Heyday of the ‘spook shows’


I’ve become interested lately in the “spook shows,” afternoon or midnight shows in theaters big and small during the first half of the 20th century. In these shows, some classic – or not so classic – horror film would be screened, a magician or TV horror host would present a live stage show – often one that included “monsters,” AKA guys in masks – and a “blackout” period wound ensue in which glow-in-the-dark figures would appear to fly through the air above the audience.

I never saw a spook show, although I saw a drive-in showing of “Incredibly Strange Creatures” that included guys in monster masks running through the aisles.

I’m intrigued by spook shows, though, and will likely research them and write more about them here in the future.

In the meantime, above is an ad I found online for a spook show.

It’s possible to figure out a few things based on this newspaper ad.

First, we can tell that this spook show likely happened sometime after May 1958, when Hammer’s “Horror of Dracula” was released in the U.S. That movie starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, of course, and ushered in a new era of horror movies in color. The ad notes that “Horror of Dracula” was the moving playing onscreen

That’s assuming there’s no mistake in the ad, however. The monster faces used in the ad are from “House of Dracula,” the 1945 Universal monster release. That doesn’t mean all that much: The images could have been used for decades.

The ad promised free copies of Famous Monsters magazine, which began publishing in 1958.

dick bennick paul bearer

The show was “presented” by Dick Bennick, who was a TV horror movie host from the 1960s to 1995, although he was in St. Pete after 1973.

playhouse theater st pete

The final bit of information from the ad confirms the St. Petersburg location. the Playhouse was a movie theater in St. Pete that operated from 1928 to 1973.

Wouldn’t it be fun to see this show today?

‘Charlie Chan in The Scarlet Clue’

charlie chan scarlet clue poster

Maybe it’s hard to imagine, or maybe it’s not, but there was a time in Hollywood when minority characters were little-seen in movies and if they were, they were made to look like the crudest and most base stereotypes.

That’s why the four dozen (!) movies based on Earl Derr Biggers’ detective character, Charlie Chan, are so hard to wrap our heads around these days.

And why it almost seemed like an improvement when Hollywood employed a series of white men to play the Asian detective.

In a series of movies that began in the days of silent films and ran for more than two decades, Chan – often accompanied by one of his many offspring – assisted the police in solving murders. By the time of World War II, Chan was an active agent for the U.S. government, hunting down spies and foiling acts of sabotage.

charlie chan scarlet clue lobby card

That’s where we find Chan in 1945’s “Charlie Chan in The Scarlet Clue.”

Sidney Toler takes over in the Chan role from Warner Oland, the Swede (again !) who played the lead in previous entries. He’s aided by Benson Fong as Tommy Chan – filling in for Keye Luke as one of Chan’s sons – and Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown, Chan’s driver.

Chan and Co. are investigating the efforts of spies to steal radar secrets and their investigation is focused on a radio station and a secret lab.

The movie is almost obsessive about its use of media and technology. The mob of suspects are actors in a radio drama. The mystery is all about radar. And when a henchman calls the Big Bad on the phone, the bad guy replies via Western Union teletype.

The comedy relief – and the shrieking – is left to Moreland, who banters with another African-American man – the two finish each other’s sentences, knowingly – almost gets electrocuted by some Frankenstein-esque lab equipment and squeals with terror when the floor drops out of an elevator.

As troublesome as the idea of casting a caucasian actor as a Chinese-American detective is, Toler – like other actors who played Chan – plays Chan as canny and smarter than anyone else in the movie. Yes, he speaks in a kind of pidgin English and employs old Chinese proverbs to mystify those around him. But Chan is played, for the most part, with dignity.

charlie chan mantan moreland

But Moreland’s character is more troubling. I can only imagine audiences laughing uproariously at the actor’s antics, which seem offensive today even if you watch them through the prism of Hollywood’s racial history. Moreland was a popular and talented actor who was best known for these types of “excitable black folk” roles.

“Charlie Chan in the Scarlet Clue” is best viewed as a moment in time, a time when pop culture went through twists and turns and gyrations to sell movie tickets.

‘Age of Ultron’ new trailer: It’s outta there


So how did everybody like Thor hitting Cap’s shield into a pack of Ultron minions?

Or our first hint at Quicksilver’s Eurotrash accent?

Or Tony’s quips?

In other words, there was a new “Avengers: Age of Ultron” trailer today.

May 1. Just keep telling yourself, May 1.

Flashback: Wild world of the Internet!

IBM 1994 internet warning

I’m not sure if this is real, but I saw it surface this weekend and thought it was too amusing to pass up.

It’s supposedly some kind of disclaimer/warning/head’s up/whatever issued in 1994 by IBM for people about to get online for the first time.

Complete with a warning about language or pictures – even some of an adult nature!

Yikes! Ma, hand me the modem!

‘Arrow,’ ‘Flash’ and world-building

arrow atom

I’ve noted here before that the geeks have inherited the earth. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, we prized Famous Monsters and Marvel Comics but were looked down upon by adults for our reading materials; were happy with those lame Marvel superheroes TV cartoons that were very limited animation versions of classic comic books; and thrilled at the random superhero who made his way to TV or movies, even though most of the time the live-action versions weren’t very good.

Now, in any given week, I can watch “Agent Carter” – really good limited series that finished its run a few weeks ago; hope it comes back – “Agents of SHIELD,” a show that’s found its way, and most particularly “Arrow” and “The Flash,” two CW series from the same producers who have taken two characters who might have peaked in the Silver Age and made them intriguing and fun.

Through “Arrow’s” three seasons and “Flash’s” half-completed first season, they’ve introduced so many great comic-book characters – Ray Palmer/Atom, Black Canary – two of them! – and so many bad guys, including Ra’s al Ghul and Gorilla Grodd. Grodd, for Grodd’s sake!

“Arrow” has always done well when its made its Green Arrow character a substitute for Batman -  in the comics, the character originally was a Batman copy. Arrow in “Arrow” has just been asked to succeed Ra’s as the leader of the League of Assassins. It’s an offer that Ra’s made to Batman and it only heightened their conflict over the decades.

Meanwhile, “Flash” has just introduced Grodd. Yes, a telepathic, hyper-intelligent gorilla from a race of telepathic, hyper-intelligent gorillas. “Flash” is much more fanciful than “Arrow” anyway, but the introduction of Grodd takes the series even more into the realm of comic-book sci-fi than it already was.

And, in the process of all this, “Arrow” and “Flash” began building the world in which these shows live.

There’s a lot that’s been said about universe-building in Marvel’s movie and TV universes, but Warner Bros/DC is doing this on TV about as well as it can be done, not just with “Flash” and “Arrow” but with their next plans.

CBS – CW’s sister network – will air a “Supergirl” series this fall and we’ve been told it will share a universe with “Arrow” and “The Flash.” I guess we’ll see if that means cross-network cross-overs. It’s rare but it’s happened before.

Potentially more exciting are CW’s apparent plans to spin off some characters introduced on “The Flash” and “Arrow” into their own series. Plans to have Atom and Firestorm and at least some version of Canary and other characters sharing a weekly series not only sounds like a small-screen “Justice League” or “Brave and the Bold,” but is so damn fun.

We’ll see how all this plays out, of course. The CW shows are doing well but “Supergirl” could tank. Will Superman be the 800-pound gorilla (sorry Grodd) absent from the room, like Iron Man was when “Agents of SHIELD” debuted?

Can too many heroes – or superhero shows – spoil the soup?