Boris Karloff Blog-A-Thon --- We Had a Karloff That Swings!
The big cameo in teen-targeted Bikini Beach turned seventy-seven in 1964 when that pic came out, yet few in its audience needed introduction to Boris Karloff. He was youth’s oldest friend and longest standing cool personality. Boris played sinister straight but kept a wry distance. He was for having fun with scares and that made him welcome most everywhere during the sixties. Here was the decade of Karloff’s fullest flowering. No more Broadway (too old finally?) nor pursuit of character work outside spooky type, his was an image firmly entrenched once Thriller made Boris Karloff TV's brand name for gooseflesh. That hosting (and sometimes top-lining) hour program put the actor in a televised hall of mirrors where avuncular host morphed into hours later alter ego from decades before. You could board a Karloff express with afternoon theatre stops (his for American-International), straight on to Thriller in the evening, then midnight arrival with Shock Theatres at (seemingly) all stations (what television market in the 60’s didn’t have one of these?). His was exposure the likes any player might dream on, and it made Karloff’s a face (and voice) so familiar as to be living under our very roofs. I used to scan TV GUIDES to see where he’d be that week. Didn’t matter the vintage. I’d surf his clowning with Red Skelton right to the next wave of Behind The Mask from 1932, all in a same viewing cycle. Oh, and it never mattered if shows or movies were worthy of him. Simply Karloff was enough and closed the deal for whatever they were running.
Pierre Fournier at Frankensteinia anticipates over a hundred participants for his Karloff Blog-A-Thon this week. I’ve pondered just how BK rates such blogging fervor. Would counter-programming on Bela Lugosi’s behalf inspire such participation? We know Boris ran success-wise rings round Bela during their lifetimes. What was it about Karloff that transcended monster ghettos? Yes, he was stuck in the genre most of the time, but embraced nonetheless by entertainers who’d not otherwise venture near horror folk. I just listened to a Bing Crosby radio broadcast from 1947. Karloff was guest and engaged easy repartee with Bing and announcer Ken Carpenter. He did scary movies, but maintained a kind of remove from all that, as though joshing with show biz pals like Crosby was the real Karloff life and menace work mere fooling (and other than infrequent quality work with a Val Lewton, that’s likely how he viewed it). Lugosi could never manage such distance. He came off intense even when laugh lights were flashing. Part of it was Bela’s foreign-ness. Crosby might have invited him before a microphone but for doubt BL could manage outside prepared skits. You could never be sure that Lugosi’s act was just an act. Karloff, on the other hand, readily exited his graveyard to relax among personalities way outside genre boundaries. Curling hair for AIP, but also voicing the Grinch, and doing it playfully enough to relax us and earn good will among folks not given to horror patronage.
Some of you might want to go out and get popcorn now, because this is where I start talking about how I grew up with Boris. Are monster memories getting tired? My generation has been at it now for longer than Universal made all those Frankenstein and Dracula pics, and I’m apprehensive that my look-backs are looking mighty like everyone else’s. Are we getting like those old timers going on and forever about Bob Steele and Captain Marvel? And what of ones in the cemetery still rhapsodizing over Fred Thomson (and come to think of it, Lon Sr.)? I look forward to chatting with them if there’s an eternity, but in the meanwhile, I wonder if it isn’t time to give my monster kid past a rest. Just … not quite yet. Indulge me one more late show in my footie pajamas (which I’d actually like to have had at one time, but could never locate) and chance to relive what it was like seeing The Mummy on August 7, 1964 (like so many others excavating childhood, I went back and confirmed that date). Karloff was one of the first to offer me a sense of continuity in life, supplying as he did an ongoing visual record of the aging process and how increments of a year or ten will change a person’s circumstance and appearance. Fascinating was fact that a man who’d made movies labeled (1931) in my guide listings was yet turning up in just-out ones I’d caption (1964) for home-compiled records. Remarkable too was his guesting on pop shows first-running in primetime. The man who was the original Frankenstein monster was now Jim West’s opponent, and next week The Girl From U.N.C.L.E would play host to his villainy. Camped up television timed perfectly with Karloff’s grand old man phase of spookery. He stopped short of outright genre ridiculing Vincent Price and Peter Lorre indulged, disdaining ad-libs they peppered The Raven with, for Karloff maintained dignity and a champion’s defense of horror conventions that brought him fame. For interviews, he’d split hairs over Horror as opposed to Terror as descriptive term for work he did. I don’t think Boris would have sanctioned that Frankenstein model where the pants fell down.
As to my dedication, just a for instance. When Karloff did his Wild, Wild West (9/23/66), I guested (not necessarily by invitation) at neighboring cousins to watch in color, our own household being three months shy of a multi-hued set. Karloff was a maharajah of sorts, resplendent in costume and disgorging lines I still quote (This absurd ape begins to weary me --- just watch it). What disturbed were situations where this elderly man was clearly overtaxed. I didn’t enjoy his being struck down at the WWW finish any more than previous watery struggles in The Terror’s final reel. Both these were well past time when Karloff could easily manage on-set ordeal, yet we knew he was too much actor to permit doubling. It was like seeing one’s grandfather needlessly imperiled. Boris got pneumonia doing Black Sabbath in Spain and you knew someone was to blame for not looking out for him properly. How solicitous were ten-year olds of the time for real life seniors they knew?
Boris Karloff is introduced as guest host of Shindig (10/30/65) and teen girls scream as though he were all of the Fab Four … put to-gither. Here’s where we understand best just how contemporary BK's appeal was. Among other things, he sang The Monster Mash, a song credited to imitator Bobby Pickett, though I suspect most thought it was Karloff himself on that chart buster. It’s a heady thing to watch Boris reciting lyrics of The Peppermint Twist as go-go girls swivel around him. From vantage point of a throne chair, he introduces acts like Jim Doval and the Gauchos (a name not likely to be spoken again until the next siege of Troy) and spars verbally with Ted "Lurch" Cassidy, on hand to lead his own signature dance. Rock n’ Roll was still of two minds in 1965. How else to account for the Wellingtons’ straightforward rendition of Some Enchanted Evening? Surviving prints boast usual ghostly pallor of TV done primitive, the fact Shindig played basement network ABC making it all the more so. That Karloff should thrive here was no surprise, though I’ll declare without closer research that he was the only artist nearing eighty to ever appear on Shindig (or for that matter, Hullabaloo). Trips to the newstand found him aboard mastheads of varied mystery comics, the Karloff name sufficient to relieve us of twelve-cents for purchase. Monster mags celebrated past greatness of the senior Chaney and Lugosi, but Karloff was a here-and-now-working presence they’d visit on sets. Die, Monster, Die! made Castle Of Frankenstein headlines for Karloff playing an actual monster for the first time in years, and look at this herald for that film’s Charlotte first-run where Boris and Channel 3’s Dr. Evil are billed together as WBTV’s Two Favorite Bogeymen. It’s noteworthy too that the Capri was one of that city's premiere hardtops, and here was Die, Monster, Die! booking there as a single for nine days.
It couldn’t last forever. Karloff looked frail on his Red Skelton appearance toward the end, and by the time they reran it in the Spring, he was gone. My cousin was the one who broke news of that. I wrote a tribute for a local paper that had been printing my scrawls they charitably called movie reviews. Meanwhile, there was indication of Karloff having done a brace of horror films still to be released. We caught up with The Crimson Cult, billed as his last (it wasn’t), and near unwatchable save for an unexpected nude scene out of left field (and BK’s presence). Coincidental was belated appearance of one of what critics referred to as Mexican abortions Karloff did, these being his actual last. The Fear Chamber played our Channel 8’s Shock Theatre in the mid-seventies and rocked viewers for nudity as generous as that afforded most "R" features. Clearly this was a print the station’s editor had failed to vet. Maybe Karloff was as well to exit when he did. Ugly times lay ahead, and these final bows were proof he’d have had no place in horrors to come. Targets in 1968 was all the more valuable for reflecting Karloff’s awareness of that.