Hollywood Memories: Crucified by Salvador Dali

by TerryWalstrom 6 Replies latest jw friends

  • TerryWalstrom

    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 ambiance.
    “Excuse me, can you tell me what music this is?” This was a common query.

    This particular weekend, a very fit older gentleman approached and flashed a smile at me.
    “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 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 stunt man 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 in the early days.”
    “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 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.
    “That’s me!”
    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. 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

  • Dagney

    Interesting story. That is a great painting. I do love Dali.

    I know right where you were in Westwood and probably was in your gallery on any given Friday night. That was the night we visited family in BH, had dinner in Westwood, and went to the movies or strolled around the village. It's is very different now and has been for years.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • TerryWalstrom

    I loved Westwood.
    It really was a "village" at that time.
    The corporate side of things had barely begun to gnaw at the indigenous commerce but plenty of local charm remained.
    I'd eat at the Good Earth for lunch and walk to the record store on...Gailey? Was that the street? Something like that.
    The movie theaters were superb. I saw the world premiere of Never Say Never again there and Road Warrior (the original).
    I'm sure it's all a vapor of memory now. I carry around what's left of the real estate inside my head.

  • Dagney

    Yes, Gayley Ave. Most of the old restaurants are gone. Our favorite Indian restaurant was Paul Bhalla's. There was Alice's Restaurant, Falafel King, Hungry Tiger, Yesterday's, Bratskeller's, Old World, and more for eats. I'm sure after some DC we danced at Dillon's. Hari Krishna's at the Westwood Bazaar. Saw many movies, but especially remembered seeing "The Dear Hunter" at the Westwood Village theatre. We didn't speak for a good long while afterward.

    A trip down memory lane:





  • LV101

    Thank you so much for sharing, Terry.

    I've been to the Dali Castle in Spain - southern Spain as I recall, little town, bordering the Basque region. The guide told us Dali was quite eccentric and often carried an omelette around in his coat pocket.

    Interesting -- his idea he was the first to combine science with religious belief. Amazing how the old masters used cadavers to learn the anatomy of the human body to paint realistically. Various sectors of science in the world of art.

    Would have loved to toured your gallery. Did you ever have any Carravagio paintings where you worked. My fav! There are so many in Italy, of course, but I've ran out of coins feeding timed light at Catholic church in Rome trying to view one --

    Thanks, again, for the great share.

  • The Fall Guy
    The Fall Guy

    The painting was snapped up for £8200 in the early 1950's by the City of Glasgow council (Scotland) and is on view at the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in the west end of Glasgow.


  • TerryWalstrom

    I didn't know it at the time, but the Billy Hork location there in Westwood was pretty much under the control of a friend of Hork, Tom Francini, who had an unsavory reputation for shade.
    That's even a polite way of stating it!
    One evening, two local artists who were friends were standing in front of their artwork (framed on the wall) and heatedly discussing with each other something which appeared to be troubling them.
    I walked over and asked. The earful I got!

    Francini was illicitly running off lithograph copies in unlimited editions without notifying the artists or seeking approval. It was like printing money!

    Once this was pointed out to me, I scrutinized everything hanging on the wall more carefully.
    I very stupidly and naively raised this issue with Tom the next day and BOOM!
    That's another story I may tell one day.
    There was a court case not long afterward.
    I had to wise up about the Art Business pretty fast.
    Like many operations I encountered (The Movie Business, Television, Art) a great deal of larceny was going on. Naive people got hurt. The villains got off without a problem.

    I've been compiling a great many of my California adventures into a book I'll finish editing soon. I'm old enough now to not worry about being sued when I name names and tell it like it was :)

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