Funded by a lifetime of Mattel money, the Ken doll’s namesake (and son of its creator) didn’t have to work a day of his life. Still, he made Delivery Boys
Whatever else we might say about Barbie—and we’ve all said a lot— the gal has been a goldmine. From Barbara Millicent Roberts’s debut in 1959 to Greta Gerwig’s juggernaut film this week, Barbie has made billions and billions of dollars for the people in her sphere. She has worked sufficiently hard for the money, in fact, that a fair number of people haven’t had to work a day in their lives. Among the first of these dreamhouse dwellers were Barbara and Ken Handler, daughter and son of the woman who gave her groundbreaking dolls her own children’s names—and who gave those children stock in Mattel.
Ken Handler never had a conventional job. For his part, Handler wanted very much to be an artist, particularly a filmmaker. According to Robin Gerber’s Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll & The Woman Who Created Her, it was an ambition he harbored from a young age: as a kid he wrote movie scripts and programmed imaginary film festivals. As an adult, he spent his Mattel millions in pursuit of his artistic goals—starting record labels, production companies, and art galleries. (He also used his power to pursue sex; more on that later.) And one of the most peculiar artifacts of his efforts is the 1985 movie Delivery Boys, a movie that deserves pride of place in the basic cable B-movie pantheon.
It’s best described as a confused Porky’s meets Breakin’, a Frankenfilm nakedly pitched to the era’s box office trends. In the film, a ragtag crew of pizza delivery b-boys—called the Delivery Boys—have to fight the machinations of the evil Spider (Mario Van Peebles in one of his first speaking roles), who tries to keep them from victory at the citywide breakdance championship contest. The leader of a competing crew, Spider forces his rivals’ boss to send three of the titular Boys on delivery runs guaranteed to entrap them, scenarios taken straight from porn movies: Max is lured to the opulent uptown home of a father-daughter pair of perverts; Conrad, the rich boy slumming it as a breakdancer, gets strapped to a table and injected with hormones in an ex-Nazi’s experimental medical lab; and Joey is forced to pose nude as a living statue in a chichi downtown art gallery. They escape with their wits about them and, of course, crush Spider’s Devil Dogs in the championship battle. (It’s actually more chaotic and incoherent than this.)
But Handler’s involvement takes Delivery Boys beyond cult classic and into pop culture mystery territory. How did a self-styled auteur with money to burn end up directing a raunchy sex comedy held together with breakdancing scenes? Delivery Boys is a mystery wrapped in an enigma: a turducken of a tale that stuffs race, class, and sex into the worn carcass of an absurdist plot, brines it in a little sexual harassment and trusses it up with the workaday labor of the adult film industry. Join my investigation, won’t you?
The “real” Barbie and Ken found their notoriety—and perhaps even their money—burdensome. In interviews over the years, Ken Handler sneered at the dolls’ popularity and portrayed himself as a sensitive aesthete saddled with a vulgar and small-minded family—a pose he seemed to have taken early in life according to both Gerber’s book and MG Lord’s Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. He “saw his parents and sister as living in the mainstream,” writes Gerber, while “he ‘dribbled along some obscure tributary.’”
Where the doll represented some buff American ideal, Handler spent his teen years playing the piano and seeing “movies with subtitles.” He looked down on what he saw as his sister Barbara’s life of leisure—“she owes a lot to that little doll,” he once said— and occupied his own time with pursuits he found sufficiently high-minded. A lover of jazz and opera, he played the harpsichord, rehabbed historic Manhattan mansions, and studied photography. This was his true occupation: full-time dilettante.
Handler spent his Mattel millions in pursuit of artistic fulfillment. Though he briefly worked in the Universal Studios mailroom after he graduated from UCLA in 1965 with a music degree, paying his dues quickly lost its appeal. Until his death in 1994, he sunk his money into a series of artistic endeavors clearly designed to promote his own talents. He wrote and produced a couple of records for his own folk and pop labels, started an L.A. gallery where he showed his photography, and, in 1974, directed, and likely self-financed, his first movie. The tale of a disaffected rich kid (perhaps a stand-in for Handler?) who goes on the lam with a younger boy whose parents want to institutionalize him, A Place Without Parents (also released as Truckin’) was probably a high-minded effort: it showed at the Atlanta International Film Festival and its ad copy called it “an unusual story of today’s youth in a society where pain and cruelty outstrips beauty, warmth and human compassion.” The film received virtually no notice, but for a single Playgirl review, and it didn’t go anywhere. It’s not clear from publicly available sources why.
Handler subsequently moved his wife and three children from L.A. to Manhattan, where he busied himself with mansion restorations and photography projects before returning to the movie world in the early 1980s. He may have seen Delivery Boys as an investment opportunity; breakdancing movies were pulling in multi-million box office receipts.
Breaking, also called breakdancing, had developed within the early hip-hop scene in 1970s New York; the end of the decade, it was a multiracial citywide phenomenon. It came to white America’s attention a couple of years later, most notably with the Rock Steady Crew’s appearance in Flashdance in 1983. A flood of breakdancing movies followed. At least three received theatrical release in 1984 (including both Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogalooˆ) and each pulled in multi-million box office receipts.
What makes Delivery Boys different from those films—aside from its direct-to-video fate and its paltry profits—is that, despite the three-minute long breakdancing scene at the top of the movie, it isn’t entirely clear whether Delivery Boys is a breakdancing movie or a movie with some breakdancing in it. Handler didn’t especially like hip-hop culture. He told Variety that Delivery Boys was “a wacko comedy, with no social overtones or ghetto aspects”—that is, no connection to the hip-hop world from which breaking emerged—but also that it was “integrated, with Puerto Rican, black and white dancers and actors.” The trailer and art do nothing to make it look a breakdance movie. Why bring in the famous Dynamic Breakers and a legendary XMEN graffiti artist to up the authenticity quotient if you’re not even going to advertise their involvement?
What makes even less sense is the fact that a guy who, as one Barbie biographer put it, “embraced archaism with a vengeance” and preferred opera to hip-hop ended up with a homoerotic vanity project that includes a scene where art gallery snobs unknowingly drink champagne glasses full of a desperate Delivery Boy’s urine. How did this happen?
First, the movie has the look and feel of a soft-core B-movie because it was produced by titans of the B-movie business. They let Handler play his desired roles—writer, director, music supervisor—and took care of the rest. Craig Horrall, the star of A Place Without Parents, had made his way into business with B-movie magnate Chuck Vincent, whose Platinum Pictures was just pivoting from hardcore adult films to R-rated cable fare. Handler gave Platinum a lot of money through a production company he set up for the purpose and work began.
It’s hard to know why exactly he chose this route; there isn’t really anyone to ask. Both Vincent and Horrall died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1991. Handler himself contracted HIV in the late 1980s, which the family kept a secret. His death in 1994 was attributed to a brain tumor but it was almost certainly AIDS-related.
Though Handler portrayed himself as the high-minded auteur, it might have just been that the men were friends, that it was easy, and that his aesthetic standards weren’t as high as he liked to think they were. That’s the impression I got from cinematographer Larry Revene when I called him recently. He remembered Handler as “a bit of an elitist snob, and he really didn't have any reason to be. He had a lot of money, but he wasn't that sophisticated.”
As Revene explained, Handler took an easy route: “He had soup-to-nuts production there, and he had the money to do it and he had friendly people to work with.” He’s credited as the writer, but Revene thinks he was given a stock treatment to flesh out, so that was taken care of, too. (Handler was also billed as the music director and wrote a half-dozen original songs, which explains why this particular breakdancing movie doesn’t have much hip-hop in it.) Why breakdancing? I asked Revene. “Craig might have come up [with that],” he said. “If Ken liked it enough, he would take credit for it.”
The crew was staffed with Platinum regulars, of whom at least a dozen, including Revene, had worked on the teen sex comedies Preppies and Hollywood Hot Tubs earlier that year. Platinum scheduled production time on its soundstage in Long Island City and secured additional locations, including one site near the Brooklyn Bridge. Horrall rounded out a cast filled with Handler’s hand-picked unknowns (mostly young men) with seasoned actors who had had roles in other Platinum films, both hardcore porn flicks and the R-rated sex comedies. One Vincent veteran was Kelly Nichols, a porn performer who has since been inducted into at least three different adult entertainment halls of fame, who played Delivery Boy Max’s temptress.
With everything taken care of for him, Handler could walk right onto the set and get to work. “He was the boss. He was the director,” says Revene. That’s what Handler was paying for: “You give deference to the director, no matter how bad they are.” Handler did okay, he says. He didn’t know to say “cut” to end a scene, and sometimes they had to go back and reshoot a few more times. He was snobby and could make the crew around him feel dumb. But “if I remember correctly,” Revene adds, “he was not bad. Some directors will drive you crazy because they can't make a decision.” But Handler both made decisions and asked for their advice. They, in turn, took care of him.
But as soon as Delivery Boys' public debut began, the movie’s lifespan ended. Leonard Maltin judged it a “BOMB.” A Variety review called the humor and the cast “uninspired,” the music (Handler’s music!) weak, and the choreography repetitive. A few of the Delivery Boys went on to have some modest success in film and television, thanks in part to the fact that the movie was produced with the approval of the Screen Actors’ Guild and their roles made them eligible to pursue membership. Mario Van Peebles, obviously, has had a long and successful career. (In fact, he’d go on to appear in another breakdance movie, Rappin’, shortly after Delivery Boys wrapped.)
Handler can’t have enjoyed seeing Delivery Boys bomb, but making the movie in this way allowed him to waltz into his dream job. It also gave him a chance to flirt (or worse) with a bunch of young actors. This was, as it turns out, a lifelong predilection. Throughout his career as a self-anointed mover-an-shaker in music and film, Handler told prospective talent that their artistic success would rely on having sex with him. Singer-songwriter Bobby Jameson said that Handler showered him with gifts and attention, but dropped him from Penthouse Records in 1966 after he turned down a sexual advance.
Delivery Boys was the same. Taimak Guarriello, who turned down a role in the film, recounts a similar story in his 2016 memoir: Handler approached him while he was working as a nightclub bouncer and told him that he was seeking fresh talent for his new film. He invited the guy to his tony Upper East Side place for a week of “film studies.” It was after they watched Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet that Handler casually explained that the actor playing Romeo only performed so well because Zeffirelli was having sex with him. If Guarriello wanted to succeed, Handler told him, the two of them would have to “develop a very close relationship.” Guarriello walked away.
Here’s one way to understand Delivery Boys, then: Handler liked power more than he liked either work or art. He hid behind his money, running his own casting couch instead of living openly as a bisexual man and buying prestige instead of committing to the tedium and struggle of a true creative practice. After his HIV diagnosis, he was prescribed AZT but preferred alternative treatments. He turned from art to medicine, spending the last years of his life sinking money into an effort to refine antioxidants into drug treatments for AIDS and cancer in a lab in Ecuador. By the time he died, he had developed dementia.
These days, Delivery Boys, cult classic and breakdancing footnote, is all that’s left of Handler’s art. Neither his sister nor his wife and children give interviews, so it’s hard to say how he felt about it then or how they do now. The captivating thing about the movie, though, is that it’s so sincere. The breakdancing, the dick jokes, the softcore setups— all of this could add up to something cynical, which might have made for a better movie. But it doesn’t. “It has a lot of heart,” Revene told me. “I hope you felt that.” And, he added, “There was some fantastic breakdancing in that film, I must say. I think you probably agree.” (I do.)
Ken Handler spent his easy, restless life searching for something meaningful. His plastic counterpart has drifted from pursuit to pursuit over the years, too. The Ken doll has had dozens of careers, including businessman, cameraman, art director, movie star, rapper, saxophonist, and photographer. In fact, in Mattel lore, Barbie and Ken first meet on the job, on a film shoot.
Thanks to Terri Simon and Benjamin Applebaum for making me watch Delivery Boys.
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