Maverick Salt Lake City-based indie filmmaker Trent Harris (who made the quirky cult favorite Reuben & Ed with Crispin Glover and Howard Hesseman) was working as a cameraman at a local TV station in 1979 when he met Richard LaVon Griffiths, AKA “Groovin’ Gary” (Griffiths’ CB radio handle). Harris was in the parking lot testing out a new video camera that the station had just bought and “Groovin’ Gary” was taking pictures of the station’s news helicopter. Their meeting, caught on videotape, would prove to be a fateful encounter for both men.
As he is initially revealed in the film, “Groovin’ Gary” seems to be a Jeff Spicoli-esque, late 70s stoner-type. He’s even got blond “feathered” hair. Gary is a bit of a ham-bone and describes himself as Beaver, Utah’s answer to Rich Little. He (somewhat inexplicably) seems to see his impromptu time on camera as an unexpected showbiz “break.” After doing some terrible impressions of John Wayne and other celebrities, he takes Harris over to his car and shows him his AM/FM stereo 8-track tape player—of which he’s very proud—and the engravings of Farrah Fawcett and Olivia Newton-John he’s had put on the windows. It’s banal, yet weirdly compelling.
“Groovin’ Gary” then invites Harris (via letter) to a talent show he’s producing at a high school in Beaver. A pageant that Gary himself will perform in. In drag. As his alter-ego “Olivia Newton-Dong.” He suggests in a letter that Harris might want to get to the local mortuary (?) at 8A.M. to shoot his hair and make-uo session.
During the make-up application (done by the mortician), he discusses his profound love of Olivia Newton-John. Even in full drag, he somehow does not come across as gay, more like someone who thought that they were about to do something just totally hilarious.
We see the talent show itself, with some truly soggy “talents” on display. Then “Olivia” is onstage and it’s weird, ending with a strange-looking masked man picking up Gary and carrying him offstage. To say that it’s a riveting performance is an understatement. Keep in mind as you watch this, that he orchestrated the entire talent show just so he could do this!
Afterwards “Groovin’ Gary’ happily recaps the event with Harris in his car. Harris drives off. Then the film cuts back to Gary, out of drag, doing a shitty Barry Manilow impression from earlier in the talent show. That’s how it ends.
The video below is out of sync, but it didn’t bother me that much.
Two years later, in 1981, Trent Harris directed a “dramatic” remake of the first video with a young Sean Penn playing the goofy kid from Beaver, Utah. There is an ending now, in the scripted version—based on what really happened or not, I have no idea—of “Groovin Gary” coming to the suicidal realization that perhaps his drag performance getting on TV would not be the best thing for his life in a small Mormon town and he tries to talk the Harris character out of showing it. The second film was made, apparently, for $100, and often recreated the scenes from the original video (Harris does not play himself here).
It’s not like this is the greatest thing you’ll ever see, but it is fascinating to see a pre-fame Sean Penn performing in drag (the short was made the same year Penn appeared in Taps). It seems clear that Penn picked up some tricks for his actor’s repertoire here that went right into his infamous character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High the following year. In many ways, this short was just a dry run for “Jeff Spicoli” and the next film in The Beaver Trilogy starring Crispin Glover.
Now an AFI student, Trent Harris remade the dramatic version (now on film with lighting, a proper cast, extras, etc) in 1985 as The Orkly Kid starring Crispin Glover. In both the dramatic versions, “Groovin’ Gary” is portrayed as much more of a loser than he comes across in the first documentary. In the dramatic versions he’s suicidal, convinced he has made a fool of himself at the pageant. In the first film, the real life “Groovin’ Gary” seems quite satisfied about the way things went. He might have even been a straight guy who really. really just LOVED Olivia Newton-John SO MUCH that he wanted to be her. I really can’t say for sure, but “Groovin’ Gary” is one of the most compelling characters (like Jesco White, the “dancin’ outlaw”) to emerge from the VHS verite underground.
The three films were screened together as The Beaver Trilogy in 2000 at Lincoln Center in New York City. A famous 2002 episode of This American Life interviewed Harris about the films and why he returned to the same theme three times. The real-life “Groovin’ Gary,” Richard LaVon Griffiths, died in Salt Lake City on February 2, 2009, at the age of 50.
If watching films with a sync problem vexes you too much, you can order a DVD of The Beaver Trilogy directly from director Trent Harris himself at his website. He’s also selling his rarely seen Reuben & Ed and Plan 10 from Outer Space, his cheesy low-fi Sci-Fi retelling of the Mormon legend with actress Karen Black.
Thank you Chris Campion of Berlin, Germany!