Farewell To The Acker-Monster
A lot of readers are likely to drop off right here upon seeing the name of Forrest J Ackerman and realizing that I intend paying tribute to him and a magazine a lot of them never cared about. Famous Monsters Of Filmland lasted from 1958 to 1983 in its charter run. I doubt if any of its followers stayed for the whole party. FM was very much a magazine grown out of by most who passed its way and looked back later to (invariably) happier days when Ackerman’s world was their oyster. A lot of them (or us, if you’re still with me) have spent hours since Friday pondering the legacy of a man unknown (utterly so) to most everyone else. Well, after all, there are legends out there in fields of (other people’s) interest I know nothing of. Who’s the leading totem on stamp collecting, or Buffalo Head nickels? It happens Ackerman knew monsters and sci-fi (yes, he introduced that term) better than anyone alive --- but wait, it just occurs to me that someone else must occupy that throne as of this week --- but who? A lot more people care about horrors and fantasy than used to. That’s all been mainstreamed thanks largely to Ackerman. Maybe we give such stuff too much respect in this era of total youth dominance at the boxoffice. Credit (or blame) Forry for that. I might not have weighed in but for so much online tributing inspiring my two-cent deposit. To eulogize FJA is merely to find excuse for trips down our own memory lanes, and these dozens (so far) of posts have reminded me yet again how similarly so many of our young lives played out during the late fifties and sixties, but where were you people when I was ten and needed you? I used to wonder who else was buying monster mags I’d scoop up at drug stores and our own Rhodes’ Newstand. Boys from school went with me to see Black Sabbath and Plague Of The Zombies, but few were so committed as to spend allowances on Famous Monsters Of Filmland as I did. There was no point mentioning Ackerman for blanks that drew from neighborhood friends. Others speak of but one or so kindred spirit (if that) in towns where they grew up. Did mythic locales thrive where enclaves of FM readers formed monster clubs and trekked to double features en masse? Not in my hometown!
Castle Of Frankenstein may have been the better magazine, certainly the more cerebral one, but they didn’t have Ackerman. His personality drove Famous Monsters. Producers and even horror stars liked having him around. FJA partied with Chris Lee and Vincent Price. Jim Nicholson invited him to sets (here they are collaborating on a werewolf stunt for Bikini Beach). Forry was presentable. In clover days, he wore dark suits and narrow ties. Once I saw a foto (I’m grooving with his syntax!) of Dr. Acula (I’ll summon up all his nom-de-plumes before I’m through) carrying a leopard skinned glasses case in his shirt pocket, which for unknown reasons lingers in my memory. Will that be part of an eventual estate sale? The man had a staggering vault before collectors versed in his magazine began siphoning it off. Note walls casually adorned above with posters he used to have that are worth serious dollars now. He’d stick them up with thumb tacks and as much reverence as anyone might observe for items they’d bought (or been given) at pocket change rate. Ackerman was said to deal kindly with fans. Hundreds have confirmed as much in the past three days. I’ll Be Glad To Fill In Your Name and Sign It greeted readers to one of many books he piloted once we’d accumulated enough of our own (as opposed to parent’s) disposable income and went looking for that childhood more rewarding in hindsight than so-called maturity and burdens attendant upon it. You might gauge our progress with escalating price tags these trade paperbacks carried --- Mr. Monster’s Movie Gold (1981, $12.95), Forrest J Ackerman, Famous Monsters Of Filmland, #1 (1986, $10.95) and #2 (1991, $19.95), plus The Famous Monsters Chronicles (also 1991 and $19.95). The past (going on) thirty years have been rife with salutes, collections (Rare and Never Before Published Stills!), and ongoing liturgy with Ackerman as monster of ceremonies, and tried though I might, it’s likely I missed several of what’s been published.
Lugosi’s Doctor Vollin said the Raven was his talisman, but mine was Issues #29 and 30, along with the 1965 Yearbook issued during a flush summer of 1964 when monsters discovered me. Two survivors are here, and note battered condition of each. I could no more have preserved them mint than lay both aside altogether, for FM was my constant companion then. Mine may be among few back issues extant with candle wax drippings on covers, for I kept them with me as we designed various Houses Of Horror in the basement that summer, and of course, images of Lugosi had to be clipped out for placement in frames and albums. #30 eventually lost its back cover. Maybe I used it to send off for something. My first exposure to the mag came by way of a neighbor kid who’d bought one, that being #27 with a Cyclops cover, and yes, I can go back to the exact spot on the street in front of my house where we stood when he revealed it. Next morning I inveigled my parents to stop by Thrift Market for the latest issue, to-wit #29, with a particularly nauseating cover depicting effects of The Flesh Eaters upon a hapless victim. I remember watching the backs of their heads from the rear seat as my mother and father examined what fifty cents had wrought before exchanging resigned looks, then hesitating but a moment (had they but known!) before handing it back and thereby consigning me to a life perhaps squandered in triviality, but one yet enjoyed for having fully embraced Famous Monsters that day. I even begged my father to call Colonel Forehand at the Liberty and ask when The Flesh Eaters might be playing, his embarrassed look during that phone conversation being one I’ll never forget (and no, the Liberty would not then or ever show The Flesh Eaters).
How many parental observations began thus … If you cared half as much about your schoolwork as you do about these monsters … and yet how much of my present vocabulary may I safely attribute to unlikely Professor FJA, his aim generally upward toward readers whose intelligence he very often flattered. Silly puns were easily enough ignored. My eyes learned to breeze over such and not be annoyed by what I realized were commercial expediencies. What Ackerman gave me, and I suspect lots of you, was radar for contents of TV GUIDE and theatre ads in newspapers, both of which I scoured daily for a possible run of features he wrote about. One still in FM and I’d be on the lookout from there on (no wonder Nicholson and Arkoff welcomed Forry to their sets!). My father had trouble sleeping and thus deplored my late night viewing habits, but thankfully took no measures to shut me down (and yes indeed, I inherited his malady, as witness my pecking out this post at 4:30 AM). Ackerman and publisher James Warren’s fairground was the Captain Company, FM’s truest profit center (say, did Forry receive a cut?) and dream merchant to kids who could barely afford the magazine, let alone films and masks and models costing several times its cover price. I ordered but thrice --- a pair of 8mm reels bought in partnership with friends, a single back issue (the 1962 yearbook) and the Horrorscope shown here, which allowed for flip-frame shows not unlike those enjoyed in arcades at the turn of the last century. My friend Mike Ferree, of the introductory Cyclops issue, ordered a so-called Creature From the Lagoon mask, which looked well enough itself, but was unexpectedly festooned with a shock of bright red hair, dulling more than somewhat the desired horrific effect. Mike’s frustration was redoubled when his mother forbade removal of said headdress, an edict rendering the mask useless both to him and the rest of us (that’s Captain Company architect Jim Warren struggling with Ackerman in a gag still for FM).
Upwardly mobile intellects were quick to transfer affections from Famous Monsters to Castle Of Frankenstein, but even the ficklest of suitors knew Ackerman was a safer bet than behind drawn shades Calvin T. Beck, editor of COF and not the least solicitous toward readers of his mag, though he did solicit, then purloin, hard earned monies from those who ordered, but never received, goods from his Gothic Castle selling arm. Beck was the monster fan that stereotypists and mothers (including his own) warned us about. He was, by most accounts, creepy and suspicious and lacking of a moral compass where making good on obligations was concerned, simply tossing letters that arrived with checks he never failed to cash. CTB was FJA’s dark mirror but reliably unpredictable and a boon to readers willing to explore a wild side. I was told that he went nowhere without his mother, not even to the mailbox. Like vampires, Beck was seldom photographed, while Ackerman stood for more snaps than a mid-level movie star (and did cameos in as many features). Collectability of Famous Monsters was tempered somewhat by massive warehouse finds of back issues that had never gone out out. I remember having my acquisitive bubble burst by the sight of hundreds of "rare" editions piled high on dealer’s tables at a monster show I attended some years back. There were only the ones I’d had as a boy that appealed to me however, and most of those had survived various Spring cleanings. Besides, to fill in issues predating #29 only served to remind me that I’d come late to the bash by twenty-eight numbers, and mine’s a keen envy yet for those older, or more precocious, monster fans who got their starts before I did. As to my stopping point, which came in Summer 1971 with #86, there were no regrets. The fact that FM lasted all the way to March 1983 and #191 surprises me for having virtually no memory of it in those final years. The attempt at a 90’s revival that ended in much Acker-imony (his lawsuit against the publisher) found FM lost in a crowd of boomer monster zines it couldn’t hope to compete with, whatever sentiment might have accrued to its venerable editor. Ackerman spent his final years being feted not only by those who’d grown up under his tutelage, but also by sons of many who’d collected Famous Monsters. I never met the man, and it’s as well perhaps, for what could I have done but repeat a fan’s testimony he’d heard so many times before? Now it’s left to his students to share and refresh the drill that will keep Ackerman’s legacy alive, as I’ve no doubt these voices (including my own) will continue being heard until such time as Prince Sirki comes calling for the rest of us.