Tom Conroy #4: Movie Still Archives
This is the fourth in our series of Tom Conroy's memoirs. Here he tells the story behind his company, Movie Still Archives
, which he has owned and operated since the 1960s, illustrated with jazzy artwork by Tom.
In the Stills of the Night
By Tom Conroy
The guy who turned me on to movie stills was the comic book cartoonist Doug Wildey. He drew The Outlaw Kid
and other comics for Atlas/Timely back in the mid-1950s. When I was a teenager I used to go visit him at his home in Tucson, Arizona. This was in 1959 when he was drawing The Saint
newspaper strip. In his studio he had movie stills stacked in the corners. He used them for swipes when he was drawing. He had bought them while living in New York City and told me about how you could buy them in old book stores.
So I went to New York in 1960 and started grabbing stills anywhere I could find them because I was also using them for swipes. Mostly war and Western stills plus any good fight scenes. When I was drawing up sample pages of comic art I always drew from photos. Movie stills were great. Stills were sold all over New York. A lot of stores in Times Square had boxes of stills for 10 to 25 cents each, and I bought up a nice little stack.
In 1965, I took over an apartment a friend after he moved out, and he left behind a stack of about 20 men’s magazines that he found in a garbage can. They were all published by Martin Goodman (Marvel). So I'm flipping through them, and I noticed that almost all the war stories were printing movie stills. They had a Korean War story with two pages of stills from Pork Chop Hill
which starred Gregory Peck. I recognized them because I had a big pile of stills from that film. I also saw fight scenes that were stills.
So in the winter of 1965-66, I was hanging out in Greenwich Village doing my beatnik thing, and I met this guy Pat Williams. He did some LSD about a month earlier and had quit his job as a magazine editor and was now writing a book about the drug scene. When I asked him what magazine he said Man's World
(I think), published by Magazine Management. I said, “Isn't that Martin Goodman?” and he was surprised that I knew that. When I asked him why they used movie stills he was really surprised that I knew about that also. He said that when they called for photos all these photo agencies would always send them the same 10 or 12 pictures. You can't keep using the same photos over and over, so they would stick in movie stills when they could get them. Now at this time I was selling comic books out of my apartment on East Sixth Street.
Pat hooks me up with a guy up at Martin Goodman and I call to see what kind of stills they wanted. He says, "Sex and violence, sexy babes, shoot outs, fights, hookers, strippers". I had been selling softcore sex stills to Bill Pearson for 50 cents each, and I still had a stack sitting in my place. I sent Carole up to the magazines with 200 photos, and they went nuts. She said the editors all came out of their offices and were going through the photos. They picked out 40 pix and gave Carole a check for $400, and I was now in the photo agency business. Any photos they used after that, they paid $15 each, and twice a month I would get a list of photos they wanted for each magazine. As I recall they had four monthly mags, four bi-monthly mags and a couple quarterly mags, plus sometimes they printed an annual.
My friend Mark Ricci at the Memory Shop had about 40 to 50 file cabinets of movie stills, plus boxes of stills in the basement. I was a drug addict at the time, and my drug of choice was speed. I would spend hours on end at Mark's place pulling out stills for the mags. The stuff I was taking was the crap that nobody else wanted. People that collect stills want pix of the stars, they don't want pix of fight scenes or car wrecks. Mark was getting stills from this guy in Times Square who did the displays for all the movie theaters in the area. He could take an 8 x 10 still and blow it up to three to four feet for display in front of the theaters. He did the Broadway shows, the softcore sex theaters and other places.
Every few months Mark would drive down with a cab that had the whole trunk filled with stills. All the sex pix went right up to Magazine Management. At $15 a still we were doing pretty good. We split the money 50/50. At this time Mark was selling stills in the shop for 75 cents each. The good thing was now I didn't have to try and make money drawing comic books. My checks came from the same place as a cartoonist working for Stan Lee. It was great. Being a speed freak I would spend days all wired up and do nothing but file stills. I had long hair, and it was best that I didn't show up at the office because Martin Goodman was this real straight conservative guy. Carole would take up the photos, and if she couldn't, I would send up some cute little hippie chick. One of the editors asked me if I had a harem. Later, when Martin's son Chip was running the place, it was okay for me to go up there.
When I got the want list every couple weeks it was always weird the type of pix they would ask for. Gangster and mob shootouts, massage parlors, bank robbers, lesbians, threesomes, lions eating people, sharks, alligators, Amazon women, hookers, nurses, headhunters, car chases and all those outlaw biker gang pix. I must of sold them hundreds of stills from all those bad biker movies that came out in the 1960s and 1970s. One list had a story about cheating housewives, "photos of women having sex with the milkman, mailman, plumber or any other guy while hubby was busy bringing home the bacon".
The stories were also in a class by themselves. “I Watched an Alligator Eat Out My Buddy's Guts”, and they used a pix of Tarzan fighting with a rubber alligator. They painted sunglasses and sideburns on Johnny Weissmuller. Some of the stories had titles like “Cheating Housewives and Their Private Sex Club”... “The Biker Gang from Hell That Stalked America”... “Call Girl Confessions”... “Vice Raid on Hooker Alley”... “Cops Raid Suburb Sex Orgy”... “Treasure Hunt for Nazi Gold”... “My Night of Terror with a Killer Grizzly”... “Nude Beach Nymphos of Pleasure Island”... “Turning Women on to Forbidden Sex”... “Yacht Club Wife Swappers”... “Pleasure Girls Who Roam Our Highways”... “Hell Raid of the Two Wheel Biker Brutes”... “Nevada's Two Girl Hooker Teams”.... “College Girls Who Prefer Blue Collar Lovers”... “Top Cop and His War with the Mafia”, and of course, the best story of all time, “I Pick Up Men In Bowling Alleys”.
So now I started to get out of the comic book business because the people I was selling to were a bunch of shitheads. I would do the comic and Star Trek
conventions, but while selling I was also hustling up stills. I traded a lot of comics for stills. I came across an article in an old magazine that was about the guy who started Culver Pictures. That was when I started building up files of the big name stars and directors. I knew this thing with Magazine Management was not going to last forever. When the men's magazines went down, they went down hard. When I took up some pix in 1977-78, the whole damn hallway going into the offices was stacked with bundles of magazines as high as your armpits. They were all wrapped up and stacked. When I asked what was going on they told me these magazines just came back from Canada. They had been censored because they had nude girls on the covers. To sell in Canada the covers had to be folded over, and the magazine had to be wrapped in plastic. They sent them to the New York offices because that was the address printed on the inside front cover. What killed the men's mags was they were started to print full-color beaver pix. They lost all the supermarkets in California and other places. While mommy was shopping for Kool-Aid and cookies, little Johnny and Jimmy were looking at pictures of young girls with their legs spread apart. They lost the PX at Navy and Army posts. The subscriptions stopped coming in because each issue had at least three photo spreads of beaver shots. It all ended in 1978 or 1979. They became a girlie magazine rather than an adventure magazine, and now it was all over.
They called me one day to come and pick up all the photos me and Mark had sent up over the years. When they started using the pix I was sending them they had stopped using eight other photo agencies. That was how much they liked the stuff I was sending. When I went to California in 1966, Mark filled in for me while I was gone. So later both of us were sending them pix. I spent about three years debating about whether I should be a cartoonist or a businessman. I said fuck it and laid down the pen. I made the right choice.
I started Movie Still Archives in 1979. I spent two weeks on the phone calling every magazine in New York. I knew the "powers that be" were going to put Ronald Reagan and his goofball wife in office, so when Carole and her brother went to LA for a movie poster convention, I had her buy up every still of Reagan she could find in the all the stores that sold stills. She dug up about 100. My first big sale was to People
. They printed four pages with a still from all 54 movies he made, and 20 stills came from me. They paid $75 each. For years I was sending out pix of good old Ronnie and his charming wife Nancy to all the magazines in New York. I made lots of money off those two dimwits. After two years I made my first sale to Life
. The last pix I sold to Life
they were paying $400 for 1/4 page. I sold stills to the biggest and best magazines out there. My best clients were Time Life Books, The New York Times, Penthouse, Omni
and Readers Digest.
But all that started to turn to shit. AOL bought out the whole Time Warner Turner group. Now six companies own everything. They fired the oldtimers working for them and hired all these stupid shits who knew nothing about running a photo department.
About half the photos Magazine Management used they would retouch the faces by painting on sunglasses or put a black square over the eyes or darken in the face. This was so nobody would notice that the person was a movie actor. On one of my visits when they were shutting down I asked if any readers ever recognized they were using movie stills and they said, "No, never". They did a story about sex in automobiles, and they handed me a letter a guy wrote to them wanting to know if the girl getting screwed in the back seat of a car was his girlfriend. The letter was addressed to Tom Conroy % Stag
magazine since the photo credits in the back of the magazine gave me as the photographer. I guess the guy never thought that while his girl was getting slammed, she let someone take photos. The photos they asked for were really weird, so I had all these pix filed under all these different categories. You name it, and I had a folder for it. I had one folder titled Kitty Litter, Face Pushed In
which the National Lampoon
printed in the early 1980s. I had a photo of a guy screwing a chicken which the Lampoon
Note Jack Nicholson on right.
One time they wanted pix of all the softcore porn theaters in Times Square, so I sent Carole up to 42nd Street with a camera. She gave them the film, and they sent it to a photo lab and ended up using about a dozen pix in a two-page spread. Carole said that when she was taking the photos the guys coming out of the theaters would cover their faces. They were businessmen in suits. One time I got a call for a girl getting screwed on a merry-go-round. I had a file, and they paid my cab fare to deliver it to them.
After I moved over to Cooper Square two hot-looking chicks from the romance magazines came walking in. They were looking for a photo for a story titled, "My Sister Was Raped in Her Coffin". They were a little upset that I didn't have a picture. The secret to my success was that I had a good eye for photos and never filed a photo that looked posed. For the first couple years, all their want lists asked for pix of women in mini-skirts, so when I wasn't filling photos I was out on the street with my camera stalking women in mini-skirts, and they printed a lot of them (of course, with the black box over the faces).
The whole time this was going on I was high on speed. One of the editors that came on board was a guy who used to do Confidential
magazine, and the magazines he edited had that type of look. Mario Puzo, who wrote The Godfather,
was an editor and writer for Magazine Management. When each mag went to press I would get a billing notice which had a brief description of the photo used: Guy with Gun, Girl in Bra, Plane on Fire, German Tank, Sex Orgy, Cops Busting Hookers, Nazi with Girl, Nude Girls on Beach. I would send them a "bill for photo used", and every two weeks the checks were in my mailbox. For the last five years, Mark at the Memory Shop would send in the invoices because I had made a few trips to Frisco and would be out of New York for short periods of time. A couple times when I was gone, Paul Kirchner sent the photos up, but we both forgot the details of that. This whole venture was weird, but I was not into anything normal. I had fun doing it, the money was good. I could buy drugs and pay my rent, and I didn't have to go out and get a job. What a long weird trip it's been.
-- © 2012 Tom Conroy
Movie Still Archives
Labels: doug wildey, mario puzo, roger brand, tom conroy