Saturday, October 11, 2008

MIDNITE SPOOK SHOWS were a unique and spooky fixture across America from the late 1920's to the last gasp in the late 60's-early 70's. They were a strange amalgam of 19th century "magic lantern" shows, the Victorian spiritualist fad, vaudeville, magic shows and midnight horror movie showings. I was just re-reading an eminently appropriate book for Halloween: Mark Walker's celebrated GHOSTMASTERS tome in which he delineates the origins and major practitioners of this sadly defunct fun fest. This was the first real book on the subject I ever came across and it's fairly indispensible to someone, like me, who was too young to ever have experienced this spooky phenomenon. I would heartily recommend picking up a copy for a glimpse at this very under-represented aspect of the horror genre we all love.
What could have been more fun (especially around Halloween or that other favourite midnite spook show day Friday the 13th) than to venture forth late at night to your local movie palace (they were still operating then) to shiver and snicker at a midnite spook show?!? On the whole, every single spook show practitioner was a magician first who decided to take a sideways step into spook shows. Magicians and magic acts have mostly made me yawn but the midnite spook shows spiced things up by including at least one horror movie as well as many horror-themed events. Then, of course, there was the "blackout" as a grand finale: all the lights would be extinguished while glow-in-the-dark phantasms (phosphorescent paint) and ghostly light effects would combine with costumed monsters running into the audience and creepy crawlies climbing all over you. Phantom spider webs would brush up against you or a member of the undead might plant a clammy kiss on your cheek. William Castle would carry on much of this spirit with his gimmick movies that would feature a skeleton cranked out over the audience's heads or wiring a seat with a "Tingler" buzzer. By this time, spook shows were fading fast as the "more sophisticated" audience would find the horror movie the main attraction instead of the ghostmaster's live performance on stage with an incidental horror film thrown in following his show.
Many consider Elwin Peck to be the (for the most part) daddy of midnite spook shows. Taking the name "El Wyn", Peck was a mentalist and magician who, sometime around 1929 got the idea of combining magic with horror elements and a scary movie. El Wyn's Midnite Spook Party was the first wildly successful spook show to play movie theaters always at midnight. Peck's innovation is that instead of emphasizing the magic act he emphasized the ghosts and goblins. Naturally, the theater owners loved it because it allowed them to make money while their theaters would usually be closed for the night. Often the ghostmaster would split the take at the door with the management. El Wyn, unlike most of the spook shows that followed, played the horror movie first and then came out on stage impeccably dressed and make a short speech about the actual ghosts in the theater. He performed many tried and true magic acts: "Spirit Slates" which provided automatic ghost-writing, floating objects and other illusions. To conclude his show, El Wyn would commence with the blackout. As all lights went out, El Wyn ignited a burst of flash powder which would serve to temporarily blind the audience as well as causing the elaborate spooky backdrop to glow in the dark. There were skeletons dancing to macabre music, floating skulls, disembodied faces and ghostly apparitions flying over the audience's heads and flitting down the aisles. El Wyn concluded the fun by firing a pistol as a signal for the lights to come back on. El Wyn was so successful that people would be spilling out into the streets unable to get in. And this was during the Great Depression. Spill over would often require that two separate theaters feature El Wyn's spook show at the same time. Start times would be staggered so that while one theater audience was watching the horror film, El Wyn would be performing live on stage at the other theater. Then, when his act was over he would hotfoot it over to the second theater just as the movie was ending to begin his show all over again. Peck made so much money, in fact, that he retired from spook show performing in the late 30's! But by that time he had many successors.
One of them, Wreford Price, was handpicked by El Wyn to continue on as his secondary spook show headliner. Price took the name of Greystoke the Magician and was taught everything he knew by Peck. Due to the tremendous demand for El Wyn's spook shows, Peck employed Price to handle the demand by performing the same act in venues El Wyn couldn't fit into his schedule. Learning all the secrets from the master, Greystoke went forward with his own midnite spook show with El Wyn's blessing. Price had been a successful magician before he ever heard of "spook shows" but, upon meeting Peck, began performing first under the "El Wyn" moniker in 1930 before taking the name Greystoke and branching out on his own. He also appeared under other names; most noteworthy as "Ali Baba's Spiritualistic Seance and Ghost Show". In this spook show, Greystoke would also employ the illusion of hypnotizing an audience member, stretching him out rigidly across the backs of two chairs, and smashing a rock on the unaware victim's stomach. Later, Greystoke helmed the "Horrors of Hell" show in which he used the name of Dr. Bey Shan and features scantily-clad beauties menaced by torture devices. Price retired from the spook show circuit in 1955 and died in 1973.
Also around 1929, vaudeville mentalist Maurice Kitchen (1896-1962) was introduced to the spook show concept by his press agent George Marquis (himself to become a spook show headliner later on). Kitchen donned a turban and renamed himself Rajah Raboid; headlining his midnight "Spookeasy" show on Broadway in 1930. Raboid began his spook show seated on stage at a dimly lit table conducting seances to communicate with the dead. He also specialized in spirit writing, mind-reading and the "Spirit Cabinet" illusion. Already a traditional way to end a spook show, Rajah Raboid finished with an uproarious blackout in which phosphorescent ghosts were dangled over the heads of the dark-enveloped audience
Arthur Francisco Bull (1885-1964) sort of stumbled into the spook show business. When a theater was looking for a spook show to pile up the profits, it had no candidates and hired Bull for the job -- even though he had absolutely no experience or expertise in that line. Nevertheless, in only a week "Francisco" had cobbled together an effective midnight spook show of his own which would eventually become one of the most elaborate and popular shows of its kind. Francisco's Midnite Spook Frolic often utilized "spirit painting" in which the audience was encouraged to submit the names of dead celebrities and watch dumbfounded as that celebrity's image magically appeared on a blank canvas. His "Gravedigger's Nightmare" was a lengthy routine set in a haunted house in which objects floated, people were decapitated and ghosts and skeletons appeared. Francisco also specialized in placing a volunteer between two plates of glass and firing a bullet right through them. Another great routine was featured late in Francisco's career: Zemora was an unhappy spirit who would not rest in it's coffin. To the accompaniment of spooky music, Zemora would emerge from it's coffin and remove it's own head. The lights would go out and the glowing cranium would float out over the audience.
Also inspired by El Wyn was Allentown, PA's Herman Weber (1900-1953) whose spook show "Midnite Voodoo Party" was inspired by the William Seabrook's 1929 book "The Magic Island" (also the inspiration for Bela Lugosi's film WHITE ZOMBIE). Weber would connect almost every illusion with black magic and Haitian voodoo rites. The show featured Yamadeva ("the skull with a zombie brain") who would answer questions from the audience. Weber would shrink an audience member's head to the beat of voodoo drums and have two people dressed as a witch and a gravedigger change places in full light (known to magicians as "The Farmer and the Witch" illusion). "The Floating Soul" illusion featured the glowing soul of a robed participant (under the spell of voodoo) leave its body and float high over the audience. Weber's blackout finale was especially tailored to scare the pants off the audience; flying ghosts and snakes causes screams to routinely erupt from the audience. Weber became successful enough to write a book about his ghostly illusions called "Out of the Spook Cabinet".
Another very successful spook show maestro was Raymond Corbin or "Ray-Mond" whose various midnite shows had titles ranging from "Ray-Mond's Ghost Show" to "Zombie Jamboree". Ray-Mond jam-packed his show with wall-to-wall strangeness. The show started precisely at midnight with a flash of lightning and a spooky speech. A routine called "Jungle Voodoo" featured a leopard-skin-wearing lovely dancing to voodoo drums on stage. As she finished, a net was dropped on her as lightning flashed again. However, as the net fell the woman vanished to be replaced by a skeleton whose bones cascaded to the floor. Ray-Mond also did levitations and cremations on stage. Ray-Mond's most famous illusion was "The Beauty and the Beast" in which a practically naked woman was terrorized by a gorilla. The woman would faint and be carried away by the gorilla to a table where the gorilla would rip off her arms and legs, hold them high and toss them to the stage with a sickening thud! Audiences were understandably awestruck and screamed bloody murder as Ray-Mond appeared with his trusty gun to despatch the beast.
One of the biggest of all spook show act's was Dr. Silkini's Asylum of Horrors featuring not one but TWO Dr. Silkini's: Jack and Wyman Baker. Jack had been adopted into the Baker family and began his horror act in the late 30's; utilizing his brother Wyman to perform as Dr. Silkini as well in order to double the possible bookings. And they needed it since the demand was so high. Horror and scares were stressed in the show but they were copiously sprinkled with humourous gags. The stage featured a huge Egyptian desert backdrop as several performers dressed as harem girls assisted Silkini's illusions. A change of set dressing would then transport everyone to Dr. Silkini's mad laboratory complete with a monsterous Igor-like henchman to leap out into the audience to chase patrons screaming up the aisle. Silkini's act also featured hypnotism, ghostly seances and a routine in which he would pass a needle attached to a white ribbon through the stomach of a volunteer; the ribbon would come out red the other side! Stooges in the balcony would scream "Oh, I think I'm going to be sick" and faux vomit popcorn boxes filled with corn flakes onto the audience below. One can only imagine the raucous pandemonium amongst the audience members! Silkini's blackout would commence with decapitations and the building of a Frankenstein monster; then as the monster grabbed the bloody severed head and stepped out towards the audience, the lights would go out as the screams began. Fake bats and dancing skeletons would fly out over the audience. While most spook shows would end with the blackout, Silkini continued with his act after the lights came back on with the "Substitution Trunk" illusion featuring a pirate backdop with costumed assistants. One of the most elaborate spook shows of all, Dr. Silkini in fact had a serious competitor in
Bill Neff, a school chum of actor Jimmy Stewart, apprenticed under spook show headliner Punjab, Hindu Miracle Man (actually fellow magician Jack Clifford) who taught him the spook show ropes. Neff's "Madhouse of Mystery" got underway in midnight theater showings during World War II and heavily emphasized the scary and the macabre and was considered the biggest midnite spook show in the land. Neff in fact even toured with Bela Lugosi himself in 1947 as part of his spook show! The stage curtains opened on a mummy case amongst Egyptian-costumed assistants. Neff appeared in a puff of smoke from out of the mummy case, fully tuxedoed with white gloves which, as he tossed them in the air, transformed into two white doves. Neff's specialty was the "Suttee" or "Burning Alive" illusion in which a beautiful woman was hypnotized and laid out on a slab. Her arm would then slip off the side of the slab and hang down. Neff would place her arm back up on top of the slab, fold up the side of the slab to make a coffin, and promptly set it on fire. Then the four sides of the coffin would be collapsed down to reveal a still-flaming skeleton -- whose arm would naturally slip down once again off the side of the slab as the woman's had originally. Another illusion was the traditional "blade box" trick only Neff instilled it with horror elements: it was Dracula's daughter who entered the box (in the skimpiest of costumes, I might add) to have knives plunged into her as a loud heartbeat was heard throughout the theater. In addition to lady vampires, a gorilla would also rush out into the audience and snatch up a patron (obviously planted). After his blackout finale, Neff would wish the audience "Pleasant Nightmares" as the horror film began. Neff's spook show was widely acknowledged as possibly the best in the country. A story goes that a competitor sent stooges to throw tomatoes and eggs during Neff's performance but they were so impressed with the act that they refused and stayed to watch the whole show.
This immense posting has gone on for quite a while and I've only touched on a very few of the past maestros of the art of the midnite spook show. I haven't even gotten to big favourites such as Dr. Zomb, Kara-Kum (sadly rumoured to have been less than exemplary) or Dr. Evil and His Terrors of the Unknown. The GHOSTMASTERS book may or may not still be in print -- I rather suspect that it isn't -- however you should be able to track down a copy and it's well worth doing so. The days when spook shows reigned -- conjuring the ghost of James Dean, calling up the living Mummy on stage, and giving away a free dead body to one lucky audience member (some reports state that this "dead body" given away was actually a frozen chicken) -- are not likely to ever come again and that's a sad commentary on our society's sense of fun and wonder. It does not illustrate some lack of sophistication on the part of past audiences -- they didn't think the monsters were real any more than we would -- but it only points out the woeful lack of fantasy and imagination to which our world has sunk. If we no longer get a thrill and a smile from the thought of spooky scares and monsters, I weep for the future of civilization.

7 comments:

Cerpts said...

Happy Halloween all! The eyestrain's a free gift!

Weaverman said...

Well, sure looks like you got time on you hands these days! Great article about a phenomenon I knew absolutely nothing abou. My goodness, what a great background for a novel!!!!

Cerpts said...

At least I had time on my hands YESTERDAY, anyway. Glad you liked it. This is a little known but vaguely remembered phenomenon to most people even here in the States. Unless, of course, they're were around at the time. However, pretty much every night around ole Casa Cerptsa is like a midnite spook show. Does anybody know how to get phosphorescent paint off a black cat?????

Cerpts said...

Oh but of course can you imagine the lawsuit-happy, whiney audiences of today encountering these spook shows?!? Pitch dark in the theatre, things flying around... They would have litigated all those midnight spook shows out of existence anyway. "Yes, your honour, I was hit in the eye by a fake graveworm and now I can no longer satisfy my wife."

Pax Romano said...

I miss these kind of events...being just a tad older, I can remember going to these at the old Broadway Theater in South Philly back in the day. They'd have them on Saturdays for the kiddies, and then a late night one in the evening for the grownups, those were the days.

Cerpts said...

You lucky dog! All I can do is read about 'em! That is, unless I show up at Casa Romano with phosphorescent-painted ghosts, rubber bats, in a gorilla suit and planning on decapitating a stooge in the audience before I start a dvd double feature on your big ole TV set featuring CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN and EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS!!!

We may need a cleanup on aisle 5.

chickcomics said...

You should check out the "Spook Show" trading card series at Monsterwax.com, it's filled with gorgeous midnight Spook Show poster cards-- plus many tales of the great Ghostmasters. (If they are still available, as only 500 boxes were made.)