The Hilarious House of Frightenstein
|The Hilarious House of Frightenstein|
Title card for the show
|Created by||Ted Barris, Ross Perigoe|
Julius Sumner Miller
|Theme music composer||Harry Breuer, Gary Carol and Pat Prilly|
|Opening theme||"March of the Martians"|
|Country of origin||Canada|
|No. of episodes||130|
|Producer(s)||Rafael "Riff" Markowitz|
|Camera setup||Single camera|
|Running time||~48 minutes|
The Hilarious House of Frightenstein was a Canadian children's television series produced by Hamilton, Ontario's independent station CHCH-TV in 1971. It was syndicated to television stations across Canada and the United States and occasionally still appears today in some television markets. In Canada, the series is currently airing on Space, TV Land Canada, Drive-In Classics and MTV2.
A quirky sketch comedy series that included some genuine educational content among the humor, the show's cast included Billy Van, Fishka Rais, Guy Big, Mitch Markowitz, Vincent Price, and Julius Sumner Miller. Van played most of the characters on the show.
All 130 episodes were made in a single nine-month span starting in 1971; the scenes with Price and Miller were all filmed within one summer.
The production started with Riff Markowitz envisioning the initial concept and then inviting a room full of creative friends to a spaghetti and champagne 'brainstorming' dinner party in his double suite at the Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto. Markowitz directed the brainstorming session while his assistant Roger John Greco made notes of everything said.
Previously CHCH had broadcast two other Markowitz shows: The Randy Dandy Show for children, starring Rafael Markowitz as Randy Dandy, who sold soda pop and potato chips on the side; and The Ed Allen Show, an exercise program. CHCH approved the production of Frightenstein to take advantage of their station's new ability to reach into the Toronto market for advertising dollars.
Randy Dandy's soda pop venture was later taken up by the Count when he promoted Dracola from the castle to raise money for his Brucie project.
Sid Biby led the station at this time. The Hilarious House of Frightenstein was one of the most ambitious shows attempted by Canadian producers during this era.
Markowitz later began production of an animated cartoon version of the show with animator Al Guest that never got to air.
The producers were fortunate enough to get horror icon Vincent Price to star in introductions for the show's various segments. Price was attracted to the project because he wanted to do something for kids. Price filmed all of his segments (around 400) in 4 days for a fee of $13,000.
Both the opening and closing credits were accompanied by a musical composition played entirely on a Moog synthesizer and written by Harry Breuer, Gary Carol, Jean Jacques Perrey and Pat Prilly. Its title is "March of the Martians". The original recording can be found on an out-of-print Pickwick vinyl album called The Happy Moog.
The chief character, Count Frightenstein (Van), was the thirteenth son of Count Dracula and was exiled to Castle Frightenstein in Frankenstone, Canada for failing to revive Brucie J. Monster, a Frankenstein-like monster. Assisted by Igor (Rais), an overweight incompetent, and a three-foot-tall mini-Count (Big), each episode followed the Count's efforts to revive Brucie and featured comedy sketches. Each episode opened and closed with an appearance by the venerable horror star Vincent Price as he recited intentionally silly poetry with toy skulls and shrunken heads in the background. Price also did introductions for segments within the show.
Fishka Rais, who played the character Igor was an accomplished jazz singer from South Africa. Brucie, though addressed as a character in the series, was a mannequin made up to look like the Universal Monsters version of the Frankenstein monster.
Other characters on the show included the following. All were played by Billy Van unless noted.
- The Wolfman - A werewolf disk jockey at radio station EECH who spun rock and roll records while doing a Wolfman Jack impression. The Wolfman's theme song was Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher". The segment featured then-current hit singles by The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, Three Dog Night or other Top 40 radio stars of the time (which were referred to as ‘golden oldies’ in order to avoid dating the program), with The Wolfman and Igor dancing in silhouette against a psychedelic background. Owing to licensing issues, the musical numbers are no longer shown on some reruns, although broadcasts on YTV in the early 2000s still included the segments.
The psychedelic background was 'discovered' by the CHCH crew who revealed it to Markowitz, who put it in the show. The effect was video feedback produced by pointing the studio video camera at a studio video monitor. Markowitz added the blue screen and another feedback camera to create the layered effect.
- The Grammar Slammer - The Grammar Slammer was the disembodied voice (of Billy Van) who challenged Igor to correct grammatical errors, accompanied by an eight-foot purple monster named Bammer who threatened to beat up Igor if he failed.
- The Professor - U.S. physicist Professor Julius Sumner Miller, a veteran of the Mickey Mouse Club (where he was known as Professor Wonderful), provided science lessons on such things as thermal expansion and the cartesian diver.
When Julius Sumner Miller first arrived from California at Toronto's Malton Airport to begin the drive to CHCH in Hamilton, he refused to ride with Markowitz in the Cadillac limo in favour of riding with his science equipment in a station wagon driven by Markowitz's assistant John Greco. The two cars left the airport together but the station wagon was soon separated from the limo and Sumner Miller was now headed for London, Ontario rather than Hamilton. It was early summer and Sumner Miller had a short-sleeve shirt on coming from California. Eventually his driver realized his error and headed south toward Hamilton by farm roads making Sumner Miller nervous. Sumner Miller was more upset when he was driven into a freak snow storm. Eventually they arrived safely at the CHCH television station in Hamilton.
- Bwana Clyde Batty - A British explorer character who gave Billy Van a chance to use his Michael Caine impression, who teaches about wild animals on Zany Zoo and his name is a spoof of animal trainer Clyde Beatty. His catchphrase is "ooga booga!"
- Dr. Pet Vet - A veterinarian who teaches about domestic animals (whereas the Zany Zoo was about wild fauna). He always offers the day's animal to Igor as a pet, but the Sloth in the basement invariably refuses to allow Igor to keep the animal.
- Grizelda, the Ghastly Gourmet - A witch who provides a parody of television cooking shows, she cooks suitably ghastly recipes in her cauldron. In every one of her segments, she bangs her head on the pot above her cauldron, and invariably declares the recipe a failure after it causes a small explosion. Grizelda would sometimes wrestle "Polly" a taxidermically-stuffed golden eagle for the recipe or for a secret ingredient going in the pot that day. The iron cauldron was a real one borrowed from a tiny farm museum north of Toronto. It was set up with dry ice for the 'boiling' effect. Grizelda was very vain, often comparing her "beauty" to that of famous women of the era, including Goldie Hawn and Margaret Trudeau. Grizelda was obviously influenced by The Old Witch of EC horror comics of the early 1950s, such as The Haunt of Fear and Tales From the Crypt. The artist for The Witch's Cauldron stories, Graham Ingels always signed himself "Ghastly". Grizelda even resembles Ingels' drawings of the witch.
Griselda's make-up took hours to put on and Van would work long hours to make the most of the make-up every shooting day. As the day wore on into night Van became increasingly punchy providing hours of out-take laughs for the crew at the CHCH studio.
- The Librarian - An elderly curmudgeon who unsuccessfully tries to scare the viewers by reading children's stories, such as "Humpty Dumpty" and "Henny Penny", which he thinks are horror stories. He also sometimes reads fables with unpleasant endings. He eventually admits to not being any more frightened than the viewers, but considers reading important nonetheless. He would occasionally hit "Polly", a taxidermically-stuffed golden eagle perched near his chair.
- The Maharishi - A Hindu guru who shares bits of mystically inscrutable wisdom. A large bag of flowers (dyed Carnations) would then fall atop his head afterward.
- The Oracle - A mystic who reads out horoscopes in a Peter Lorre voice, invariably knocking over and breaking his crystal ball in the process. He also would often get his hand temporarily stuck inside his replacement crystal ball. He then answers questions supposedly sent in from viewers.
- The Midget Count - Played by Guy Big, this is a Mini-Me-style three-foot tall clone of The Count.
Guy was originally slated to play the main role as the Count but his speaking voice would not hold out for more than a few hours. Billy Van was playing his part in Party Game, another of Markowitz's shows, and he was called in to audition for the role of the Count and was hired for the lead role where his various talents were more fully revealed.
- Harvey Wallbanger - The postmaster of Castle Frightenstein's "dead letter office", this puppet appears in sketches with The Count or Grizelda in which they answer letters.
- Gronk - A purple sea serpent who interacts with the Count or the Wolfman. Gronk would announce his presence with a loud call of "Gronk!" Gronk's segments usually had the Count reading a book; the Count would then start explaining what the book was about, with Gronk interrupting him, usually mid-sentence, with a completely incorrect conclusion to what the Count had been reading. This would happen several times, leading to greater and greater frustration on the part of the Count. Segments with the Wolfman were generally one or two line jokes.
- The Grammar Slammer Bammer - A large purple puppet who would correct Igor's poor grammar.
Other minor or interstitial characters:
- Super Hippy - Played by Mitchell Markowitz (Rafael Markowitz's younger brother), this hippie in a superhero costume appears leading in and out of commercials, sitting or flying in varying locations as he delivers some variation on "Don't change the channel; we'll be right back after these commercials."
- The Singing Soldier - Played by Billy Van. A light-operetta styled palace guard who gets a cream pie thrown in his face whenever he starts to sing "Indian Love Call" from Rose-Marie.
- The Mosquito - Played by Mitchell Markowitz, the mosquito always tells a bad joke about insects before biting a human foot.
- The Gorilla - Played by Billy Van. Billy, dressed in a gorilla costume, would walk out of a jungle set and invariably try to scare whomever he was looking at. In every segment, however, he would be thwarted by a ping-pong ball that would hit him square in the head, causing him to keel over. He often tried to avoid the ping-pong balls, in one instance by holding up a parasol.
The Gorilla was sometimes played by Paul Shultz who also worked in the prop department.
On October 18, 2005, Empire pictures released a single DVD featuring a handful of half-hour US-syndicated episodes. The most significant change for these episodes as broadcast (apart from the length) was the addition of a laugh track.
On October 17, 2006, Alliance Atlantis Home Video in Canada released a 3-disc box set of 13 full-length episodes, with restored Wolfman segments. The shows are not in chronological order, as only episodes that had thus far obtained music clearances for the Wolfman dance segments were included. The Wolfman theme, Sly & the Family Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher," had not yet been cleared, so the opening was altered with new music by The Tijuana Bibles from Toronto, and Billy Van's voice was redubbed by another Toronto voice actor, as Van himself had died in 2003. For recent airings in Canada on the cable networks Drive-In Classics and Space, the main Frightenstein theme is also a re-recording, because of licensing restrictions by Morning Music, Ltd.
A second set of 9 episodes was released by Critical Mass in late 2008.
- Opening Poem - Vincent Price - "Another lovely day begins, for ghosts and ghouls with greenish skin. So close your eyes and you will find that you've arrived in Frightenstein. Perhaps the Count will find a way to make his monster work to-day. For if he solves this monster-mania, he can return to Transylvania! So welcome where the sun won't shine, to the castle of Count Frightenstein!" (This dissolved into maniacal laughter.)
- National Anthem - Igor/Fishka Rais - "Gory, gory Transylvania! Where werewolves and bats will always maim ya. The murky moors will likely claim ya, As we go stumbling through." Sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". Sung once before the Count recites The Pledge, hummed during the count's pledge, and repeated afterwards with a big finish, usually topped off by The Count singing the last word.
- Pledge - Count/Billy Van - "I pledge by the sign of the three-toed sloth, to do my best, to do my duty. To always obey the laws of the werewolf pack. And to never rest, until Brucie lives once more, and takes his rightful place in the annals of distinguished monsters, and I can once again return to that most goriest of homelands..." Many times The Count is showing off his heart shaped three-toed sloth pendant (on an elastic black string around his neck) to the camera. After the first line, he lets go of it, it flies back against his throat, and The Count does a choked/injured double take before going on with the rest of the pledge.
- Closing Poem - Vincent Price - "The castle lights are growing dim. There's no one left but me--and him. When next we meet in Frankenstone...don't come alone."
In other media
The Hilarious House of Frightenstein was referenced in the first episode of the Ed the Sock program This Movie Sucks!, which is another program produced and broadcast by CHCH. In the episode the hosts refer to them being in a studio that has produced many classic television shows, and Ed comments that they have the coffee maker from The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, along with the original coffee.
- "CH TV Hamilton History". Archived from the original on 2006-01-29. Retrieved 2007-01-29.
- Perkins, Will (October 24, 2013). "How Horror Legend Vincent Price Helped a Tiny Canadian TV Show Become a Cult Hit". Yahoo! Canada News. Retrieved Oct 24, 2013.