The Mystery of Robin Johnson
Most Americans have never heard the name Robin Johnson. But in the fall of 1980, she was on the verge of superstardom. And if things had gone to plan, her name would have been as familiar as Barbra Streisand. She would have been the star of hit movies with perhaps a few Oscars to go along with them. And she would have had platinum selling record albums with a string of top ten hits. At the least she should have been a popular character actress like Kristin Chenoweth with maybe a couple of top 40 hits. But instead she is barely even a footnote, who's most prominent role was as a prostitute in a single episode of Miami Vice.
Years before Miami Vice she was one of the stars of Times Square ( 1980 ), a major motion picture from Robert Stigwood, the producer of Saturday Night Fever and Grease. And just as Saturday Night Fever and Grease had transformed John Travolta from television star to movie star, Stigwood believed Times Square would do the same for Robin. He was not alone. Most film critics had nothing but praise for her debut performance, even if they did pan the movie itself. They were convinced Robin Johnson would soon be a major actress, provided she acted in movies better than Times Square. Hollywood was willing to give her that chance. She received a deluge of offers from studios and producers. She had multiple options to star in movies and television shows. And there was an album on the way. She was going to record for RSO. Rumors were that she had already recorded a New Wave album, and it was ready to drop at any time. US Magazine confidently listed her as one of the handful of new celebrities they pronounced "80s Arrivals", expected to dominate the decade to come.
And then nothing.
For more than three years she was not in any motion pictures, on any television series, had any albums or singles released, or even appeared on any talk shows. In the entertainment business, three years out of the public eye may as well be a million. Popular celebrities who take more than a year off between projects are either quickly forgotten, or thought of as a has-been. For up an coming celebrities who are riding on the momentum of their current projects, not working for three years could be career suicide. When Robin finally did return to show business, she began making a name for herself as a television star. After spending a year as the notorious Darcy Dekker on the soap opera Guiding Light, she worked her way up to prime time television as a cast member of a weekly network show.
And then nothing again.
Inexplicably, she disappeared for another three years. She had built her television career up to the point where she could have easily found work guest starring on network shows, and quite probably being cast as a regular in another series. At the least she could have returned to her soap opera. But once again, she was out of show business for another three years. Then in 1988 she re-emerged with a plum role in a major motion picture, and a brief return to Guiding Light.
And then nothing. This time for good. Robin Johnson would never act on television or in the movies again.
So what happened? Why did someone with so much promise fail to become major star? Why did she keep disappearing? And why did she permanently retire? That is the question her fans want to know. Even though she had no more than a brief dalliance with show business, she did not go unnoticed. Stigwood would have never compared Robin to John Travolta had she not had the equivalent screen presence. Many of those who did see her movies, who did see her prime time network show, who remembered her from her soap opera work, or even just from her one appearance on Miami Vice, became instant fans. Robin Johnson was an actress who was easy to fall in love with and hard to forget, even with her tough Brooklyn persona and raspy voice. She could have easily have been the Jean Harlow of her generation, if only given the right breaks.
She certainly had the looks. Robin was beautiful. Perfect for magazine covers. Her fans fondly remember her lush pouty lips as one of her distinctive features. But those lips often broke into a wonderful mischievous smile, as if she was saying "Are you ready for some trouble?" She had a dangerous sexiness. A sort of "Try something with me if you dare" attitude. But always with a sense of hidden vulnerability. She could have easily been one of the decades biggest sex symbols. She had everything you would desire from a female celebrity. And on top of that she had something we seem to allow the beautiful celebrities to slide on. She could act. More than that, she was among the best actresses of the 80s.
Even in throw away roles like the one on Miami Vice, you felt like she had just bared her entire soul for you. Watch her long enough and you felt as if you knew her intimately. Her screen presence was dynamic. She would immediately draw all attention to herself, usually without even trying. She became the center of the scene, while everything else, the other actors, the set, the plot, all became nothing more but background wallpaper. It was her moment, and it was almost as if the entire movie or television show she was on had been crafted specifically for that moment to occur. Not many actors are gifted with that ability. It is such a shame it was almost never put to good use. Despite a minority of die hard fans that would discover her in small roles here and there, she remained obscure. And then she was gone, with her fans wondering why, and would she ever pop up unexpectedly again.
How I Became a Fan of the Very Obscure Movie Times Square
When doing a little research for this article which involved reaching out and talking with a few fans, as well as reading countless comments about her scattered on forums across the internet, I began to realize it was not just her story. Each fan had their own distinct story. How they discovered her, which shows or movies they had seen her in, and the shows and movies they did not know she was in and are sad they missed. The story how they became a fan of such an obscure actress. I have my own story. And like most of Robin Johnson's fans, it began with the movie Times Square. I felt a need to bare my own soul to explain how I ended up obsessed with her. But I can understand if you don't feel the need to read it, and skip to the second half of the article.
In the late 70s my older brother and all of his friends became huge fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show ( 1975 ). Never mind that they were a few years too young to be allowed into an R movie and had never actually seen it. They had the soundtrack which they played all the time, they knew the words to every song, they had every book and magazine article, they occasionally dressed up as the characters and even once staged a lip sync reproduction of the movie as a backyard play which most of the neighborhood showed up to see. When it was announced that the star of Rocky Horror, Tim Curry, would be starring in a new movie called Times Square, my brother and all his friends were dead set on seeing it. But just like Rocky Horror, it was an R movie. No problem though. We had The Haven.
The Haven is now legend. It was the theater every kid in Queens and most of Brooklyn knew of for one reason alone; they would let any kid of any age into an R movie without an adult. Even though it took nearly an hour for me and my friends to walk to Woodhaven, we would go to The Haven all the time. It is where I got to see countless movies my parents forbade me to see, like The Shining ( 1980 ), Porky's ( 1981 ), Apocalypse Now ( 1979 ) and a whole bunch of violent splatter movies. But there was one drawback. The Haven was the very last theater in New York City to get a new movie before it ended it's theatrical run. Which is why the owners did not give a f*&k about allowing minors into the theater. But it did mean that if a movie tanked and was pulled from distribution before it's run was over, then the Haven did not get it.
And that was exactly what happened with Times Square. Each week my brother and his friends would have a strategy meeting where they discussed if that week they could get someone's cool uncle or older brother to bring them in to the theater. They talked a lot about what they thought the plot was about based on just the advertisements. And they always ended the meeting by checking the papers to see which theater Times Square was in. They knew about the pecking order. The UA and Loews theaters got new movies first, then next the big independents like The Midway, then the smaller independents like The Crossbay, and finally down to the grindhouse theaters which included The Haven. But Times Square never made it past The Midway before it was no longer listed. I recall that week everyone having a fit as they checked the paper again and again, and then came to the conclusion it was pulled from distribution, and would not be at The Haven. Since this was my older brother and his friends, I do not remember being in the loop, and was not planning to see the movie with them. I wasn't even a Rocky Horror fan.
Jump ahead a couple of years. One of my local television stations, Channel 5, began airing a weekly movie block with the not too original name Channel 5 Movie Club, but with a very original premise. Viewers were invited to write in and request a movie. The idea was for the viewer to pick one of the 100 or so movies the channel had in their library, and had probably aired dozens of times in the past. But instead they were inundated with requests for movies the channel had never shown before. Channel 5 saw a potential way to draw new viewers. There were hundreds of films out there that had either never aired on television before, or had not aired in years. The arrival of the video rental stores was still a year or two away. So if someone wanted to see something like 2001: A Space Odyssey on the small screen, the only way was if a television station aired it. And the last time it had aired was on CBS way back in 1972. So it was no wonder that Channel 5 received hundreds of requests for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and was why it aired on the first episode of the Movie Club.
A few of the other films that got hundreds of requests also aired. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly ( 1966 ) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ( 1969 ) which aired with the uncensored line "Oh Sh!t" as they jumped off the cliff. Channel 5 even made a big deal about the fact they were keeping the cuss word in during the broadcast. Which brings up the other unique thing about the Channel 5 Movie Club. Films were rarely censored. They were all shown uncut, and with very few commercial breaks. Once they had aired all the movies with mass requests they could get the rights to, and they were down to the films that only got a few requests, they initiated a lottery system. They would take a weeks worth of requests and place it in a drum, pulling out one letter at random. If Channel 5 was able to get the broadcast rights, then the movie was selected for an upcoming episode, usually with the person who picked the movie hosting the opening segment. An eclectic range of movies were requested. Everything from The Who's Quadrophenia ( 1979 ) to Stanley Kubrick's Straw Dogs ( 1971 ) aired on the club.
I got a small black and white television for my birthday in 1982. I had been watching Saturday Night Live since my parents decided I was old enough to do so in 1979. ( Of course I was old enough. I had already seen Animal House at the Haven ) But that same year Lorne Michaels left the show, and with that the original cast and writers all left as well. The next few seasons sucked, with the lone exception of any sketch with Eddie Murphy in it. For this reason I began watching less and less of Saturday Night Live and more and more of The Channel 5 Movie Club. But it was always a last minute decision as to which program I would watch. .
It was a lot of random luck that brought me to watch Times Square the night it aired. For one thing, I can't imagine it would get a lot of requests back then. Very likely there was a single request for it in the drum that week, mixed in with hundreds of other requests. It may have even been the only time someone sent in a request for that movie. And yet it was pulled from the drum, and EMI made it available for broadcast. Otherwise, no other station seemed interested in airing it. As far as I can tell, the night it aired on the Channel 5 Movie Club was the world broadcast premiere. Even choosing to watch the Channel 5 Movie Club that week was random luck. On the one hand there was SNL, which the rest of the family was watching in the living room. On the other hand was a movie I was only slightly curious to see because my brother and his friends had obsessed about it a couple of years earlier. The only thing I knew for sure about it was that it had bombed, and that usually meant the film was bad. It was a last minute decision, but on that Saturday night chose to stay in my room and watch the Channel 5 Movie Club.
Knowing it had bombed bad enough to be pulled from distribution mid run, I had low expectations. And although I would be seeing it uncut and with very few interruptions, it would be full framed on my small black and white television screen. Not the optimal viewing experience. And yet, something magic happened that night. I found myself loving the film. When it ended, I was so enthralled and delighted that I wanted to see it again. I spent most of the rest of the week thinking about that film. Critics all seemed to agree that it was a disjointed mess. But that is not what I saw. I was among the minority who enjoyed it.
Tim Curry was credited as the film's star, despite being in very few scenes. I already knew of him as Dr. Frank N Furter, the cross dressing mad scientist from Rocky Horror Picture Show. He would go on to be a prolific character actor and voice over artist for cartoons. Second billing went to Trini Alvarado, and I knew who she was as well. In the early 80s she had been on many television series and tv movies. She was the girlfriend in Dreams Don't Die ( 1982 ), A network television movie about a teenage graffiti artist that me and my friends liked a lot . The one actress I did not know was Robin Johnson. She is the first thing we see in the movie, a teenager dragging a shopping cart with an electric guitar and an amp down 42nd Street. Her character, Nicky Marotta, was clearly the movie's protagonist. But Robin had to settle for an "Introducing" third billing credit. That credit let us all know this was her first appearance anywhere. And since I did not recognize her from any movie or television show that followed, for all I knew, this was her only acting gig.
Back in the early 80s there were no DVRs, no Internet, no pirated or bootlegged videos, no streaming video, no iN Demand. And as mentioned, it was still the very beginning of movies on home video. When it came to a movie you loved, the only way to see it was to keep checking the television guide until it was once again listed. I was at the mercy of Channel 5. If I wanted to see Times Square again, I would need to wait until they decided to air it again. Which took Channel 5 almost an entire year to do. It was in early 1984 that they aired it again, this time after 1am in the morning. The whole week I anticipated watching Times Square again with the excitement of a child waiting for Christmas to come. I stayed up late to watch it, and enjoyed it even more the second time around. If only I had owned a VCR, then a copy of the movie would be mine. But that was it. As far as I know, Channel 5 never aired the movie again. It would not be out on home video until 1987, and I would not even know that until 1989 when a bootleg copy turned up in a shady rental store I belonged to. ( definitely a bootleg. Thorn EMI Video released hard shell boxes, not slipcover cardboard. )
It was January in 1985, and it had been a year since Times Square last aired. I was watching an episode of Miami Vice. Crockett was sitting poolside at a fancy hotel, pretending to be a tourist, when he was approached by an attractive young woman. There was something about her that was very familiar. I knew I had seen her before. Had I been paying attention to the opening credits, then maybe I would have known who she was. The woman turned out to be a fancy call girl, and after soliciting Crockett for sex, is arrested. Of course, Crockett and Tubbs were after bigger fish, and once she was back at the police station, began pressuring her into helping them. It was midway through that interrogation that I suddenly realized who she was. I grabbed that weeks copy of TV Guide and looked up that week's listing for Miami Vice, and sure enough, Robin Johnson was listed as a guest star. I could not believe it. It was almost as if Nicky Marotta was back. Only this time all grown up and wearing a sexy outfit.
I was in for another surprise. About a week later NBC began airing a promo for a new winter replacement series that looked like a rip-off of Charlie's Angels called Code Name: Foxfire. And in the promo as the third angel was Robin Johnson. This was too good to be true. Seeing her again on Miami Vice was a delight. Now I could see her again every week. And she was in a series that would probably have her wearing more sexy outfits.
Code Name: Foxfire was your standard formula 80s crime series, but with female spies. It wasn't a bad show, it just was not as good as Miami Vice. Which is probably why it did not last very long. The show was built around actress Joanna Cassidy who played Liz Towne, a CIA agent that goes by the name Foxfire. Sheryl Lee Ralph and Robin Johnson were basically her sidekicks in the pilot movie. In fact, Robin does not even make her first appearance until an hour into the movie. Very frustrating. For the first hour Cassidy is a solo act, but by the second half of the movie she decides that she needs the help of professional burglar Maggie Bryan ( Sheryl ) and skilled driver Danny Tooled ( Robin ). In the regular one hour episodes, Sheryl and Robin were on equal footing as Joanna, taking on various undercover roles. As expected, Robin would occasionally take on a cover that involved her wearing something sexy. The new found attraction I had for her in Miami Vice was amplified, and before I knew it I had a crush on her. Which made it all the more sad when her show was pulled from the schedule. A month later my worst fears were confirmed when Sheryl Lee Ralph was promoting her newest single on Live at Five. She confirmed that the show had been cancelled, and gave the excuse that it had done well in the ratings, but just not good enough to pay for an action series.
Sheryl was the first to bounce back from the cancellation, not just attempting to revive her singing career, but joining the cast of It's A Living for it's last three seasons, the cast of Moesha in 1996, and appearing in many television shows and movies in between. Joanna Cassidy also continued appearing on television shows and movies, such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit ( 1988 ). But Robin once again vanished off the face of the Earth. At first I had no idea that that actress I had just fallen for was gone again. I assumed that she would be back in the next fall season, as a guest star on different shows, or perhaps even ending up in another series. But that never happened. It would be another three years before she unexpectedly popped up again. In the meantime, I found out she was in a movie other than Times Square.
The Futile Quest For Splitz
You may want to just skip this section. If you do, here it is in a nutshell. I spent more than 30 years trying to watch or buy the only movie to ever credit Robin Johnson as the star, and each time failed. To this day it is the most obscure of all her roles, and I am including her 30 second non speaking cameo in After Hours.
One of my friends was in the first family in my neighborhood to buy a VCR. The very first thing his parents did was join what was then the only video club in South Queens. Since it was a good 20 minute hike across town just to get to it, his parents would send him to the video store every Friday to rent them movies, throwing in a little extra money so he could rent something for himself. And I would go along with him. From the very beginning, video stores all followed the same rule when it came to pornography. The "Adult" movies were all kept separate, in a section of the store that you could only enter via those old fashioned swinging doors from western saloons. The clerk was suppose to keep his eye on the door to make sure no minors ever went in. But we snuck in there all the time. He didn't even notice when we pulled the same prank every week. The Adult section had this creepy X Rated cartoon version of Snow White, which we would remove from it's shelf and place in the kids section among the Disney cartoons. Other than that, all we could do in the adult section was look at the boxes. My friend vowed that once he reached 18, that he would rent every movie in the adult section. That would not be for another five years.
His 18th birthday coincided with him getting his drivers license. His parents would allow him to drive their car as long as he refilled the tank with his own money. So on his birthday we drove right down to the video store where he marched right through the adult section swinging doors, removed the box he had been looking at for years, slapped it on the front desk, and holding out his drivers license announced with pride "I'm renting this today!" He only had it in his house for ten seconds before his parents yelled at him and made him bring it back. No matter. A week later he secretly rented it again, snuck it into his house under his shirt,and began the ritual of renting porn on Friday evening, watching it on the living room television after his parents went to bed.
He had vowed to rent every movie. And that only took about three months. Including the Snow White cartoon and a movie with puppets, the adult section only had 12 films. All the same films the store had since 1982. Since he was now driving around in a car, he decided to join other video stores and raid their adult sections. Every time he spotted a video store he did not yet belong to, he would make a u-turn, park the car, and join it. There were about fifteen video stores in Queens he belonged to that I knew of, at least one in Brooklyn, and a couple of others that were all the way out in Nassau County. Some of them had well stocked adult sections that got new arrivals every once in a while. So every Friday evening I would join him on a pleasant drive around Queens, which would end at a random video store so he could fulfill his Friday night ritual. While he was in the adult section, I would peruse the shelves elsewhere in the store, keeping myself busy by reading the boxes.
One box that drew my attention had horizontal artwork rather than vertical. The bulk of the picture was a pom pom girl doing a leg split which ran from end to end of the box. The movie was called Splitz, and based on the rest of the artwork, it was another cheap early 80s sex comedy. I was about to put the box down when I glanced at the cast, and to my shock saw that the star of the movie was Robin Johnson. I immediately brought the box to my friend in the adult section. He looked it over, read the back, and then informed me that it was not porn. "I Know." I said. "I want you to rent this. I'll give you the money." It also meant watching it at his house, since I did not have a VCR yet. After a few minutes of badgering, I talked him into renting it. All for naught, because the clerk told us that the movie was out.
The next afternoon I went with my friend to return what he had rented. Splitz was still out. A week later we returned to the same video store. It was still out. Over the next few months we returned to that store many times. Each time Splitz was out. Finally we were informed that the reason it was always out was someone rented it and never returned it. None of the other video stores my friend was a member of had Splitz. When I finally did own a VCR I set off to buy the movie, but no store that sold movies seemed to have it. Not RKO Video, not Record Explosion, not The Wiz and not Crazy Eddie. Finally I checked with J&R, who not only had the best selection of videos in Manhattan, but had accounts with every video distributor. Not only did they not have it, but could find no distributor with it in stock. And that was that. Or so I thought.
Around 1991 a Blockbuster opened up in my neighborhood. Another friend had become a member, so I joined him one day to look for a movie to rent. I was looking through the comedy section and there it was. Splitz. I immediately tried to rent it. The clerk told me I needed to be a member. I tried to join then an there. The clerk informed me I needed to have a credit card. I did not have a credit card. So I went out to get my first credit card. I was informed I would needed a drivers license and a credit history first. I had neither. Deciding this was too much trouble just to rent one damn movie, I asked my friend who was a member of every video store in Queens if he could rent it. He could not. The only video store in Queens he did not belong to was Blockbuster. Why? It had no adult section. Fortunately my mother and her friends decided to join, and she agreed to lend me her card once it came in the mail. About a week and a half later the card finally arrived, and I was out the door with it immediately. And guess what? GONE! Someone rented Splitz and did not return it. And that was that again.
Here is what I found out recently. Splitz was released by Vestron Video in 1986. The reason it was hard to find was that they were not priced for home sales, but around $80 to be sold directly to video rental stores. Your local rental shop would need to order it from the Vestron catalog, but they were probably more interested in ordering popular movies like Dirty Dancing. When Vestron went out of business in 1991, it's library of movies were acquired by LIVE Home Video which then re-released Splitz on their budget video label Avid Home Entertainment. It was in a redesigned box with a photo of a cheerleader, most likely not from the movie, jumping in front of an all sky background. I was still buying VHS tapes at the time and do not remember seeing it an any of the stores I went to. However, seeing as it was in a radically different box, it is possible I saw it in a store but did not recognize it. It was released again in 1998 by Gemstone Entertainment as an ultra-low budget video, most likely in SLP mode to save money on the tapes. Once again the box was redesigned, going back to the original artwork, but shrunken and turned vertical and printed on an all white box. In the space underneath was a list of all the recording artists who's songs were in the film. Once again, I had no idea it was available.
The only time I thought of looking for Splitz on DVD was in 2000 when Anchor Bay released Times Square on DVD. The store I bought it in, J&R, assured me that Splitz had never been released on DVD, nor was it scheduled to be released. Splitz was finally released on DVD in 2009 by Liberty International, using the same full screen edited for television VHS master used for the previous releases. But by that time I was no longer looking for it. When I first got the idea for this article a couple of months ago, I discovered that a company called Code Red had released Splitz remastered from a widescreen theatrical print in 2015. Certainly It should have been easy to buy a 2015 release in 2016, right? Wrong! Amazon had no listing for the Code Red release. The Code Red website neither lists Splitz for sale, nor lists it as out of print. I know it was released. I found it for bid on eBay, with pictures of the Code Red box, the latest bid around $175. Amazon did have the Liberty International release, but only available as used copies. The cheapest used copy sells for $75. One used copy sells for $374. The good news is that Amazon sells used copies of the original Vestron release as low as $6. The bad news, I no longer have a workable VHS player.
I Had No Idea This Was Goodbye
She came back in 1988. I was watching Siskel & Ebert reviewing a remake of D.O.A. when they mentioned her name. She was in the movie! She was in the clip they aired! I was jobless that year, and with what little savings I had, could no longer afford to go to the movies. When I still could afford movies, the theaters I went to were theaters like The Haven or The Drake, or any other theater still charging $2 or less for tickets to see double features of films on their last week of distribution. D.O.A. was only at those fancy $6 theaters on it's opening weekend. It had mixed reviews, and Robin's name was not even listed on the movie poster, which meant her role was small. But I spent the $6 anyway.
Some SPOILERS during the next two paragraphs. Robin was different. It was if someone pulled an Eliza Doolittle on her. Her husky voice and accent were gone. Her mannerisms were gone. She was almost unrecognizable. She was playing "Cookie" Fitzwaring, the daughter of Charlotte Rampling's rich socialite character who was the lead suspect through most of the movie. Robin had matured as an actress beyond her typecasting as a streetwise girl from Brooklyn. This was proof that she could now play any role. She could be in a Merchant Ivory movie the next time. And she had an impressive seventh billing in the credits. With exception to Dennis Quade and Meg Ryan, her character was in more of the movie than any other character. I was sure this was the beginning of her adult movie career. She would be in a lot more mainstream movies, and would gradually work her way up to lead actress. She was back, and it would be permanent.
But this would be the only time I ever saw Robin Johnson on the big screen. About a third of the way through the movie Cookie helps Quade's character escape from a killer chauffeur who was planning to dump his body in a mud bog. In the process she is shot right between the eyes, driving the car right into the bog. The last we see of her is her body falling out of the car door and sinking into the mud, and out of sight forever. Little did I know the scene would be a prophetic coda for her film career.
Months, then years went by. I did not see her listed in the cast of any movie, or make any guest appearances on any television shows I watched. Meanwhile, her co-star from Times Square, Trini Alvarado, began to be featured in more prominent roles. She was the star of Peter Jackson's The Frighteners ( 1996 ) and was critically praised for her performances in The Perez Family ( 1995 ) and Little Women ( 1994 ). But while Trini was close to becoming the next Meryl Streep, and Tim Curry was thrilling us as Pennywise the Clown in in Steven King's It ( 1990 ) and as Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers ( 1993 ), Robin was nowhere to be found. I was so sure she would have had the same success. I was so sure I would have been paying to see her movies in the 90s instead of The Adventures of Ford Fairlane ( 1990 ), Godzilla ( 1998 ) and a lot of other crap my friends convinced me to go to. In 2000 she was on the commentary for the DVD release of Times Square, only explaining why she had not acted between that movie and her mid 80s return. She did not mention why she disappeared after 1988, nor that she was planning to retire from show business for good.
The Legend of Robin Johnson
I tried my best to piece together the biography of Robin Johnson. However, with stories that sound like they were invented by publicity departments, accounts from sources that contradict accounts from other sources, three or more persons claiming to be Robin on social media and no proof that any are real, fan postings across the internet with no explanation as to where they got their facts from, and even Wikipedia is not exactly a reliable source, I can not say what I am about to print is 100% true. So lets just call this a legend.
For example, the way she was discovered sounds like a fabricated story. 15 year old Robin had cut a high school class to go outside and smoke a cigarette. While standing on the school steps, she was spotted by a man named Michael claiming to be a talent scout for RSO who asked her if she wanted to be in the movies. He handed her a card with a number. Suspecting it was some sort of con, Robin debated calling the number, but eventually did, and within a week found herself at an open audition for the part of Nicky Marotta in the movie Times Square. RSO had been on a worldwide search for the perfect actress to play Nicky, and after looking at thousands of actresses had come up with nothing. Robin was not exactly what they were looking for. But she impressed everyone at the audition and won the role. When asked what would bring a straight A student with no prior acting experience to an audition for a street tough kid, Robin mentioned that Michael had given her his card. That is when they informed her that there was no one named Michael working as a talent scout for RSO, nor had they sent anyone to Brooklyn. To this day Michael remains a mystery.
Nice story, which is backed up by everyone involved with the production of Times Square including Robin herself. But it sounds a little too close to the story of Lana Turner's discovery. The story goes that Lana had cut a class at her high school so she could drink a milkshake at Schwab's Pharmacy. There she was discovered by director Marvyn LeRoy who made her the star of his films. Actually, most of the Lana Turner story is not true. She was discovered at the malt shop across the street from her school by a magazine publisher who referred her to Zeppo Marx. Zeppo had recently left the Marx Brothers to form his own talent agency. Zeppo in turn talked LeRoy into casting her in a small part in his next movie. The only true thing about the Lana Turner story was that she was cutting school, just like Robin said she was. The whole cutting class to smoke sounds less probable when you hear where it happened. Robin was an exceptional student who was so smart that she was skipped a grade in her elementary school. The High School she allegedly cut class from was Brooklyn Technical High School, which only accepts geniuses. Not exactly the school a truant would be found in. Nor is it likely a smart student like her would risk expulsion by cutting and smoking right there on the high school steps, where any teacher could see her. Which is why this version of events sounds more like something a publicity department dreamed up rather than something that actually happened. The only thing the story was missing would be if Stigwood told Robin there was a Michael, but he had died years ago.
Even the origins of the movie itself seem to be something fabricated by a publicity department. Allan Moyle was an independent film maker in Canada who dreamed of becoming a major Hollywood director. In 1978 Moyle and Leann Unger were living in a sleazy apartment above a 42nd Street porn theater, so poor they could only afford used furniture. One day they bought a second hand couch and discovered a diary hidden under the cushion. It was written by a runaway girl who Moyle assumed must have been mentally disturbed. Fascinated by the diary, Moyle and Unger began writing a treatment based on it for a small independent movie called She Got The Shakes, about a disturbed teenage runaway living on the streets of Times Square. Looking to raise money for his film, he invited actor Tim Curry and screen writer Jacob Brackman to his apartment to pitch them the movie. If they were attached to the movie then it would be possible for Moyle to find investors. Both were interested, except that Brackman wanted to rewrite the script so that there would be two runaway girls instead of one. Attaching Curry and Brackman to the film seemed to work when film producer Robert Stigwood became involved.
Stigwood had made millions with the Robert Stigwood Organization ( RSO ) which produces stage shows and managed the careers of recording artist. Stigwood branched out into film production when he backed the low budget film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ: Superstar ( 1973 ), and later The Who's Tommy ( 1975 ). Realizing that the soundtrack albums turned a bigger profit than the movies did, Stigwood conceived of a three part plan. RSO would produce films where the soundtrack would be released on the RSO record label, utilizing mostly RSO artists. The first of these movies, Saturday Night Fever ( 1977 ) was not just a successful film and soundtrack album, but boosted the careers of RSO owned recording artists The Bee Gees an Yvonne Elliman. A year later RSO hit paydirt again with the movie and soundtrack for Grease ( 1978 ). But that same year Stigwood's Midas touch was tainted when RSO released two movies he should have passed on. Moment by Moment ( 1978 ) paired John Travolta ( who was fulfilling his three picture deal with RSO ) and the much older comedian Lily Tomlin in what was suppose to be a romantic comedy. The other was Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band ( 1978 ), which had The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton recreating The Beatles in a fantasy film using the songs from the same album. Both movies were notable bombs.No matter, The soundtrack album for Sgt Pepper went multi-platinum, although dropped off the Billboard 100 the week after the movie was released. Reportedly four million copies had not sold, and were shipped back to RSO, who ended up tossing the lot into a trash dump pit. ( Perhaps the same pit the E.T. game for Atari was tossed into? ) But the revenues from the albums that did sell were enough to cover the film's losses and earn RSO a nice profit.
Eager to find another film project that would result in another multi-platinum soundtrack album, Stigwood learned a movie scripted by Jacob Brackman was being shopped around. Before Brackman was a screen writer, he had been a lyricist who co-wrote a few of Carly Simon's hits. With Brackman writing the script, and Tim Curry attached as the star, Stigwood assumed the movie would have a musical element. In no time a deal was worked out with Moyle to make She Got The Shakes for RSO. Now with the backing of a major production company, Moyle could afford to license popular songs for his film, as well as utilize RSO for original music. At the time both Moyle and Stigwood thought the soundtrack would be Disco music. But the title would have to go. She Got The Shakes just did not work as a soundtrack title. The movie was eventually called Times Square.
The only thing left to agree on was the casting. In particular, who would play the two runaway girls Pamela Pearl and Nicky Marotta? Stigwood held one of those nationwide talent searches with open auditions held in several cities. He said he wanted a fresh face. But instead of casting a fresh face as Pamela, he chose 13 year old Trini Alvarado, a professional actress who had just been the star of the United Artist feature film Rich Kids ( 1979 ), and had just completed filming an ABC After School special. The lead character Nicky Marotta proved more difficult to cast. The original plan was to hire a much older professional actress for Nicky. And then, out of the blue, amateur Robin Johnson showed up for an audition claiming to have been recruited by a Michael. Moyle was won over immediately. According to one article, Stigwood was against casting a novice to play one of the girls, despite his nationwide search for a novice to play one of the girls. Moyle talked him into it, and eventually Robin was being given a crash course on acting and singing.
And that is the story of Times Square as told through countless magazine articles at the time of release. All supposedly true, and not an embellishment written by the promoters of the film to make the unknowns in the cast and crew sound more interesting to the press. Well, Wikipedia does back this version of events, so it has to be true.
Filming began in October 1979. Both Robin and Trini were minors, so child labor laws would have applied, limiting the hours they could work on a set per day. And Stigwood would need to provide an on set teacher in lieu of school. And they would need to pull this all off within a couple of months, completing principal photography by January the latest. Although her first movie, Robin kept up with the hectic pace, eventually impressing everyone on set with her natural acting abilities. But no one seemed impressed as much as Robert Stigwood. When filming was completed, Stigwood was so convinced Robin was destined to be as big as John Travolta, that he signed her to an exclusive three year production deal.
Someone Stigwood was not as thrilled with was Allan Moyle. During the fall of 1979 Disco took a sudden turn for the worst. Thanks to an anti Disco Demolition publicity stunt staged by the Chicago White Socks that attracted an unexpected sellout crowd of 50,000, radio stations one by one began removing Disco from their playlists. The anti-Disco movement spread across the country as Moyle was directing his film. Not wanting to be stuck with a soundtrack that would not sell, Stigwood decided the music to be used in Times Square would be changed to New Wave. Moyle complained that the music he had carefully picked for his film was being replaced. When Stigwood decided the soundtrack would be a double album he asked Moyle to shoot additional scenes with very little dialog that the newly added songs could play behind. To make room for them asked Moyle to remove some of the scenes with dialog, many which were necessary for plot continuity. And the final straw, Stigwood hired a consultant to tell him what scenes may result in the MPAA giving Times Square an X rating. This included all direct references to Nicky and Pamela being lesbians. Moyle refused to make the edits to his film. So Stigwood fired him and had the second unit director finish the film. Moyle was so despondent of his first experience with a big budget Hollywood movie, that he vowed never to make a movie again. It would be another ten years before he returned, with vengeance, directing Pump up the Volume ( 1990 ).
Robert Stigwood's edit of Times Square was released in theaters on October 17, 1980. Critics hated it. Many cited that the film was disjointed with continuity errors. Moyle has always insisted his edit would have been coherent, and would have been far more dramatic had key scenes not been edited out. Most theater goers were not fond of the film either. It earned just over $1 million, far shy of it's $6 million production cost, and far less than the $100 million worldwide gross Stigwood was expecting.
Critics may have hated the movie, but they loved the screen debut of Robin Johnson. For many she was the only good thing about the film. Us Magazine picked her as one of their 80s Arrivals along with Matt Dillon. It wasn't just the press who thought Robin had a big future. She began getting unsolicited offers from studios and producers. On the strength of her first film role she could have easily found work, very possibly as a costar or star of a major film project. The only problem was that she was signed exclusively to RSO.
She could only appear in RSO movies and Stigwood produced stage shows. She was even exclusive to RSO Records, meaning she could not accept recording contracts from any other record company. Stigwood was priming her to be a rock star. For the soundtrack album he had Robin sing a duet with David Johansen called Flowers in the City. She was still raw and would need a few singing lessons, but was fully capable of recording a New Wave album at that point. And she could probably play the electric guitar. At least she appeared to know how in Times Square, and later in the movie Splitz. No doubt Stigwood saw she had potential to sell records. Rumors abounded in 1981 that Robin had just recorded an album that was still waiting to be released. For a while there was even a rumor a few thousand copies of the album had been released without any publicity, and if you looked very hard you could find a copy at one of the record stores.
So basically, Robin could not act in a movie, could not act on television, could not even host a game show on television, could not act in a play or musical on Broadway, and could not record and release her own album unless it was produced by RSO. And she was not being paid, aside from whatever signing bonus she got. She would only see money if a movie was in production, or if an album was released. Why would she sign such a contract? Well, for one she was a 15 year old novice that had never seen a contract before. And then there are some articles that say her mother was her acting agent at the time, and as a novice herself would have been easy to take advantage of. And Stigwood had promised Robin the moon. He promised her that she would star in Grease 2 alongside Andy Gibb, which was to go into production very shortly. This was to be followed by hand picked movies that Robin would star in. Stigwood promised he could make her the next John Travolta. All this before Times Square had been released and Robin was still a random teenager. It would have been the only offer she was receiving at the time.
The common story is that Andy Gibb lost his role in Grease 2 after he failed his screen test. But screen tests did not prevent most of the cast from Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band from being, well, most of the cast. But here is the deal. For those of you who never saw Grease, the musical about high school seniors in the 1950s, and this is a SPOILER..... They graduate. They may not have had a conventional graduation ceremony but instead a graduation carnival (???), but as Danny and Sandy drive away in their magic flying car (????), they and the rest of the class of '59 have graduated. A slight problem when it came to sequels. Not that Stigwood had any chance of getting most of the original cast back. Not to worry. Co-producer Allen Carr had made a deal with Paramount for three sequels that would all feature different casts. Each film would depict a different graduating class of Rydell High, and the series would eventually end in the Vietnam era. The only stipulations were that production on the sequel begin within three years of the original film, and that Carr came up with a cast that Paramount was happy with.
Andy was cast as the lead simply because he was under contract with RSO. Andy may have never acted before, but he was a major pop star with three #1 hits, and five top ten hits in total. And that was good enough for Paramount. But then in October of 1980, the Bee Gees filed a $200 million lawsuit against Stigwood, alleging mismanagement, specifically for making them star in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The lawsuit was settled, and one of the stipulations was that neither they nor their brother Andy would be forced to star in any of Stigwood's turkeys again. Basically, Andy Gibb was no longer obligated to be in Grease 2. And once he was out of the cast, there was no longer anything to interest Paramount.
Gibb was quickly replaced with Timothy Hutton, who had just won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This pacified Paramount, until Carr decided to replace him with unknown Broadway actor Maxwell Caulfield after seeing him in a performance. To appease Paramount, Carr and Stigwood agreed that the female lead would be a major star. Initially they had Debbie Harry on the hook, but she ultimately decided she was too old to play a high school student. Auditions were held for the female lead, and at one point both Kristy McNichol and Pat Benatar were up for the part. Meanwhile, Paramount made their own attempts to get the class of '59 cast back for cameos. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John turned down the offer, as did Stockard Channing and Jeff Conaway. Only Didi Conn returned, and for something longer than a cameo. Frenchy was going to still be at Rydell, forced to repeat the 12th grade after dropping out for beauty school. Director Patricia Birch then made two stunning decisions. One was to cast the then unknown actress Michelle Pfeiffer for the female lead. The second was to fire Didi midway through filming. ( Frenchy was suppose to be cut from the film completely, but eventually Paramount forced Birch to keep the footage with Didi that was already shot, resulting in Frenchy disappearing halfway through the film. )
In the meantime, there was the class of '82 at Brooklyn Technical High School which included Robin Johnson and perhaps not a graduation carnival. She had spent her last two years in disbelief as the part she had told her friends she had was given away to the then unknown Pfeiffer, and the movies and record album she also told them about never materialized.
Exactly why Stigwood abandoned Robin is still not known. The best guess is that his strategy was to make Robin Johnson a household name with Times Square and Grease 2, then after that would come the other movies and record albums. Times Square failed, and she was not in Grease 2, which threw the entire strategy out. Another theory is that Stigwood wanted to get back at Moyle. Usually the way to do this would be to use his power and influence to get Moyle blacklisted by all the other producers. But "You'll never work in this town again!" is not much of a punishment if the director has quit the business. So the next best thing is to take it out on the actress he discovered.
Despite no longer being considered for RSO projects, Robin was never released from her contract. Legally unable to work as an entertainer, she ended up working at a bank as a teller. It would take a full year for her contract to run out. By that time it had been three years since Times Square was in the theaters. The offers from other producers had stopped coming. Instead of making Robin Johnson the next John Travolta, all Stigwood had done was turn a Brooklyn Tech graduate into a bank teller.
Once free of her RSO contract, Robin needed to start from scratch. Her new manager ( assuming she had a new manager ) came up with what seems like a pretty good strategy. Somehow he or she knew producers Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson ( or perhaps just one of them ) and was able to get Robin a bit part in a low budget John Sayles film Baby It's You ( 1983 ). The object here was to get Robin's name in the cast of at least one recent major studio release. It was a small part, less than four minutes, that could have easily ended up on the cutting room floor rather than in the final edit. But for the first time in three years Robin was back on the big screen. As irony would have it, the movie bombed. John Sayles and distributor Paramount had a disagreement over the final cut. They wanted a happy ending, and wanted different music on the soundtrack.( presumably music that could be licensed cheaper ). But unlike what happened with Moyle and Times Square, Sayles was able to keep his final cut. Paramount retaliated by withdrawing funds from the promotion, resulting in poor attendance.
The second phase of strategy was some renown. And that happened between November 1983 and August 1984 when Robin was on the soap opera Guiding Light as the troubled teen character Darcy Dekker. This is something I never knew about until recently when I did a little research for this article. This is what fascinates me about her career. How she can be remembered for so many different roles. Those who watched Guiding Light probably never went to see Times Square. Those who went to see Times Square probably didn't watch soap operas. Everyone fondly remembers her from something, but rarely has anyone seen everything she did. Guiding Light fans have fond memories of the character Darcy Dekker, just as much as I have fond memories of Nicky Marotta. In most likelihood, the majority of web surfers who find this article will be Guiding Light viewers, not Times Square fans or Code Name: Foxfire fans. With exception to that one Miami Vice episode, Guiding Light was where the most people remember her from.
The strategy seemed to work. It landed her a guest spot on Miami Vice, and as a cast member of a brand new series Code Name: Foxfire. Robin had clawed her way back. Or at least, up to primetime television. Being the third wheel in a Charlie's Angels tribute show may have not been as big as what Stigwood had promised. But it was far better than what he delivered. And television could have lead to the stardom she was promised. Another actor who made his first television guest appearance on Miami Vice was Bruce Willis, a few months prior to Robin's episode. Within a few months he was also a cast member of a television series, Moonlighting. And by the end of the decade was the star of Die Hard ( 1988 ) and other hit movies. Television could have earned Robin the same success. If only Code Name: Foxfire had not been cancelled after a couple of months of lukewarm ratings.
To be fair, NBC stuck the series in a dud of a time slot. During the 80s the network had pissed away the good will of it's viewers by dumping it's dumbest shows on Friday prime time, beginning with the infamous Pink Lady & Jeff, and continuing with such nonsense as Manimal ( man with the power to turn into animals becomes a crime fighter ), The Master ( Lee Van Cleef is a Ninja ), and Mr. Smith ( a talking Orangutan becomes the adviser to the President of the United States ). Friday night programming on NBC was expected to be dumb and unwatchable. Which is more the amazing that Miami Vice managed to become a hit. Not so for Half-Nelson, the detective show starring Joe Pesci that aired between Code Name: Foxfire and Miami Vice. It was also cancelled after two months.
It is at this point that Robin disappeared again for another three years. A mystery, but with a possible solution. This coming from someone who works for Universal, the company currently holding the rights to Code Name: Foxfire, who I contacted in a chat room. I was asking about various Universal owned properties, and if they would be released on home video soon. We got around to discussing Foxfire when he insisted that Robin Johnson was under contact to Universal at the time. Something called a Talent Holding deal. If this were true, then she would have been signed to an identical deal as the one with RSO. For the next three years she could only appear in Universal projects. The difference is that she would have been under salary even if Universal did not put her to work. They were basically paying her not to work for anyone else, so she would be free to star in any project they offered her.
Since I do not have this Universal employee's real name, nor can verify what he claims he knew, nor even verify that he was a long time employee for Universal and not just some blogger they hired for their publicity department, I am going to list this one as internet rumor. But a rumor that would explain why she did not appear in anything between 1985 and 1988. Well, with one exception. She had a cameo in the movie After Hours ( 1985 ). Her scene may have been shot prior to any Universal deal, but I doubt it. There is one curious thing about her cameo. She does not talk. A non speaking role would technically not violate any holding deal. After Hours was produced by Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson, once again suggesting a connection between Robin and those producers.
Not only would a holding deal explain another three year hiatus from acting, and why she had that strange non speaking role in After Hours, but it would also explain her four year hiatus from Guiding Light. In 1988 she returned for a week or two to reprise her role as Darcy Dekker, which seemed like a stunt to appease long time GL fans. Darcy returns from prison, reformed and now working as a drug counselor. During her brief visit, she makes amends with the characters she had crossed a few years earlier. She was no longer there to be the villain, nor to advance any of the story arcs. It is unknown if her return was something the GL producers asked her to do, or if it was Robin herself calling in a favor for some extra work. I suspect the former. GL wanted one of their popular characters to return. Robin only agreed to a weeks worth of work, and perhaps insisted on reforming Darcy. But irregardless if Robin asked for work, or the GL producers begged Robin to return, the fact is that this did not take place until 1988. The same year she returned to the big screen in D.O.A., suggesting something kept her from acting in the interval.
Fans of Robin may wonder why someone with so much intelligence would fall for the same production deal twice. After all, if she was under contract to Universal, that meant they kept her from acting for another three years. However, a holding deal would be exactly the thing an intelligent person would sign. As a free agent, she could have spent years looking for work. The momentum she had from Times Square was long gone. Any role she obtained from that point on would have required showing up at casting calls and competing against other actresses, even for the smallest parts. Not that Robin was not capable of landing parts and working her way back up to lead actress, but it would be a struggle with no guarantee anything would come from it. A holding deal would be employment, and once under the wing of a production company, the possibility of them casting her increased. But it would not be as if they had Robin sitting around and doing nothing for the remainder of her contract. Universal would have been developing other shows for her, and considering her for a supporting cast member on other shows they were developing. Some of these programs may have even gone as far as shooting a pilot. There is a possibility of Robin Johnson footage out there that neither her fans nor IMDb knows nothing of.
So, what is the possibility that she signed a third production deal in 1988? Her role in D.O.A. was pretty good for an obscure actress who had not worked in years. It was proof she was capable of finding work. She should have been able to find something after that. A few months after it's release, producers Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson collaborated on their fourth film, Running on Empty ( 1988 ). As far as I can tell, Robin never did a days work for the film, neither as another cameo, nor in any deleted scenes. I can not imagine she was unable to find work on that movie, nor White Palace ( 1990 ), Once Around ( 1991 ) or any of the other movies they produced. Allan Molly came out of his self imposed retirement in 1990 with the movie Pump Up The Volume, followed by The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag ( 1992 ) and Empire Records ( 1995 ) and could have offered Robin at least a bit part in each. But according to Allan on the 2000 commentary for Times Square, he had no seen nor heard from Robin since 1980 and was himself curious as to why she did not follow it up with another movie. Something was once again preventing Robin from acting on screen.
She had no given up acting. She was part of a theater group who in 1997 staged a production of An Unhappy Woman with Robin in the lead. Once again Robin go critical praise for a performance, and even won an LA Weekly Theater Award for Best Leading Female in a Performance. How many years she was a member of the theater group is not available, but possibly prior to 1988, explaining the change in her demeanor. She was no longer interested in being typecasted as a tough Brooklyn girl, but wanted to be able to act in any role. While not currently working before a camera, she continued to hone her acting skills. And she did not give up on being a celebrity. She found work in radio. Between 1994 and 2003 she was the traffic reporter for KFWB-AM. Around the same time she began writing poetry and would often read it publicly.
So why was she no longer in front of the camera after 1988? There is always the possibility that she simply could not find any work. It had been 8 years since Times Square, and all she had to show for it was a few small roles, an independent B picture and a primetime television series that was cancelled after a month. Whatever enthusiasm producers had for Robin would no longer be there. But if that was the case, then why did she land a major role in D.O.A.? FOX was launched in 1986, to be followed in the 90s by UPN and WB. On cable, HBO and Showtime began stepping up their original programming, as did TBS, TNT, FX, USA, and many other cable channels. There was more acting opportunities than ever. It seems inconceivable that had she sought work that she would not have found something. Her work in theater and as a radio personality was proof she had not given up on showbusiness. In the past she was willing to take bit parts, and star in cheap independent B movies. If she was actively looking for work in front of the camera, she should have found something.
Which circles right back to my own holding deal theory. She could have reupped with Universal, or moved on to any other production company. This would have neither prevented her from working on stage, or on the radio. But would have prevented her from working in front of a camera. Howard Stern had interviewed several comedians, all which admitted to signing production deals with no expectation of any sitcom actually being produced. They just did it for the money, and would sign themselves one production deal after another. Their worst fear was if the production company they were signed to actually did come up with a show for them that went beyond the pilot and ended up on the network schedule. Now they would have to give up their second income working at clubs while the series was being filmed. It is not unreasonable to think that Robin was in the same position.
But it is still just a theory. Other than her contract with RSO, she has not made public why she has been on screen so few times since 1985. The only thing for certain is that she definitely retired from showbusiness in 2003. That was the year she left KFWB-AM and was the last year she publicly read her poetry. Nor has she acted on stage since the 90s. Exactly why did she give up showbusiness? Once again another mystery.
How To Become Famous When You Ar No Longer Trying
In a rare but unverifiable online interview with a blogger in 2013, Robin was quoted as saying that she was no longer pursuing acting, and acting was no longer pursuing her. It has been over a decade since she gave show business up, and nearly 30 years since she was last filmed. She has reached a point in her life where she is satisfied with being normal. And with most of her movies long out of circulation and hard to find on video, her celebrity status should be on the wane. But it isn't. In the past couple of decades she has steadily grown to cult status And her fan base keeps growing. But how?
Well, blame me. Along with the rest of the internet. My article here will do a small bit in promoting her. Fan sites, forums and Facebook tributes across the internet are doing a lot more. As I had pointed out, Robin had gained fans here and there. Some from Times Square, some from Guiding Light, some from Code Name: Foxfire and perhaps some from Splitz. Maybe even fans from that one episode of Miami Vice. Many who became fans of hers from one of her acting gigs may not have known of her other acting gigs. Thanks to social media, fans from the various phases of her career have found each other. Thanks to Youtube, a lot of her roles were brought back to circulation. For example, It is quite possible that more people will see Times Square via Youtube ( where fans have uploaded the entire movie ) than have seen it via home video ( where it was given a limited pressing on DVD which sold out almost immediately ) on Netflix ( which does not have it ) Hulu ( which does not have it ) or on TCM ( which currently holds the broadcast rights, but has a nasty habit of scheduling it and then yanking it from the schedule the day before broadcast ). Darcy Dekker fans have the opportunity to see her movie. And vice versa, considering others have uploaded scenes from Guiding Light. Sites like IMDb allow someone who remembers "that actress" from a movie or television show, to look through the cast and finally find here name.
But it is not just the internet that has built a cult following around Robin Johnson. After years of obscurity, Times Square has finally built a much deserved cult following. And as more and more people discover Times Square, so too do they discover it's star. With no effort by RSO to distribute Times Square as a midnight movie, little effort to sell it to television, a lackluster distribution by EMI to home video in the 80s, and a limited pressing on DVD by Anchor Bay, there was not much chance for it to find a cult audience. So what changed? For one thing, the New Wave angle. Times Square had been credited as the first motion picture to embrace the New Wave culture and music. But had done so a couple of years before New Wave became mainstream in the United States. It would not remain the only movie with New Wave. In the years that followed there would be Valley Girl ( 1983 ) Repo Man ( 1984 ) and Desperately Seeking Susan ( 1985 ) among others. It was not until a revival in interest in 80s New Wave in the 00s that there was renewed interest in the movie credited as the first.
Another aspect that has attracted interest to Times Square is that it documents a part of New York City that is now long gone. In the movie, Pamela's father, politician David Pearl, heads a movement to "Reclaim the Heart of the City". Basically, an urban renewal plan to shutter the porno theaters and adult entertainment establishments of Times Square. In 1980, such plans to tame undesirable neighborhoods like Times Square, Coney Island and Harlem existed, and had existed for decades. There was almost no sex establishments in Times Square itself. What we know as Times Square and see each year on New Years Eve, is an area of Manhattan referred to as the bowtie, and is actually two squares back to back. Times Square, named after the building that formerly housed the New York Times and where the ball is dropped each year, and Duffy Square to the North where the iconic Coca-Cola billboard stood for years. The bow-tie was created by the crossing of the diagonal Broadway and 7th Ave, creating two wide triangle open spaces on either side. ( exactly why these are called squares is a mystery to me. Similarly, there is Herald Square ten blocks South which is also a bow-tie shape. ) The wide open spaces along with Broadway once being a major thoroughfare gave rise to Times Squares iconic giant billboards which took on more prominence as technology allowed them to be motorized and electrified. Much of the establishments in Times Square were family oriented including restaurants like Howard Johnson, theaters such as the Helen Hayes, and two or three large arcades. The infamous section of Times Square with the porno theaters and peep shows, the strip called The Deuce, was not actually inside Times Square at all.
The Deuce was 42nd Street between 7th Ave and 8th Ave, a block south of the bow-tie. It was once the center of the theater district when the theater district relocated from the lower East Side's Bowery in the early 1900s. The movie musical 42nd Street ( 1933 ) takes place on The Deuce when it was still the theater district. By the middle of the century bigger and better theaters on Broadway lured the theater district off of 42nd Street, and to this day we still refer to plays and musicals as Broadway shows, even the ones in theaters not on Broadway. Unable to attract plays and musical productions, theater managers on 42nd street began booking burlesque shows and cheaper entertainment. When Vaudeville and burlesque faded from popularity, live shows were replaced with movies. But since none of the theaters were associated with any of the major movie distributors, they either ended up getting movies on their last weeks of distribution, or worse, could only book low budget independent grindhouse movies. This eventually lead to many of the theaters booking pornographic films in the 70s, which turned out to be far more profitable than the monster movies they had been booking a decade earlier. Once X rated movies took over most of the theaters, peep shows and sex shops began renting space in the neighboring buildings hoping to do business with the porno patrons. Eventually the porn district extended down past 7th down to 6th Ave, along 8th Ave going many blocks North and South of 42nd, and a bit West of 8th.
The Deuce was, and still is, the destination of runaways. This is due to the Port Authority Bus Terminal located on the block West of The Deuce. Runaways who decide to go to New York City can usually only afford a bus ticket, and the terminal is the first place they arrive. They soon realize it's value as a place of shelter and stay near it when they can not find a shelter of their own. In response to the population of homeless runaways living in the area, Covenant House was founded by members of the Catholic Church a block West of the terminal, providing food and safe shelter to runaways since 1972. Pamela and Nicky could have crashed at Covenant House instead of an abandoned pier.
While known for it's X rated movies, theaters on The Deuce also screened a lot of martial arts movies. In the movie Times Square you can see Chinese Godfather ( 1972 ) and The Dragon Lives [ Again ] ( 1977 ) on the marquees. Outside of Chinatown, The Deuce was the best place to see Kung Fu films. During the 90s the best place to find and buy bootleg martial arts movies on VHS was in the Times Square district. And while The 43rd Chamber on 43rd Street and 8th may have been the store that got all of the attention from martial arts buffs, the best selection of videos were found at a converted newsstand on 42nd street which exclusively sold bootleg martial arts films. It was run by a Mideastern gentleman who originally sold newspapers, candy and lottery tickets with a few martial arts movies as a side business. The movies sold so well that by 1990 the newspapers and candy were gone. I use to hang out there a lot, conversing with the other martial arts fans who gathered outside. But if you wanted something a little more dangerous than a VHS tape, there were a few shops along The Deuce that sold martial arts weapons like ninja stars, three section staffs, nunchucks and samurai swords, along with period Chinese costumes so you could pretend you were in a Shaw Brothers film while bashing your friend's brains in.
In 1995 the city council, spurred on by mayor Giuliani, passed laws that forced the porno shops and peep shows to close. Eminent domain chased out the grindhouse theaters, but also a lot of other mom and pop businesses that the city felt did not fit into their vision of a tourist friendly Times Square. Demolition of the old Times Square actually began in 1982 with the destruction of the original Helen Hayes Theater along with the Morosco, Bijou, Astor and Gaiety theaters to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel. Throughout the 80s and early 90s similar acts of eminent domain and demolition saw almost all of the Broadway theaters chased out of the bow-tie. It was not the infamous Deuce that was the first victim of the city's urban renewal of Times Square. Developers were not interested in 42nd Street. They wanted to build in the bow-tie where the legitimate theaters were.
The Giuliani administration encouraged developers to build along 42nd with financial incentives and relaxed zoning regulations. While most of The Deuce was being demolished or refurbished, Giuliani used tax incentives to lure tourist attractions to the bow-tie. MTV and ABC were encouraged to move their television studios there.The Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood were encouraged to move from their original homes on 57th street into bigger facilities in the bow-tie, along with new arrivals to the city Bubba Gump Shrimp and ESPN Zone. Despite being nothing but a bank of servers, Nasdaq was moved to the bow-tie on 43rd and a now rarely used studio was built for it so that news organizations could report from there. The Virgin Records Megastore opened across the street from the MTV Studios. A block south of that Toys R Us opened their own megastore complete with a five story indoor Ferris wheel. North of the bow-tie M&M and Hershey opened up their own flagship stores competing against each other on both sides of Broadway.
Eventually replacing The Deuce was a Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, a Ripley's Believe it or Not museum, the one and only B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill, the multiplex AMC Empire Theaters, and dozens of other smaller tourist oriented businesses such as the Hello Kitty store. Disney originally had plans for a multi story amusement venue at 42nd and 8th, but after a similar and smaller virtual reality arcade located at 42nd and Broadway failed, Disney pulled out. But they did move into a couple of theaters. You can now see such musicals as Mary Poppins and Aladdin in theaters that once projected triple X movies to a different crowd. Across the street, in roughly the same location Nicky Marotta performed to a crowd of girls above the Apollo Theater Marquee, the theater that replaced it was the home of Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, a Broadway musical with songs by Bono which is best remembered for injuring several cast members and/or stranding them in the complicated rigging.
Most New Yorkers can't stand the new Times Square, which is currently overrun with Elmos, Batmen, Marios, Mickey and Minnie Mice and about a dozen Statue of Liberties, all begging for tips in exchange for a photo op. Many attractions, such as Virgin Records Megastore, MTV Studios, ESPN Zone and Toys R Us are long gone. And they point out that many of the attractions that have remained open have become run down in the past few years. They look at the current Times Square as a tourist monstrosity that is gradually becoming seedier as time passes. Is it any wonder why they feel nostalgia for the pornographic Times Square that is no longer there, and in their opinion, was far less offensive then what replaced it? Only one movie was set in The Deuce during it's heyday. So the only way to experience the old Times Square is to see that movie.
But aside from those seeking the first New Wave movie, or those nostalgic for the old Times Square, something else has raised the film's profile. It had always been suspected that Pamela and Nicky had a lesbian relationship. It wasn't until recent years, most notably on the 2000 audio commentary track, that it was confirmed that not only were they lesbians, but scenes where they made out were cut. Suddenly Times Square became of interest to the lesbian community. This spurred screenings of the movie across the country, usually sponsored by LGBT organizations. Each new screening of the movie produces new fans. And it is not just lesbians who are discovering and liking the film. Straight women have also enjoyed it, pointing out how it is one of the few movies made with strong female leads.
Fandom of Times Square is not just building in the United States. DVD releases in other countries has also sparked renewed interest in the film. With each day it's worldwide cult status grows. More and more people are being turned onto the film. It has finally found it's audience. And with it's belated growing popularity comes fandom for it's stars. And in particular, the films star Robin Johnson.
That is not to say that she is only picking new fans up from renewed interest in Times Square. Miami Vice has a following similar to that of Star Trek. There are even annual Miami Vice conventions. Much like how Star Trek fans know every character intimately, including those brave red shirts who only stayed on screen long enough to be atomized in front of Kirk, Miami Vice fans know just about every character that crossed paths with Crockett and Tubbs. Robin may have only appeared in one episode, but is remembered fondly by fans of the series. And with each new generation that discovers Miami Vice, so do they discover the character Candy James. Meanwhile, Splitz seems to have found it's own following. Believe it or not ( and I find it hard to believe based on what I saw in the movie's trailer ), but at least half of those who have seen the film claim it is a lost classic. Not a bad batting average. If given a proper release, could it also find a major cult following?
It is tempting to curse the fates and believe that Robin could have been a major movie star. There are two many "if onlys". If only Allan Moyle was allowed to release his directors cut of Times Square, and critics loved it, and it became a big hit, and perhaps even earned a few Oscars. If only RSO or EMI had released Times Square to the midnight movie circuit, allowing it to build a Rocky Horror equivalent cult following. I could almost see the crowds lined up in front of the theater every Friday night dressed as Sleeze Sisters. If only MTV had picked up the film instead of Rock N Roll High School ( 1979 ) turning it on to the MTV generation and making stars of it's cast. If only Robin's RSO contract had lead to her as the star of major motion pictures. Sure, Grease 2 was a turd. And it was more likely than not that Stigwood would have picked a lot of bad movie projects for Robin's next movies. But that would have been her name on all the ads, all the posters, all the trailers, all the press releases. That would have been her making the rounds to the talk shows. She would have been a known celebrity once her RSO contract was up. If only RSO had recorded and released Robin Johnson albums. And her videos dominated MTV in the pre Madonna years. It is not impossible to think she could have had a successful career as a New Wave artist. If only she had not signed that RSO contract. While I do not think there were many good movie roles for girls of her age in the early 80s ( it was even slim pickings for Jodie Foster who was about the same age ) she could have found work on television on such shows as The Facts of Life or Fame, perhaps even as the star of her own sitcom, before moving up to the Brat Pack films of the mid 80s. And then once that was out of the way, a lot of decent adult movie roles in the 90s. If only Code Name: Foxfire had found an audience. If only Allan Moyle had not quit the film industry in 1980 and had made something like Empire Records a decade earlier, and had asked Robin to be in the cast. If only whatever kept her from working in films and television between 1985 and 1988, and again from 1988 to the present had never happened. Too many if onlys.
Robin Johnson could have been one of the biggest stars of the 80s, and could have been a major movie star to this day. That could have been her winning a record number of Oscars, her on the cover of every magazine, her divorcing Bradd Pitt. But that is all just a big if. Fame is a mystery. I can't tell you how many times someone with great talent has been introduced and stagnated. Or how many times someone with very little or no talent has risen to the top. How many times someone has gone from box office record setting movies and/or top rated television series and/or platinum albums and top ten hit singles, to a forgotten has-been in the span of six months. And I have seen other stars remain at the top despite being in a string of box office bombs. Robin Johnson had the talent, the charisma and the looks to be one of our greatest movie stars. But it just never happened. Which leaves us, a cult following of fans who were lucky enough to discover her when she was still active, wondering why we were never given any more of her. Perhaps this new interest in Times Square and her other works could bring her out of cult status and make her a household name. Perhaps it will spur Universal into releasing Code Name: Foxfire on home video, and give a wider release to Times Square and Splitz. Perhaps, we dare hope, it will bring her out of retirement. Or perhaps it is just another dead end. Not everyone can be famous. The sad fact is that someone has to make room for the Kim Kardashians of this planet, even if it does mean talented people go unrecognized. But with the explosion of the internet, the cable television industry, first run streaming video and an ever growing number of media outlets, fame is something becoming easier to achieve, and harder to avoid.
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