The 1960s were a turbulent time in the history of our country, in fact, in the history of the entire world. And adding to that turbulence was my own little ongoing battle with my mother over whether or not I was allowed to stay up late on Saturday night and watch monster movies on television. A battle, I’m happy to say, that I eventually won.
A little (personal) history first: I grew up in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania called Tamaqua. Tamaqua was nestled in a valley in coal country. Even in the 1960s, coal was a dying industry in my hometown, and the town itself was also shedding its skin. The trains stopped running, businesses closed, population dwindled, and the tiny borough became a little less bright. Still it was a great place to grow up, in a simpler time with a much less-expensive way of living.
Two things happened in 1962 that irrevocably changed my young life. I was 7 years old that year, and one day, my mom and dad and I went to an appliance store and my dad purchased the biggest, honking, color TV you could find at that time. It was an “Admiral” TV console, with rich wooden veneers, and a giant 24” screen (measured diagonally, of course!). It was more furniture than TV set. (As a bonus, the salesman threw in this giant stuffed black cat that happened to be sitting nearby on a washing machine and that I had been reasonably fascinated by. I chalk it up more to my father taking this land-yacht of a TV set out of the store than my relative cuteness.) While the Admiral logo appeared on the front, my father was quick to remind everyone that the TV set itself was built by RCA. Because in 1962, RCA was the zenith (pun intended) of television sets. The Admiral—which was big enough, if hollowed out, to comfortably hold me and my entire toy collection, including the brand-new giant black cat—also had a drop-down control console, which my father monkeyed with endlessly, just to make sure the faces on Bonanza (one of the few color programs, along with Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, on at that time) didn’t look too green.
The other event was the advent of cable TV. In 1962, some enterprising person took it upon himself to stick an antennae tower on top of one of the nearby mountains and “beam in” signals from Philadelphia and New York City to our incredibly signal-proof little valley. They called it “Cable TV,” although the movie and television industries called it “Pay TV,” and went so far to mount a major attack campaign against it. The upshot for those of us living in Tamaqua is that our three little TV stations that we got from the nearby Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area (which consisted of affiliates of the three major networks at the time, ABC, CBS, and NBC) suddenly became NINE stations, including the network affiliates from Philadelphia (shown on a time-share type of deal with the Scranton stations when similar network programming was airing) and three independent stations from New York City: WNEW, WOR, and WPIX. (There was also a Scranton-based PBS station, which is the first place I ever saw Monty Python’s Flying Circus.)
My dad reveled in the Mets on WOR and the Yankees on WPIX each year as spring stretched to summer and summer to fall. Me? Not so much. Those stations, when not showing sports, had amazing kids’ shows, featuring The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang/The Little Rascals, and Popeye, to name just a few, hosted by adults who had names like Captain Jack and Officer Joe. (WPIX was the first place where I saw the great Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons from the 1940s, too.) On the other NYC stations, there was Soupy Sales and Sandy Becker, and the guy who was above them all, the late, great Chuck McCann and his amazing Let’s Have Fun show, which was on WPIX (once you see McCann dressed up as Little Orphan Annie, you never forget it).
And there were also monster movies. Lots and lots of monster movies. And here’s where my struggle began.
If you couldn’t watch all the Universal Monsters movies in the “Shock!” package (center) distributed to local TV stations, you could buy condensed 8mm movies to watch at home from Castle Films (left and right) with gloriously gaudy painted box covers.
In 1957, Screen Gems introduced a package of 52 pre-1948 movies to the burgeoning beast known as television. They called this package “Shock Theater” (or just plain “Shock!”), and it blasted off across the country to huge success. It spawned countless local TV shows, many of them on weekends or late at night, and many of them with hosts like Roland in Philadelphia (who became Zacherley later in New York), Vampira in Los Angeles (who was the first to host monster movies on TV in 1954-1955, pre-Shock!), and Marvin in Chicago. Some of the shows kept the name Shock Theater, others were called by different names such as Chiller Theater. Sometimes the hosts just introduced the films, and sometimes they even inserted themselves into the films, all in good fun.
That first “Shock Theater” package (and its sequel, “Son of Shock!” released in 1958 with 20 more films) included all the classic Universal Monsters movies released in the 1930s and 1940s. All the Dracula movies, the Mummy movies, and, of course, the Frankenstein series. These movies, more than once over two decades, saved the Universal movie studio from bankruptcy and demise. In 1958, Forrest J Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, published by James Warren, appeared, swept along in the wake of the success of the TV movie reissue phenomenon, and became the “bible” of the Monster Kid generation, a name given to that Baby Boomer subset (which I’m proud to be a part of) decades later. That success also spawned a ton of monster merchandise, everything from figures to magazines to 8mm films to watch at home (if you were lucky enough to have a movie projector in those pre-video and streaming days). The apex of monster memorabilia though had to be the Aurora models. With incredible painted box covers by the likes of noted illustrator James Bama, the Aurora model kits were the (in)action figures of their day, a true badge of courage to paint, build, and own. But more on that later.
The Aurora models were the prize possessions of many Monster Kids throughout the 1960s. Unfortunately, I never mastered the art of model-making, as recounted below.
Meanwhile back at home . . . I was able to watch WPIX’s Chiller Theater on Saturday nights at 7:30 (if I remember correctly … my father regularly referred to it as “Kook Shows” as he made his way out the door to meet up with his buddies at the Y Cigar Store), but this series was the lowest of the low: Fondly-remembered schlocky movies from American International and Z-level monster films such as Frankenstein’s Daughter, She-Devils, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, and the so-bad-it’s-good, Plan 9 from Outer Space. The Chiller opening title sequence was scarier than the actual movies themselves. Philadelphia’s WCAU, where Roland started in 1958, had The 4:30 Movie on weekdays, which regularly ran “theme weeks,” such as the Tarzan series, big bug/giant creature movies (including the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy, Universal’s big monster success of the 1950s), and Abbott and Costello films. And here my obsession began.
One of the Abbott and Costello movies was, of course, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the last great hurrah of the Universal Monsters movie cycle. Released in 1948, the movie featured Bud and Lou’s struggles with Dracula (played once again by Bela Lugosi), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney), and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange). I immediately became fascinated with these characters, especially the lumbering monster. And my brother—8 years older than me—started to tell me about a whole series of Frankenstein movies—”none of this funny stuff”—that were scary and thrilling and wonderful.
And so it became my mission, at the tender age of 7 or so, to stay up late on Saturday night to see these Frankenstein movies. And it became my mother’s mission to stop me. I begged. I cajoled. I offered to do household chores both of us knew would never actually happen. The answer was always the same: “They’ll give you nightmares.” In the mid-1960s, my mom still insisted I go to church with her every Sunday morning; After all, she was a Sunday School teacher. And having the great genes necessary for being a late sleeper, she knew she’d never get me out of bed to go to church if I stayed up late to watch scary movies on the teevee.
Required reading for all 1960s Monster Kids: Forry Ackerman’s corny and pun-filled Famous Monsters of Filmland, chock full of rare black and white movie stills, could sometimes become seriously serious, as was the case with issue #56 (center) celebrating the life and career of Boris Karloff upon his death. Castle of Frankenstein was FM’s much more intellectual cousin.
Besides, they’d give me nightmares. She had already thrown out my brother’s copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland #2, which—you guessed it—gave me nightmares.
Somehow, at some point, I won. I could stay up and watch Frankenstein (in retrospect, easily the scariest of the Universal monster movies in my humble opinion) on a Saturday night at 11:30. The moment came, the credits rolled, and . . . I fell asleep.
Looking at this as being a confirmation of her previous decisions, the battle was back on, and it would be months (which seemed like years to an elementary school student, especially in the slow-moving, small-town ’60s) until she finally relented once again. This time, I think it was my brother’s urging to let me see Bride of Frankenstein, undoubtedly the “crown jewel” of the Universal monster series, that won her over. Director James Whale’s amazing 1935 sequel to Frankenstein (which he also directed) was scary, funny, and beautifully shot, with great atmospheric music by Franz Waxman. And it was incredibly cast, including the uncanny Karloff (at the height of his monster-movie fame, and going, Madonna-like, by just a single name in the credits) as the Monster, Elsa Lanchester, perversely, as both the Bride and author/creator Mary Shelley, Ernest Thesiger as the creepy Dr. Pretorius, Dwight Frye as lab assistant/resident killer Karl, and Colin Clive as the tortured Doctor Henry Frankenstein, miraculously recuperated after his near-demise by the hands of the Monster in the first film.
I didn’t fall asleep this time, and I loved every minute—still do—of this wonky, wonderful, amazing film. And I had won the battle! I went on to see all the Frankenstein films, Son, Ghost, vs. Wolf Man, the House movies (Frankenstein and Dracula). I was hooked forever, and they’re still my go-to happy place when it comes to warm, nostalgic feelings of my childhood. Famous Monsters came back into our house on a regular basis, beginning with issue #31; Castle of Frankenstein magazine was a must-read, a more intellectual and informative counterpart to Forry Ackerman’s punny FM.
One of my favorite monster toys of the 1960s was a hard plastic Frankenstein figurine that sold for about 59 cents at bargain stores all over the country. There were six of them in the series, made by Louis Marx & Company, king of the schlocky cheap toys at the time: Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera, Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Mummy. I got mine at Baxter’s Bargain Store in downtown Tamaqua, a gigantic junk store—painted, if memory serves me right, a bright yellow—on Pine Street, right next to the Majestic Hotel.
My original one was teal blue in color, although a myriad of colors exist for these figures as they’ve been bootlegged countless times over the years, with molds made from originals and sold packaged and unpackaged for the past 50+ years. Recently I was able to find an original one on eBay in that teal color for a reasonable price, so I snapped it up. My childhood one went missing a long time ago, and a subsequent one was stolen from my office at some point … but I wasn’t going to go another day without this icon from my youth, so I am once again the proud owner of a slightly scuffed up, but complete (Neck electrodes? Check! All his fingers? Check!) Vintage Marx Universal Monsters Frankenstein. He is a proud edition to my little “Franken-shrine” here at home (see below).
Oh, and one more monster story, if I may: As I mentioned above, the Aurora model kits were the pinnacle of any Monster Kid’s life in the 1960s. I was incredibly inept when it came to building or painting models, and my attention span was less than acute as a kid. So my mom, perhaps making up for her long resistance to letting me watch the movies that spawned all this madness, came up with the bright idea of buying me an Aurora Frankenstein model kit, and “hiring” someone else to paint and build it for me. That someone else was named Bobby, and he was a little older than me and lived in my grandparents’ neighborhood. I counted the days until Bobby would sit with me and paint and build this amazing creation. My mom offered him the princely sum of five whole dollars to do this, so his work must have been of professional quality, right? He had a fine collection of all the Aurora models, expertly painted and assembled. Surely this would be his magnum opus, the greatest model he ever built, the one to retire on at the ripe old age of 10. The day came and I joined him in his basement, surrounded by all the other kits he flawlessly built. I watched him paint the individual pieces and hurriedly glue together the model, his fingers stained with paint—which hadn’t properly dried—and the model itself smeared with his fingerprints. The coup de grace came while I was walking home with the disastrously-completed model, gingerly balancing it along with the box, and it collapsed from its own hastily-built weight. My model-owning days were over and Bobby had to answer to my mom. I’m not sure if she ever got that five bucks back, though.
I still have fond memories of Universal’s Frankenstein movie series and the actors who played these “monsters,” and my bedroom contains a little “Franken-shrine” of toys and figures and old Castle Films boxes. Spanning two decades, and gaining a second life on television and a third one later on home video, the Universal Monster movies have carved out their own peculiar niche in pop culture and have lasted more than 90 years. The sensitive Karloff, the rough-around-the-edges Chaney, the hammy Lugosi, even the mannequin-like Glenn Strange, whose Monster was nothing but a shambling figure with arms outstretched, are forever part of our world. Their movies seem quaint and sedate in our modern era, but they were shocking and thrilling when they first came out, something the world had never before seen. For us Monster Kids, who grew up with them in movies on TV and piles and piles of merchandising, they will be fondly remembered forever as beloved characters, not really monsters in any sense of that horrifying word, for the world is filled with real monsters, especially right now, who are much scarier than any fictional movie could ever portray.
My bedroom “Franken-shrine” featuring a number of monster-ish items I’ve collected over the years. Universal’s Frankenstein Monster will always be my favorite.