Lessons on Being a Grown-Up from… Vincent Price?
A big movie star came to my hometown to shoot a cheesy local children's show. Here's what he accidentally taught me.
February 5, 2013 - 7:00 am
The Seventies was a lousy time to be a kid.
Oh, sure, it wasn’t all bad:
We didn’t wear bike helmets. Our parents made us play outside (“Get out of this house, and don’t come back ’til the street lights come on!”). We “bounced around in the back of the station wagon.” No one was allergic to peanut butter, or very much else.
Evel Knievel was a role model.
But something freakish, sinister, and incomprehensible was always being talked about, over at the Me Decade’s grown ups’ table:
Watergate (which had something to do with “bugs” invading America, I concluded; men in suits talked about it on TV so much, they interrupted my lunchtime Flintstones for months), the Patty Hearst kidnapping, Vietnam, Jimmy Carter, Bicentennial toilet seats, The Gong Show, hijackings, the Loud family, D.B. Cooper, divorce, things called “muggings,” crying Indians, gas station lineups and an unprecedented combination of high inflation, unemployment, and interest rates that adults muttered about in worried voices just out of earshot.
Epitomized by Howard Hughes’ will, fakery was epidemic:
We decorated our houses with plastic flowers and fruit. Squeaking drugstore paperback racks were laden with books about astrology, crypto-zoology, alien astronauts, and other junk history. “Everyone knew” that some all-powerful “They” had gotten away with killing the Kennedys and King. What chance did a timid, puny seven-year-old girl have?
If a rich child porn aficionado could bury a bunch of kids in their school bus, what the hell couldn’t happen?
A kid needed a break.
If you lived in my part of the world, starting around 1971, that respite came in the form of a cheap local TV show called The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.
Once upon a time, pretty much every city had their own “horror movie hosts” — those hammy guys who’d introduce the schlocky, public-domain flicks at midnight for the local station.
I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada — imagine a cross between the Jersey Shore and 1960s Pittsburgh — and we were too pathetic to even have one of those dudes, at least, not until I started high school, when a Toronto cult hit that only ran one season changed all that; I’ve been offered hundreds of bucks for my now tissue-thin All-Night Show t-shirt. (A rival network good-naturedly plays along with the gag, above.)
The thing is: We had something better.
The Hilarious House of Frightenstein was produced by our one and only TV station, CHCH. This hour-long kids’ show combined the then-hip look and sound of psychedelia (retina-searing, kaleidoscopic “special effects” plus current Top 40 hits) with the mid-century sensibility of Famous Monsters of Filmland.
The show’s “plot” concerned a banished count’s attempts to revive his comatose monster, but that was just a flimsy construction on which to mount a fast-paced series of corny sketches, semi-serious “educational” segments about grammar, physics, and chemistry, and — years before The Simpsons and Pixar — the occasional “over the kids’ heads” joke aimed at any adult who might find themselves awake at dawn — or earlier:
Another memory is the creation of the psychedelic background keyed behind Fishka and Billy. Two of us in the videotape department confused the hell out of the gear and created a synchronous feedback to go with the music. The other operator, Doug Bonar, is now Vice President of Global Television. I am a Professor of Television Broadcasting at Mohawk College in Hamilton. … Rif gave each of us the princely sum of five dollars for creating the effect. In hindsight, I should never have cashed the cheque. … Rif is famous now! That was his motivation for crew ingenuity. We had a ball with the show and felt a sense of ownership in making it great. 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 midget who struggled with his cue cards, a real live science professor 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 (what else?).
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?
In 1968, Boris Karloff agreed to 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 last name alone, but whose career is in decline, reduced to cashing little checks for personal appearances (and, er, cameos in low-budget films).
His brand of harmless, campy scares no longer satisfies a jaded public that consumes real life horrors — Mai Lai, the Manson family, and, well, Charles Whitman — every day on the news.
A few years later, 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?
The producers 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.
Hamilton, Ontario, is never pretty at the best of times.
Price would have flown into Toronto on a summer day and been driven the one-hour trip to the CHCH studios in a quiet part of town that, while fairly far from the two massive steel mills, was probably still pretty stinky.
I hope the town car was air conditioned; the Golden Horseshoe gets humid. (One of my hometown’s nicknames is “the Armpit.”)
I’ve heard the story of what happened next from different sources, and it never ceases to warm my heart:
Price got into makeup and costume and was handed reams of doggerel poems about crazy characters he’d never heard of.
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 — (note: that was nearly 80 years old in ’70s years) — so he probably went for a nap…
The studio door opened a few minutes later.
It was Vincent Price and a cab driver, carrying a couple of “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 everyone.
On an overnight rush, these were blown up into 8 x 10s, which Price personally autographed for everyone at the station.
He never complained, never blew a line or missed a mark.
In an era when standards of conduct were collapsing (just read Tom Wolfe), 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 only a bunch of little kids would ever see.
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. It wasn’t until after Vincent Price’s death that I heard the 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.
Previously from Kathy Shaidle on How To Be a Grown Up: