It’s a beautiful Fall day near the coast in Marina del Rey, California, where I meet up with Ray Ramos, a man who wears many hats—photographer, writer, director, producer, actor—and best of all, friend. We’re at the Sports Harbour, a dive bar at the intersection of Lincoln and Washington boulevards, not far from where Ray grew up—and still lives—in Venice. It’s neither Old Hollywood nor L.A. film noir, two subjects that Ray is passionate about, though the perfect place to catch up on gossip and to talk about his latest production, “To Love Somebody,” four one-act plays he wrote that include “The Pleasure of Purr Company,” “Jake and Clara,” “The Girl in the Attic,” and “Dickabeth,” in which he also stars as the legendary Richard Burton.
DF: So Ray, you’re Mexican-American, born and raised in Venice, California. How did you get from here to the influences of Old Hollywood and L.A. film noir?
RR: Well …
ain’t too far from Hollywood. In fact Venice and Hollywood go way back to the silent-film days. Buster Keaton used to film down here. I just found out recently that Charlie Chaplin first portrayed the Little Tramp character right here in Venice. Venice
My Grandpa Manuel grew up just down the road in Culver City near the MGM and Hal Roach studios … he used to run with the Our Gang kids, including Mickey Rooney. He once told me he taught the Marx Brothers how to rollerskate. After World War II he worked at a place called Paul J. Howard Nursery in the Palms area of West L.A. that supplied plants to all the studios and the stars. He’d make deliveries to Lauren Bacall, and she would invite him in to have a glass of whiskey with her. I loved to listen to him tell those random stories … I always felt “Old Hollywood” around me in a big way.
DF: You’re always referencing an old movie in your writing. Did you watch those, too, with your Grandpa?
RR: I kinda found movies on my own, like a lot of kids of my generation. Growing up, there were few channels on TV, and generally they filled the airtime with old movies. They had the noon movie, Ben Hunter’s Movie Matinee, and then the 3:30 movie that you caught after school … the 6:30 movie came on after the half-hour local news … now it’s a three hour block of news. There was no Oprah or Dr. Phil—just old movies … and you never knew what you were gonna get! I’d watch a movie and think, Hey, that guy (the actor) was pretty cool … or funny or interesting. Then all of a sudden I’m hip to Robert Mitchum and Jimmy Cagney … Richard Widmark … whomever captured my imagination. It’s not like that today … I guess too many options. But if you’re into film, you need to not only study this stuff, but know it. I just searched it out on my own, I guess.
DF: Besides the movies, you have a real passion for L.A. film noir. By the way, your last production “The Big Woogie” fit the genre beautifully …
RR: Yeah, I’ve always loved film noir … even before I knew what it was! I remember the first time I saw the classic, “Out of the Past”—where I was, what channel it was on, and what time of day. After I watched I thought, What the hell did I just watch? That wasn’t The Love Bug! Same thing with “Cape Fear,” “Night of the Hunter,” “The Sweet Smell of Success,” and “Touch of Evil.” That film blew my mind because I’m watching it and all of a sudden I realize, Man, that’s Venice! That canal that Orson Welles falls into is where we take the dog swimming! That really was a distinct connection. It was like watching a dark version of the place that I lived. I’m 12 years old at the time, and these films where blowing my mind!
DF: How and when did you get started as a writer? What inspired that?
RR: I always liked creative writing. When I was in high school, I had a comedy partner named Bill Rapada, a damn funny guy. We were in drama class together, and had very similar—outrageous—senses of humor and he, too, was hip to all the old Hollywood stuff … we were on the same playing field. In class, it always seemed it was us against the rest of the class. We would write these crazy sketches, and get hell for them. We were heavily influenced by Saturday Night Live—new at the time. I clearly remember how we presented our comedy opus that we had so confidently worked on. We’re presenting it to the class, and a quarter of the way through we’re stopped by the teacher, who dubbed us as “nothing more that dirty nightclub comics”—her very words. Well, that only cemented our outsider status. Bill and I continued to write our sketches until we parted ways, for whatever reason.
Later, I started writing screenplays. My first script was a quirky action comedy that I wrote to star James Coburn and myself. It was about the macho old writer who teams up with this young guy to save his adopted daughter from a hit man and her asshole boyfriend. I wrote it specifically for Coburn; it was to be the quintessential James Coburn character … it would have been great. His character, Cash Vivian, smoked Cuban cigars, knew Kung Fu, listened to Bruce Springsteen, and lived in an old Hollywood mansion haunted by a Tom Mix-type silent screen cowboy. It had a fun little love story and a climax that took place at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I wrote it years ago—way before ghosts were popular. It’s a fun script, one I still hope to produce one day, although I’m just a little too old to play the young guy—which I find very annoying! Ha! But I do know the perfect actor—Matthew Dorio. My professional doppelganger, as I like to call him. He played the Ambassador house detective, Chico Flynn, in my last play, a part I was toying with playing myself. But his audition was so good, he beat me out of my own part! He was going to be in the new show, in the one act; The Pleasure of Purr Company, playing, of all things, a writer. He unfortunately had to drop out. I was lucky enough to find wonderful actor, CJ Brady to replace him—who's really great in the part!
DF: Tell us the kind of reading material that inspires you. Who are your favorite writers?
RR: I used to plow through biographies left and right. I always find the journey of interesting people—well … interesting. That’s a reason that I know so much quirky trivia. For example, I read a story of how George Raft walked in on Carole Lombard and found her bleaching her pubic hair. She told Raft she was just making sure the carpet matched the drapes. I’ve got all kinds of crazy stuff like that rattling around in my head—supposedly true stories. I have to take their word for it! Either way, they’re entertaining, and I’ve always enjoyed them. As for writers? I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard. He started out writing Westerns and now does the most entertaining crime novels. What I love about him is much like what I love about the classic film director Howard Hawks: Leonard favors character over plot. If you have a great character, a weaker plot can be forgiving. There are other great writers I enjoy: Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Cormac McCarthy, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, David Mamet, my friend John Gilmore … and, of course, Hemingway. I’m sure there are a few more. I wish I had more time to actually read—the books are stacking up!
DF: What inspired you to start writing plays?
RR: Well, a couple years ago I heard that some friends were looking for one-acts for a show, specifically noir-inspired one-acts—again … back to noir. I’m thinking, That’s a no brainer! I already had some story ideas that were ready to go—rattling around in my head. Plus, I had all those film influences—from Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, John Huston, etc. … add in Barbara Stanwyck, Bob Mitchum, Bill Holden, Richard Widmark and their famous prototypes: the double-crossing dame; the cool, but poor sap detective; the pensive gigolo writer; the sneering gangster—they’re all up there … that and the fact that I dream in black and white … so the dam just broke! I literally wrote four plays in a matter of days. I sent them off and then I waited and I didn’t hear back from anyone. Right then I decided to put them up myself. I rounded up a few friends (Gordon Alatorre, Candice Martin, Stan Matasavage) and we came up with the show “The Big Woogie” … if you’re doing something noir, you gotta use the word “Big” in the title! It was a very fulfilling experience, and we got some pretty good reviews. Let that be a lesson: Don’t wait to be invited to the party—make your own party! That’s something that I learned the hard way. If you’re inclined, go out and do your own projects. What’s the worst that can happen? Failure? It takes balls to fail … all that matters is you get the blood pumping through you veins. So, even though those friends didn’t get back to me, I owed them in a roundabout way. It kick started my engine again.
DF: What’s the easiest thing about writing for you? What’s the hardest?
RR: The easiest thing for me is ideas; my brain’s backlogged with ideas. I worry that I’m gonna die and not get them all down on paper. And really, the hardest thing for me is just sitting down and fucking writing. I get sidetracked and distracted way too often. I’m very bad like that. I read that Hemingway—who never met a rum daiquiri he didn’t like—loved to carouse and have a good time … definitely my kinda guy! But when he was working, he would go ape shit when folks like Ava Gardner would want to come over and visit. He respected his work and was so disciplined than even the chance that Ava Gardner would want to come over and swim nude didn’t dissuade him. Me? I don’t think I could have said no to Ava! I usually write very, very late at night when everyone is asleep … when the phone won’t ring.
DF: Do you work on more than one piece at a time?
RR: I tend to have that habit … again, because I’m easily distracted … sometimes by my own ideas.
DF: What are you up to when you’re not writing?
RR: I dream of sitting in a dark bar in New Orleans, listening to Jazz.
DF: Yeah, don’t we all! Let’s talk about the new show, “To Love Somebody.”
RR: Again, I chose to do four one-acts … maybe because I’m superstitious. “The Big Woogie” had the film noir theme. This show my theme is Love. A friend commented, “Ray Ramos—doing a play about love?” I said, “Who better? I got a lot of practice when you think about it. Some people’s love is a big novel—marriage, kids, and all that stuff. For me, I’m a series of short stories … maybe even a stack of comic books… some better than others …
DF: Perfect! So, I’m guessing that “To Love Somebody” is somewhat autobiographical?
RR: Well, the second act, “The Pleasure of Purr Company,” was inspired by my black cat named Pinky—who actually adopted me when I was working at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire. I do love her deeply… so yeah, I guess that’s a yes.
Jake, the cowboy in “Jake and Clara,” has a lot of me in him—though I’m not sure if that’s a good thing to admit to! Oddly enough, I somehow relate to Anne Frank in the play, “The Girl in the Attic.” I feel such a connection with her that at times when I was writing it, I had to stop because of the heartache I felt for her. I’m in love with her in a weird, strange kinda way… if that makes any sense. She was such a special person; I feel that she must remembered—and loved—even today. That’s my one serious piece in the show.
And we have a fun piece that reunites the famed couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, in the afterlife. I think it’s a pretty entertaining piece that I call “Dickabeth.” I hope the audience understands why …
DF: What do you hope your audiences can take away from your plays?
RR: I think the most important thing for me is to get folks in the theatre! So many people have never been, or can’t remember, the last time they saw a play—some not since high school. For years I didn’t go to a play, but when I did finally find myself in the theatre … wow, what a wonderful experience! To have living, breathing actors right there in front of you, performing for you, telling you a story—it’s damn exciting.
The story telling is how it all got started for me. Especially when you discover fresh new talent. I get tired of seeing the same twenty actors on TV all the time. That was one of the things I truly enjoy when producing a play—finding great new talent to share with the audience. And then you get to hear people who come up to them after the show and tell them how great they were! That’s what I dig. And I have a great cast of actors in the new show, I'm proud to say! I might have cast Hollywood's next big star in this show? How cool would that be! As for my plays, I try to give the audience a full night of theatre—everything and the kitchen sink!
In the new show “To Love Somebody,” (co-produced and directed with Stan Matasavage) love is the thing that connects the stories. But I’ll tell you now; they’re not your typical love stories, like what I did with the noir theme in “The Big Woogie.” They’re a bit abstract … I guess much like myself. They’re the comedy that I love to write. And then the tale about Anne Frank—where does that come from? Like many I was influenced by Rod Serling and the TV show “The Twilight Zone.” It’s theatre, and you should have the option to be experimental … the Experimental Zone, if you will. It’s the perfect place.
DF: I understand you’re taking on the role of iconic Welsh-actor Richard Burton in “Dickabeth.” How does putting yourself in the character differ from writing the character?
RR: Yes. Can I say, “What the hell was I thinking?!” Sometimes, you have no idea where something comes from. So I write this piece about Dick and Liz because I need a third or fourth act. This one-act kinda wrote itself … I barely remember writing it. So here I am with this act, and I ask myself, Shit! Who’s fuckin’ gonna play Richard Burton? Even though I was the voice of Orson Welles in “A Touch of Murder,” last year’s play, it wasn’t my intention to act in this one. But I thought, Who else? I’ve had some hard times casting actors in simple roles, much less Richard Fuckin’ Burton! I’ve always had an ear for voices and have been doing Richard Burton’s voice for fun over the years. I used to make prank dinner reservations at Beverly Hills restaurants for him and Liz in Jr. High. So frankly, I was the only one that I trusted to do the part. But it’s really tough to sustain that voice for a whole act. Live by the sword, die by the sword! It’s scary. I played Orson Welles behind the curtain, like the Wizard of Oz. Richard Burton is front and center—in the spotlight—no hiding in the shadows. I’m in it now. Nothing left to do, but go out there and give it my best shot. Who knows, I might have a heart attack and die on stage?
RR: Well, I have the best damn “Bigfoot” script that I’d like to see produced. It’s more like an old Howard Hawks adventure film than a monster movie … but then again, it is a monster movie, and I wrote the best damn part for Sam Elliott! I would love to see it made. Who knows if people will ever get hip to what I’m doing?
I might also shoot a music video for this great L.A. band called I See Hawks in L.A.. They liked the music video that I did for the artist, Rosendo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vh63GPPfha0&feature=player_embedded) … so we’ll see …
I’ve also had this idea to do a private eye movie in Venice cinema verite style. I don’t think there’s been a film that’s captured the real Venice since the ’70s. People have been bugging me to write a full-length version of my one act from “The Big Woogie,” “Room 509” … which intrigues me … maybe even as a musical! I really liked those characters: Louise Brooks, Chico Flynn, Howard Hughes … and let’s not forget Myron from New York. That’s the great thing as a writer: You can pull out all of these people/characters that intrigue you: Louise Brooks, Anne Frank, Richard Burton; and bring them out to be appreciated once again or maybe just to say Hi to them one more time. I dig that.
DF: You’re going to do great … good luck, Ray! Break a leg!
RR: Thanks, Doll.
“To Love Somebody” opens at The Raven Playhouse, 5233 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91602 on October 26 through November 18, 2012. For tickets, go to www.tolovesomebodytheplay.com.