A Frightenstein who done it
The reporter had asked her final question about my appearance at a regional theatre in Alberta that afternoon. Jana Semeniuk turned off her camera. But she gestured for me to stay put for a second. She had one more question to ask, but wanted to be sure it was OK to ask it on camera. I nodded.
“Have you ever heard of the TV show The Hilarious House of Frightenstein?” she asked. I nodded again. “Is it true you wrote that show?”
“Half true,” I said. “I co-created it with my writing partner Ross Perigoe. Want to know more? Roll your camera and I’ll tell you.”
If you missed the 1970s and children’s TV from that era, you also missed a quirky kids’ show originally produced at CHCH TV in Hamilton, and then syndicated worldwide years afterward. It starred, among others, Vincent Price (as the horror host), Julius Sumner Miller (as the mad professor), the Wolf Man, Billy Van (as Count Frightenstein, the 13th son of Count Dracula) and Fishka Rais (as the Count’s incompetent assistant).
If you read the Wikipedia file, producer Rafael (Riff) Markowitz claims that Frightenstein was entirely his idea and that he invited “a room full of creative friends to a spaghetti and champagne dinner party (to) brainstorm the idea.” That’s not the way I remember it. In 1970, my best friend and classmate in Ryerson’s Radio and TV Arts course, Ross Perigoe, and I weren’t about to wait for graduation from the program to write professionally. We heard that brothers Riff and Mitch Markowitz were looking for writers for a spooky kids’ show. So, on a dark and stormy autumn night in 1970 – I’m not making this up – Perigoe and I drove to Toronto’s west end, knocked on the door of a sprawling home and were met by a young woman in a bikini. “Oh, you must be the writers,” she said and she led us to an attached atrium full of potted palms, ceiling fans, and a swimming pool with deck chairs all around. “Sit anywhere but in that chair,” she said pointing to a winged-back cane chair. “That’s for Riff.”
A few minutes later, Markowitz arrived, wearing a terry towel robe and smoking a cigar. “OK, fellas,” he said. “Let’s invent a scary kids’ show,” or words to that effect. And for the next few hours, Perigoe and I spewed ideas about a haunted castle, a cast of zany inept characters, lots of corny jokes all delivered as a series of independent modules, so that a local host in Timmins, Tallahassee or Timbuktu could appear between segments giving the show a local look and flavour. We even came up with the Frightenstein national anthem, conducted by the Count and sung by Igor as he raised the castle flag to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
“Gory, gory Transylvania! Where wolves and bats will always maim ya. The murky moors will likely claim ya. As we go stumbling through, through, through.”
Late into the evening at Markowitz’s pool side, Perigoe and I bounced ideas off each other non-stop, while the young woman in the bikini made notes on everything we said like a recording secretary. After several hours of riffing ideas and schtick, Perigoe and I asked if we might take part in the production as the show’s writers. “Sure,” Riff Markowitz said. “We’ll pay you three bucks a joke.”
Well, I lasted a few days writing gags and routines for the characters Perigoe and I had invented that night; Perigoe lasted several weeks and probably made a few hundred dollars. We were too naïve to demand professional writing contracts, ACTRA rates or on-screen credits. Others rightly credited for writing and research included (the late) Bob Hackett and Harvey Graff. But none of us freelance creators ever participated in what became the worldwide syndication or mass-market success of 130 episodes of Frightenstein video-taped at CHCH over nine months in 1971. Graff, one of the few other originators of Frightenstein still around, called me this week; he said that tubi, the internet platform, had just released Frightenstein on-line for a new generation who’ve never seen it.
When TV reporter Jana Semeniuk finished her impromptu interview with me about all this a few years ago, she said that she’d tracked down the Markowitz brothers to verify my story of that brainstorming session by the pool back in 1970. “Didn’t happen,” they said.
“Since they and I are about the only ones left from that crazy night of TV innovation,” I said, “I guess it’s a hilarious house of jokes neither of us can verify.” And I can’t even claim the ridiculous three-bucks-a-joke fee.
For more Barris Beat columns, go to www.tedbarris.com