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'UHF' at 30: Let's revisit era when Tulsa got weird for Weird Al Yankovic movie

'UHF' at 30: Let's revisit era when Tulsa got weird for Weird Al Yankovic movie

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Pop culture historians may remember 1989 as the year Guns N’ Roses released “Paradise City” and the year Tulsa was home to Spatula City — at least on cinema screens.

Filmed in Tulsa, the movie “UHF” is celebrating a 30th anniversary. It was released July 21, 1989.

One of many local filming sites, a Warehouse Market on 6300 S. Peoria Ave. was temporarily converted into a faux Spatula City store for the movie.

Spatula City? Isn’t that sort of weird?

Of course, it is. The movie catapulted from the brain of Weird Al Yankovic, who starred in the film and co-wrote the script with manager Jay Levey, who directed the film.

For eight weeks in 1988, Tulsa was home to Yankovic and the cast/crew. Yankovic, interviewed by the Tulsa World about the movie’s 30th anniversary, said he will always have a soft spot in his heart for Tulsa.

Funny story: For filming purposes, a billboard advertisement for Spatula City sprang up in ’88 near Memorial Drive and the Broken Arrow Expressway. In commentary for a 25th anniversary DVD/Blu-Ray edition of the movie, Yankovic said the billboard was used only for one shot, but, for whatever reason, the billboard stayed up for the entire summer and drivers veered to an offramp in search of the fictional store.

In commemoration of “UHF” turning 30, here’s a refresher course on the time period when Tulsa got weird.

Why Tulsa?

The easy answer is because the 1983 movies “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish” had previously been shot in Tulsa.

Producer Gray Frederickson of Oklahoma City was involved with both films. He also was on board for “UHF.”

Frederickson said he traveled to different cities with Yankovic and Levey looking for the right place to shoot “UHF.” He recalled visiting Denver, Albuquerque and maybe Austin. He said he urged Yankovic and Levey to check out Tulsa, and they fell in love with it.

“Gray Frederickson told us we would have no problem getting extras and people there weren’t jaded,” Yankovic said. “If we shot in L.A. or New York, the extras would be sort of jaded. ‘Oh, another film crew.’ But in Tulsa, the locals were very excited and happy to be a part of this production, and we got very enthusiastic people in the movie.”

One thing that tipped the scales in Tulsa’s favor was 10,000 square feet of vacant space at the Kensington Galleria in south Tulsa. That space was put to use for the creation of “UHF.”

“Most of it was shot right there,” Frederickson said.

Because the galleria was connected to a hotel, Yankovic said you could walk from your room to the set without leaving the building. On DVD commentary, he compared it to being in a hamster habitrail.

Frederickson described making the movie in Tulsa as “easy.” It was cost-effective. He said there were no union problems, logistical problems or travel problems. And he said the people of Tulsa were “wonderful.”

“We were filming in north Tulsa in a rain storm,” he said. “And we were knocking on peoples’ doors at 2 in the morning asking if we could use their washers and dryers to wash the wardrobe because it was getting all muddy in the rain.”

Yankovic complimented Tulsans when he told the Tulsa Tribune in 1989 that people here “treated me as if I were human.” He laughed when he was reminded of the quote.

Tulsa is not mentioned in the movie. That was intentional.

Said Yankovic: “We wanted to keep it like Springfield with ‘The Simpsons.’ I wanted it to feel sort of Midwestern but never be specific about it. It should have felt like Anytown, U.S.A.”

What’s the movie about?

“Oh, you’re doing a Western?”

That’s what Yankovic’s California friends assumed when he told them he was shooting a movie in Tulsa.

The only thing Western about “UHF” was a transmitter on 49th West Avenue that was supposed to be the site of an underdog UHF television station run by Yankovic’s character, George Newman. The underdog station and its wacky programs eventually capture the attention of a powerful network affiliate station, which is run by a cold-hearted executive.

In addition to the good guy vs. bad guy core, there are dream sequences (shot in California) that permit Yankovic to do send-ups of the Indiana Jones and Rambo franchises.

To understand the vein “UHF” wanted to tap, consider that Yankovic was raised on:

Television. He once told entertainment writer Lou Cedrone he watched more TV than the “normal” person — and still likes to watch bad movies in his underwear.

Mad magazine. He said in 1989 he used to clean out garages in hopes of finding old issues. The name of his George Newman character in “UHF” was a tip of the hat to Mad cover boy Alfred E. Neuman.

Movies like “Airplane!” and “Top Secret!”

“I loved the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker school of comedy, kind of the surrealistic, bizarre kind of comedy,” Yankovic said.

“When my manager, Jay Levey, and I set out to write the movie, we basically wanted to come up with a story that would allow me to showcase what I do best, doing parodies of different things from commercials to TV shows to movie trailers and things like that. We thought the idea of me running and operating a small, local UHF TV station would be a fun way to do that because I would be able to get all the parodies in but also it would be kind of a nice underdog story about a guy that triumphs over adversity and battles a local network affiliate and gets all his friends to join with him and fight for something they believe in.”

Clever song parodies made Yankovic a music star. Included in “UHF” is an animated video with Yankovic adding a “Beverly Hillbillies” twist to the Dire Straits song “Money For Nothing.”

Who was (and wasn’t) in ‘UHF’?

“The Outsiders” is credited with launching the careers of a stable of young stars.

Cast members in “UHF” included Fran Drescher, who was four years shy of launching her signature TV series, “The Nanny,” and Michael Richards, who would soon gain fame as Cosmo Kramer in “Seinfeld” (the series premiered 16 days before “UHF.”) There could have been another “Seinfeld” connection. Yankovic said the role of his buddy in “UHF” was, at one point, offered to Jerry Seinfeld.

“I think he was looking forward to doing his own thing, which he did shortly thereafter,” Yankovic said.

At the time “UHF” was made, Yankovic said the biggest star was probably Victoria Jackson, a “Saturday Night Live” cast member who played his love interest.

Jackson, who beat out Jennifer Tilly for the role, said in DVD commentary that she thought it was kind of odd that a funny-talking blonde (herself) and a funny-talking brunette (Drescher) were cast as the primary female characters.

Others in the film included “General Hospital” actor Anthony Geary, Billy Barty and Gedde Watanabe of “Sixteen Candles” and, later, the television series “ER.” Dr. Demento, a radio personality who was instrumental in sparking Yankovic’s music career, made a cameo appearance.

“I had to give a tip of the top hat to Dr. Demento because, obviously, he meant so much to me in my life, so he is up there on screen for two or three seconds getting a face full of whipped cream from Stanley Spadowski,” Yankovic said.

Spadowski was Richards’ character, a goofy janitor who finds his niche as host of a children’s show. Yankovic said he was first exposed to Richards on the TV series “Fridays,” an SNL-type show on ABC, and he had seen Richards perform at comedy clubs around Los Angeles.

“I just thought his physical humor really fit the character of Stanley Spadowski,” Yankovic said. “I can’t imagine anybody else that would have been able to pull off the role quite the way that he did, so I was very happy to get him in the movie. I don’t remember if I talked about this in the commentary in the movie, but he was reluctant at first. The first time we offered the role to him, he actually turned it down, and we had to come back to him and say, ‘Listen, you’re the guy. We need you in this movie.’ Finally, he did it. I’m so glad he did. He brought so much to that role and really elevated the whole film.”

Among others who auditioned or were considered for “UHF” roles: Oklahoma-born Rance Howard, David Spade, Ellen DeGeneres, John Astin and Billy Mumy. In DVD commentary, Yankovic said Crispin Glover was contacted about being in the film but was interested only in playing the bit role of Crazy Ernie from Crazy Ernie’s Used Car Emporium, alias Ernie Miller Pontiac.

Was Tulsa represented in the f ilm?

Actors, extras, behind-the-scenes workers, filming locations and even dead fish from Tulsa combined to make up the tapestry of “UHF.”

One of the programs on the fictional UHF station was a game show called “Wheel of Fish.” Someone from the movie was dispatched to White River Fish Market to buy enough fish to attach to a “Wheel of Fortune”-type spinning apparatus. Spin the wheel, win a red snapper.

Local actor Lisa Stefanic was a “Wheel of Fish” contestant. She was praised by Yankovic in DVD commentary, but he said the fish were “ripe” after hours of shooting in a room that was heated by movie lights and the presence of many extras.

Yankovic mentions local actors by name in the DVD commentary, including upside-down yodeler Charles Marsh, who, according to Yankovic, used to stand on his head at the Turner Turnpike gate and play guitar. According to a 1989 story, more than a hundred Tulsans answered an open casting call to audition their “weird” acts for a telethon that occurs in the movie.

Pryor’s Chris Hardy said he was an extra in the telethon scene and was there for so many takes that he had to call his parents from a pay phone to tell them he would be coming home a bit later than expected. Said fellow extra Jamie Dotson, “I was standing right down front row by the clock most of the time. I thought Chris was right by me. I talked with him a lot. Imagine my embarrassment when I discovered it was Gedde Watanabe, not Chris.”

The closing credits gave a shout-out to the Green Country Model Railroaders, who provided a model railroad for the film.

Was ‘UHF’ a success?

There were so many blockbusters on theater screens in the summer of ’89 that it was tough for a little fish, let alone a “Wheel of Fish,” to find an audience.

These movies (heard of them?) all were released in the two months leading up to the debut of “UHF”: “Batman,” “Lethal Weapon 2,” “Ghostbusters II,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Do the Right Thing,” “License to Kill,” “Dead Poets Society,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Star Trek V.”

Hollywood racked up a then-record summer gate of $2.5 billion. “UHF” was out of theaters in a blink.

“They just dumped us after two weeks because you couldn’t fight Batman,” Frederickson said. “They threw us against a gorilla.”

Before the release of “UHF,” Yankovic joked that critics will probably hail it as the funniest film since “Full Metal Jacket.” He had reason to be optimistic because the movie tested better than any Orion film since “RoboCop.”

Critics were not kind. Yankovic read some of the reviews aloud near the end of the DVD commentary. He wondered what he could have done differently. It’s a shame that an entertainer who has provided so much joy to so many people had to experience a downer. But in this case, what goes down must come up.

Was there a happy ending?

The answer is “yes” in regard to the movie plot and “yes” in terms of the movie’s final fate.

Viewers discovered “UHF” on cable TV and on home video. It has been elevated to cult classic.

“It wasn’t the Hollywood blockbuster that we all hoped, but I’m glad that, over the years, it has built up a cult following and it has got a lot of very devoted fans,” Yankovic said. “It’s nice that it has found its audience and that people care about it so much.”

In March, comic book writer Jimmy Palmiotti asked Twitter followers for their top three comedy movies of all time. Some responders mentioned “UHF.” Oklahoma City-based writer, blogger and podcaster Rob “Flack” O’Hara called “UHF” one of the funniest comedies of all time. On the 15th anniversary of the movie’s filming, he embarked on an expedition to Tulsa and shot photographs of filming sites.

“Over the years, people found the movie and it has got a cult following and it’s just as much fun and wonderful now as it was when we made it,” Frederickson said.

Frederickson won an Oscar as one of the co-producers of “The Godfather Part II.” He was nominated for “Apocolypse Now.” He was asked if he is proud of “UHF.” His response: “Very much so.”

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Scene Writer

I cover pop culture and work as a feature writer at the Tulsa World. A former Oklahoma sports writer of the year, I have written books about former OU coach Barry Switzer and former OSU coach Pat Jones. Phone: 918-581-8389

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