Tomorrow night TCM Underground will be airing the surprisingly surreal and smart blaxploitation comedy, DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975). I hesitate to tag DARKTOWN STRUTTERS with a simplistic label like “blaxploitation” because it’s really a cult movie that deserves a category of its own. The film manages to combine just about every popular movie genre imaginable including classic westerns and musicals, biker films and revenge fantasies as well as science fiction into one of most unusual movies to come out of Hollywood in the early 1970s. It also lampoons stereotypical images of black Americans that populated earlier cinema and remain prevalent in the minds of many American filmgoers.
DARKTOWN STRUTTERS was directed by William Witney and stars the beautiful and statuesque Trina Parks. Trina plays the tough and tenacious leader of a female biker gang who’s forced to save her mother and other prominent individuals in the black community when they become the victims of a Colonel Sanders-like fast-food mogul and his clannish crew. Parks only appeared in a handful of films during the 1970s but she has continued to perform on stage in various Broadway and off-Broadway shows including appearances in popular Vegas productions. She’s currently working on a new one-woman show but Trina kindly took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her acting career including her work in DARKTOWN STRUTTERS and the popular James Bond film DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER.
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: You come from a musical family and I was fascinated to discover that your father was the saxophonist Charles (Chuck) Frazier who played with legendary jazz performers such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
TRINA PARKS: My Father played lead tenor sax with Cab Calloway but not with Duke. Duke Ellington introduced daddy to Cab.
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: Thanks for clearing that up! Obviously, I shouldn’t believe everything I read in books but your father’s musical career is very impressive. I know you studied music and dance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at the New York High School of Performing Arts, but when did you decide to start acting?
TRINA PARKS: I started professionally studying acting when I first came to Los Angeles. At the High School of Performing Arts we also had acting classes. My teacher was Vinnette Carrol who directed the Broadway musical YOUR ARMS TO SHORT TO BOX WITH GOD. Vinnette also directed the off-Broadway production of THE PRODIGAL SON in 1963. I was the lead female dancer in that and I understudied the lead character ‘Jezebel’ who was played by Glory Van Scott.
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: One of the first films you appeared in was Russ Meyer’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970). I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the work you did in that film?
TRINA PARKS: In BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS I was a stunt girl. At that time I was thinking of getting into stunt work. But I quickly changed my mind when I realized that I had to jump from high places and possibly break my nails! That would not do at all!!
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: Your performance as Thumper in the James Bond film DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER(1971) is probably your most recognizable role and it was a physically demanding part. You’re only in the film for a brief time but your fight with Sean Connery is one of the highlights of the movie. How did you get the role of Thumper?
TRINA PARKS: I had just signed with the Agency for the Performing Arts (APA). They were called by the producer Albert R. Broccoli or his people and asked to see me for the role. I went to an interview first with many people at a table, not knowing who was who. I was asked questions about if I could do certain movements and what have I done acting and dancing wise? Then either that week or the next I had a test on film. Obviously, they liked what I did.
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: The action in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER takes place at the beautiful Elrod House in Palm Springs and I’ve always been impressed with the way it was choreographed. Did you have to study any fighting techniques before making DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER? And did your dance training come in handy?
TRINA PARKS: Yes! I absolutely was trained in karate movements. I had been a professional dancer and toured the US and Europe with various dance companies for many years before I came to Los Angeles from New York. In 1964 I joined the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. I was a junior at the High School of Performing Arts and had been training and taking classes at the Dunham School. Mrs. ‘D’ asked me if I would like to perform with the company at the Apollo Theater in New York. Her technique is based in the Haitian Caribbean and African cultures and many movements are related to martial arts. So yes, my dance and martial arts training definitely were prominent techniques for me to know for that role.
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: Working with the legendary Katherine Dunham (CARNIVAL OF RHYTHM; 1941, STORMY WEATHER; 1943, MAMBO; 1954, GREEN MANSIONS; 1959, etc.) must have been an amazing experience. Did you enjoy working with Sean Connery during the making of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER?
TRINA PARKS: Of course I enjoyed working with Sean. He was quite nice to work with. Very patient and no airs about him.
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: You also appeared with another popular movie and television spy; David McCallum (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.; 1964) in an episode of Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY called The Phantom Farmhouse. I’m a fan of the television show and I’ve always liked McCallum so I’m curious about what your experience was like working on NIGHT GALLERY with him?
TRINA PARKS: David McCallum was also a pleasure to work with. I have no negative memories at all about shooting our scenes together.
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: I love your performance in William Witney’s DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975). It’s a very unusual and funny movie that deals with some timely subjects including racism and abortion. It didn’t seem to have much of an impact when it was originally released but it’s gained a small cult following over the years and I believe that Quentin Tarantino is a fan. In the movie you play the leader of a female motorcycle gang. How did that role come about?
TRINA PARKS: Through my Agent, Marty Klein, at APA who became head (C.E.O) of the agency. I also did some testing before I was actually cast. I had been performing in off-Broadway and Broadway shows since 1964 with well-known established actors. In that time, even though I was dancing and singing in the shows, I learned from the actors I worked with because I studied them closely during rehearsals and performances. I believe I might have learned more in those years of performing with these actors than I actually learned in acting school. Through my dancing, I’ve always acted just not spoken, so all I had to do was accentuate the voice with the feeling and attitude of the character.
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: The motorcycle you ride in DARKTOWN STRUTTERS is impressive and you wear some incredible costumes in the movie. Were you an experienced motorcyclist or did you have to learn to ride for the film?
TRINA PARKS: Well as far as me being a motorcyclist, no! I sure was not and I had to train to ride and steer that machine. I believe I was in motorcycle training for a week. It was a bit scary at first but I was assured that I would not have to do any wheelies. That was the stunt man’s job. But I was going to be filmed a few times driving it myself and sometimes I was pulled by a pulley with the camera above me.
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: In the film you have some funny and romantic scenes with your costar Roger E. Mosley (THE MACK; 1973, HIT MAN; 1972, SWEET JESUS, PREACHER MAN; 1973, LEADBELLY; 1976, MAGNUM P.I.; 1980-88, etc.) I thought you both worked well together and had good on-screen chemistry. You also appeared to be having fun during the making of the movie. Was that just good acting or did you enjoy making DARKTOWN STRUTTERS?
TRINA PARKS: We worked together well because we were friends before we did the film. And yes, we did have fun doing all the scenes together! He’s a funny guy and was perfect for the role. He helped me a lot. I enjoyed doing DARKTOWN STRUTTERS. One of the reasons was that I was able to play different characters, be funny and play it straight at the same time. I also enjoyed all the other actors I had scenes with. The movie was what you would call ‘camp’ but until I actually saw it I hadn’t realized how camp it was. Way-before-it’s-time-camp. The only part I really was a bit uncomfortable with was when I played the nun. My Father put me in a Catholic elementary school, which I did not like at all but that’s not why I was uncomfortable. I just thought that if there was any use of a Christian symbol, such as nun’s clothing, the character shouldn’t have been so ‘raunchy’.
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: The movie definitely skewers a lot of social attitudes but I think it’s all done with a sense of humor. In the late 1970s you seemed to retire from film acting after making THE MUTHERS (1976). Was it hard to find good roles at the time or did you want to focus on other aspects of your career?
TRINA PARKS: I didn’t retire from acting, singing, dancing or teaching dance. I did some TV specials and my solo show in Las Vegas. Opened for other acts like Muddy Waters at Mr. Kelly’s club in Chicago and Davis & Reese (comedians) in Vegas. I did METAMORPHOSES at the Mark Taper Forum. George Gaines and Bernie Casey were two of the ten principal performers, including myself, in the production. Did HER FIRST ROMAN with Richard Kiley & Leslie Uggums on Broadway. Did THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980) film with Dan Akaroyd and THE MUTHERS shoot in the Philippines, co-starring with Jane Kennedy.
KIMBERLY LINDBERGS: I didn’t know you were in THE BLUE BROTHERS. That must have been an interesting film to work on. I know that you occasionally attend James Bond conventions but can you tell me a little bit more about what you’re up to now? Any current or future plans you can share with our readers?
TRINA PARKS: For 6 years I’ve been a featured performer in the PALM SPRINGS FOLLIES. In that time all I could do was the FOLLIES. I tried to work with an agent but couldn’t make the interviews or auditions. We had a very heavy schedule. Two shows a day. On my two days off all I wanted to do was to rest my voice and body. Before I left the FOLLIES I knew I wanted to do my own show again but a completely different one. My new show is called BLACK DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, a tribute to the classic 007 movies, my father and other black ‘diamond’ female vocalists. It’s a theatrical one-woman show that has been my most important project. I have also been trying diligently to get sponsors and investors for the production. My music charts, musicians, rehearsals and the technical things involved in my show are quite expensive because I’m also using film clips and stills. In the meantime, I’ve been teaching dance in public schools, at private dance studios and choreographing for different pre-teen and teen organizations. I’ve also been performing as a guest artist at different affairs. I had been scouting for a new agent, one that covers all my areas of talents, which I finally found.
MOVIE MORLOCKS: Your new show sounds fascinating! I would also love to see you act in another film someday too.
TRINA PARKS: Yes! I always pursue acting, along with my singing. I don’t pursue ‘dancing’ roles. If the role calls for a vocalist that moves well or particularly a singer/dancer or actress/singer/dancer/, I’m interested. This is my job! Performing professionally is what I’ve been doing since 1964. This is what I love to do and what I do best. It’s what I’ll do for the rest of my life!
More information about Trina Parks is available at the Trina Parks Tribute website.
by Kimberly LIndbergs and originally published on TCM.com in 2010