Friday, November 24, 2006

90 Years of EEEE

That's me in 1993, sharing a three-way handshake with my childhood hero and his beloved robotic Metropolitan, Maria.

Thanks to Flickhead's call for a Blog-A-Thon in his honor, many people will doubtless spend today penning Happy 90th Birthday testimonials to Forrest J Ackerman (no period after the middle initial, please) -- a.k.a. Uncle Forry, a.k.a. FJA, a.k.a. 4SJ, a.k.a. The Ackermonster, a.k.a. Dr. (period, please) Acula, a.k.a. everything from Spencer Strong to, yes, Robot Mitchum. So today's subject line is my little attempt to say something actually quite ubiquitous today in a singular way. Besides, I think Forry would like the conceit that all of those women shrieking in darkened movie houses across America were actually screaming his name all along. (EEEE = 4 E, get it? Of course you did.)

Puns are inseparable from the legacy of Forry "The Pun is Mightier Than the Sword" Ackerman, who introduced us to issues of his seminal magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND with editorials signed "Beast Witches," who accorded accolades with his heartiest "Kong-gratulations," and who gladly fulfilled photo requests in a department called "You Axed For It!" There were readers who found the pun-loving side of FM somewhat less than divine, but as one of the many kids of the early 1960s who acquired a taste for puns in the pages of FM, I credit FM and Forry particularly in helping me to cultivate an appreciation of what was clever/wry/discerning before I was really old enough to be smart. By "reading" FM from the time I was more likely to have just looked at the pictures, I developed into a kid who, by the age of 10 or 11, had books by the likes of H. G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sax Rohmer in his personal library.

When we published our first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG back in 1990, I sent two copies to Forry (whom I had never met, phoned, nor corresponded with) with the inscription "For Safe-Creeping in Your Lie-Buried of Kong-ress, The Ackermansion. Beast witches..." It was my way of saying a belated Thank You for having instilled in me a love of language as well as a love of movies, and also for having founded a job definition that (unknown to me at the time) would be mine for the next 17 years and counting. In all those years, I've never received a word of comment from Forry, even though he helped to present the first award VW ever received (the FanEx Award for Best Semi-Prozine in 1991); in fact, walking onstage to accept that surprising award was made doubly daunting because I was not only accepting my first professional award, but meeting my childhood hero at the same moment. I paused before leaving the stage to shake his hand, and spoke with him at somewhat greater length after the ceremony about his favorite film, METROPOLIS. He seemed much more interested in meeting Donna, whom he immediately gathered into an unctuous embrace while slyly pressing into her palm a keychain bearing the words "Remember Me with Every Key - 4E 4E 4E."

A couple of years later, Eric Hoffman arranged for me to visit the Ackermansion during a 1993 trip to LA -- I met Joe Dante in person for the first time earlier that day and, running behind schedule, had to turn down his invitation to lunch in the Universal commissary in order to keep my appointment. Forry was under the weather, but he graciously received me and let me roam around his mansion, pointing out that it had been formerly owned by actor Jon Hall and that a corridor lined with framed photos of the actor led to the first floor "Jon."

Who he? Why, 4E, of course -- pointing to his own life mask, proudly displayed among those of other great Titans of Terror.

After taking a mostly unguided tour through the premises, greatly diminished since its glory days by the ransackings of too many unsupervised "Open Houses," we sat and talked for close to three hours. It was a strange conversation, with my questions prompting either faltering memories or well-memorized soliloquies I'd previously heard Forry intone in television interviews -- Robot Mitchum, indeed.

The thing I remember most fondly about Forry is his almost childlike idealism, conveyed not only in his abiding love for what he was the first to call "Sci Fi," but also in his dearly cultivated sense of altruism. He admitted that many people close to him had tried to make him see the world otherwise, but he refused on principle to have visitors to his house searched prior to leaving. He prefered to be robbed blind than to think and expect the worst of the people who came to visit him. He also couldn't understand why either the city of Los Angeles or the wealthiest of FM's followers (Spielberg, the other Lucas, Stephen King) had never taken him up on his offer to stock a Fantafilm Museum, and this was something I couldn't understand either... until I saw how little of museum value was actually left in his collection. A vintage hardcover of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, signed by dozens of people associated with the film versions (including Elsa Lanchester and Bela Lugosi), would have been priceless in good or better condition, but it sat broken-hinged and unprotected, basically handled to death; priceless props from classic films were covered with dust and thrown just any old where; vintage lobbycards had been cut for display; even valuable back issues of FM sat unbagged and exposed on a damp cellar floor.

In retrospect, I could better understand why some collectors might have "liberated" items from Forry's safekeeping, and for reasons only partly to do with greed. Not that I consider thievery a defensible act, but if one accepts Forry's own idea of himself as an honor-system "custodian" of these precious artifacts, who believed that everyone had an equal right to enjoy them, some of these pieces might have stood better chances of actually making it into a museum someday in the care of more attentive "custodians."

Bumping into a fellow browser at the Ackermansion.

During my visit, VW was sort of the 400... nah, the 200-pound gorilla in the room. Any mention of VW or my own life as a publisher/editor was quickly glossed over, and Forry didn't remember receiving my inscribed first issue ("I get a lot of mail..."). With VW already 30-some issues into its run, I left the Ackermansion that day feeling a little uncertain if Forry knew me as anything other than a friend of Eric Hoffman, that I had been a contributor to FantaCo's FAMOUS MONSTERS CHRONICLES, or even that we had met before. Eric assured me that he was fully aware of me and VW, but Forry never tipped his hand. So I left the Ackermansion that day with unexpectedly shaded feelings.

We parted ways that day and never kept in touch, but this is as it should be, because, regardless of my own proclivity for puns, VIDEO WATCHDOG was always most closely allied to, and inspired by, the spirit of Calvin Beck's CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I'm not sorry that I spent those private hours on Mt. Olympus (or was it Mt. Aluna?) with Forry, but I've always regretted missing that lunch with Joe in the Universal commissary, because it was with him and his own history as a CoF contributor that my own affinities were most deeply rooted. ("Aw, you didn't miss anything," I can hear Joe saying -- but he'll never convince me of that. Actually, now that I've said this, he'll probably e-mail me and say, "Y'know, come to think of it, that was the day Steven came over to my table and asked me if I knew any talented young writers...")

But even Joe was first published in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND ("Dante's Inferno," FM #18, July 1962), and he'd be the first to agree that we'd probably all be doing something else today if Forrest J Ackerman had been doing something else then. For those interested in a fuller account of my personal history with FM, I refer you to "FAMOUS MONSTERS Took Away My Fear (1990)," my heartfelt contribution to FAMOUS MONSTERS CHRONICLES (FantaCo Enterprises, 1991), edited by Dennis Daniel and written before the founding of VW and my encounters with Forry. As I said in concluding that piece, "To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard's famous comment on the modern cinema's debt to Orson Welles: Never let us forget for one moment that anyone who writes about horror films owes FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND everything."

So, on behalf of everyone whose life was profoundly changed or even made possible by FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND...

Harpy Birthday, Forry!

You're ever a part of us. Enjoy your naughty Nineties.

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