'The Little Shop of Horrors' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9:00 p.m. KCET brings you the 1960 film "The Little Shop of Horrors," a dark comedy about a man-eating plant from the mind of B-movie mogul Roger Corman. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received the original "The Little Shop of Horrors" back on Sep. 14, 1960.

Roger Corman shot "The Little Shop of Horrors" in two days, for $30,000, using the sets that were still standing from his previous picture. Despite its modest beginnings, this absurd tale of bloodthirsty botany went on to garner a cult following--inspiring a Broadway musical and all-star, cult classic movie-musical decades later. Corman has built a legendary career as an independent producer and director, churning out low-budget B-movies at an astounding rate. "Little Shop" -- certainly among his quickest and cheapest -- went on to become one of his most famous works. Check out the trailer for the original film to get a taste of how Corman lifted schlock cinema to an art form over the years.

Corman cast the film mostly with the stock company of actors he'd used in previous films, including Dick Miller, Jackie Joseph, and Jonathan Haze. The film's screenwriter, Charles B. Griffith, played several small roles. Griffith's own father played the small role of a dental patient and his grandmother was cast as the protagonist's hypochondriac mother.
Here's Griffith as the robber who tries to hold up the Skid Row flower shop where the rare man-eating (and also talking) plant is grown:

Charles B. Griffith and Mel Welles in 1960's "The Little Shop of Horrors," Via Wikimedia Commons

But Corman didn't stop there. He even paid winos ten cents apiece to act as extras in the film and persuaded a funeral parlor to lend a hearse -- packed with a coffin and real corpse -- to the shoot, according to Corman biographers. Corman prefers to be thought of not as the "king of B-movies," but as Hollywood's most fiscally responsible producer. In fact, his 1990 autobiography is called "How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime."

Check out this photo of a Corman casting call in Los Angeles, one year after "Horrors" was released. Corman was looking for six look-alike black cats to star (and stand in) in the production of 1962's "Tales of Terror."

Casting call for black cats to star in Roger Corman movie in Los Angeles, Calif., 1961. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive

Curious what other Corman flms of the era looked like? Take a look at this trailer for 1959's "Attack of the Giant Leeches."

Corman's claim to fame also includes launching the careers of many great actors, including Robert De Niro, William Shatner, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson. Nicholson's raucous cameo as a masochistic dental patient in "Horrors" was only his fourth film appearance. And his screen debut was in a Corman film two years prior. Check out Nicholson's famously demented "Little Shop"scene here:

Take a Closer Look Back

"Horrors" is an early exemplar of the B-movie boom of the 1960s and 1970s, when the golden age of Hollywood's studio system was coming to a close. Perhaps one of the most influential films of the era was Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," released in 1960, just a few months before "Horrors." While "Psycho" was a studio-released box office hit, it's low budget and unprecedented use of sexuality and violence made way for new schlock genres such as the slasher.
All the exterior shooting for "Horrors" was really done in Los Angeles' Skid Row area. Here's a photo of Skid Row taken a few years after the film was shot. This "Skid Row Seminary" sign can be seen several times throughout the film:

Men walking by entrance to Los Angeles' Skid Row Volunteers of America Men's Service Center, 1964. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive

A lot was happening in L.A. in 1960 in addition to the rapidly changing film landscape. The swelling city surpassed Philadelphia in that year's population census, becoming the third most populous in the country. Also, the civil rights movement was in its early stages, with many major events in the movement -- in Los Angeles and around the country -- happening over the next few years. Check out this photo of Angelenos picketing outside a Kress "five-and-dime" in Pasadena in protest of the retail department chain's exclusion of African Americans from its lunch counters in the South.

Pickets march in front of Kress Store in protest of firm's refusal to serve blacks in Pasadena, Calif., 1960. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive

And there were other political changes stirring. Los Angeles hosted that year's Democratic National Convention, where John F. Kennedy was nominated for his party's presidential candidacy. (Here's a panoramic photo of the DNC festivities at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.) Kennedy would go on to defeat Richard Nixon in the general election, which included the first televised presidential debates in U.S. history. Watch this Kennedy-Nixon debate video. Kennedy's first remarks -- evidently predating the invention of the debate bell "ding" -- run for seven unbroken minutes.

It was also a big year for Los Angeles sports fans. The Lakers became the first NBA team on the west coast that year, after moving from Minneapolis. Key players in their inaugural L.A. season included Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Frank Selvy. Check out this photo of Selvy being blocked by Wilt Chamberlain:

Frank Selvy and Wilt Chamberlain during Los Angeles Lakers vs Philadelphia Warriors game, 1961. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives

Another exciting change to L.A. in 1960? The official groundbreaking on the Hollywood "Walk of Fame." The first star completed belongs to director Stanley Kramer. (Roger Corman didn't get his star until 1991.)