Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 73: The saga of Eddie and the Famous Monsters album

Eddie desperately wanted a copy of this album, Famous Monsters Speak (1963), but never got it.

Forrest J. Ackerman and friend
By the summer of 1966, Edward D. Wood, Jr. was 41 and making his meager living mostly from writing lurid paperbacks and the occasional screenplay. The magazine work wouldn't start coming in steadily for a couple more years.

Forrest J. Ackerman (1916-2008), editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland for 26 years and one of America's preeminent collectors of horror and sci-fi memorabilia, has described himself as Eddie's "illiterary agent" during this era, though there's no evidence that he ever got Ed much work outside of the Orgy of the Dead tie-in paperback published by Greenleaf in 1966. Based on existing interviews and articles, it seems that Ackerman had little regard for Eddie's talents and considered him more of a nuisance than anything else.

"For a while, he called me up a great deal on the telephone, but he was always smashed out of his skull," Ackerman told Rudolph Grey in Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992). "There was nothing much I had to say to him or could do for him or anything."

Still in all, Forrest J. Ackerman was a man with at least some connections in the publishing industry, and Eddie needed whatever work he could get by the mid-1960s. This letter from Ed to Forry perfectly captures the tenor of their relationship. It comes from the collection of a fan named Dennis, who purchased it at an auction of Ackerman memorabilia. In the letter, Ed is sniffing around for work, and Forry is trying to duck him at all cost. Along the way, though, Ed brings up an unusual LP he'd seen advertised in the pages of Forry's magazine.

                                          EDWARD D. WOOD, Jr.
                                          6136 Bonner Ave.
                                          North Hollywood, Calif.

                                          1 August 1966

         Mr. Forrest J. Ackerman
         915 S. Sherbourne Drive
         Los Angeles 32, Calif.

         Dear Forry
          Going into the second month that I haven't heard from you.   I certainly know all things take time, but do drop me a line and let me know if, and how things are progressing.  
          Two new paperbacks through San Diego.   "69 RUE PIGALLE" and "NAKED BONES".   Both should be interesting for Foreign sales.   "BONES" will be especially interesting to you for its horrific qualities.   Deals with many a carnival murder - monsters and mad men.   I am working on "DEVIL GIRLS" for this months sale.  
          Also, just as some information for your benefit.   Some time ago I put my little three bucks in an envelope and mailed for "FAMOUS MONSTERS SPEAK."   After much time I wrote, "Why do I not receive the record?" and of course there was the return - "We never received the money."   BETTER ADVISE YOUR READERS NOT TO SEND CASH.   Thus this time I sent a check which was cashed from New York to here by the Captain Company on June 27 - also for one of the back issues of the serials magazine -- but have not arrived as yet. 
          Let me hear from you from time to time and what is happening.   As soon as I get the phone back, and a car, we'll see you.
                                          My best for both our advances


Almost breaks your heart, doesn't it? At this point, Ed didn't have enough money for a car or even a telephone line, both necessary for life in Los Angeles, and yet he was still ordering movie memorabilia from Forry's magazines. But that was Eddie. He was always a fan at heart, enamored by movies and the people who made them. Among his few remaining possessions when he died was a copy of the book Movie Monsters (1969) by British author Denis Gifford. Eddie also owned at least two volumes of Famous Monsters reprints: The Best of Famous Monsters of Filmland (1964) and Son of Famous Monsters of Filmland (1965), both from Paperback Library. Ed's copies of these books wound up in the possession of fan Bob Blackburn.

Books from Ed Wood's personal collection.

As it turns out, the album Eddie wanted so badly is pretty easy to track down today. Famous Monsters Speak (A.A./Wonderland/Golden) was first issued in 1963 and then re-released on vinyl in 1970 and 1973. Under the title Classic Stories for Kids: From the Mouths of Monsters, it was reissued on CD by Digiview Entertainment in 2005. Image Entertainment released the album under its original title on CD in 2000. A vinyl copy will run you about $25 to $50 today on Ebay. The CD versions are much cheaper than that. Factoring in inflation, the CD is actually cheaper than the original release from 1963!

Here's the ad that would have enticed Ed Wood over five decades ago. The copy describes Famous Monsters Speak as "50 minutes of sheer terror," though the actual album clocks in at about 41 minutes. Note that the LP is said to be "brought to you by the editors of Famous Monsters magazine!" Curiously, the listed price is only $1.98. Had the price gone up by 1966 or was the extra dollar for shipping?

An ad for Famous Monsters Speak.

Here's a second, full-page ad for the album. Again, the price is given as $1.98, and readers are advised to mail in "two one-dollar bills." The canard about the album being 50 minutes long is also repeated. There is a reference to the album being sold in stores, so maybe poor Eddie should have gone that route instead.

Ed Wood obviously couldn't wait for this album to appear in stores.

The original LP cover in all its glory.
Like the magazine for which it is named, Famous Monsters Speak is aimed largely at children. But that would have suited Ed Wood perfectly. His own widow, Kathy, described Ed as "such a kid in a way" in Nightmare of Ecstasy. This is a spooky, atmospheric spoken word LP, enhanced with sound effects but lacking music. It consists of only two tracks: "Frankenstein's Monster Talks!" (19:54) and "Dracula's Return!" (21:12). For the CD reissue, these titles were simplified to the comparatively mundane "Frankenstein Speaks" and "Dracula Speaks."

The premise of Side One is that some scientists have converged in Zurich, Switzerland to hear some "crude recordings" that Dr. Frankenstein made of his monster. The monologuing monster, in chains, ponders how and why he was ever created and vows revenge on his maker. "I have one purpose," he snarls. "To end your life!" The tapes then seem to capture the creature as he escapes from bondage and goes on a killing spree. (Did he take the tape recorder with him and then send the reels back to the doctor, I wonder?) For a kids album, Famous Monsters Speak is pretty explicit in describing acts of violence. At one point, the creature makes this observation about his human victims: "They come apart so easily!"

In a strange way, with its verbose, vengeance-obsessed monster, this recording is actually closer in tone to Mary Shelley's gloomy original novel than James Whale's 1931 film ever was. This half of the LP ends with a dire warning from the immortal, unstoppable creature: "No one is safe from me! Which one of you is next?"

Side Two is given over to Count Dracula's return. It is presented as the desperate memoir of a most unfortunate man who found Dracula one night when he decided to snoop around the British Museum after hours. We hear him typing as he narrates his story aloud. According to this story, the old vampire's crypt is housed in the rat-infested basement of the Covent Garden museum. Dracula gives the interloper a message to deliver: "You will tell the people who walk above the ground that Count Dracula lives."

After explaining his modus operandi at length, the jovial, cackling Dracula takes his new "friend" out to the streets of London. The vampire likes to do his dirty work on crowded, well-lit thoroughfares with lots of people around. "That is horror," he explains. In no time at all, he hypnotizes a young lady with his magic ring, then drains her blood until she dies. When Drac takes the narrator to some kind of underground vampire convention, the man foolishly tries to escape. The count generously lets the narrator return to his normal life but warns, "I will come for you. Slowly, quietly." The narrator finishes typing his story just in time for Dracula to reclaim him, and the album ends abruptly.

Writer Cherney Berg
There was some intriguing talent behind this record, too. These two horror stories were written by Cherney Berg (1922-2003), son of radio and TV comedienne Molly Berg. In the 1950s and 1960s, Cherney worked as a writer and producer on Molly's show, The Goldbergs, as well as The Molly Berg Show. But he got other writing work as well, including scripting a 1967 Troy Donahue vehicle called Come Spy With Me. He was also a story editor on the 1966 animated King Kong series from Rankin-Bass and adapted The Nutcracker into an ice show starring Dorothy Hamill for a 1983 TV special. Cherney also worked on spoken word albums for children, including Scary Spooky Stories (1973) and  Great Ghost Stories (1973). In 1963, the same year as this album, Cherney also authored A Hideous History of Weapons, a mass market paperback from Collier.

Meanwhile, the voices on the album were provided by actor and comedian Gabriel Dell (1919-1988). As a young man, Gabe had been a member of the wisecracking screen troupe variously known as the Dead End Kids, the Bowery Boys, and the East Side Kids. In fact, I've reviewed some of his ESK films, including Smart Alecks (1942), Million Dollar Kid (1944),  and Mr. Wise Guy (1942). After aging out of that gig circa 1950, Gabe Dell kept working fairly regularly in TV and film until the early 1980s, including a role in the dreadful When the Girls Take Over (1962). To be fair, I should say Gabe was also in the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake and guested on shows like I Dream of Jeannie, The Fugitive, Ben Casey, McCloud, Sanford & Son, and more. He has all sorts of bizarre credits to his name, including playing Mordu in the two-part Legends of the Superheroes (1979) and voicing Boba Fett in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978).

Gabe was also something of an impressionist. While he makes no attempt to imitate Boris Karloff or Colin Clive during "Frankenstein's Monster Speaks!" he obviously models his performance as Dracula after Bela Lugosi. This leads to some strange pronunciations along the way, like  "The vampire is kink!" and "Shit on that coffin!" For a while in the late 1950s and early '60s, Gabriel Dell served as a sidekick to TV comedian Steve Allen. Here he is on Allen's show, doing his Lugosi impression. The mood is lighthearted, but the voice is pretty much the same as what he uses on Famous Monsters Speak.

History does not record whether Ed Wood ever received his copy of the album... or at least received a refund for his $3. I'll leave you with this clip of Gabe Dell reuniting with fellow East Side Kid Huntz Hall in 1987 on the USA Network's Robert Klein Time. He appears to be in great spirits here, even doing some rudimentary slapstick, but he died of leukemia the very next year at the age of 68. A trouper to the end.