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Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Reader Who Listened In ...

Hearing from Greenbriar readers is fun and informative on any occasion, but every so often, one will come forth with a lollapalooza that calls for GPS getting out an extra. Such was the case with today's e-mail from Lou Barbarelli, who shares a Horror Of Dracula memory we'd all wish to claim. As was reported in Part Two of Greenbriar's HoD posting (from 2/8/2011), a live radio telecast from station WOR in New York captured excitement of Dracula's opening (mid)night (May 28, 1958) at Broadway's Mayfair Theatre, air host Long John Nebel supplying blow-by-blow commentary as the movie unspooled. I expressed wish then for a recording of that historic broadcast, realizing slim chance of its survival. What I did get from Lou Barbarelli, however, was very much a next best thing, but I'll let him tell the story in his own words, and just say Thanks A Million for allowing me to share this account of a radio night to remember ...

Your website mentions this broadcast, stating that you wish you had a tape of it. I know of no recording in existence, but I heard the live broadcast in 1958 (I was 15) and remember a lot of it. For one thing, Nebel actually broadcast from the premiere, bringing some his "regulars" along, and you could hear the entire movie as it played to the opening night audience. An amazing broadcast. The broadcast was, to my knowledge, the first and only time a complete movie was ever broadcast live on radio. Nebel took some of his regular guests with him to the theater and they helped describe, by whispering into the microphone, the action taking place between the moments of dialogue. The effect was that the broadcasters were right in the audience, but they may have had a box seat or something. You could hear the shocked reaction of the entire audience when stakes were driven into the hearts of the various "undead" characters.

By prearrangement with the producers of the film, the broadcasters were silent during the last five minutes, so that radio audiences couldn't figure out the ending. That tactic pissed off some listeners, including me, because we weren't warned in advance that Nebel and his people would conceal the ending from us after we had listened for 80 minutes. You could still hear what was going on onscreen during those final five minutes, but it was all bombastic music, heavy breathing, smashing, etc. Frustrating but tantalizing!

After the film, Nebel and his colleagues interviewed several people in the audience. Their reactions to the film were uniformly positive. One of the people interviewed was famed columnist Sheila Graham who talked about attributes of the film that were unique at the time, (but that would reshape every horror film made thereafter). Among other things, she pointed out that the film was sensual as well as gory and that Dracula was a "very handsome man."

Another member of the audience was a high school English teacher who said that, if the movie hadn't been so terrifying, she would have loved to bring her students to a showing, because the actors spoke their lines with "perfect diction." She described the effect as "almost Shakespearean."

Unfortunately, I don't clearly remember the interview with Peter Cushing afterwards. I do remember something about a tall man standing off to one side in the shadows of the theater startling the departing theatergoers who noticed him lurking there. I believe that man was Christopher Lee, but I wouldn't swear to it. After all, it's been 54 years or so. After all that time, however, Sir Christopher is still lurking in the shadows-- thrilling us.

More Horror Of Dracula at Greenbriar Archives: Part One, Two, and Three, plus The Diary Of Jonathon Harker.


Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Now that was worth a special post; thanks, John, for sharing it, and thanks to Lou for sharing it with you.

A lot of theaters in those days had "cry rooms" -- at the back of the house, semi-soundproofed, with the movie sound piped in and a big double-glass window facing the screen. They were for parents to take babies if they started fussing during the show; Mom or Dad could get little Johnny or Janie out of earshot without having to miss any of the movie themselves. I wonder if maybe Long John Nebel and his crew set up shop in one of those.

6:02 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's a very good possibility, Jim. I remember a "cry room" at the Joy Theatre in King's Mountain, NC. A broadcast from one of these would have been ideal. We never had one at the Liberty, though.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

was Christopher Lee there?..THat would be a bit startling to see him standing by as you exit the theater..heh heh..

11:42 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The BBC broadcast the audience reaction to Charlie Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH when it premiered at Albert Hall to all of Britain.

That's how to sell a movie.

Both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were in New York for the film's premiere. It would have been natural to have Lee appear as people left the theater.

Great showmanship that could only work with radio.

7:22 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer e-mailed some interesting memories of radio's Long John Nebel:

I was about nine years old when I fell in love with radio. I’d gotten a crystal radio set for Christmas and listened to a broadcast that morning of Basil Rathbone reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Later the GE clock radio in the kitchen made its way into my bed room, and I would stay up late at night listening to Long John Nebel’s show on it. I missed his live broadcast of the New York premier of Horror of Dracula, but when I listened to him in the early sixties, his show was mostly about “ghoulies and ghastlies and things that go bump in the night.” I was fascinated by flying saucers, and this was a special enthusiasm of Long John. He would have well-known “contactees” on, such as George Adamski and Howard Menger, and also fans and investigators like Jim and Coral Lorenzen, Gray Barker, and James Mosely. In a way, his show was rather like the “AM Coast to Coast” show hosted by George Noory these days, with the same offbeat topics and polite incredulity expressed by Long John, though a little more “mondo,” if the “Dracula” broadcast is any indication. Of course, I loved science fiction and horror films then, but I was even more interested in the real thing, if space ships from other worlds, abominable snowmen, ghosts, and sea serpents are at all real. Certainly they were to me, these things just beyond the edge of sight and sound, unless your eyes are open to see and your ears to hear. The Long John show on a radio softly glowing in the darkness was a passage for me to another sort of reality, and one I often sought, preferring unknown terrors to the ones that had become all too familiar.

8:06 AM  

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