Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/10/2017 (677 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Not long after Todd Harapiak moved from Winnipeg to Los Angeles in 2005 to pursue a career in the music industry, the former Fort Garry resident landed work as a production assistant on Rob Zombie’s third studio album, Educated Horses.
One morning, during a break in the recording, Harapiak raced over to Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard to purchase a just-released DVD set chronicling Hilarious House of Frightenstein, a campy, Canadian kids series he fell in love with after catching it in reruns in the mid-1980s.
Because Harapiak knew Zombie, the writer and director of the 2003 flick House of 1,000 Corpses, "loved monsters and all things horror," he showed the discs to him, asking whether Zombie was familiar with the program, which first aired in 1971.
Zombie had never heard of it. But the second he learned horror-movie icon Vincent Price was one of Frightenstein’s recurring cast members, he asked to borrow the DVDs overnight. The next morning, as he was handing them back to their rightful owner, the ex-frontman of White Zombie announced, "That was the best thing I’ve ever seen."
Twelve years later, Harapiak is the brains behind Vinyl Frightenstein, a four-volume set of long-playing albums. The records, which are being pressed on coloured vinyl, contain sound bites, jokes and skits culled from Hilarious House of Frightenstein’s 130 individual episodes, all of which were filmed at CHCH-TV in Hamilton.
"As a longtime fan of the show, I’d been toying with the idea of a vinyl version for a while," he says, when reached at home in California. "But in January of this year, after I’d begun noticing an influx of all these really unique TV and movie soundtracks being released on vinyl, I figured if I didn’t do it soon, somebody was probably going to beat me to it."
Horrorpedia.com, a website devoted to all manner of ghosts and goblins, describes Hilarious House of Frightenstein as "the ideal introduction (to the horror-film genre) for a child growing up in the ‘70s; not too intense, but just enough of a tantalizing taste of the macabre. There was nothing like it on TV at the time, and there has been nothing like it since."
Devotees of the show can argue whose antics were more amusing, Igor’s or the Professor’s. But there’s no debating the driving force behind the good-natured ghoulishness was Billy Van, the Toronto-born actor and comedian who played 10 separate roles, including the Oracle, Dr. Pet Vet and the show’s titular character, Count Frightenstein, a vampire who preferred pizza to platelets. (Van, who died of cancer in 2003, also appeared regularly on such big-name, American variety series as The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show. More impressively, as a member of the Billy Van Singers, he lent his vocal cords to the theme song for the 1967 cartoon, Spider-Man.)
"I hate to say it, but when I was a kid I didn’t get half the jokes, like when Billy (Van) as Grizelda, the Ghastly Gourmet would turn to the camera and blurt out something like, ‘Jane Fonda, eat your heart out,’" says Harapiak, 39. "Or when the Wolfman as DJ would be dancing to the Doors or the Stones or whatever, and the psychedelic backdrop made it look like this really bad acid trip. It’s crazy to look back and realize it was a bunch of six- and seven-year-olds watching this stuff."
In January, Harapiak tracked down Mitch Markowitz, one of the show’s associate producers, after members of a Facebook fan club devoted to the show (www.facebook.com/groups/2316761035) told him Markowitz would be the person to speak to about licensing rights. Initially, Markowitz, who appeared on-camera from time to time as Super Hippy, couldn’t understand why somebody with an L.A. area code was contacting him about a TV series as quintessentially Canadian as maple syrup and three-down football. But after Harapiak explained his Canuck roots, Markowitz gave the vinyl reissue the green light.
"It took a few months to go through the tapes and pick out stuff. The writing on the show was so great and so funny, it wasn’t easy deciding what to use and what not to," says Harapiak, who also reached out to Vincent Price’s daughter Victoria Price, to seek her permission to use her late father’s voice and image on the albums. "I mean, we could have put out an entire record of just the Wolfman talking and playing tunes, or the Librarian reading stories. The same for photos: Dave Cremasco, one of the original on-set cameramen from the show, gave us 600 never-before seen photographs he took between takes, which we were able to pick and choose from for the liner artwork."
In 2005, Winnipeg-born stand-up comic/actor Aaron Merke was working at MuchMusic in Toronto, when he heard about a Hilarious House of Frightenstein fan convention being staged at a watering hole on Queen Street. Like Harapiak, Merke, 40, has fond memories of watching the show when he was a grade-schooler. He headed to the get-together, figuring it would be good for a few laughs.
"I wasn’t expecting to bump into anybody I knew, but I ran into a bunch of my comedian friends, who also loved Frightenstein," Merke says, seated inside an Osborne Village coffee shop. "I kept repeating to everyone, ‘I didn’t know you liked the show, too.’ It was like this strange secret we all shared."
Merke, who will be a featured performer during the Winnipeg Improv Festival (which begins Tuesday and runs to Oct. 21), says Hilarious House of Frightenstein inspired him in a pair of ways.
"The comedy, obviously — I’ve always been interested in that — but a few years ago, I discovered I could also sculpt, and I started doing special-effects makeup," says Merke, who has appeared in the films Make It Happen and Foodland, and the TV series Less Than Kind. "I mean, because the makeup on the show was so good, it wasn’t until years later that I even realized Billy Van had been playing multiple characters."
A few years ago, Merke began pitching the idea of a movie based on the life of Billy Van to film producers. He is still crossing his fingers that plan will see the light of day.
"Billy was just so good. As an actor, I put him up there with (Michael) Myers, (Peter) Sellers and Eddie Murphy as somebody who could pull off all these different personalities. To me, he’s somebody who should have been on (Saturday Night Live), but I think he was just late to the party."
Harapiak began accepting pre-orders for the records in mid-September, and expects to begin shipping copies Nov. 1. He teamed up with Winnipeg-based record company Groove Vinyl to produce the package, and says there was no arguing over what playback format they would use, to reintroduce Grammar Slammer, the Maharishi and Harvey Wallbanger to the world. (To his surprise, orders have filtered in from as far away as Australia.)
"I think there’s something to be said for the experience of actually sitting down with a record and listening to it from start to finish and being immersed in it," he says. "The minute you hear the first few bars of March of the Martians that opens the show, it’s complete childhood nostalgia. The show was such an influence on us as far as creativity and music was concerned, so we hope there are kids who will discover this album and let their imagination take them to new places. Many parents have emailed us saying they watched the show when they were young and have ordered the albums to share with their own children."
For more information on the Hilarious House of Frightenstein album collection, visit www.frightensteinvinyl.com.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.