The Wild Women (and men) of wongo


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Jo Elaine Wagner

jo elaine and varden maybe

Jo Elaine Wagner catches her mate, Varden Spencer, in WILD WOMEN OF WONGO

Jo Elaine Wagner, the cute, petite blonde of Wongo was the daughter of jockey Joe Wagner and the former Kathleen McNally. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland on June 2, 1940 and, as Jo Elaine Grant, she died on January 6, 1988 in Miami, Florida.

 

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Jo Elaine Wagner photo

 

Jo Elain Cande and Roberta

Jo Elaine Wagner, Cande Gerard, Mary Ann Webb, and unidentified actress in WILD WOMEN OF WONGO.

Little is know of Jo Elaine’s life outside of her appearance in WILD WOMEN OF WONGO. She graduated from Hialeah High in 1958, her nickname was “Pekinses,” and she worked as a model in Miami for a time. She married at least twice and was also known as Jo Elaine Reynolds circa 1968.

Jo Elaine Wagner's father's photo. Joe Wagner, jockey, he is first on the left

Jo Elaine’s father, Joe Wagner, seen in this publicity photo (holding hair dryer) with other jockeys at the Arlington Race Track in 1935.


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Whitey Hart

barbara and whitey

Goona woman Barbara Lee Babbitt and Wongo man Whitey Hart meet, and it is love at first sight.

T. Whitey Hart (know professional as Whitey Hart) was a professional diver and acrobat who started out as a member of the teenage troupe The Aquazines who, in the early 1940s, would perform diving and comedy routines at Astoria Pool as well as other New York area pools.

Whitey hart and the Aquazines

Whitey Hart (left with foot on other boy) was amember of The Aquazines as a teenager.

 

Later he joined gymnast Dick Gutting (aka Dick Gooding) and they created a professional trampoline act called Two Flips and a Flop, later simply called Dick Gooding and Whitey Hart. This partnership lasted for 20 years.

 

Whitey Hart, Dick Gutting and Jack Palance on the set of Greatest Show On Earth

Whitey Hart and Dick Gutting visit  Jack Palance on he set of the television show THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.

 

Whitey also appeared with Johnny Weissmuller in the “aqua-vaudville” combo Watercade of 1950 which opened in Cincinnati Garden.

Whitey Hart Watercade of 1950

 

In WILD WOMEN OF WONGO Whitey plays one of he not-so-handsome men of Wongo, whose beautiful women have ditched them for greener pastures.

 

barbara whitey and burt

Barbara Lee Babbitt, Whitey Hart, and Burt Parker in WILD WOMEN OF WONGO


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Varden Lee Spencer

jo elaine and varden maybe 2

Varden Spencer and Jo Elaine Wagner in WILD WOMEN OF WONGO

Varden Lee Spencer was born on February 2, 1935 in Los Angeles, California. He and his older sister Miriam grew up in Santa Monica where they lived at 2818 Colorado Ave.

Varden’s father, Chester Leroy Spencer, who worked as an architectural and boat designer, retired in 1965 and started the Hi-Desert Studio Guild in Yucca Valley, which taught art to children. He was also a member of the Shadow Mountain Palette Club and the Desert Art Center of Palm Springs, as well as the founder of the Yucca Valley Art Association.

Varden’s mom was the former Angelina (Angela) Giallombardo. She was widowed in 1968. Like her late husband she was also a part of the desert art scene, and announced her engagement to Wilton McCoy in December of 1975. It would appear that Varden’s sister Miriam passed away at an early age, as she was not mentioned in their father’s obituary.

Varden Spencer scouting

 

Littlie is know about Varden’s life before or after his appearance as one of the hunky Goona men, but he was a Boy Scout (as the clipping above shows) and later a Sargent in the US. Army serving in Korea. In 1955 he took the exam to become a candidate for one of the military academies in West Point, Annapolis, or Colorado Springs, but I could find no record that he was accepted. He died on December 22, 1995 in San Francisco and is buried at San Joaquin Valley Cemetery.

 

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Iris Rautenberg

Iris 2

Helene Iris Rautenberg was born October 7, 1934 to Herman and Anna Rautenberg. and she was raised in New York City on East 15th St. along with her sister Carol. Iris was cast as one of the women of Goona likely because she had some experience locally in radio and television. While attending the University of Miami she was a member of the Radio Guild in 1953 and 1954 and she was a member of the Alpha Epsilon Rho Radio and Television fraternity there. Ross Skipper, who later appeared on the classic vampire soap opera DARK SHADOWS was also a member at that time. Iris acted in several radio and television broadcasts produced by the school and in fact The Radio Guild held their own version of the Academy Awards each year, and Iris was nominated for her performance in the school produced televised broadcast of THE LITTLEST CHRISTMAS TREE 1953.

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Iris (front row, second from the left) with University of Miami Radio and Television Guild members

In 1961 she was working at radio station MCKR as an actress. One of the radio plays she performed in was part of a program called THEATRE X which also featured fellow Wongo actress Lillian Malek. The play was titled CARLITA and was about a young man who one day walks a young woman home. When he calls on her the next day he finds that she has been dead for five years. Alan Douglas also starred. It aired on Sunday, January 15, 1961.

 

iris and lillian

Iris and Lillian Malek as two of the Goona women in WILD WOMEN OF WONGO. Iris and Lillian would late work in radio together in Miami.

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University of Miami’s Alpha Epsilon Rho members in 1954. Iris is the lone female in he back row. The tall young man on her left is Ross Skipper, later of DARK SHADOWS fame.

Iris married a William E. Benway in Dade, Florida on July 1966 and divorced in May of 1967 and her life after that is a mystery, though it appears she had been living in Tampa, Florida before she passed away in November of 1977 in New York City.


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Barbara Lee Babbitt

Whitey hart 1

Barbara Lee Babbitt and Whitey Hart in WILD WOMEN OF WONGO

Barbara Lee Babbitt was born in 1940 to Watson and Margaret Babbitt in Coral Gables, Florida. By age 14 Barbara already stood 5′ 10″ and was a very athletic girl, excelling at tennis. In 1952 she played in the Florida Junior Tennis Championship in St. Petersburg, Florida (in the girls 13 and under category) and in 1956 she played in the 34th Annual North Carolina Tennis Championship along with Evelyn Cowan and Louise Fowler, both of Covington, Georgia. She attended Ponce De Leon High School in Ponce De Leon, Florida before transferring to Coral Gables High School where she graduated the class of 1958.

Barbara was cast as one of the women of Goona, and while she was made up to be rather homely in the film, she was actually quite a looker. Her statuesqueness was used for comedic effect in scenes between herself and the diminutive Whitey Hart.

 

Barbara Lee Babbitt high school photo 1958

Barbara Lee Babbitt’s 1958 class photo

After her one time stint in front of the motion picture camera, Barbara continued her education with college courses at The University of Georgia, in Athens, Georgia. She later worked for Delta Airlines as a ticket agent and attended the Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. Among her hobbies was playing bridge, and in 2012 she achieved her Gold Life Master Award.

Barbara Lee Babbitt 1958 photo

Barbara’s height and beauty gained the attention newspaper reporters, and she appeared in news items on several different occasions.

Sadly, Barbara suffered much of her life from muscular dystrophy, and she died on May 16th, 2015 in Houston Texas. She was survived by her brother J. Randolph Babbitt and two nieces.

Barbara Lee Babbitt 2015

Barbara Lee Babbitt in 2015


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Joyce Nizzari

Joyce Nizzari: Pin-up Girl of Wongo

Interview by Mike Barnum

 

Joyce Nizzari Miss December 001

 

Much of the female cast of Wild Women of Wongo were culled from local Miami modeling agencies, some of whom had been working with famed pin-up photographer Bunny Yeager. Born on May 20, in the Bronx section of New York, and moving to sunny Florida when she was just 3 years old, Joyce Nizzari became one of Bunny’s most favored models. Her modeling work not only helped her get cast as one lovely ladies of Wongo, but also led her to become one of the most popular centerfolds to appear in Playboy magazine. Appearing as Miss December, 1958 she helped warm the blood of many a heterosexual male during the cold war era. And although she really didn’t consider herself an actress, Joyce managed to make appearances in films and television with some regularity throughout the late 50s and early 60s including roles alongside people like Frank Sinatra, Keenan Wynn, Gene Barry, Natalie Wood, and others – names that many starlets would have killed to work with. Films such as A Hole in the Head (1959), Pajama Party (1964) The Great Race (1965), and Nevada Smith (1966), and television work on popular shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and Burke’s Law were all enhanced by Joyce’s beauty, even if her lines were often kept to a minimum.

Joyce married actor Jack Hogan in 1967 and they had two children together. They divorced in the 1980s. She lived in Hawaii for several years, returning to Los Angeles in the late 1990s. She was kind enough to chat with me about her work as an actress in this interview from 2002.

Mike Barnum:     It was your modeling work led to your being cast in Wild Women of Wongo, is that correct?

Joyce Nizzari:       I had been modeling for Bunny Yeager and I think it was through her that I either heard about a casting call or she directed me to the place that was casting. I think somehow she was involved in it. I had started modeling for her at about age 16, and I was 17 or 18 when I did the film.

 

Joyce Nizzari 1

 

MB:     Was this your first acting experience as an actress?

JN:       Yes, I think it was the first time I was that close to the actual filming of a movie.

MB:     Do you recall any of the other cast members.

JN:       There was a girl named Val Phillips. She was a red-head and she was well known in Miami because she was a very popular model. She had gone to New York and was apparently doing quite well as a model there, too. She played one of the leads. Steve [Klisanin] I vaguely remember, and I believe he was a Mr. Universe.  Also there was a young man who was saying he was Johnny Weissmuller’s son, which turned out not to be true. I am sure that they didn’t scavenge through the acting schools for the cast! (laughs) Except for some of the leads, I don’t think anybody really had any acting experience; I know I sure didn’t. And I don’t remember that we had many lines, anyway. It was usually sort of a group thing, “Ok, all of you are going to get into the canoes and paddle over to there now” or “Ok, all of you paddle onto shore now.” So, in my memory, there wasn’t a lot of serious direction to the group of us girls.

 

kenneth and joyce

Joyce with Kenneth Vitulli in WILD WOMEN OF WONGO

MB:     Were you disappointed at not having more prominent role in the film, something with more lines?

JN:       Oh, no, no, no, I wasn’t disappointed at all! (laughs) It was my first experience in anything like that and I hadn’t been aiming to become an actress. It was just fun to me. I mean, they fed us and we were in the sun all day. They were probably long days. and I am sure it was hot and boring some of the time, but generally it was a good time. I had fun and my family even came to visit when we were working on the beach, as my family used to go to that beach a lot. Really, all I remember is that it was fun. I can remember a snake in one scene, however, and I think somebody had to climb up a tree and have a scene with that snake; one of the guys did.

MB:     Yes, that is the scene where Ed Fury is hiding up in a tree to keep from being captured by the Wongo women and he comes face to face with a large snake.

JN:       Yes. The girls were being very squeamish and squealy about it. It was a pretty big snake, and I think it might have been a boa constrictor. I just know it was a very large snake.

MB:     When you saw the completed film, how do you think it turned out?

JN:       You know what, I never got to see it! I finally saw it recently, and I still haven’t seen all of it. Hef (Hugh Hefner) himself had his secretary get a “surprise” copy of Wild Women of Wongo for me.

 

Joyce and Hugh

Joyce with Hugh Hefner c. 1958

MB:     Shortly after appearing in Wild Women of Wongo you did a layout for Playboy. Was this as a result of being in the movie?

JN:       No. I had met Hugh Hefner, also through Bunny Yeager, when I was almost 18, so first I did a cover for Playboy [July 1958 issue] and then about 5 months later I did the playmate thing.

MB:     Do most people remember you more for being a Playboy playmate or for being a Wongo woman?

JN:       Playboy! (laughs)

MB:     Do they ever bring up Wild Women of Wongo?

JN:       Uh, no (laughs). I haven’t met anyone who has ever said anything about it, but I do remember some years ago that there was an article in People magazine about Elvira, who used to host a show of the corniest, funniest, weirdest old movies that were meant to be straight but have now become sort of cult films, and in the article it mentions Wild Women of Wongo. And that was actually the first time I had heard it mentioned outside of when we made it. As far as I had known it had disappeared long ago.

 

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Joyce (closest to camera) battle the apemen (played by Steve Klisanin and Walter Knoch)

MB:     After Wild Women of Wongo you came out to California and did quite a bit of television work.

JN:       Yes. I was in The Beverly Hillbillies in a two-parter [Double Naught Jethro and Clampett’s Millions] which was a spoof on the 007 Bond films.

MB:     Did you enjoy working on these shows?

JN:       It was always scary for me. I wasn’t really an actress, and having to say lines on film and being the center of attention always gave me an adrenaline rush, because I didn’t really feel capable in that area. But it was still very fun and exciting and the people were nice, and I think I even got to kiss Jethro!

MB:     You also made appearances on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres, two more very popular shows.

JN:       Yes, they were all by the same producer.

 

playboy club

At the Playboy club (clockwise from bottom left) Joni Mattis, Sherilee Conners, Christa Speck, Joyce Nizzari, Susie Scott, and Carrie Radison surround Hugh Hefner in 1962.

 

MB:     And then there was Burke’s Law which starred Gene Barry and Gary Conway.

JN:       There was this small group of about eight girls that they used in almost every episode, as just background party girls. I think we were paid as extras. I did have a small, one line part in an episode in which I played a women who is killed. Burke’s Law always started with a murder, and the title of each episode was always Who Killed So and So…whatever the name of the victim was. I was killed in the shower and that came about because of being a playmate. They tried to use playmates occasionally on that show. After that episode is when I became a regular “party girl” extra.

MB:     You also had roles in several major films. In A Hole in the Head (1959) you played Keenan Wynn’s secretary.

JN:       It was in just a couple of scenes and had only a few lines. In one scene [Keenan Wynn] is at a party and I have to keep coming up to him interrupting him while he is talking to Frank Sinatra. I am telling him that he had phone calls and that people were waiting for him. And then from that scene we all went to the racing track. I didn’t have lines in the second scene but I am sitting behind Wynn and Sinatra.

MB:     Actress Joi Lansing was also in some of your scenes.

JN:       I remember being sort of in awe of her because she was a serious Hollywood actress and I thought she was so very pretty. She seemed very nice and she was certainly very nice to me. I think that she may have been dating Frank Sinatra while she was working on that film.

MB:     A few years later, you worked on another Frank Sinatra film Come Blow Your Horn (1963).

JN:       I did indeed work on that, but my actual scenes were cut out.

MB:     One very fun film that you were in was the Annette Funicello/Tommy Kirk film Pajama Party (1964).

JN:       I was a dancer in that one and we had to learn some kind of routine for dancing on the beach. You can see me on the cover of the VHS tape. I am the brunette in the lower left corner of the box.

 

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MB:     Tell me about the Blake Edward’s film The Great Race.

JN:       I have some great photos from that film, but I had no lines in it. I am sitting at a big round table with about eight people, including Natalie Wood, in a scene in a saloon at which Dorothy Provine is singing. I was directly across from Natalie Wood so while the camera was shooting her face, it was shooting the back of my head (laughs)!

MB:     What are some other films that you had roles in?

JN:       I had a few lines in Nevada Smith. I had no lines, but was in Seven Days in May (1964), in a party scene.

MB:     You stayed in touch with Hugh Hefner over the years, and you continue to be involved with Playboy magazine.

JN:       I’d been living in Hawaii for 23 years but every now and then, if I was coming through L.A., I would call him up or go by the mansion or something and say hello. Once, when he came to Hawaii we met at the airport to talk and say hello and he invited me to a New Years Eve party, so I jumped on a plane and went over to that. After I moved back to L.A. I started to work at the mansion as they were in need of a transcriber.

 

 


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Walter Knoch

Walter Knoch -Law Student of Wongo

Inteview by Mike Barnum

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Following his stint as a featured player in The Wild Women of Wongo, Walter “Wally” Knoch considered a career in Hollywood, but schooling sidelined those plans for the muscular 25 year old mid-west native and after studying law at the University of Miami he chose to return home to his native Michigan.

Born in Detroit on November 13, 1935, Knoch was both a student and a self-professed “beach bum” in Miami, Florida when he landed his dual Wongo roles through a casting call held at fellow co-star Steve Klisanin’s gym. Wongo Director James L. Wolcott was impressed with the handsome, athletic young man and cast him as one of the good looking men of Goona and also as one of a pair of fearsome ape-men who do battle with the Wongo maidens. “He was an older gentleman” Knoch recalls of director Wolcott. “He wanted to change my name and get me involved in three movies in a row, but I wasn’t interested in changing my name. It was also suggested that I go out to the coast when Clint Walker decided to quit [the TV series] Cheyenne, but I was in law school at the time. They said ‘Finish school out there [in California]! Go!’ They were going to make all the arrangements for me to do that, but I decided to stay [in Florida] and finish school there.” After working on Wongo and graduating from college Knoch drifted around a bit, “I had job offers in Michigan and in Florida, but I was basically a beach bum. I drag raced and I water skied and snow skied. When I graduated, I drove my new Corvette to New Orleans and stayed there for a month until I ran out of money. I did do some modeling jobs, but I was too big for the clothes and I had to have my own wardrobe made. That was when big guys weren’t that much in demand.

 

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Walter Knoch (right) and buddies fooling around on the grounds of Miami University. (Photo courtesy of Walter Knoch)

Walter’s main recollection of filming The Wild Women of Wongo was that it had around a two week filming schedule. “I know that I had to take time off from school [to do the film]. There was a stone castle where part of it was filmed and there was a Playboy playmate in the movie. I also can remember Steve [Klisanin] and I prowling around through the weeds in one scene.

 

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Steve Klisanin (left) and Walter played duo roles in Wild Women of Wongo. Here they are as the deadly ape men, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting Wongo women.

 

While still attending school in Miami, Knoch returned to Michigan for a visit. “I drove up for the summer and was traveling through Tennessee. It was at night and I was passing a drive-in movie theater. It was playing The Wild Women of Wongo! I couldn’t believe it!”

 

Wally Knoch high school

Walter (Wally) Knoch with fellow W. Club members in a photo from the 1953 Roosevelt High School yearbook (Wyandotte, Michigan). Knoch can be seen  second row from the top, last student on the right.

 

Due to his father’s illness, Knoch returned to Michigan permanently. There he continued to do some modeling, mostly for automobile companies, and eventually decided that his real interest was in the automotive business and he opened Walt’s Auto Supply in Dearborne. Over the years he has become well know in the world of vintage automobiles and dragsters and he is currently the owner of a 1923 street rod, a 1957 T-Bird, and he still has in his possession the 1962 Corvette that he purchased brand new after graduating law school.

 

Walter J Knoch Jr 1959 U of Miami pic

Walter’s class pic from the 1959 Miami University yearbook

And what does Walter Knoch think about the film that almost started him on a show business career? “Crude. I think it is supposed to be one of the ten worst movies ever made!” he says with a laugh.

 

 

 


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Ron Mankowski

Ron Mankowski: From New York to Goona, and back again

Interview by Mike Barnum

ron and val

Ron Mankowski and Val Phillips

 

For most of the cast of Wild Women of Wongo, working on this film was a joy, and Ron Mankowski, for one, chalks up his experience as quite a thrill. Ron was a 25 year old University of Miami student when he was cast to play one of the handsome young men of Goona who are taken captive by the beautiful women of Wongo. With much of the  location filming done at a botanical garden, he found himself surrounded by lush landscape as well as luscious women.

Although acting was a profession that he would have gladly gone into, he thought it more lucrative to enter the business world instead, and after earning his degree he returned home to New York where he settled down, raised five children, and worked as an electrical contractor. Currently living in Shelter Island, New York, he was very happy to share memories of his adventures on the island of Wongo.

MB:     How did you become involved in Wild Women of Wongo?

RM:     I was working out at Steve’s (Klisanin) gym at the time, in Coral Gables, and a casting crew came over. They were looking for bodies, and guys with enough hair on their head (laughs), to play these cavemen.

 

Ron Mankowski and Steve Klisanan courtesy Ron Mankowski 001

Ron Mankowski and Steve Klisanin (right) as two of the men of Goona (photo courtesy of Steve Klisanin)

 

MB:     Do you have any recollections about the others in the cast?

RM:     A lot of pretty girls! But I tell you, I didn’t know any of their names. I didn’t really get to know any of them. Now, Ed Fury was in it and he was an actor, more so then we were, but for most of us it was a one shot deal.

MB:     Nobody seems to have many recollections of the director James L. Wolcott.

RM:     All I can remember is that I think the man was bald and had glasses, and he kept telling me to stop over-acting! “Don’t overact, young man!” he’d said. (Laughs) You know, part of it was filmed in Fairchild Gardens and somebody had carved this castle out of sandstone or limestone someplace down in Miami where the rest of it was filmed. The thing that impressed me was that (the castle) had a stone door that must have been two feet thick, which opened up just like a closet door.

MB:     What did you think of the finished movie?

RM:     Well, a bunch of us went to the drive-in in South Miami and we had a ball watching it. It was a lot fun.

MB:     Did you have plans on continuing your career in show business?

RM:     Oh, I wanted to be an actor, sure, but at that point in time I was taking the business administration courses at the university and there was an article that I read about the Actor’s Equity and it said that less than 1% of all the actors made more than $5000 a year. Everybody else simply starved! I said “Well, that’s not for me.” But, it was fun working on this film and we had a great time. And I got a great tan running around in that loincloth! (laughs) Acting would have been fun, but there seemed to be too much politics involved.

 

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Ron Mankowski and Steve Klisanin smile for the camera in this 1958 snapshot (photo courtesy of Steve Klisanin)

 

MB:     I understand that you have a connection with actor Tony Curtis.

RM:     I had worked in a little camp in New York called Camp Hombre and Tony was a counselor or worker there, I believe. He would put on the skits for the campers and he was very funny, and so I had an association with him there. Later he was doing a film with Cary Grant down in Key West and Steve Klisanin and I drove down to see about getting a job in the film, but it was already cast. Operation Petticoat was the name of the film. We sat and chatted with Tony Curtis when he wasn’t on the set, and that was the last time I saw him. So, that was that, and Wild Women of Wongo was my little claim to fame.

 


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Steve Klisanin

Steve Klisanin – Mr. Universe of Wongo

Interview by Mike Barnum

 

One has to have a great deal of respect for the guys who, in a time before steroids and pharmaceutical enhancements; before comfortable, scrubbed, fully equipped gyms; and despite the general public’s disinterest in exercise and weight training, created and sculpted some of the finest physiques of all time! The 1940s and 1950s was certainly the golden period of bodybuilding, and the greats of that era are still looked upon today as examples of physical perfection….John Grimek, George Eiferman, Bill Pearl, Clarence Ross, Reg Lewis, Dick Dubois and others helped shape America’s perception of bodybuilding. And among those big names was Steve Klisanin, who went on to play not one, but two roles in The Wild Women of Wongo.

Steve in 1949

 

Klisanin (a Croatian-Bosnian name) had initially pursued weight lifting to help him better perform in the sports, particularly football and wrestling, which he indulged in as a teenager. By 1949 the then 19-year-old Klisanin had developed an impressive build and was convinced by schoolmates to compete in a local physique contest. He won first place. The following year, he tried for Mr. America and came in a strong 10th place. He went for the title again in 1953, this time coming in 4th behind Bill Pearl (1st), Dick DuBois (2nd), and Irvin “Zabo” Koszewski (3rd), all of them stiff competition. Finally, he took first place in the 1955 Mr. America, beating out greats like Ray Schaefer, Vic Seipke, and Harry Johnson. Quite a feather in his cap, that was!

Next up was the 1956 Mr. Universe. Steve was in top form and easily took 1st place in the contest, with Ray Schaefer coming in second and Gene Bohaty and Harry Johnson tying for third place. After having won both the Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles, serving in the marines and then attending Duke University, Steve opened a gym in Florida which he ran for several years.

Many in the sport wondered what had become of Steve Klisanin, as he had completely disappeared from the fitness scene after selling his gym in the early 70s. Of his contemporaries that I contacted, none had any clue as to his whereabouts, some figuring he had passed away long ago. It took a bit of searching to finally locate him, and at the time of this interview in 2001 Steve Klisanin was retired and residing in Seal Beach, California. A missing personality from the golden days of bodybuilding, Mr. Klisanin graciously, if somewhat reluctantly, agree to talk about those days as well as his onetime shot at being an actor. “I didn’t know that there would be much interest in The Wild Women of Wongo. I don’t imagine it was anything more than a class B or a class C movie,” he told me, when I first contacted him.

 

Steve Klisanan on set courtesy Ron Mankowski 001

Steve Klisnan on the set of WILD WOMEN OF WONGO

Mike Barnum:           How did you get your start in bodybuilding?

Steve Klisanin:         I was a student at the Kiski Prep School [in Loyalhanna Township, Pennsylvania]. Bob Mathias, the great Olympic athlete, was also a student there, and unbeknownst to me had entered me in the Mr. Pittsburgh contest. Being at a prep school, well, if I hadn’t gone through with it…you know, it was a matter of juvenile pride. So I was entered, and I won.

MB:     That was in 1949. And by 1955 you were on your way to winning Mr. America.

SK:      Yep, on my third try. I won Mr. America while I was in the Marines, stationed in Okinawa, and they flew me in to Cleveland for the contest. I won it and then I went back and finished my tour of duty.

MB:     Then came your win as Mr. Universe in 1956.

SK:      Yes. At that time, Mr. Universe had always been held over in London. They thought England was more centrally located for most of the countries in the world. In 1956 somebody decided they should start moving the contest around so that contestants from Japan and some other countries wouldn’t [always] have so far to travel, so that year they decided to hold it in Virginia Beach, Virginia. They had a week of festivities there including a parade, which some of the contestants rode in; but I didn’t get there until the day of the contest. I wound up winning over Ray Schaefer, who I had defeated the year before in Mr. America. Right after the contest, Johnny Terpack, who was associated with Bob Hoffman [publisher of Strength and Health magazine], started to make arrangements for Ray Schaefer to fly over to London because they were going to hold a Mr. Universe over there, regardless of the one that was held in the US. So, they flew Ray over and he won the 1956 Mr. Universe there.

MB:     What was the general public’s opinion of bodybuilding and weight training at that time? Did it have the kind of support that it has now?

SK:      There was no support, hardly any at all. It was something that was immaterial to most people. Really, nobody was much interested in weight training. I was always a competitive lifter. I was an athlete and played football, and I trained just to get big enough to be a better athlete. The [muscular] development came along with it and as far as bodybuilding goes, well, I probably did more lifting then I did bodybuilding.

MB:     Were there any bodybuilders that you had admired.

SK:      No. I read Strength and Health magazine, like most everybody else in the field, because Strength and Health generally gave the results of the weightlifting contests. I would look in there and see how much somebody totaled in my class and where they were and who won.

 

Steve Muscle Builder 001

 

MB:     Do you follow the sport now.

SK:      Not at all. I haven’t kept up with it for maybe 30 years. I have been out of it for quite some time. Last time I had any affiliation with it, or the health club, or anything like that, would have been in the late 60s or early 70s. At the time that I opened my health club it was a challenge, because few people believed in weight training. I opened it just opposite Coral Gables High School and within a half mile of the University of Miami. Some students started to drift over and I trained them and they became better athletes, and eventually the school recognized that. Back in those days when you had a health club it was a one-man operation and you did training and everything else. It isn’t like it is today.

MB:     I understand that you have stayed in touch with Mr. America 1960, Red Lerille.

SK:      Yes, Red Lerille, he is a navy man like Bill Pearl, and he trained in San Diego with Leo Stern. Leo trained Pearl, and then later on he trained Red. Red came from New Orleans and he was one of the smaller Mr. America’s…I don’t think Red is any taller then maybe 5’7″ or 5’8″. He started out with a small gym in Lafayette, Louisiana and now he has one that, the last time I was there, had 18 acres total, and probably has 50,000 feet under the roof. He has the most extensive health club that I have ever come across in this county. He’s a nice, affable guy.

MB:     You mentioned Bill Pearl, did you know him?

SK:      Oh, yes. I competed with him several times. I think the last time I talked to Red he said that Bill was working with the people who took over Holiday Health, which I think is now Ballys.

MB:     What about some of the other Mr. America’s and Mr. Universe’s. Did you ever meet the great John Grimek [Mr. America 1940/1941; Mr. Universe 1948] or Clarence Ross [Mr. America 1945]?

SK:      I knew John Grimik very well, and I knew most of the Mr. America’s that came before me. I met Clarence Ross when I flew in from Okinawa. He had a gym up in Oakland and he was a bartender on the side. I went over to his gym once and did a little bit of training one night before I headed to Cleveland for the Mr. America contest. He was a nice gentleman. Most of those guys were. I didn’t really know any of the Mr. America’s that came after me; Red Lerille is about the only one.

MB:     You made the cover of two of the top muscle magazines of the day: Strength and Health (September 1949), and Muscle Builder (October 1955).

 

Steve posing at Coral Castle courtesy Ron Mankowski 001

Steve Klisanin poses atop a column at Coral Castle

SK:      Muscle Builder was Joe Wieder’s magazine at that time. They airbrushed that picture and I didn’t think it was too flattering.

MB:     After you closed your health club what line of work did you go into?

SK:      I fell back on my education. I worked some in geology. I had my degree in geology and had a minor in engineering.

MB:     I had read in an old issue of Strength and Health that you were an honor student in high school.

SK:      No, (laughs) I don’t think I did very well in High School. When I went to high school everybody just wanted to get through so that they could join the service. The war was going on and as soon as I got out of school and graduated I went into the Marines.

MB:     How did you become involved in the The Wild Women of Wongo?

SK:      One day this woman came into the gym and said she needed nine “before” and nine “after” cases, and that she was the casting director for a movie that was going to be filmed on location in the area. I don’t remember her name.

wongo 001

Two vicious apemen (Steve Klisanin and Walter Knoch) battle the WILD WOMEN OF WONGO

MB:     Had you had any previous experience as an actor?

SK:      None at all. I did have an interview with Mae West once, when she was looking for a replacement for Mickey Hargitay for her nightclub show. She made an offer, which was more or less unacceptable to me because at that time I also had an offer to go over to Iran for the State Department. So, I went to Iran and coached their Olympic team for the 1956 Olympics.

MB:     Several of the men who worked in Mae West’s show later went on to make sword and sandal films in Europe, such as Lou Degni (better known as Mark Forest), Chuck Pendleton (aka Gordon Mitchell), and Reg Lewis.

SK:      I remember meeting Lou once or twice, but I don’t remember ever meeting Reg Lewis at all.  And then there was Steve Reeves, he was Mr. America in 1947. I think it was the daughter of an Italian director who spotted him for his good looks and masculinity, and she told her dad that this is the man he needed for his film, Hercules (1958). Now, when we were filming The Wild Women of Wongo we were told that the star was going to be Johnny Sheffield, who had played Boy in the Tarzan pictures, but I found out later on it was Fury.

MB:     Ed Fury?

SK:      Yes, I believe that’s who played the part, I am not sure.

MB:     Ed Fury was in the film, but the lead role actually went to an actor named Johnny Walsh, who does, in fact, resemble Johnny Sheffield a bit.

SK:      Actually, I don’t even remember Ed Fury being in the movie. I believe I only saw the film once, and that was at a drive-in theater, and as I remember the biggest speaking part was given to a parrot!

MB:     Yes, that parrot, unfortunately, does have a lot of lines!

Steve as Ape man 001 courtesy Ron Mankowski

Steve Klisanin as ape man 001

Steve Klisanin courtesy Ron Mankoswki 001

Test shots of Klisanin in make-up as one of the Apemen

 

SK:      As I said, there were three or four of my gym members that got into the movie, but other than Ron Mankowski, I don’t recall their names. I do remember that one of them was from West Palm Beach.

MB:     One of those from your gym was Walter Knoch.

SK:      Oh, ya, I did know Walter. He played one of the apemen. Craig Whitehead, who competed in several Mr. America’s, auditioned but he didn’t get selected for the movie. He had a short crew-cut at that time and they were looking more for guys with longer hair. The movie was supposed to be in prehistoric times and they didn’t want to have to do much in the way of make-up. Neither I nor any of the young men that got into the movie, at least those that were members of my health club, had speaking parts. Ron Mankowski was a student over at the University of Miami at the time, and was from New York. I hadn’t seen him for many years until he came through my area this past summer. He told me he had a copy of the movie, but I just really never had that much of an interest in it.

 

Ron and Steve in May 2000 001

Ron Mankowski and Steve Klisanin in May 2000 (Photo courtesy of Steve Klisanin)

MB:     Do you recall anything about the film’s director, James L. Wolcott?

SK:      No. Basically I was just running my health club at that time, and when the [casting] lady came in and she said it would be $90.00 a day, or $300.00 a week, which was the pay scale at that time, although I doubt if it was union, because none of us were union members, I said ok. She told me she needed people for the film, both men and women. Of course in those days there were very few women training. I think I got about three or four members from my club into the movie, and I think I also got one or two women from my women’s class into the movie. Some of the other young men came from other clubs.

Steve Klisanan and who

Goona man Steve Klisanin and his Wongo Woman mate

MB:     Do you recall anything about the gals who played the Wongo women?

SK:      No, I don’t remember much of anything about the film, actually. We were only on the set for a few days. We got paid for five days and basically worked for only 3 1/2 days. The last day, Friday, we were hanging around watching the filming. I believe it was filmed at the Fairchild Tropical Garden and another part of it was filmed down at the Coral Castle. I think that the Goddess of the Coral Castle, or whoever she was, was married to one of the University of Miami professors. She had hair all the way down to her feet.

MB:     Were you at all interested in an acting career?

SK:      I’ve never had any interest in movies or show business whatsoever, and to be honest with you, I can’t tell you the last time I went to see a movie or even watched one on TV.

Steve Klisanin as Goona man 001

Steve Klisanin as one of the handsome men of Goona

MB:     What was your opinion of The Wild Women of Wongo, once you finally saw the finished product?

SK:      Well, I saw the movie just once. It was at the drive-in and I was probably watching it with one eye while focusing most of my attention on the female friend who was with me. I can hardly remember any of it. Basically, if I remember correctly, it was about an island where good looking men lived with ugly women on one end, and on the other side it was just the opposite. And in between were the “wild men” (ape men as they are called in the script). I played a little part as one of the good looking men and then I also played one of the “wild men”.

MB:     What keeps you busy now in 2001?

SK:      I am retired. I am just enjoying life

Note: For the next few years after I interviewed him, Steve would occasionally drop me a note in the mail and he would always send a Christmas card. Steve Klisanin passed away on May 9, 2005 in Seal Beach, California.