Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Famous Monsters of Filmland

"If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

When I was a boy growing up in Maple Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, I used to get an allowance each week of twenty-five cents. I knew precisely the value of a quarter back then. One quarter could buy a Mad magazine. Four quarters would get me a Revell plastic boat model. To get that boat model I'd have to save for four weeks and then go to the Southgate mall. By the time we left Ohio for New Jersey in 1964, I had a whole shelf of boat models including a very cool German U-boat, battleships and destroyers.

But fifty cents... that was pretty much the coolest purchase of them all. That's what it cost to buy a copy of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. Holding on to that first quarter till you got the second was a lesson in deferred gratification, an invaluable principle with a lifetime of applications.

My brother Ron and I loved those old monster movies, and we especially looked forward to Friday nights because that was when the Ghoulardi show would come on. According to Wikipedia it was called Shock Theater, but we called it the Ghoulardi show. Ghoulardi was Cleveland's late night horror film host, airing B-grade monster movies every week with his unique and totally engaging style.

The guy was incredibly inventive and hilariously over the top. His beatnik look and jabber were just the beginning of it. "You're a k-nif" he would say, meaning "Fink" spelled backward.

During the movies he would insert humorous clips of an old Irish man gurning, and other silly cut ins. In a film about a giant Brontosaurus smashing a city, with people screaming in terror in the streets, he cut in a few seconds of himself holding a giant brontosaurus foot up, trying not to be crushed while holding his own nose because the monster's feet smell.

Ultimately it was the movies themselves that we lived for. The Creeper, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Mummy, Phantom of the Opera, The Invisible Man, Caltiki the Immortal Monster, The Blob.... every week we had something to look forward to.

But that mag, Famous Monsters of Filmland... what a treasure! My convictions about the power of print advertising in enthusiast magazines can be partially attributed to this early passion. The television show was here today, gone tomorrow. But the magazine could be carried with you everywhere you went. Every page captured your eye. The images and stories could be revisited as often as you liked.

The mag was also a great source for background dope on all your heroes, the roots of all their stories. For example, one of the great actors of the monster film genre was Lon Chaney, nicknamed "The Man with a Thousand Faces" due to his remarkable range of portrayals. Famous Monsters told the inside stories of how he contorted his body to appear one-legged, deformed, etc.

Dracula was another favorite. My brother Ron and I liked the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula at that time. I think it was the alluring quality of his accent. Once I read a Dracula story from the magazine to Ronnie (he was about eight at the time) and he woke with nightmares for a week straight. My mom forbid any further readings.

But the greatest of them all was Boris Karloff, especially in his role as Frankenstein.

I still remember an incident on a family vacation in Florida when we first saw the film Bride of Frankenstein. Our family was at a motel on Miami Beach, but my parents had gone out for the evening. We were fairly young and with a TV in the room we decided to see what was on, a memorable event for sure.

Last year, near five decades later, I asked my mom about that night. It seemed they were gone a long time. She said it was the one major fight my parents had in their fifty-plus years of marriage. They'd gone off somewhere to work things out away from us kids. Alas, every picture tells a story. The Bride of Frankenstein memory revealed this one from my mom.

My personal favorite was Son of Frankenstein, probably only because I'd scene it the most often. For many of us, Karloff was synonymous with the monster.

I don't really keep up on the monster movie scene these days, but if you are interested, here's a link to the Famous Monsters of Filmland website. (Turn your sound down if you're in the office.)

As for Ghoulardi, he was a dude ahead of his time... or travelling outside of time, I'm not sure which. The following YouTube footage offers an example of his late night rampage across the Cleveland television landscape. When the monster is closing in for the kill, just before the shrieking starts, fifteen seconds of this would break into the scene.

Tomorrow, stay tuned for more details about the cultural influence of Frankenstein.

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