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Thrill of a Lifetime 

The life of Will "The Thrill" Viharo -- the Bay Area's undisputed B-movie lounge king -- would make a good B-movie of its own

Wednesday, Dec 12 2001
Maybe life was a movie after all, and when we died we just walked off the set and returned to reality. Maybe we were taking the illusion too seriously.

-- Vic Valentine in Love Stories Are Too Violent for Me

It could have been directed by B-movie maker Edgar G. Ulmer.

Scene 1, Take 1, "The Great Ocean's Eleven Boycott": A well-dressed but steely-eyed and determined group of protesters stands outside the picturesque Jack London Cinema. They have placards that read "Say no to remakes!" and "Get original or get new jobs!" Some customers approach the ticket booth, then think better of it; others avoid eye contact with the protesters, clearly intimidated by the demonstrators' God-given savoir-faire and fierce resolve. Hard-bitten protest organizer Will "The Thrill" Viharo delivers a rousing speech that prompts the manager of the movie house to beg forgiveness and pull the offending film title from his marquee.

In reality, of course, it looks quite different. Only five of the 16 protesters are dressed to impress. (The others are clad, as The Thrill's wife and lovely assistant, Monica Cortés Viharo, might say, simply to avoid being naked.) The placards are paper signs that wobble in the breeze. The Jack London Cinema is a modern-day multiplex, and the manager couldn't care less about the protest. There is no marquee, and there is no crowd. And, of course, there are no demonstration permits, so a slowing cop car is cause for anxiety.

But that's show biz on a shoestring budget, and it's doubtful Will The Thrill, the Bay Area's undisputed B-movie lounge king and producer of the "Thrillville" cult-cinema series, would have it any other way.

Viharo chats up the cop, who, luckily, is a Frank Sinatra fan. After a minute, the officer gets back in his car and the black-and-white rolls off, leaving Viharo's motley crew to protest the remake of Ocean's Eleven, which fallaciously replaces Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and Angie Dickinson with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, and Julia Roberts.

"Frankly, I thought I'd be out here alone," says Viharo, regarding the numerous reporters who are milling about with incredulity. "This was just supposed to be a personal statement."

The personal statement -- Boycott the anti-Rat Pack remake of Ocean's Eleven! -- has adorned every e-mail Viharo has sent out over the last six months. As the release date for the movie drew near, Viharo found himself at the center of a media flurry that included local dailies and commercial radio stations, Entertainment Weekly, and a documentary filmmaker from France -- representatives of a mainstream press that typically overlooks Viharo's movies.

"That's kind of my MO," says 38-year-old Viharo. "Once I don't give a shit, once I just give up and start being myself, I can't get left alone."

Last year, in another such case, when KABL-AM (960), the local oldies radio station that plays standards by such artists as Louis Prima, Keely Smith, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin, changed its format to adult contemporary, Viharo wrote an impassioned letter of protest to local newspapers throughout the area. It got a response, so he and his wife, known as Monica "Tiki Goddess" to "Thrillville" audiences, took petitions to the big-band concerts at Lake Merritt "for the blue-hairs to sign." Soon, the Viharos had gained enough public support to cause KABL to reverse its programming decision, a pretty unusual move in commercial broadcasting. Thus began Viharo's role as local pop culture custodian.

A lot of people just don't get it. Viharo's not doing it for a lot of people.

"I actually cried when I heard KABL was changing," says 28-year-old Monica, who stars in Rob Nilsson's raunchy new film Scheme C6. Elegantly dressed, as always, Monica perfectly complements the Viharos' small Oakland flat, which is overflowing with vintage movie paraphernalia and pop culture flotsam. "KABL was, like Will said, the soundtrack to our courtship. On our first date, I had KABL on the preset of my car radio," she says. "That's what really hooked him."

"I thought I was the only one," says Viharo, smiling at his wife while dozens of B-movie starlets beam down at him from the autographed pictures overhead. (Monica's head shot is among them.) He leans back on his red velvet couch and sips eggnog while Sinatra sings Christmas songs and a dozen large candles flicker in the fireplace. He sighs with contentment.

"When I went to Will's house for the first time, he brought me coffee in a cup and saucer," says Monica, showing me a cup set with acorns painted on the side. "How many men offer you coffee nowadays, much less in a matching cup and saucer?"

"I'd had that cup for a very, very long time," Viharo says with a wink. "I was waiting for someone to offer it to, but no one ever came over."

Offering a lady coffee is something Viharo learned from watching old Rat Pack flicks. He learned a lot of things from watching old movies, which is one of the reasons he cannot abide remakes. "The Rat Pack sort of helped me reinvent myself," says Viharo. "Pop culture, and Frank Sinatra in particular, sort of saved my life."

William Viharo was born in New York City in 1963 to up-and-coming actor Robert Viharo and Miss Houston 1960, but, despite the pedigree, it was not a glamorous beginning.

Miss Houston, an aspiring actress herself, suffered from schizophrenia, and while baby Viharo was still in her womb, she had a breakdown. According to Will, she wandered the streets, pounding on her stomach, screaming, "This child will ruin my career!" After Will was born, she threw him against a wall. (Viharo still has stacks of carefully typed letters from his mother, printed on letterhead from the Cuckoo Clock Co., where she later, bizarrely, chose to work as receptionist; for a time, he received as many as three a day.) Baby Will was quickly removed to the care of Miss Houston's parents until he was 6 years old, when Robert Viharo and Wife No. 3 took him to Los Angeles. There, Will got a nibble of Hollywood life -- his father had already appeared in Valley of the Dolls, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and The Evil -- but family bliss was short-lived. Wife No. 3 divorced the restless, self-indulgent elder Viharo and took Will to New Jersey, where she joined up with a guru teaching Sant Mat.

"It was some sort of crazy, fundamentalist group," says Will, still visibly troubled by the memory. "We couldn't wear shoes indoors; we couldn't talk to girls; we couldn't eat meat or watch movies. But we were living in New Jersey, of all places. It was very sheltered and very weird. That's when I really retreated into my head and let my imagination have full reign."

At 16, and already an aspiring writer, Will was kicked out of the religious community and sent back to Los Angeles, where his dad was working on Wife No. 5. Will made the best of it, writing plays and short stories while bumping shoulders with celebrities who were moving up, hanging out, and coming down; when he turned 19, Will's surrogate "big brother," Mickey Rourke, bought him his first car, a 1964 T-Bird that his father borrowed on a regular basis, sometimes to impress the women Will himself admired and desired.

"The closest I ever came to pulling a Hinckley was over [actress] Linda Kerridge," says Viharo, laughing at the thought. "She was my muse; I wrote for her. Then my father bopped her ... after directing her at the Actors Studio in a one-act I wrote called Wrong Turn at Albuquerque. It's OK, though. My father and I get along really well, now. ... It wouldn't have worked out anyway, the thing with me and Linda. I was just a kid."

Realizing his T-Bird was a lemon and his "big brother" Mickey was becoming famous, while his own career as a busboy was going nowhere, Viharo moved to San Francisco to follow in the weary footsteps of Jack Kerouac and Dashiell Hammett. He lived in the Europa Hotel above the club where Carol Doda was still dancing; he took odd jobs at bookstores, restaurants, video stores, and blood banks; he began the first of 16 novels. And, at the age of 25, Will Viharo found himself a very lonely, very angry, very sad guy.

Then he saw the Rat Pack reunion tour at the Oakland Coliseum.

It was Frank, Sammy, and Dean, together again, and it changed Viharo's life.

"I guess you can say it was kind of a religious experience," says Viharo, trying to explain his passion once and for all. "I was so depressed throughout my 20s. I had been living my life as this tragic poem, and they showed me how to look at it like a comic book. Here were these guys, living larger than life and having fun."

Viharo was on the road to Thrillville.

In 1995, Kyle and Catherine Fischer, two friends from one of Viharo's restaurant jobs, formed Wild Card Press and offered to publish the first of Viharo's six-part Vic Valentine detective series, Love Stories Are Too Violent for Me. The book, an early work Viharo no longer lauds, is a truly enjoyable page-turner that compensates for its lack of thrills with a complex, highly developed central character, who is, of course, Viharo -- sensitive but brusque, alarmingly candid, and pathetically vulnerable to all the "bad" women he loves.

While Viharo was busy peddling his book across the video counter where he worked, he met and married one of his customers, in the comedy aisle, and then divorced. She, Viharo says, helped him exorcise the phantom of his mother while supplying his still-emerging lounge lizard persona with the prerequisite ex-wife. When the Fischers invested in the Parkway Theater, they asked Viharo to host a cult movie night, and Will The Thrill was ready. It was The Thrill's mission to rescue pop culture gems like 20 Million Miles to Earth and I Was a Teenage Werewolf from cinematic obscurity and pay homage to those that helped change his life.

He's done a good job of it.

Over the last five years, Viharo has diligently protected and defended the essence the Cramps call "goneness" -- pop and pulp culture, monster movies, pinups, Mobsters, and cocktail shakers -- and it has served him well: Elvis Presley "introduced" him to his leading lady and favorite pinup girl four years ago, first by way of an Elvis movie night Will hosted for "Thrillville" at the Parkway, then again at an Elvis birthday party at the Ivy Room, where he won Monica's heart. (Last year, they exchanged vows and names -- both go by Cortés Viharo -- at Sinatra's old hotel, the Cal-Neva, in front of a Dean Martin-impersonating reverend and longtime friend named Robert Ensler.) Currently, Viharo gets paid to book movies and contribute to numerous pop culture periodicals, including Atomic and Filmfax; Christian Slater has recently purchased the option for Love Stories; and Will has become a recognized pop culture "activist," leading the way for protests against such vapid Hollywood debacles as the remake of Ocean's Eleven and the upcoming Viva Las Vegas starring Ricky Martin.

"Do I think it's important?" says Viharo standing in front of a stack of Miami Vice videos he considers a guilty pleasure. "Yes. Do I expect anyone else to think it's important? No.

"But life is made of ephemera. It's the little things, the day-to-day things, that enrich and impact our lives the most. No one should ever underestimate the power of art in our lives, even if it takes the form of pop art. It should be preserved and respected. The Rat Pack gave me something to dream about and a sense of idealism. Those movies are time capsules. That's where I found my heroes and my mentors. And even though it might not make sense to anyone else, I have to defend them."

Thrillville celebrates Frank Sinatra's birthday on Thursday, Dec. 13, with songs by Robert Ensler and a screening of Pal Joey.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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