Once upon a time, local movie theaters staged “spook shows” for Halloween. These usually consisted of vintage horror movies like the original Frankenstein and Dracula along with a live stage presentation or at the very least staff members dressed up in ghoulish outfits. My friend Gary Meyer recently sent me some images from an Oakland, California magic journal of the 1940s and 50s that I’m pleased to share with you, in the hope that they may stoke some happy memories. If you want to see more of these—even on t-shirts—click HERE. (Long ago, at a Halloween Saturday matinee in Paramus, New Jersey, the theater manager announced that anyone in a costume would be admitted for free. I happened to be wearing my Cub Scout uniform that day and he waved me in! I can’t tie a knot or start a fire with sticks, but I’ve never forgotten this life-altering incident.) My regular attendance at Saturday kiddie shows brought me into contact with the schlockiest horror, fantasy and science-fiction films—mostly leftover prints of 1950s and early-1960s releases—but I enjoyed every minute.
I wish I’d been around just a few years earlier when Bela Lugosi did one of his barnstorming—
—theater tours as Dracula. If you don’t know about this phase of his career, you’re in for a treat: Lisa Rose of the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger recently wrote a wonderfully evocative article about Lugosi’s performances in the Garden State which you can read HERE.
As a baby boomer, I was the target age to fall in love with Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. That, combined with local television showings of all the horror-movie classics, made me a lifelong fan of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney (Sr. and Jr.) and the other giants of the genre. I’ve never lost my enthusiasm for them, and neither has illustrator, pop-culture aficionado and man-about-town Drew Friedman, who just posted a gallery of great horror-related record album covers featuring my heroes, among others. Check them out HERE.
Today’s kids have other horror heroes, to which they’re welcome. I’m happy to remain a loyalist to the monsters (and the men behind them) who first made an impression on me.
Incidentally, if you’re intrigued by Drew Friedman’s record library, let me reprint my 2009 review of two vintage albums that were reissued and are readily available online.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS GHOST STORIES FOR YOUNG PEOPLE/FAMOUS MONSTERS SPEAK (MicroWerks)
No director in the history of cinema has marketed himself quite like Alfred Hitchcock. He began appearing in specially-filmed trailers for his films in the late 1940s, and by the time he began hosting a popular weekly television show in the 1950s—which lasted ten years—he became a bona fide celebrity, widely imitated by comedians. He lent his name to a mystery-story magazine, board games, paperback books...and yes, a record album of ghost stories for children. MicroWerks has repackaged this piece of Hitchcockiana from 1962 as part of its Golden Records reissue series. There are six eerie stories in all, written (for the most part) and read by actor John Allen, with minimal sound effects and music, but the treat is listening to Hitchcock’s introductions, done in the dryly humorous tone of his television show. (The album even opens with his by-then familiar theme music, Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette”.) He begins by saying, “How do you do, boys and girls. I’m delighted to find that you believe in ghosts, too. After all, they believe in you, so it is only common courtesy to return the favor.”
The second album in this CD reissue package, from 1963, is equally unusual. Famous Monsters Speak bore the images of Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, as well as the logo of Forrest J. Ackerman’s monthly magazine, which celebrated them and other horror icons every month. Side One of the album—now a cut on the CD—featured a lengthy monologue, imagining what the monster would say upon his awakening. Side Two was another extensive speech by Count Dracula. These well-written pieces by Cherney Berg were performed by Gabriel Dell, best-remembered as one of the original Dead End Kids, but around this time he was a member of Steve Allen’s comedy troupe on television, where he frequently did his uncanny Bela Lugosi impression. Listen to the CD and you’ll hear just how well Dell channeled the great Lugosi voice and intonation. (After all, he met Bela when they were working on adjacent sound stages at Monogram Pictures in the early 1940s.)
The Microwerks series also revives happy memories for Baby Boomers with The Best of Little Golden Records, Volumes 1 and 2. How could I possibly explain to a child of today the kick of being able to handle your own unbreakable yellow vinyl record and play it on a portable phonograph back then. How quaint! Each CD offers fourteen tracks, some of which I actually remember from my youth. Highlights for film buffs and vintage-show-biz aficionados include the immortal “Mighty Mouse Theme,” Jimmy Durante singing “I Like People,” written by Marshall Barer, Margaret Wise Brown and Ruth Cleary, a sweet new rendition of “Give a Little Whistle” by Cliff Edwards, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans singing “Song Wagon,” (all on Volume One), Jack Mercer bringing his unique vocal styling to “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,” and Art Carney singing “The Ugly Duckling” from Hans Christian Andersen. Both CDs feature such children’s perennials as “Clementine,” “The Farmer in the Dell,” “Fuzzy Wuzzy,” and “London Bridge,” as well as genuine novelties like a version of “Casey at the Bat” by New York Yankees announcer Mel Allen and a lovely version of Richard Rodgers’ “The Carousel Waltz.” Brief liner notes by pop music expert Greg Ehrbar provide a context for each track. I only wish they’d pressed these CDs on something that looks like those unforgettable golden records of yore.