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


by Allen Varney

Morticia Addams, ghoulishly beautiful in her slinky morgue-black gown, all spider-webs and eyeshadow, stands at her neighbor's door: "May I borrow a cup of cyanide?" Her husband Gomez, with children Pugsley and Wednesday, looks distastefully out his mansion's window on a snowy holiday scene. He snarls, "Suddenly, I have a dreadful urge to be merry."

Look at these New Yorker magazine cartoons and you'll instantly recognize cartoonist Charles Addams (1912-88). Addams grew up in Westfield, New Jersey, and studied at New York City's Grand Central School of Art. While still a student in 1932, he started publishing cartoons in The New Yorker; his sinister "family" emerged there around 1937. Addams drew over 1300 cartoons for the magazine. A dapper and whimsical gentleman, he published a dozen books, exhibited in museums, collected fast cars, and gathered in his Manhattan penthouse a huge assemblage of skulls, lizards, armor, ancient weapons, embalming tools, and other characteristic baggage.

In those days, even TV producers read The New Yorker. David Levy of Filmway Productions proposed to Addams a situation comedy based on his characters. Addams named the characters and sketched their personalities. He got $1,000 a week while The Addams Family ran on ABC for two years (1964-66). Addams later regretted his contract's terms, and especially rued signing away rights to the Family in his second divorce. Cartoon versions followed in 1973 and '92; a Halloween TV movie reunited the series cast in 1977; and successful big-budget movies (The Addams Family, 1991, and Addams Family Values, 1993) indicate that the Family is aging as little, and as well, as its vigorous Uncle Fester.

You've probably seen the 1991 99-card, 11-sticker Topps set based on the first Addams Family movie, but the original 1964 66-card set from the original series crawls forth less often. One of the first sets spawned (Festered?) from Donruss, The Addams Family shows black-and-white promotional photos and grainy episode frames, cluttered with text and a caption that someone must have thought funny: "Somebody drank my embalming fluid!" "I really dig you, Morticia." "My favorite! Devil's Food Cake!" These mimic the TV series, but I wish that, in place of these leaden jokes, the set had offered a selection of Charles Addams's own endlessly lively cartoons.

Addams said of death, "It's something we all face, so we might as well have a laugh out of it, if possible." He died of a heart attack at the wheel of his Audi, having just parked outside his apartment house following a visit to friends. At his request, his friends threw a festive funeral party with a Dixieland jazz band.

Today Addams's boyhood home is a historic landmark, and the main branch of the New York Public Library has a gallery named for him. Any fan of pop culture from "Monster Mash" to Disneyland's Haunted Mansion to Beetlejuice can easily appreciate how Addams's macabre humor shaped our modern taste. But how odd that we not only laugh at the Addams Family, but -- to judge by public response to the two movies -- we love them too. What attracts us to these spooks?

Actor John Astin (Gomez), the only adult member of the original cast still living, springs a surprising explanation: "Psychologists and psychiatrists wrote in a plethora of articles that while possessing a bizarre exterior, we were internally quite sound as individuals and as a family. They said we were, in fact, the healthiest family on the air."

Unlikely models indeed. What a world!

[Published in Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine, November 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998 Tuff Stuff Publications, Inc.]

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