The Beginning . . .
My love of movies got its start –indirectly – in the wake of a national tragedy: the assassination of President Kennedy.
I was seven-and-a-half years old, and as it is for anyone who is old enough to remember that day, it was for me a benchmark, a dividing line. I remember two events of historical importance that preceded that date: the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the death of Marilyn Monroe the year before. I didn’t know what the Cuban Missile Crisis was about, of course; I only remember a certain tension, and the fear I felt when I heard my sister saying that her friend Phyllis’s mother, Goldie, had said “Well, tomorrow we’re all gonna be dead!” As for Marilyn Monroe, I have a dim memory of Some Like It Hot on television, at least a minute or two of it, so I remember people talking about her death, though I didn’t understand her significance, of course.
We had been sent home from school early, of course, after the news of the President’s death, though I doubt any of us really absorbed or understood its significance (all these years later I remember clearly how we got the news: I was in second grade, and another student burst into the room and announced, “Mrs. Moses, Mrs. Moses – the President is dead! Somebody shot him in the head!” Undoubtedly it was shock rather than insistence on proper manners that evoked Mrs. Moses’s response: “Young man, leave this room and enter like a gentleman!” As I recall, the boy left, but, not surprisingly, didn’t return.) I was met at the bus stop by Sandy, my neighbor from across the hall – had she heard? Yes, she had.
By that evening everyone knew, of course, and the nation was in shock. One of my sister’s friends was over at our apartment (was it Phyllis?), and they were crying, which of course mystified me.
I said a silly thing, exactly the kind of thing a kid that age might say: “Maybe he deserved to die.” I knew nothing of death at that time, of course, and anyway, it was the president who was dead, not a relative, or anyone we knew (it was to be a long while before I understood that although later some people displayed pictures of Richard Nixon in their homes, John F. Kennedy was really the last president whom the public felt almost was a member of the family, Catholic or not – people displayed his picture in their homes, usually in a place of honor and prominence on the wall, much as FDR’s picture had adorned walls in millions of homes).
My sister, at fourteen seven years my senior, reacted by slapping me (actually, I think she punched me in the nose). Eventually we all calmed down and it blew over the way such altercations between siblings usually do.
By evening, of course, there was nothing on television but coverage of the assassination, of Lyndon Johnson’s ascendance to the presidency. It was decided at some point that we kids should get out of the apartment for a while and go for a walk.
Our walk took us a few blocks away, where we stopped in at a local hobby/electronics shop called “Norman’s” (memory tells me that Norman’s wife was called ‘Gert’ or ‘Gertie,’ but I’m not sure) . It was, I’m almost sure, in the same block with the grocery store from which my mother ordered groceries almost daily – it wasn’t at all unusual in 1963 for local merchants to deliver to their customers, and I can still hear my mother placing that almost-daily call, which began with “Mrs. Levine, please...” and a couple of hours later a teenaged boy on a bicycle would pull up in front of our apartment building at 3319 Kings Highway and make his way up to our apartment, 2K). We browsed among knick-knacks and such – Norman’s, as I recall, sold things like modeling clay and accessories for train sets, but that evening it was something else that got my attention: one of Aurora Plastics’ “All-Plastic Assembly Kits,” The Wolf Man – the price was all of 99 cents.
I have no idea what drew me to it or why I found it so interesting, but the model was purchased, along with a tube of glue (almost certainly Testor’s, which, as I was soon to learn, was the most prominent name in glue and paint for such models – more about that anon). What I can say with certainty is that had that model not been bought that evening, I wouldn’t be sitting here all these years later recounting the experience, or working at Barnes & Nobles, nor have a case full of VHS tapes and DVDs of horror, suspense, and science-fiction movies made by Universal Pictures and Hammer Films. Nor, quite possibly, would I have the love for books and reading that blossomed from this unusual beginning.
Yet it’s undeniably true, for this is where it all started, and how many people can say that with such certainty, point to a moment in time and an action and say “This was it”?
The only thing I really remember about assembling the model was that, for some reason, the arms didn’t fit correctly onto the torso – instead of being angled as they appear here, they were parallel, almost as though the Wolf Man were holding a basketball, or about to perform a double-karate chop. Oh well.
A week or so later I got my second Aurora model, The Mummy, which was soon joined by The Creature From the Black Lagoon.
And so the collection began to grow. Of course, it was also necessary to paint the models once they were assembled and the glue had dried, and so began the process of buying paints, brushes, and thinner to clean the brushes.
The finished product seldom looked as good as I’d hoped it would (certainly not as good as the ones pictured here), but I did get better with time – the instructions gave suggestions for colors, but of course you were always free to follow your own ideas (I recall once seeing a Creature that had been painted red instead of the traditional green, and thought it quite striking)
Before long Frankenstein and Dracula were added, followed by two which became my favorites: The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera (the illustrations on the box covers, as well as the finished models themselves, often had the characters in some very strange poses, particularly the Phantom – why on earth was he assuming that strange stance, and holding up his half-mask? And why did his skin appear to be green? And who was that blood-smeared man behind those bars? I learned later that the Phantom’s visage here was based on James Cagney’s appearance in the film biography of Lon Chaney, Man of a Thousand Faces, at the moment his face is revealed during the recreation of The Phantom of the Opera’s famous unmasking scene, and not Lon Chaney’s original Phantom makeup).
At some point, I learned that a contest was being held, and models assembled by local contestants were displayed in Norman’s window. I entered some of mine, and although I didn’t win (oh, the heartbreak!), the contest had a long-lasting benefit: It had been sponsored by Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, and each contestant was given a copy of the latest issue. At this point my exposure to magazines probably went no further than My Weekly Reader and looking at the pictures in Life. But all that was about to change: Here was a magazine devoted to monster movies – the movies about those characters I’d been assembling and painting – these characters had stories (the term ‘backstory’ wasn’t in use then, but it certainly would have applied) that had been depicted in films. More than that, many of these characters – the Frankenstein Monster, Count Dracula, the Hunchback and the Phantom, had their beginnings in literature, the films having been adapted from famous novels.
So, in effect two new worlds were about to open up for me.
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For a kid in New York in the 1960s, Chiller Theater (on Channel 11) and Supernatural Theater (on Channel 9, long before its cable-days) were the two most reliable venues to see old horror movies. The thing was, though, that they didn’t have access to the syndication packages that had been put together in the 1950s and sold to TV by the studios that included the quality stuff like the Frankenstein and Dracula films – these programs offered low-budget stuff (mainly from the ‘40s and ‘50s) like The Monster That Challenged the World, The Indestructible Man, I Bury the Living, and Frankenstein: 1970, and sometimes even lower-budget stuff (if that’s even conceivable) like Dead Men Walk, Carnival of Souls (still one of the most genuinely eerie films I’ve ever seen, and one which I won’t watch at night) Frankenstein’s Daughter, and She-Demons. The hideous title-creatures of the last-named scared the heck out of me, as did the glimpse at the end of the face of the mad doctor’s wife, and it wasn’t until I saw it again as an adult that I came to appreciate the film’s truly awful acting, particularly leading lady Irish McCalla and Rudolph Anders as the mad Nazi doctor – the scene in which he tries to seduce McCalla is sublimely awful. And Frankenstein’s Daughter features what I still consider to be the single worst performance I’ve ever seen in any film anywhere: Felix Locher as Professor Carl Morton, who seems to be reading his lines from cue-cards).
Watching the good stuff had to wait a while, and when the opportunities arose, they were often late-night ones: our local NBC affiliate had a late-night “Festival of Thrillers” on Saturday nights at 1:15 AM. As there was no school the next day, Sunday, this didn’t pose all that much of a problem (other than staying awake!), and in this way I first saw Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Mummy (1932), and probably The Wolf Man (1941) as well. The Late Show, and the Late, Late Show (courtesy of CBS) posed another problem. Again, movies shown on a Friday or Saturday night posed no problem, and an 11:20 PM broadcast of The Creature From the Black Lagoon provided my first viewing of the original 1954 film. But catching the 1943 Phantom of the Opera, again broadcast at 11:20 PM but on a Sunday night, required sneaking into the living-room and keeping the sound turned down low; at least once during that broadcast I was caught and sent off to bed, only to sneak back a minute or two later . . .
Horror movies are usually pegged as a ‘genre’ and often don’t get much respect. Nor do some of the actors who appeared in them, and yet such films introduced me not only to Boris Karloff, but to Claude Rains, Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Laughton and even Erich Von Stroheim, actors who are ranked among the best in cinema history.
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Long before the home-video revolution and the advent of VHS, laser disc, DVD and Blu-ray, I’d begun collecting films. Up through the 1970s there were really only two options for film collectors: 8MM film and 16MM film (or three, if you counted Super-8MM). When it came to horror films on 8MM, the market was pretty much dominated by Castle Films, who had a licensing agreement with Universal which allowed them to distribute 12-minute versions of many of Universal’s well-known horror films – these usually ran to about 165 (or 200 feet in the Super-8 format, which had a slightly larger frame) – they even did 50-foot abridgements, running about 3 minutes, of those 12-minute versions (they were silent and subtitled)! I acquired a nice little collection of both varieties. For some versions they changed the title - Doom of Dracula was actually adapted from the Dracula sequences in House of Frankenstein.
After we’d gotten our first (and, as I recall, only) Super-8 movie camera, we of course had to get a projector. My father chose one manufactured and sold by Korvette’s, rather than a name-brand one. By the flick of a little knob it could project either Standard-8MM or Super-8MM; I no longer recall if there was a price difference between Castle’s Standard-8 and Super-8 films – there probably was, of around a dollar), but there definitely was when it came to Blackhawk Films, the premier vendor of films for the home-collector’s market – a Super-8 print could run as much as ten dollars more than a Standard-8 print, as I recall. My parents had agreed that, out of any cash received as a Bar Mitzvah gift, I would be able to purchase the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney – it ran to ten reels of about 200 feet each and cost, as I recall, something like $54 in Standard-8 format.
Sometime after that I located the 1925 Silent version of The Phantom of the Opera on seven reels - I think I paid $45 for it. I've had the 1925 Phantom on Standard 8MM, on VHS (a 'dubbed' copy from the excellent edition issued by Kino as well as the original of the Kino VHS, picked up for a few bucks when Blockbuster began deleting classics on VHS in the mid-90s), and finally on DVD. Interestingly, the final price of the 2-disc "Ultimate Edition" DVD, purchased at Best Buy, was, coincidentally . . . $19.25 with the tax!
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More To Come . . .