Tuesday, August 14, 2012
"In my humble attempt to amuse your fiance, Mr. Harker, I was telling her some rather...grim tales of my far off country."
A short time ago, I saw it was the birthday of the late Fred Stuthman. "WHO DAT?" you say, banjos strumming in the background. Fred Stuthman was Jeepers' Keeper, just the coolest late night horror host on local Los Angeles TV. The third and best host of KCOP-TV's Saturday night program, Jeepers' Creepers. And my first job in the wonderful weird world of showbiz.
I have a fondness in my heart for horror movie hosts. I entertain thoughts of ending my dubious careers doing one locally, but let's back up.
Every major city seemed to have at least one or two late night weekend horror movie hosts, starting in the Fifties. Shock Theatre, Zacherley in New York. Vampira in L.A. Each local, non-network station would have a package deal with some studio for horror films, all ranging from the classic Universal monsters (KTLA, channel 5 in L.A.), to RKO (channel 9), to Allied Artists (channel 11) to bottom drawer Monogram (channel 13). So 5 would have Shock Theatre, 9 would have Science Fiction Theatre, 11 would have Chiller and 13 would have Jeepers' Creepers. To offset the lower quality of the movie offering, more entertainment from the ghoulish host was required. This is why on Saturday evenings in the early Sixties, yours truly would watch Bela Lugosi in The Devil Bat at 10pm on channel 13.
Okay, it's 1964, and this little horror movie nut has moved from Fullerton, California to the virgin oak lined hills of Diamond Bar. I've been making inroads to the worlds of horror, science fiction and fantasy movie making and literature, via The Count Dracula Society and the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. Jeepers' Creepers runs these charming grade B to Z flicks like Bride of the Monster. The current host has replaced the original character Jeepers, played by Bob Guy. After a long run, he is followed by a rare female host since Vampira, called Ghoulita. She is soon followed by Jeepers' Keeper, played by character actor Fred Stuthman. I like this cat. I decide I want to visit the set. How do I do this? Request an interview for my horror fanzine Vampire Castle.
I write the appropriate letter and Lauren Bacall, surprise, surprise...I get an invite to visit a taping at the KCOP-TV studios on La Brea Avenue in magic filled Hollywood. I discover the shows are taped on Monday evenings around 7pm-7:30 or so, and can last till Midnight. Whatever segments work are than intercut into the movie breaks for the following Saturday broadcast. I'm there, man.
So after class on Mondays from dismal John A. Rowland High School, my folks, surprisingly, let me catch a bus from Fullerton into the horrific environs of Downtown LA (NOT the upscale place to be in 1964), catching another bus going up Wilshire Blvd. to ultimately transfer north on La Brea to the sacred studios. Forget after school football. This is MAGIC!
Note, I say Mondays in the plural. This is because my one-off visit begets a regular invitation to the Monday night tapings. Producer James Sullivan asks my opinion of the show and how I would improve it. Can you imagine how a teenage horror fan felt about such a thing? I suggested the horror elements be darker, more gothic. And the comic moments drier, ironic or absurdist, in contrast to the theme of each week's movie offering. This observation made me a part of the crew (non-union of course, really just a glorified intern, but to a 15-16 year old like myself, it was my Disneyland). I really have to thank the producer Jim Sullivan for being so encouraging. This was a wonderful time in Hollywood. Doors were open and talented people accessible. Things would change by the Eighties.
But back to Mondays, 1964:
Fred Stuthman was a theatrical actor. A tall, thin, balding man, with high cheekbones and a Valentine Dyall type of voice. When he put on the Phantom of the Opera style clothes, long black wig, hat and cape, he was quite a commanding figure. A living, breathing Tales From the Crypt, Crypt Keeper image. I think he relished the role. He was very flamboyant in these shows. Other roles he did, he would just disolve or fade into the part. But at this time, he was the best damn horror host on TV, who also became a friend.
My third bus would arrive across the street from the channel 13 studios after 5pm and I would greet the studio guard. Lloyd Thaxton would be doing his daily live dance and music program from one of the two major lower studio areas, which on some shows, was redressed into the the Jeepers' Creepers mausoleum set. I'd head into the make-up room where Fred was transforming himself. This was an amusing situation, as often or not, the musical guests on the Thaxton Show were waiting in that room as well. I met Herman's Hermits that way. In Santa Barbara in the Nineties, Peter Noone lived there as well and I asked him if he remembered being in that dressing room, waiting to go on telly while this man made himself up as monster. "That must have been '65 or '66, wasn't it? You would have been 16, yes?" Possibly. The show lasted from 1962 to 1966. I hung around for the last half.
So this Monday night excursion became a habit. I even forsake some episodes of my favourite network show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E when it was in the Monday night time slot. I felt a slight tinge of remorse seeing a glimpse of a new first season episode on a backstage monitor during taping. Even the Jeepers' crew were UNCLE fans. But more important work was to be done. And thank the pagan gods, summer reruns were to begin, so I could be loyal to both obsessions.
I started creating props for the show. A horror movie friend at the time made a large bat out of coathanger and black cloth. This became a set piece. I added a skull with candle. There may be a foto enclosed of me setting match to prop as Fred prepares for camera. I really loved the fog machine. This technical device for the time, a brown art deco appliance, plugged in with heated Vaseline, ready to spray clouds of smoke...this set the mood. I loved the smell of it, even though it probably wasn't healthy. If a take flubbed, new layers of smoke were added. If they wanted the mists to stay ground level, like a Wolf Man movie, a metal tray was applied to the front of the machine, filled with dry ice. This kept the clouds from rising. Pure magic! The effect was complete. We WERE in the graveyard. Like walking into your favourite Universal horror film.
In an era where home recording was only dreamt of, I have no copies of these Saturday night broadcasts. But I did have my own kinescopes. I would turn off all lights in the den, open the lens of my Kodak 8mm motion picture camera to full, and film off the second black and white TV set on colour stock. Except for the fluctuating vertical lines, this actually worked quite well. I had a small audio tape recorder. If the batteries were strong, it came out adequate. If not, oh, dear! Helium moments in performance playback. I also took my trusty Kodak to the studio and got some lovely on air and behind the scenes stuff in colour. Fred, Jim and the crew. Cool moments. Better than summer camp.
Ultimately Fred left the show and started a serious career. He appeared in a lot of interesting stuff. Check out his resume on IMDB. He worked in what I believe is Clint Eastwood's best film, Escape from Alcatraz. And with Patrick McGoohan. And Fred Ward, whom I got to know in Santa Barbara. He's back to the satanic in The Sentinel and quite exposed as well. He worked with both Sophia Loren and O. J. Simpson in Firepower. He was in Network. I hope some day to catch up on his TV work I missed, like Lou Grant and WKRP in Cincinnati.
As for Jeepers' Creepers, after Fred left, producer Jim Sullivan took over the host role. He became The Creeper, possibly the most horrific horror movie host to date. He looked like he stepped out of an old E.C. horror comic. Jethro Tull meets a Nightmare on Elm Street. Half ghoul, half wino. Daring, but doomed. The show had come to its end.
Over a decade later, I reconnected with Fred Stuthman. I tracked him down doing stage work at the Music Center. He was living in Long Beach and we corresponded by letter. Lots of memories and a wealth of showbiz stories to share. I decided to drop in on him.
The last time I saw Fred Stuthman, I didn't see him at all. He was doing The Crucible at a small theatre in Hollywood. I thought I would surprise him and come down from Santa Barbara, see the show. When I got to the theatre on Ivar, a note was placed on the playbill: "Tonight's performance will be performed by Ford Rainey" FORD RAINEY! This marvelous character actor, who I had JUST HAPPENED to work with in 1973 in King Lear. Is this incredible and bizarre or what?
With the utmost respect to Ford... I turned around and left.