Monday, September 28, 2015


The monsters of Hollywood’s golden age disappeared because they stopped being scary.

As obvious as it sounds, this fact is rarely addressed by fans of the genre. It feels almost sacrilegious to even type those words, but it’s true … the average U.S. citizen in the post-war years had little to fear from werewolves, vampires and their likes. The horrors of World War II shattered all taboos, oftentimes with such terrible results that they still can’t be discussed in polite company. Victor Frankenstein couldn’t compete with Auschwitz, Unit 751 or the ruins of Hiroshima.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that these monsters quickly became fodder for humor. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN proved to be the swan song for Universal’s original monsters, leaving Bela Lugosi to match wits with the likes of Milton Berle, Paul Winchell and Red Skelton.

Instinctively, I’m very protective of these classic characters. It's my gut response to offer some kind of critical defense of America’s growing bemusement with horror during those years ... a few words to frame this cultural shift in a way that paints these characters in a more heroic light. But my instincts here are wrong, though. We weren’t laughing with these monsters, we were laughing AT them. It couldn’t be another way, because those classic movies were never joking.

Exhibit A.
Things haven’t changed since then. Dress a child up as the Frankenstein monster and you’ll get a lot of ooohs and aaaahs from grownups. Dress that same child up as Leatherface and those responses will become a lot more muted. The classic monsters are safe. They’re so safe you can even let them babysit.

But I’m actually OK with that. I can’t explain why, but I’m perfectly comfortable with Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf-Man as both symbols of legitimate horror, and as quaint Halloween party decorations. I think their occasional failure to disturb is a strength — not a failure — of the characters. Which is why something like the 1959 album “Spike Jones in Stereo: A Spooktacular in Screaming Sound” doesn’t offend my every sensibility.

The album might even be the greatest recording of its kind, thanks in no small part to Spike Jones. As with Ernie Kovacs, Stan Fregerg and Steve Allen, Jones was one of those comedians perpetually ahead of the curve. His contemporaries spent much of their careers just trying to catch up.

And there’s no filler on “Spooktacular,” either. When the "monster album" boom hit a few years later, many producers leaned heavily on covers (“Monster Mash,” “Purple People Eater,” etc.) to help fill albums. Jones cut 10 lean, original tracks for his 1959 offering. And he brought along some amazing talent. While their names might not ring any bells, few people alive during the last 50 years have not heard their voices:

Paul Frees got top billing in the cast, and rightfully so. If you have a few hours to spend, take a look at his massive list of credits at IMDB. His most famous role is that of Boris Badenov on the original ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, but his resume suggests he had a few clones running around. Because there’s no way one guy had time to do that much work, right?

Thurl Ravenscroft also lent his booming voice to the production. The guy’s voice is as unreal as ever, and his vocals on the track “Teenage Brain Surgeon” makes it the best song on the album. Ravenscroft’s list of credits is as thorough as Frees', so its unsurprising that they occasionally overlap. But you probably know him best as the voice of Tony the Tiger, as the singer of “You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” or from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Haunted Mansion” rides at Disneyland.

Loulie Jean Norman and horror host Zacherley promote "Spike Jones in Stereo" in 1959.
Completing the vocal trinity here is Loulie Jean Norman, who is credited on the album as playing “Vampira.” Her list of credits might not be as lengthy as her co-stars, but they’re no less significant. You can hear her voice in the themes to “The Carol Burnett Show,” the Tokens song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and provided the signing voice for Diahann Carroll’s character in PORGY AND BESS.

Oh, and that’s her you hear singing in the original theme to STAR TREK.

NOTE: The vinyl edition of "Spooktacular" has been out of print for quite a while, but the MP3 version of the album can be downloaded from Amazon HERE.

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