Of Monsters and Magazines…
Movies of all kinds were a passion of mine while growing up in Mill Valley but films with a fantastic dimension held a special fascination for me. Giant monsters running amok in great cities or flying saucers attacking earth would hold me spell bound in a packed Saturday matinee at the Sequoia.
And yet when I would come away from seeing something like The Day The Earth Stood Still or When Worlds Collide there was no way of holding onto the intense images I had seen. I remember wishing there was a magazine which catered to the likes of me who loved seeing giant monsters on the screen. But no such magazine existed.
My sister Nell bought Screen Stories every month but they hardly paid any attention to horror movies which, in spite of their huge popularity at the boxoffice, were considered very lowbrow by the media.
It was on a trip into the city with my mother Beth and brother Jim that something life changing happened. We were making a visit to Kaiser Hospital and had taken a cab down to the Bus Depot. While Beth bought tickets, I gazed over at the magazine rack and there it was. The very first copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland. I was stunned. The cover wasn’t great. A pretty blonde woman on the arm of a man wearing a rubber mask of Universal’s Frankenstein’s monster. At the bottom of the cover were the words: Collector’s Edition.
Inside it was wonderful, full of exciting stills from different sci-fi/horror movies. I was immediately smitten and thank goodness my mother coughed up the 35c that it cost.
For the entire bus ride to the city I hardly noticed the familiar sights as we passed them: The Ondine restaurant in Sausalito, The Golden Gate Bridge, The Palace of Fine Arts. As the bus drove past all these visual delights, the only things I saw were the wonderful photos in this magazine and because it was about a subject I loved, I read the words too.
The editor, Forest J. Ackerman, went in for the most appalling puns but he clearly knew what he was writing about. The Creature From The Black Lagoon became ‘Blackie Lagoon.’ He and the publisher also knew a thing or two about marketing for I soon became enslaved to this magazine.
I think that Famous Monsters and Mad Magazine were the only constant passions for me in those days, although I also devoured comic books like Uncle Scrooge, Superman and Classics Illustrated.
And I was terribly serious about collecting them. I remember a particular piece of art deco furniture that served as the place all my comics and mags were stacked in chronological order. Nobody was allowed to bend the covers back or use them as table mats.
It may well be that Famous Monsters inspired me to begin my first movie scrapbook. I began to save clippings of movie ads from the Chronicle and the film that started me off was 7th Voyage of Sinbad. I had seen a large poster display for this movie in the lobby of the Paramount theatre and the sight of a giant Cyclops with a horn on its head, a large fire breathing dragon and a big two headed bird convinced me I had to see this film.
On Sundays the Chronicle had a pink section with all the arts news and it featured a big photo of the Cyclops leaning down to pick up a prostrate Sinbad on a beach. There was also a large ad for the movie with production illustrations by the special effects man Ray Harryhausen. That was it. I decided I would begin my scrapbook with this movie.
As the days passed I clipped every ad and article about the film and threw them into my newly purchased scrapbook. Cutting them out and pasting them in was a job for later.
The ad in the Chronicle was my first introduction to the name of Ray Harryhausen though I was already a fan of those movies he had made: Earth Vs The Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth were the ones I’d seen at the Saturday matinee but I’d had the entire plots of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath The Sea acted out for me in great detail by Danny Hallinan.
The run-up to Christmas was always an exciting time. Though my family was financially poor, many of my parents’ best friends were actually millionaires and the generosity of these people saw us though the tough times of my father’s political blacklisting.
One set of friends back east were Ruth and Luke Wilson who always sent a big box of presents for us all and individual cheques for each of us kids. Each cheque was for $25 which, in 1958, was more than enough for us to do our Christmas shopping.
My brother Jim and I made our seasonal shopping trip into the city, catching a Greyhound bus which took us to the big depot at 7th and Market. Our first port of call were the stores near Union Sqaure: Macy’s, I. Magnin and the City of Paris. Going to see the tree at City of Paris was a must as it was the biggest in San Francisco. It had to be lowered into the store by a crane through the skylight.
There was also shopping at the big Woolworth’s by the cable car turntable at Powell and Market. We had lunch at Manning’s on Market and then it was time for the movie at the St Francis which was 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
This movie grabbed me from the very beginning with Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful Arabian Nights score. Had this film disappointed me, my scrapbook might never have come to life but that was not the case.
Kerwin Mathews’ performance as Captain Sinbad was a solid core to the adventures which unfolded. Equally impressive was Torin Thatcher who ate the furniture as Sokura the evil magician but the real stars of this wonderful movie were Harryhausen’s magical monsters.
I was back to see it again the following week and when it finally made its way to the Sequoia I saw it again and now I was able to read about it in Famous Monsters.
Reading a magazine regularly was a special experience and the people who produced them used a great deal of psychology in keeping their readers coming back. The cover was always important as it had to hook you. MAD always had great covers and the Famous Monsters covers got better as they started using Basil Gogos to paint the art work.
So whenever school friends would come back to our house they would always lose themselves reading my comics and magazines. One friend who I first met at Alto in the sixth grade was Craig Bird. Craig was big, had a greaser hairdo and was also tough. He had an older brother who had a different last name: Bob Tomei. Bob was about four years older than Craig and within the ‘greaser’ hierarcy of Mill Valley Bob Tomei was considered very cool. He had a steady job at our local Safeway and he drove a souped up car of some kind. He had a reputation as a hard guy and when he would pull into the parking lot at C’s Drive-In, he’d pop his hood and the greasers would gather around to admire his engine.
It was when we got to Tam High that Craig started making noises about borrowing my Monster magazines for his brother Bob to read. I think he mentioned it a few times and finally I said he could. I told Craig that the covers must not be bent back and he assured me they wouldn’t be.
It was a weekday afternoon when the shiny vehicle of Bob Tomei drove up Seymour Avenue just in front of our house. He stayed behind the wheel as brother Craig got out of the car and came in to collect the magazines. Bob didn’t speak but did nod his head to me from behind the wheel. Then they reversed down our road and were gone.
I think he had my magazines for about a week. Craig returned them to me unmolested. We were both sophomores by this time and socially we didn’t have all that much to do with each other. Craig was a greaser and I wasn’t but we still liked each other. One of my proudest moments was the time that he and about five other kids from our sixth grade class went into the city to see House On Haunted Hill at the RKO Golden Gate and every time Craig got scared he would run out to the lobby. I was, by this time, a seasoned horror movie veteran and never closed my eyes or looked away and the sight of this big tough guy dashing up the aisle made me swell with an inner satisfaction.
By the time we were sophomores Craig had become very ‘back parking lot’ meaning he hung out by the Canteen at break time with other greasers. There was a standard gag at rallies in Meade Theatre where, in the midst of the show, a car would screech to a halt by the stage and several tough guys dressed as 1920s gangsters with guns would take the stage and Craig was always one of them.
During the football season at Tam High the big social event on Friday nights was to go to the game up at the College of Marin which is where I found myself and who should I see walking along but Bob Tomei with his arm around a pretty young woman. So I said hello. He looked at me in puzzlement, clearly not knowing who I was so I said my name and added: “I’m the one who lent you the monster magazines.” He smiled and walked on. I thought nothing more of it.
There was a wall in the back parking lot where most of my friends would congregate at break time and when I arrived during our morning recess who should be there but Craig Bird regaling my friends about how I had embarrassed his brother at the football game.
“There’s my brother Bob,” he said loudly, “Out with a girl and suddenly this little midget comes up saying ‘I’m the guy who lent you the monster magazines!’ He was just so embarrassed!”
I stood there, feeling my face go bright red and listened to Craig denounce me over and over. I then crept away feeling mortified.
It never occurred to me to be embarrassed about my passion for monster movies. The likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have made it easier for modern day kids to love fantasy films but back in the 1950s it seemed to be a dark secret not to be discussed. Silly me for not realising that.