Friday, October 31, 2014

I Was a Late-Generation Monster Kid

My room would be fuzzed with that vague purple that comes right before the sunrise. I’d be exhausted, because it was 6 AM and little kids need their rest, and because I’d been toiling away in school all week long, probably learning to print or gluing elbow macaroni to paper plates or whatever else it is you do in school when you’re five or six. I don’t remember how old I was exactly, because I can’t find any information about when “Groovie Goolies” aired at 6:30 AM (or was it 6:00 AM?) on Saturday Mornings in the late-seventies/early eighties, but man, do I remember that sickly feeling of trying to fight myself awake every Saturday morning so I could creep downstairs to the still-dark den to take in those cornball Burbank-by-way-of-Transylvania jokes and groove along to those bubble gum pop songs as sugary as the Frankenberry cereal I’d scarf after the closing credits.

“Groovie Goolies” aired a paltry sixteen episodes ten years before I expended way too much effort to watch it on Saturday Mornings. Unlike some other campy relics of its era—“Batman” and “The Monkees” come to mind—it doesnt hold up quite as well for adults watchers, but for a little kid who looked forward to Halloween with the same rabidness he looked forward to Christmas presents (imagine if there were Halloween presents!) “Groovie Goolies” was a cartoon right up my alley, essential viewing for Monster Kids of my generation.

The real Monster Kids preceded me by about fifteen years. They watched horror hosts like Zacherley or Vampira yucking it up behind Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or The Mummy’s Hand on packages like “Shock!” and “Chiller Theatre”. They shoved aside their fifth-grade math books to read Famous Monsters of Filmland and spent more time putting together Aurora models than doing their homework. They couldn’t tell you who the nineteenth president of the United States was, but they sure knew who Dwight Frye, Lionel Atwill, and Evelyn Ankers were. These children of the late fifties/early sixties didn’t refer to themselves as Monster Kids. That term would not be coined until a cat named David Colton posted an essay with that title on his AOL bulletin board folder in 1995. However, it has since been embraced by that generation as a fine and pithy description of their childhood obsessions with graveyards, full moons, and Jack Pierce makeup jobs.

No one has named my generation of monster freaks. We didn’t have a “Shock! Theatre” to glue us together and the freshness was off Famous Monsters by 1979. That magazine did embrace the pop-culture touchstone that surrounded us and penetrated us and bound our galaxy together, but as much great fun as Star Wars was and as many monsters as were in its menagerie (including a genuine Wolf Man!), it was hardly horror. With the more graphic fare served up during my generation—Friday the 13th and An American Werewolf in London and so on—horror and monsters weren’t really aimed at kids anymore, at least not ones with a smidgeon of parental guidance (it was always the seediest, most jaded, most experienced kids on the playground who’d seen Prom Night or Happy Birthday to Me). But we did have monsters, and the very same ones that palled around with the original Monster Kids. With reruns of “Groovie Goolies”, “Scooby Doo”, and “The Munsters” still kicking around local TV stations, we had facsimiles of Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein on hand even if the Universal movies that made them famous didn’t really air all that often. What did air quite regularly on WPIX-TV’s Sunday Morning Movie was their reunion in the über-kid-friendly Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which was the first place I saw Lugosi, Chaney, and Strange don their iconic capes, fur, and hobnail boots.

We could also play with the creeps, thanks to Remco, which made Kenner Star Wars-size versions of Dracula, The Wolf Man, the Frankenstein Monster, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Mummy, as well as a cool if flimsy haunted carrying case with cardboard Mummy sarcophagus, creature cage, and lab slab, which literally swiveled on a plastic drinking straw. Remco also produced 9-inch versions of the creatures, though I fell off with collecting them when I decided the glowing-faced Wolf Man was a touch too freaky for my way overly sensitive six-year-old self.

I was also enamored with Colorforms’ “Dracula’s Castle” after finding one moldering in the basement of my cousins’ house. The play set brought together two of my favorite things: Universal monsters and cardboard doors that open to reveal something or other underneath. As a twelve-year old too big for toys but still young enough for games, I got the "Doorways to Horror" VHS game for Christmas. The thing was literally unplayable, though I used to enjoy just popping it into the VCR to watch its clips of public domain movies like Night of the Living Dead, Nightmare Castle, Nosferatu, and Little Shop of Horrors.

So we had our bits and pieces of monsternalia, but the era was hardly a heyday for classic monsters. Frank Langella had recently appeared on stage and screen as Dracula, but he was too much of a heart throb. The underlying appeal of the old monsters was that they were grotesques, rejected by society, far more relatable than idols like Langella among underdog kids. Our Wolf Man was David “I’m a Pepper” Naughton in An American Werewolf in London, a film I’d come to know as the greatest of all werewolf movies in my adult years, but one that was totally forbidden because of its gore, infamous porno-theater scene, and zombie Nazis when I was a little kid (again, my schoolmates who’d started smoking at age five filled me in on the details). And where was the king of the monsters? According to imdb, the only feature with “Frankenstein” in the title produced during my early monster years was a TV movie starring David Warner as the Monster from 1984. Not exactly an enduring classic, though the fact that Carrie Fisher played Elizabeth certainly would have been of interest to a ten-year old boy Star Wars freak. The closest thing my generation had to an enduring big-screen Frankie was Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein…and his head wasn’t even flat!

So the late seventies/early eighties was not an era rich in classic monsters. I did not know a single other kid who owned those Remco monster toys, which seemingly went out of production as soon as they went into it. But we did exist. I have since met other folks of my generation who looked forward to WOR-TV’s Thanksgiving King Kong marathon all year, who idolized Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff as much as Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, who woke up extra early every October 31st as if it was December 25th. We were a small minority, perhaps, but we were the Monster Kids of the late seventies and early eighties. And speaking as someone whose first gifts to his own son were little plush Frankenstein Monster and Bride of Frankenstein dolls, I can say I’m at least doing my part to ensure there will be more generations of Monster Kids to come. Considering that at seventeen months the little guy already does a sinister laugh  at the very mention of the name Dracula”, things are looking pretty good for the future.

Happy Halloween to all my fellow Monster Kids… whenever you were born.
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