Saturday, June 27, 2015

Ed Wood extra! 'Chiller Theatre' (1965) and 'Oh! Those Bells' (1962)

Vampira and Dr. Tom Mason in the intro for WPIX's legendary Chiller Theatre.

If you don't mind, I'd like to share with you some Ed Wood-related TV treasures from the early 1960s. The first dates back to 1965 -- a half-century ago.

While Eddie was toiling on Orgy of the Dead, clips of his 1959 epic Plan 9 from Outer Space featuring Vampira and Dr. Tom Mason were being used in the opening montage of the legendary Chiller Theatre on New York's Channel 11 WPIX, an independent station, along with snippets from The Cyclops and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. WPIX had been running horror movies under the Chiller Theatre banner since 1961, but the Wood-centric opening did not turn up until 1965, coinciding with the departure of host Zacherly "The Cool Ghoul."

WPIX had a strong signal and was well-known in those days to viewers throughout the so-called "tri-state area," encompassing New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It is conceivable, then, that Chiller Theater had a major impact on the baby boomers who grew up in that area of the country, introducing them to the joys and terrors of horror films. The Saturday night show might have scarred some kids for life.

One such victim/beneficiary was New Jersey-born writer Rob Craig, who grew up to be the author of the exhaustive study Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Look at the Films. In an extensive interview included in the newly-published The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood, Craig talks at great length about the Chiller Theatre intro and the impact it had on his life. He began watching the WPIX show when he was eight years old and became entranced with it. "Like any self-respecting baby boomer," he said, "I was completely enamored of monster movies." The Chiller Theatre intro became such an object of fascination for Craig that, fifty years later, he could easily rattle off all the movies quoted within it.

But one particular excerpt stood out among the rest, as Craig explained to the Cinematic Misadventures authors:
"However, the one clip which really resonated with me -- and which I would not identify for many years -- was a very strange scene showing a sexy young woman with a tight black dress, long black hair, heavy makeup, and long dark fingernails. This sexy/creepy monster woman was walking towards the camera in a menacing way, with a deranged grimace on her face. Now, to an eight-year-old monster movie buff -- it may sound funny to say now -- but I found that clip extremely creepy. The woman's grimace indicated some sort of madness or evil which really unnerved me. It was an interesting combination, I think, of sex and horror."
You can probably guess the rest of the story: Rob Craig finally saw Plan 9 from Outer Space years later and had an epiphany when he finally recognized the mystery woman who had been haunting his dreams since childhood. Watching the intro, which was retired in the late 1960s, I can definitely see why the WPIX show affected Craig so strongly. The Plan 9 clips are right at the beginning of the montage -- unmissable, unmistakable.

Removed from its original context, the footage is genuinely unsettling and provocative all at once. It's darker and grainier than the current DVD version, which makes it a little more sinister. Furthermore, WPIX has added its own bombastic library music to the montage, underlining the sense of dread. Perhaps most importantly, the Plan 9 footage only lasts three seconds. A shot of Vampira standing still in the graveyard. A shot of Tom Mason standing still in (apparently) the same graveyard. Then back to Vampira, who approaches the camera with her arms out in front, as if she's reaching for the viewer directly through the TV screen. There's no time to process any of this. It's almost subliminal. Did I just see that?

Here, more so than in the full-length movie, the ersatz Dracula is as scary as the real thing. It really helps when you don't get a good look at him. And Vampira is sex and death made flesh, Eros and Thanatos in one body. The viewer is simultaneously attracted and repelled. I want to fuck her! She's going to kill me! So many conflicting thoughts, so little time.

Ed Wood's favorite show?
The second clip for today is the intro from a very obscure, extremely short-lived sitcom called Oh! Those Bells, which ran on CBS from March 8, 1962 to May 31, 1962. According to The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV Shows 1946-Present by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh: "This series was a loosely structured attempt to bring contemporary slapstick humor to television. The Wiere Brothers, an internationally known trio of slapstick comedians, portrayed the last living members of a family with a long history as theatrical prop, costume, and wig makers."

Veterans of the vaudeville circuit, the three Weire boys -- Herbie, Harry, and Sylvester, all born in Germany and Austria-Hungary in the early 1900s -- had a long-running, free-wheeling comedy and music act which kept them afloat for decades in show business. The Pathe newsreel cameras captured their onstage antics a few times in the 1930s in films which still exist today. The boys started appearing in feature films in the late 1940s, working with stars as diverse as Roy Rogers and Bob Hope, before moving into television in the 1950s and 1960s, where they turned up on The Merv Griffin Show and Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. The anarchic act came to an abrupt, sad end with the death of the youngest brother, Sylvester, at the age of 60 in 1970. Perennial guest stars, the Weire Brothers were perhaps too aggressively madcap to be the main attraction in any TV series or film. Oh! Those Bells was their one big shot at stardom, and it lasted a mere thirteen low-rated weeks.

The show's creator, Jules White, was famous for having directed dozens of Three Stooges shorts at Columbia. I guess he thought he'd try his luck with another knockabout trio. Eh, they can't all be winners. Oh! Those Bells, in fact, did garner comparisons to the Stooges, some positive and some negative. Brooks and Marsh again: "When things started to go wrong, their world looked like it had been taken over by The Three Stooges in their prime" But in their book Harry and Wally's Favorite TV Shows, critics Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik declare: "Oh! Those Bells shows that slapstick died for a reason: It comes across as awfully stupid on TV. Watch an old Three Stooges short instead." Ouch.

Unsuccessful as it may have been, Oh! Those Bells did have at least one major fan: Edward Davis Wood, Jr., as always the patron saint of show business underdogs. Eddie would have needed all the laughs he could get by 1962. That was one of his relatively fallow periods. His last theatrically-released motion picture, The Sinister Urge, had been in the can for two years by then. His most recent directorial efforts were the top-secret industrial films he made for Autonetics Aviation. His screenwriting gigs on Shotgun Wedding and Orgy of the Dead were still in the future, as was his backup career has an author of cheap paperbacks. I can just imagine poor Ed in 1962, sitting in front of the TV and waiting in vain for the phone to ring... if he even had a phone.

Oh! Those Bells must have struck Ed's fancy, because he wrote about it affectionately in Hollywood Rat Race, circa 1965. A chapter boldly titled "Sex -- Hollywood and You" begins with these words:
"What makes an actor or actress? I can't define the magic of acting with any facts or logic. I do know, as do most of you, that if something happens on the screen that I like, then I like it, if it's an actor or actress, then I like him or her. (I liked the television series The Bell Brothers starring the Bell Brothers, but it seemed few others liked it -- the ratings shooed them off the air. Does that make them any less talented as actors? I wouldn't think so, their nightclub dates are at an all-time high.)"
Eddie, though well-meaning, has his facts slightly scrambled. The show was actually called Oh! Those Bells, not The Bell Brothers. The real-life Wiere Brothers portrayed the fictional Bell Brothers on the show. It is true, however, that the Wieres remained a popular live attraction throughout the 1960s, even if they weren't able to translate that popularity to steady TV success.

But now, dear readers, pretend that you are Ed Wood in the spring of 1962. It's Thursday night, you've just done an uncredited script polish on Married Too Young, and it's time to kick back and watch the ol' tube, most likely with a glass of Imperial Whiskey in your hand. You tune to KNXT Channel 2 (the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles at the time), adjust the rabbit ears, give the cabinet a few whacks for luck, and wait for your favorite new show to flicker into view. And here is what awaits you:

Ed Wood's affection for Oh! Those Bells is instructive to the aspiring Wood-ologist. A person's television-viewing habits say a lot about him. You are what you watch. As an experienced stage actor and playwright, Ed likely would have appreciated Bells' theatrical setting. And the focus on wigs, costumes, and props would have been a selling point, too. (Wood rhapsodizes over these things in his short story "Final Curtain.")

But more importantly, this little biographical detail gives you an idea of what Ed found funny. From the antics of Paul Marco's bumbling Kelton the Cop in Wood's '50s films to the Bazooka Joe-worthy groaners in One Million AC/DC, it's clear that Ed Wood had a taste for low comedy. He liked his jokes corny, obvious, and old-fashioned. No wonder the Wiere Brothers suited him to a T. This is a sticking point for some viewers. Both Ed Wood, Mad Genius and The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood gripe about Eddie's attempts at cornball comedy. I don't mind it, personally. I even find it kind of sweet, because it attests to Eddie's inner sincerity and naivete.

Since that Oh! Those Bells intro up there is rather brief, I thought I'd include the following clip to show you more of the Wieres' vaunted nightclub routine. Here, then, are the Wiere Brothers performing in the late 1960s on a Jerry Lewis TV special. A very tan, tuxedo-clad Jerry describes them as "three men who follow in the great tradition of the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, and the Smith Brothers." Lewis obviously had some lingering respect for the Wieres, because he cast middle brother Herbie Wiere in his film Cracking Up in 1983. That was the last major public appearance of any of the Weire Brothers. Sylvester, of course, was long gone by then. The eldest of the trio, Harry, died in 1992. Herbie followed in 1999. And that, as they say, was that.