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…