Thursday, April 7, 2011

Part 2 - Of Stargates, Apes and Toys - The Brain Damage Continues

I have often wondered what it was about the late 1960's and early 1970's that bred what is now being referred to as "Monster Kids." I know that there have been a great deal of hypothesizing about whether or not it had to do with Universal Studios packaging their horror library and selling it to television stations thereby creating a new fan base. It might definitely have to do with the rise of Warren Publications like FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, CREEPY and EERIE magazines.  It might be the fact that in nearly every territory in the United States, local media figures began putting on creepy make up and wigs and introducing genre films as Horror Hosts.  I think it had everything to do with all of these elements and more.

This was a particularly unique moment in entertainment history.  Prior to the late '60's fandom was reserved for teeny boppers who fantasized about matinee idols and kids that wanted to be cowboys like Tom Mix or Roy Rogers.  But now, there was a different "star" emerging on screens big and small.  They could be 200 feet tall and radioactive, or sewn together from corpses, or turn into a raging animal at the full moon.  Their frightening appearances and murderous ways were nothing compared to what Americans had heard about during World War II or were seeing on the television of the Viet Nam War.  I've already stated that there was also a lack of the instant media gratification we enjoy now and that made every exposure to genre materials an EVENT!

As soon as I could read, I, like many others, would grab the weekly TV guide (that in those days was 1/3rd the size it is now) and begin to scour the pages looking for the words: Movie, Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction and I would underline the entry and circle the page number.  More often than not, these films would come on very late at night and when they did, my brother and I would set an alarm clock, hide it under our pillows and when it went off, we'd carefully and quietly sneak downstairs and try to watch the movie with the volume barely audible until we were discovered by an angry parent (especially on school nights!)

Although Dad griped about inadvertently waking him up, I know that he wasn't THAT angry.  After all, for some reason he thought my brother and I were old enough to experience 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in three-screen Cinerama when it opened in 1968 (I was in first grade!).  At the time, I had NO idea what a brilliant story 2001 was.  All I knew was that it was the most visually stunning and frightening thing I had ever experienced. From the visceral hominids that introduced the tale, through the psychedelic Star Gate, to the benign but intense Star Child at the end - the ride was INTENSE. I remember frustratedly attempting to build a "Discovery" space ship from the movie out of legos with VERY limited success, although the monolith was easy to replicate, but black lego bits were pretty rare.  However the fear and excitement of 2001 was to be overshadowed by the sight of a gorilla, riding a horse and carrying a rifle.

It is difficult to imagine what the experience of seeing PLANET OF THE APES at six years-old was like in a dark movie theater.  Jerry Goldsmith's score was jarring and terrifying compared to "The Blue Danube" and "Atmospheres" and when Charlton Heston got shot in the throat and that bright red blood plumed across his neck, WOW!  It seemed so real that for most of the movie, I sat in a ball on my theater seat looking through my fingers.  As repellent as that experience might sound, the thrill of it was something that very few movie goers had experienced.  And just like that, everything was Planet of the Apes!

That summer at Broadwater Beach, a resort hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi, my brother, Scott and I would take turns "shooting" each other in the neck and falling off of the side of the pool as miniature "Taylors." I remember seeing the step by step process of changing actor Roddy McDowell into the chimpanzee Cornelius in TV Guide magazine and it was one of the first times a name REALLY sunk into my head: John Chambers.

Who would think that John Chambers' transformation of Roddy McDowell into Cornelius would have been reinforced by comedienne, Carol Burnett?  Mr. McDowell showed up as a guest on her show completely made up and then showed behind-the-scenes footage of the process!  Those glimpses behind the curtains were so few and far between.  With the exception of FAMOUS MONSTERS, there was not a place to go to for consistent information.  Latex, much less FOAMED latex seemed as rare as uranium and it was a far cry from the vacu-formed plastic Halloween masks of which we children were so fond.

Meanwhile on the sacred Saturday Morning Television schedule, my hero appeared in cartoon form: KING KONG:

Ahhhh, Saturday Mornings.  Again, my brother and I, deftly eluding our annoying little sister, would sneak downstairs and hold a throw pillow over the switch so the CLICK of turning the TV set on wouldn't wake the house.  Saturday mornings were kid time and cartoons were king. And the commercials during the cartoons would advertise incredible toys like Mattel's THING MAKER or later the GREEN GHOST game.  Madison Avenue was still learning about how easily marketing to children was and most of the time it was limited to those precious few hours on three networks on Saturday morning.  That Christmas of 1966, Santa Claus brought me what was then my personal Holy Grail of gifts: A KING KONG playset!

It didn't matter that the playset came with plastic contemporary jungle animals, I had PLENTY of plastic dinosaurs for King Kong to fight.

Thinking back on it now, toys were so much different when I was growing up.  G.I. Joe, was just that, a soldier who came with fatigues, helmet, rifle, gun, etc.  Sure, you could dress him up like a frogman (in an orange wet suit like Sean Connery wore in THUNDERBALL - excellent!) or an astronaut, but he wasn't fighting the fictional C.O.B.R.A. evil doers.  I guess, when we were growing up, he was either shooting "commies" or giant monsters.

At the same time, the N.A.S.A. Space program was underway and we were going to go to the Moon (Kennedy had said so) but we kids were already there, we had our own Moon Base with Major Matt Mason - Mattel Toys' Man in Space.  Toys were such a physical escape as opposed to video games.  Even though Matt Mason and G.I. Joe came with what seemed like a MILLION accessories, it still required that you get out of your house, find a dirt hill, dig fox holes or moon craters and proceed to lose all of the bits that you would then beg your parents to replace.

Again, this was two years before the "Summer of Love" was to forever change the landscape of the American Culture. Many kids were still wearing crew cuts!  On television, we monster kids were watching THE MUNSTERS and THE ADDAMS FAMILY, as well as STAR TREK, BATMAN, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., LOST IN SPACE,  and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. And on local New Orleans television, actor Sid Noel portrayed the ghoulish, mad scientist MORGUS THE MAGNIFICENT and introduced a steady stream of horror films for our fertile, impressionable minds...


  1. Morgus and Chopsley -- what better friends could a kid have...???

  2. The great Sid Noel who also played "Wild Bill" Ford. Remember? He'd scream "I'm Wild Bill!" and then get hit in the kisser with a cream pie!

  3. Sorry....for you non-New Orleanans, Wild Bill Ford was a car dealership in the city.