Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 125: The floating trumpet in 'Night of the Ghouls' (1959)

Let's talk about that trumpet.

I will never forget my first screening of Night of the Ghouls (1959). I saw it on Friday, October 30, 1992 as part of an Ed Wood quadruple feature, alongside Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). This was my first time seeing any of Eddie's movies, and it was the night that made me a fan for life.

Accessibly weird and endlessly quotable, Glenda and Plan 9 were the hits of the evening, as you might expect. The organizers of the marathon wisely scheduled Night of the Ghouls (aka Revenge of the Dead) to run last. The supernatural thriller, a film both sluggish in its pace and confounding in its construction, just about cleared the room. I stuck it out and have since come to love Ghouls, though I admit that my first viewing was an endurance test.

In particular, the séance scenes in Night of the Ghouls caused multiple walkouts. If you'll recall, the film's plot revolves around a fraudulent psychic called Dr. Acula (Kenne Duncan), who bilks customers out of their money by pretending to communicate with their dead relatives. The con artist demonstrates his "skills" through a variety of cheap theatrical tricks, the kind a Scooby Doo villain might use to scare meddling kids away from an amusement park. One particularly obscure detail: a trumpet dangling from wires so that it looks like it's floating in midair.

For years, I felt the trumpet in Ghouls was just a random inspiration from the warped mind of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the kind of eccentric flourish only Eddie could conceive. Recently, though, I was rereading Stephen King's novel Carrie (1976) and came across this remarkable line:
The idea of telekinesis itself has been a bitter pill for the scientific community to swallow, with its horror-movie trappings of ouija boards and mediums and table rapping and floating coronets; but understanding will still not excuse scientific irresponsibility.
Floating coronets? Really? And not only that, but this quote makes it seem as though floating coronets were some kind of overused horror movie cliché that readers would instantly recognize. ("Oh, right, the old floating coronet trick. I've seen it a million times.") Maybe the random hovering trumpet in Night of the Ghouls was part of a time-honored, cinematic tradition.

I started looking for pre-1959 horror and suspense movies with séances in them. There were plenty, it turns out, including at least three with Bela Lugosi: Night of Terror (1933), You'll Find Out (1940), and The Thirteenth Chair (1929). I tracked down as many of these spooky old flicks as I could find streaming online (either on YouTube or The Internet Archive), impatiently fast forwarding through minute after minute of plot and dialogue, just to get to the precious séances. And what did I get for my troubles? Not a single floating trumpet. What was Stephen King talking about?

At that point, I gave up on the old movies and started looking elsewhere for floating trumpets or coronets. A possible breakthrough came in the form of an article about spirit trumpets by Alessandra Koch at a site called The Austin Séance. According to Koch, a spirit trumpet is a cone-shaped device commonly used by spiritualists of the late 19th century to amplify the voices of spirits, sort of like megaphones. Still today, you can find spirit trumpets on Etsy, where they are marketed as séance trumpets.

Rose Mackenberg with a spirit trumpet.

Do these trumpets ever float? Apparently, some mediums made them look as though they were floating, but it was all an act. The Saturday Evening Post has a photo of famed psychic debunker Rose Mackenberg (1892-1968) with a spirit trumpet hovering over her head. She was attempting to demonstrate the tricks used by so-called spiritualists and mediums. Rose would've been the first to sneer at Dr. Acula and label him a fraud. It's possible that the floating trumpet in Night of the Ghouls is Eddie's obscure reference to the spirit trumpets used by phony psychics of the past.

The problem with this theory is that spirit trumpets were (and are) just cones. I've compared them to megaphones, but they're also similar to ear trumpets, those primitive hearing aids we sometimes see in old movies and cartoons. In sharp contrast, the floating trumpet in Night of the Ghouls is an actual musical instrument, the kind with valves and a mouthpiece. Other than having a bell on one end, it bears little resemblance to the spirit trumpets of the Victorian era. Maybe Ed Wood had heard of psychics using some kind of trumpet in their act, and he just assumed it was a brass instrument.

Or maybe the floating trumpet in Night of the Ghouls is destined to remain a mystery, just another bizarre flourish of Ed Wood's pickled imagination.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Podcast Tuesday: "But You ARE, Don! You ARE in That Chair!"

Henry Winkler, Ron Howard, and Jim Knaub on Happy Days.

Sitcoms exist to amuse us, give us a few chuckles, and distract us from the problems of our everyday lives. They're light entertainment, nothing more. Or are they?  You see, sitcoms are made by concerned, caring, deeply moral people who have thoughts and feelings about a wide variety of social issues. And they reach an audience of millions of people across America each week! Can't sitcoms educate the public a little? In fact, isn't it their responsibility to mix in some learning with the guffaws?

And so, we get the "very special episode," i.e. a sitcom story that tackles some decidedly unfunny subject in the interest of creating a brighter world for all of us. The VSE really became a subgenre of its own during the 1970s (perhaps thanks to Norman Lear), and Happy Days was not immune. In Season 7, for instance, they did "The Mechanic," an episode in which Fonzie (Henry Winkler) hires a handicapped man named Don (real life wheelchair athlete Jim Knaub) to work in his garage. Don is embittered about the accident that put him in a wheelchair, and Fonzie definitely has a phobia about working with the disabled. So it seems they both have a lot to learn. What do you wanna bet that they both grow and change by the closing credits?

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we review "The Mechanic" and tell you whether it works as education, as entertainment, as both, or as neither. Join us!

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Musical Odyssey, Part Three by Greg Dziawer

Peter Gooch as Ed Wood in Hubcaps Afire Over Hollywood.

In the lightning-in-a-bottle moment surrounding the release of director Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood in 1994, a veritable cottage industry of Wood-related works emerged. Though receiving universal critical praise, the film tanked at the box office and its namesake faded back into the cult infamy from which he had briefly emerged into mainstream pop culture.

A forgotten footnote today, leaving behind little in the public record, was the stage musical Hubcaps Afire Over Hollywood. Its initial run in Fort Worth, TX ran concurrently to the release of Burton's film in October 1994. After a brief second run in early 1995, the play all but disappeared. Here's Perry Stewart's review of that staging from the October 11, 1994 edition of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Glen or Glenda Odyssey, Part 8 by Greg Dziawer

"Not half man-half woman, but nevertheless, man and woman in the same body."

It must have been shocking to the so-called "normal" people of the Truman-Eisenhower era when the headlines announced that, in mere months, a man named George Jorgensen was about to become a woman named Christine Jorgensen. While far from the first to undergo sex reassignment surgery, Christine was the first to dominate the headlines. Her successful reassignment was confirmed in the papers in early December 1952. By February of 1953, Christine made her heralded return to the states. 

In the interim, a fledgling filmmaker named Edward D Wood Jr had shot his first feature, Glen or Glenda, partially inspired by the Jorgensen case. Although the project was intended as quickie exploitation, Ed would imbue it with his own personal travails regarding sexual identity. While the film would wind up as a cult favorite, Christine became a pop culture icon and fixture of newspaper and magazine articles. To some extent, she remains a household name three decades after her death. 

I've shared details of Christine's fame previously, including some of those aforementioned articles. This week, I invite you to have a look at another article, deriving from that cataclysmic moment in 1953 when Christine Jorgensen took the world by storm. Sir! claimed to be a "magazine for males." It devoted the cover of its May 1953 issue (vol. 1, no. 8) to Christine. Like other magazines of the era aimed squarely at the average joe, Sir! featured a stew of the weird and the exotic, including plenty of sex and violence. One article warns that water is actually bad for you, while another details the sex lives of eunuchs. There's a pinup photo feature about the all-but-forgotten Linda Lombard, plus a clutch of pulp fiction short stories. An article called "The Effeminate Killers" even asks this daunting question: "Are bullfighters homosexual?" It's a dizzying array of overheated content.

Amid all this is "The Real Truth About Christine," credited to Dr. Albert A. Brandt. Here is the article in its entirety. You may have to click on these images to see them at a larger size. 

Pages 6 and 7.

Pages 8 and 9.

Pages 64 and 66.

You can check out the entire May 1953 issue of Sir! here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Podcast Tuesday: "Maneaters on Motorbikes"

Karen Jensen and Henry Winkler on Happy Days.

I am old enough to have lived through most of the original run of Happy Days, and I'm sure my family tuned into many of those Tuesday night broadcasts on ABC in the '70s and '80s. Tens of millions of Americans did, after all. But the way I really got to know the show was through syndication. Under the title Happy Days Again, the nostalgic sitcom aired every afternoon, Monday through Friday. This was the same way I originally saw shows like Three's Company and The Brady Bunch.

Very little of Happy Days stayed with me into my adult years, apart from the bare basics -- Richie, Fonzie, Arnold's, etc. I can distinctly remember feeling very grown-up when I started ninth grade, because I associated high school with the Happy Days gang. I wondered if I, too, would start wearing a varsity jacket and attending sock hops. (Neither happened.) Other than that, the show was just a vague blur of jukeboxes and motorcycles in my mind.

The Season 7 episode "Fonzie Vs. The She Devils," however, made a huge impression on me. It definitely stood out among its brethren. Revisiting this adventure for These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, I can see why. This is one bizarre show. The plot centers around a tough, all-female biker gang called, yes, the She Devils led by the astonishing Big Bertha (Judy Pioli). They're like something out of a 1960s B-movie. Unfortunately, Chachi (Scott Baio) has just dumped one of the She Devils' sisters, so they kidnap him, drag him back to their headquarters in an abandoned beauty parlor, and threaten to shave his head. Who can save Chachi's scalp? Only his cousin Fonzie (Henry Winkler), who infiltrates the She Devils' headquarters by masquerading as a Jerry Lewis-esque nerd named Artie.

You can see why a show like this would stick with me. But does being memorable equate to being good? Find out when we review "Fonze Vs. The She Devils" on this week's podcast!

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Summit Podcast #22 by Greg Dziawer

The 1966 novel Mask of Evil has occasionally been attributed to Ed Wood.

If you are more than a casual fan of Ed Wood, you likely know that many of the adult paperbacks attributed to him were originally published under pseudonyms. While Wood left behind resumes that aid in identifying many such works, there are titles that seem purely speculative.

One of these is 1966's Mask of Evil, credited to Charlene White. I don't know the precise provenance of the attribution, but at present no less than Cornell University makes the assertion that it was written by Ed.

James Pontolillo recently imaged and shared a copy with Joe Blevins and myself, and the three of us sat down on The Ed Wood Summit Podcast to ponder whether we think Mask of Evil was truly written by Ed. Tune in and find out what we think!


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