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Sunday, December 07, 2008

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 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 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 tribute 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 remind me yet again how similarly 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 carrying a leopard skinned glasses case in his shirt pocket, which for unknown reason 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 to siphon it off. Note walls casually adorned 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). Past 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 a 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 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, 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. 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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forry's "Famous Monsters" was the only place a kid could find shots from the great stop motion films by Harryausen and O'Brien back in the late fifties. And that was my meat and potatoes. FM #3 had a full page still of the cyclops from "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" that hung on my wall for many years. With no videos or DVDs, the only place you could gather in the details of these wonders was on screen. I made a lot of trips to special screenings, riding back home late on long bus rides usually with a couple of drunks tossed in. But the images were fleeting and could only be remembered with the mind's eye. Forry came across with the goods in FM. Suddenly, one could not only study images of these miracles, but also learn about the artists who created them and their methods. Eventually, I could order 8mm reels of clips from these films through FM. I could stop and pause at certain frames until the inevitable brown bubble of melting celluloid ballooned across the screen.
Forry was the first to publish never before seen scenes from "King Kong" including the infamous spider pit.
As time went on, he published some fairly serious articles. After many many years I'm finally seeing on TCM a number of the films he talked about like "Things To Come" and many of Lon Chaney's works. It was a delightful way for a young person to be introduced to such things.
Finally, don't forget also that Forry also was responsible for "Spacemen" and "Screen Thrills" magazines. also published by Warren. Many happy memories thanks to FJA.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I met Forry in New York at his poster auction in the '80s. Even got to pose with him for my 3-D camera -- and the photo sits proudly on my bureau. I was lucky enough to buy some of his stuff. Great guy.

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's my Forry story. Years ago I had an extra copy of the numbered edition of Forry's excellent "Man of 1000 Faces" book that included a small bit of scrapings from Lon's makeup box. I listed it in an ad in Movie Collectors World and one evening Forry himself called and asked if he could buy it back along with a window card I had. I told him how much I enjoyed Famous Monsters over the years and he began to recount stories of how each Summer durring the 60's he and his wife would travel across the country in his Caddy hearse and visit with his fans at special meet and greet functions at which they would serve "spook-ghetti" and "gool-aid"! I'll never forget how soothing his voice was and how he made the stories come alive. He spoke to me as though I was an old friend. After we made our deal he sent me several books dealing with the reconstruction of a number of Chaney films to which one of his inscriptions read' "To Mike, look what "Lon Done" After Midnight!" He was truely a special person.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Uncle Gustav said...

Excellent piece, John. You and I both found FM in 1964, and we put it down around the same time, too.

Your comments about Cal Beck are fairly accurate. I think everybody got ripped off sending money to his Gothic Castle Publishing Company. (I know I'm still waiting for a couple of back issues I sent away for in the early 70s.) His mother, Helen, was the business manager -- but she was also technically blind and a little crazy. There are stories about Cal's father who supposedly had to be kept behind locked doors. And then there's Beck himself, who, as you say, was rarely photographed. To my eyes, he wasn't exactly photogenic. He looked kind of like a bullfrog.

8:48 PM  
Blogger John Field said...

One of the disadvantages of growing older (there are many) is hearing that someone that meant a lot to your childhood has passed.
My appreciation for classic films sprang forth from the pages of his baby Famous Monsters of Filmland.
I met Uncle Forry several times, but my favorite visit was 10 years ago when my fellow film fan friend Raven White asked me to project films for a presentation in smell-a. (Los Angeles). After the screening of some sci fi and horror forgettables, we headed out to a local restaurant. Favorite guest Uncle Forry joined us. At our prodding, Forry regaled us with one amazing story after another. Stories that included Bela Lugosi's less then supportive wife. Al Jolson calling Forry "Sonny Boy" as he sang him that song! His amazement at seeing Frankenstein (1931), King Kong (1933) and his beloved Metropolis (1927) First Run!!! etc. etc.
I drove Forry home at nights end. I explained to him a memory that was very personal to me. I told him how at the ripe old age of 12, I was devastated to hear that Boris Karloff had passed. I cried and my parents were clueless as to why. Forry explained to me that indeed when Boris Karloff passed, he received letter after letter from distraught young fans who had never dealt with death before. He took the time to write every one of them back and could not have been more supportive.
At 51, death has become somewhat routine to me now. With the passing of my Mom and Dad, I realize how the last thing we truly have left to savor are our memories. I remember that trip to the original Ackermansion (in Beverly Hills Karloffornia of course), and how I asked question after question to a patient Forry of his memories of my favorite actors. I remember seeing amazing props from several of my favorite fantasy films. I also spotted a sense of pride in Forry when I correctly identified each and every piece of memorabilia, naming each film that they were featured in that he had on display. He had the look of a proud parent who had raised that kid right!
Yes, you did raise this kid right, Uncle Forry.
Do me a BIG favor thou won't you? Say hi to Bela, Vincent, Lon and especially Boris for me will you.
John Field

10:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan, those other Warren publications were ones I did try to fill in years later and I really enjoyed reading them, especially "Screen Thrills Illustrated", with its emphasis on serials, series mysteries, etc.

East Side, I never realized FJA auctioned his posters in the 80's. Must have included some of those shown on his walls in the still I included with the post.

Anonymous, I only wish Ackerman could have dropped in on me during his cross-country drive. Wonder how close he got to the North Carolina mountains during that trek ...

... and Flickhead, I'm not forgetting the incredible "Castle Of Frankenstein" saga as recounted in your now classic magazine, "Magick Theatre", which I've often gone back and re-read.

John, it's coincidental you should check in, for I just discovered your excellent "Forbidden Planet" site, and have much enjoyed going through its archives, as well as your heartfelt tribute to Ackerman. Thanks for sharing it.

2:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John,
Both Kirk Douglas and Lizbeth Scott were present at a salute the Motion Picture Academy held, only several-months ago to honor Barbara Stanwyck.
Mr. Douglas was interviewed on stage by moderator Robert Osborne. He was not in terrfic-shape (Mr. Douglas, I mean), but hey, when we're 92 let's get-together and compare notes! Happy Birthday, sir!
Regards, R.J.

P.S.: I just received a very nice email from Sybil Jason. As I told you, we share the same b'day. She told me that back in the 30's at Warners, she and Mr. Karloff shared a birthday-cake on the lot together on their mutual b'day,(and how much she really liked Mr. Pratt), and that she had recently met Sara, and of course discovered that she too shares that date. I also reminded Sybil about Harpo. I'm tellin' ya, John, all the great people were born on that date (ahem!). Best.

9:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey RJ --- Could you drop me an e-mail? I have a friend who wants to get a message to you concerning a previous comment you posted.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John. I met Forry many times at just about every Sci-Fi Con I attended throughout the 1980s and 90s in Atlanta and elsewhere. At the cons where I had a dealers table (selling odd posters and pressbooks), he would occasionally browse through what I had and (on one or two occasions) bought a few items from me. I remember at the 1986 Atlanta Fantasy Fair, he purchased four Wonder Woman drawings (all done by a fan --- not commercial items), that I was planning on just throwing away if they did not sell (I thought they were junk). I asked him what he was going to do with them (I could not believe he had any interest in them himself), and he said that he knew a 'fan'-friend in Texas that was a big Wonder Woman fan (and completest) who would love to have them. Not a close friend, but just a 'fan'-friend whom he had remembered this about. I thought, wow, Forry Ackerman roaming the country and buying up collectables for you ----- what a lucky 'fan' that guy is! Over the years, Forry became a rather common sight at con after con, and many fans (including myself) tended to ignore his presence ----- "oh, there's Forry again --- doing his slide show and lecture on 'the best of Amazing Stories magazine cover art', etc.". But, he was at his grandest when joining up at cons with his old friends Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury. The three of them got together at WorldCon in 1985 in Atlanta and again just a few years ago at DragonCon in Atlanta ---- both times I witnessed the three of them sitting at the hotel restaurant laughing, store-telling, and having a great old time together. Harryhausen and Bradbury never treated Forry as anything less than an equal in their group. You could tell they had great respect for him. The last time I saw Forry was at the World 3D Film Expo in Hollywood in 2003. He was assisting (and introducing) a wheelchair-bound Ray Bradbury (who had recently had a stroke) just before the showing of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE in 3D (which Bradbury wrote). Forry, himself, did not look in too good of health ---- hair uncombed and sticking out in all directions and barely able to walk (using Bradbury's wheelchair that he was pushing as a support for himself as well). And, ---- I just realized, in all the years of seeing him at different cons, I never bothered to get his autograph ---- everyone else, Bradbury, Harryhausen, Robert Bloch, and dozens of fly-by-night, 'has-been' movie stars ---- but never Forry. He was just 'one of the guys' , one of the fellow fans you always ran into at the cons from year to year. But, I still have my Famous Monsters mags from the early 70s (including one with Forry's review of Andy Warhol's FRANKENSTEIN ---- or should I say 'synopsis' of the story ---- very tongue-in-cheek hilarious --- - full of Forry's bad puns ---- but I remember it to this day from having read it back in 1974! Oh well . . . . .

4:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Geoff, that is a great reminiscence. As to the 3-D "Frankenstein", I can still feel my headache induced by the Janus Theatre's (in Greensboro, NC) botched poloroid showing.

8:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P. S. ---- Forgot one very important reminiscence: at the 1986 or 87 Fantasy Fair in Atlanta both Forry and Harryhausen were 'judges' of the cons Amateur Film Contest. They showed the winners in a side room with a 16mm projector. Forry and Ray were sitting about the 5th row back from the front ------ and, my friend, Greg Nicoll, and I sat directly behind them. At one point during the show, Forry put his left arm around the back of Ray's chair ----------- suddenly Greg and I had Forry's hand directly in front of our faces (about 2 foot from us) ----------- there on his finger was Lugosi's big, fat, Dracula Ring (the real one)! ------ Greg and I both noticed it and simultaniously leaned forward to about 6 inches from the ring, staring bug-eyed at it in wonder ! Later, Greg and I pondered to ourselves as to whether some fan might not club Forry over the head and take that 'rare collectable'. (Little moments like that stick in your mind more than the 'big' events from all those years of con-going.) Anyway, thought I would throw that in . . . .

2:42 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Re: Today's header.

Lovely's 'Barbie Doll' leading ladies aren't fit to wipe her boots.

They'll never be another like her.

9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To eulogize FJA is merely to find excuse for trips down our own memory lanes...

Amen to that! Nothing can take me back to a certain age and time like the sight of a Basil Gogos cover on Famous Monsters of Filmland (that blue-backed Gorgo cover was a particular favorite). I wheedled my folks into buying me the very first issue in 1958, then literally read it to tatters; who knows what I could get for it now if I'd had the foresight to put it in an acid-free plastic envelope. But then, all the fun I'd have missed!

Famous Monsters and Forry's sci-fi companion mag Spacemen were not easy to find in those days -- not in Sacramento, CA, anyhow. I had to wait for our trips down the river to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to visit my grandparents (the female half of whom would look at my FM and shake her head in dismay) and plead with my dad to stop in the little levee-side town of Isleton. There, miraculously, there was a tiny drugstore that carried Forry's magazines without fail. I never did find out who in Isleton (pop. 850) prompted that drugstore to stock them.

So long, 4SJ, and thanks for the memories!

12:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Geoff, I should have gotten you to write this column for me. GREAT stuff!

Bolo, had you seen this particular art-still of Fay Wray before. I'd seen something close, but not as spectacular ...

Jim, isn't it amazing how vivid our memories are of trying to get hands on FM back then? How many kindred fans do you think are out there? Thousands? Tens of thousands? I've often wondered as to the number of former monster kids walking, like the Creature, among us ...

12:43 PM  
Blogger Ron Hall said...

My first FM was #10 in 1961. I can tell because I clipped out order forms from the back. I back ordered all I could, but Captain Co. took some of my hard earned coins without shipping the goods. After ordering the early issues several times I had all except #4. Yes, my #1 is in pretty decent shape except for the browning pages. I wrote to Forry about the Cap Co. Crooks and he sent me one! Autographed: "Beast Wishes to Ronnie Hall, Be-Claws, You Asked for It!" followed by his flamboyant signature. That's why I subscribed and kept with it until issue #100. I still have them all.

Since my teenage years I've had a memory of getting a letter published in SpaceMen that raved about "Angry Red Planet," even though I had never seen the film. Why did I lie? Who knows? But tonight I found a longer published letter in SpaceMen #4. Forry called me the Whiz from Wisconsin. I predicted that early issues of FM would someday be more valuable than early Mad Magazine. Well, they are to me.

I met Forry only once at an early 70s Worldcon in Toronto. I crashed the late night hotel scene from the Cinecon convention I was attending cross town. Doors were open to wild parties and free beer! I ran across Forry and his wife in a packed, back room. We talked a bit. I have no idea about what since we were both plastered. He knew how to have a good time.

-- Ron Hall

12:24 AM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I was in a comics/collectables store last weekend, looking at the newer movie magazines on the rack, and I remembered how I always looked for Famous Monsters of Filmland in the old days - I wondered how Forry Ackerman was doing as I hadn't heard anything lately; that wasn't more than a few hours before I came home to this bummer. Sad news. I was kinda proud of having him make a little fun out of my name in a fanzine, back when I was a kid. I met him in passing many times at Comic-Con over the years, and I visited the Ackermansion once with some pals - he had the coolest house, ever.

1:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was very sorry to hear about Van Johnson this morning. I had forgotten he was in "Caine Mutiny" -- one tends to associate him so closely with MGM. He also worked with my grandfather on a film called "Miracle in the Rain", in which he sang a song composed by my granddad, and Ned Washington, to the films' star Jane Wyman, called "I'll Always Believe in You". (Rudolph Mate, by the way, who has been a subject of prior-postings of yours, directed).
I did receive your message several days ago, I have to find your email address John, which is buried somewhere in my box, please tell whomever is trying to reach me,they can then get in touch! Thanks for passing it along!
Regards, R.J.

8:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi RJ --- My e-mail address is linked at the top of the page under the banner, and guess what --- I watched "Miracle In The Rain" just last week and noticed your grandfather's song credit. Nice picture too.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Rich D said...

In a sad irony, a good friend of mine also passed away the same weekend as Forry. Bob loved the classic Universal monsters, Kong, Godzilla and the rest and he was the right age to have read FAMOUS MONSTERS while growing up. I would like to think that he met Forry in line at the Pearly Gates and they had a heck of a conversation while waiting to get in.

10:38 PM  
Anonymous Jim Thompson said...

Gothic Castle apparently did indeed rip off mail-order monies, but I had the same nonresponse from The Monster Times after ordering back issues. Taking money from 12 year old kids is terrible--and age has nothing to do with it, really. Even Captain Company took months to ship orders. Ackerman was a genuinely nice guy, I visited him once in CA, and I have only very positive memories of him and his magazine, though the writing in Castle Of Frankenstein was strongly influential toward my own.

8:58 PM  
Anonymous jim said... new castle of frankenstein-oriented page on facebook.

4:15 AM  

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