Earl Owensby – 6
The Charlotte Observer, Oct. 13, 1985
Earl Owensby: The Self-Made Movie Mogul
Pine, honeysuckle and mountain laurel twine on the air into a nosegay of summer and South in the kudzu-draped remains of Earl Owensby’s childhood home. More Cone Mills bungalows — tidy, white porches strung across frame fronts like good pearls on a matron’s bosom — used to spill down the rough-and-tumble dirt streets of Ciffside. But most of the mill houses in this southern Rutherford County textile village were leveled in the 1960s.
Teetering along the Cliffside Railroad tracks on a recent, warm and dragonfly-embroidered Sunday afternoon with his sons, Rhett Earl, 10, and Elvis Earl, 8, the self-proclaimed King of the Grade B Movies points out the pine trees in what was the Owensbys’ small living room. Although the house was, at most, 15 feet from the rails, Owensby says, “To me, it was a hundred feet.
“Southern’s not a geographical location,” says the Shelby filmmaker, who was 50 years old Sept. 30. “It’s a way of life. The way they look, the way they eat, the way they worship — I mean we, rural America. We weren’t poor, because no one had any money.
“I never walked home from school — I always ran. There was always a banana sandwich and a glass of milk, perfectly timed for when I ran through the kitchen. If that hadn’t’a been there, I’d’a figured someone kidnaped Mama.
“Dad worked. Mama’s the one that really petted me. I could do no wrong. When I got into scrapes, I was never at fault. Of course, most of the time, I was at fault.”
The grim, flip side of this “To Kill a Mockingbird” setting is the old mill itself, a turn-of-the-century, dark and hulking brick structure where Owensby went to work at 16 as an after-school quill skinner.
“It looks like a prison,” says Owensby’s companion Debra Franklin, shuddering at the ghostly windows that stare toward State Road 221A like sightless eyes.
“I promise you,” says Owensby, “that’s the way it feels.”
As a $20-a-week employee in the weave room, Thomas Owensby would have had to squirrel away every penny of his Cone Mills salary for about 125 years to buy the Rolls Royce leased by his only son, Ernest Earl, from Atlanta-based Leasing International.
The ’79 silver Corniche convertible, a prominent costar in Morley Safer’s 1982 “60 Minutes” Owensby profile, is described by Owensby as “my showpiece. I break out the Rolls,” he says, “when the people come out from Beverly Hills high-rolling and name-dropping.”
Appearances would seem to be of passionate concern to the Cliff side millworker’s adopted son who discovered early on that his ticket out — what he loved to do, what he was so good at the world would sit up, notice and wag its tail — was selling. Anything.
“I started selling in third grade at school,” he says. “I’d get bubble gum which was rationed at that time, buy it for a nickel, sell it for 15 cents. It’s always been what I was born to do.”
First bubble gum, then hooch (as soon as he could drive, he made about $30 a week, skipping school on Fridays to pick up $1 half-pints of Old Stag in a Tryon liquor store and deliver them in Cliffside for $3 a pop), then machine parts, then movies, finally, himself as a movie mogul — “a very minor movie mogul” was the headline on a November 1980 Esquire magazine article.
Earl Owensby loves publicity, probably as much as he loves banana sandwiches, ice cream and popcorn. He cheerfully photocopies for forwarding the August 1984 Washington Post story dubbing him the “red-clay Cecil B. DeMacho.” Yet where his movies earn him his King of the Grade B’s title is one of the mysteries of the universe.
Seven of the 21 movies produced by and/or starring Earl Owensby — “Challenge,” “Death Driver,” “Buckstone County Prison,” “Wolf man,” “Living Legend,” “Lady Gray” and “Rottweiler — have played briefly at Charlotte theaters. “Death Driver” was broadcast on late-night WSOC-TV; “Buckstone County Prison,” on HBO. “Reuben, Reuben,” an artistic gem that earned actor Tom Conti a 1984 Oscar nomination, was filmed in Owensby’s studio (“the most efficient motion picture complex in the world” announces his black and silver business card), but producers Walter Shenson and Julius Epstein simply rented the facility.
“I wish somebody would show me some actual proof that Earl’s pictures have ever played anywhere,” says Bill Arnold, N.C. film commissioner. “I know that ‘Lady Gray’ thing premiered in Charlotte because I went to it — the rest of his films I don’t know where in the hell you’d have to go to find one. I think he makes most of his money in overseas sales.”
Yes, agrees Owensby, that’s exactly where his low-budget action-adventures play well — in foreign markets. He claims an Indian distributor has just bought the rights to the still-unreleased “Hyperspace” for $50,000. A front-page story in the Sept. 18,1984, Daily Variety — an issue that was, for months, on casual display in Owensby’s EO Corp. office — said Owensby’s 128,000 square feet of studio, warehouse and office space on 400 acres along Old Boiling Springs Road, about 10 miles from Shelby, had recently been appraised at $36 million.
“That’s an overestimate,” admits Owensby. I would imagine Variety’s putting a lot of guesstimate on the size of studio, what we have, replacement value more than anything else (it’s worth) nine million maximum.
(Current Cleveland County tax records credit An EO Corp., his principal corporate entity, with $1,843,415 in 197.65 acres of land, buildings and personal property. Owensby is listed as the owner of 1.7 acres on State Rd. 1123, bought in 1984 for $33,000.)
A teetotaling former deacon of the Poplar Springs Baptist Church, a Sunday School teacher with a 19-year perfect attendance record, Owensby boasts that his head-bashing, car-crashing films are unsullied with sex or profanity. “Since his moral code precludes sex (in his movies),” said Safer on “60 Minutes,” “he lets his baser instincts out in other ways.” However, if the bare-breasted gang rape in “Chain Gang,” a recent Owensby opus starring the producer as a convict of steel, isn’t sex, it’s sure 14-karat sordie [??]
After Owensby sued second wile Elizabeth for divorce and custody of sons Elvis and Rhett, she submitted a sworn affidavit in 1982, alleging that he had “threatened to kill Defendant (Elizabeth) on numerous occasions and has, in fact, threatened to kill Defendant without leaving a mark on her body. After which he said he was going to ‘float her body down the river.’ ” (He denied her accusations and twice charged her with assault during the prolonged hearings prior to their 1983 divorce.)
A Smiling Host
He is a soft-spoken, charming and tirelessly attentive host, but his ready smile rarely makes its way into his blue eyes. An observer also notices that even the lemon sheet cakes at the “Rutherford County Line” wrap party are monogrammed (in chocolate) with the omnipresent initials that flower on his bath towels, bedroom carpeting, even the headboard over his bed.
Always working his office phone — a combination fishing pole and security blanket that both hooks him into and shelters him from the outside world — Owensby is careless about what a listener can overhear of his confidential business dealings (“There’s no way we would give Prudential what they’re asking for — EVER! I wouldn’t move from here to downtown for $370,000. It’s gonna cost $2 million for my name.”). He combines bravado and self-deprecating humor with a little boy’s conviction that he can defuse any unflattering news by being the first to deliver at least a part of the whole truth.
Says Debra Franklin, a 31- year-old former USFL expansion franchise coordinator who met Owensby last January in New York and moved into his house in February, “My first impression was, he’s cute, but he can’t be for real. Tim Tremblay (their mutual stockbroker) told me he was honest as the day is long. I thought, yeah, but he’s a producer.
He blushed and looked at the ground and called me ‘ma’am’,” Franklin remembers. “You take him out of this environment and put him in New York, and he gets real quiet and sizes people up and draws his y’alls out a lot, and people underestimate him a lot.”
I think it’s hard to underestimate Earl’s impact,” says Bill Arnold. “I think Earl had an impact on Dino’s (DeLaurentis) decision to locate here because the man simply looked and saw what Earl was doing in his ragtag fashion and thought, “For crying out loud, if Earl can do it for a dozen years and not go bankrupt …. “
About 16 miles and a few light years would have separated Thomas and Bertha Owensby’s mill housing from the Cleveland County compound (about 45 miles west of Charlotte) where their son lives, makes movies and parks the Rolls. Another 30 miles lie between Cliffside and Ernest Earl’s birthplace, the Lake James-Bridgewater area of Burke County.
In the 1920s, a girl, Annie Hazel, was born to the Owensbys, but the child died of pneumonia within five years. In 1936, when Thomas was in his early 40s, he made three trips — paying for the gas and oil of Arthur Allen’s ’29 Plymouth coupe — to the wilds of Burke County where, he’d heard, a woman named Hawkins had too many kids and not enough money to feed them.
“We got started one morning up Route 64 to Lake James and turned off on an old wagon road,” Allen told the Shelby Daily Star in 1979. “We forded a creek and went around the side of a mountain and down in a valley to a little one-room house. They had three beds, a cook stove, eating table and fireplace.”
“I come from the mountains of North Carolina,” says Earl Owensby, resplendent on a recent morning in gray suit, red striped tie skewered with a gold stickpin, two monogrammed diamond rings, a jewel-encrusted Presidential Rolex and slick black slip-ons (instead of his usual exotic skin boots). “And thank God, I got out of them when I was 11 months old. I was the only one who was given away — not realizing, through the mercy of God I was given away. I was the youngest one at the time; I was the baby. They didn’t think I was going to walk.” (The N.C. Dept. of Human Resources has a birth certificate on record but no adoption order.)
The baby with the curved, malnourished legs was taken to the Owensbys’ home in a diaper and a flour sack. Nestled now in the plush brown womb of EO corporate headquarters, Earl Owensby yanks up his right trouser leg to pound a massive, knotty calf muscle the size of a bread loaf, the product of Bertha Owensby’s home cooking, five years in the Marines and a daily workout.
“I’ve had a nice set of legs since that time.”
Miming the pulling of a phantom shotgun trigger, Owensby says, “My natural mother committed suicide. The rest of ’em’s dead. How many there were, I don’t know. Everyone had different daddies. My (birth) father’s name was Burch — I never knew the sucker.”
His birth mother evidently had tried to maintain contact with her youngest child. “There was always a gift on Christmas and his birthday,” according to Elizabeth Owensby. “He threw them in the trash. I think there’s a lot of guilt there. If he would ever face that, stop blaming himself for what happened, I think he would like himself more.”
A Feisty Mom
When Earl was 5, Burch, who had married a woman who couldn’t have children, offered to reimburse the Owensbys for their expenses if they’d let him take the boy back to Burke County. “I remember him offering money to my parents,” says Owensby. “I remember my (adoptive) father going in and lying on his bed and crying. I remember my mother — she was a feisty little thing — sending me up to stand on the porch and chasing him (Burch) across the lawn.
“I remember him saying that he would git me. I remember growing up with always that thought that someone would grab me… until I got big enough to know if someone did grab me, I’d punch his lights out.”
From the time he was 10 until he was 16 (and went to work at Cone Mills), Owensby looked for that mountain man in the shadows every time he walked between home and his job at the Cliffside movie theater. (A model of that theater dominates his young sons’ model railroad.)
That’s where he saw — 12 times — “Guadalcanal Diary’! (1943), the movie that cued his next move. “I was going to be a Marine from third grade on when I saw Brian Donlevy sitting behind a machine gun shooting Japanese. I thought, ‘This is it!’ Plus, I loved those dress blues.” (Although Owensby’s knowledge of film trivia is usually as impeccable as his taste in reviewing other people’s movies, reference books don’t mention Donlevy among the cast.)
“I never had any interest in school,” he remembers. “I never had any interest in sitting and listening. Everyone probably thought I would be least likely to do anything because my mind was always on selling something, trading a car, buying a car.”
A teacher inscribed his Cliffside Public School yearbook, “I have no idea what will happen to you, but good luck anyway.”
He joined the Marines on Aug. 2, 1954, just as the mill installed indoor plumbing in his parents’ house. He says, “Just my luck — right behind progress everywhere I go” — a rueful pronouncement that’s equally applicable to his trying and failing to cash in on the recent mini-boomlet in 3-D filming.
Brownlee Davis, a chum since 1942 and now EO Corp. transportation chief, took the 18-year-old Owensby — wearing sandals, overalls and no shirt — to the bus station when he went into the service. Owensby’s first wife, Patricia Ledford, says, “It just about killed Earl’s mother when he left for service. Earl said he could hear her crying all the way up the road when he left.”
Ledford, an EO Corp. production assistant, is a trim, green-eyed blonde in whose 45-year-old face you can still see the Shelby paint contractor’s 17-year-old daughter lighting up like a sparkler at the sight of Ernest Earl and his white Ford convertible. Recalling their first blind date in 1957 (two months before their Gaffney wedding), she says, “He was a pretty flashy-looking guy. He really scared me at first because I’d never gone out with a guy with that much hair on his chest.
“He wore a white shirt unbuttoned to (gesturing to her sternum); he had a gold cross around his neck which caught my eye and he had that little wicked smile I kinda liked. He had on dress pants — my mother and daddy didn’t allow me to go out with boys in jeans. He had a little blonde streak here (tapping an imaginary forelock) that was natural. He had a way of combing his hair I’d never seen before with three parts — it sorta hung down in little curls on his forehead.”
Mustered out as a Marine sergeant in August 1959, Owensby meant to bring his wife and son (Dennis Earl, now 27 and an EO Corp. film editor) home and join the N.C. Highway Patrol. The Marines asked if Owensby wanted to return to his previous (mill) job, and he told them, “God, I hope not.”
Instead, Owensby began driving a truck for Shelby Supply Co. while Ledford joined the swing shift at Pittsburgh Plate Glass. “I knew he wouldn’t be satisfied just being a truck driver,” says Ledford.
“Earl and I had a lot of fun the first years of our marriage before he got so serious in business. At night he’d come home and fall asleep in front of the TV with his papers — it was a six-day thing with him.”
“I was a terrible husband,” he admits. “I’d be a terrible guy to have an affair with because I’m married to an idea maybe, to the company.”
He was a truck-driver for six to eight months, then went into sales. “I failed miserably as a salesman,” says Owensby. ‘Shelby Supply Co. did not want salesmen — they wanted order-takers. I’ve never been an order-taker.”
After three years at Shelby Supply, four more with two other industrial supply companies, he established his own company, Carolina Pneumatic and Supply Co., in Gastonia in 1967. He prospered, eventually owning as many as 10 other companies, and was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the N.C. State House of Representatives in 1972. Unsuccessful or not, the campaign, according to Elizabeth Owensby, triggered an itch for attention and adulation that was never going to be scratched as long as he was simply a millionaire Shelby industrialist.
Both Elizabeth, a stylish blonde with Faye Dunaway coloring and cheekbones, and Earl were married to others when they met in a Rutherfordton drugstore during Owensby’s campaign. “Someone said, ‘Hello, Elizabeth’,” she remembers, “and I looked down and saw those shiny shoes. Then it was shiny shoes and cuff links that were eye-knockers. It was flamboyant. It was tacky. I was amused, I loved it — when I saw him standing there… it was as though I had (always) known him.
“In August 1973,” says Earl, “I came up with the idea I’d like to be in the film business, figured out what was required, figured I’d go completely broke.
“Movies had always been a hobby. I actually woke up one morning and said, ‘I think I’ll make a movie — I wonder how you do that?'”
“Challenge,” a revenge fantasy In the “Walking Tall” mold, went into production on Nov. 10 and opened the following April at the Rogers Theatre (now the EO Theatre, with monogrammed lobby carpeting, on E. Marion St. in Shelby). It is an ambitious but painfully awful movie in which one car chase is an incredible 11 minutes and 45 seconds long. Owensby, a painfully awful actor, stars as Frank Challenge, “a ruggedly handsome ex-Marine officer,’ “a dynamic young construction engineer” running as a reform candidate for the Senate.
Technically, Owensby’s movies have improved tremendously (I’ve seen eight, including three in 3-D), a claim that can’t yet be made for the scripts, direction or Owensby’s acting. Owensby in person is a veritable Vesuvius of energy and a wicked mimic, but on screen he implodes into catatonia.
“Hyperspace,” a science fiction comedy without Owensby in the cast, is a marginal improvement. Writer-director Todd Durham has some sense of humor, and — to be fair — the endless battle between rednecks and dwarf aliens is no more tedious than the carnage of’ “Rambo” or “Commando.”
“Someone said I was always playing Earl Owensby,” says Owensby. “That’s not true. I don’t turn into a wolf or sing.”
“Those are Earl’s ideas,” disagrees Elizabeth Owensby, who played the lead in “Brass Ring,” the 1974 “Challenge” sequel. “That’s Earl. When (former Elvis Presley girlfriend) Ginger Alden was out there (filming ‘Living Legend’), I think he thought he was Elvis. It gets back to those eye-knocker cuff links.”
A Two-Fisted Loner
Like most of his screen characters, Owensby is quick to proclaim himself a two-fisted and rebellious loner. Questioned about assault charges brought against him by Elizabeth Owensby, he pridefully — answers, “I never hit a woman in my life that didn’t hit me first — maybe two or three times — and then I put her lights out.”
Says film commissioner Bill Arnold, “I think Earl is compelled to insult us from time to time because he has gotten himself locked into this image of being a maverick, and he doesn’t want to change that. He’s very happy to ask for our assistance, but he’d much rather portray himself as a lone wolf outside the Hollywood system.”
Owensby used to refuse to give any budget figures but has lately been tossing them around with abandon. He’s been quoted in Variety as saying that his Studio City, a combination movie studio, amusement park and shopping complex in Myrtle Beach, will cost $300 million (Dino DeLaurentis’s 32-acre Wilmington studio is valued at $15 million). He told The Observer that “Hyperspace” had a production budget of $3.5 million to $4 million (he has since downgraded the figure to $2 million).
Elizabeth Owensby dismisses the financial hyperbole. ” `Challenge’ cost much less than $500,000 to make, and it took all he had,” she remembers. (Court records list his personal worth by November 1981 at $2,350,000, including the entire $1.2 million worth of EO Corp. stock. The same records show him drawing a $92,892.53 salary from the corporation in 1980.)
Bill Arnold says, “Frank Capra (producer of ‘Firestarter’) once told me that if Earl ever spent over $300,000 on any movie he’s made, it would surprise him. But then again, he’s not different from the Hollywood people — they do the same thing.’
Eight limited partnership agreements in Cleveland Co. court records involve Owensby either as general or limited partner in movie production companies. Limited partners range from five to 37 in number, investing capital contributions of $100 to $328,500 (the typical investment ranges from $20,000 to $36,000).
In a 1979 document each of 24 limited partners invested $20,000 in “Lady Superstar,” the first production of what was to be a five-film deal. As the only general partner in “Lady Superstar” (retitled “Lady Gray”), Owensby also put up $20,000 of the $500,000 budget. The 1982 agreement for the 3-D film “Hot Heir” raised $1,230,100 from 23 limited partners.
Limited partners do not profit under these arrangements until the movies pay all their bills. Most limited partnerships provide investors with substantial tax deductions if they lose money.
The “Lady Superstar” agreement gives producer Owensby broad discretion, “complete control in his sole discretion, as to the production and distribution of the films including changes in script, choice of cast, directors, designers and all other matters.” Again, not that unusual in the world of moviemaking, but how can anyone with so much money available — “Our movies cost $1.2 (million) to $2 million,” he said last week — consistently make so many bad movies?
Good movies have been made on low budgets. The recent “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” for instance, cost less than $1 million; “Stranger Than Paradise,” the hit of last year’s N.Y. Film Festival, only $110,000.
“I’m sure the kind of impression he makes feeds his ego,” says Bill Arnold, “but he could really get some serious attention even if he got out of the business and did nothing but rent to people like ‘Reuben, Reuben’.”
A landlord, though, doesn’t have the clout of a producer or a star. Says Elizabeth Owensby, “Earl must be in charge. He is too insecure not to be in complete control. Earl will always have one friend — female — and several males — employees, of course — because that gives him control. He doesn’t want to be alone, doesn’t want to be close, and he decides when close is too close.”
Even Debra Franklin, who calls Owensby a “White Knight,” acknowledges that his rigidity may close him off to some things. “Earl has a saying,” she says, “that when people come into the (studio) park, that it’s his way or Trailways.”
“I have all the admiration in the world for him,” says Patricia Ledford, who, despite her glowing testimony, twice sued Owensby for one-half the stock in his Carolina Tool and Specialty Co. (the 1976 and ’78 cases were voluntarily dismissed). “He’s done well for himself, and it’s something he’d had in his head all along — something he set out to do. I don’t try to climb as high as Earl has done. I think of Earl as a happy person.”
Not so Owensby himself. “Dudes like myself are never going to be happy,” he says. “It wouldn’t matter if I bought 20th Century Fox or Universal. I’d want to go farther. I don’t want to set around and watch television.
“A successful person is someone who is happy doing what he’s doing. I’m never gonna get there. I’m never gonna say, ‘Boy, here I am, I’m successful.'”
Reporter Charles E. Shepard also contributed to this story.
Republished with permission. Copyright © The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved.