Friday, May 14, 2010

"Girls, do NOT come alone..."

"... you will have nightmares for a week!"

It's good to see all of you again. I have been very busy with all kinds of silliness, and I've been missing my regular visits to the S&P.

I see you've been taking good care of the place, as ever. I appreciate it.

Most of you are aware that I am a working performer, musician, singer, yada-bada-dada. I have always been enamoured of the stage, and of theatres -- the older and darker and more haunted, the better!

Over this past week or so, I've had occasion to visit one of the older theatres in my hometown (which is full of them). This one had been around for decades, but had fallen into disuse for a number of years, and is now being fixed up for another run of shows.

No, it's not an opera house from the '20s or anything as exotic as that, but it's still been around a long time, and is plenty dark and dusty and full of black corners and catwalks and 'mind your step's and 'whatever you do, do not stand there's... and in one or two of the darkest, dustiest corners, a 2x4 being used as a shelf -- a long dead 9 volt battery, a piece of black trickline string, a pencil with a rubber band coiled around it, a receipt for something or other, a cigarette butt stuck in years-old coffee dregs like a broken brown crayon at the bottom of a styrofoam cup.


Now... it should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying even a little attention to the entries here that every time, I mean every time I'm in an empty theatre, my immediate thought is "Oh man! This would be the perfect place to put on a midnight spook show!"

Of course I do.

The midnight spook show. The ghost frolic. The mix of stage magic, monsters and blackouts. A once-beloved American theatrical tradition, now long dead...

One of the greatest inspirations in my desire to one day (well, one dark midnight, to be precise) put on a ghost frolic of my own was published in 1991 by magician, writer and tireless researcher/collector Mark Walker...

Ghostmasters is a remarkable book, full of rare images and fascinating stories about the performers, the shows, the theatres, and the incredible birth, life and death of the American movie house midnight spook show.

The book has been out of print for some time now, and prices (when you can find a copy) begin at around $40 (I've been seeing pristine hardcovers selling for over $100 recently!). I thought a glance at some of the contents might be a fun show and tell around the fireplace for those of you who aren't lucky enough to have this volume in your collection. It's always available for perusal in the Library here at the S&P.

Here are some of the numerous adverts on display throughout the book, posters full of colorful invective, incredible claims, and stunning imagery:
Most shows followed a simple formula: at midnight, the show begins with magic tricks, stage illusions, seances and sight gags, building up to the Big Blackout, then the movies start.

Some shows were more comedic than frightening, others went for the jugular trying to scare the audience witless.
The most talked about and important aspect of the ghost show was the Blackout, when for a very brief time (three minutes was a standard) all the lights in the theatre would be extinguished (even EXIT signs in the '30s and '40s!) and the audience would be treated to a menagerie of glow-in-the-dark madness in the form of flying ghosts, skeletons, giant spiders, worms (wet mop strings), bats, all kinds of creepy things dropping, flying, screaming all 'round them.
Using simple decorations and props like these:

... the performer and his assistants would delight and terrify their audiences into a frenzy:
This rare picture was snapped in mid-blackout by an assistant to the magician Philip Morris during one of his '50s spook shows. I love the kid with his fingers in his ears, and the guy sitting on his buddy's lap...

The midnight spook show was a financial powerhouse for many years, and a staple of American theatrical culture for nearly 40 years (though by the late '50s it was already a dying art, there were still touring spook shows well into the '70s). Many performers like Bill Neff, Philip Morris, Francisco, El-Wyn, Greystoke, and even the legendary Blackstone all spent years, some decades, bringing American moviegoers a bit of Hallowe'en when they came to town.

After WWII, the classic Monsters began to take their place in the festivities:
This backdrop for Dr. Silkini's Frankenstein set needs to be clicked and enlarged to be appreciated fully. Amazing.

In 1947, Bela Lugosi added his dark charms to a tour from master spook show magician Bill Neff.

Oh, the spook show was successful alright...
By the way, when was the last time you saw a billboard that large displaying mayonnaise?

I could go on and on. 

Wouldn't it be a swell thing to have a midnight spook show again?

Oh, I know there are magicians who do a one or two night special performance, usually around Hallowe'en, and that is always welcome and fun... but wouldn't it be something to have a real, honest-to-goodness American midnight spook frolic in a real, honest-to-goodness old dark theatre in the middle of Summer on Saturday nights? 

One of these days... one of these days...



  1. I remember Saturday morning Kid shows at the old Southeast Theater in Salt Lake. They used to have drawings and the odd magic show.

    These pictures and posters put anything I ever experienced to shame. These events must have been a blast!

  2. I wished they had these spook shows (at our local theater) when I was a kid! As close as we got were triple feature monster flicks at the drive-in, with maybe a couple of guys in monster masks trying to scare the kiddies. LOL

    I love these ads and posters and the photos from the local theaters (inside and out). Great stuff!