Monday, June 13, 2016

Donna Wandrey: "I Am a Cult," 1985

Spoiler Alert: The stars of your favorite television shows rarely know as much about the programs as their fans. It's a frustrating fact of life for many fans, who refuse to believe that William Shatner never dashed home from work on Thursdays to watch STAR TREK. This dissonance is difficult to resolve for some people, who are capable of feeling insulted when an actor doesn't share in their fascinations with equal zealotry. There are nasty Facebook pages devoted to trashing celebrities because of real or imagined slights suffered by their former admirers. Yes, there are even fan groups devoted to hating specific cast members of DARK SHADOWS, which is legitimately sad.

In 1985, actress Donna Wandrey penned a first-person account of her visit to the "World Federation of Dark Shadows Clubs" in Newark, N.J., the previous year. The diary-style column was published in The Easter Review. It's a self-serving piece, which is fine because she's the one taking the time and trouble to write it. It might also include a few factual errors, which is also fine. Wandrey's relationship with DARK SHADOWS is not the same as yours ... or anyone else's, for that. If you're looking to score some imaginary Internet points by nitpicking a 31-year-old feature story in the comments section, let me warn you that nobody will be impressed.

Originally published in The Eastern Review, May 1985

Fourteen years ago, a daily soap opera about vampires
went off the air. That was the beginning.

Eerie music up. Rain effects. Fade in on a house rising out of the mist.

9 AM. It was a day like any other day. I summoned the dead, transformed myself, and controlled the elements. As usual, I ate nothing, sustained by last night’s rare cuisine. I donned my dress and stockings slowly, wishing I could see myself in a mirror. But, of course, no glass could catch my reflection. I should have been resting, gathering my strength for the evening. I am by nature a night person. But November 11, 1984, dawned bleak and stormy. As the fog rolled in (oh, if only I could pray!) it would shield me from the deadly rays of the sun.

The order had been delivered weeks ago. A command performance. I was obliged to attend the 1984 convention of the World Federation of “Dark Shadows” Clubs.

Thirteen years had passed since I played Roxanne Drew on television. Thirteen – a very powerful number in the occult. And a very good year for the resurrection of the only “soap opera” (now more kindly referred to as “daytime drama”) to go into syndication. At the Gateway Hilton in Newark, New Jersey, 750 fans from across the country had gathered to celebrate the undying spirit and continuing power of “Dark Shadows.” How could an ex-vampire refuse?

Donna Wandrey and Jonathan Frid.
1 PM. My bodyguard had arrived. The limousine had been dispatched. As we headed silently westward, I thought about how the people I was to meet would tend to my special needs. Well, after all, they had traveled miles to see me and had paid quite a lot of money to boot! They had brought their families and their scrapbooks, their cameras and their memories. And they had already waited two and a half days for the privilege.

2 PM. Hotel security led me, my bodyguard, and an entourage of convention organizers through the maze of storage rooms and kitchens surrounding the Essex Room. I could hear an introduction being made, and then a flying wedge formed to push me through the crowd and up onto the stage. I was ushered in by cheers and a standing ovation set to flashbulbs popping, film whirring through cameras, and fresh tape being clicked into recorders. A chair, a glass of water, and a microphone awaited me. And an hour’s “Do you remember when …?” question-and-answer session that would rival the defense of doctoral dissertation.

An incredible amount of material is published about the show and its stars. This material s sent, via subscription, to a half-dozen newsletters and magazine that retails the information to eager fans around the world. Considering that the show went off the air on April 2, 1971 – and would presumably go the way of all ephemeral daily serials – who would have thought?

But thousands upon thousands of letters do seem to make a difference. When “Dark Shadows” returned for a very brief run in 1978, devotees went wild. My personal fan mail from the show, which had never stopped, increased by leaps and bounds. And my character hadn’t even been introduced to the program yet!

With a scarcity of fresh half-hour shows available for local station re-runs in the early eighties, “Dark Shadows” became a breath of ghoulish air. To be sold into syndication, a show needs a backlog of about 100 episodes. That’s about three to four seasons in prime time. This allows the five-day-a-week play schedule necessary for syndication. But, with the networks canceling new shows at the drop of a ratings point, a faithful audience is never established, and there simply aren’t enough shows completed to make rerunning them profitable. Programs are quickly forgotten and laid to rest in that great film can in the sky.

“Dark Shadows” was and is pop culture, nostalgia for the adults who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies. Unlike other soaps, it was on after school. Kids got more exercise running home from school to watch our never-ending horror show than they did in gym class.

In 1966 – while I was home from my freshman year at Midwestern college and agonizing about having just turned 19 – the producer Dan Curtis, as the legend goes, was having a mysterious dream. It was the inspiration for a very different daytime drama. He cast Joan Bennett as the mistress of Collinwood, a brooding manor on the coast of Maine near the sleepy town of Collinsport. The wealthy Collins family employed a young governess. And so on June 27 began what promised to be the continuing saga of an updated Jane Eyre.

The period costumes were breathtaking. The sets were elaborate and well dressed. Attention to detail was astounding. All this and the first 26 weeks were in black and white! It was certainly different. It had its faithful viewers. But it wasn’t the stuff cults grow up around. Then, after about a year, there appeared a perplexing new character. Barnabas Collins. Jonathan Frid, a Shakespearian stage actor, was cast to play this mysterious cousin from England. When it became apparent that Barnabas was a full-fledged (albeit reluctant) 176-year-old vampire, the audience was hooked. Pass the popcorn and gather around the set! A scared viewer will surely tune in again tomorrow.

3 PM. Who started the business of autographs? I personally think it was around the time of Moses with those tablets: during his little chat with God. Moses surely decided to get the Lord’s autograph in the form of the Ten Commandments. However it began, autograph hunting has given a new meaning to waiting in line. Over 600 people thought it was just delightful to stand for up to an hour, with kids in tow, to exchange a few words, perhaps take a picture, and go home with an autograph. I signed my name to “Dark Shadows” scripts, paperbacks, T-shirts; casts, old fan-magazine covers, and full-color 8-by-10 glossies of my in my blue nightgown “lost in the woods” near Collinwood. I was told I “hadn’t changed at all” by the over-30 set, who were now watching the show for the second or third time around. Now their children were caught up in “Dark Shadows” for the first time. All of them were eager to meet Roxanne, a woman created in a laboratory from parts of many women Barnabas had loved over the centuries.

A real vampire, named Misty, patiently waited her turn. She wanted no autograph, but she did want to talk about the difficulties of portraying a vampire. I was handed a cup of coffee and several fountain pens. Outside, the storm continued. As Misty thanked me for my performance, I commented on what a perfect day this was for a vampire reunion. The weather suited us. She seemed pleased.

The arrival of Barnabas was a turning point in the popularity of “Dark Shadows.” As the episodes revealed more and more of the Collins’s family skeletons, the style of the show changed to accommodate the newand often bizarre story lines. It began to resemble a 1940s horror movie. The scenic artists, set decorations, and prop crews were asked to do the impossible on a daily basis. The show required scientific laboratories, ghostly crypts, spooky graveyards, workable coffins, trick mirrors, floating furniture, numerous explosions and fires, and an almost endless supply of cobwebs (which were literally spun from a gluey material with the aid of a large electric fan). The makeup, hair and costume people had their own horrors to create. They had to make fangs for vampires, and bite marks and dripping blood (lots of blood) for the victims. They were required to fashion wigs and bears for many of the cast members to make them look more 1790 than 1970. And then there were the real hair problems – the werewolves. Costumes were needed for witches, goddesses, zombies, spirits, warlocks, disembodied heads, and Frankenstein-like monsters.

And in the most peculiar and enticing innovation of all, “Dark Shadows” began to “time-travel.” In a unique plot device, used to introduce new story lines and characters, the audience was allowed to meet the Collins’s ancestors. From its main plot line in 1795, the show traveled – for weeks at a time – to 1692, 1840, 1995, and, most bizarre of all, to another 1840 sequence, which everyone connected with the show called “Parallel Time.”

Throughout the show’s five-year run, the writers and directors called upon every cliché used in every Hollywood horror film. The fans loves it and began camping out in front of the studio on New York’s West 53rd Street just to catch a glimpse of their favorite character’s 7 a.m. arrival or 5:30 p.m. departure.

The glue that held “Dark Shadows” together and drew the audience in every day was the character of Barnabas Collins. Portrayed as a multifaceted tragic figure, this vampire started out as a dashingly romantic innocent and a very trusting man. This made him all the more horrible when he began killing his first victims. But a vampire’s work is never done, and when Barnabas rose from his coffin each sunset, TV sets clicked on to follow his desperate search for supper.

The fans expressed their appreciation with a flood of gifts. I remember the shock of opening a batch of cookies carefully cut out in the shape of tombstone and painstakingly iced with all of our names. Those same fans also began clamoring for personal appearances by the cast. I once spent two grueling days at an auto show sitting on the hood of a green Cadillac on a turntable and signing autographs along with Tiny Tim, Miss Vicki and Arnold the Pig. Magazines came to chronicle the details of what was being heralded as a cult soap opera. My own favorite fiction was entitled “How God Saver Her From Blindness.” Even the announcement of my impending marriage years later required fewer phone calls to my far-flung family than it did the breaking of that particular story.

4 PM. The convention was winding down. Still, the fans didn't want to leave. For three days, the half-hour taped episodes of the show and the two "Dark Shadows" movies had been showing continuously. There  had been a vampire symposium, a  memorabilia auction, arts and crafts shows, costume and trivia contests, and the guest appearances with autographs and photo sessions. Finally the rame to have dinner with Jonathan Frid (a.k.a. Barnabas) was about to take place. I wished I could have won! It's not often you get to have dinner with the man who turned you into a vampire.

"Tell us a little about yourself," the booming voice of the unseen director at the final studio interview for the part of Roxanne had said. I was clearly too chubby and too tall to play this sweet ingenue. I had short red hair, a decidedly un-Hollywood nose, and a 1930s style of dressing. I was much more Lucille Ball than Ali MacGraw.

The camera's red light went on. This was it. Two slim. long-haired blonds stood to my right. Two svelte, long-haired brunets stood to my left. When my turn came, I said the only thing that made sense to me. There weren't many short-haired redheads on TV, and therefore I should get the part. I was hired the next day. I lost weight but I kept everything else. And after weeks of silence, Roxanne finally rose from the laboratory table, a luscious creature in a diaphanous blue nightie (only some of the lusciousness the hidden handiwork of the costume department). Her first words were "I ... I... I ... can speak!" Is this not the stuff legends are made of? You bet it is! And Barnabas, obviously taken with my witty repartee. fell in love from 1970 to 1971.

The World of Dark Shadows, April 1985.
I eventually got some clothes — velvet capes, voluminous gowns, and trailing scarves to cover my bite marks and even long, flaming curls for a while. And then the red-letter day came—my own fangs and coffin. I wandered the halls and forests of Collinwood. attacked the local reverend, and picked up a red-haired sister for a few months. I read tarot cards; was slapped around, tied up, and locked in a closet; went up in flames; and was reduced to a pile of ashes when I couldn't get back into my coffin by sunrise.

Actors dread the death of their characters on a soap opera. It means the end of their contracts. But not on "Dark Shadows." I simply became the ghost of Roxanne.

Despite high ratings, the show went off the air on April 2, 1971. There are many stories about why it did: network budget cuts, the producer's wishes, contractual disputes. Very few people know the truth of it. But the mystery surrounding the termination of "Dark Shadows" only adds, I'm convinced, to its continuing mystique and ever-growing faithful audience.

5 PM. The limo had arrived. The last autographs had been penned, the final pictures taken, the thank yous and good-byes exchanged. My bodyguard and I were being driven back through an interminably bleak and rainy dusk to New York City. Or, perhaps, to the coast of Maine. It didn't matter. They'd find me wherever I went. Because "Dark Shadows" lives. And as long as it does, I am a cult.

Theme music up. Fog effects. Main titles to crawl over shot of the Collins family crypt. Fade-out.

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