Peter Elbling is better known to fans of Phantom of the Paradise under his stage name Harold Oblong. In the film, he was a member of the Juicy
Fruits, the Beach Bums and The Undead, and performed the show-stopping
lead on "Somebody Super Like You". He's also credited as Phantom's
Peter is also known for his work as an
actor and comedic writer -- throughout the 1970s and 80s, Peter appeared on stage, in
films, and in television. Astute fans will recall his memorable role as a member of
the "hoodlum rock" group The Scum of the Earth in an immortal episode of WKRP in
During this time he also produced and
directed the late night satirical show, The Hollywood Primary, as well as creating,
co-authoring and editing with Tony Hendra (aka Spinal Taps manager, Ian
Faith) the satirical best seller, The 1980s - A Look Back (written in 1979), and its
sequel The 1990s - A Look Back (written in 1989.) In 2003 he published the
international bestseller The Food Taster, and is currently at work on publishing a
Peter was gracious enough to meet and dine with members of the Phantompalooza committee on
a 2005 trip to Los Angeles. Charming and gregarious, and a natural storyteller,
Peter held our attention throughout our too-brief time together with tales about his
lengthy career in film, television, music and the stage.
Our conversation took place over lunch at
The Sidewalk Cafe & Bar in Venice Beach, California, July 28, 2005, not far from
Peter's residence for the last thirty years. Here are some excerpts:
PE=Peter Elbling GD=Gloria
Dignazio DC=Doug Carlson JU=Joe
DC: We didnt know at the time that Phantom of
the Paradise was only popular in Winnipeg, for some reason, and it just became
apparent fairly recently that there was a concentration of interest for the film in this
one city in Canada. When we were hosting Phantompalooza, the media would always ask us,
Why Winnipeg?, and it was frustrating because there was no one single answer
that seemed satisfactory but to us at the time, it was like, Heres this
fantastic movie--why wouldnt you be interested in it?
PE: But in France its been a cult hit for
GD: It played for ten years in Paris!
Thats even "worse" than Winnipeg!
PE: I know! I know! It's been
amazing..."Somebody Super Like You" was made into a single--the only single from
the soundtrack--and I have a cardboard record symbolizing the one hundred copies that it
sold in Winnipeg.
GD: It seems like there was a delayed response to the
stars being able to find out how much this movie means to people.
PE: Well I think that was because, you must remember when
it first came out it didnt get a wide release, it was not like the equivalent of a Star
Wars. It was an independent film and in those days, and even today, all those
cinemas are bound up with these distributors and they want to have Star Wars in their movie houses; they know the studios are going to put a lot of money and publicity
behind it and so theyll be guaranteed one great weekend if nothing else. That
didnt start happening until later on, but even so, when you have an independent film
like Phantom, you couldnt guarantee it would book into a lot of movie
houses and thats why a lot of people were introduced to it through DVD, probably,
and a lot of people dont know about it!
JU: Whats bizarre though is that when Fox bought the
distribution rights, they paid more than had ever been paid for the distribution rights to
an independent film beforeit actually set a recordand you would think having
done that, they would have spent a little more time and effort figuring out how to promote
PE: You would think! But, relatively speaking,
its not a lot of money to them. And sometimes they do things, somebody will buy it
and go ahead, and two months later that person is out the door. It can be very
disheartening, as Im sure it was for Brian [De Palma]. The other thing about
it was, and I think the reason people that people like it, but that it hasnt reached
as big an audience, is look at the hero: you dont seem him for three-quarters of the
film, hes in a mask! Hes not your typical young boy teenage hero. Look at the
villain: hes a little dwarf! The closest thing to a heartthrob in it is Jessica.
Everybody else is totally weird! I mean, were weird, Beef
GD: I was in love with Swan, all the girls
I knew loved Swan--
PE: Well youre Canadian!
GD: And all the guys loved Phoenix!
PE: But I dont think it was traditional, is
what I was saying.
A waiter appears food is ordered...we continue...
DC: One of the things that we noticed
immediately was that all of the committee members, and most of the audience at
Phantompalooza, appeared to be roughly the same age--we all would have been 10, 11, 12
years old when the movie came out initially. If the studio had known
that that was its audience, perhaps it might have marketed the film differently.
PE: I'm envious in that I don't recall having an event
when I was 11 or 12 having that sort of impact on me! It's funny, that reminds me, I
used to know a jazz bass player who played with a composer and singer whose name is Bob
Dorough. One day he called me up and said he was in town, playing the Troubadour
that night, a well-known rock club. So I arrived at the Troubadour on a Monday night
at eight o'clock, and there was a lineup outside, and all of the people were 15,
maybe 20 years younger than me with long hair, hippy-looking guys....I got inside, the
band goes onstage, and they launch into "Conjunction junction, what's your
function?" all these things about adverbs and verbs and everything! And I did
not know that he had composed all the Schoolhouse Rock music,
and all these people were kids who'd grown up, four or five years old watching that, and
it'd stayed in their memories! They knew every word, and it was the biggest crowd
the band had ever played to!
DC: Peter, you've been in some recent tv spots? I see some are featured on your website
PE: I do them when I get them. The Xerox one is
still running. Im starting to do voiceovers. I write and make films. Im making
one now, actually one Ive just finished shooting and Im editing together, I
have a character called Mr. Vinegar who is, like his name, a sort of sourpuss.
Although he pronounces it Vin-AY-ger, and he gets very uptight when people mispronounce
JU: Like Miss CrabAPPle on The Simpsons!
PE: Yes, exactly! Though that was also inspired by a
name from a W.C. Fields film...
DC: Tell us a bit about your writing...youve
recently written a novel called The Food Taster?
PE: Its an historical fiction, it takes place in the
16th century Italian renaissance. The main characterUgo diFonteis an
everyman, a peasant farmer who is shanghaid by this despot, a despicable duke to be his
food taster. And because he is a despot despicable duke, everyone hates him, so
consequently every meal could be Ugos last. The story is how he tries to
survive in this castle of terrible cruelty and intrigue and also keep his young daughter a
virgin until she gets marriedwhich is no easy feat! So its filled with
food, and murder, and poisonings and intrigue. And sexits been called
lascivious by certain people. The latest country its been accepted in is
DC: Some of the covers of the foreign editions are just
marvelous! Did you have any say in their design?
PE: No, in fact when they came out in paperback I had a
long argument with the publishers, because a lot of the European and foreign editions they
used Old Masters and I thought, How cool to use the Old Masters on the covers of my
books. Wonderful old paintings but apparently they don't go over that well in
North America which is why those covers are different.
DC: Do you see The Food Taster becoming a
PE: Well the sequel that Im writing now is a
continuation, but after that I dont wanna do any more, I want to do something
different. Regarding the movie rights, there has been a lot of talk...and I'm doing
most of it!
GD: How did you come up with the choreography for the film?
PE: I used to do a lot of mime. I had done a lot of
physical comedy I had been part of a comedy team called the Times Square Two which started in Canada, and consisted of myself and a French Canadian guy named Michel
Id left England and come to Canada in
1964, and was hitch-hiking my way and trying to be a folk singer, and I hitch-hiked to
Calgary, and became the resident singer at this place called The Depression.
It was the first job I ever had! And about a month into the gig, this young woman
came in with long blonde hair and asked if she could sing. She opened her mouth and we all
fell backwards because, she sounded like Joan Baez. We asked her name and she said
Joni Andersonwho later became Joni Mitchell. So we were the two
A little while later this guy called Michel Choquette came in and it turned out we both
shared a love of Twenties music, and we sang a song together called Wish I Could
Shimmy Like My Sister Kate. From there we met up in Vancouver and became a comedy
act called The Times Square Two. We went down to L.A., got better and
better, went back East around 66 and thats when we started to hit it. We
played on the Johnny Carson show, and the Merv Griffin Show, and Kraft Music Hall, the Smothers Brothers, we toured the states
doing concerts and all that sort of stuff.
We did a lot of choreography in the act our stuff was very physical. We split up in
1970 and I joined The Committee, and I did a lot of physical comedy with them, it was a
lot like Second City.
GD: How did you get hired for Phantom of the
PE: I was appearing in a rock and roll musical in
New York called Lemmings, and my old friend William
Finley brought Brian De Palma down to see me and Brian asked me
to be in the movie and I immediately said yes. The night before principal
photography there was a big party, and I happened to be standing next to Brian De Palma,
and he said, "Well, all I need now is a choreographer... and I said
Ill do it!--the second easiest gig I ever got! Brian then
asked me if I knew anybody else and I immediately called Archie Hahn, so
that made two of us, and I believe Jeffrey Comanor was a friend of Paul
Williams's, so that's how the Juicy Fruits were born.
GD: Did Brian have a lot of input on the choreography?
PE: Wed just meet every day, listen to the record,
and work out moves. Brian liked it. The best part of the choreography was Gerrit's
"chicken dance" which was our version of Chuck Berry's "duck walk" and
equally as effective.
Nearby someone begins to bang out 'The Girl From Impanema' on a steel drum...loudly...badly...
JU: What was Brian like on the set?
PE: Quite cheerful considering all of the abuse he had to
put up with! We were totally disrespectful, calling him Mr. De Pismo, Mr. De Plasma,
and so on....I recall one evening everyone seemed to be in an upbeat, jovial mood, quoting
a lot of Monty Python bits back and forth and so on...but Brian was having none of it.
Finally, he said "can't you come up with something original?" And I said
"you're one to talk, all you're doing is ripping off Alfred Hitchcock!"
GD: Did it take long to film the Somebody Super Like
PE: That one was my thing, as opposed to the Juicy
Fruits' number, which was mainly Archie's.
We shot that whole thing in Dallas, because
the Majestic Theatre had been closed and was empty and scheduled for demolition, so Brian
was able to get it for a relatively cheap price. In the end it didn't end up getting
What you don't see in the film was we put
out an appeal for people to appear in the film as extras, but they were only able to get
around a hundred people! It's a big theatre, and if you were shooting behind us, you
would see that the theatre was empty. So every half hour, they had to say,
"everybody up and move over to this section!" to make it look like a full house!
DC: Can you tell us about your decision to use a
stage name, "Harold Oblong"?
PE: You may notice that as a choreographer I have the name
of "Harold Oblong." I did that because I didn't want my career as a
choreographer to impede on my career as an actor. It was not a good decision, which
is why I stopped using it!
A lot of people change their name when they
come to Hollywood. People had always had trouble with "Elbling", they
would say "Elbing" or what have you. My real name is Harold Peter Elbling,
and because "Cary Grant" had been chosen, I thought "Harold Oblong" would
work (when you're young you don't always make good decisions...)
I was a little schizoid a the time and thank goodness I got over most of that.
After two years, I made a black-and-white
publicity shot of myself, as sort of a Times Square newsboy, holding up a newspaper that
read "Harold Oblong is now Peter Elbling"!
DC: Well we all know you as Harold, and recognized you as
Harold Oblong in that episode of WKRP where you're one of that band, The Scum of the Earth!
PE: That's another show where people come up to me and
say, "Oh, I remember that show!"
When they shoot sitcoms, they shoot them in
five days. On Thursday you do all the camera blocking, and on Friday you shoot it,
come hell or high water. We shot and rehearsed that episode for three days, and at
the end of that third or fourth day, it was not funny! We played it as real
punks originally, three English guys, and it was too real and simply not
funny. The producer, Hugh Wilson, came down around six o'clock on Wednesday evening
and said, "I don't know what to do!" And I said "What would happen if
we played it, like upper class? Then there will be a contrast in the way we
behave." So we played it all snooty, and he went, "why not, we gotta try
something!" And it worked--thank goodness. Sometimes you're lucky and the
accidents are happy accidents!
The waiter returns...lunch is served...
After a quick photo session on Venice Beach,
we traded phone numbers, shook hands, and parted company. About 20 minutes later,
still starstruck, we received a cell phone call from Peter, giving us instructions on how
to find a mysterious white parcel waiting for us in his mailbox three blocks away.
Inside were autographed copies of The Food Taster for each of
us, further testament to this prince of a human being.
At the end of our 72-hour whirlwind junket,
just before heading to the airport, the cell phone rang and it was Peter again, inquiring
about our other activities and how we got along in Los Angeles. Peter, you are indeed a class act! And you look great for 23!
The Phantompalooza Committee would like to
thank Peter Elbling for his gracefulness and charming manner, and wish him
continued success with his various writing and media ventures!
Background information for this article is
from a variety of sources, including PeterElbling.com, and The eGullet Society for Culinary
Arts and Letters.
Thanks to Cher Gallagher for Elbling publicity shot, and Michel Choquette for The Times
Square Two promotional photos. Brian De Palma photo originally published in Cinefantastique 4:2