Not one week out of N.Y.U., Pelbridge went west. He rode the Lake Shore Limited out of Penn Station and then, in Chicago, boarded a train bound for Los Angeles. In a brown plastic suitcase he’d packed a bunch of ham sandwiches, several notebooks, a trove of DVDs, and the postcard from Altini. It was one of those souvenir shop postcards meant to be funny, with a photograph of Stalin and a cute saying at the bottom. On the back Altini had scribbled, “You were born too late, kid, but what the hell.” They were to meet at Union Station.
It was a long train ride, and eventually, in one of the square states, he grew sleepy. As he drifted off, Pelbridge, a lifelong East coaster, recalled the prairie scene from Altini’s early roman à clef, American Frolic. That closing monologue! Today’s audiences, Pelbridge thought with some scorn, wouldn’t even register the echoes of Tennyson. As his eyelids grew heavy and he gazed out at the fields of rolling wheat, he envisioned buxom, modest Adelaide Marsh, the farmer’s daughter, naked beneath a distant windmill. Green eyes. If you knew Altini’s films – and Pelbridge knew them by heart – you knew his female characters were hardly mindless flesh objects, but ambitious women juggling professional and personal concerns, suffering but never complaining of double standards. “To strive, to seek, to find, and for God’s sake don’t stop.” He slept.
Pelbridge met Altini under a streetlight just outside Union Station. Altini looked bad: unshaven, tie crooked, underfed and unrested. Though he was only 56, these features seemed to confirm, to Pelbridge’s considerable regret, what the trade magazines said. He was washed up.
Once, Altini had been a great actor. At parties, he liked to boast of the time he stalled a ravenous blonde for three hours and forty-five minutes by reading aloud from Herman Melville’s Redburn. Only then did he “give her a yearly tune-up, rotate her tires and throw in a complimentary oil check,” as they say in the business. Altini was a romantic.
He was also a genius, his talents perfectly suited to the demands and fashions of his time, a time when a strong libido didn’t mean a short attention span, when couples would settle down for the evening with one of his plot-heavy films. It was San Fernando Valley legend that he had completed the outline for what would become Play-Doh Masochism at age fourteen. And the mid- to late-’70s saw a string of masterpieces that set the standard for adult filmmaking, culminating in the Lastrodoro’s Woman Wagon trilogy and, to a lesser degree, Forty-Eight Hours in Eileen Jacobson.
Pelbridge extended his hand, but Altini only stared off into the distance. “Just tell me one thing,” he said, as he led Pelbridge to a beat-up black sedan in the parking lot. “Why did you come here?”
“I want to make movies,” Pelbridge said.
In Altini’s laugh Pelbridge could hear both nostalgia and anger. “I used to make movies.”
* * *
Altini’s office was on the second story of a drab garage in a part of town that, even to Pelbridge the outsider, seemed very far away from the action. The sight of a single blanket flung on the room’s lone couch told Pelbridge that it was Altini’s home, too. One entire wall was covered with framed posters of his finest films. “It’s simply the law of supply and demand,” Altini said. “Once people wanted what I could give them. Now they don’t.”
“How’s LuAnne?” Pelbridge asked. Altini’s success and onetime stature in the adult film business meant the details of his personal life were widely known.
“She left me.”
Unsure how to respond, Pelbridge wandered around the room, stopping at a stack of typed papers, at least six inches tall, atop Altini’s desk. Altini explained that he was writing a movie for LuAnne, in spite of it all.
“There must be hundreds of scripts here,” Pelbridge said with awe.
“Just one,” Altini said.
* * *
What devastated Altini the most was that LuAnne, who was his third wife and had starred in almost all of his later films, had not only left him but continued to work. As the industry turned on him, she ran off with one of the pizza delivery outfits that had taken over the Valley.
“I want you to see something,” Altini said, popping in a DVD. A scraggly, long-haired man holding a pizza box knocked on the front door of a large suburban house. LuAnne answered, wearing overalls with no shirt underneath, the straps hooked around her bare shoulders. A glint of sunlight flickered on the gold wedding band on her left hand as she flipped her long blonde hair seductively. She told the man she hadn’t ordered a pizza, but when he shrugged and turned to go, she called out and asked, “What kind of pizza is it?”
“Sausage,” he said, turning. “Extra large.” When LuAnne licked her lips and beckoned the delivery man into the house with a slow wag of her index finger, Altini cringed.
Inside the house, LuAnne lifted the lid of the pizza box to find that it contained a plain cheese pizza with a hole cut out of the center.
“I thought you said this was a sausage pizza,” she said, raising an eyebrow. The delivery boy smirked.
“Enough!” cried Altini, switching off the TV. He paced the room. “So many unanswered questions!” Pelbridge kept quiet, his eyes fixed in awe and fear on the great man.
“What are the particulars of the marriage?” Altini thundered. “Is this happening on a lazy Sunday morning, or Tuesday at rush hour? The husband — is he having his appendix out? Is he stuck in traffic? Don’t you see, the answers matter.”
“Maybe he was on a business trip,” Pelbridge said timidly.
Altini, his face contorted in rage, slammed down a fist on his desk, knocking over his stack of pages, some of which floated to the floor.
“Nothing is explained!”
Altini poured them both a drink, but Pelbridge didn’t dare speak. After a time, Altini wandered out on to a small balcony that looked out on an empty lot and, in the distance, the lighted windows of buildings. Something, he felt, had gone out of the world. Inside, Pelbridge pushed in another DVD. In two minutes it was over, and above the faint hum of the blank screen he could hear the sound of Altini softly singing to himself, “Bom chicka wow wow, bom chicka wow wow.”
Below: The work of the Great Altini through the years.