A crowd gathers on a chilly March evening in 1943, drawn to a garishly decorated cinema lobby. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man has come to town and the exhibitor blows the works: Floor to ceiling posters shout Mighty Monsters Clash!... Hair Raising Horror Hits New Heights!... Inhuman Beasts! Performers in costume entertain the throngs lining up for tickets and, look, up there on the box office booth, The Monster and the Wolf Man are at each other’s throats!
Miraculously, almost 70 years on, the mannequin monsters have survived and are shared here with us, thanks to collector Bobby Beeman. These unusual plaster heads, a bit battered but complete, are an unexpected and extraordinary find, and a wonderful example of classic movie ballyhoo.
There appears to have been more than one set of these built. The Frankenstein Monster in the old photos has a classic flattop and forehead bangs while the surviving plaster head is rounded out and made up like Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein, with exposed forehead clamps and a distinctive burn scar on the cheek. The Monster’s head shows signs of long-ago repair and may have been modified along the way. The Wolf Man head has fared better, still sporting its scraggly hair and eerie glowing eyes, the bulbs, sockets and cord embedded in plaster and, amazingly, still operational.
Based on a few tantalizing clues and some digging around, it appears that the heads were constructed by the J.H.Blecher Studio of Detroit. Through the first half of the 20th century, the Greektown company produced full-body mannequins for department and clothing stores, and display heads for hat, wig and cosmetic suppliers. It may have also produced affordable plaster statuary for churches. In 1963, Mario Messana, a long-time apprentice of Harry Blecher, bought out the business. Now called Mario’s Mannequin Studio, the company concentrated solely on repair work for a dwindling market, the classic plaster and fibreglass figures being progressively replaced by mass-produced plastic mannequins.
Until his own retirement, in 1995, Messana stored away a number of classic torsos, assorted limbs and exceptional heads, including delicate, early wax creations by the famous Dutch studio of Pierre Imans. This is where the Frankenstein and Wolf Man heads, no doubt saved for their novelty value, were first discovered back in the Eighties.
It is possible, of course, that the heads were manufactured by another company, landing at Blecher’s or Mario’s unclaimed or brought in for repairs, but there seems to be a direct line of provenance here, based on the recollections of previous owners of the Frankenstein/Wolf Man display. Still, we don’t know who ordered these originally. It could have been Universal’s promotion department, a regional distributor, a theater chain or even individual exhibitors. Until new info or new photos surface, we can’t tell. The theater in the photos is still unidentified.
I want to thank Bobby Beeman for so generously sharing his remarkable discovery with Frankensteinia readers. Bobby has posted more images here, at the Universal Monster Army board, an essential and enthusiastic celebration of movie monster toys and collectibles.
More great photos on Universal Monster Army.
Tragic Beauties, a collection of haunting photographs from Mario’s warehouse,
by Barbara Abel.
An article about mannequins, with references to Blecher and Messana on Detroit’s Metro Times.