August 21, 2013

Shock Theater Frankenstein

Originally posted in three parts, here's my SHOCK THEATER FRANKENSTEIN article collected in a single convenient post for easy reading. Enjoy!

Part One: Hard Sell

San Francisco TV execs look on as Screen Gems’ Jerry Hyams and his towering silent partner, the Frankenstein Monster, set a macabre mood for this contract signing.

The gag shot, from the September 7, 1957 issue of Sponsor — a trade publication for radio and TV advertisers — celebrated KRON-TV’s buying up the Shock! syndication package that would bring classic horror films to television. Shock! offered a whopping 52 films — including Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man — a treasure trove of mystery and monster movies that would find a whole new generation of fans.

Station managers did not have to be coerced with knives or stand-ins in Don Post Frankenstein masks. They were well aware of the teenage demographic packing drive-ins for AIP horror films, and Hammer Films of England had recently entered the field with a bang. Sponsor magazine contributing editor Joe Csida reported, “The overwhelming success at the box office of the New York Paramount Theater of the English-made ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ is a fairly good sign that the ‘Shock’package will be a rating success.”

By the time the series aired in October ’57, twenty-seven stations were aboard, including all the major TV markets. Flagship stations in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco geared up for “National Weird Week”, an October coordinated launch that would, according to Sponsor, “telepremiere the Shock films, most likely with the original Boris Karloff  Frankenstein.”

The Monster was a key player, with the 1931 Frankenstein spearheading the Shock! package and rubber mask ‘Frankensteins’ putting in personal appearances across the continent. And if it wasn’t already obvious that The Monster was your go-to guy, station managers who flipped opened the handsome, spiral-bound Shock! promotional catalog were treated to a pop-up cardboard cutout of The Monster.

Part Two: The Ratings Are In

There’s nothing to it: Find a tall employee, or stand some skinny guy up on a box, slap on a joke-shop Frankenstein facemask, throw in a rubber shrunken head — scary enough for ya? — and snap a photo with TV station execs. It’s a simple gag, and it gets you a spot in the October 12, 1957, issue of Sponsor, a trade magazine for Radio and TV advertisers.

The first real taste of horror business on TV harked back to the week of March 5, 1956, when WOR of New York booked King Kong on its Million Dollar Movie program, drawing what Sponsor called “the almost unbelievable rating of 79.7.” Could the Shock! collection pull those kinds of numbers? WABC pumped up the promotion. On October 5, 1957, Sponsor reported, “three ‘monsters’ are parading about the city, with a special one assigned to visit advertising agencies. There’s also a menu contest based on what viewers think is tasty monster fare.”

Frankenstein hit the air on October 13, inaugurating the Shock! series. The impact was measured in the October 19 issue of Sponsor: “First Trendex ratings on Screen Gems ‘Shock’ package were as startling as the film itself — they were enormous.” Focusing on premiere markets in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Antonio and Los Angeles, “the thrillers 1) Boosted ratings anywhere from 38% to several hundred percent, and 2) Increased sets in use by 24% to 150%." Citing “astronomical statistics”, Sponsor suggested that “The shocker may be the key to opening the advertising door in the late evening”, and noted “the current Screen Gems sponsors are no penny-whistle lot. It’s a pretty impressive list with such representation as American Chicle, Hit Parade cigarettes, P&G, Whitehall Pharmaceuticals, and Block Drug.

The floodgates opened and new stations eagerly signed up. Reporting on December 14, Sponsor noted the addition of Cleveland, and WKBK Chicago’s first showing at 10PM on a Saturday night scoring, “a 24.7 rating and a 46.4 audience share, topping all competition in that time period.” Stations in Phoenix and Fort Worth tested earlier time slots, late afternoon or early evening, to determine “whether stations and sponsors would be content to confine this tempting fare to ‘fringe’ time.” One announcer reported tons of phone call from excited kids “who wanted to know when the next installment was coming.”

The Shock! package, and a follow-up Son of Shock offering 20 more titles, would be a syndication sensation and a ratings phenomenon for years to come, with new stations joining in well into the Sixties.

For all its corny simplicity, the October ’57 WABC photo stunt, masked Monster, shrunken head and all, shot on the eve of the first broadcast, marked a momentous occasion. It was the signal, true and clear, that the Monster Kid era was kicking into high gear.

Part Three: Shock Theater Frankenstein
Horror Host Warren Reed of Seattle’s KTNT entertains his sidekick, “Frankie”, with a reading of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in this shot from the May 26, 1958 issue of Life, as the fabled picture magazine reported on the rise of the “ghoulish announcers” introducing horror movies on late night TV.

Right from the start, in October ’57, many stations running the Shock! Package dressed up their broadcasts with humorous voiceover introductions or short sketches with comically macabre hosts in cheap dungeon sets and flashing bulb castle labs, attended by rubber-mask assistants. As Monster mania began to spread across America, the Frankenstein Monster stomped front and center.

Things had been percolating for some time. Back in March of ‘57, Boris Karloff had guested on The Rosemary Clooney Show, with Clooney’s backup singers pulling a gag in Don Post Frankenstein masks. At the movies, Hammer Films had scored a major summer hit with The Curse of Frankensteinand AIP was set to release I Was a Teenage Frankenstein by year’s end.

In September ‘57, the advertisers’ trade magazine Sponsor reported on deals that would “highlight the trend in the so-called ‘horror’ field.” The befuddled columnist announced two new series in the works: “Screen Gems will produce a tv series called Tales of Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff as host. Hammer Films Productions is readying a half-hour Baron Frankenstein program… this is the same company that made Curse of Frankenstein for Warner Bros.” These turned out to be one and the same, a doomed transatlantic effort between Hammer and Screen Gem, Tales of Frankenstein, sans Karloff. The pilot, The Face in the Tombstone Mirror, was an uncomfortable hybrid of classic and contemporary movie Frankensteins, with Anton Diffring as a Cushing-style scientist and Don Megowan as a lumbering flattop Monster in Glenn Strange mode.

In February 1958, publisher Jim Warren posed in a Frankenstein mask on the cover of the inaugural issue of Famous Monster of Filmland, the instant touchstone title of the Monster Kid era, its punning editor, Forry Ackerman, providing a pitch-perfect mix of information and humor, a Horror Host in print. By year’s end, Zacherley, the most famous of all TV Horror Hosts, expanded his reach with Dinner with Drac, a pop-chart top ten novelty record. A rash of Frankenstein movies released in 1958 included Hammer’s The Revenge of FrankensteinAIP’s Teenage Frankenstein and Teenage Werewolf meeting in How to Make a Monster, a schlockfest Frankenstein’s Daughter and Boris Karloff as the Monster-making Baron in Frankenstein 1970.

The monster boom, fanned by Shock! showings that brought the classic horror films to home screens, ruled through the Sixties, translating into an avalanche of merchandising that would include monster bubblegum cards, plastic kits, puzzles, toys, monster fan mags and comics. And on it went. Bobby Pickett scored a number one hit with Monster Mash and The Monster was reconfigured to comic effect in a sitcom, The Munsters.

Through it all, TV’s Horror Hosts, dubbed “harbingers of horror” by Life magazine, were the first-line facilitators who introduced countless new fans to classic horror movies. They made monsters cool and, for many of us First Generation Monster Kids, “Frankenstein” was the coolest monster of them all.

A comprehensive list of Horror Hosts, compiled by George Chastain.

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