Saturday, June 10, 2006

The 1977 Murder of Christa Helm

Thanks to ace researcher Derek Tague (also an incredibly funny fellow and the king of dyslexic humor),
we now have a bit more info on the unreleased movie, LET’S GO FOR BROKE and its murdered star, Christa Helm. Most of this came from a series of mid-seventies clippings from THE VILLAGE VOICE, VARIETY and THE NEW YORK POST, with a bit extra from my own efforts. I’ve tried to compile this new information, along with what little we knew before, into one chronological piece on the unfortunate actress. There are still missing pieces that might explain much of what remains unknown but this is much more than I had found anywhere on the Internet to date.
Who was Christa Helm and how did she end up as a disco era Black Dahlia? On the surface level, Christa was the ultimate party girl—a trophy girlfriend and "Good Time Charlotte" who was widely known amongst the early seventies in-crowd for her big-name boyfriends and her boundless ambition to be a good old-fashioned Lana Turner-style Hollywood star. She was described as "very beautiful, tall, about 5’9" with yellow-brown owl eyes—and smart."
Born Sandra Clements in Milwaukee on November 11th, 1949, she ran away from home in the mid-sixties to become a go-go dancer at age 17 and later a Playboy bunny. An unsuccessful early marriage resulted in a daughter, Nicole, who would be raised by her grandfather. During the process of getting a divorce, Christa’s husband was killed in a car accident, leaving her technically a young widow.
At some point during this period, she moved East and became a top New York fashion model. As such, she reportedly invested in the original stage presentation of the religious musical GODSPELL produced by Lea and Perrin heir Stuart Duncan. Duncan, not happy with the screen adaptation of GODSPELL, decided to become a film producer himself. His first independent film, shot in Haiti to cut down on costs, was to be LET’S GO FOR BROKE.
Described as a "spy spoof" and a "romp," LET’S GO FOR BROKE was designed to serve as a star-making vehicle for the married producer’s new love interest, Christa Helm. Having dreamed of stardom from a very early age, Christa took with her all the trappings even though this was only her second movie (the first was LEGACY OF SATAN, a no budget horror credited to DEEP THROAT’s director, Gerard Damiano who has been said to have mob ties.) Her island entourage included designers, hair stylists, colorists and a makeup artist. Never averse to spending someone else’s money, Christa’s behavior undoubtedly played a role in the fact that the film’s $700,000 budget inflated to over a million dollars.
Filming in Haiti, especially in that era, was far from the easy tax dodge it might have appeared to be. Duncan had to be creative to get around various government restrictions as well as the bouts of Montezuma’s Revenge that reportedly hit Christa and presumably others in the cast and crew.
In LET’S GO FOR BROKE, Christa Helm played Jackie Broke, "a crusading reporter who becomes involved in an international kidnapping conspiracy." Her character was described as a cross between Barbara Walters and Barbarella. Christa told columnist Earl Wilson in September of 1973 that she would not do nudes scenes because her family was proud of her and had invited "everyone in the neighborhood, including the pizza man, to the opening of …BROKE and it isn’t even finished yet."
Apparently it did get finished and, in 1974, had its world premiere for some reason in Cincinnati, Ohio preceded by seemingly endless TV and radio ads. I can still hear the announcer’s voice in my head! (For more details on this part of the story, I still need to find the time to spend a day at the Cincinnati Library so stay tuned for that.) Whatever the reaction to the film here, though, it failed to attract a distributor.
On the East Coast, Christa already had a reputation as a disco-loving playgirl model who dated football stars including Joe Namath. Perhaps anticipating her next career moves, she moved west where she settled, perhaps with the help of some of her wealthy friends, in what was described as "a palatial mansion in LA." By all accounts Christa loved men, loved sex and was seemingly not above using (as many stars before her had done) her charms to further her Hollywood ambitions. That said, she had told Earl Wilson about a time that she had been offered a chance to be a call girl and turned it down.
In LA, though, her ever-changing "stable of studs" allegedly included actors Michael Sarrazin, Warren Beatty, Desi Arnaz, Jr and George Hamilton along with pop stars Mick Jagger and Englebert Humperdink and director Roman Polanski (whose own wife, Sharon Tate had, of course been murdered a few years earlier by the Manson "family."). She even told friends that the Shah of Iran had flown her over to his palace for a week for…?? "She lived as a free agent and frankly enjoyed sex," said one friend.
In spite of her connections, however, her acting career was nowhere near as successful as she had expected. In fact, she seems to have only managed to grab a small part on a STARSKY AND HUTCH episode and a memorable role as a bitchy beauty contest contestant in an early WONDER WOMAN. Christa continued to pin her hopes for true stardom on LET’S GO FOR BROKE. At one point, it had been retitled LADY J. and she continually touted its supposedly forthcoming release when she made the gossip columns. According to one posthumous report, she had shot some possibly more explicit new scenes for the film in Hollywood the year before her death but the now allegedly R-rated epic still eluded release.
Her West Hollywood murder on February 2nd of 1977 received surprisingly little coverage for someone so well known in the gossip columns and amongst the stars themselves. This led one writer to speculate in print that "who she knew and how she knew them may be the reason her savage killing was barely reported."
One of the few modern day Internet reports I could find indicates that Christa Helm was stabbed to death in the bathroom at a party she was attending. Contemporary reports differ from that, saying that she was found next to her car with her keys in her hand. She had been stabbed twenty times. One report says she had just exited her car. Another states that after a loud argument with friends at a party thrown by a producer who had just been convicted of perjury she had stormed out to get INTO her car. Either way, unless these early, conflicting, reports were erroneous, it was apparently not in the bathroom.
One clipping indicates that in spite of her attempts to keep up her playgirl reputation, her money was largely gone by the end and she had had to move into an apartment, take a roommate and even get a job as a waitress at Pippins.
None of the coverage of Christa’s life or death that I’ve seen mentioned drugs but they were omnipresent in the lifestyle she chose and have to be considered as a possible factor in her death. Reports of her celebrity liaisons and and whispered ties to even more powerful people led police to search for her possibly "incendiary" diary but none was ever found. The case quickly faded almost as if (he said conspiratorially) someone didn’t WANT it investigated. Christa Helm’s name seems to have faded with it. Her remains were returned to Milwaukee and cremated. Her home town obituary appeared under her real name. Little was heard of Christa Helm again until last year when TV’s CELEBRITY JUSTICE announced an investigation. If they’ve done one, though, I can find no reference to it (and my wife watches that show from time to time.) Christa’s daughter, Nicole, now older even than her mother at the time of her death, has announced a book that might hopefully lead to the solution to the murder at long last.
Oddly enough, the initial 1977 publicity regarding Christa Helm’s brutal murder generated enough morbid interest that LET’S GO FOR BROKE was finally picked up for release by New York distributor Joseph Brenner, if only to exploit the situation. The fact that it STILL wasn’t released makes you wonder…


Poptique said...

Curiouser & curiouser.

Surely at the very least there must be a print of the trailer somewhere out there...

L. R. said...

Has her daughter read this article yet? There are some pretty questionable things said about Christa Helm. I think alot of "media attention", negative as it is, is what Christa got. Some knew of another side of her...a spiritual side, a kinder, gentler side. She didn't have a good manager for her career and as smart as she was, she didn't have the knowledge of knowing how to get into the Hollywood scene in a way that would spare her the "bad press." So she went in blind and naive. Hell, she was still in her 20's! Again, there was another side of Christa Helm that most did not see. They only saw the public Christa. Sure she wanted to be well known in Hollywood, but she went about it in a very naive fashion. If she had someone to take her under their wing and train her and show her the ropes maybe things would have been different for her. However, she knew no other caused her to gain a questionable reputation in the public eye. People can speculate all they want about her and the Enquirer can print it's crap and people can just say what they want but the truth is, this is still someone's mother and I think she was a good mother and a good person. Her daughter, Nicole, lost her mother in a horrid way. This is not something anyone should have to go through. Christa Helm was murdered in it's most terrible form. She didn't deserve that.

Booksteve said...

I agree l.r. As I stated, the whole piece I did was simply summarizing the various contemporary articles. She certainly didn't seem to mind her reputation as one of the gossip column bits that I didn't include has her rating her various famous paramours as far as "sex appeal or whatever they're calling it nowadays." Yes, she was somebody's mother and no, of course she didn't deserve what happened to her. Neither does she deserve to be forgotten.

animalmother said...


hell of an article. i never heard of her and the movie you speak of. i'm just now getting back into cult or grindhouse as they call it. man, i want to see this movie. how did you hear about her or the movie?

Anonymous said...

You obviously don't know as much as youthink about her. She was not born, Sandra Clements that was her married name, and her daughter was not raised by her grandfather but, by a stranger who was not very good to her, please look into your facts before you write them.

Ilya said...

I just found a pretty long interview with Christa Helm in Volume I Issue I of The American Film Magazine from December 1974 in which she discusses her move to New York and her early career. In it she doesn't mention anything about being a playmate and she specifically talks about turning down come-ons from sleazy photographers, although she does imply that she is promiscuous. The film is mentioned a lot and frankly the plot doesn't make sense, but I don't think its supposed to. It talks about how she plays a reporter who found the "ultimate weapon," pills that can apparently turn things into chopped-meat.

Booksteve said...

Wow! Can you please get me a scan of that article? I actually had a long run of AMERICAN FILM from the mid-seventies but I've long since sold them off. Aaargh!

suzan said...

About twenty years ago my friend and I hitchiked up to hollywood, freshly out of highschool, looking for fun and excitement, which we got more than our share of. But anyways, back to this story, anyways, we came upon Christa,s lesbian lover lounging by the pool. We bummed a cigarette off her and then started chatting. I guess she felt comfortable with us because she started asking if we knew who Christa helm was, that she had been on some t.v. shows. I said I thought so, and my friend said her name was also krista, but it was spelled with a "k'.She brought up the subject about being cheated on, and I said that I was very jealous, when I,m with a sweetheart, and she said she was too. Then she said that she had stabbed Christa, and that she had been cheating on her with a man. First, I had never met a lesbian, that I knew of, and She was pretty, so I was a bit confused. I didn,t really get the jist of what she was telling us, and I remember saying "I understand. I didn,t think anything more than it had been a fight, not a death. Then I think she realized what she had said to us, and I got a creepy feeling that we better leave, now. So I said "we got to go". I totally put it in the back of my mind until I saw the story of Chista,s death on t.v. , and saw the women we had met, lounging by the pool, exactly as we had met her. I just want her daughter to know that this experience happened exatly, as I recalled above. I didn,t know where to get a hold of her, that,s why I printed this here. God bless her daughter, and Crista. I f anyone is wondering why she confessed this to us, I think it,s because we both probably appeared like young naieve juvenille,s to her, and I feel she was in a way trying to confess it and justify it in her mind, and who best to tell than a couple of delinquent kids, so to speak. Take care all!

Anonymous said...

Got A Tip?
Contact the homicide cold case unit at the Los Angeles County Sheriff'sDepartment at 323-890-5500.

Aaron said...

I am a manager at the 20th Century Theater in Cincinnati, Ohio where the movie 'Lets Go For Broke' premiered.

Royal said...

Hi Suzan,

My name is Royal. I am the brother-inlaw to Christa Helm's daughter and uncle to Christa's two grandsons.

I am in regular contact with Christa's daughter and contacting you on her behalf.

Would you please contact me

Anonymous said...

What's knew with Christa Helm?

L. ROSS said...

I read that Christa nearly became a Playboy Bunny but backed out of it after a friend of hers backed out. They had planned to do it together. And that she would only go so far, such as refusing to do porn. Which is good, of course.
I wonder what the address of the place is where she died ? Just curious.