GTO 3987 on Mulholland

GTO 3987 on Mulholland

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Peter Helm

Peter Helm was--and still is--one of those characters that are bigger than life and would be entertaining, if improbable, in a novel. He is a rare individual entirely unaffected by peer pressure or a need to conform. We hit it off immediately and forty years later nothing has changed. I first met Peter through Matthew Ettiinger and our get-togethers usually involved high-speed antics with Peter in his Ferrari California spider and Matthew and I in the Breadvan and GTO respectively. Matthew's nightclub, the Plush Bunny, was often the venue but Peter's interests were wide ranging and included Joey Heatherton, remote-controlled airplanes and doing things at all hours of the night. Sunrise was only an indication that things were progressing satisfactorily.

On one occasion, I was following Peter on the freeway after we'd been to Matthew's house in Hacienda Heights. I was a few lengths back with the GTO in the number two lane and was suddenly aware that no one was driving Peter's California spider though it was setting the pace in the fast lane. I dropped into fourth and accelerated to draw next to the spider to find that, though Peter was not in the driver's seat, he was indeed in the car. He was lounging in the passenger seat enjoying the view as the Ferrari sped along being driven, apparently, by the invisible man. Peter had his left foot on the accelerator pedal and his left hand on the steering wheel out of view from other drivers including me. It was a hilarious sight and he drove like that for many miles before getting back behind the wheel. I still wonder if his leg was long enough to reach the brake pedal should it have been necessary.

On another occasion, Peter and I were heading south through Laurel Canyon. As we raced down the Hollywood side, we came upon a slower moving Mercedes-Benz SL. We were going fast enough that slowing down--at least in Peter's mind--was not an option. As we passed by the country market in the canyon, Peter went around the SL and had just enough room to pull back into the lane again before the blind curve at the end of the straight. Unfortunately, the move served to tighten the radius on the turn to such an extent that his Ferrari lost traction and the last sight I had was of the California spinning out as it rounded the curve.

What I expected to see as I came around the bend was Peter and his California wrapped around a tree. What I saw was Peter continuing to pull away from the Mercedes driving--freewheeling--backwards looking over his shoulder and negotiating the series of tight turns near the bottom of the canyon. No doubt the Mercedes driver had intended to impress his attractive passenger that evening. I wonder how impressed she might have been that he was beaten out by someone driving backwards down the canyon.

Peter captured a couple of our adventures with his 8mm camera (See video below). There were many more that escaped his lens, I am happy to say. His California spider painted as an Army jeep and his Ferrari Tour de France painted with tiger stripes were epic Peter Helm offerings along with the incident where a traffic cop cited Peter's passenger for speeding down Gower Street in Hollywood one night because he didn't realize Peter's Ferrari was right-hand-drive.

Peter worked on such films as The Longest Day and The Andromeda Strain being directed by Darryl F. Zanuck and Robert Wise. He is an aviation buff and my son and I visited a B17 with him at Camarillo Airport where we also got to see a B25J on which Peter crews and contributes his time for maintenance and repairs. The photo above was taken at one of my Wednesday night gatherings. On that occasion, Peter had Joey Heatherton in tow and she trumped some unwitting newcomer's story about Frank Sinatra with one of her own, as you might imagine.

Every time I see a certain scene in The Big Lebowski, I am reminded of Ottie, Peter's otter that went almost everywhere with him. My favorite Peter Helm anecdote is about the night Peter hit a bump at speed on Mulholland Drive causing the chassis to flex, the passenger door to open and the actress Tuesday Weld to be bounced out of the car. Does it get any better than that for a car guy?


Vic said...

On your upcoming documentary on the GTO, will you have any anecdotal commentary by Mr. Helm? I would love to hear more of the hair raising tales you both had, driving around the streets and roads of L.A. with your Ferraris.

Stephen Mitchell said...

Yes, Peter will be there!

Vic said...

Fantastic! Look forward to the completed documentary!

Alex said...

How many Spyder Californias did Mr. Helm own? lists (at least) two including the one originally owned by Françoise Sagan. According to the videos they were (usually) red but they must have been repainted over the years.


Stephen Mitchell said...

Peter had two California spiders both with covered headlights. One was silver and the other was red as seen in these two videos:

The red car in these videos was later painted a pearl yellow.

Jimmy Wilde said...

I met Peter Helm when I went to LA for the first time in 1963. My high school sweetheart, Joey Heatherton, was filming her first film "Twilight of Honor", and she introduced me to Peter so that we could hang out one day while she was filming. What a day that turned out to be!!. I will never forget it. Peter treated me as if he had known me for years and soon I realized just how unique this guy was. First, he took me to his house where I was introduced to Otti the Otter, his cherished pet, who was frolicking in his bath tub. I should have realized right then and there that this was going to be an extraordinary day. When I got into his beautiful red Ferrari, I was spellbound. I had never been in anything quite like Peter's Ferrari and was soon on the ride of my life. Unlike me, Peter had no fear of speed. He took me on the ride of my life...whipping around the curves on Mulholland Drive at what seemed like super sonic speed, I was never so scared in my life. Inside his Ferrari, Peter had retrofitted a household stereo tape player, something that NOBODY had ever done before. To hear stereo music in his car in 1963 was no doubt one of my most memorable experiences. As soon as I returned to New York, I installed one in my car and was the envy of Baldwin, NY. About 1 year ago, while searching Youtube, I discovered a video of Peter and his Ferrari. I e- mailed Stephen Mitchell who provided the Youtube video, and he in turn contacted Peter, who was gracious enough to allow Stephen to give me Peter's phone number. When i called Peter, it was like time had stood still. He was as gracious as always, remembered me well, and invited me to pay him a visit the next time I was in LA. Peter will always stand out in my long list of interesting people I have met along my journey and I am hoping to pay him a visit real soon. Thanks, Peter, for giving me such a fond memory. Paul Orofino

Jimmy Wilde said...

Peter Helm still ROCKS!!!

Donna, yes, that Donna said...

Vic, tell Peter that "Dorothy's" daughter Donna says HI....he took me on Mulhulland a few times, out to Spago's and I bet he still remembers that I was told 'don't push any buttons' on his 8mm camera and he was sad when I did as I was told but saw the glider snap in two through the lens. Whereever Peter went, a party happened.

Anonymous said...

The musician Gene Clark owned a 1955 Ferrari Europa Coupe that was plum metallic with a cloth sunroof - photo is here:
We are wondering if he perhaps bought it from Peter Helm around 1966 or 1967. Would you happen to know?

Stephen Mitchell said...

I just spoke to to Peter and the car (#381) did belong to him. It was silver before he painted it the plum color you see in the photograph.

Anonymous said...

I used to fly radio control airplanes with Pete..have not seen him in 25 years. Still have the B-24 Pete?

Rgds, Mike

Anonymous said...

I still fly radio control models with Peter. Here is one more story of his antics, he flew an ultralight airplane while flying an RC plane while looking threw the lens of his 8 mm camera filming the whole thing!


Stephen Mitchell said...

Corey, that is just what Peter would do!

tablethomas said...

I first met Peter as a neighbor with his sister Anne, brother David and mom, Isabel in NYC. Later knew the family, including wife, Brooke, In LA. Worst trick he did to me and my mom, Doris, was to take us flying out of Whitman then stall the plane! Scared the hell out of us!

But your right, he is one of a kind.

Paula King Thomas