Robert “Colonel Rob” Schaffner, an L.A. outsider art deity and the guy who got Heavy Metal Parking Lot to whatever masses it got to, is dead.
Friends say Schaffner, 57, was suffering from various debilitating illnesses when he killed himself in his Southern California home earlier this month. I got the bad news from Jeff Krulik, a genius and underknown filmmaker who with his friend John Heyn directed and produced Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a 15-minute, no-budget documentary shot in 1986 in the parking lot of an arena outside Washington, D.C., as Judas Priest fans pregamed for a show. (Watch the whole thing here.)
Schaffner’s patronage of the generally ignored short flick, called “the Citizen Kane of wasted teenage metalness” by one cast member turned Los Angeles hard rock purveyor, pretty much nutshells his artistic mission.
Schaffner’s outsider legend was born at Mondo Video A Go-Go, a movie rental store that he opened in the late-1980s in Silver Lake. In a 2016 interview, he told me positioned his establishment as completely anti-establishment— as “the total opposite of Blockbuster”—out of respect to Russ Meyer, an iconic outsider film pioneer who along with making kitschy classics like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! often dabbled in the disgusting and once took a teenage Schaffner under his wing. (Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, a Meyer biography, has author Jimmy McDonough calling Schaffner “the only hardcore pornographer Meyer ever befriended.”)
“I had the greatest fucking teacher in the whole world,” Schaffner said of Meyer. “Russ told me to open a business. So why don’t I open a business that doesn’t carry Tom Hanks and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies?”
Schaffner enhanced his own bizarro bona fides by putting on events at the store that nobody else would host. He seemed especially giggly recalling the “Fourth of July transvestite barbecues and greasepaint-coated re-enactments of the Easter story” that Mondo hosted back when doing so was inarguably edgy. (One Twitter memorialist called Schaffner an “archivist of a sleazier time.”) He attracted a clientele by renting videos nobody else would think of stocking; some because they were just too gross, others because he was the only guy who had them.
“If you asked for the horror section,” wrote L.A. Weekly’s Danny Fuentes in a Schaffner tribute, “Rob likely would ask you something like, ‘Are you talking about zombies or more like Naughty Nazis, Rape & Revenge, or Manson Mania?”
Schaffner also was an aggressive supporter of other artists wanting to swim outside the mainstream, which nobody knows better than Krulik and Heyn. Schaffner pushed HMPL early and aggressively. Schaffner told me a Hollywood stagehand he worked with handed him a “grainy-ass” VHS copy of HMPL, which had never been officially released at that point, and he immediately fell for the real-world suburban dirtball characters—Zebraman, Graham Of Dope, Joints Across America, etc.—and wanted the rest of the world to love them, too. This being the pre-DVD era, Schaffner dubbed several more VHS tapes, designed his own packaging for the underground movie, and made sure it was seen by Mondo Video’s most connected and luminescent customers.
Among those turned on to HPML by Schaffner: Go-Go’s singer Belinda Carlisle, actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage, and Cage’s cousin and future director Sofia Coppola. At Coppola’s request, Schaffner made a batch of “like 10 copies” of the movie to so she could spread the word.
The movie, while virtually unknown outside Southern California at the time, garnered a huge following on the L.A. punk scene, with aggressive lobbying of Bill Bartell of White Flag and members of Redd Kross. Schaffner did his best to bring exposure throughout the the rock universe by advocating for HMPL to touring rockers.
“What I was doing was, the bands when they would come through L.A. would come into the store, tons of rock stars,” Schaffner said. “These bands would have the video players in the bus, and I’d go, ‘You gotta fucking see this thing!’”
A copy of HMPL eventually found its way onto the Nirvana bus. Kurt Cobain’s stamp of approval gave HMPL its rock immortality.
Schaffner closed the video store in 2007. The internet took away the uniqueness of his store and the entire “underbelly of Hollywood,” Schaffner told me. “Underground and legend is one thing,” he told me, “but it was time to go.”
Schaffner did art for rock bands after Mondo Video’s demise, including work used by Black Sabbath on their 2016 world tour. Schaffner said when he turned in the graphics, he slipped a DVD of Heavy Metal Parking Lot into the package.
Schaffner said he got a phone call from Sabbath on the road thanking/scolding him for gifting the movie. Turns out Ozzy Osbourne was put off by a scene where a young dirtball hails Priest as the kings of metal, but says Ozzy’s gotten “chubby.”
“Ozzy said, ‘Fuck that bloke!’” Schaffner recalled with a laugh. “That’s a good review! At least Ozzy got a look at him!”
RIP, Colonel Rob.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255