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.)
And 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