Saturday, October 18, 2008

HOORAY FOR HORRORWOOD! : A Tribute To Forrest J. Ackerman & Famous Monsters of Filmland

Like father, like son... my boy, Ryan, and his first taste of FAMOUS MONSTERS

My mother always said the same thing during our monthly trips to Brown's Drugstore on Charlotte Avenue. "I don't know... you really shouldn't dwell on that stuff." Then she would peek into the backseat of the car, see my stricken expression, and sigh in defeat. "Oh, okay... but don't let your little brother get his hands on it."

Grinning from ear to ear, I would hop out of the car and run inside. I'd head to the two-tiered magazine rack. The periodical that I desired was always in the lower section, in the back, lurking amongst the shadows. It would beckon to me in bright blood red or day-glow green letters; that title that made my heart pump wildly and sent a rash of goosebumps across my flesh. MONSTERS!

Or FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND to be exact. I always dispensed with the "Filmland" part and simply called it FAMOUS MONSTERS. Then, like kneeling before the Holy Grail itself, I would drop to my knees and slowly inch the magazine from the others it was hiding behind. One of the thrills of buying a copy was discovering which monster would be featured on that month's cover. It could be anything from Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolfman, or the Phantom of the Opera, to King Kong, the Fly, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Once it had been the movie poster for FROGS... a humongous green toad with a human hand protruding from its gullet!

Then it was off to the sales counter to pay for it with my hard-earned allowance money. The proprietor of the drugstore, Mr. Brown, was usually working behind his pharmacy counter, but it seemed as if he was always there at the cash register to ring me up whenever I came in. He would say something like "Looks like a good one this month, Ronnie" or "You know, I saw this movie in the theatre when it was released". I was sort of in awe of Mr. Brown, not for being so nice and non-judgemental of a kid and his monster magazine, but for another reason. He looked almost exactly like Forrest J. Ackerman. The same average looks, the same horn-rimmed glasses, the same cheesy little mustache. And he seemed to genuinely love movie monsters.

In case you don't already know, Forrest J. Ackerman was the driving force behind FAMOUS MONSTERS magazine. The editor, the writer of most of the text, the presenter of the tons upon tons of rare black and white movie stills that made up the lion's share of the periodical. We monster fans simply referred to him as Forry or Uncle Forry, as he liked to be called. He really didn't seem like an adult at all. There was no strict "grow up and act your age!" nonsense from Forrest J. Ackerman. He was more like a big kid with the same interest and fascination with science fiction and horror that we possessed. And he lived in the coolest place on the face of the earth. The incredible Acker-Mansion.

The Acker-Mansion was located in Los Angeles and boasted 18 rooms packed to the ceiling with monster movie books, films, and memorabilia. Like stop-action models from King Kong and The Lost World, the brainy alien mask from This Island Earth, and the coup de grace... Dracula's cape and ring, presented to Forry by Bela Lugosi himself. That was another thing about Forry. He knew EVERYBODY. Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney, Jr., as well as famous writers and behind-the-scenes movie folks like Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen. And he loved to share his experiences with us through FM. It made us feel like we were a part of it all.

Forrest J. Ackerman at the original Acker-Mansion

I remember one summer day -- I reckon I was ten years old -- me and some of my buddies were hanging out on the front porch. It was pouring down rain, so there wasn't much to do but talk and cut up... and read a few well-worn copies of FAMOUS MONSTERS. We were just shooting the breeze and then we started cooking up this crazy scheme, the way boys our age would do when we were bored out of our skulls and then suddenly got excited about some wild idea that popped into our heads. We discussed hopping a freight train (the railroad tracks were just across the highway) and riding it clear to California. We would hunt down Forry and knock on the front door of the Acker-Mansion. "Come on in, boys!" he would say, happy to see us. "Let me give you a grand tour of the place." We would spend hour upon hour exploring every nook and cranny and listening to Forry's wonderful stories. That night we would unfurl our sleeping bags and slumber in the creepiest room of the Acker-Mansion, surrounded by the eyes of a thousand monster movie relics. It was the perfect fantasy for four boys who read FAMOUS MONSTERS almost as religiously as the Bible. As far as I know, none of us ever made it to California. And none of us ever darkened the door of the Acker-Mansion.

But I did meet Forry once... if only for a few brief moments. It was during the first World Horror Convention in Nashville in 1991. On the Saturday afternoon of that fun-filled weekend, some fellow horror writers and I (novices all) decided to check out a suite on the fourth floor, which displayed dozens of detailed monster models, many sculpted lovingly by their creators. When we walked through the doorway, we were shocked to find two older gentlemen standing there, hanging out and shooting the breeze... like monster-loving boys stranded on a rainy front porch. It was Forrest J. Ackerman and author Robert Bloch. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted! I gathered up my nerve, approached the pair, and -- like some geeky fan-boy -- talked to them for a moment or so. They were both very gracious and kind. Looking back, I would wish nothing better now than to possess a time machine and make a little trip back to that chance meeting, toting a copy of FAMOUS MONSTERS, a copy of PSYCHO. an ink pen, and a camera with me. Still, I have my memory of those few wonderful minutes in the presence of greatness in the monster model room of that WHC hotel.

Even now, after all these years, I get out a few remaining copies of FM and embrace those cherished memories of my boyhood. Starting with the letters to the editor, moving on to those wonderful articles of Forry's with their abundance of puns and enthusiasm, followed by page upon page of fun ads for everything from 8mm horror movies to detailed Don Post monster masks. As I turn the pages, I recall those wonderful Saturday afternoons of my youth, putting together an Aurora glow-in-the-dark monster model and enjoying the most recent issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS.

Forry wearing his prized possession, Lugosi's Dracula Ring

Forry has long since retired from the publishing business. He has sold the world-famous Acker-Mansion and, at age 92, now lives in a smaller residence that he affectionately calls the Acker-Mini-Mansion. He still gives appreciative fans weekly tours of what is left of his collection, which still includes Lugosi's cape and Dracula ring.

There is one thing I forgot to mention about those monthly trips to Brown's Drugstore. Every now and then, when I reached the door to go inside, I would turn around and see Mama watching me from the car window, grinning from ear to ear. For, you see, I found out later in life that she was just as big a horror fan as I was, although she never let on. I reckon that was her secret passion.

I often wonder if she indulged herself while I was away at school. If perhaps she snuck into my bedroom, found the latest copy of FAMOUS MONSTERS, and retired to the living room. Who knows? Maybe she turned off Days of Our Lives, curled up on the couch, and spent a little quality time with Forry and the gang.

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