Except for one performance, no one would ever care about an obscure, low-budget movie called Gypsy Angels. Oh, sure, the flick features one of the last appearances by the late Peter Lawford and a cameo by the late Carol Wayne. It can even boast one of the most unlikely would-be stars ever to attempt the screen—Gene Bicknell, a former Kansas gubernatorial candidate and the world’s largest Pizza Hut franchisee. But Gypsy Angels, filmed six years ago, still unreleased, and now tangled in a welter of lawsuits, has flown improbably into the news because its scantily clad heroine is…Vanna White. That’s right. Before she became the famous letter-turner on TV’s Wheel of Fortune, White, now 31, filmed a few peek-a-boob scenes in Gypsy Angels, her only starring role. Made in her salad days, the movie offers shots of Vanna cavorting in a G-string, fleeting glimpses of her starkers from the waist up and an erotic shower scene in which she is seen in silhouette. It’s all done with taste and restraint, but, yes, Vanna is topless. And that, following those come-hither lingerie ads that ended up on the pages of Playboy in 1987, spells another embarrassing blast from the past for her.
White, perhaps wisely, has no comment on the whole episode and doesn’t mention it in her 1987 autobiography-beauty guide, Vanna Speaks. And if she’s lucky, Gypsy Angels won’t be playing in a theater near you for a long while, if ever. Although a California Superior Court has made the first tentative decision connected with the movie, two more cases are still waiting to be tried. Meanwhile, the orbit of Gypsy Angels remains a wheel of misfortune for all involved.
The saga began with Sean MacGregor, 53, a screenwriter and director of such B movies as Devil Times Five and Gentle Savage. While living with an exotic dancer in Los Angeles, he decided in the late ’70s to weave a movie out of her terpsichorean tales and his own love of old airplanes and flying. His movie would be about a stunt pilot and a go-go girl. No sooner had MacGregor finished the Gypsy Angels script (and parted company with the dancer) than he moved in with Sandra Cronin, 39, a hotel consultant who also was fascinated by movies and planes. Together they set about raising money, first from friends, then from friends of friends, then from investors they’d never even met. Eventually Cronin became the executive producer and spent well over $1 million on the movie.
Patty Windom, wife of actor William Windom (Doc Hazlitt on Murder, She Wrote) and a longtime friend of Cronin’s, was among the first to invest. She now claims to have put in more than $300,000. But the biggest backer was Bicknell, 55, a twice-married, self-made millionaire from Pittsburg, Kans., whose companies own a T-shirt manufacturing firm, a plastic bag factory and a large cattle operation in addition to 284 Pizza Hut outlets. A member of the Screen Actors Guild, Bicknell also harbors acting ambitions. He once starred in a barely seen 1978 movie about backcountry cockfighting titled Rooster, which he bankrolled. His Gypsy Angels investment came to more than $600,000—the price he wound up paying for the lead role as the barn-storming stunt pilot.
Before filming started in 1981, then-unknown Vanna had auditioned for a one-day role as a waitress—a part that eventually went to The Tonight Show’s Matinee Lady, Carol Wayne. Sally Kirkland, the 1988 Oscar nominee for Anna, had been cast as the dancer but, according to MacGregor, was dismissed. That was Vanna’s entrée to a leading role that amounted to about eight weeks’ work and, as Cronin remembers it, about $12,000 in pay. “I liked her very much,” says MacGregor. “She was never late, never blew her lines. She was nothing but a professional.” Besides baring herself in Gypsy Angels, White zooms over California in the open cockpit of a Stearman biplane, gets dragged from a burning car by Bicknell and gives a convincing performance as a dancer who won’t show her breasts until she’s paid enough.
“It’s a beautiful movie,” says MacGregor, “a great love story with some of the finest aviation footage ever made by Hollywood.” No hyperbole on the latter account. The centerpiece of the movie is a spectacular stunt called the Over-Under, in which a biplane flies upside down at an altitude of less than 10 feet while two speeding cars jump off ramps and over the plane.
Would that the rest of Gypsy Angels had gone as well. MacGregor and Cronin kept running out of money and looking to their investors for more. Tempers strained on the set as location shooting wound down in early 1982. By the time postproduction editing began, MacGregor and Bicknell were pulling the movie in opposite directions, openly hostile to each other. It was during editing that someone simply walked into the film lab and took the negative. Neither Cronin nor MacGregor knows who that was, but Bicknell now has it locked in a vault.
MacGregor accuses Bicknell of suppressing the film to protect his pride and political ambitions. Bicknell—a respected Kansan, president of the local school board and founder of the O. Gene Bicknell Center for Entrepreneurship at Pittsburg State University—doesn’t quibble. He concedes that he’s “embarrassed” by his performance. And he attributes at least part of the blame for his poor showing in the 1986 Republican gubernatorial primary (he finished fourth in a field of seven, despite spending $1.3 million, more than any other candidate) to a bit part he played in another film that featured female nudity.
But Bicknell, who hasn’t given up his acting hopes, maintains that he’s trying to get Gypsy Angels airborne. “I’ve made attempts to salvage the film, to talk to directors, producers and distributors,” says Bicknell, who claims he’s talked to White about redoing some scenes. “Right now I have a writer attempting to piece together some kind of story line. I know that a lot of people have put their hearts and souls as well as their money into this project, and I hope we can find a way to salvage it to everybody’s mutual benefit.”
Besides the court case just decided, tentatively ordering MacGregor, Cronin and the production company to repay $211,000 to a group of investors, another case pits Bicknell against the same group for control of the movie itself. Although it is clear that Bicknell is the single largest investor, it is not as clear that he has the right to simply sit on the film, particularly since success at the box office may well be determined by Vanna’s fleeting celebrity.
In the case just concluded, Cronin was also tentatively assessed $150,000 in punitive damages. Now living in San Francisco, back into hotel consulting, Cronin says her only sin was “naïveté,” not fraud, as charged in the suit. “Until Gypsy Angels, my only experience with the film industry was going to the movies,” says Cronin. Claiming she lost $80,000 on the movie, Cronin insists that she was not the only one who made poor business decisions. “They all really believed in the project,” she says. “They took the responsibility of investing, and now they’re saying they were duped.”
Sean MacGregor is no better off—in fact, considerably worse off—than many of the investors. Now living in Seattle, he blames the stalled Gypsy Angels for his faltering film career. “When you’re in the independent film market, in low-budget movies, if you blow one movie you can kiss your reputation goodbye,” he says. To support his wife of four years, Marcy, 27, and their son, James, 3, MacGregor recently got a job as an acting teacher at a Seattle modeling school. To contribute to the family income, Marcy has taken a late-night job—ironically, as a go-go dancer in local bars.
That Vanna White’s status as the TV hostess with the mostest could turn Gypsy Angels into a highly profitable can of celluloid is a fact lost on no one connected with the movie, least of all MacGregor. He says he’s tried to contact White, hoping she would help force completion of the film, but with no luck. “I’ve tried to get ahold of her to just simply help me,” says MacGregor. He feels sorry for himself, sorry for the investors and sorry, even, for Vanna. “If she had continued with acting, she might have really become a fine actress,” he says. “What she’s doing now is a terrible waste of her talent.”