The recent announcement of the closure of a movie theater I regularly attended as a kid invoked many memories. The Saturday afternoon kiddie-matinee (a term I always took exception to, even as a kid) often consisted of a kid-friendly feature film, a few cartoons, and even a chapter of a resurrected serial.
Inside the theater the pervading atmosphere was one of chaos. Similar scenes have been well depicted in such films as Stoogemania, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, and to a lesser degree in Joe Dante’s Matinee. Like the Josh Mostel character as a boy, Howard F. Howard of Stoogemania, I believed I was the only kid in this feral audience who was truly interested in watching what was happening on screen. To add to the madness, this theater offered what select theaters across the country were offering during this era: a Live Spook Show.
When the movie ended (like anyone would even notice) a business-suited man stepped out on the stage in front of the screen. Bathed in the glow of a harsh spotlight, he attempted to restore some order to the mayhem.
Once he got at least the minimal semblance of attention, he announced the theater was surrounded by spooks, and even more, a mad scientist would appear on this very stage and make a monster! Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and a few assorted other creatures were likely to make appearances. Suddenly from the rear of the theater could be heard a blood curdling scream. All heads turned to catch the sight of a hapless female being pursued by a madman wielding a meat cleaver. The girl ran, still screaming, down one aisle, across the front and then back up the other aisle. The madman always managed to stay a few steps behind her, waving the weapon at the audience as well.
On stage, the announcer hastily departed. In his place came a shabby looking mad doctor and a few odd (very odd) assistants wheeling out what appeared to be a makeshift operating table. On the table was a large humanoid figure covered with a blood stained sheet, ugly feet protruding. A few, tinkered together, electrical devices where then set in place.
As the electricity flowed, the sheet stirred and whatever was underneath sat up, with the sheet falling off to reveal a monster! It didn't resemble the Frankenstein monster in the least, but it was assuredly a monster. Immediately, this monster became out of control and was set upon by the mad doctor and his assistants. All were quickly knocked to the ground. The monster turned to the audience, threateningly, but from stage left appeared … the Wolf Man! A battle ensued.
Dust was churned up and the lights dimmed. While growling and snarling, the unholy duo disappeared off stage. To this day I can’t recall who was the victor.
The live, monsters-in-your-face era of Saturday afternoon entertainment reached through the 1960s, embodied by Ray Dennis Steckler with his Hallucinogenic Hypnovision, and incorporated the mad slasher chasing hapless female scenario in such classics as Incredibly Strange Zombies, who Stopped Living and Became Crazy Mixed Up Zombies. Reportedly, he took his innovation one step further by accomodating outdoor drive-ins.
I got a strong feeling of community with these long gone live stage shows. During this Saturday afternoon melee, the cleaver wielding madman and his intended female victim managed one last dash through the theater. Upon closer examination of both of them, they bore a striking resemblance to a guy and his girlfriend who were in a grade or two ahead of me in school. I wonder what they're up to today?
--Jim K/Prof K
John, I love that book. Now that you mention it, I should reread it and post a review. I really liked how the flim-flam merged with the tone of stage magic. Definitely a fun experience because of it's silliness and "seriousness" even if you're overly YouTube enriched.
Posted by: zoc | July 18, 2012 at 09:50 AM
Mark Walker did a book about spook shows a few years ago entitled, "Ghostmasters." If you haven't read it already, it is well worth a read. One of the presenters mentioned (I believe it was Card Mondor) is also mentioned in David Friedman's book "A Youth in Babylon." It's interesting how these folks drifted from job to job on this circuit.
Posted by: John Ford | July 17, 2012 at 10:54 PM