Monday, November 23, 2009

Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

The Monster was coming!

The news went through my boyhood neighborhood like a lightning bolt. Dozens of my fellow suburban urchins raced down cracked gum-dotted sidewalks, scurrying home to warm up their rabbit-eared television sets. Humid crackles of suspense hung in the air, like the thrill kids feel before a thunderstorm.

A special broadcast of Frankenstein, the one, the only, the great original, was on at eight ‘o clock!

It was quite an event on our street, comparable—almost—to the Apollo Eleven Moon Landing a year later. That late summer Saturday evening, with the sun not yet set and the streets oddly empty of bicycles, everyone was glued to the tube ready to watch the greatest, and most famous, horror film ever made. Just imagine, being treated to Halloween, two months early. We were the luckiest kids alive.

Mind you, even by that early age, I was already a seasoned Boris Karloff fan. He was the first "movie star" I ever remember recognizing, and my older brothers have told me that I could pronounce his name at the age of three. I'd already knew much about him in treasured copies of Forrest J Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland, rereading the magazines ragged. Besides the occasional monster movie on TV, his likeness kept me company in the form of an Aurora plastic model kit, I'd also seen Karloff on The Red Skelton Show, and his long-running Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery was one of the earliest comic books I actively collected.

Karloff's masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein, is the first of his many films in my memory. I must have been five years old, or younger, when I originally saw it and the experience has never left me. Somehow, I think I must have related to the poor lumbering beast that he so eloquently portrayed. At that age I must have felt just as alienated, inarticulate, and certainly as awkward around my much more athletic older brothers. Among other things, I wore orthopedic corrective shoes during that period that looked, and felt, like the Monster’s own heavy boots. Boris and I quietly understood each other.

So, by the time the original Frankenstein appeared on our local TV stations, this was a very big deal for me. Apparently, for lots of others, too, as I was to happily find out.

I had been cordially invited to join my next-door neighbors for the movie, three sisters close to my age, so that we could watch Frankenstein on their new color TV, the first such contraption in the neighborhood. I tried in vain to explain to the girls that the movie wouldn’t be in color no matter how much their dad paid for the set. There didn't seem to be any disappointment, though, when the grainy old black and white print began to run.

I’ll never forget Boris Karloff’s classic grand entrance in the film, backing through the darkened doorway and turning slowly to reveal Jack Pierce’s iconic Monster makeup in a startling series of rapid-fire close-ups. Making the scene even more memorable was the ear-splitting scream suddenly shrieked by Pam, the seven year old sister. She finally calmed down during the next commercial, but when the Monster reappeared it was bloody murder all over again. At that point her mother promptly ordered the girl to bed.

Pam’s older sisters, their mother, and I finished watching the film, mesmerized. As the ending credits rolled we heard a soft whimpering from the hallway, only to discover Pam crying her eyes out at the fiery demise of the Monster. Scared as she was of him, there was still room in Pam’s heart to feel sorry for the anguished, unwanted creature.

For years afterward, Pam would ardently insist that she frequently heard “Frankenstein, after midnight, stomping down the street." A spooky notion that she appeared to truly believe, but I could tell that it brought some welcomed magic and mystery into her life. Where ever she is now, probably a mother herself, I wonder if she still hears the echo of those giant footsteps outside her window?

I wonder if her own children are lucky enough to hear them, too?

Join in on more of the monstrous Karloff birthday celebration at:


  1. Lovely memory. It's new and individual, but so familiar at the same time. Thanks.

  2. Martin, I think my favorite Karloff on TV memory comes from a time well beyond childhood. I must have been 30ish. It was a wet and dreary Saturday afternoon and I was alone in the house. The Mummy was on and the constant drizzle and darkness complimented the dreamy, surreal quality of the movie perfectly. Thanks for reminding me.
    I've just begun a blog of my own, mostly commentary on movies and books of a retro bent. Pre-1960s. It's Bentin Miscellany at
    Stop by to say hello.
    Doug Bentin

  3. Wow- "Boris and I quietly understood each other." Now that is beautiful! Seriously, brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for sharing!