Six Weeks with a Devil
By Shade Rupe
The grand filmmaker embodied by the girth and full name of Kenneth Alfred Henry Russell, a.k.a. “Unkle Ken,” first appeared before me at a Q&A after his hypnotically alluring Salome’s Last Dance, an epic one-set telling of the famed Oscar Wilde play, including an audience with Wilde himself, and a young gold-painted boy to keep him company. According to the director’s notes during the onstage after-film talk, the production was made on a bet that Russell couldn’t make a film for under half a million dollars. He proved his bettor wrong. The joyful bad-boy playfulness that Mr. Russell had been credited with was on full display this evening, and sitting in that audience I just knew I had to meet this fellow, this man whose baton had savaged my mind with rousing images of nuns hurling off their habits and straddling astonished priests to multi-eyed mangoats from hell to sweaty nude men wrestling in front of a fire . . . ah, Ken Russell! A man to meet!
Although that first time was a rather hasty handshake at the bottom of the theater stage staircase, the electric fire that traveled from the joining of our hands through my arm and into my heart and brain formed a lifelong link: I knew I would meet this man again. Our next meeting would be more nearly a decade later, during a 1997 appearance at the Chiller Theater convention in New Jersey. Mr. Russell was called in by his friend Elke Sommer, and, rather surprisingly, I found myself basically alone with the man for a good fifteen minutes. Boy, was that fun! Ken had a wonderfully cherubic presence, eyes always glittering, hair set askance, and no topic was off topic. A few people showed up to say hello, and I bid temporary adieu…