Famous Monsters and Me

I’ve often wondered how and why my interests developed as they did. I grew up on a small farm in Iowa in the 50s, and experienced all that went with that. So maybe it’s odd – or maybe it makes perfect sense – that from an early age, as early as I can remember, I was totally in love with science fiction and horror (monsters!) via all their delivery systems; i.e.  books, magazines, comics, TV, and movies. Mainly movies, probably because films are so immediate.

I was an only child, and with no kids in my age range nearby, I was basically by myself until I started grade school. I developed an elaborate fantasy life, which fed directly off of all this stuff. My head was working overtime, mainlining every film and comic that crossed my path. My mother loved movies, so we went a lot. There was a glut of science-fiction monster movies in the 1950s, which now I see had a lot to do with post-war anxieties and fears of being vaporized by Commie nukes. But at the time all I saw in those films were giant insects buzzing around in the desert, mutated dinosaurs rising out of the ocean, and Martians in flying saucers wiping out national landmarks.

I loved all these films. One of the earliest I can remember is The Man from Planet X. In retrospect it’s not that great, but at the time I found it ineffably strange and sad, frightening and enthralling. My favorite, and certainly the most traumatic, was The Thing from Another World, which completely freaked me out when I saw it in 1951. Totally inappropriate for a six-year-old, but my mother apparently wasn’t paying enough attention. Which was a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. I was seriously scared for months, but it was worth it. Most of these were pretty disposable, but some hold up well today, such as Them!, It Came from Outer Space, The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (My mother got the manager of the theater in Sac City, Iowa to give me a one-sheet poster for The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It seemed like an incredible gift at the time, and it was.)

 Horror of Dracula poster3And then three things happened that created a kind of perfect storm in my life. First, the British film studio Hammer Films burst on the horror scene with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, which got a lot of attention, followed the next year with The Horror of Dracula, which got even more. All that blood and gore and heavy breathing in vivid Technicolor. More films followed, and I saw as many as possible. This wasn’t always easy, since by the time they reached our area, might be playing only as a midnight show, or at the local drive-in. I’m probably the only person I know who would go to the drive-in by himself, if necessary, to see the latest horror film. You do what you have to do.

Second, “Shock Theater” hit the scene in October 1957, a syndicated package for TV showings of 52 horror films of the 1930s & 40s from Universal Studios. That more than a few of them turned out to be mere mysteries instead of supernatural horror made little difference to me. This was my first exposure to the classic horror films: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and on and on. A problem was that “Shock Theater” was carried locally by WOI-TV, a station in Ames, Iowa (one of three channels that we could get), which had the most problematic reception of them all. Of course, that didn’t make any difference. I’d sit there glued to the set regardless of how much interference there might be. It was great anyway. Snow, rolling picture, so what? All these films I’d had limited awareness of actually existed, and I could see them (when I could finagle staying up late enough to watch).

The third, and in many ways most important event was when I discovered the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland at a newsstand in February of 1958 and actually had enough money (35 cents!) on me to buy it. I couldn’t believe that such a magazine existed, but to me the fact that it did justified my love of these films and their world. This was something tangible I could hold in my hands. Famous Monsters was created, written and edited by Forrest J Ackerman, who for some reason didn’t punctuate his middle initial. It was intended as a one-shot, but proved so popular that 191 issues of the initial incarnation of the magazine were published between 1958 and 1983. I bought every issue between 1958 and 1962, when I started college, and then sporadically thereafter, until, in an act of stunning stupidity and lack of foresight, sold my entire collection for something like $20. I probably needed beer money.

“Forry” Ackerman was quite a character. He was born in 1916 and died in 2008 at age 92. In between he’d been deeply involved, to put it mildly, in the science-fiction world as an agent (Ray Bradbury was a client), author, editor, actor, one of the strongest boosters ever of science fiction & fantasy in print and film (he coined the term “sci-fi”), and was a major collector of sci-fi/horror memorabilia of all kinds in amazing quantities. But he’s probably best remembered for Famous Monsters, which was an acknowledged inspiration for filmmakers and writers such as Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, Stephen King, Danny Elfman, and many others. (Check out his Wikipedia entry for much more, including the priceless detail that when he was very ill he told Joe Dante that he couldn’t die until he voted for Obama for president, which he did.)

The first time I got to meet Forrest Ackerman was in December 1987 when he decided to auction a large chunk of his collection in New York to raise money for, as I recall, his wife’s considerable medical expenses. I went to a preview night at the Puck Building, where he was scheduled to give a talk. It was amazing to be there. Besides rare posters, manuscripts, stills, props and costumes, I also saw – and was able to handle – items such as Bela Lugosi’s drivers license and SAG card. It seemed amazing, and a little sad, that this ephemera of Lugosi’s life was now up for sale. Later I stood in line to be received by Forry. It was like waiting to see Santa Claus at Macy’s, or maybe the Pope. What I remember when my turn came was when he pointed out that a ring on his finger had been worn by Boris Karloff in The Mummy. I was awestruck. It was a great night, seeing all these pieces of movie history and Forrest J Ackerman in the flesh.

The second time I saw him was in 1998 when I flew to Los Angeles for a job interview. The interview was Thursday and Friday, with Saturday a free day before returning to New York on Sunday. I remembered reading that Ackerman usually held open house on Saturday mornings at his home, the “Ackermansion.”  Before coming out I called and heard a recorded message with the details, so I knew he was still hosting these events. Despite being nearly as freaked out by having to drive a rental car on California freeways as I was when I saw The Thing years before, I somehow found my way to his home in the Hollywood Hills, and managed to park safely on the narrow, winding street.

There were twenty or more people gathered outside his house waiting for 11am, when the open house was scheduled to begin. At the appointed time an appropriately spooky recording invited us to go around to the back entrance. As we walked to the door, I saw Forry through a side window, moving clothing from a washer to a dryer. He was doing his laundry! I thought this was really great.

Soon he came to the door and invited us in. We were in the lower level of the house, which was stuffed wall to wall and floor to ceiling with props, posters, death masks, books, models, everything. He gave us the full tour. Between 1951 and 2002, Ackerman welcomed some 50,000 fans like myself into his home on such tours of his world. Eventually he said to follow him upstairs and he’d tell us some stories. Which he proceeded to do as we gathered around, listening and asking questions as he related anecdotes about his encounters with Karloff and Lugosi and many others.

At one point I asked if it was true that Bela Lugosi had been buried in his Dracula cape. He replied that there had actually been three capes. Lugosi was indeed buried in one, and his brother had the second. Then Forry’s eyes lit up and he proclaimed, “And I’ve got the third!” He jumped up, went to a closet where he pulled out the cape and whipped it on in classic vampire style. True story.

I was sad when I heard of his death on December 4, 2008. Because of failing health, he had stopped giving tours of his home some years before, so I felt lucky to have been included. He brought a kid’s enthusiasm to what he loved, and passed that on to thousands of people. I was one of them. – Ted Hicks

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Film, Home Video, TV. Bookmark the permalink.

114 Responses to Famous Monsters and Me

  1. Alyssa says:

    Bela Lugosi is my favorite Dracula ever. Great post by the way and congrats on making it to freshly pressed. 🙂

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  2. MG says:

    We scares yet love them. There is huge community of them behind the screen.
    But The community of MONSTERS are amazing and ever popular for the theme of screen play with guarantee of success.

  3. miss toy says:

    OMG! this was a great read. i LOOOOVVVEEE old sci, and b-movies. i have soooo many. these movies might be cheesy, with bad acting, and poor scripts but they are fab! some of my favs are:
    chained for life
    it came from outer space
    reefer madness
    cult of the cobra
    leech woman
    monster on campus
    white zombie
    i married a zombie
    and i could go on and on. my friends use to tease me about watching these.now they all ask…”what your latest movie Toy?” you see, they not only realized how great these are they know that they can watch w/the kids too.

  4. MG says:

    Reblogged this on S K Y ( हर कोई चाहता है एक मुठ्ठी आसमान ) and commented:
    We scares yet love them. There is huge community of them behind the screen.
    But The community of MONSTERS are amazing and ever popular for the theme of screen play with guarantee of success.

  5. rosewater12 says:

    I remember Shock Theater: I thought it was local programming in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area. We never stop learning…… Thanks for the great article, the remembrance of Forrest Ackerman, and for that picture at the top of your posting. I recall seeing that on the inside cover of a sci-fi book in my high school library (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE?). Thanks for your great writing and for the excellent editing.

    • Ted Hicks says:

      I was thrilled to find that illustration to put at the top of the post. You’re quite right that it’s from the inside front & back covers of a science fiction series published by John C. Winston in the 50s. I read all of them our school library had. Recently bought a copy from an online used-book outlet (Abe Books) of one I especially remembered, “Danger: Dinosaurs” by Richard Marsten (pseudonym of author Evan Hunter, who also wrote crime novels under the name Ed McBain). Cost me $125, a mere 1000% markup over the original $2 price. A bargain for the memories it brought me. And that inside-jacket illustration still gives me a thrill when I see it.

  6. misfit120 says:

    Yeah….I remember seeing the movie “Them” which was about giant ants. I don’t think I’ve used salt since….: )

  7. I remember that Forey’s favorite actor was VINCENT PRICE. I had the opportunity to spend an evening with this horror legend. My story can be found on the link below:

  8. ohmenopause says:

    If there´s one movie I would really like to see again, is Tom Thumb. I wonder if it would look the same after fifty years.

  9. nazarioartpainting says:

    My favorite is Frankeinstein. Uy!

  10. I love the subject of your blog and keep it up! Congratulations on being freshly pressed too! 🙂

  11. What an experience you had… i love sci-fi/horror movies what would be your favourite Stephen king film..??

  12. What a lovely post! Although I was born decades after some of the Greats you mentioned, I loved loved loved old Monster movies as a child. Bride of Frankenstein was one of my absolute favorites. In fact, I still prefer the “horror” movies made before I was born to the versions of today. Have just been given the opportunity to produce an indie feature with a very modern take on the Vampire lifestyle (still in the fundraising stage). Should be interesting, but I love that the Writer/Director has a similar fondness for the old and great horror films of yesteryear. Anyhow, I love your writing, congrats on being a featured post!

  13. Great post. I grew up in the same rural situation in north central Pennsylvania and lived for the day that the post office delivered FM! I worshiped Forest Ackerman.

  14. Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi says:

    Great memories, Ted. Thanks for sharing them with us.

  15. Thanks for sharing your story. I too have a huge collection of movie posters, projectors, movie reels, stand-ups and films. In fact my grandmother stated that my living room looked like MGM studios. What can you say when you crave the good stuff? A couple of my favorites, The orginal Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Incredible Shrinking Man.

    • Ted Hicks says:

      My God, I can’t believe I didn’t cite Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Incredible Shrinking Man when I mentioned 50s films I thought still hold up. They’re both great. I plan to write about those and others soon. Thanks!

  16. best4455 says:

    I love these old horror movies, when I get the chance to see them.

  17. Chris White says:

    Hi there … I really like your blog,especially this MONSTER one. If you have a couple of ticks to spare you may like to see my wordpress site http://www.the1951club.org. as I think it may interest you.
    Keep up the good work and well done on getting freshly pressed.

  18. asoulwalker says:

    I wish I could have gone on one of those tours. Thanks for sharing your stories.

  19. John Saddington says:

    Reblogged this on 8BIT.

  20. jensine says:

    lucky you … glad you got to meet a hero of yours, I love horror and sifi too, if the story is good and the special effect even better … give me cinema and popcorn any day of the week

  21. Novelty says:

    Wow! Really good!

  22. avaarden says:

    Reblogged this on avaarden and commented:
    I love this site! I just found it! Check it out! Famous Monsters and Me–how much better can it get?

  23. fadhlanmahbob says:

    Love the entry! “You do what you have to do”!

  24. triptracker says:

    Your love for science fiction seems to have kept you young at heart. I almost want to go find all these classics and have a movie night.

  25. Reblogged this on Ivycreekstudios's Blog and commented:
    Classic scary movies!

  26. bmj2k says:

    Great post. Though I’m younger to you and came to these films from tv, I still love them and can relate to nearly every word of this post. Though I never met Forry, his legacy is legend.

  27. Mormon Soprano says:

    I loved reading this interesting post and learning about your priceless memories! I didn’t read through all of the comments, so perhaps someone else may have mentioned it, but one of the Famous Monster magazine covers must have inspired Pixar’s little one-eyed star “Mike Wazowski” in MONSTERS, INC. Don’t you think? 🙂
    I’m glad you were Freshly Pressed so I could read this entertaining and education post. Have a great day!

  28. Roger Nield says:

    Reblogged this on Runnymede Residents Community Web Site and commented:
    For the sci-fi fans out there and I know there are a few….

  29. Natasha Ch says:

    Quite nostalgic 🙂

  30. I just saw Avengers recently and left the film actually tired and unimpressed. I long for the real explosions and actual sets of yester-year that were created in studio monster labs rather than by a guy with a computer. Rad post! http://beginningstoendings.wordpress.com

  31. Dropped Ink says:

    Reblogged this on Drops Of Ink and commented:
    I am new to following the horror genre. Blame my mother she didn’t let us watch them. I will say that I do love/enjoy the classic monster movies. I find the enthralling in a way and the artistry in them is something that is on a league of it’s own.

  32. Honie Briggs says:

    As a kid I used to think it would be cool to have a drive-in and show these classic movies. My dad took our family to a drive-in once. I don’t remember the movie, only that it was a time we all enjoyed being together. What a treat! Nice post.

  33. L.J. Dopp says:

    Really enjoyed reading “Famous Monsters and Me,” and wanted to share a couple of things with you. Although born in Hollywood, CA, I was privileged to visit Iowa in the summers of my youth, between ’56 and ’65. Although I’ve never returned, Ft. Dodge, Iowa, and the Dopp/Swearengin clans are very clear in the Ray Bradbury-like landscape of my memories. My first issue of Famous Monsters was #15 in ’61 — and I was hooked. I never met Forrest J Ackerman till the ’90s, and finally got invited to the Ackermansion in the early 2000s. Soon after, co-producer Edward Plumb and I asked Forry to host our horror anthology — a DTV comedy feature, called, “The Boneyard Collection.” Although Uncle Forry is gone — he lives on in Wal-Mart and Sears, hosting segments guest-starring Robert Loggia, George Kennedy, Tippi Hedren, Barbara Steele(!), Ronn Moss, Candy Clark, Brad Dourif, Kevin McCarthy, Ken Foree, Susan Tyrrell, and others Forry-friend Ray Harryhausen appears in an unbilled cameo, and FJA wears the Lugosi Dracula cape and Karloff scarab ring you mentioned — as his greatest character, “Dr. Acula.” That the distributor put Forry’s face and name on the DVD cover was an unexpected homage. Thanks for your great blog!

  34. C.D. says:

    How lucky you are to have met Ackerman! Thank you for sharing,
    Artphalt (http://artphalt.wordpress.com)

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  36. Thomas says:

    Now that’s some good fortune! What a great person!

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  38. You could certainly see your enthusiasm within the article you write.
    The world hopes for more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart.

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