Monday, March 23, 2009

"Nobody Bit It Better" Than "Barnabas" on "Dark Shadows"

The theatrical release of the Twilight phenom transfers to DVD this week. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton prepare to partner once more - this time for a big-screen edition of Dark Shadows. This is as good a time as any to explore the astounding popularity of the original gothic Shadows story, which first appeared as a daytime serial that featured the iconic Jonathan Frid as pop-culture's first main love-lorn/torn vampire Barnabas Collins - an immortal character that arrived ages before Robert Pattinson's Twilight role of Edward Cullen (which may or not be a nod to DS Collins name), or for that matter, David Boreanz's Angel , which first found life on TV's heralded Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (and later, in a spin-off series of his own). And yes, of course, pre-DS, there was Dracula, etc. But it was Barnabas and his Shadows gang that was the first to both lovingly horrify and capture our imagination.

That sad, here now is a consolidated, but in-depth, look back at the on-and-off-screen machinations of the original Dark Shadows TV series.



Live performances. Rehashed ideas. Retold stories. Dead-on scripts. Turn of the Screw. Picture of Dorian Gray. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dracula. Frankenstein. The Wolfman. Even HP Lovecraft’s The Cthulhu Mythos. Actors play a piece from each. Working, temporarily, steadily. Stereotyped, indefinitely. Fallen movie stars, resurrected for the small screen. TV superstars yet to be born. Future TV angels, present spectres. Death. Divorce. Lawsuits. Murder trials. Daytime, nighttime drama - behind and in front of the camera. Shadows of things to come; dark, but clearly defined. TV stars return to the big screen. Convolution. Suffocation. Cancellation. Restoration. Nostalgic television actors replaced with unfamiliar faces (except maybe one). Reality mixes with fantasy in the past, present, future and parallel time, immortal.

Thus sums up the experience of Dark Shadows - one of TV’s most unique series - one which debuts on ABC, June 27, 1966 and continues to enjoy a kind of cult following once thought solely exclusive to the likes of Star Trek. (Or should that read, "occult" following?) It ends its original run on April 2, 1971 and - nearly four decades later - thrives on DVD and in the hearts of multi-generational fans.

Decades before, it introduces scary new American sex symbols, and canonizes untraditional saints in the church of classic TV. It’s the first alternative daytime serial, focusing on the lives of a bizarre troupe, instead of relatively regular ones (ages before NBC lets loose it’s a supernatural persuasion with the long-cancelled Passions in 1999). Its audience is rare among soaps - legions of counterculture teens replace their stereos with TVs. It becomes the first non-prime-time soap to be syndicated (eons before the onset of the all-soap channels). It premieres in a time littered with assassinations, illicit drug use, a sexual revaluation and a misbegotten war; lost souls pine to find themselves in another realm - an era rife with interest in sorcery and the occult. On prime time TV there be witches, genies and monster families.

During the day - when the undead are supposed to be asleep - a vampire rises consistently at 3:30 (and later 4) in the afternoon. His name is biblical, but he’s far from holy (at least in the conservative sense). The character is immortal, but the actor is middle-aged. He becomes a pop phenomenon that few people admit to watching, but one of whom all hold dear as their secret love. Then, the bat is out on the cad. He winds up on the cover of upscale magazines like Time and Newsweek. Before the term blockbuster becomes part of the movie-going vernacular, DS spawns a feature film for which hordes line up to see. A less-than spectacular sequel is produced, while the TV series moves forward, then finally succumbs to a stake in the hardcore of its appeal. Still, the show does not die. An updated prime-time addition arises in the early 1990s. Lunch boxes, books, memorabilia and countless followers refuse to gather cobwebs, and instead gather for bi-annual Dark Shadows Festivals…and not Conventions. For indeed there is a clear amount of joy associated with this darkly-premised TV classic, as its fans reach beyond obligation in their dedication to their favorite show, and rest upon it with true, perpetual celebration.


It’s 1966. DS begins as a soft-focus Gothic soap, with slightly mysterious aura and a few minor ghost tales - a vision that haunts producer Dan Curtis in a dream - an idea that ABC buys into with eager immediacy. But it soon becomes a nightmare for the network. No one watches. It gets pelted in the ratings. Despite the presence of a famed former movie queen in the guise of Joan Bennett and the talented presence of stage-trained actors like Dennis Patrick, the Shadows begins to fade, to hit a brick wall, of sorts, before it even has a chance to rest upon one.

1967: Curtis entertains a second vision. He decides to go full-throttle with the "spook stuff," and creates a tortured bloodsucker named Barnabas Collins, portrayed with earnest torture by Jonathan Frid. Curtis breaks all the soap rules by instructing his writers to inject something scary into every script, every day. If the vampire-thing doesn’t work, Curtis decides, "…we could always drive a stake into its heart."

But there’s no need to take such drastic measures. The stakes, so to speak, are too high. The viewers love Barnabas, as he falls first for the kindly Collinwood governess Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke) and then Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), the amiable waitress at the Blue Whale. Audiences reach 15 million, 90% of which are teens - in other words 13,5000,000. Originally intended for a mere 2 or 3 week visit, Barnabas instantly becomes a permanent resident of Collinsport, or specifically - Collinwood - the centuries-old mansion with eerie ancestral family ties to the past, namely Barnabas himself.

That’s right. He’s lived before - in the "old house," on the Collinwood grounds. The new house holds the descendents of today’s Collinwood family. But Barnabas is the one constant in all time periods…be it the 18th, the 19th or 20th Centuries, all of which are visited "at one time or another" on DS (circa 1795, 1897, 1966, 1969-71).

"Through the years," however, the 45-year-old Frid waxes apprehensive at portraying the frightful lug, the 200-year-old creature of the night that seduces America by day - with biting commentary.

No wonder the actor is nervous at first, about joining the cast. He senses something brewing. A hint of things to come, though he doesn’t know just what. He can’t put his finger on it. Meanwhile, he can’t put his fangs on right. Frid is so manic with anxiety during his first "necking" scene; he slips his fangs on upside down, and chews them to bits. Little matter. For the viewer, it’s love at first bite. They adore him, and the show - taped live every day - despite its awkward camera movements, off-stage wranglings, and flies resting upon many an actor’s nose. That’s part of its campy charm.

Frid tries to make sense of it all - this happy dilemma he finds himself in. "I suppose women see Barnabas as a romantic figure," he says years later. "Because I played him as a lonely, tormented man rather than a Bela Lugosi villain. I bite girls in the neck, but only when my uncontrollable need for blood drove me to it. And I always felt remorseful later. As to his appeal with the younger crowd, he says, "Youngsters…are looking for a new morality. And he is Barnabas. He goes around telling people to be good, then suddenly sets out and bites somebody’s neck. He hates what he is and he’s in terrible agony.

Just like kids today, he’s confused - lost and screwed up and searching for something. I’m a lovable and pitiable vampire. All the girls want to mother me."


The show produces its most controversial storyline. It deals with the witch Angelique (played with panache by Lara Parker) - who originally put the curse of the vampire on Barnabas - her fellow partner in evil, warlock Nicholas Blair (Humbert Allen Astredo), and the big man downstairs, Satan, to whom both of them report. A cameo by the Devil himself provokes negative mail from viewers. Various interest groups and individual viewers are now convinced that DS is dangerous to the minds of children. Letter-writing campaigns are initiated, complaints from fundamentalist ministers pour in, saying the show is "leading innocent children down the rosy road to Hell." Even noted psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers states that the series is "indoctrinating our young people into dissociation."

Parents are apprehensive as their kids identify with Barnabas, a character who "bricks people" in between walls. Some church groups are especially offended when the person being sealed up is none-other-than an evil minister, the tenacious Reverend Trask (Jerry Lacy, today married to Julia Duffy, of Newhart). The DS writers opt to back off, labeling Satan, Diabolos…not the devil…but merely a devil.

In the meantime, the cast is dealing with demons of their own. Some actors are downright frightened, not by the show, but rather the fans. Strange presents arrive in the mail. A gift-wrapped box of live ants labeled Appetizer. A box of cookies to actress Donna Wandrey (Roxanne Drew) - cutout in the shape of tombstones and painstakingly iced with all the actors names.

While the debate rages on as to where the real evil abides, Dan Curtis begins clandestine negotiations with the suits at MGM. The show needs some new blood, in this case - a new monster, one with the hypnotic appeal of Barnabas. The werewolf Chris Jennings has become been popular, but DS craves someone more charismatic. The result is Quentin, a ghost (played by David Selby).

In the interim, a few actors grow impatient with their fading screen time, and scant character development. Joel Crothers (Joe Haskell) is so unhappy, he exits for another soap (Somerset). Alexandra Moltke - three years into her five-year contract of playing a once central character in the form of governess Victoria Winters - now complains about her diminishing role in the series. "Victoria is so dumb," she protests. "All I do is stand around saying, I don’t understand what’s happening. Jonathan (as Barnabas) has hypnotized me into eloping with him, tried to cut off my boyfriend’s head to stick on that goofy monster they made (Adam), even sent me hundreds of years into the past during a séance. And I still haven’t figured out that he may not be quite normal."

Never really satisfied with the limitations of her role, Moltke frequently requests to be given another character, a villainess, or at least someone with a dark side. The opportunity never arises. So she marries in real life a young lawyer named Philip Isles – a very Collins-like heir whose late grandfather founded the famous Lehman Brothers. Now she’s expecting. A pregnant Victoria Winters doesn’t do. She’s released from her contract. Betsy Durkin plays Vicky for a few weeks; Carolyn Groves for a few days. But it’s not the same. They’re never really accepted by the audience. The character of Vicky is never seen again.

But the audience can see through Selby’s spectred Quentin. The handsome DS addition is a feast for the eyes. He first appears as a ghost in present-day 1969, and Quentin’s Theme - heard every time he materializes, becomes a Top 40 hit. The show once again journeys to another period from the past. This time: 1897 - when Quentin is very much alive. He’s the womanizer of this era Collins family - and again, the viewers eat ‘em up, especially the female watchers. The Partridge Family has David Cassidy. Dark Shadows has David Selby. They both appear side-by-side on Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine. What’s more, Selby’s Quentin becomes just as popular as Frid’s Barnabas. And Jonathan couldn’t be more relieved.


1969: 20,000,000 viewers are now obsessed with Quentin, Barnabas and DS in general. The show’s popularity reaches mammoth proportions. Followers from every nook and cranny come out of the woodwork...even the woodwork from the White House. For on October 31st, Halloween 1969, Tricia Nixon gives a Halloween Party for 250 underprivileged children, and Jonathan Frid is invited.

Other invitations are accepted. DS cast members help to raise more than $300,000 for Muscular Dystrophy; 680,000 screaming fans show up at a Founder’s Day parade.

Grayson Hall (who plays Dr. Julia Hoffman - and who’s married to DS writer Sam Hall), Frid, and a young DS ingénue fear for their lives when rabid vampire fans attack the vehicle in which they are riding. This is it. Frid has had it. He needs a vacation. He demands time off. The writers comply…to deathly consequences.

Edward Collins (as performed by the late, great Louis Edmunds) discovers Barnabas’ secret…that he is indeed a knight of the living dead. For the first time in the show’s history, an all-out vampire hunt is underway.

Barnabas is then cornered and staked, which causes a riotous upheaval from fans.

As appeasement, the show introduces a storyline with the powerful Leviathans who rescue Barnabas. The time-line shifts once more, and Barnabas returns to 1969 - the present. But he’s cold and unfeeling - very unlike the Barnabas viewers first fell in love with. He’s free from vampirism, but seemingly more diabolical. It doesn’t register with the viewer. So he’s cursed again to suck blood, so the watchers can once again feel his pain. But the show turns too violent, and becomes a blood bath. He’s sucking people dry left and right. The fans are not happy.

Their dissent worsens, especially since David Selby has by now left the show (when Quentin exits Collinwood to search for a lost love). A Rookie-actress and future Charlie’s Angel (Kate Jackson) joins the cast as a ghost hoping to fill the void. But not even a later-day Goodbye Girl in the guise of Marsha Mason can capture the magic of Shadows gone-bye. The situation grows darker, when the Parallel Time episode arc begins. The show is different. The fans accept the time-traveling, the actors playing ancestors of the descendents they also portray. But the viewers aren’t buying the parallel universe bit, in which the actors play doppelgangers of the same-time characters.

The plots become confusing, even to the players. To top it all off, there’s a movie afoot.

House of Dark Shadows, the first of two feature films based on the TV series, goes into production. The cast films the movie and the television show at the same time. Everyone’s exhausted. Tempers fly during the scant five weeks all are given to complete the motion picture. Actors are shuttled from Manhattan, where the series is filmed, to Tarrytown, New York - 25 miles away - where the movie is being shot. The schedule is hectic, and the strain is showing up on both the small and large screens. What’s more, tests audiences object to the hanging scene with little David Collins (played by David Hennesy). So it’s clipped from the movie. But then, MGM thinks the film is too long. The suits request some editing, to size it down to 90 minutes, instead of 2-hours. Dan Curtis protests. But he has no choice. He succumbs, and the movie suffers, creatively. Yet the fans still line-up to see it - by the groves.

Still, all is not like it used to be, certainly not the TV show. For the like the new movie, it wreaks with violence. The charm and innocence at the core of Dark’s original appeal has been lost. As Jonathan Frid once put it, the film lacked the "naiveté of the soap opera. Every once in a while, the show coalesced into a Brigadoonish never-never-land. It wasn’t necessary to bring the rest of the world into Dark Shadows, which is what the film did."

Still, House of DS saves MGM from bankruptcy, and a second movie is ordered. This one, entitled, Night of Dark Shadows, is worse. It’s not even scary. Again, the blame is pinned on editing. Apparently, the film’s consistent storyline ends up on the editing room floor.

Back on the small screen, things aren’t much better. The Parallel Time story arc is killing the show. A time-travel trip to 1995 fails to rev up viewer engines. One last dabble into the occult serving as a possible saving grace. Once more, Dan Curtis borrows from another familiar tale. A curse storyline based on the controversial Shirley Jackson story called The Lottery. But there’s no winning numbers. Soon, the lights are out, and the Shadows are no more.

The series ends with wink-eyed words to the viewer spoken by Thayer David’s marbled-mouthed Ben Stokes: "There was no vampire loose on the great estate. For the first time at Collinwood, the marks on the neck were indeed those of an animal…and for as long as they lived, the dark shadows of Collinwood were but a memory of the distant past."

And despite thousands of fan letters that form a Bring Back Dark Shadows campaign, the lights go out, and newly-made Shadows fade to black.

That is, until some twenty years later.


1990: Five years before the fantasy 1995 time-line on Dark Shadows is to actually end the original series, a new DS shows up in prime-time in reality, once a week on NBC – not even its original ABC network. The characters are the same, but the actors are different. As with the two DS feature films and the last season of the first series, missing is the campy charm, replaced with too serious a take and rendering on the Collins family portrait. This new Dark is filmed with a big-budget, and not videotaped on a shoestring. The new DS is just plain no fun to watch, even with the respected Jean Simmons (of classic movie-lore, as well as sci-fi fandom via the Planet of the Apes).

None of it matters. The backlash begins.

It’s the Old Shadows Fans vs. New Shadows Fans. It’s like Original Trek vs. Next Generation. Fans of the first Dark are aghast with what they see - and don’t see - in the new Dark. Where’s Jonathan Frid? Who the hell is Ben Cross?

But then, something characteristically eerie transpires. The DS fans combine and begin to realize they any Dark, is better than no Dark. And a subtle cult following soon begins to take form for the new series.

But it’s too late. NBC cancels the series after six episodes, and Dan Curtis is left wondering if he should have instead taken this new Shadows into syndication.


Cast reprise. So many are gone. Grayson Hall. Thayer David. Joel Crothers (who succumbs to AIDS). Others, are knarled in controsersy (Alexandra Moltke finds herself testifying in court over a scandalous marriage). Still others flourish in many an enterprise. David Selby finds a comfortable regular role on Falcon Crest. John Karlen plays a drunken dad on the Emmy-winning Cagney & Lacey. Kate Jackson goes on to be one of Charlie’s Angels, while we learn her former co-star Jaclyn Smith was once married to Shadows cast member Roger Davis. Kathryne Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans, Josette Dupre) discovers further fame as a frequent TV guest star (on shows like the original Police Squad TV series and Star Trek: The Next Generation), and becomes the official DS literary chronicler. Her former Shadows costar Lara Parker now writes Dark novels for HarperCollins, while she also continues to act. They all try to make it to as many DS Festivals as they can.

But the one fans still most eagerly stand in line to see is noneother than Jonathan Frid. The man who could not see himself in the mirror…the man who brought unanimous joy to countless DS fans throughout the world, throughout the ages.

This talented, now seventysomething, theatrically-trained thespian travels today with his one-man shows, titled variently, Jonathan Frid’s Shakespearean Odyssey and Jonathan Frid’s Fools & Fiends, each hearkening in some subliminal - and maybe direct - way, to the fact that Dark Shadows was indeed a hit show due to this…one man.

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