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Saturday, April 14, 2007

A 1960 Memphis Scream-iere

The Malco Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee might have seemed an unlikely place to jumpstart a nationwide campaign for Brides Of Dracula, yet this is where the Hammer horror classic had its world premiere, on Friday, June 3, 1960. Three thousand patrons, most of them teen-agers, lined the block around Main and Beale Street, then jammed the house to capacity. Combined efforts of Malco staff and Universal field agents brought them there. Evidence at hand suggests moviegoing reached a state of grace that night. Film history books don’t have a lot to say about that fraternity of men at the vanguard of selling pictures we call classics today. Their bows were taken at ticket booths and deposit windows --- where success counted most. It’s fun, said Malco vice-president Richard Lightman as he coordinated the arrival of Count Dracula in a mule-driven antique hearse found in a Kentucky junkyard. You can’t just take a horror thriller and put it on the screen. This type of picture must be ballyhooed. Lightman understood the need for novelty to merchandise monsters, especially when so many of them competed for a kid’s allowance dollar. The very week he played Brides Of Dracula, Warner’s palace up the street was head-to-head with Circus Of Horrors. Universal's challenge was to differentiate its shocks from those served up by others. Already there had been complaints about the plethora of Dracula themes. Harrison’s Reports rebelled two years before when confronted with the triumvirate of Blood/Return, and Horror Of Dracula, all in simultaneous circulation and causing no end to confusion among patrons and promoters. The average moviegoer, unlike those of us who are in the motion picture business, does not remember the exact title of a picture he or she has seen unless it happened to be a truly exceptional film, said Pete Harrison. There is no telling how many moviegoers who will see one of them will unwittingly pass up either one or both of the other pictures in the mistaken belief that they are one and the same. Now schools were letting out for a 1960 summer that much more saturated with horror subjects, and here was Universal entering yet another contestant in the Dracula sweepstakes. An expert would be needed to sell this one, so they called A-Mike Vogel …

A-Mike (or did they just call him Mike? --- anyway, that’s the unusual way he spelled his first name) was an exhibition genius from way back. He conducted the Manager’s Round Table section for The Motion Picture Herald from 1933 to 1942. A-Mike could pound ad copy in his sleep, a dangling cigarette and crumpled hat his trademarks (shown hovered over a typewriter, he looks to have merged Walter Winchell, Billy Wilder, and A Star Is Born’s Matt Libby into one flamboyant package). By 1960, Vogel had his own advertising and exploitation agency in San Francisco. Let’s get in and pitch said he to exhibitors as Universal turned this merchandising whirlwind loose on Brides Of Dracula. Find a newly married couple willing to spend their wedding night in the graveyard! fairly captured the spirit of A-Mike’s strategy. His Dracula Bat-Flying Derby foresaw kid-built kites looming over marquees. Science and shop classes from school would be certain to tie in, promised Vogel. Book merchants were assured that Monarch’s paperback novelization would feature a cover impregnated with special-type perfume. Having acquired my own copy several years ago, I reexamined that just now, only to find it sans odors (other than musty ones owing to encroachment of age). Potential hit singles on the Coral label included Brides Of Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha and Transylvania Polka, complete with David Peel and Yvonne Monlaur on the sleeve. I’m A Mummy had been Universal’s pop single accompanying a previous Hammer horror they’d distributed, and who better than airwave disc-spinners for getting the word out to kids? Saturation openings were planned for June, and Memphis would lead off. Lightman and the Malco had been angling for this premiere since a proposed bow for The Mummy fell through a year before. Malco’s reputation was built selling chillers. Now they’d establish a template for showmen nationwide to follow.

Getting capacity audiences was tougher by 1960. A barn like the Malco gathered lots of dust among three thousand often empty seats. Only a monster movie will fill the house, said management. One local reporter noted teenagers who flock to these goosebump spectacles with glowing eyes, as if it were something wonderful. News coverage of the Brides Of Dracula was snide per mainstream attitude toward horror films (and their audience). The picture was about what one would expect, sniffed Memphis’ Commercial Appeal. One of those creations which are completely ridiculous but which will quiver your spine anyway if you aren’t careful. Richard Lightman (shown here beside his antique hearse) understood the reality of pushing thrillers --- It has been our experience that with a show of this type, the business just won’t hold up over a week. Long runs were unknown where films like these were concerned. Many "A" venues avoided them altogether. Horror favorites we revere today opened as drive-in second features in many major cities. Hardtops usually burned them off after two or three days. Lightman’s prophesy was fulfilled again with Brides Of Dracula, the expected seven days being extent of the Malco's run, its place ceded to a reissue of The Greatest Show On Earth. Films like Brides Of Dracula were all about heavy exploitation and a quick play-off. Silly stunts such as those recommended by A-Mike Vogel worked best. The Malco wasn’t alone when it came to sidewalk ballyhoo, as evidenced here. Pedestrians barely flinched at the sight of vampires and festooned femmes on various city corners. Such things were more commonplace in those days of busy downtown shopping. A man walking the streets in a barrel, his sign proclaiming I Just Saw Brides Of Dracula and It Scared The Pants Off Me!, heralded Malco's premiere night. "Werewolf whistles" and a Do-It-Yourself Vampire Kit were available in advance of the opening. Accessories included two sharpened stakes, a small wooden mallet, a silver bullet, garlic cloves, and wolfbane, all for a quarter.

The stage show was pushed hardest. Advertising director Watson Davis’ efforts were abetted by Universal "technical expert" Heidi Erich, a self-proclaimed descendent of Elizabeth Bathory, history’s only legally convicted vampire (I Googled her, and yes, Bathory was a notorious vampiress during the 1500’s). Members of the Memphis Little Theatre would perform a ritual of unholy matrimony wherein assorted girls were accompanied down the aisles by a German band (shown here), while the Malco’s mighty Wurlitzer rose up from below floor level to herald the arrival of Dracula himself. Brides inclined to resist were tied to props of various medieval torture instruments to await the ceremony, while a "heckler" plant in the audience was dragged from his seat and beheaded on a guillotine to college glee club accompaniment. Ushers working in the guise of Frankenstein, Quasimodo, and the Wolf Man doubled as stage performers (a complete script of the pageant was made available to exhibitors wishing to stage their own effort). The Vampire Gift Shoppe shown here was sold out an hour before the premiere (that’s theatre manager Elton Holland at left and Watson Davis on the right). Davis specialized in horror film promotion (he constructed a twenty-foot high Tyrannosaurus Rex to promote the Malco's subsequent booking of Dinosaurus), and would later assume hosting duties for WHBQ’s Fantastic Features, wherein he was billed as Sivad. That series of Memphis TV horrors lasted from 1962 into the seventies, and made Davis a legendary local figure. The Malco thrives to this day, albeit restored to its original name, The Orpheum, which was given birth in 1928 as a vaudeville and variety site. Now a performing arts center, the venerable house hosts concerts and special events. Friend of the Greenbriar John Beifuss, Jr., curator of that outstanding website, The Bloodshot Eye, provided much background on the Malco and Memphis environs (Thanks, John!).

UPDATE (9-17-07): Some interesting financial info on the 1966 combo reissue of Brides Of Dracula with King Kong vs. Godzilla. Brides took $130,000 in domestic rentals and Kong brought $161,000 (the latter had earned $1.219 million in domestic rentals during its initial 1963 release). I suspect the reissue was profitable as it's doubtful Universal made new 35mm prints of either feature. As far as I know, there was no combo pressbook prepared and no new campaign material.


Blogger joe dante said...

"Monarch’s softcover novelization would feature a cover impregnated with special-type perfume."

Wow. I wondered why my copy smelled like that!
Although all paperbacks have their own distinctive eau de print, depending on the ink and the publisher, only Monarch books had that sickly-sweet odor I never encountered before or since.

And they had one other quality that endeared them forever to their adolescent readers -- although they were promo tie-ins with such kid-friendly fare as GORGO and REPTILICUS, these novelizations were REALLY DIRTY! Loaded with graphic, steamy sex scenes that were nowhere to be found in the films themselves!
I wonder how many parents ever realized as they pored over their own sex-drenched copies of THE CARPETBAGGERS that their kids were steaming up the windows with BRIDES OF DRACULA or THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY...

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again, The Greenbriar has topped itself. Only days after providing invaluable scholarship on the ill-fated commercial run of CITIZEN KANE, we're now treated to a veritable primer (profusely illustrated) on ballyhoo! The world bows at your feet, Sir.

Incidentally, Joe is absolutely correct about those Monarch editions -- there's nothing in Harold Robbins novels of that period as steamy (or seamy) as the erotic scenes strangly interpolated into the publisher's novelizations of KONGA and REPTILICUS!

7:28 PM  
Blogger tommy gibbons said...

Good Lord have mercy. The last time I shuddered at the sight of "Sivad" was an early seventies visit to my Mississippi kin in Bastesville. As I read your piece and scolled down to Davis' picture with the hearse, the haze of thirty-five years began to clear...then when you revealed Davis' alter ego as the great "Sivad", it dialed into focus. Davis' show open featured him driving that KY hearse in a fog shrouded setting, much like the euro-horrors his show featured. Wow...thanks for the AM eye-opener. Please consider another exculsive laser-beaming in on Davis in the near future. Right now I'm copying a couple of these images for my wallpaper...this guy gave me nightmares for weeks!

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I am getting up there in years I am prone to excessive nostalgia. However this piece on the premier of BRIDES OF DRACULA (always one of my favorite films) shows me that not all of it is a romanticizing of the past.

That was a show to attend! It also reminded me of when running a movie theater was cool! I bet the guy running that theater had a ball with all that ballyhoo! Talk about job satisfaction! In today's corporate world where everything is centralized and standardized such independence and individual creativity is unimaginable.

Ah! To travel back in time and experience that premier!

2:20 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

I wish that this kind of promotion existed for horror and sci-fi movies now (the most recent that was ever done that I know of was for Phantom of the Paradise back in 1975, and that was just a costume contest done at theaters in Los Angeles and New York, with none of the costumes judged appearing in the movie! [])

Sometimes at my local multiplex (the Scotiabank Theater, formerly the Famous Players Paramount until Viacom decided to sell Famous Players), people come in costume to movie premieres (the first Sex & The City movie, some of the Star Trek movies, any superhero movie [in particular the Captain America series], Star Wars movies), but that's it.

8:55 AM  

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