Friday, November 24, 2006

MONSTER BASH: FORRY'S 90th BIRTHDAY PARTY


For those who don’t know the significance of Forrest J. Ackerman, I refer you to Flickhead’s excellent, very personal history of Forrest J. Ackerman’s legacy. Flickhead is busy hosting a Forrest J. Ackerman blog-a-thon in celebration of the man’s 90th birthday, which also just happens to be this very day. Lighting 90 candles is a big job, so let me offer some assistance.

To invoke the name Forrest J. Ackerman in a room full of (mostly) men and (some) women of roughly my age (tail-end baby boomer movie buffs) is like playing a game of “Spot the Monster Geek”—pointed ears are likely to prick up and bloodshot eyes are likely to twinkle at the mention of his name, and then the outing is complete. But those of us raised on Famous Monsters of Filmland, the magazine that Ackerman founded with publisher James Warren, have never been much on cloaking that geekdom-- those who loved monsters and horror as kids were usually pretty vocal about it, in the hopes of connecting with yet another fellow night traveler. So discovering Famous Monsters at exactly the right preadolescent age was, for most of us, a clarifying moment, one which confirmed that, yes, despite the claims within the taunting dished out by classmates and friends who just didn’t get the whole monster thing, there were other freaks and nerds who shared this particular obsession, and other older people who were sympathetic to the cause of horror and science-fiction fandom.


















(The first issue of Famous Monsters I ever bought-- my dad would slip me Mad magazine when I was sick, unbeknownst to my mother, but it was my mom who facilitated my initiation to the glorious world these pages held in store.)

Among the ranks of Famous Monsters fans—many of whom, like Joe Dante, Stephen King, John Landis and Steven Spielberg, have become somewhat famous themselves since well before the magazine stopped publishing in 1983—Forrest J. Ackerman was fandom personified, a kind of geek godhead. From high in the Horrorwood Hills of Southern Karloffornia he preached the gospel of a specific kind of movie love, particularly for the early works of Lon Chaney Sr., German expressionist masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, and, of course, the Universal stable of monsters, to a generation who had steady access of all manner of horror classics from this period (and later, into the ‘50s and ‘60s) when Universal and other companies unleashed their horror stables onto local afternoon TV syndication and regular weekend horror movie programs, hosted by the likes of Seymour (Fright Night with Sinister Seymour) in Los Angeles and Victor Ives & Head, played by Jimmy Hollister. (Sinister Cinema on KATU-TV in Portland, Oregon—this is the one I grew up on.)

And Famous Monsters was the Bible—no corny science fiction or horror film was considered beneath discussion, no bad pun, usually generated from the mind of the Ackermonster himself, was too smelly to print (he did, however, scrupulously avoid the risqué), and the arms-wide-open enthusiasm for all kinds of fantastic cinema was infectious and often paved the way to an appreciation of other genres and film forms as well. Ackerman was the indisputable center of the Famous Monsters universe, and for hard-core monsters like me and my friends in junior high and high school making a real connection with him and that universe was big-time validation, first contact, a foot in the door to a future populated with people who might not automatically denounce a horror fan for his or her unalloyed monster love. (A friend of mine had a picture of himself done up in full vampire regalia printed in the magazine once—he feasted on that little bit of celebrity for months. And I sent in a junior high school class picture of myself to Famous Monsters in 1972 and after a few issues passed promptly forgot about it. Imagine my mixture of delight and horror when, in 1979, during my sophomore year of college, I strolled into a drug store in Eugene, Oregon, thumbed through a new issue of FM and discovered a six-year-old picture of myself under the heading: “Wanted! More Monsters Like..."


















(The Boris Karloff memorial issue, featuring a typically excellent painting by regular Famous Monsters contributor Basil Gogos.)

I had the pleasure of speaking with Forrest J. Ackerman on three occasions during different times of my life. The first was on the phone, from my dorm room in Eugene, around the same time I made the discovery of my eighth-grade mug in the back pages of the magazine. My best friend Bruce and I were killing an afternoon as we often did—hanging around, reading, yapping, and avoiding our studies. Bruce was thumbing through the current issue of Famous Monsters and came across some monsterrific drawings by a young horror fan by the name of Paul Clemens, and we began to wonder if this was the same Paul Clemens who was currently starring in a Marsha Mason weepie entitled Promises in the Dark. The drawings were several years old, and since we figured Clemens was roughly our age, or maybe a little older (there was no IMDb in those days to rapidly verify our curiosities about carbon-dating celebrities), we figured that they must be the same person. But just to settle the matter once and for all, we decided to call Forry himself and ask him. Where we got the cheek to do this, I’m not entirely sure, but Directory Assistance had his name and number, so boldly we dialed, and also trembled slightly as the line rang. After a few rings, a youngish-sounding man picked up, and I asked if this was Forrest J. Ackerman’s residence. The man, who I remember assuming to be the Ackermansion manservant, said that yes, it was, and would I like to speak to Mr. Ackerman. After I quickly said yes, a few moments passed and the next person I heard was the unmistakable voice of Forrest J. Ackerman (I remembered what he sounded like from his brief cameo in the utterly forgettable Dracula vs. Frankenstein). He had a very convivial phone presence and was very patient with these two fans that traded off talking to him about all things monster, for probably no more than five minutes total. (Something tells me this was not the first time he had ever fielded a cold call from a star-struck Famous Monsters enthusiast.) And he did confirm that the artist Paul Clemens was the same young man who was now starring in a movie with Marsha Mason. Satisfaction! Later we told another friend, another Forrest J. fan from way back, what we’d done, and he was horrified, convinced that we’d called and goofed on this icon of childhood fantasy fandom. On the contrary, we were thrilled to have talked sincerely with him for even five minutes, and perhaps a little embarrassed to be as thrilled as we were.

About eight years later Bruce, his wife, and I were visiting the old Hollywood museum that used to be located next to the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The museum was packed with authentic costumes, props and other significant memorabilia from the annals of Hollywood history, and as a visitor to Los Angeles (I was still about two years away from becoming a resident) it was a fascinating place to visit. (Bruce, who had been living in Los Angeles for a couple of years by then, loved it too.) He and I got distracted by an exhibit of costumes from Gone with the Wind and were marveling over the detail on one of Scarlet’s dresses when Bruce noticed his wife over on the other side of the room talking to an older gentleman. “Look,” Bruce said, “some old guy has Pattie cornered and is telling her some story about the old days of Hollywood, and she can’t escape!” We both quietly watched and laughed for a moment or two. I don’t remember which of us noticed that the part of the room she was standing in was an exhibit of science fiction props and models and posters and such. But as soon as we did, we took a little closer look at the old guy who had Pattie’s ear. “Jesus, I think that’s Forrest J. Ackerman,” I said. Bruce quickly agreed, and we made our way across the floor, sidled up next to Pattie, introduced ourselves (I don’t remember if we told him about the phone call) and attempted to wedge ourselves into the conversation they were having. The four of us stood around, Mr. Ackerman holding court and describing several items in the display cases, which he told us were lent to the museum from his private collection. “You mean, from the Ackermansion?” Bruce asked. Forry lit up instantly and said, “Yes, indeed! You know about the Ackermansion?” We explained our lifelong connection to Famous Monsters, and he ended up extending an invitation to us to visit his famous, expansive digs in the Hollywood Hills. Why we didn’t take him up on it, I don’t remember exactly, and I’ve always regretted it. But I do remember laughing for the rest of the day at the image of Pattie stuck talking to a monster buff icon whose identify was completely unknown to her, while the big horror fans were gazing at them both from a distance, from a shrine to Tara, of all places.

Thirteen years later, in 1998, I finally would take Mr. Ackerman up on his rather open-ended invitation. After having lived in Los Angeles for 11 years, I decided it was time to visit the Ackermansion before, for whatever reason, it was too late. My wife, good sport that she was (is), agreed to accompany me, and we made a pilgrimage one Saturday afternoon. Not long after our visit, he was forced to sell off his collection and vacate the house permanently, so I feel fortunate that the last time I would meet Forrest J. Ackerman in person would be when he was still surrounded by his glory, within the hallowed walls of the Ackermansion, every square inch of space taken up by the most amazing, astounding, expansive, and increasingly tattered and worn collection of horror and science fiction memorabilia ever assembled under one roof. Of course I brought my video camera and shot about 22 minutes of footage, never thinking that anyone but me, my wife, and Bruce would ever be interested in seeing it. But now, in the age of YouTube, the footage is available for anyone who cares to see the Ackermansion from the inside, in living, blood-curdling color.

Alas, technical difficulties beyond my control are preventing me from uploading my video to YouTube so all might enjoy it. So until I get my techno-act together, please enjoy this parody of the opening of James Whale’s Frankenstein, shot for a film by Paul Bunnell entitled That Little Monster, which finds F.J.A. in the role of the concerned master of ceremonies warning the audience of the horrors to come originally embodied by Edward Van Sloan. Come Monday, I will deliver a new post that will feature my tour of the spectacular splendors of the Ackermansion. I apologize for the delay, but if it helps assuage the pangs of anticipation, think of this as chapter one in one of those serials, like Radar Men from the Moon, that Forrest J. Ackerman and Famous Monsters of Filmland helped to introduce to a TV generation of monster freaks and fans. Only I will guarantee that my part two will deliver the goods, unlike those serials which placed the hero in inescapable harm’s way at the end of one chapter, only to improbably yank him to safety at the beginning of chapter two. For now, have the happiest of birthdays, Forry! See you Monday!



UPDATE 11/28/06: My battle with technology is over! Available now for your viewing pleasure, a three-part video of My 1998 Tour of the Ackermansion! Enjoy!

3 comments:

Flickhead said...

Excellent post, Dennis. I never spoke with FJA, but I can relate to your feelings. In 1975, after I'd printed the first issue of Magic Theater - which had a total run of about 400 copies which I sold door-to-door in downtown Manhattan - I recieved a phone call from Bhob Stewart, the editor of Castle of Frankenstein magazine, who wanted to clarify a mistake I made in my zine regarding CoF. Soon enough I was chatting with Calvin Beck, the publisher. It was always a rush.

I can't wait for the upcoming vids!!

mcfriendly said...

Loved Famous Monsters and enjoyed Castle of Frankenstein - BUT Calvin T. Beck's mailorder biz (Gothic Castle?) ripped me off as a kid and I never forgot it. I went as far as to try and contact him directly and even then ('70s) he had an unlisted phone number - what's that tell you? Forry - Yay! Beck - Ugh!

Sguffalo Bill said...

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Have a good time!

Sguffalo Bill