‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ satirical take on Bohemian Grove
By Maja Wood
The film Teddy Bears’ Picnic opens with this cautious disclaimer: “There is a real place in the California redwood country where America’s richest and most powerful white men have gathered every summer for more than a century to cavort like college sophomores on an unlimited budget.
“This motion picture, our lawyers have asked us to emphasize, is not about that place.”
But, shhh! Guess what? The movie really is about this secretive spot.
And even as the power elite gather at the Bohemian Grove near Monte Rio these next couple of weeks, this film spoofing their antics is making the rounds on the festival circuit.
The low-budget Teddy Bears’ Picnic, featuring an ensemble cast that includes Morgan Fairchild, George Wendt, and Michael McKean, debuted in March at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. The Visonbox Pictures film, shot entirely in digital, is now under consideration for inclusion in the upcoming Wine Country Film Festival here in the North Bay.
EVER SINCE the Bohemian Grove gatherings began more than 100 years ago, speculation has run wild about what actually goes on when the rich and mighty meet among the redwoods. The rumors run the gamut. Are world leaders gathering in an Illuminati-like conspiracy to determine the fate of the planet? Are they practicing satanic rituals? And are virgins being sacrificed?
“The question I kept in mind while making this film was ‘How close does the gathering come to the lurid fears of conspiracy theorists?’ ” says Harry Shearer, the writer, director, and co-producer of Teddy Bears’ Picnic.
Shearer may be best known as the co-creator and co-star of the classic mock-rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. But he’s also appeared in films like The Truman Show, Independence Day, The Right Stuff, and Edtv. And for the past 13 years, he has provided the voices of Mr. Burns, Smithers, and Ned Flanders on The Simpsons.
For Shearer, Teddy Bears’ Picnic was a labor of love, a personal project into which he poured considerable personal energy. He sees it as a social satire rather than a leftist political statement.
“Some world manipulation does take place whenever these people get together, and these guys like spending time with each other as opposed to spending time with people who don’t have power,” Shearer says. “But what’s really surprising is the extent to which the gathering resembles an overbudgeted, overblown frat party gone wild.
“Part of the weirdness and the charm is that at this stage what these men really want the most in the world is to recapitulate their sophomore year in college.”
The drunken mayhem, the dressing up in women’s clothes, the hunt for hookers: it’s all there in Teddy Bears’ Picnic. In his research, Shearer interviewed many men who had attended the Bohemian Grove gathering, as well as people who worked there, including prostitutes. He was also allowed to peruse the archives located at the organization’s headquarters at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, where, he says, the group has “lovingly archived their plays” and other events.
And Shearer was able to do some additional research and fact-checking when he was invited to the grove six years ago as a guest for a weekend retreat. “They didn’t know I was making the movie, and I didn’t say, ‘Hey guys, guess what?’ ” he says. “I kept my eyes open to see how well the story matched the reality, and it turned out the film was pretty right on.”
For example, there was the Saturday morning that the head of large multinational construction firm was found face down in the golf course, sleeping off the booze from the night before.
But Shearer did glean a little new information from his stay and made the appropriate adjustments. For instance, he learned that each lodge at the grove has its own specialty drink. And so, in tribute, the cocktail the Wood Nymph was added to the film.
Shearer isn’t the only one involved with the film who has attended the Bohemian Grove. George Wendt, best known as Norm in the television sitcom Cheers, plays the alcohol-swilling Gen. Gerberding. And he agrees with the accuracy of Shearer’s script: “I’ve been up to Bohemian Grove, and it’s a lot like this. They even had protesters out in front of the gates. It was a bizarre experience to pee on a tree with Henry Kissinger and slam drinks with William F. Buckley.”
Of course, that tree-peeing tidbit went into the movie as well. In fact, the “Tree of Zeus” segment of the film was one of the most difficult to shoot. Since the movie was made on a shoestring budget, almost all the filming was scheduled close to home in Southern California. But the crew was unable to find a redwood tree without a palm in the background, so they had to travel to Lake Arrowhead for that particular shot.
To Shearer, a story of the power elite running amok in the woods sounded like the makings of a wonderful comedy. Yet, this is the first nondocumentary film ever made about the Bohemian Grove gathering.
“In this country, we like to think that we are without a class system,” Shearer says. “But actually, we are obsessed with class and power.”
And that is one of the many reasons people like to talk about what is happening under the redwoods. “The most efficient way of disproving the wild talk is to allow reporters up there,” Shearer says. “But they don’t, and to an extent, they encourage the lurid speculation. And I think they like all the rumors to a degree. They must get some kind of perverse pleasure in it.”
From the July 12-18, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.