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Nagle and Fosselius met in the San Francisco music scene of the late '60s, where their rejection of endless, freeform guitar solos made them outcasts among the outcasts. Nagle's band, The Mystery Trend, and Fosselius' unfortunately-named The Final Solution both failed to wow the hippies during the Summer of Love.
"I think we had some mutual commiseration over what had become of pop music because we weren't into the acid scene or any of that stuff," Nagle recalled recently, shortly before flying to the East Coast for a talk at Yale on his sculpture. "There weren't that many people around that you could relate so you chose people that dug the same things."
While Fosselius was renting a room from Nagle, the pair shot a series of experimental one-minute films in Nagle's basement on Portapak, an early analog camcorder that found more favor with artists than with the general public. Nagle still speaks of Fosselius' many talents — guitar playing, prop building, filmmaking, and drawing — with awe.
"He is one of those multitalented guys," Nagle says. "He can do anything."
After setting up the recording studio, Mathews, Nagle, and Fosselius produced an audio parody of the Patty Hearst tapes, which were sent to KPFA when the newspaper heiress went from being held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) to robbing banks with them. (While this may seem like all kinds of wrong, no less a comedic authority than Richard Pryor went there on the 1976 comedy album Richard Pryor Meets Richard & Willie and the SLA.)
"The big question was, 'How in the hell did she [Hearst] go for this stuff?'" Nagle explains. "This is before people were discussing Stockholm Syndrome, but that's basically what it's all about."
To ponder what Nagle calls "this whole phenomenon of the conversion of Patty," everyone crammed into the basement studio with a couple of fifths of vodka, and started riffing. The part of Hearst was played by Jane Dornacker, a onetime backup singer for The Tubes who later fronted her own theatrical rock band, Leila and the Snakes, featuring a young Pearl Harbor on backup vocals. For the moment, she was a perfect Patty.
"It's one of the top five good times, I think, for everybody," Nagle recalls. "We were on the floor cracking up."
"The plan was to finish this piece and to take the cassettes and duct tape them to restaurants around the city," Nagle says. Fortunately for them, they don't follow through on a distribution plan that could have landed them in hot water with the SLA, the FBI, and several other foreboding acronyms.
But they did continue making parodies of pop culture phenomena. Following the SLA tape, Nagle and Dornacker wrote the Phil Spector-esque "Don't Touch Me There" for The Tubes, which became an international hit in 1976. A year later, Mathews and Nagle penned another song for The Tubes titled "Pound of Flesh," an acerbic send-up of Arnold Schwarzenegger released years before the formation of ArnoCorps, a Bay Area band devoted entirely to mocking the former Governator.
"It was an extremely creative period for all of us," Nagle says.
The same was true for Fosselius, even though he didn't follow his SLA tape co-conspirators into the music business. Instead, he produced and directed a collection of short comedy films that, taken together, are like a video version of an old Mad magazine. (You can see the films for yourself on Amazon Prime if you search for Disastrous Shorts — Short Films of Ernie Fosselius.)
He spoofed hit TV shows and even Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (rechristened Taxi Dermist). But Fosselius reached the height of utter bizarro-weirdness with 1976's The Hindenburger. It's 43 seconds of a cheeseburger bursting into flames as Fosselius exclaims in frantic voiceover, "Little pickles are screaming for their lives." Just like with the SLA tape, Fosselius found black humor in one of the 20th century's signature tragedies.
A year later, in 1977, Fosselius was planning a parody of spaghetti westerns, but changed his mind when he saw this little movie called Star Wars.
"I knew I had to make fun of it," he said in local filmmakers Tom Wyrch and Strephon Taylor's 2011 documentary Back to Space-Con.
Around the time that Fosselius was hatching plans for Hardware Wars, he met Michael Wiese, a local film producer with ties to the 1960s folk music scene.
"We had parties every Saturday night at our house-turned-studio," Wiese recalls. (Fosselius was contacted for this story, but was unavailable for comment.) "Since I was studying Balinese shadow puppetry at the Center for World Music, we'd put up a screen and do these impromptu performances. Somehow Ernie showed up and we did a parody of Jaws off the cuff. Ernie was so brilliant and funny, and that's really the first time I remember meeting him or seeing him."
A few days after the party, Fosselius pitched Wiese his idea for a parody of "big special effects films" in a Chinese restaurant, "using chopsticks and soy sauce bottles as spaceships."
"It's really the luck of the draw that we picked Star Wars to do," Wiese reflects. "If we picked anything else, it'd still be anonymous."
For Hardware Wars, Fosselius replaced the then-state-of-the-art special effects of Star Wars with hand-crank eggbeaters and waffle irons in an extended trailer for a feature film that will never exist. After securing a $5,000 budget from Laurel Polanick, a friend who also pulled duty as the film's costume designer, Fosselius recruited Scott Mathews to play Fluke Starbucker, and even cast Mathews' "cool '50s vacuum cleaner" as the droid Arty-Decko. Ham Salad was played by Bob Knickerbocker, Jane Dornacker's ex-husband and the former bassist of The Final Solution. To play Augie "Ben" Doggie, the crew secured Jeff Hale, who even then was a stupendously successful animator — you've seen his work in many of Sesame Street's iconic sequences, including the mesmerizing counting pinballs — who directed the infamous Lenny Bruce's short film Thank You Mask Man. Local actress Cindy Freeling played Princess Anne-Droid, with two big cinnamon rolls stuck to the sides of her head, and Fosselius himself donned a welder's mask to play the nonsense-spouting Darph Nader.