Saturday, October 28, 2006

Dark Shadows

"Seasons don't fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain...
We can be like they are..."
("Don't Fear the Reaper," Buck Dharma, performed by Blue Oyster Cult)

Since Halloween is only a few days away, I thought I would do a suitably themed post. When I was in kindergarten and first grade, there was one show all of us kids would rush home to see. It was called Dark Shadows. And, hard as it was to believe, it was a soap opera. But it was a soap opera as never has been seen before or since.

You see, Dark Shadows was actually a Gothic horror series done in a soap opera format. Like many soap operas it was set in a small New England town (namely, Collinsport) and centred on a wealthy family (the Collins family) who lived on an old and lavish estate (Collinswood). Unlike other soap operas, its characters had more to worry about than extramarital affairs and unwanted pregnancies. Throughout the run of Dark Shadows, the town of Collinsport faced ghosts, a warlock named Nicholas Blair, a werewolf, a Frankensteinian creation and the Lovecraftian threat of the Leviathan. Its protagonist for much of its run was a vampire, Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid), who posed as a long lost cousin from England (even though he had been born in America in Colonial days). Although initially played as a villain, Barnabas would become the tragic, romantic hero of the series. Not to mention the most famous soap opera character of all time and perhaps one of the most famous vampires in any medium.

Dark Shadows was the creation of the late Dan Curtis, who would go onto create The Night Stalker. In the mid-Sixties one of the big fads in paperback books was towards Gothic romances (those of you my age and older may remember them--it seemed as if their covers always had a girl running from a castle on them). It occurred to producer Dan Curtis that Gothic romance might make a good basis for a soap opera. Curtis looked to writer Art Wallace to further develop the series. Wallace drew upon one of his teleplays which had aired on Goodyear Theatre in 1957, "The House," for some of the characters and storylines. When Dark Shadows debuted on June 27, 1966, it was very much in the Gothic mould, although it was not yet a Gothic horror series. In fact, its initial story line simply dealt with the arrival of new governess Victoria Winters at Collinswood. Its first venture into the supernatural was the appearance of a couple of ghosts. And while the ghosts did not play a major role on the show, they foreshadowed (no pun intended) the new direction the series would soon take.

Indeed, on December 12, 1966, a new storyline began that was firmly rooted in the supernatural. It concerned the return of the estranged wife of Roger Collins, Laura. Laura, as it turns out, was an entity referred to as a phoenix. Every 100 years she would be reborn in fire. And, unfortunately for the Collins family, she was not at all benign. It was with a storyline that began on March 22, 1967, however, that the series really took off, not only as a Gothic horror soap opera, but also as a hit show. On that the day Barnabas Collins made his first appearance. Within months of the vampire's first appearance, Dark Shadows was the top rated soap opera and an outright fad. Merchandise featuring Barnabas and the other inhabitants of Collinsport appeared everywhere. There were games, books, and much more. Initially, Barnabas was played as a villain and was meant to appear only for one storyline, but the character caught on with younger viewers. Soon Collins was not simply a vampire obsessed with waitress Maggie Evans (whom he believed to be the reincarnation of his long lost love Josette), but the show's primary hero. Eventually the circumstances behind Barnabas' becoming a vampire was revealed. It seems that he was cursed by Josette's maid Angelique, who had wanted Barnabas for herself. Sadly, Josette killed herself when she realised Barnabas was a vampire. Quite simply, he became one of the most tragic protagonists in the history of television.

Over the years Dark Shadows dealt with nearly every cliche in Gothic horror. Dr. Eric Lang created an artificial man called Adam. The witch Angelique showed up in the present day with more plots surrounding Barnabas, this time aided by warlock Nicholas Blair. The show created another cult figure besides Barnabas in the form of Quentin Collins, a ghost intent on destroying the present day Collins family. More than one werewolf (one of whom was Quentin before he died) made his appearance on the show. The characters even travelled through time and to alternate realities!

As a Gothic horror serial, Dark Shadows was not without its controversy.Much of the controversy arose with regards to the storylines involving Angelique and Nicholas Blair, who were described as a witch and a warlock and were pretty clearly Satanists. The controversy grew even greater after an episode in which Nicholas Blair met with the Devil himself (albeit under another name). Indeed, at the time many Christian fundamentalists groups dubbed Dark Shadows "Satan's Favourite TV show."

Sadly, the success of Dark Shadows did not last. At least part of the reason that Dark Shadows declined in popularity may have been due to a story arc started in November of 1969. The storyline centred around the Lovecraftian threat of the Leviathans and did not prove particularly popular. Another reason for the decline in the success of Dark Shadows may have been the fact that it was a fad show. Fads usually last only one year at the maximum. And their lifespan is often determined by the intensity of people's interest in the fad. Since Dark Shadows was extremely popular at its height, it went the course of many fads and people's interest in the series burned out quickly. It must also be pointed out that while ABC enjoyed the success of Dark Shadows, they also resented the controversy it provoked. When Dark Shadows ceased to be a hit, they were more prone to cancel it than another, similarly low rated soap opera. It aired one last time on April 2, 1971.

Despite the fact that Dark Shadows only aired for a few years (at least when compared to the decades long lifespans of some soap operas), the show would have a lasting impact. It could well have been the first soap opera to have two feature length films based upon it--House of Dark Shadows in 1970 and Night of Dark Shadows in 1971. It was the first soap opera to have comic books spun off from it and, for a brief time, there was even a newspaper comic strip. There were also Viewmaster reels, board games, puzzles, and books. Even after its cancellation Dark Shadows has maintained a cult following, with many fanzines published over the years and, with the advent of the Internet, several web sites. It was revived in 1991 as a prime time series on NBC. Sadly, this new version only lasted two months. In 2004 a pilot for another revival was shot for the WB, but it was not picked up. Dark Shadows is also the only soap opera to have every single one of its episodes released on video (both on VHS and DVD) and perhaps the only soap opera to see success in syndication. For many years it was reran on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Of course, perhaps its most lasting impact could be on soap operas themselves. Although it would take literally years for them to do so, eventually other soaps would follow the lead of Dark Shadows with story arcs dealing with the supernatural. Starting in the Nineties Days of Our Lives featured several plot lines which delved into the supernatural, although sadly the show has always been more soap opera than supernatural. The soap opera Passions went one step further. It was the first soap opera since Dark Shadows in which the supernatural plays an integral role in the series. Unfortunately, Passions generally played its supernatural elements for camp. Worse yet, its focus has shifted over the years to more traditional soap opera fare. Although other soap operas have since included supernatural elements, Dark Shadows still stands as the only one that was actually good.

Dark Shadows turned forty this year, and it is still a cult phenomenon with a large following to this day. I very seriously doubt that this will change any time soon. For many years to come, I rather suspect that new generations will discover the series on DVD or in syndication and yet more people will come under the spell of Collinsport, Maine. Like Barnabas Collins himself, the show will never truly die.

Friday, October 27, 2006

We Won!

Okay, I don't usually write about sports in this blog as I don't feel sports have much to do with pop culture, but tonight an event of major importance (at least if you live in Missouri) occurred. After 24 years and four trips to the Series in that time, the St. Louis Cardinals have won the World Series. It was also the first time in three years that a National League team won the Series. This was the 17th trip for the St. Louis Cardinals to the series (more than any other team in baseball besides the New York Yankees, if I recall) and their tenth World Series win (one of which, in 1944, was against the St. Louis Browns). I might add that it was also the first time in 11 years that a team from the South beat a team from the North (the last time was in 1995 when the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians). Anyhow, it is a good night to be a baseball fan in Missouri.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Herbert B. Leonard R.I.P.

Television producer Herbert B. Leonard died at age 84 on October 14. Among the series he produced were Naked City and Route 66.

Leonard was born in New York City on October 8, 1922. His first major job in the film industry was as a Production Manager on the serial The Vigilante: Fighting Hero of the West in 1947. Over the next several years he would work as a Production Manager on such serials and B movies as Batman and Robin (1949), Pirates of the High Seas, Atom Man Vs. Superman, The Golden Hawk, and The Law Vs. Billy the Kid.

Leonard entered television in 1954 as a executive producer on The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. He also produced Circus Boy (the first major vehicle for Monkee Micky Dolenz, then billed as Micky Braddock), Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers, and Rescue 8. It was with the Sixties that Leonard's career really took off. He produced two hit series, Route 66 and Naked City. Route 66 followed the adventures of two young men wandering the highway of that name in a Corvette. Naked City was one of the earliest examples of the gritty police drama. From television Leonard moved into movies, although he had little success there. Among the films he produced were The Perils of Pauline in 1967 and Popi in 1969. He returned to television, producing TV movies and a few short lived series, although he would never have another hit like Route 66 or Naked City.

Leonard also tried his hand at directing. He directed the 1967 version of The Perils of Pauline and the movie Going Home (both of which he also produced).

Leonard produced some of the best television in the Fifties and Sixties. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin was a hit and would be rerun for years after its initial run. Both Route 66 and Naked City were roaring successes and are considered classics to this day. With three hit series under his belt, Leonard could be argued to be one of the more successful TV producers in the history of the medium (most producers are lucky to have even one hit series). While I seriously doubt the average person even recognises his name, I rather suspect the shows Herbert B. Leonard produced will be remembered for a long time to come.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Phyllis Kirk and Jane Wyatt Pass On

Two actresses who made their names in television have both recently died. The first was Phyllis Kirk, who died Thursday at age 79 from a post cerebral aneurysm. Although perhaps best known for her role in the horror classic House of Wax (which starred the legendary Vincent Price), her career would largely be in television.

Kirk was born Phyllis Kirkegaard in Plainsfield, New Jersey on September 18, 1929. While in her teens she moved to New York City to break into acting, working various odd jobs until she could make a living at her craft. She made her first appearance on film in the movie Our Very Own in 1950 in the role of Zara. She appeared in various minor roles in movies before her big break came in 1953 with the release of House of Wax. In the film Kirk played raven haired beauty Sue Allen, who is stalked by mad wax sculptor Henry Jarrod (the great Vincent Price). She would go onto have roles in the films Thunder Over the Plains Crime Wave, the Jerry Lewis vehicle The Sad Sack.

Despite the success of House of Wax, Kirk's career would primarily be in television. Even before her memorable appearance in House of Wax, she first appeared on the small screen in The Philco Television Playhouse in 1952. She would go onto have dramatic roles in some of the most prestigious anthology series of the era: Armstrong Circle Theatre, The U.S. Steel Hour, Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, and Playhouse 90. She would guest star on such shows as The Name of the Game and The F.B.I.. Her biggest claim to fame on television may well have been her role as Nora Charles on the TV version of The Thin Man, which ran for one year on NBC in the '57-'58 season.

In the Seventies Kirk left television for the stage, then went into public relations. She was a publicist for CBS News for many years before retiring in 1992.

The second actress to die of late was a television legend. Jane Wyatt died Friday in her sleep from natural causes at the age of 96. She is perhaps best known as Margaret Anderson, the mother on Father Knows Best, and as Amanda, the mother of Mr. Spock on Star Trek.

Jane Wyatt was born August 12, 1910 in Campgaw, New Jersey to a wealthy family. Her father was a Wall Street broker and her mother was a drama critic. She grew up in New York City. After attending Barnard College, she became an apprentice with Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for six months. Wyatt made her Broadway debut as a performer in The Midnight Rounders of 1921 in 1921. She would go onto several roles on Broadway, among them Dinner at Eight, Conquest, and For Services Rendered. She was signed by Universal in 1934, making her first screen appearance in the James Whale movie One More River. She then rotated between the screen and stage. On film she appeared as Estella in the 1934 adaptation of Great Expectations and the film The Luckiest Girl in the World. On stage, besides the aforementioned plays, she appeared in The Mad Hopes and The Joyous Season.

Her big break came with Frank Capra's film version of Lost Horizon, playing the role of Sondra Bizet. Although Wyatt would continue to appear on stage, her career was increasingly focused on film. She appeared in such films as Hurricane Smith, Army Surgeon, Boomerang!, Gentleman's Agreement, and My Blue Heaven.

Wyatt continued to appear on Broadway, although less frequently after the Thirties. Among the plays in which she had roles were The Bishop Misbehaves, Night Music, Quiet, Please!, and Hope for the Best. She last appeared on stage in 1951 in The Autumn Garden.

With the Fifties Wyatt's career turned towards television. She first appeared on the small screen in an episode of the anthology series Nash Airflyte Theatre in 1951. She would go onto appear on such shows as the legendary Your Show of Shows, Lights Out, and Robert Montgomery Presents. It was in 1955 that Father Knows Best debuted. On the sitcom Wyatt played the mother of the household, Margaret Anderson. The show ran for six years, with 207 episodes. She won three Emmy awards for her role on the show. Wyatt would go onto to appear in several other TV series, among them Studio One, The U.S. Steel Hour, Wagon Train, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

It was a 1967 guest appearance on a then obscure show called Star Trek that would bring Wyatt her other famous role. In the episode "Journey to Babel" Jane Wyatt played Amanda Grayson, the human mother of Mr. Spock. Wyatt was perfect in the role and as perfect as a match for a Vulcan as there ever could be. Amanda was patient, kind, and understanding, but at the same time strong willed enough to hold her own with her husband Sarek and their son Spock. Although Amanda only appeared once on the original series, Wyatt made a huge impression in the role and it would become her best remembered role besides that of Margaret Anderson. She would reprise her role in the Star Trek movie, Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home.

Wyatt would go onto several more guest appearances on such shows as Love American Style, Marcus Welby, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. She appeared in the recurring role of Katherine Auschlander, the wife of Dr. Auschlander. Wyatt also appeared in several TV movies, including Amelia Earhart, A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story, and Family Knows Best reunion movie, Father Knows Best: Home for Christmas. Her last appearance on the TV documentary Frank Capra's American Dream.

Both Phyllis Kirk and Jane Wyatt were gifted actresses who had a large impact on television. Kirk was undoubtedly beautiful and, although utilised primarily as a damsel in distress in film, had a real gift for drama. She could also do well in light comedy, as her role as Nora Charles in the TV version of The Thin Man proved.

As to Jane Wyatt, there is a reason she is a television legend. Wyatt had a gift for playing women who were kind and understanding, yet possessed of a strong will of their own. Indeed, one of the things that separates Father Knows Best from other comedies (besides the fact that it wasn't the least bit smarmy) is the fact that Margaret Anderson, although understanding and gentle, could hold her own with both her husband and her children. She was no pushover. This is even truer of both Amanda on Star Trek and Katherine Auschlander on St. Elsewhere. Both women were well equipped to deal with stubborn men, whether it was the relentlessly logical (and though they would not admit it, arrogant) Sarek and Spock or the painfully stubborn Dr. Norman Auschlander. Playing strong women who are at the same time understanding and kind is, no doubt, a difficult task, yet Wyatt played those roles with ease. Wyatt is a legend who won't soon be forgotten.