Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: September 24

Taped on this date in 1970: Episode 1106


Barnabas Collins decides that the only man who can help him avert the apocalypse is the last man he can trust: himself. Barnabas: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Gerard thinks he has Julia by the short hairs when he dangles a newfangled earring in front of her as evidence that she comes from another time. Her explanation is credible enough to send Gerard away, leaving her time to conspire with Ben Stokes about recruiting Barnabas for the campaign. Ben finds Barnabas in the Old House, saying goodbye to Josette’s portrait… and dominance over his future. As he reasons with the Vampire, the present day version of Barnabas consults with Ben’s descendant.  Surrounded by an insane Carolyn and a suicidal Quentin, Barnabas is compelled to use the I Ching wands to take the battle to 1840. He immediately encounters the vision of Julia‘s grave. 

Dark Shadows is turning to its most forbidden topic: endings. The job of a soap is to perpetuate misery. It resolves one one source only after it slides in another. But this phase of the show is replete with endings, conclusions and assorted apotheoses. We’ve seen Collinwood destroyed, and that’s how the ending begins! How do you top that? That kind of question surges within 1113 with urgent power. It begins with fatalism and then asks, “Is that all you got?” This is the perverse optimism that you find only at funerals. Because when the universe falls apart, the only certainty is change.  

With Barnabas, we even see double! The show continues its audacious presentation of parallel storylines — two different centuries with overlapping casts and one character appearing in both. The most unique acting challenge for Jonathan Frid is playing two different versions of Barnabas, both of whom have their counterparts in the relative future. And Dark Shadows is the only show where the future is 130 years in both directions. This storyline has a bad rap for being confusing. I suppose if you struggle to do things like drop pennies and straighten unknotted rope, you’ll find this baffling. But if you can manage those arduous tasks, 1840 is a pleasure.

Barnabas Collins may be the long suffering and occasionally non-beating heart of Dark Shadows, but Julia Hoffman is its soul. (Drop me a line if you can really explain the difference. But it sounds good.)  Following her into 1840, it’s clear how far she has come. She began as a conniving, intellectually ruthless, arrogant invader. If Collinwood tortures its beloved sons and daughters, you can imagine when an outsider puts it in a bad mood. Julia pays her dues. Now, she is on the other end of that process.  

Her scene at the beginning of the episode is a well-earned tribute to smug. She deflects Gerard’s smarmy interrogation with a cool efficiency that borders on decadent relish. Julia knows that she could die at any point. She knows that she is far over her abundantly-coiffed head. Not only is she fearless, but she has learned to take pleasure in hoisting her enemies with extra petard. Supernatural bullies specialize in lording for bidden knowledge over the rest of us. As Julia frustrates their efforts, her sense of “take that“ is not only admirable, it’s infectious. Had Victoria Winters remained on the show, this is the main character we might have gotten. Although I doubt it. Julia‘s age, gumption, and guile are impossible to imagine with anyone else. We are seeing Dan Curtis‘s dream, after all. Just by way of the real world.

Meanwhile, Barnabas truly turns a corner as he finally takes down the painting of Josette. After all, she let go of him. And she has given him the permission to move on. That’s on her end; this is a matter of his own choice. It involves the sort of courage that people can only show when they too close a tragedy.  There is a grace period in the time immediately following a tragedy, before its burdens become a part of us. Oddly, decommissioning Josette is a job that could only be accomplished by the 1840 version of Barnabas… and the 1970 version of Barnabas. Anything in between had had just enough time to become obsessed with his loss, but not enough experience to contemplate life without it.

Barnabas is speaking for himself and the writers when he boasts, “the word safe has no meaning for me.“  

It’s an extraordinary point of freedom… everything is possible because nothing is possible. It’s the same kind of desperate bravery shown by the producers as they introduce a backwards echo of Pansy Faye, with the nobler ancestor, Leticia Faye. It’s a character whose existence has no practical sense, but has such a poetic ring of truth that pedantic cavils are undone before they can be spoken. Leticia is there because it’s the most interesting continuing character that Nancy Barrett crafted, and because Nancy Barrett intrinsically belongs at Collinwood as its neurotic and self-punishing ray of light.  And who has the time to wallow in trivia when they have a 50 year old soap opera to write about? One of the story’s primary themes is the decay of our aspirations over time.  The introduction of Leticia manages to accomplish this… backwards. Somehow, Letitia is an ancestor of Pansy. And somehow, and it may just be the semiotic impact of a more natural hair color, Leticia feels a little more humane and relatable. 

And she’s not the only double in the episode. Leticia is confident in her use of the supernatural. But Nancy Barrett also plays the vaguely psychic Carolyn in 1113. Her encounter with the paranormal has driven her quite mad, pitting the two characters against each other. Similarly, we have a scene in 1840 where Ben Stokes reasons with his former master to show courage and trust.  This transitions to a scene over a century later, in the same house, where Elliot Stokes shows a newly dawning sense of hesitation and Barnabas must rally him into action. 

Moments before, the 1970 Barnabas is introduced under a looming portrait of himself from haughtier and happier days. He is attached to his chair, Hamleting himself to the point that a skull may appear in his palm at any moment. 

Barnabas is either on the verge of implosion or explosion. He seethes with Stokes’ report on the funerals for Carrie, Daphne, Elizabeth, and the assassinated future of the Collins family, David. These are unthinkably bold and permanent strokes of storytelling, and they engage Barnabas as they engage us. He has spent his second and third lives doubting his place in the future, and it has suddenly passed him by.

It is in this moment that Barnabas truly appreciates the ability that makes him unique. He alone can use the curse of immortality to travel within his own lifespan in either direction. For the trip to 1897, this discovery was an accident. Now, it’s invocation is a mandate.  

Barnabas rallies to a rare moment of decisive and ferocious action at the thought. He can only be haunted by the past for so long. Within the space of just a few lines this gentlemen of the past again becomes the last best hope for the future. A year ago, this might have been executed with a sense of insouciant elan worthy of Alexander Dumas. Frid avoids letting any twinkle spark his eye. Too many people have died. Too many regrets filled the ledger.  Yes, he is answering the call to adventure, but it is with gravitas and respect.  And yet again, the series reinvents itself.  

Too often, he is written off as villain literally defanged after his first few months.  I will admit, he spends a frustrating amount of time doubting his next move.  But even when Barnabas is at his most mournfully indecisive, he is, to me, the Great Man. It’s in scenes like these, today, that we see why. In fact, those other moments of ethical denial and over-intellectualized paralysis are what make episodes like 1113 such a joy. 

And the universe surrounding him seems to be in agreement. Even Elliot argues with him about the risks of such a journey, Carolyn glides downstairs for a late afternoon cocktail and yet another nervous break down as Quentin tries to hang himself upstairs.  As if to prove Barnabas’ point. Once Barnabas tries a tentative trance, the first thing he sees is Julia Hoffman‘s tombstone from 1840. A call to adventure, indeed.

And you wanted to talk about risk, Professor Stokes? Let’s talk about risk.  Risk may be James T. Kirk‘s business. But for Barnabas Collins, it is his very life.  

And I can say the same for Dan Curtis.

This episode was broadcast Sept. 30, 1970.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Press Conference with the Vampire, 1968

Sometime during the fall of 1968, Jonathan Frid conducted a press conference with dozens college and high school newspaper writers. He did this from the comfort of ABC's headquarters in New York City, with only a handful of young journalists in the room with him. Most of the participants spoke to the actor via telephone, courtesy of ABC affiliate WSIX-TV in Nashville, Tenn.

I say "sometime" because it's a little unclear on when this event took place. During the late 1960s, the news media wasn't as entertainment-driven as it is today. Even small town newspapers didn't give much coverage to celebrities when they hit town, often burying them in the back pages of the publication .. when they covered them at all. And even today, syndicated stories tend to run whenever the hell features editors decide they'll run, which is almost always as a tool to fill an editorial hole on a page. Good editors don't kill locally generated stories to make room for syndicated material, which makes researching events like this 1968 press conference a little complicated.

News materials documenting this press conference were published on a scattering of dates during November and December that year, and were edited to exclude direct references to the date of the event (usually a sign that an editor is trying to mask stale content.) A story published in The Tennessean Sun suggests it took place shortly before Halloween, though. "Editors Interview Vampire - From A Safe Distance" was published on Oct. 27. It was the second virtual press conference staged by WSIX-TV, according to the story, but the writer doesn't mention who was involved with the first.

If you've ever read an interview with Jonathan Frid, you pretty much know how the Q&A session went. He spoke about Shakespeare ("My big ambition after doing my job on 'Dark Shadows' is to do 'Richard III' on television," he told the kids) and his adjustment to television acting (“I never thought I would like television,but now I love it. The only thing I don't like about the series is the pressure. The first six months I was uptight every day.”)

"It was really neat," said Mindy Sterman, a student at Hillwood High School. "I just never knew anything like this could be done."

So, yeah ... not a lot of new material here. This is the kind of event that makes for a better podcast than a 10" newspaper summary, but that kind of medium was still decades away. I wonder if any of these kids held on to their recordings of the event?

Below are photos from the press conference. The first shows Frid at ABC in New York City, the second shows writers at WSIX-TV in Nashville, Tenn.

UPDATE: Jim Pierson of Dan Curtis Productions recently unearthed this crisp photo from the press conference in Nashville.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: September 14

Taped on this date in 1970: Episode 1106


When Julia and Willie open what might be the box for Barnabas’ RealDoll, they discover the RealTruth, which may be a RealPain in the neck! Roxanne: Donna Wandrey. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Julia and Willie discover Roxanne’s coffin. Barnabas’ love for her prevents them from killing her. Barnabas traps her in the Old House, pursued by Sebastian, who later opens her coffin and aims a gun inside.  

The show has seven months left. 

A wildly successful storyline in 1897 was followed up by three storylines that command unfavorable comparison. A movie has been released that depicts most of these characters getting killed. They are no longer “just” cultural giants with symbolic weight. They are simply characters. Not icons. No matter how much the public adores them, they are just storytelling pawns for the producers. The show is still successful. It could be argued, though, that it has released just enough grasp on its identity that we can suddenly contemplate the world without it. 

It’s too late in the series for this, and because of that, it’s all the more welcome. Here we are, in the midst of all of this Dark Shadow when... what should break out? Dark Shadows. It was a year ago that the show outgrew its habitat. Like almost any living thing, it had to. After incremental evolutions and explorations, the show found its apotheosis in 1897. And after exploring the wildest potentials of Cold War Gothic storytelling for four years and three different eras, few possibilities seemed left in the genre. 

Besides, they had become their own genre. After four years and a very successful summer of learning to break the rules, they were now in a position to make the rules. So, why not cure Barnabas? Is there anything really left? And if you're going to cure Barnabas, you might as well give Quentin a happy ending also. Even though he's only been around for a bit, it seems like he's earned it. Besides, have we really had a leading man who wasn’t also trying to kill Roger? Or kidnap Maggie? Or constantly avoid Willie's inquiries about why he has yet to make employee of the month when he is, in fact, the only employee?

So, for the prior year (more or less) the show has been basking in its own glow. Yes, let's have some Paul Stoddard. Heck, we can bring Paul Stoddard in and then turn around and kill him. Why not have a snake cult? It gives things a touch of super-spy panache. Heck, let's make a movie and send the rest of the cast into a parallel dimension. Let Thayer have that pencil-thin mustache he's always pining for. 

And it was confident. And it was ambitious. Ans just very vaguely on the launching pad of desperate. And it is now so confident and ambitious that we careen towards the apocalypse by default. Because what's left, really? If the show were a growing person, it has reached the dark and mordant introspection of early middle age. Gerard sits in the center of a postmodern, existential labyrinth, mocking the enlightenment and industrial revolution heroes with rumors of inevitable doom. It refuses to disclose its weapons, much less its terms of surrender. Why should it? It needs no weapons. There are no terms of surrender, because there will be no surrender. Only complete annihilation. 

Gloomy stuff. Compelling, but gloomy. Profound thinking usually goes there with enough self actualization. After all, death and cancellation come for us all, even the undead. The show was drawn from some of the finest works of literature. If literature eventually follows the bleak-but-contemporary highway of modernism, so must Dark Shadows. And we've been trained to accept it over the past year and define Dark Shadows by this woeful Weltanschauung

So there it is. Sulking around Rose Cottage with its Weltanschauung hanging out. And then along comes an all-star tribute to Dark Shadows by Dark Shadows. Almost as if the writers were nostalgic for their salad days, when the biggest concerns revolved around life’s simple pleasures, like a chained coffin containing one of your loved ones. You know, that special someone who may be up for a stake through the heart, or a lifetime of starving imprisonment with the symbol of a dispassionate God burning a hole through their chest, or maybe just a big, warm hug. It's that kind of episode. Beginning in a crypt with stake wielding vampire hunters, it remains faithful to the only sets that may matter — the Old House Drawing Room with Capn’ Matthew Morgan’s Rubbermaid Big Max Love Dungeon behind the bookcase, and another suitably gothic setting where Roxanne’s  coffin has been waiting for this moment,

And of course, being Dark Shadows, that moment ends up being intentionally unintentionally riotous. Roxanne has been a vampire since 1840. So, for 130 years? Which is far longer than Barnabas has been a vampire. Taking into account elapsed time and all, Barnabas has only been a vampire for two or three years. You would think that she would've figured out someplace more secure to sleep it off. Julia and Willie might know one end of a stake from another, but they are not exactly the team that you call in to test an impenetrable security system. I doubt they could cut line at the Stake ’n' Ale salad bar. 

It's hard to tell how many times Roxanne almost dies in this episode. Her coffin is opened constantly. And when it's not opened, there's somebody going in just stand by it and think about opening it. But the same thing happened to Barnabas when Petofi had him as a prisoner. Captors were constantly opening it up, taking the cross off, letting them stretch, putting the cross back on, closing the lid, and then repeating the process all over again. No wonder Barnabas had to sleep in a coffin. He was exhausted. That wasn't dictated by the rules of the supernatural. It was a political statement to his captors. 

If this is full of impossibly active characters who never quite appear. We've already talked about how exhausted Roxanne must be. But the really exhausted and insulted character Has to be Quentin. When Julia comes up with her big scheme to calm Barnabas by confronting him with absolute emotional chaos, she realizes that Willie Loomis isn't up for the job of catering and dĂ©cor. So, completely off stage, she sends for Quentin to help move the coffin. I'm sure he's thrilled. At this point, Quentin has so little to do that he's reduced to schlepping wildly heavy crates offstage. We assume it’s by hand, because I don't think Quentin is the station wagon type in that moment.

It's a teachable moment; check with Julia before giving Liz the keys to the forklift for some big date.

But amidst all of the nostalgia and silliness and morbid merriment, the old-school nature of the episode also serves an important purpose for the plot to come. Even though this is a new world of gods and monsters, so unlike the one just a year prior, it is still inhabited by the heroes who were shaped by that earlier age. And where does it all eventually go? Barnabas loses Angelique after discovering the unalloyed nature of his love. So, everything from there-back to here is a setup for that moment. In a startling fit of maturity, Barnabas muses that he is truly is beyond Josette. 

Why? Josette was just the most proximate cure to the underlying problem: loneliness. If the show is “about” Barnabas, which, let’s not kid ourselves, it is, then his primary concern is the primary concern of the show. It's the most inconvenient of primary concerns. It's one that no one wants to hear about. Again, loneliness. I think this is what drives Barnabas. It rests balefully under the veneer of the pursuit of Josette. And it's tendrils stretch across the storylines. The show begins with Elizabeth, whose loneliness is self-imposed, sending for an orphan to tutor a motherless child who, for all we know, has been making his own braunschweiger sandwiches for breakfast since he was four. The entire program deals with the lonely hangover of the fellowship party that ended a decade or two before the show even began. 

Stake or seduce, Barnabas? The indecision he faces is emblematic of the entire program. Is Roxanne the ultimate companion, or is she the opportunity for ultimate redemption? Is she the only one who can truly understand the pain of his existence, is she just close enough to seem familiar, or does her ruthlessness demand elimination? Barnabas is paralyzed by these considerations. And it's an important opportunity to just pause for a moment.

It’s only the smallest grand decision of his life. 

This episode was broadcast Sept. 21, 1970.
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