by Herbie J Pilato
Live performances. Rehashed ideas. Retold stories. Dead-on scripts.
Turn of the Screw. Picture of Dorian Gray. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dracula. Frankenstein. The Wolfman. Even HP Lovecraft’s The Cthulhu Mythos.
Actors play a piece from each, working, temporarily, steadily. Stereotyped, indefinitely. Fallen movie stars, resurrected for the small screen. TV superstars yet to be born. Future TV angels, present spectres.
AIDS. Death. Divorce. Lawsuits. Murder trials. Daytime, night-time drama – behind and in front of the camera. Shadows of things to come; dark, but clearly defined.
TV stars return to the big screen. Convolution. Suffocation. Cancellation. Restoration. Thrice. Almost four times. Nostalgic television actors replaced with unfamiliar faces (except maybe one). Reality mixes with fantasy in the past, present, future and parallel time, immortal.
This sums up the experience of Dark Shadows – one of TV’s most unique and enduring series – one which debuts on ABC, June 27, 1966 and continues to enjoy a kind of cult following once thought solely exclusive to the likes of Star Trek. (Or should that read, “occult” following?) It ends its original run on April 2, 1971 and – more than forty years later – thrives in syndication on the new Decades classic TV channel, a few years after contemporary film star Johnny Depp failed to bring its leading character back to life…this time, for the big screen.
Decades before Decades and Depp, however, the original series introduces scary new American sex symbols, and canonizes nontraditional saints in the church of classic TV. Dark Shadows becomes the first alternative daytime serial, focusing on the lives of a bizarre troupe, instead of relatively regular ones (ages before NBC lets loose it’s a supernatural persuasion with the daytime soap, Passions, airing from 1999 to 2007).
Its audience is rare among soaps – legions of counterculture teens replace their stereos with TVs. It becomes the first non-prime-time soap to be syndicated (eons before the onset of the all-soap channels). It premieres in the mid 1960’s – in a time littered with assassinations, illicit drug use, a sexual revaluation and a misbegotten war; lost souls pine to find themselves in another realm – an era rife with interest in sorcery and the occult. On prime time TV there be witches, genies and monster families. On daytime, a little bit of the same – but not as upbeat.
During the day – when the undead are supposed to be asleep – a vampire rises consistently at 3:30 (and later 4) in the afternoon. His name is biblical, but he’s far from holy (at least in the conservative sense). The character is immortal, but the actor is middle-aged. He becomes a pop phenomenon that few people admit to watching, but one of whom all hold dear as their secret love.
Then, the bat is out on the cad. He winds up on the cover of upscale magazines like Time and Newsweek. Before the term blockbuster becomes part of the movie-going vernacular, Dark Shadows, or “DS,” as it is known in some spectre sectors, spawns a feature film for which hordes line up to see. A less-than spectacular sequel is produced, while the TV series moves forward then finally succumbs to a stake in the hardcore of its appeal.
Still, the show does not die. An updated prime-time addition arises in the early 1990’s. Lunch boxes, books, memorabilia and countless followers refuse to gather cobwebs, and instead gather for bi-annual Dark Shadows Festivals…and not Conventions. For indeed there is a clear amount of joy associated with this darkly-premised TV classic, as its fans reach beyond obligation in their dedication to their favorite show, and rest upon it with true, perpetual celebration.
THE DAWN OF THE DEAD
It’s 1966. DS begins as a soft-focus Gothic soap, with slightly mysterious aura and a few minor ghost tales – a vision that haunts producer Dan Curtis in a dream – an idea that ABC buys into with eager immediacy. But it soon becomes a nightmare for the network. No one watches. It gets pelted in the ratings. Despite the presence of a famed former movie queen in the guise of Joan Bennett and the talented presence of stage-trained actors like Dennis Patrick, the Shadows begins to fade, to hit a brick wall, of sorts, before it even has a chance to rest upon one.
1967: Curtis entertains a second vision. He decides to go full-throttle with the “spook stuff,” and creates a tortured bloodsucker named Barnabas Collins, portrayed with earnest torture by Jonathan Frid. Curtis breaks all the soap rules by instructing his writers to inject something scary into every script, every day. If the vampire-thing doesn’t work, Curtis decides, “…we could always drive a stake into its heart.”
But there’s no need to take such drastic measures. The stakes, so to speak, are too high. The viewers love Barnabas, as he falls first for the kindly Collinwood governess Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke) and then Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), the amiable waitress at the Blue Whale. Audiences reach 15 million, 90% of which are teens – in other words 13,5000,000. Originally intended for a mere two or three week visit, Barnabas instantly becomes a permanent resident of Collinsport, or specifically – Collinwood – the centuries-old mansion with eerie ancestral family ties to the past, namely Barnabas himself.
That’s right. He’s lived before – in the “old house,” on the Collinwood grounds. The new house holds the descendants of today’s Collinwood family. But Barnabas is the one constant in all time periods…be it the 18th, the 19th or 20th Centuries, all of which are visited “at one time or another” on DS (circa 1795, 1897, 1966, 1969-71).
“Through the years,” however, the 45-year-old Frid waxes apprehensive at portraying the frightful lug, the 200-year-old creature of the night that seduces America by day – with biting commentary.
No wonder the actor is nervous at first, about joining the cast. He senses something brewing. A hint of things to come, although he doesn’t know just what. He can’t put his finger on it. Meanwhile, he can’t put his fangs on right. Frid is so manic with anxiety during his first “necking” scene; he slips his fangs on upside down, and chews them to bits. Little matter. For the viewer, it’s love at first bite. They adore him, and the show – taped live every day – despite its awkward camera movements, off-stage wranglings, and flies resting upon many an actor’s nose. That’s part of its charm.
Frid tries to make sense of it all – this happy dilemma he finds himself in. “I suppose women see Barnabas as a romantic figure,” he says years later. “Because I played him as a lonely, tormented man rather than a Bela Lugosi villain. I bite girls in the neck, but only when my uncontrollable need for blood drove me to it. And I always felt remorseful later. As to his appeal with the younger crowd, he says, “Youngsters…are looking for a new morality. And he is Barnabas. He goes around telling people to be good, then suddenly sets out and bites somebody’s neck. He hates what he is and he’s in terrible agony.
Just like kids today, he’s confused – lost and screwed up and searching for something. I’m a lovable and pitiable vampire. All the girls want to mother me.”
THE YEAR FROM HELL
The show produces its most controversial storyline. It deals with the witch Angelique (played by hypnotic beauty Lara Parker) – who originally put the curse of the vampire on Barnabas – her fellow partner in evil, warlock Nicholas Blair (Humbert Allen Astredo), and the big man downstairs, Satan, to whom both of them report. A cameo by the Devil himself provokes negative mail from viewers. Various interest groups and individual viewers are now convinced that DS is dangerous to the minds of children. Letter-writing campaigns are initiated, complaints from fundamentalist ministers pour in, saying the show is “leading innocent children down the rosy road to Hell.” Even noted psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers states that the series is “indoctrinating our young people into dissociation.”
Parents are apprehensive as their kids identify with Barnabas, a character who “bricks people” in between walls. Some church groups are especially offended when the person being sealed up is none-other-than an evil minister, the tenacious Reverend Trask (Jerry Lacy, future spouse to Julia Duffy, of Newhart). The DS writers opt to back off, labeling Satan, Diabolos…not “the” devil…but merely “a” devil.
In the meantime, the cast is dealing with demons of their own. Some actors are downright frightened, not by the show, but rather the fans. Strange presents arrive in the mail. A gift-wrapped box of live ants labeled, “Appetizer.” A box of cookies to actress Donna Wandrey (Roxanne Drew) – cutout in the shape of tombstones and painstakingly iced with all the actors names.
While the debate rages on as to where the real evil abides, Dan Curtis begins clandestine negotiations with the suits at MGM. The show needs some new blood, in this case – a new monster, one with the hypnotic appeal of Barnabas. The werewolf Chris Jennings has become been popular, but DS craves someone more charismatic. The result is Quentin, a ghost (played by David Selby, later of the CBS prime-time soap Falcon Crest).
In the interim, a few actors grow impatient with their fading screen time, and scant character development. Joel Crothers (Joe Haskell) is so unhappy, he exits for another soap (Somerset). Alexandra Moltke – three years into her five-year contract of playing a once central character in the form of governess Victoria Winters – now complains about her diminishing role in the series. “Victoria is so dumb,” she protests. “All I do is stand around saying, I don’t understand what’s happening. Jonathan (as Barnabas) has hypnotized me into eloping with him, tried to cut off my boyfriend’s head to stick on that goofy monster they made (Adam), even sent me hundreds of years into the past during a séance. And I still haven’t figured out that he may not be quite normal.”
Never really satisfied with the limitations of her role, Moltke frequently requests to be given another character, a villainess, or at least someone with a dark side. The opportunity never arises. So she marries in real life a young lawyer named Philip Isles – a very Collins-like heir whose late grandfather founded the famous Lehman Brothers. Now she’s expecting. A pregnant Victoria Winters doesn’t do. She’s released from her contract. Betsy Durkin plays Vicky for a few weeks; Carolyn Groves for a few days. But it’s not the same. They’re never really accepted by the audience. The character of Vicky is never seen again.
But the audience can see through Selby’s spectred Quentin. The handsome DS addition is a feast for the eyes. He first appears as a ghost in present-day 1969, and Quentin’s Theme – heard every time he materializes, becomes a Top 40 hit. The show once again journeys to another period from the past. This time: 1897 – when Quentin is very much alive. He’s the womanizer of this era Collins family – and again, the viewers eat ‘em up, especially the female watchers. The Partridge Family has David Cassidy. Dark Shadows has David Selby. They both appear side-by-side on Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine. What’s more, Selby’s Quentin becomes just as popular as Frid’s Barnabas – and Jonathan couldn’t be more relieved.
MORE TO COME (including “The Mayhem of the Macabre”) later this week!
In addition to his work as an author, and TV producer, Herbie J Pilato is the Founder and Executive Director of The Classic TV Preservation Society, a formal 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to bridging the gap between popular culture and education. For more information, log on to www.ClassicTVPS.blogspot.com.