If you ran a theater in 1959 and wanted to appeal to about 98 % of the young male population there was a sure three-step formula for success. One: Feature dinosaurs or monsters as your main feature for Saturday matinee. Two: Throw in a second feature of similar vein (the second picture could be one that had been shown on TV fifty times, no matter). Three: Promise that there would be live monsters roaming the aisles between next week’s flicks. This would yield lines at the ticket window and spark electricity in anticipation during the first show.
One Saturday some friends and I attended something like “The Three Stooges Go to Venus”. After buying a Rollo I was returning to my seat for the second feature. Just as Little Richard was finishing up his intermission number Tootie Fruity (Well before MTV, music shorts were a Saturday matinee staple.) we saw the announcement on the screen. Dr. Demento and his collection of monsters would be at the Penn Theater next weekend. The announcement promised that the monsters would be live and the audience would see them up close. There were photos of these monsters –interestingly they looked a lot like the Monster of the Black Lagoon and the Thing. Please understand we did not believe in such monsters, but we shared our excitement over the prospect of seeing the makeup and outfits up close and probably getting a good laugh.
Next Saturday we were at the Penn. We smuggled in several sticks of licorice bought at little cost from Bill Kidd’s store. We sat through some Boris Carloff feature we had seen on TV several times. We were more than ready when the closing credits rolled (in those days, credits ran for seconds not thirty minutes) and the lights came on then they went off. Dr. Demento strutted onto the barely lit stage.
The lighting in the classier Butler Theater around the corner allowed for sufficient indirect illumination behind the faux Greek statues along the wall. At the Butler, you could walk to the restroom and never be in the dark. At the more plebian Penn, however, the lights were either or on or off and when they were off it tended it to be very dark. You could hardly find your popcorn on your lap. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness we could gradually make out more and more of the legendary mad scientist. He paced back and forth on the stage while some recorded organ music played in the background. (Why do monsters like the organ so much anyway?) Gradually his boots were revealed to be made of a cheap rubber and his cape looked a lot like the one that came out of my Collegeville Halloween costume a few years back. Disappointment! Then he opened his mouth and spoke. Such scientists, we knew from movie convention were expected to speak like Karloff or maybe Peter Lorrie. This guy spoke like he was part of the crew at the Fish House restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh. With a ‘burgh accent as thick as Heinz Ketchup, he offered his greetings. “Boys and Girls I’m Doctor Demento. I hope yuz like the monsters we are going bring aut in a few minutes. These monsters will bite you if you aren’t kerful so stay in your seats and don’t run scream an ‘nat.” He told us that they had not eaten yet and that they were hungry and liked young children but that they wouldn’t eat us. Yeah, that makes sense.
The great moment had arrived and sounds were heard behind us and beside us. From our seats along the aisle on one of the front rows we were in the paths of several beasts barely visible in the dark. Grunting and wheezing, they came towards us. One of the monsters touched me briefly with is paw-hand-claw. I recognized the same amateur rubber and fake hair feeling I could achieve with my $2.99 fake hands from Allison’s Novelty across the street from the Penn. There would be no transformation such as Michael Landon becoming the wolf man today. The show was revealed for the sham it was. The only response was a feeling that one had been fooled into doing something stupid. Hey, we knew the monsters were fake – we just had hopes for a much better level of fakery.
After only a couple of minutes of this jumble, Dr. Demento informed us, “It’s time da put da monsters back in their cages. Were’ yuz askired?” Sadly, no. The show was over. As my grandmother often advised on other occasions: “Live and learn.”
Once the second feature began and we saw it was another TV rerun, we left early and walked up and down Main Street taking greater delight in the wares at Aland’s Toyland or the comics at Butler News and Tobacco. Returning to the theater a bit later to get our rides home, we heard the muttering discontent of the others who shared our greater expectations. Only a few very young children, blessed naiveté, emerged with faces of mixed joy and terror.