightly invited to appear for the School’s Out finale and put in a fantastic, high energy, performance with his usual charismatic stage presence. I was stood at the back of the venue and the warmth afforded to him by the capacity crowd was abundantly clear for all to see. This moment capped off a brilliant first day with opportunity to reflect provided by a nightcap at the Grand Hotel on the seafront running late into the night.
Premiere day arrived and we made the trip back to London to check into our next hotel. In Hackney, we were joined by the final member of our team, Sarah-Jane, having travelled down by train from the South West of England.
We headed over early to The Castle Cinema and begun to prepare for the arrival of guests for the early screening, but not before Dennis couldn’t resist the opportunity to run into a nearby cemetery, hurdle over some tombstones, and have some shots taken of him in classic Dr Dreary pose. We couldn’t help but laugh as bemused passers-by looked on!
The final task to complete was to place seat reservations, which included a special one next to Dennis for the absent Glen Buxton, which was poignantly marked by a shirt kindly lent to us by Chris Daniels.
Any residual disappointment from our numerous bombshells quickly dissipated as soon as the 1st screening begun. Cold Cold Coffin started proceedings and it was clear from the offset that this was a production made for the silver screen, the magnificent soundtrack being complimented brilliantly by the black and white visuals and compelling storyline featuring Dennis and Calico. Dennis and the rest of the Cold Cold Coffin team watched on proudly and a resounding round-of-applause burst out when the end credits rolled. When this happened, I had to do a double-take as my name appeared quite unexpectedly (I had been one of the larger backers of this Kickstarter project, but wasn’t aware this was going to happen).
After the balloon-related mayhem of School’s Out, the encore Elected and the end credits, the audience were offered 15 minutes to ask questions to our star guests. Some had clearly been enjoying the facilities of the bar, but they all spoke with passion and affection for the Alice Cooper Group. In return they received eloquent, enlightening and entertaining answers.
I realised during this session that perhaps the absence of Alice and co. was not necessarily a bad thing, as it allowed the focus of attention to be on the real stars involved, the ones who came up with the ideas and who executed them so exquisitely. I don’t think anyone left the event disappointed and that was the purest measure of success for me. The best indicator of this was that we ran well over our allotted time, resulting in the 2nd screening ending much later than planned, but nobody seemed to care.
The night was immortalised by French professional photographer Patrick Brzezinski of Patrick Brzezinski Photographie. Provided below are a selection of his excellent photos, with the full album available to enjoy on his Facebook Page. Merci beacoup Patrick, les photos sont incroyables!
We didn’t leave the venue until 02:00, which pissed the cinema staff off a little, but the night was a resounding hit. Job done and Team AstroCoffin were determined to celebrate long into the night! Being a 9-5 guy, I had well and truly hit the wall so left them to it and retired to bed with Sarah-Jane where I slept like a new-born baby.
Next day, we had only a short trip under the River Thames from Hackney to the 02. With time to kill we headed to East London’s commercial heart, Canary Wharf, to chill out and reflect on the night just gone.
With the pressure off, I got to fully appreciate just what special people Chris, Dennis, Cindy and Brian are. All of them are extremely mild mannered, easy to talk to, and possess a great sense of humour. Dennis and Cindy are notably forward-thinking, and whilst happy to recount remarkable stories of old, certainly have their eyes fully-focused on the road ahead. They also give off a glow of personal contentment at their lives and if ever the term ‘the glass is half full’ was relevant then they are the epitome of this.
Dennis is notably generous in accommodating his fans, even when they go a little too far, which is clear sign of the admiration he has for them some 45 years after the hiatus of the Alice Cooper Group. This is best evidenced at his willingness to sign a programme and provide a personalised message to a fan, Hazel, who’d come all the way from the Scottish Borders only to not make the premiere in time due to travel problems.
With our time running out, we headed to the 02 to take in our 2nd Alice show. As we arrived at the North Greenwich Underground station, we were fascinated to see a cool Alice Cooper themed Service Information sign by the @allontheboard team, which included references to many classic songs.
Alice's solo show was again delivered in the usual highly-polished manner (probably the best production and setlist for 20 years, I reckon). What made the night though, was a further appearance of Dennis during the School’s Out encore and, again, the audience reacted with obvious warmth.
For Dennis to perform in front of thousands of fans at Brighton and London, and therefore spread the word that the original Alice Cooper Group is alive, well and still rocking, was probably the highlight of the 3 days. Coupled with the forthcoming Christmas Pudding show in Phoenix (where Alice, Dennis, Michael and Neal will perform together again), this can only add further fuel to the fire for those campaigning for more live performances, more recordings and more memories by the original Alice Cooper Group. One can only hope this will happen, but we at least have the Live From The Astroturf releases as a modern keepsake to cherish.
After the show we got to go backstage again where we caught up with Ryan, who seemed fully recovered. Sarah-Jane also got to meet Tommy Henriksen, who she is a BIG fan of. She was initially nervous of going over to speak to him, so Dennis got up and brought him over to her! Tommy's a cool guy and made her feel really special.
As we would go our separate ways soon after, I got some personal keepsakes signed by Dennis and the rest of team AstroCoffin. Dennis was also kind enough to give me a guitar pick from his performance that night.
At the end of the night we took the short trip back to Gatwick and bid our farewells to team AstroCoffin, new friendships made and memories to last a lifetime. Their next stop was sunny Hollywood for the next screening, mine was dreary, rain-soaked, Leeds for an office meeting.
Oh, and Alice never did play 10 Minutes Before The Worm!
Edit: Ian Fortnam and Classic Rock continued their support of the movie with a glowing review in Issue 269 (December 2019). Thanks guys!