(What follows is an excerpt from my new book (available in a month or so:
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED TO ME ON MY WAY TO ARMAGEDDON)
CRUCIFIED BY SALVADOR DALI
Have you ever met anybody who’s been crucified?
Well, I have!
And no--it wasn’t a religious delusion on my part. His name was Russell Saunders and this is my memory of our conversation.
You can meet a remarkable variety of people on a Friday night in Westwood Village (Los Angeles suburb) if you’re working at Billy Hork Galleries in 1980.
For one thing, this gallery was next door to a highly popular French restaurant ( Moustache Cafe’) as well as a movie theater.
Long lines of people waiting for a table or a ticket wandered into the gallery and likely as not encountered me and my penchant for exploratory chit-chat.
I was an Art Sales associate at the time and there was supposed to be two of us on duty. However, the other fellow had a second job selling Ferrari sports cars and his cocaine habit often meant he didn’t show up for work. This was wonderful from my standpoint--I had every customer to myself!
One of my hobbies was creating mixtapes of film music to play inside the gallery for Hollywood ambience.
“Excuse me, can you tell me what music this is?” This was a common query.
This particular weekend, a very fit older gentleman (61) approached and flashed a smile at me. (I was 33)
“This is Victor Young’s music from SHANE.”
It was a statement--not a question.
Our conversation had begun on my favorite topic--Movie Music!
“How’d you know that?” I smiled at the man's acumen.
“I was Alan Ladd’s stunt double in that movie. It is considered one of the best fights of its kind.”
“It certainly was--a classic, if you ask me. My name is Terry, and you?”
“I’m Russell Saunders. I was a stuntman for many years. I doubled for all the greats.”
In the next fifteen minutes, I confess to neglecting my duties as a salesman for the opportunity (once in a lifetime) to listen to this extraordinary man tell me his life story.
“I grew up in Winnipeg. I was a diving champ and acrobat and I was particularly good at what we use to call ‘tumbling.’ I knew how to hit the ground without hurting myself.”
“You obviously ended up in California.”
“Oh yeah. I was chasing a diving scholarship. I was best friends with Steve Reeves, Vic Tanny, and Jack LaLanne, working out at Muscle Beach. Talent scouts were down there all the time and one of them spotted me doing my tumbling routine. I taught acrobatics to several actors and ended up doing stunts as a double.”
Saunders was solidly built, medium height, and he had one of those classic faces which had “leading man” imprinted in the bone structure :)
He rattled off a list of movies and actors which impressed me mightily.
He stunt doubled for :
Errol Flynn, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, Charles Boyer, Red Buttons and Richard Widmark, Alan Ladd, and the list goes on and on....
King Kong, The Thing from Another World, The Three Musketeers, Spartacus, Shane, Singing in the Rain, Hatari, Logan’s Run, The Goonies, etc.
We got around to the subject of Art this way.
On one of the walls of the gallery hung Salvador Dali’s lithograph of his painting "Christ of Saint John of the Cross" (1951)
Saunders tugged at my sleeve, pointing at the portrait with pride and a large smile.
I did a double take. “You’re joking?”
“Nah. I answered an ad in the newspaper for male models to pick up extra cash between films. It was for Salvador Dali. He needed a man of excellent physical proportions he could hang on a cross and experiment with various lighting schemes. He took one look at me and my resume’ and I was hired.”
Naturally, I pumped him for personal information on Dali--insight you couldn’t ordinarily get from reading a magazine or formal Art journal.
“Let me tell you about Dali,” he began, “He was a real piece of work. Unique in every way. Dali was in Hollywood working with Hitchcock on SPELLBOUND in 1945, and designing dream sequences. He told me how uncomfortable it was for him being in Hollywood because he was accustomed to being the center of attention back in Spain, of being ‘far out’ and weird, but he felt commonplace and ordinary in California around movie people!”
Saunders revealed how Dali had strapped Saunders to a gantry so he could see the effect of the pull of gravity on his body. All sorts of strange ideas were explored. Dali saw himself as the first artist to paint pictures that could combine science with religious belief and called this Nuclear Mysticism.
“Dali worked on his sketches for years. He invited me to travel back with him to the Dali Castle in Spain--by ship--he hated the idea of flying. How could I refuse? Even if I would lose out on Hollywood revenue--the opportunity and the experience were too fascinating for me to refuse.
Dali lived like an Emperor...always with an entourage!
He was very pleasant as a conversationalist and host. He was surrounded by sensuality, debauchery, and extravagance that put Hollywood self-indulgence to shame. He was great friends with Picasso and his conversations about the atom bomb were out of this world. I had the time of my life. I flew back and forth for parts of 3 years working with Dali on this project.”
I would have loved to go on talking to Saunders but there were customers asking me if they could purchase art…”PLEASE!”
I was forced to do my job!
I suggested to Saunders that he sign the litho hanging on the wall but he wanted no part of that. He was offended, in fact, at my suggestion that he do so.
“Not for love or money would I do that. Everybody has taken advantage of Salvador Dali over the years. The people he loved and trusted, business associates, his own atelier, and there is no way for me to know what is legitimately approved and what is counterfeit.”
I apologized for my venal brainstorm saying, “Actually, I wanted it for myself. I would buy the litho and keep it as a remembrance of our conversation.” He understood, he said, but there was no persuading him. My loss!!
I was called away to assist other customers and when I looked up again, like the Lone Ranger, he had vanished.
I could have kicked myself for not asking for more details! I wanted to know about Dali’s one true love--his wife--Gala. What might he have revealed? I’ll never know.
I did research years later. I wanted to know what became of Russell Saunders. What I was able to find was this.
Russ Saunders passed away in L.A., CA, on July 2001 at the grand age of 82. That was another 21 years he had lived following our conversation in Billy Hork Galleries.
He was still working in the business at that time, having just finished working on the comedy classic Airplane!
While his work in films was almost always uncredited, his image in Dali’s painting holds a particular significance for me.
I would never have known had he not told me, how many hours he spent ‘crucified’ by one of the greatest painters in history, Salvador Dali.
How many people on earth can make a claim like that?
© Terry Edwin Walstrom