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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Bay of the Living Dead: Memories of a Monster Kid and Remembering Carla Laemmle

Posted By on Tue, Jan 6, 2015 at 2:51 PM

click to enlarge isawwhatisaw.png
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a monthly column dedicated to the horror genre, past present and future. 

Frank Dello Stritto, author of I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It, a book about the heyday of early television and rerunsis a "Monster Kid." But you may be wondering what's a monster kid?

Monster Kids are baby boomers who came of age during the '50s and '60s. During that bygone era, which to some may feel as though it's much further in the past then it actually was, millions of kids were mesmerized by TV shows like Shock Theater and Creature Features. These precursors to TCM aired the classic universal monster movies of the '30s and '40s, allowing Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Mummy to rise from their graves and walk the earth anew. 

Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine was one of the most successful publications of the day. Editor Forrest J. Ackerman (Uncle Forry to the kids) regaled Monster Kids with his folksy charm, educating his "nieces and nephews" as to which films they most needed to see — Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) and the original King Kong (1933) were often at the top of his list. 

Groundbreaking TV series like Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Dark Shadows — a daytime soap opera about vampires, werewolves, witches and ghosts — were all produced during this era. It was an embarrassment of riches. 

In I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It, his third book, Monster Kid/film historian Dello Stritto recalls what it was like to be a blue collar kid in New Jersey during the Monster Kid era. He writes eloquently of turning on the TV and discovering the films which fired up his young imagination some 50 years ago. TV life was hard back then, many cities received an average of three to seven channels, reception could be spotty in some areas, and so Monster Kids often had to play with the "rabbit ears" atop their sets, hoping to get a decent picture before that midnight screening of the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi classic The Raven (1935) commenced.

Dello Stritto remembers scouring the TV listings, and shares his excitement at discovering the works of his cinema idols. At the time he kept a Rolodex in which he recorded information about each film he saw. This allows him to report, in his book, the actual airdates of the films in question. Dello Stritto saw a number of these titles on the nights of their broadcast premieres — there was a buzz in the air when The Wizard of Oz made its TV debut in 1956. He remembers being disturbed by the decidedly dark Laurel and Hardy fairy tale Babes in Toyland (1934, re-titled March of the Wooden Soldiers for TV). His excitement was indescribable when he realized that the original King Kong was going to air every single day for a week on WOR TV's Million Dollar Movie.

Dello Stritto was more than just a wide eyed kid watching movies. He was, and remains, a historian who studies film. He says his memories include searching the musty shelves at bookstores, spending his allowance on the purchase of tomes, which told the back-stories of his favorite films. He poured over volumes such as William K. Everson's informative Classics of the Horror Film. He dissected Don Marlowe's "autobiography" The Hollywood That Was. Marlowe was a bit player who claimed to be a lot closer to actor Bela Lugosi than he actually was. Dello Stritto reads between the lines and debunks the BS.

For 400 breathtaking pages, Frank Dello Stritto shares his vast knowledge of the film genre he loves and knows so well. For middle aged Monster Kids, it's a sentimental journey. For the generations that followed, it's a hard to resist invitation to learn about, and watch, horror films that were produced when the genre was art form.

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It can be purchased on Amazon for $30. 

And please consider checking out Dello Stritto's still available earlier books: A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore: The Mythology and History of Classic Horror Films, and Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain (the latter was co-authored with Andi Brooks). All three books are labors of love, sure to delight horror fans of all ages. 

click to enlarge Carla Laemmle in Phantom of the Opera
  • Carla Laemmle in Phantom of the Opera
When actress Carla Laemmle died at age 104 this past summer, history died with her.

She was the niece of Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle, and was the last surviving cast member of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Dracula (1931). In the former, her graceful ballet steps could be seen onstage at the Paris Opera House. She spoke the opening lines in the latter film. During the last 15 years of her life she delighted classic horror buffs with her appearances at autograph shows and conventions. Her memories remained sharp until the end, and she gladly regaled her audiences with colorful tales of old Hollywood. She never turned down a request to utter her short speech from Dracula, which were the first spoken words in the talking era's first horror film. 

A woman ahead of her time, she was a supporter of gay rights — at age 100, she accepted a small role in Pool Time, a gay independent film. She appeared with the film's primarily gay cast at the film's LA premiere in 2010.

Carla Laemmle was indeed one of a kind. A gracious, class act until the end. We therefore join her family in urging the Academy Awards committee to include her during the In Memoriam triibute at next month's Oscar telecast.

Please consider telling the Academy not to forget Carla Laemmle with a message on the Oscars' site. 
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