t the peak of rush hour, a 1970’s-era Ford Thunderbird barreled down a busy Hoboken street, narrowly missing a big-shoed clown. The car must have been traveling 60 in a 20 MPH zone. It vaulted off of a small vehicle into a perfect Yurchenko, stuck the landing and then exploded fantastically.
“Cut!” my dad yelled and stepped out from behind a camera.
The pyrotechnics were real, but the explosion was part of a carefully choreographed and controlled stunt, directed by my dad, Lloyd Kaufman.
In 1974, Dad founded Troma Entertainment, the longstanding NYC-based independent movie studio. For more than 45 years, he has directed low-budget, controversial and campy titles such as The Toxic Avenger, Poultrygeist: Night of The Chicken Dead, and #Shakespeare’s Shitstorm,* coming in 2020. Dad has a cult following for underdog superheroes, high school nerds, and the now legendary Car Flip.
My childhood existed at the intersection of New York’s ritzy Upper East Side and the rough-around-the-edges Troma Universe. We lived in a brownstone on a quiet side street, blocks from Gracie Mansion. Our home was at best, a fixer-upper. The neighbors expected us to gut renovate. But my father, who along with his crew slept on the floor during productions, thought it was perfect.
We had made the place our own with a mix of inherited antiques and “Tromabilia.” My mom’s cherished 18th century silver dish housed the bloody severed ear my sister wore in Tromeo & Juliet. A prosthetic belly leaned against flowers on the breakfast table. Posters for Troma films like Death to the Pee Wee Squad, That’s My Baby! and Rabid Grannies served as family portraits.
Every summer, Dad churned out a new low-budget title. When my classmates headed to the Hamptons, my mom, two sisters and I moved into a Motel 6 near Dad’s latest set. Instead of tennis, we played bit roles like “Jingoistic Baby,” “Baby Blown Up into Tree,” and “Children Skewered on Samurai Sword.”
This year, Dad was filming Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD. Most days, my sisters and I ran around set dipping our fingers into buckets of fake blood and sneaking cookies off the craft table. But the morning Dad was scheduled to film the car flip, he insisted we stay home. The stunt was unusually expensive for Troma. Plus, Dad was nervous about our safety. All it would take was one careless mistake, he warned us, and lives could be lost.
We kissed Dad goodbye and retreated into the house for breakfast. The previous owner of our crib had been an octogenarian chemist. Instead of a stove, he had outfitted the kitchen with a science lab. A trapezoidal stainless-steel island jutted out beneath an industrial strength fan. Spigots on the wall controlled the flow of gas to semi-opaque rubber tubes. Free standing Bunsen burners migrated around the island with the liberty of free-range chickens.
Our babysitter prepared breakfast at the trapezoid. She twisted open the butterfly spigot at the top of the tube and then ignited a flame beneath the kettle. As she adjusted the Bunsen burners to make room for a frying pan, the rubber tube delivering gas coiled over the flame of another burner.
The serpentine tube writhed. I watched a dark oval grow where the flame silently melted the exterior of the tube. The rubber curdled as it cycled through blues, purples and blacks. I couldn’t look away. It was beautiful, and mesmerizing. I was transfixed.
Troma superheroes keep their powers hidden beneath an underdog facade. At home that morning, a real superhero saved our life. Her alter-ego was Pat Kaufman, a petite blonde with a hint of a southern drawl.
Mom flew into the kitchen. With one hand, she clamped the spigot closed and stopped the flow of gas. With the other, she grabbed the fire extinguisher and singlehandedly sprayed out the flame.
Meanwhile, across the Hudson, Dad filmed the car flip without a hitch. The explosive stunt was a huge success. So much so that ever-frugal Dad would go on to recycle the original footage in one movie after another for the next 30 years. It would become a “wait for it…” Easter egg that die-hard fans have come to expect in every Troma movie since.
Had our superhero Mom not rushed into the kitchen the moment she did, or had she turned off the gas even a millisecond later… well, let’s just say that in the Troma movie adaptation of our life, this is where we’d cut to the car flip.
Lily-Hayes Kaufman is a NY-based writer, director and mom. In a previous life, she sold her soul to an investment bank to pay her way through the Harvard Business School. She is writing a memoir about growing up in the shadow of The Toxic Avenger, a hideous superhero created by her dad. Twitter: @heyahayes Website: lilyhayeskaufman.com