Billy Van, Bwana Clyde Batty, CHCH, Dr. Pet Vet, Fishka Rais, Grizelda the Ghastly Gourmet, Gronk, Halloween, Hamilton, Igor, Mitch Markowitz, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, The Librarian, The Oracle, Vincent Price, Wolfman
“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 to-day. 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!”
As we get older, we inevitably start wondering where our love of certain things comes from. We ponder what could have influenced us in the early days of childhood. Every October, I shift into full on horror-mode, both here on the blog and on Twitter. And at some point, I asked myself the question, “Why are you such a fan of horror? Where did that come from? When did it start?”
As it so happens, I actually know the answer to all of those questions. Here, I’ll show you.
That, my friends, is of course the great Vincent Price. And this is the intro to a little-known Canadian children’s sketch comedy program called “The Hilarious House of Frightenstein”. And I’m quite certain that this is where my love of all things creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky came from. (Also my adoration of Vincent Price, obviously!)
I was so young when I first watched this that when my dad described it to me years later, I didn’t believe that such a show existed. “The Librarian!!!”, he said. “Don’t you remember the Librarian? You loved him when you were little.”
Oh, this explains sooo many things about me.
“The Librarian” was played by Toronto-born actor/comedian Billy Van. In fact, Billy Van played most of the characters on The Hilarious House of Frightenstein: The Librarian, the Count, Grizelda the Ghastly Gourment, Bwana Clyde Batty, Dr. Pet Vet (apparently another favourite of little Wendy), and the Wolfman, to name a few.
The Saturday morning children’s show was filmed at CHCH television studios in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1971. For nearly three decades, it ran in syndication in both Canada and some parts of the US.
If you’ve never seen it or heard of it before, I can’t stress how much you’re missing out on. House of Frightenstein is an absolute television marvel that belongs in a category all its own. The show ran for a staggering 130 hour-long episodes, and the entire thing was filmed in about 9 months. The production quality isn’t super fancy, but honestly, I’m glad. It has that wonderfully dated campy charm that a program from 1971 should have. It was funny and full of life, with a cast of delightfully colourful, deliberately silly monster characters.
Each episode of Frightenstein was made up of a variety of mini segments, and as I understand it, the show was shot completely out of sequence and filmed more or less by the segment, later to be assembled into complete episodes. So one day on set, Billy would put on his Librarian makeup and they would film as many Librarian sketches as they could. The next day, maybe it would be all Grizelda, etc. etc.
There isn’t any real continuing “storyline” in House of Frightenstein, which is actually fantastic, I think, because it means you can watch the episodes entirely out of order. Great for kids. The only continuity is with the general plot: Count Frightenstein and Igor are trying to bring Brucie — their Frankenstein monster — back to life. The two have been exiled to Canada (love it!) from their homeland of Transylvania and can only return once Brucie lives again. The Count/Igor segments make up a good part of each episode, and for me, they also provide the best laughs.
Played by the late South African actor Fishka Rais, Igor is the show’s most lovable character. His larger-than-life personality absolutely bubbles out of the man, whether he’s being chastised by the Count or is excitedly gushing over Dr. Pet Vet’s latest animal companion. He’s slightly incompetent but he’s always kind and he sings a pretty catchy Transylvanian anthem. “Gory, gory Transylvania! Where werewolves and bats will always maim ya…” Truly, Igor was the heart of Castle Frightenstein.
But Hilarious House of Frightenstein wasn’t just for laughs. This was a show for children, and I give huge props to the writing team for some exceptionally outstanding educational segments. The primary one was “The Professor” — played by actual US physicist Julius Sumner Miller.
During his segments, Professor Miller would enthusiastically demonstrate and explain all matters of physics and scientific principles; from describing the properties of magnetism, to how you can drive a straw through a potato. He looked a little like a crazy mad scientist, and I think that was part of his appeal. The key to helping children learn is to get them interested in what you’re trying to teach. The Professor (and the entire show for that matter) really hit on that. They knew that if they presented things in an entertaining and engaging manner, then children would not only tune in each Saturday morning, but would also learn something of value.
Dr. Pet Vet and Bwana Clyde Batty both appealed to children’s love of animals. Batty was a khaki-clad, 19th century British explorer-type, who with the aid of his handy film projector, hosted the segment “Zany Zoo”. What followed was a fantastic video of some exotic animal, with Bwana Clyde Batty narrating, giving the viewer a general biography of the creature, as well as any statistics or interesting facts about them.
“If you’re ever going to shoot anything, you shoot it with a camera. Then you’ve got something you can look at for a long, long time.” ~ Bwana Clyde Batty
Meanwhile, back at the castle, Dr. Pet Vet was bringing in new pets for Igor. Unfortunately, Mr. Sloth — a three-toed sloth who lived in the castle dungeon (we never see him, just hear his growls and roars) — never lets Igor keep them. But that doesn’t stop Dr. Pet Vet from toting in a new animal every episode to show Igor. Dogs and cats, frogs and birds… Dr. Pet Vet was eager to share his love of animals, taking the time to describe each one, and sharing different facts about them for the benefit of the young audience at home.
“Pets are friends.” ~ Dr. Pet Vet
A segment I’m particularly fond of is “Grammar Raid”. The sketch begins with Igor saying something that is grammatically incorrect. The offending error is shown written on the screen. A police siren wails and the Grammar Slammer (the disembodied voice of Billy Van) calls Igor to task for his mistake. The Grammar Slammer Bammer (a big purple monster played by Joe Torbay) is standing by to clobber Igor as punishment for his bad grammar. By the end of the short segment, Igor’s mistake is revealed, and the grammatically correct version of what he said is shown on screen for the viewer. Again, this was a show for children, so I think having a grammar-teaching sketch like this was just brilliant.
Grizelda the Ghastly Gourmet is the show’s only “female” character, and was actually just Billy Van dressed in an elaborate witch costume.
I’m sure all the kids were wild about this one because I think at some point in our childhood we all dumped sand, coloured water, rocks and whatever else we could find into a bowl and pretended to cook a magnificent recipe. Grizleda was giggly and tremendously flamboyant, sashaying around her kitchen like some sort of beauty queen.
“Elizabeth Taylor, eat your heart out!” ~ Grizelda
In what had to be a humorous take on real-life DJ Robert Weston Smith, Billy Van also hosted a musical segment as “The Wolfman”. I don’t know how the show ever got clearance to play all the songs they did (those were the days!), but every episode, you could tune in and hear full length songs like The Doors’ “Love Me Two Times” and “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night, while the Wolfman and Igor rocked out, silhouetted against a hippy, dippy, trippy, psychedelic kaleidoscopic backdrop.
Now, I’m sure this is all well and good, but let’s get to the elephant in the room, shall we? The elephant, of course, being horror legend Vincent Price, and how the heck he ever came to be on some obscure Canadian children’s show in 1971.
In an interview with Richard Crouse, associate producer Mitch Markowitz (who still actively attends events and promotes the show, and who played both the mosquito and Super Hippy on Frightenstein), explained how they made this incredible coup:
“When we went to make the sale to Channel 11, they were interested in the concept of a kid’s horror-slanted show, and they liked the theme; they liked us, I mean, everything looked like it was going to go, but we didn’t get a green light, we didn’t get a contract signed. And we went back to Toronto and thought about this and said how can we guarantee that this is a sure win, if you will. And obviously the idea came out that the way to guarantee that was star value. If we had a big star, Channel 11 being Channel 11 would obviously be all over it. I mean, the only claim to fame Channel 11 had at the time was their movies.
So we started thinking about who we could get and there were only four huge stars in that genre: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, and Vincent Price. And Vincent Price seemed like the best prospect. He was wonderful, he did other movies, not just horror movies, he was articulate and handsome, all the good reasons pointed to Vincent. We got in touch with him, and we told him we were doing a kid’s show, he had never done a kid’s show, he said. We told him we’d get him in and out of the city in two and a half days, and we offered to pay him. So you put all that together and he said, ‘You know what, it sounds interesting, I can do two and a half days.” I don’t think he’d ever been to Toronto, and the thought of doing a kid’s show was quite alluring to him.”
Price served as House of Frightenstein‘s narrator, intro-ing and outro-ing each episode, as well as introducing a lot of the show’s different sketches. His lines were delivered in delightfully dreadful rhyming poetry.
Price was a good sport, donning costumes and using silly props for his bits. In true Vincent Price fashion, he just completely sells it right out of the gate, his enthusiasm contagious, and his sense of fun very obvious.
Markowitz said of Price when he came to work on the show: “He walked onto the set and walked up to each and every guy in the crew on the set and introduced himself in that ‘we’re going to be working together’ and ‘anything I can do for you’, or anything [sort of way], you know. I mean, unbelievable.”
Whether it was the Librarian reading a story with a moral, Gronk bantering with the Count, the Oracle smashing his crystal ball for the thousandth time, or seeing Vincent Price with those ridiculously long-fingered rubber monster gloves riffing about Edgar Allan Poe, House of Frightenstein provided a totally unique blend of horror, humour, hilarity and humility. Because the truth is, you have to possess a certain amount of humility to dress up and tell silly jokes in the hopes of making some children laugh.
House of Frightenstein is a Canadian classic that, I’m sure, was responsible for the life-long obsession with all things monster-related that some of us now have. Even Canadian comic actor Mike Myers has said that he ran home from school to catch House of Frightenstein on TV. And apparently, he credits Frightenstein’s Count Frightenstein and Mini Count as being the inspiration for his Austin Powers characters Dr. Evil and Mini Me.
As far as I’m concerned, everyone on this show was a star, and every segment from Grizelda to Igor to the Gorilla to Super Hippy was necessary to make Frightenstein the horror-ific Canadian staple that it has become.
I can’t stress enough how UNlike anything else on the air The Hilarious House of Frightenstein was. Vincent Price’s charming menace provided the glue for Billy Van and Company’s comedic genius. And what an incredibly talented man he was. Markowitz commented of Van: “He was the most talented actor I have ever worked with.”
As cameraman Dave Cremasco said, Billy was the show. In the short documentary “Return to Transylvania”, Van said that when they began, Frightenstein was about 30% scripted. As time went on, that dropped to 10%, and even went as low as 5% by Van’s estimation. Billy and the other’s ad-libbing skills were second to none.
The Hilarious House of Frightenstein introduced me to the monster genre in a way that no other program, movie, book, or magazine ever could. It influenced me in ways that I’m still discovering to this day, and there will always be a place for it in the dungeon of my heart.
On Halloween, I raise a bottle of Dracola to the lovable monsters of my childhood. To Vincent Price, Fishka Rais, Joe Torbay, Mitch Markowitz, Brucie, Julius Sumner Miller, Billy Van, Billy Van, Billy Van, etc, etc. (You have to see the end credits). Most of you have made an untimely return to your beloved homeland of Transylvania, but the laughs and memories you left behind helped shape generations of twisted monster-obsessed boys and ghouls everywhere. And we love the heck out of you for it.
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.
Until next time, Happy Halloween and unpleasant dreams . . .