It was only for a few minutes many decades ago but the recent kerfuffle over wiretapping yanked this buried episode from deep in my memory bank and brought it back in full living color.
It was 1970 – I was studying film with Marty Scorsese at New York University – and in my spare time shooting film with a bunch of Anarchist troublemakers known as Transcendental Student. Having shot a load of 16mm film for a film we called Inciting to Riot we needed a secure facility to cut the stuff. We passed the hat and came up with enough scratch to rent a real editing room.
The editing suite adjacent to ours had a plaque on the door proclaiming Twelve Chairs Productions. Mel Brooks and his editor were inside finishing up the cut on his second major feature film.
Unable to foot the cost of having Bell Telephone install a phone we turned to a member of our group; an ex-Marine who had strung up phone lines in the service and had held on to his linesman’s phone. It was a handset contraption with an old fashioned rotary dial and two long wires sporting alligator clips at the end. To test a line for connectivity all one had to do was attach the clips to screws in a terminal box and, voila, you were – if the line was operational – instantly connected to a vast electro-mechanical telephonic network; one not much changed since Alexander Graham Bell’s days.
We were lucky enough to have one of those boxes hanging on the wall.
It had rows of screws and when I attached the clips to the two screws at the top the handset suddenly sprung to life.
I reacted with a “Holy Shit.”
A full-throated voice spouting Brooklynese was ordering a meatball sandwich.
“Shhhh…” I shouted to the others who were chuckling while taking pulls on a joint.
The ex-Marine whispered, “Could that be Mel next door?”
My ear was glued to the phone. Mel’s order was long and complicated (I think he was also ordering pizza).
I directed the ex-Marine to run out in the hallway and confirm. He smacked his ear up against the Twelve Chairs door; came running back in a laughing state of near respiratory collapse.
Yeah, he confirmed, it was Mel talking.
About an hour later we heard a delivery boy knocking on his door.
Bon Appetite … was a response to what seemed like a generous tip from Mr. Brooks.
We did find an open line for our own use and never repeated the aforementioned wiretapping indiscretion.
Again, Mel, please accept our very belated collective apologies.
The deafening rush of recent surveillance accusations and revelations of high-tech snooping and spying make those days, by comparison, oh, so quaint.
It was an era when wiretapping was frighteningly easy and low-tech and I was obsessed with the kind of technology Gene Hackman employed as eavesdropper in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 flic, The Conversation (in one scene, Hackman’s character, a PI, wedged ignominiously in a bathroom, spy gear on top of a toilet, intently listening in to a conversation).
Much of this interest grew out of another film we made in our last year at NYU Film School – Marty Scorsese was our advisor – a ditty called Red Squad, essentially a serious/comedic spy vs spy documentary where we had gone out with camera/recording gear to film the NYPD and FBI snoops who were ever-present at every anti-Vietnam War demonstration in the NY metro area. They had their own camera/recording gear and they soon trained their lenses on us. After a few amusing “incidents” where we employed hidden tape recorders and wireless mikes they seemed less amused. Two flat feet – one from the NYPD’s “Red Squad”; the other from the FBI – were sent to question both Scorsese and head of the film school, Haig Manoogian.
Later, we found out from Freedom of Information records that both Scorsese and Manoogian talked but gave no info of any value nor did they try and interfere with the completion of the film and when it was released it garnered a fair bit of press (Nat Hentoff devoted several columns in the Village Voice to our travails; including one which copped a response from doddering old J. Edgar Hoover denying everything, of course)
But we did get a rep as being the go-to guys – phone-busters, if you will – for those seeking guidance about surveillance/wiretapping.
One inquiry came from a friend of Bill Kuntsler; then living in a West Village brownstone, close to NYU.
“There’s something strange about Bill’s phone. Would you guys be able to check it out?”
Of course we would and it did turn out that the old style Bakelite phone set parked on the nightstand by his bed had a very, very strange quirk.
According to the friend; one night he was having a conversation with Bill and when Bill hung up first, the friend could still hear what was going on in the room.
“Ach du Freakin' Lieber Himmel!" I thought to myself.
We set up a test…
Steve Fischler (Pacific St. Films co-founder) parked himself on Kuntsler’s bed. I called in from another location, nearby.
Phone rang… Steve picked it up. After exchanging a few words he hung up and proceeded to whistle Dixie (or some such tune).
Despite the phone being placed back on the cradle I heard every fucking sweet sound in the room.
What to do?
Had someone snuck into Kuntsler’s digs and substituted a wireless transmitter where the microphone module usually sat in the handset?
This demanded investigation.
An acquaintance suggested we take the phone to the “Frenchman.”
“He’ll check it out for you. Knows everything about hidden mikes and wiretapping. Just tell him I sent you and recite these code words.”
He scribbled out some sort of phrase. I don’t remember exactly what it was maybe Voulez-vous coucher avec moi. Something like that.
The Frenchman, it turned out, was the owner of one of those tacky mid-town tourist traps that sold overpriced electronic tchotchkes to foreigners
Sure enough, once we rattled off the go code (I think he replied “non”) and handed him some of Kuntsler’s cash he disappeared into a backroom with the offending telephone.
He emerged about an hour or so later with a grimly serious look, shaking his head, rubbing his chin he said, “non, ze phone is clean.” Pausing, he then mused that perhaps the source of transmission was embedded in the wiring of the house. That requires a full-house sweep. Rattling off the cost, it was clearly an expensive proposition.
Kuntsler passed… He went on with his life and work presumably and correctly assuming that someone was continuing to listen in on his conversations.
I miss those days.
Nostalgia? I maintain a collection of forgotten and nearly-forgotten recording/playback devices; all on display in my living room. They include a well-worn early 20th century Edison wax cylinder phonograph; a 1940’s wire tape recorder; a still functioning 1950’s vintage Webcor reel to reel tape recorder and, in pride of place, a rather arthritic Sony Clear Voice cassette recorder (one that I used for many years to record calls, legally, under single-party consent laws).
I often gaze at these contraptions as I watch the news wondering if there are any Millennial-aged gaming geeks — NSA/CIA types — gazing at me via my flat screen TV (remember, they can be used to spy) trying to figure out what sort of museum I’m living in.
I sure hope so.
Joel Sucher is a co-founder of Pacific Street Films (together with Steven Fischler) and has written for a number of platforms including American Banker, In These Times, Huffington Post and Observer. com.