“Worry about the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves.”
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, when directors and producers needed a little rock & roll realness in the form of punky-looking extras, there was one woman in Los Angeles they called: Janet Cunningham. The creator of CASH (Contemporary Artists Space of Hollywood), Cunningham is responsible for giving L.A.'s alternative creative types a lot of work as background actors for countless projects, from music videos to films, both mainstream and indie.
Cunningham lost her battle with cancer last week, surrounded by loved ones in Silver Lake. She was 73. Born in Binghamton, New York, she grew up in New Orleans, then moved to New York City as a young adult. Cunningham always surrounded herself with eccentric and expressive figures who stood out in the crowd. She was reportedly an avid anti-Vietnam War protester and spent time partying at Andy Warhol's Factory.
She relocated to Los Angeles with her son Beau in 1978 and founded the first incarnation of CASH as a sort of collective/club/gallery space in 1981. Constantly surrounded by crazy hair color, tattoos (which weren’t as prevalent then as they are now) and rebellious fashion statements, she knew all the “cool people” in the city and organically parlayed her connections into a career as a casting agent.
Blockbuster movies, TV shows and a mass of music videos (MTV was exploding when she started) were populated with Cunningham’s roster of mohawked punks, glammy rockers, ghoulish goth chicks, flamboyant artists and all-around wonderful weirdos. Her credits include films such as Ghostbusters, Body Double and Valley Girl and TV programs including Cagney and Lacey, Hunter and Superior Court (which featured re-enactments of case scenarios and crime scenes). Basically, when a mainstream movie or show had a club or bar scene or simply needed some edge, its producers called Cunningham.
The Punk Rock Film Festival at Beyond Baroque this past weekend turned into a tribute thanks to Tequila Mockingbird, who curates the event. Mockingbird created the L.A. Punk Museum (read about it here).
She has dedicated her life to celebrating L.A.'s underground, so she recognizes better than anyone her pal's contributions not only in this city but to pop culture in general.
“I met Janet at CASH when it was next to the ZERO gallery,” says Mockingbird, who adds that she was one of the few black punks in Cunningham's casting cache. “Everybody was poor back then and some were homeless. She fed us red beans and rice every Monday. We did poetry readings and art shows and had wild parties and a lot of people slept over there too.
“Without Janet, everyone would have starved to death. None of us looked normal or wanted to be normal, and nobody was gonna change either,” adds Mockingbird, whose credits include background bits and principle roles in such films as Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and Valley Girl, as well as videos such as The Motels' “Only the Lonely” and Eurythmics' “Would I Lie to You.”
Writer, dancer and iconic scenester Pleasant Gehman concurs. “You couldn't get jobs in those days if you looked weird,” she says. “But thanks to Janet, the way we looked paid off. I always got cast as a punk, cult murderer, groupie or prostitute. I didn't even look that unusual compared to a lot of punks — I had white hair — but so many times I'd show up to set and get noticed. We always had to be there 'camera ready,' and there'd be other extras there from Central Casting or whatever. … The director or whoever was in charge would send home the normal people from other agencies and keep Janet's people. This happened all the time!”
Gehman (whose most popular video appearance via Cunningham is probably as a bartender in the clip for the yacht-rock classic “Sweet Freedom” by Michael McDonald), credits Cunningham with helping her score a SAG card and a gig that paid her bills and rent for years. “I got a call for a commercial for Samsung and we all had to go downtown,” Gehman recalls. “I was in the front of the crowd and had to pretend to look up at something. After the shoot, Janet called and said they were using me as a principal and I'd get residuals. The commercial ended up showing Godzilla destroying the city — that's what we were supposed to be looking up at — and it was super popular and won awards. I didn't have to worry about money for three years because of it, and it paid for my trip to Europe.”
“Working for Janet was always a party with the cameras rolling,” says Iris Berry, who got extra gigs on T.J. Hooker, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (with Mockingbird) and Thrashin,' a film starring Sherilyn Finn and a young Josh Brolin and Tony Alva, with characters based on Berry and her ex-boyfriend, now-deceased artist Marc Rude. “I got to hang out with my friends, and someone would always manage to sneak liquor on the set. As long as we didn’t get too drunk, we were OK. I had some of the best times of my life working with Janet on Hollywood movie sets. Also, she had a heart of gold and would never let anyone go without. “
Cunningham’s official memorial took place at the Red Lion last Saturday, a fitting locale as she was a Silver Lake resident and even served on the neighborhood council for the area at one time. Many of the characters who were part of Cunningham’s colorful roster long ago abandoned their audacious looks for more “normal” attire to join the traditional workforce, but just as many have maintained an outsider spirit and fashion sense, as was apparent at the gathering.
Of course “weird” and “punk” looks have all gone mainstream at this point. Thanks to the enduring popularity of films and videos she helped cast, Cunningham's contributions made that happen to some extent. But more importantly, she provided authenticity, a true representation of what it meant to be punk for people who had no idea. The people she sent on calls actually lived the lifestyle, and they were her friends. By sharing her world with the entertainment industry and celebrating those who were expressing themselves in new and provocative ways, she not only gave the creative community the freedom to keep on creating but also had a hand in shaping all of our ideas about what being different meant, visually and conceptually.
And though she is gone, her impact will never be forgotten. Her friends and the people she helped over the years made sure of it. On Thursday, April 5, the transfer of Cunningham's files, photos, films, correspondence and ephemera from her many years of casting were donated to UCLA Library's Special Collections. “They will be housed, preserved and made available for generations to come,” says longtime friend Mary Cherry, who helped go through and prepare Cunningham's possessions for transfer. “The Janet Cunningham Collection will become a part of the Punk Archives at UCLA. This is an honor for Janet, UCLA and every one of us. We are all part of the Janet Cunningham Collection.”