"Once Upon a Time ..."

J. H. Osborne • Aug 9, 2019 at 7:30 PM

This weekend marks yet another 50th anniversary of headline events from 1969. It’s the one often cited as having “killed the Sixties.”

On the morning of Saturday, August 9, 1969 actress Sharon Tate’s housekeeper arrived for work and found the bloody, bludgeoned, stabbed and shot bodies of Tate (who was 8 and a half months pregnant), hairstylist Jay Sebring, socialite and social worker Abigail Folger, Folger’s boyfriend Wojciech (pronounced “Voytek” is most accounts) Frykowski, and Steven Parent ( a friend of the estate’s caretaker). Two nights later, on Sunday, August 10, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered in their home in another part of the “City of Angels.” Leno ran his family’s grocery business. Rosemary, owned a successful boutique and had invested wisely in the stock market.

“Healter Skelter” (sic) was written in blood on the LaBianca’s refrigerator. It was a misspelled reference to the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter.”

I was only six, nearing seven when the murders occurred and remember no reference to them. I do remember going to see Disney’s “The Love Bug,” playing that week at the Strand on Broad Street, according to the Sunday, August 10, 1969 edition of the Kingsport Times News. The Tate house murders shared “above the fold” space on page 1A that day with an article about Kingsport’s “buying power” no longer being second in the state. Further down on the page: a photo of Jan Fritschle being crowned Miss Kingsport. Elsewhere in the paper an ad for Kingsport Federal Savings and Loan Association offered 5¼ percent interest on savings certificates and 4¾ percent interest, compounded quarterly, on regular passbook savings. And a wire story on an inquest about to begin on the recent automobile accident of Senator Ted Kennedy. Miller’s foundations’ department was touting Warner’s bras (“your shape will tell”) for $4. And WKPT-TV was set to hit the airwaves (broadcasting on Ultra High Frequency, rather then the Very High Frequency channels in use by other televisions stations in the region) And Congressman Jimmy Quillen had introduced legislation to “prevent smut mail.”

I wouldn’t really learn about the Tate-LaBianca murders for six more years. In the summer of 1975 I spent the better part of a week laying across the blue vinyl back seat of our white ‘65 Malibu station wagon (shaded by our big cherry tree and listening to pop songs on the car radio — by turning the car’s ignition key to “accessory,” something I wasn’t supposed to do) reading “Helter Skelter,” the book prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi wrote about the crimes and following trials. The book’s opening line remains among my favorites: "It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon."

The book left with a lingering interest in the crimes. But mostly, at 12 years old, I became infatuated with Sharon Tate, whom I still believe one of the most beautiful women of the 20th century. I would stay up late to watch her films “Don’t Make Waves” or “Valley of the Dolls” on the late show (that was a late night movie then, not a nightly talk show). So I have spent months anticipating the release of Quentin Tarentino’s film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” It’s playing now locally. I saw it at the Fort Henry Mall. And I declare it a masterpiece.

It is a period piece set in 1969, blending facts and fiction. The main plot revolves around the fictional Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an on-his-way down star of television westerns, and his sidekick/stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Throughout the film each crosses paths with Tate, her husband Roman Polanski, Sebring, and Folger. You see, in this make-believe world, Rick Dalton lives next door to Tate and Polanski. Both also cross paths with some of the killers — at first friendly, then not so much. The 2-hour-45-minute film flashes by in no time. At least it did to me. It begins in February 1969 and ends with the home invasion by the killers on Aug. 8, 1969. So the LaBiancas aren’t a part of the film. The ending is, as should be expected, quite gruesome. But for the most part, up to the last few minutes, it is a non-stop roller coaster of 1969 nostalgia. The attention to detail is amazing. Much of the action takes place in moving cars, pop songs on car radios — with commercials of the day — constantly providing background below the dialogue.

I was mesmerized by the the film’s portrayal of Tate (Margot Robbie). Taken together, Robbie’s scenes almost acted as a “day in the life” of Tate. Some movie star. But mostly just a beautiful, happy woman with a sense of humor and wonder.

Bugliosi’s book makes the case the killers believed “Helter Skelter” was code for a coming race war — which they could trigger by murdering upper class whites and hoping blacks were blamed. There are other theories about the crimes and the killers’ motivations. We didn’t have the Internet and social media. No one could post a manifesto “explaining” their “rationale” for such horrendous acts. But Americans were shocked that seven people were murdered, seemingly at random. Today such a crime would make news, but would as many Americans would be shocked, compared to 1969? Sadly, I’m afraid not.

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