Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith. She has a chameleon-type quality. Freckle-faced, girl-next-door in one movie, an alluring Aphrodite in the next. Sometimes a fragile beauty, sometimes a wild child. During the ’70s, she was Queen of the Drive-In… How did an actress, who formerly earned the adulation of drive-in addicts everywhere, suddenly slip into anonymity?
“If I have any particular memory of Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith, it would certainly be seeing her in The Swinging Cheerleaders, the most erotically charged film I had ever seen in my young life at the drive-ins. It was the kind of movie that made you sit up straight or slump forward, depending on your mood and she was great in it. Rainbeaux’s films constantly dotted the outdoor screens for years, making her along with Claudia Jenning a drive-in favorite.” – Fred Olen Ray, producer/director
“I believe the first film Cheryl ever did was Lemora A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973),” recalled Eric Caidin. owner of the CARNIVAL OF SOULS type of movie. Her character was only 13 or so, but she made a very big impression on me after seeing that film.”
Alternately titled LEMORA, THE LADY DRACULA , it’s an underrated movie about lost innocence. Rainbeaux played Lila, a naive adolescent who is seduced by Lemora into an alternate lifestyle (vampirism). Allegorically, the subtext involves a teenager struggling with the fear of her own sexuality (a theme reprised in another grim fairy tale, 1984’s COMPANY OF WOLVES); sexually harassed by men, including a minister, Lila finds comfort in her relationship with Lemora.
Cast as a 13-year-old “Singing Angel of the South,” Rainbeaux recalled in a 1986 interview that “(Richard Blackburn) wanted me to cut my inch-long nails for the role and for me to shave my body. Didn’t even have a hair under the arm. He chased me, one day, all over and around the set several times with scissors in his hand, trying to cut my hair. It was a riot.”
Blackburn, LEMORA’s writer/director, couldn’t re- call the circumstances that prompted Rainbeaux’s casting. “I guess she came through some agency,” he said. “She had this dog, a huge Great Dane. She was basically a street waif, a Sunset Strip street waif. This was around 1972.
“I was trying to explain the character to her. I told her, ‘You’re a ward of the church, you’re a very innocent little girl. Now you leave that and all these people are coming on to you. This is a completely new world to you.’ And she said, ‘You mean like if a guy would flash a $50 bill at me from a Caddie?’ I said, Yeah, something like that.’
“In the contract we had with her, it stipulated that she had to live at my parents’ house and get straight, because she was taking so many chemicals it was un- believable. As a matter of fact, she had some sort of condition and was on painkillers. But, back in those days, people would just take the damnedest things. I mean, she was fucking high.
“There was one scene in the movie where she was just loaded out of her mind. It freaked me out because she could have killed herself. I had no idea she had taken whatever it was she took, but it was obvious that she was high.”
After LEMORA, there were films like The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974). Caged Heat (1974), Video Vixens! (1974). Massacre at Central High (1976), Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976), The Pom Pom Girls (1976), The Incredible Melting Man (1977)
And Cinderella (1977). “An adult fairy tale with buttons undone,” blared the British ads. Photos of Rainbeaux, as the fairy tale princess, illustrated Australian matchbooks that tied-in with the 1977 movie. Rainbeaux competed with “tons of females, crowded in this little office,” for the title role. “CINDERELLA was a zany musical comedy directed by Michael Pataki, an amazingly great actor himself,” she related to Bill George in 1986. “He got me to do things most directors couldn’t. Seeing so much of his earlier work, I had much respect and trusted him all the way. It’s he, who, when casting, said, ‘She’s the one.”
An adaptation of the fairy tale, Cinderella traces the misadventures of Cinderella (Smith), who suffers abuse from her two incestuous stepsisters and her man-crazy stepmother. Cinderella longs for the day when she will escape her drudgery and struggles to keep her spirits up until then (“Cinderella”).
The Prince (Smiley), a jaded young man who no longer feels pleasure from ordinary sex (“My Kingdom Won’t Come”), has been reluctant to marry, to the concern of his bickering parents the King and Queen. The King decides to host a ball in the hopes that the Prince will find at least one woman who satisfies his sexual urges (“The Royal Ball”) and sends forth the Royal Chamberlain to invite all the willing women in the land. The Chamberlain, however, is more interested in his own sexual conquests and is delayed by his constant attempts to seduce the women he is meant to be inviting.
Word of the ball reaches Cinderella and her stepsisters. The stepsisters gloat about how they will seduce the Prince (“Do It To Me”). They humiliate Cinderella by dumping ashes and garbage over her, then set out for the ball without her. Cinderella, heartbroken, cries herself to sleep and has a nightmare about being sexually assaulted.
With Cinderella asleep and the family gone, a wanted cat burglar and self-proclaimed transvestite and kleptomaniac (Richardson) ducks into the empty house to hide from an angry mob. Upon being discovered by Cinderella, he convinces her that he is her “fairy” godmother and sends her upstairs to bathe while he burgles the house (“Grab It”). When Cinderella emerges fully cleaned, he is amazed at her beauty and decides to help her after all. Producing a “magic wand” he has stolen previously, he astonished to discover that the device really works and uses it to give Cinderella a beautiful gown. As a finishing touch, the Fairy Godmother enchants Cinderella’s vagina into “a snapper” to make her irresistible to the Prince. The wand bears a warning that the magic will only last until midnight. The Fairy Godmother accompanies Cinderella to make sure she leaves on time, but secretly uses the opportunity to steal the crown jewels. Meanwhile, Cinderella’s desperate stepmother throws herself at the reluctant Lord Chamberlain (“It’s So Hard To Find A Man”). At the ball, the Prince indulges in a blindfolded orgy with every willing woman in his kingdom, but finds himself bored by them all until he encounters Cinderella’s magical vagina. He falls instantly in love with her, but before he can learn her true identity, the clock strikes midnight, and the Fairy Godmother rushes Cinderella away with the full court in pursuit (“Oh, A Snapper!”).
The following day, the Prince must have sex with every woman in the land in order to identify his beloved. By the time he reaches Cinderella’s house, he is so exhausted that he must be brought in on a stretcher, and Cinderella must approach him cowgirl style. Recognizing “the snapper,” the Prince declares Cinderella to be the girl he loves, and the two depart for the palace. On their way, they see that another angry mob has captured the Fairy Godmother and intend to execute him for burgling the royal palace. Cinderella quickly tells the Prince that the Fairy Godmother was the one who gave her her magical vagina, and the Prince halts the execution and offers the Fairy Godfather a royal pardon and a position in court. The Fairy Godfather jumps aboard the their carriage and declares that the story has ended happily for all before settling back to watch Cinderella and her Prince have sex.
“At first, I was leery about doing a film with so much nudity. I did need work and felt I needed a leading role. After reading the script, I realized if it were to be an X, it would probably be the softest ever made. I found the script very funny and light as a feather. So when I landed it, I rode it through. I enjoyed working for my friends, the Bands (Charles and Albert), I worked for them, again starring in Laserblast (1977) and (appearing) in Parasite (1982)”
Previously cast in nymphet and cheerleader roles, Rainbeaux who also served as a Playboy model had already acclimated herself to “disrobement” obligations. Richard Blackburn recalled there was no problem persuading her to perform discreet nudity in LEMORA. “In fact, it was just the opposite,” recounted Blackbum. “There isn’t that much nudity in the movie because I didn’t want there to be. I just wanted suggestions and flashes of it. And Cheryl, at that time, was pretty well endowed for what she was supposed to play. I mean, here she was at 17, playing someone who was 13. So we couldn’t have shown her breasts, because it wouldn’t have worked for how young the character was supposed to be. There’s a scene where she’s nude, except I didn’t show it. But she didn’t’ care. She was just a Sunset Strip gal. I don’t think she was at all embarrassed about it. I almost had to restrain her.
“She is not, in any way, a really accomplished actress. What she does have and certainly did have then is a Botticelli angel quality. She’d seen some pretty weird scenes, but you’d never know it by looking at her. She looked like the picture of innocence.”
Jonathan Demme, Rainbeaux’s CAGED HEAT director, recalled her presence and professionalism. “Rainbeaux had everything it took to star in a New World Pictures production youth, a great appearance and the ability to say lines of dialogue. Plus, she had real talent and was an intriguing young woman.”
Walt Lee, editor of The Reference Guide to Fantastic Films, had developed a rapport with Rainbeaux. At one time, he even contemplated a photo book devoted to the actress. “She had leading roles in about 12 movies,” Lee said. “She worked for some of the best directors in Hollywood. She had significant roles in several dozen films. You’d think that now. still only in her late ’30s, she’d be well-to-do. But you’d be wrong. She wasn’t paid for some of those movies, and she spent what she made on the others.”
One of her plum assignments was a supporting role in an A-movie, Farewell, My Lovely (1975). “My gangster boyfriend who saves my life in the picture, was Sylvester Stallone,” wrote Rainbeaux in a letter to Bill George. “What a sweetheart of a gentleman he was. Always positive and driven toward his future glory. I always felt the two of us would make it. He was terrific.”
Asked to cite a favorite film from her body of work, Rainbeaux selected Caged Heat (1974). “With some of the logos made to sell the film, like “White Hot Desires Melt Cold Prison Steel,’ you might first think it exploited everything under the sun. However, it does take a hard and serious look into the animalistic, zoo-like life of inmates more than likely to be locked up somewhere in the Midwest. It’s one of those films that was filmed in Anywhere, U.S.A.”
In order to write an article for the Mesa University college newspaper on how cheerleading demeans women, Kate (Jo Johnston) infiltrates the cheerleading squad. The other cheerleaders deal with their own problems: Mary Ann (Colleen Camp) struggles to get her promiscuous football player boyfriend, Buck (Ron Hajek), to propose to her; Lisa (Rosanne Katon) is having an affair with statistics teacher Professor Thorpe (Jason Sommers); and Andrea (Rainbeaux Smith) debates whether or not to stay a virgin. Meanwhile, Kate uncovers unscrupulous dealings: the football coach (Jack Denton) and college dean (George D. Wallace) are in cahoots in rigging games to favor betting spreads that Professor Thorpe, who is also the bookie, arranges. Later Prof. Thorpe turns against the coach and dean as they turn against their star quarterback, who they want to convince to throw the game for a big payoff. When confronted, the quarterback refuses on principle and is arrested by university police, who plant a marijuana joint on him as they carry out the dean’s ultimatum. The movie endorses defiance of authority, and questions the ideals of love and virginity.- The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974)
In 1989, Rainbeaux granted an interview with writer Kris Gilpin. The profile was optimistically titled “The Return of Rainbeaux.” No such luck. She had not made a screen appearance in seven years, and a comeback wasn’t in her future.
Rainbeaux to Gilpin: “I wanted to be an archaeologist, but majored in the arts. Drawing and painting, music and dance. My mother, Jayne, was a ballet teacher and she performed the Orpheum Circuit during Vaudeville.”
What was the significance behind the Rainbeaux sobriquet? “I like what it symbolized, and I dress very colorfully. But I use the name Cheryl.”
A couple of years ago, during a Hollywood trip, filmmaker Donald Farmer (VAMPIRE COP) tried to visit the house that was occupied by Rainbeaux and her mother. He was greeted at the door by Rainbeaux’s mother but denied entrance. Farmer got enough of a peek inside the door “to see paintings of Rainbeaux all over the place.”
“The last time I saw her,” recalled Richard Blackburn, “she was with this older guy. This was about six years ago, at Donald Reed’s horror film society. She sounded like she had drunk an entire case of Jim Beam. Her voice was down to her ankles it was so low.”
“I think what happened to Rainbeaux is the classic example of burnout,” opined Eric Caidin. “She went through pretty much what everybody went through in the late ’60s, but it seemed to have more of an effect on her than others. Some people get out of it. Some people don’t.”
Filmmaker Larry Greenberg (BIMBO PENITENTIARY) was initially thrilled to meet the actress in 1985. “It didn’t matter if Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith was playing virginal heroines or rebels,” said Greenberg. “Rainbeaux expressed herself through sex, and she was damn good at it. But, as I spoke to her, I realized the real life Rainbeaux was now a troubled, out-of-work single mother. As we spoke, she openly drank out of a silver flask while rambling about her career.”
In contrast, Jonathan Demme’s recollections are all the more frustrating because he knew the Rainbeaux who should have survived the ’70s. “Rainbeaux’s acting abilities arose from her excellent instinctive responses to situations, more than from formalized training,” said Demme. “I remember her as a good person, and reliable to work with. Rainbeaux played a small part in Melvin and Howard (1980), as a mom sharing a room in a maternity ward with Mary Steenburgen. I would have liked to work with her again. I often wonder what has become of Rainbeaux.”
April 27, 1993; I called the editor, alerting him that the Rainbeaux profile was completed and on the way. Composing the feedback seemed, at times, uncomfortably like writing a eulogy. Walt Lee and Eric Caidin, both still in touch with Rainbeaux, informed the actress I was desperate to converse with her.
The following day I got a phone call: “This is Cheryl Smith.” Rainbeaux. The voice was husky but retained that familiar nymphet inflection.
“I’m sorry I took so long to get back to you,” she explained. “I’ve been trying to get my life together for the past few years.”
Rainbeaux vowed she’d be prepared to do an interview sometime during the next 24 hours. But, instead, she did her vanishing act for the next few days. Thinking I lost her, I frantically called Lee, Caidin and Rainbeaux’s mother in an effort to trace the elusive actress. Rainbeaux finally called the following Friday night.
“Sorry I couldn’t have called you earlier,” she said. “I had to go to the welfare office.”
Recalling her genesis as a screen actress, Rainbeaux revealed her very first movie was a short titled The Birth of Aphrodite (1971). “It was an independent film,” she explained. “When they showed the trailer with a Clint Eastwood western, that was the first time I saw myself on screen. The trailer played the Rolling Stones’ ‘She’s Like a Rainbow’. And when the picture came on, it was me coming out of the ocean, covered with seaweed. I didn’t know it at the time, but APHRODITE had won at the Atlanta Film Festival. They had edited all the winners together into a feature film called THRESHOLD NINE ILLUSIONS, which I never saw.”
Few of Rainbeaux’s fans realize she jammed with a young Joan Jett. “We did a film together called WE’RE ALL CRAZY NOW. They changed the title to Du-beat-e-o (1984). I don’t know what the hell that means! They put Ray Sharkey in it. We almost lost that film in the editing room. One of the editors was an alcoholic and he got really pissed off, and threw the movieola through a thick plate of glass in the editing room. We ended up owing the editing room so much money that they wouldn’t take the picture. I don’t know what happened to that film. They showed it at the FILMEX, but I’ve never seen the finished thing.”
When reminded of Massacre at Central High (1976), regarded by some as the best of her cult classics, Rainbeaux winces. “Ugh,” she said. “No, that’s not my best film. I mean, basically, it’s 12 pointless murders. There’s not one adult in the film, if you notice. It’s just kids. Brad Davis, who’s not alive anymore, did the best he could with something so ridiculous. I primarily did it because I needed some work, and Bobby Carradine was an old friend.” In addition to CENTRAL HIGH, Rainbeaux and Carradine also appeared in The Pom Pom Girls (1976)
Her favorite director is Jonathan Demme. “On CAGED HEAT, he was just fabulous!” Rainbeaux exclaimed. “I was young, we did that in ’73. Of course, I was still living with my parents. In most of my movies, I furnished my own clothes, because I had a lot of clothes from the turn of the century. But Jonathan Demme and his wife Evelyn Purcell came over to my parents’ and we were flabbergasted. They chose some clothes from my room. It was so nice having them over.
“It was easy to follow his directions, because he was very precise and decisive. He’s the best. I’ve worked with a lot of directors and he’s by far my favorite. I’d like to work with him again.”
A familiar player in the “cheerleader” subgenre, Rainbeaux cites Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976) her favorite. During production she was pregnant with her son, “who has just turned 18. His name is Justin. Justin Sterling. He’s a good kid, trying to get into a music career. He’s doing a lot of deejaying and is off to a good start, I hope.”
Slumber Party ’57 (1976) “That was Debra Winger’s first film. I don’t think she puts it on her resume. There are some personal things I could tell, but I wouldn’t want them to be published. She’d probably come after me with a butcher knife. She was very…um … determined to become an actress. Most people in that movie had never done anything before, but she had training. She’d work with me, run lines with me. In that way she was really sweet. Everyone I’ve ever worked with, who was any good, has gotten to the top. I’ve just had a lot of personal and medical problems that I’ve had to take care of. I never planned on being away from my career as long as I have.”
In recent years, Rainbeaux has been involved in music and painting. But even those creative endeavors had to be put on hold last year. “I was hospitalized for most of last year,” said Rainbeaux. “I had an infection in my foot and almost had to have it amputated. But, I’m basically okay now.”
Probing once more into her past, I asked Rainbeaux to comment on Richard Blackburn’s retrospection. First, was she on drugs while shooting Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural? “Absolutely not!” Rainbeaux protested. “I was only 15 years old. Not 17. I didn’t even know what drugs were.
“I’ll tell you a funny story about that film. Toward the end of the movie, I had to bite Richard on the neck. When I did that, he got a hard-on. Here I am, this 15 year-old girl, and he gets a hard-on. The whole crew noticed, and they thought it was pretty funny.
“He expected a lot from me. I never got paid for rehearsing. He’d want me to come and rehearse for a week at his apartment, at all kinds of crazy hours. He would act like a general, you know, and make demands of me. I did the best I could, that’s all I could do. But we really didn’t’ get along too well.”
Regarding her private life, Rainbeaux restricts her comments to some positive speculation. “I’m having a few problems that I hope to have resolved by the middle of this year. I’m hoping to get my own place, get an agent and I would like to get back into working again.”
She concluded by saying, “One of my biggest goals is to work with Jonathan Demme again.”
And that was that. She now only refers to herself as Cheryl. I remind her that admirers still fondly address her as Rainbeaux. But the former drive-in queen is surprised the public still remembers her at all. Wistfully, she promised to speak to me again.
If she can iron out her problems, perhaps Rainbeaux will achieve her goals, including a reunion with Demme. And maybe, on a more personal level, she’ll get her life back together again.
THE DRIVE-IN QUEEN, WHO HEATED UP HORROR PIX, SUDDENLY VANISHED!
By Bruce G. Hallenbeck (Femme_Fatales_v02n01_0025)