Because our office microwave oven hasn’t been cleaned since the Truman Administration, bizarre creatures have mutated out of leftover food particles and now threaten all life as we know it. --John Boston in “Something Is Having Sex In My Microwave”
Just down the street from Tattoo Heaven--one of numerous elite cultural institutions in greater Newhall--John Boston is talking about belly dancers, Bigfoot and his offer to pay $100 to anyone who will bring him the head of film critic Roger Ebert.
The bare-stomached dancer, it turns out, is an ex-girlfriend. Bigfoot is the star of his first novel, “Naked Came the Sasquatch.” And Ebert, who could be mistaken for Bigfoot, has written one too many bad movie reviews, Boston says, probably because “he is up at the snack bar for as much as 80% of the film he’s supposed to be (watching).”
Boston, 43, doesn’t stop with corpulent cinema critics. During the past two decades, he has skewered and lampooned nearly everyone and everything in and out of the Santa Clarita Valley.
As chief writer and editor of Son of Escape, the Signal newspaper’s off-beat entertainment tabloid, it’s his job to get under people’s skin. But in a friendly way.
“Our mission is to entertain, enlighten, tickle and tell you where you can get a good cheeseburger,” says Boston, who writes under such aliases as vampire gossip columnist Count Sauguslavsky, gun-worshiping restaurant reviewer Miss Blanche Tooth, and J. Ross Perot, long-lost brother of H. Ross Perot and president of the Santa Clarita Valley Society of Insufferable Film Critics.
Not everyone is amused. But even Boston’s targets find him hard to resist.
“He’s the first thing I read every Friday morning,” admits one, referring to Son of Escape’s publication day. “You can’t help but laugh.”
John Boston on lingerie models: These (women) are supposed to be emoting, “Hi. I’m wrapped like a python around the bedpost, I’ve got bedroom eyes, these BVDs will run you $29.95 and don’t put them in the dryer.” But actually, to me, they’re saying, “Hi. I scored 22 points on my SAT test. Do you own a Porsche?’ '. . .There’s (also) a raw, animal hunger in these underwear models. It’s not sexual. It’s hunger. No one in the catalogue weighs more than 48 pounds. U.S. armed forces should invade the catalogue and bring them bread and rice and Kraft macaroni and cheese dinners with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup.
It’s just past deadline on a recent Thursday and Boston--6-foot-2, 260 pounds--is unwinding over a plate of corned beef hash and eggs at the Way Station, his “home away from home.”
Alternately eloquent and silly, he recounts his ascension to the summit of Santa Clarita comedy. It was not instantaneous. Before and between hitches at the Signal, he coached high school basketball, dug trenches, served as personal assistant to actress Lesley Ann Warren (chief accomplishment: “burying her dead poodle in the back yard”) and directed TV news broadcasts for a tiny, now-defunct NBC affiliate in Newhall.
“It was like Albanian television,” he says of the latter. “Everything was in black and white. And we had this anchorman with big ol’ giant hair who would never look up at the camera.”
Around 1974, in what would become the first in a series of hirings and firings, Boston joined the Signal as sports editor. Notoriety soon followed. When visiting high school football players picked a fight with the local team, for example, Boston wrote that the rivals’ hometown “sits in the desert like a brown stain on a hobo’s underwear.”
On another occasion, when newspaper management pressured him to run a photo of the 50-member Valencia Women’s Golf Club, he shrank it to postage-stamp proportions, complete with a “pictured from left to right” caption that ran “3 feet long.”
“I guess I’ve always been into monkey business,” he says.
John Boston on absentee employees: Since the dawn of time. . .man has been searching for ways to avoid going to work. In a recent excavation in France. . .archeologists unearthed a prehistoric drawing of nine early hunters stalking a mastodon. Several inches to the left of the cave painting is a 10th hominid in a bearskin suit. . .holding his stomach and sticking out his tongue. Scientists theorize this unknown reticent warrior was the first man in recorded history to call in sick to work. (Archeologists have also translated a papyrus document) discovered in the fertile Nile region of Egypt:. . ."Unable to work on the pyramids today. Must attend aunt’s funeral.”
If Boston seemingly got away with a lot, it’s probably because his first boss, legendary Bay Area newspaperman Scott Newhall, was even wilder. Newhall, who died last year, came to the Signal after two decades as executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, where his journalistic legacy included a crusade to clothe naked animals and sending a reporter to Mexico in search of Pancho Villa’s buried head.
In Southern California, Newhall’s freewheeling style continued. Inch-high headlines screamed “BASTARDS!” and venomous editorials left no ox ungored.
Boston, when he arrived, seemed almost tame by comparison. “People got upset with John to a certain degree,” says Ruth Newhall, who edited the paper with her husband. “But by then, they were hardened. Outrageousness was kind of expected of us.”
In 1987--one decade, one firing and one rehiring later--Boston was named editor of the Signal’s new Escape section: a weekend guide to movies, restaurants and--with Boston at the helm--mischief.
In one early act, he welcomed the city slickers moving into the Santa Clarita Valley with a “public service” presentation on “five easy steps” to horseback riding. Start, he advised the newcomers, by “winding up the horse. . . .This is done by grabbing the animal’s tail and giving it several vigorous cranks. The horse will then nod its head as a signal, ‘Yes, I am ready to be ridden.’ ”
New residents and developers have been recurring targets. When Boston moved to Newhall from Massachusetts in 1958, at age 8, about 5,000 people lived in the area. Since then, tens of thousands more have squeezed in. “My plan is simple,” he recently wrote. “Unload several boxcars containing 1,000 grizzly bears (and let them feast on a course of) one quarter million urban barbecuers in Hawaiian shirts, black socks and brown loafers.”
John Boston on growing up in the 1960s: The only thing I remember was seriously wishing the lapels would get thinner. (After high school), my friend Phil and I lived with a house full of hippies but it was like we were in a time warp. We didn’t take drugs. . .and we were always trying to get rich. Nobody was supposed to do that until the 1980s.
While the Santa Clarita Valley grew and changed, Boston underwent transformations of his own: two marriages, two divorces and two new names. Originally Walter Cieplik Jr., he became John Alexander and--after watching middleweight boxer Charlie Boston on ESPN--he adopted his current appellation. Along the way, he also lived with the belly dancer and, in the late 1980s, again parted ways with the Signal, in a dispute with management.
When he finally returned last year, things were noticeably different. Scott and Ruth Newhall were gone and the reins on Escape--reincarnated as Son of Escape--had tightened considerably.
“It’s a little more genteel than the original,” Boston says. “Now when we throw a cream pie, we have to go hide in the bushes awhile before trying again.”
Not everybody mourns the change. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a frequent foil in the past (“He is to the Santa Clarita Valley what carcinogens are to lab mice,” Boston wrote in one of his more charitable commentaries), remains unscathed in the new Escape.
“Of course we didn’t like (what Boston used to write),” says Antonovich aide Jo Anne Darcy, who also serves on the Santa Clarita City Council. “But that was a long time ago. I haven’t seen anything derogatory recently.”
John Green, who once penned movie reviews for Boston and now edits the entire Signal newspaper, says “it’s safe to conclude” that Escape the Sequel’s tamer tone reflects the sensibilities of the paper’s current owner, Georgia-based Morris Newspaper Corp.
But Green, who hired Boston to rev up the paper’s entertainment section, maintains that Son of Escape still outshines its predecessor. The new lineup includes syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry of the Miami Herald, as well as such home-grown--and unpaid--talent as Tim Haddock (“America’s only fast-food newspaper columnist”) and chef to the stars Catherine Beverly, who in sometimes breathless prose divulges recipes from the kitchen of singer Michael Jackson.
Boston has also added a movie warning system for parents (Caution: “Indecent Proposal” contains “nudity, some language and Woody Harrelson”) and a folksy gossip column titled “Who’s Sleeping With Whom?” (listing the names of happily married local couples).
And gags still abound.
In last fall’s election issue, Son of Escape endorsed Ross Perot “on the premise that he is being followed and so are we.”
In January, Boston printed the schedule for Spam Days (starting with a ceremonial lighting of the Spam torch and ending with a female Spam-wrestling match) in honor of a “stucco yuppie holding pen” housing development known as Stevenson Ranch, which he renamed “Spamville.”
And in June, a headline over the review of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest movie consisted of the word “Ka-boom"--42 times--followed in smaller type by: “Last Action Hero: All explosions. No acting.”
More recently, a cover story on the film “So I Married an Axe Murderer” was headlined: “On the bright side, at least she’s not an overeater, compulsive shopper, nag, drooler or sleepwalker.”
John Boston on sex education: The boys are given an in-depth film and lecture by Long John Silver, who shows them pictures of women in skimpy underwear and then teaches them to. . .say things like, “Aaaargh! Aye, maties. Thar she be, a scantily clad maiden, aargh, wouldn’t ye just love to run your hook up and down them mainsails? Aaargh, hoolie-hoolie-hoolie.” And then, (the) audience of young male voices repeats the line, later practicing it as construction workers, used-car salesmen and members of crack Senate judicial committees. Meanwhile. . .the girls are shown a film on “How to Dress Like a Las Vegas Tart,” followed by “How to Act Ambivalently Pleased and Offended When You are Treated Like One.”
Boston writes at a grueling pace. He puts in up to 60 hours a week at the Signal, then goes home and works on the sequel to his Bigfoot paperback and several books for children. Although he hopes to someday concentrate just on the novels, he claims not to mind the current load.
“It builds writing muscle,” he says. “One of the biggest myths in this field is that you get burned out. I think all the poems and plays and symphonies are floating around out there and all you have to do is just listen and write them.”
Naturally, he isn’t fond of those who would tamper with the results. When TSR, the publisher of his novel, asked him to cut the length of “Naked Came the Sasquatch,” Boston simply widened the margins and returned the book unchanged: “They loved it. Everyone said it was ‘much smoother.’ ”
But some friends and colleagues say the exhaustion and lack of editing shows. In his book, for instance, brief descriptions of the town and a couple of the characters are repeated word for word in several spots. And in Son of Escape, some of the writing seems rough around the edges.
For those who don’t mind such transgressions, however, the rewards can be great. Some of Boston’s choicest bits are buried in the last third of an otherwise unassuming story or in the fine print of captions, writer bylines and capsulized event listings.
John Boston on writing: I strongly advise anyone with an IQ above room temperature to avoid writing for hire. Maybe get into another profession--say, modern dance or become one of those rental clowns who stand on street corners holding “Giant Repo Condo Sale” signs and waving to people as they drive by. Both pay better.
For all his irreverence in print, Boston can prove surprisingly gentle in private. “He’s very different from the persona he has in Son of Escape,” says Marlee Lauffer, spokeswoman for the Newhall Land & Farming Co., a past target of his satire. “He is the most polite person I’ve ever met.”
Says former Signal managing editor Jeanne Feeney: “The Escapee is a great guy. He was also a great guy when he was John Alexander and when he was that other name I can never remember, Walt something-or-other. . . .He’s good to kids and pets.”
For those who work with Boston, “it’s an absolute adventure,” says Signal staff writer Carol Rock, Son of Escape’s official Impertinent and Gout-Free Dining Critic. “There are rules for the rest of the paper and then there’s us.”
Boston says he encourages his charges to take “huge, big, giant chances” with their writing, lest they end up sounding like the “damp Saltine cracker” that passes for modern American journalism. Newspapers, he argues, have become utterly lifeless: “There’s a universal monotone. It’s like you put a pillow and Baggie over your head and hear just a muffled drone. Everybody’s trying to sound like Time magazine.”
Boston detects the same problem in society at large: “People go through life trying so hard not to look silly. . . .Like, I didn’t dance until I met my second wife and it hit me, ‘I’m 30 and I’ve never danced.’ As if everyone would say, ‘You dance stupid.’ In reality, no one notices how you dance. No one notices if you sing off-key.”
So he does both. Armed with a book of cowboy songs, he and girlfriend Chris Rubino occasionally sit on a rock in the dry stream behind his Placerita Canyon house and warble away.
“We can’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow,” he acknowledges, “but so what?”