Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Hilarious House of Frightenstein (1971) * * ½

THE HILARIOUS HOUSE OF FRIGHTENSTIEIN was a 1971 Canadian TV series produced by independent station CHCH in 1971, located in Hamilton, Ontario. It was syndicated to television stations across Canada and the US and sometimes appears in some TV markets today. This 48 minute show was a fixture on Saturday morning television for decades. Through its combination of variety, humor, and educational segments, all flavored with the spice of mock horror, the show had a lasting impact on the youth of the day. Each episode opened and closed with an appearance by horror star Vincent Price as he recited poetry with toy skulls and shrunken heads in the background. Price also did introductions for segments within the show.

A quirky sketch comedy series, the show's cast included Billy Van, Fishka Rais, Guy Big, Mitch Markowitz, Vincent Price and Julius Sumner Miller. Billy Van played most of the characters. All 130 episodes of the series were made in a single 9 month period starting in 1971, and the scenes with Vincent Price and Julius Miller were all filmed during one summer.

The titular character, Count Frightenstein, was the thirteenth son of Count Dracula and was exiled to Castle Frightenstein in Frankenstone, Canada for failing to revive Brucie J. Monster, a Frankenstein-like monster. Assisted by Igor (Fishka Rais), an overweight incompetent, and a three-foot-tall mini-Count (Guy Big), each episode followed the Count’s efforts to revive Brucie and featured comedy skits. His favorite line is, "Yes, I am the Count. You can count on it." Billy Van played Count Frightenstein.

Vincent Price reads morbid poetry on the show. About 400 bits were shot with him over a 4 day session. He accepted the gig because he loved kids and saw the innovation in this vehicle. He allegedly worked for around $13,000 in total when that was commonly his daily appearance rate. He would read the script to himself, put his head down for a few seconds and do a single take read on-camera. "Next!" At one point the crew was exhausted by his pace and he suddenly disappeared. Everyone thought he must have gone to collapse somewhere. But he had hailed a cab, gone to the local beer store and brought a couple of two-fours into the station. Everybody sat cross-legged in the studio and listened to his stories of Hollywood and Cecil B. DeMille. The next break they took, he had his picture taken with each crew member in the make-up room. One of the guys blew them up to 8x10’s that night and he wrote a personal note to each person on the show.

(opening Poem)
"Another lovely day begins, for ghosts and ghouls with greenish skin. So close your eyes, and you will find that you've arrived in Frightenstein. Perhaps the Count will find a way to make his monster work today. For if he solves this monster-mania, he can return to Transylvania. So welcome where the sun won't shine, to the castle of Count Frightenstein!"

"Some of Bwana’s animals decided they would go
Into the town and have some lunch, and maybe see a show
They went into the restaurant, the lion took a look
He saw the waiter, ate him raw, and kindly thanked the cook
And when they got the bill they did not know what they should do
So the lion called the cashier in, and then he ate him too!"

(closing Poem)
"The castle lights are growing dim. There's no one left but me...and him. When next we meet in Frankenstone--don't come alone."

Igor is Count Frightestein's overweight incompetent slave. Fishka Rais, who played the character was an accomplished jazz singer from South Africa. Rais died in 1974, shortly after an unsuccessful surgical operation to help his obesity problem.

The Wolfman is a werewolf DJ at radio station EECH who plays rock and roll records while doing a Wolfman Jack impression. His theme song is Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher". The segment featured then-current hit singles by the Rolling Stones or Sly and the Family Stone, which were referred to as "golden oldies" in order to avoid dating the program. Igor and the Wolfman dance in silhouette against a psychedelic background. Due to licensing issues, the musical numbers are no longer shown on reruns. Billy Van played the Wolfman.

The Professor was played by U.S. physicist Professor Julius Sumner Miller, a veteran of the Mickey Mouse Club, where he was known as Professor Wonderful. He provides science lessons on such things as thermal expansion and the cartesian diver.

The Grammar Slammer is the disembodied voice who challenged Igor to correct grammatical errors. He was accompanied by an 8 foot purple puppet monster the Grammar Slammer Bammer who threatened to beat up Igor if he failed. The character was played by Joe Torbay.

Bwana Clyde Batty is a British explorer who teaches about wild animals on Zany Zoo and whose name is a spoof of animal trainer Clyde Beatty. His catchphrase is "Ooga Booga!" Billy Van played Batty.

Grizelda, the Ghastly Gourmet is a witch who cooks suitably ghastly recipes in her cauldron. It's a spoof of TV cooking hosts, basically a parody of THE GALLOPING GOURMET, which was very popular at the time. In every one of her segments, she bangs her head on the pot above her cauldron, and invariably declares the recipe a failure after it causes a small explosion. The iron cauldron was a real one borrowed from a tiny farm museum north of Toronto. It was set up with dry ice for the boiling effect. Grizelda was very vain, often comparing her "beauty" to famous women, including Goldie Hawn. Billy Van played Griselda, and her make-up took hours to put on, and Van would work long hours to make the most of the make-up every shooting day. As the day wore on into night Van became increasingly punchy providing hours of out-take laughs for the crew at the CHCH studio.

The Librarian is an elderly curmudgeon who unsuccessfully tries to scare the viewers by reading children's stories, such as "Humpty Dumpty" and "Henny Penny", which he thinks are horror stories. He also sometimes reads fables with unpleasant endings. He eventually admits to not being any more frightened than the viewers, but considers reading important nonetheless. He would occasionally hit on a stuffed golden eagle perched near his chair. Billy Van played the Librarian.

The Maharishi is a Hindu guru who shares bits of mystically inscrutable wisdom. A large bag of flowers would then fall atop his head afterward. Billy Van played the Maharishi.

The Oracle is a mystic who reads out horoscopes in a Peter Lorre voice, invariably knocking over and breaking his crystal ball in the process. He then answers questions supposedly sent in from viewers. Billy Van played the Oracle.

Dr. Pet Vet is a veterinarian who teaches about domestic animals, whereas the Zany Zoo was about wild fauna. He always offers the day's animal to Igor as a pet, but the Sloth in the basement invariably refuses to allow Igor to keep the animal. Billy Van played Dr. Pet Vet.

The Midget Count was played by Guy Big as a Mini-Me type 3 foot tall clone of the Count. Guy was originally slated to play the main role as the Count but his speaking voice would not hold out for more than a few hours. Billy Van was playing his part in Party Game, another of Markowitz's shows, and he was called in to audition for the role of the Count and was hired for the lead role where his various talents were more fully revealed.

Super Hippy was played by Mitchell Markowitz, Rafeal Markowitz's younger brother. This hippie in a superhero costume appears leading in and out of commercials, sitting or flying in varying locations as he delivers some variation on "Don't change the channel, we'll be right back after these commercials."

The Singing Soldier is a palace guard who gets a cream pie thrown in his face whenever he sings. Billy Van played the Singing Soldier.

The Mosquito always tells a bad joke about insects before biting a human foot. The character was played by Mitchell Markowitz, the producer's younger brother

The Gorilla is a person in a gorilla costume who walks out of a jungle set and invariably tries to scare whomever he is looking at. In every segment however he is thwarted by a golf ball that hits him in the head, causing him to keel over. He often tries to avoid the golf balls, in one case by holding up a parasol. The Gorilla was played by Paul Shultz who also worked in the prop department. Sometimes Billy Van played the Gorilla.

Puppets (by Joe Torbay) included: Harvey Wallbanger the postmaster of Castle Frightenstein's "dead letter office". This puppet appears in sketches with The Count or Grizelda in which they answer letters. Gronk is a purple sea serpent who interacts with the Count or the Wolfman.

Both the opening and closing credits were accompanied by a musical composition played entirely on a Moog synthesizer and written by Harry Breuer, Gary Carol and Pat Prilly. Its title is "March of the Martians". The recording can be found on an out-of-print Pickwick vinyl album called "The Happy Moog".

Production of the show lasted approximately 9 to 12 months, depending on who you ask. It was shot completely out of sequence, and all segments were shot together. So, Billy Van spent a few weeks as Grizelda, a few weeks as the Librarian, even a few days as the ape getting hit in the head with baseballs. This explains why there are no running themes throughout any of the episodes. The shows were then assembled from the bits and pieces and all follow the same basic pattern of sketches. Vincent Price’s involvement was the same as everybody else--a few intense days recording mountains of material.

THE HILARIOUS HOUSE OF FRIGHTENSTIEIN last aired on a Canadian cable station called "Showcase" in 1997. When its run was over, the broadcast masters used by Showcase were allegedly destroyed at the request of the producer. Frightenstein suffered its biggest blow in 2003 with the death of Billy Van. In the words of cameraman Dave Cremasco: "Billy was the show". In 2005, Stacey Case organized a Frightenstein Fest which offered a reunion of cast and crew, merchandise, episode screenings, and the premiere of the documentary RETURN TO TRANSYLVANIA.

Billy Van Evera was born in Toronto in 1934. By age 12, "Billy Van" and his four brothers were touring North America as a singing act, and by the 1960s he was on his way to becoming one of Canada’s best-loved comedians. Van first gained national attention as a fixture on the 1960s CBC TV series NIGHTCAP, a late-night show known for its irreverent satire, low budget and risque humour. A chameleon who flipped effortlessly from character to character, Van’s parodies were wild and brash. He set the prototype for Canadian sketch comedy in the 1970s--broad, over-the-top and painfully accurate. Billy Van beefed up such Yankee Doodle series as The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, and starred with Jack Duffy and Dinah Christie on the CHCH series Party Game, but never achieved the fame of Canadian comedians such as John Candy and Dan Aykroyd. In part, this was a result of timing--his comedy was ahead of its time. Van's work on Frightenstein lampooning pop culture (hippies, horror movies and music) foreshadowed the parodies that made SCTV a hit. When Mike Myers was inducted into that other Canadian Walk of Fame, he credited Van, among others, for helping shape his comedy. Billy Van died in 2003 of lung cancer. He was 68. Van’s last screen performance was as "Les" the trainer in the 1995 hockey movie NET WORTH (1995). It was a fitting final role for an actor who performed comedy with heart, passion and a tremendous amount of talent.

On October 18, 2005, Empire Pictures released a single DVD featuring a handful of half-hour US-syndicated episodes. The most significant change for these episodes as broadcast, apart from the length, was the addition of a laugh track. On October 17th, 2006, Alliance Atlantis Home Video in Canada released a 3-disc box set of 13 full-length episodes, with restored Wolfman segments. The shows are not in chronological order, as only episodes that had thus far obtained music clearances for the Wolfman dance segments were included. The Wolfman theme, Sly & the Family Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher", had not yet been cleared--and it is doubtful that it ever will be cleared, since Michael Jackson owns the rights--so the opening was altered with new music by The Tijuana Bibles from Toronto, and Billy Van's voice was re-dubbed by another Toronto voice actor. As per recent airings in Canada on the cable networks Drive-In Classics and Space, the main Frightenstein theme is also a re-recording, due to licencing restrictions by Morning Music, Ltd. "RETURN TO TRANSYLVANIA: A Short Documentary about Billy Van" is a 7 minute biography of Billy Van and the show and included as an extra on some DVDs.

The newer version released in 2006 has the original sparkle and appeal for kids of all ages. It's wonderful to revisit those far-off happy days when children's television was unbounded by political correctness and didn't underestimate the audience. There's no laugh-track and it's as fresh and funny as ever. A second set of 9 episodes will be released by Critical Mass in late 2008. The DVD Lone Wolf owns is very obviously created from old VHS tapes of the show, and therefore the video quality is not the best.

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