This is not the story of anyone famous. It's the story of people who could have been famous, if circumstances had been right. As it turned out, the circumstances were, ultimately, very, very wrong. This is the story of the rise and fall of a group of people who made movies.
Perry Vale Huston was an actor. He wasn't a particularly good actor, but his heart was in the right place. Never a particularly apt student, he'd dropped out of high school in 1942 to join the Army, but found himself declared 4-F (for hemophilia and flat feet) and rejected. Rather than returning to school, he decided to travel to New York City to work as an actor, despite the fact that he'd never acted before. He scored a couple of minor roles in minor Broadway plays, but was frustrated by his lack of success. After deciding that acting in the theatre was a dead-end, Huston and three friends -- burly James Allman, pretty-boy handsome Wallace Ring, and song-and-dance man Phillip Tellerton -- moved to the less-expensive environs of Philadelphia and founded the Serenity Film and Radio Players in 1948 and, after a crash course in cinema and radio production, began writing and producing their own radio plays and low-budget movies.
The Serenity Players were never particularly successful, mainly because they weren't particularly good. From what we know of their early work (only two of their radio dramas -- "Mystery of the Wrecked Yacht" and "Blood of the Serpent" -- survive, along with about 20 minutes of a film called "At Death's Door"), their acting was acceptable but far from outstanding, their scripts were sub-par, their dialogue was quite bad, and their technical skills were, at best, amateurish. Things finally started looking up for the Serenity Players in 1949. First, two technicians, Douglas Wriggins and Fred Kessler, joined the group in February, bringing a great deal of expertise in film production techniques to Serenity's work. Second, Perry Huston took a vacation to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey in June and brought back... girls.
Specifically, Huston brought back Doris Smith, Cindy Jones, and Jane White, who he met while camping in the woods. In fact, it appeared to be bizarre luck that they'd ever met at all -- Huston was camping so deep in the woods, he thought he was the first person there in years, and none of the girls had ever visited the Pine Barrens before that trip. All three said they were interested in acting, all three said they'd done some writing in the past, and most importantly to the budding filmmakers, all three were quite terrifyingly beautiful. Previously, the Serenity Players had carefully written their plots to leave women out of major roles, either because of male chauvinism or because no women had ever joined their group. But now, they eagerly threw together their first romantic comedy -- 1949's "A Kiss at Nightfall."
During filming, Huston and Doris Smith, the ravishing blonde who played the lead role in the movie, started dating. Meanwhile, Cindy Jones, the lone brunette of the distaff trio, spent time learning some of the technical aspects of filmmaking, and Jane White, a buxom but doe-eyed blonde, designed and painted Serenity's first-ever movie poster. "A Kiss at Nightfall" opened to favorable reviews in Philly and turned the cast and crew into local heroes. Local investors started ponying up some cash for the next movie, too. It wasn't enough to make an A-list movie, but it was more than Serenity had ever had before. And the girls were already working on a screenplay -- a science fiction story they called "Invasion 1960."
There was some doubt within Serenity itself that the group would be able to pull off a science fiction movie, but the special effects required were inexpensive and fairly low-key. Wriggins and Kessler mocked up some spaceships, and White applied her artistry to make them look convincing. The story focused on a small-town neighborhood which is unexpectedly invaded by aliens. All of Serenity's members had roles in the movie (even the technical guys had bit parts -- Wriggins was a police officer, and Kessler played a milkman who was the first person killed by the Martians), and though the production still looked far from professional, even by the standards of 1951, it made even more money than "A Kiss at Nightfall."
After that, the Serenity Players concentrated their efforts on science fiction, fantasy, and horror. The acting was still not particularly outstanding, and the scripts and dialogue were still not that great, but the effects were quite good, and even sub-quality sci-fi B-movies stood a better-than-average chance of turning a profit. Their films were rarely screened outside of the Philadelphia area, but local success was apparently good enough for the young filmmakers -- they never even attempted to get the attention of Hollywood. Serenity was able to put a movie together almost every year, including 1952's "The Reefs of Kizmar," 1953's "Tomorrow's Girls," and 1954's "Attack of the Mantids." The group even bought themselves a two-story house in the Philadelphia suburbs -- it served as Serenity's headquarters, an occasional set-piece, and a home for Allman, Tellerton, and Wriggins. Realizing that the neighbors might react poorly to a bunch of young people making horror movies in their neighborhood, Smith, Jones, and White even baked cakes and pies for every home on the block as a "getting-acquainted" gesture.
But after that, things started to slide downhill. During the filming of "Atomic Vixen", Smith, Jones, and White started to argue. Jones was apparently homesick and wanted her friends to come home with her. Smith was completely unwilling, since she and Huston were still an item. White said that she didn't care one way or the other. Jones grew more and more insistent, while refusing offers from the male members of Serenity to drive her or buy her airplane tickets to her hometown. She continued to demand that Smith and White had to travel with her, while Smith swore that she'd never leave and White tried in vain to mediate between them. The arguments got worse and worse, eventually embroiling everyone in the group.
"Atomic Vixen" was released almost a year late, in 1956. Those who had previously read the script said that the finished product had been drastically rewritten to make up for the departure of lead actor Wallace Ring, who had quit in the middle of filming and had since completely disappeared. Wriggins also quit the group and moved back to New York City, where he soon committed suicide, apparently despondent over the situation. With Wriggins' departure, the final film had been edited almost entirely by the much less expert Jones, and the choppy look of the movie was evident to even casual viewers.
Still, "Atomic Vixen" was a significant success in the Philadelphia area, at least partly because of the film's fabled transformation scene. During the film's climax, Jones, playing the title monster, is confronted by characters played by Smith and Ring and unexpectedly flies into a very convincing rage, her voice rising to a bestial growl/whine before she suddenly changes from a beautiful brunette into what was described as a werewolf/lizard/spider/Grey alien and attacks the heroes. Popular speculation held that the transformation was accomplished by applying makeup gradually in a stop-motion film process, though if that were the case, it would be a stop-motion film process that allowed full and free movement by both the actors and the camera, which seems unlikely, considering the state of special effects technology of the time, as well as the low-budget effects on display in the rest of the movie. Whatever Serenity's special effects secret was, the members of the group kept quiet about it.
The success of "Atomic Vixen" wasn't much of a triumph for the Serenity Players, however. A pall had been cast over the group by Wriggins' death and Ring's mysterious disappearance (years later, Allman implied that he knew where Ring was, but that was as far as any of the Serenity Players ever got to making an official statement about the incident). Work on the group's next film proceeded slowly as the arguments, stress, and strife continued. Jones became even more demanding and openly contemptuous toward almost everyone in the group, particularly of Smith. Huston and Smith grew even closer and got into loud shouting matches with anyone who criticized either of them. Huston also began drinking heavily, and Smith began to obsess over Jones' behavior. Tellerton went somewhat 'round the bend on a religious kick and began preaching dementedly to everyone he knew about the evils lurking throughout society. Allman began avoiding the group except when there was filming to be done. Kessler developed a heroin habit and scrawled disjointed letters to newspapers, politicians, and university professors, opining on everything from national and international current affairs to film reviews, UFO reports, and historical essays cribbed from encyclopedias. Only White seemed immune to the stresses being placed on the Players -- she continued her role as peacemaker between Smith and Jones while taking on some of Wriggins' old technical duties and campaigning for a stress-buster vacation for the whole group after the next film was completed.
Filming on "When the Static Clears" began in mid-July of 1957. Two local high school students, Donald Roddick and Angela Belleng, were hired to assist with the technical aspects of the production. The increasing dysfunction of the members of the group was aggravated by a summer of uncomfortably hot weather. Equipment breakdowns were frequent, and tempers were running very short. Even the normally level-headed Jane White had a couple of blow-ups at her fellow castmates.
Shortly after midnight on July 26, 1957, the police were called to the Serenity Players' suburban house by neighbors who'd become worried by loud but unidentifiable noises inside the house. Investigating officers discovered broken film equipment, splintered furniture, and five dead bodies. Huston, Smith, Tellerton, Jones, and Roddick had apparently been cut to pieces with knives. Police said Huston, Tellerton, and Roddick had simply been stabbed, while Smith and Jones had been extensively and creatively mutilated. Autopsy results for Huston, Tellerton, and Roddick suggested that the murder weapons were long, thin blades similar to icepicks, but much sharper and more flexible. Autopsies were never conducted on Smith and Jones -- though security on the case was tight, the bodies were apparently stolen from the morgue two nights after the murders. The coroner's report, based upon his cursory examination after the bodies were brought in, was considered wildly speculative, if not outright fanciful, and it is rumored that the report was actually destroyed. Smith's and Jones' bodies were never found, the police never discovered any suspects or even learned how the bodies were taken, and the case remains unsolved.
Allman, Kessler, and Belleng all survived the attack, though all three of them sustained life-threatening wounds, again from the same long, thin blades. Upon recovery, Belleng spent the next 14 years in a semi-catatonic state, until her death in 1971, while Kessler overdosed on heroin and died less than two years after the attack. In comparison, Allman fared much better. He moved to his parents' hometown in Tavares, Florida, took a job as a grocery store manager, and had nightmares almost every night for the rest of his life. He rarely spoke about the Serenity Players, even with his family, and died in Tavares in 1985.
Jane White was never found, either alive or dead. When investigators asked Kessler if he knew where she was or if she was alive, he said, "Jane's gone. She's okay, but she's gone." White's absence caused her to fall under suspicion after the attacks, though there was never any solid evidence connecting her to the murders. In fact, Allman repeatedly told police that White had tried to stop the attackers, saying, "It wasn't Jane's fault. She did what she could."
Allman and Kessler were never able to give police a description of the attackers. Kessler claimed to have forgotten what they looked like, while the only thing Allman would say was that the police would know them if they ever saw them, and that he suspected the killer was already in custody. Investigators examined the group's film, hoping that it could provide some more significant leads, but discovered nothing but footage filmed for the movie. Police suspected a drug deal gone bad but were never able to make a case against anyone.
In one final piece of weirdness in a very, very weird case, British ufologist Colin Bateman said, in a speech delivered in the early 1990s, that due to reported UFO activity in the New Jersey Pine Barrens region in June of 1949 and near Philadelphia in 1957, he believed that the Serenity Players had been abducted by aliens. Bateman hoped to include more about what he called the Serenity Abductions in a book he was writing, which has not yet been accepted for publication.
As for the movies produced by the Serenity Players, none of them are believed to have survived to the present day. In fact, most of them were discarded by a short-sighted collector in the mid-1970s. If it weren't for a few publicity stills of the actors, we wouldn't even know what they all looked like. If you do know of any surviving copies of these movies, please let me know. The world of film preservation will thank you.
Inspired by the lyrics from "Tomorrow's Girls" by Donald Fagen, Kamakiriad, 1993