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A "Blast From the Past" column from Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine:


by Allen Varney

In 1966 Dan Curtis, a producer of golf shows, decided to get rich in TV by producing a soap opera. He sold a Gothic-themed serial to ABC-TV, then got writer Art Wallace to create the characters and write the first 13 weeks. For a half hour each day, viewers visited a lonely mansion in Collinsport, Maine (the house is actually in Newport, Rhode Island), where governess Victoria Winters found a murder plot, bad business dealings, and similar routine soapsuds. As the ratings tanked, Curtis desperately introduced two ghosts, which pleased the audience. In April 1967, telling his writers, "I want to go for broke," Curtis brought in a vampire: Barnabas Collins, who made Dark Shadows a ratings hit and a pop-culture cult.

"The idea was that after 13 weeks he would be staked, and then we'd go on to something else," said DS writer Ron Sproat in a 1989 interview. So Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid, who had found little success on Broadway and was heading to California to teach drama, decided to take this short job. It was hard, rushed work. Filming "live on tape" without retakes, directors recorded every flub for posterity: visible boom mikes; blundering technicians; actors knocking over tombstones, breaking into laughter, saying "stop tape," and often blowing their lines. Frid particularly had trouble memorizing lines. Barnabas Collins stared with a haunted vacancy that made viewers imagine inner torment; in fact, the nearsighted Frid was straining to read the studio TelePrompTer.

Nobody predicted the audience response to Barnabas. "The ratings went way up, just steadily climbing," says Sproat. Frid started getting thousands of fan letters, usually from passionate young girls. Press coverage ranged from The New York Times to teen mags like 16 ("Jonathan Frid: Be My Secret Summer Love"). Frid stayed with Dark Shadows, as Barnabas became ever more good-hearted.

...And merchandisable. Today collectors pursue 37 Dark Shadows books (1966-72), including a 1970 cookbook; five albums of series music and eight novelty singles like "I'm Bats About You"; periodicals (Dark Shadows inspired the first newsstand soap-opera magazine); pin-ups, jigsaw puzzles, model kits, Magic Slates, Viewmaster reels, games, comics, a wristwatch, "Groovy Horror Heads," and a prized 1970 music box.

Philly Gum released several sets of Dark Shadows trading cards. The 66-card 1968 Barnabas Wallet Photos series has a hot pink border; lime-green borders adorn (if that's the word) the 1969 Dark Shadows set, also with 66 cards. From 1969 also comes Philly's 16 Giant Pin-Ups, and its 12 5x7" cellophane-wrapped postcards featuring Quentin Collins (actor David Selby). All look pretty good, but none could possibly capture the essence of Dark Shadows: its brooding horror, sympathetic monsters, time-travel flashbacks, and excursions into alternate timelines.

In fact, it all became rather bizarre. Easily bored, Curtis drove his writers to resurrect every classic horror plot, sometimes twice. Sproat recalls, "It got kind of crazy at the point where you have a witch, who has been transformed into a vampire, talking to a man-made man who wants a man-made woman, and the devil is walking around. There came a point where no one knew what was going on." Ratings dropped, and Dark Shadows halted in mid-story in April 1971. After Curtis produced two DS theatrical movies, he went on to other projects, notably the miniseries The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988-89).

But a cult of fans kept Dark Shadows alive. It enjoys perpetual reruns, most recently on the Sci-Fi Channel; a fan club; videotapes; Web sites; an annual convention; and a short-lived 1990 prime-time revival (NBC's Return to Dark Shadows). Imagine produced a new DS trading card set in 1993.

This imaginative series looks as durable as its centuries-old vampiric hero.

[Published in Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine, October 1997.

Copyright (C) 1997 Tuff Stuff Publications, Inc.]

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