Once upon a time, pretty much every city had their own "horror movie hosts" — those hammy guys (and one particular gal) who'd introduce schlocky public-domain flicks at midnight at the local station.
I've complained about my hometown before, but am obliged to say at this juncture that in humble Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, we actually had something better.
The Hilarious House of Frightenstein was produced in 1971 by our one and only TV station, CHCH. This hour-long, 130-episode kids' show combined the mid-century sensibility of Famous Monsters of Filmland with the then-hip look and sound of psychedelia: kaleidoscopic "special effects" plus Top 40 hits spun by "The Wolfman," an affectionate rip-off of legendary DJ Wolfman Jack.
The show's "plot" concerned a banished count's attempts to revive his comatose monster, Brucie, but that was just a flimsy excuse to mount a fast-paced series of corny sketches, semi-serious "educational" segments, and — years before The Simpsons and Pixar — "over the kids' heads" jokes aimed at adults who might find themselves awake at dawn, or earlier.
As crewmember John Bradford recalls:
You may not be aware that when it was syndicated in the states in the early 70's it aired around 4:30 in half hour format. The story we heard was that it practically cleared the streets of New York of soft drug users so that they could freak out on the Wolfman segments!
Comedian Billy Van played most of the monsters. He was joined by a three-foot-nothing actor named Guy Big who struggled with his cue cards; a real science professor (and pal of Albert Einstein) who seemed to think he was on a serious program; an ever-changing assortment of reluctant zoo animals; and fan favorite Fishka Rais — actually an accomplished jazz singer back in his native South Africa — as green skinned, gentle giant Igor.
Frightenstein's only real star was Vincent Price, who appears at the beginning and end of each episode, and reads mock-macabre poems and other interstitials.
What the heck was he doing there?
If you'll allow me a brief tangent...
In 1968, Boris Karloff had a brief cameo in upstart director Peter Bogdanovich's first feature film, Targets. It's about a Charles Whitman-type mass murderer whose shooting spree collides with Karloff's character's promotional appearance at a local drive-in.
Karloff essentially plays himself in Targets: a horror movie legend still recognized around the world by his iconic surname alone, but whose career is in decline. He's been reduced to cashing little checks for personal appearances (and, er, cameos in low-budget films).
Even before his faceoff with the sniper in the film's finale, Karloff's character realizes that his brand of harmless, campy scares no longer satisfies a jaded public that consumes real life horrors every day on the news.
And in 1971, Vincent Price found himself in the same situation.
Older and "uncool" (despite receiving the imprimatur of another rising Hollywood director, Roger Corman), Price was out of fashion.
At the same time, CHCH had a limited budget, but wanted and needed some star power for their single camera kid's show.
Who better to host this "monster mash" than Vincent Price, still one of the all-time great horror-movie icons?
Frightenstein's producer tracked down Price, who agreed to work for $3000 a day, one quarter of his usual per-diem appearance rate.
He loved children, he explained simply. And the gig sounded like fun.
CHCH checked their tiny budget. They could only afford Price for four days, tops.
Four days it would have to be.
Everyone signed on the dotted line.
I've heard the story of what happened next from different sources, and it never ceases to warm my heart:
Price arrived at the modest TV studio, got into makeup and costume and was handed reams of doggerel poems about some crazy characters he'd never heard of before.
He'd read each piece once, put his head down, then look up at the camera's red light and utter his lines perfectly in one take.
New makeup, new costume, same perfect delivery, hour after hour.
Finally, it was time for a break. The weary yet exhilarated crew turned off the cameras and lights.
Then they looked around and realized that Vincent Price had disappeared.
Oh well, they said to each other, what do you expect? He's a big star and all. Plus he's, like, 60 years old, so he probably went for a nap...
The studio door opened a few minutes later.
It was Vincent Price and a cab driver, hauling "two-fours" of beer from the nearby Brewer's Retail.
He handed cold stubbies out to the cast and crew and regaled them with tales of old Hollywood, his days working with Karloff and Peter Lorre and Gene Tierney and Cecil B. DeMille and all the other greats he'd known.
Then he posed for photos with everybody individually.
On an overnight rush, these were blown up into 8 x 10s, which Price personally autographed for everyone at the station.
Over the course of four days, taping over 400 of these interstitials, Price never complained, blew a line or missed a mark.
In an era when standards of conduct were collapsing, Vincent Price insisted on behaving like the well-bred gentleman he so often portrayed on screen.
It was a role that came easily to him. After all, he'd been born into considerable wealth, graduated from Yale, and owned a multimillion-dollar art collection.
Yet unlike many people who come from privileged backgrounds, Price didn't treat the guys at the local station like disposable underlings and hired help.
Over those four days in Hicksville, Vincent Price earned every cent of that $12,000 — a measly sum for him, even with his career on the wane, but he knew it was a fortune for CHCH.
In those days, that was probably the annual salary of some of the fellows behind the cameras. Maybe.
Price had probably pictured himself, early in his career, performing Shakespeare and other classics, maybe winning Tonys and Oscars — not flying up to God-knows-where at sixty years of age, wearing stupid hats and taping silly poems for a show everyone figured only a bunch of little kids would ever see, that would soon be forgotten.
He did it all in a most cheerful, generous, and humble fashion.
The Hilarious House of Frightenstein tried (far too hard) to be educational as well as entertaining. Despite watching the show religiously when I was a kid, it wasn't until after Vincent Price's death that I heard the insider details about his brief visit to my hometown.
Ironically, that little throw-away story about his stoic, indefatigable professionalism was a more valuable lesson than any that ever made it on the air.
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