Friday, June 02, 2006

A Sense of Wonderfest, Part 4

In closing my week of Wonderfest reveries, I'd like to present a gallery of personal snapshots, pictorial and verbal, of some other fine folks who made an impression on us last weekend.

Donnie and Dana Dunagan Of course I've already written at length about the profound impression made on me by Donnie Dunagan, but I haven't written anything yet about "The Major's Minor," Dana (pronounced "Danna") or about the Dunagans as a couple. Dana is a wonderful, warm person whose sense of fashion (we loved the fringe work she sheared into her Donnie Dunagan T-shirt) is matched by her spirit of adventure. She and Donnie are planning an autumn's trip along the length of the Canadian boarder via their favorite mode of transportation: Harley-Davidson. This photograph was taken on the evening of the Sunday banquet; we were coming down in the elevator, the doors opened, and there they were -- looking like a million bucks. And when you see a million bucks, you photograph it! Favorite memory: Our Saturday dinner conversation, of course.

Basil Gogos This was my second time meeting the Michelangelo of the Macabre. I took the opportunity once again to shake his gifted hand and let him know how greatly his work had enriched my life and imagination, and how he, as much as anyone, connected the dots between the horror genre and fine art. I posed for a few pictures with him, but none is as good as this one of Basil and Donna (who he couldn't wait to pose with). As she pointed out later, Basil has such warm and unguarded eyes, it's impossible to take a bad picture of him. I used to think if I had the money, I'd commission a painting of myself by Gogos; after seeing this picture, I'd much rather see what he would do with a painting of my sweetie. Favorite memory: Seeing Gogos interact with partner Linda's be-ribboned pet Yorkie, Cleopatra.

Kerry Gammill Comic art legend, MONSTER KID online magazine publisher-editor, MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES filmmaker, and also the prime mover behind the superb book FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS, which I hear sold out its entire supply in the first hour-and-a-half of Wonderfest! Warm and soft-spoken, Kerry poses here with the handsome trophy with which he was presented at the Sunday night banquet. Favorite memory: Kerry shyly asking me if there was any way we could postpone the Bava book till January, so that he and Basil would have a better chance of winning the Rondo Award for the Best Book of 2006. (Considering how loved Gogos' work is, and how magnificently Kerry produced the Gogos book, I don't imagine he'll have any problem racking up the votes.)

David Colton USA TODAY front page editor, Classic Horror Film Boards moderator, Rondo Awards originator and Master of Ceremonies, and the gentleman who introduced the phrase "Monster Kid" to the popular lexicon, David is seen here hoisting the 14 pound "dummy" (blank book) version of the Bava book, which Donna and I brought along to Wonderfest. He observed that people could read the book in bed and bench-press at the same time, and more than a couple of folks had the eureka that this is the copy we should send to a certain trouble-maker. Favorite memory: Talking to David and his charming wife, ace punk photographer Eileen Colton, about their attendance of the 1969 Woodstock Music & Arts Fair -- but really, just talking to the man.

Frank Dietz Disney animator, MONSTER KID HOME MOVIE filmmaker, and horror fandom's premier caricaturist, Frank's latest collection is called SKETCHY THINGS MUST BE DESTROYED. His peerless knack for capturing what is most silly and divine about his movie subjects destroys me. Visit his website and its galleries and tell me that he doesn't absolutely nail Glenn Strange and Boris Karloff at the end of HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. As all artists do, Frank is feeling a bit constricted by his caricature work and is branching out into more serious portraits; he showed us an assortment of this brilliant new work he'd done for Wonderfest and nearly all of them were sold by the time we got into the dealer's room the next day. Favorite memory: Seeing Frank, a couple of minutes after toasting our happy reunion with a belt of Elijah Craig bourbon, suddenly knocked for a loop by what he'd swallowed.

Gary L. Prange "Have you ever heard of... Prange?" A past (and hopefully future) VW contributor, and a moderator and frequent poster at the Classic Horror Film boards, Gary hosted the CHFB Hospitality Suite (Room 870) at Wonderfest. This gave us many opportunities to talk, especially about a mammoth book on silent genre films for which Gary is presently in the "research and accumulation" phase. Gary brought some DVD-Rs to the room, including a HITCHCOCK HOUR called "The Magic Shop" which I've been wanting to see again for decades, but sorry, Hitch, the conversation was just too engrossing. Favorite memory: Gary's discussion of the Bull Montana curio, GO AND GET IT -- an impressive measure of the man's obsession.

Joe Busam MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES producer and contributor ("The Raven"!) and Rondo's Monster Kid of the Year. Joe and his wife Patty have become two of our best local friends and we dine out together as often as work and pocketbook allow. Being around Joe at Wonderfest was like standing next to the direct current of Monster Kid electroplasma: his joy was our joy, and you can see exactly what I mean in this photo of Joe and the King Kong armature. We love him and his success is well-deserved. Favorite memory: Many, but mostly knowing that Joe's wife Patty and his grown children Susie and Joe, and their Significant Others, were in attendance when he accepted his Rondo Awards.

Jim & Marian Clatterbaugh The folks behind the extraordinary classic horror magazine MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT are seen here with frequent MFTV contributor Tom Weaver at the Sunday night banquet. In the CHFB Hospitality Suite shared by Gary Prange and Joe Busam, Jim and I did most of our infrequent talking while mutually absorbed in watching "Monsterama" shorts from the Monsters HD channel. On Saturday night, when the suite was filled to the gills with people, I saw Donna and Marian having an animated discussion and I had to cross the room to listen in. Favorite memory: Their neat and interesting girl-talk about the real life problems of producing/copy-editing magazines.

And while I'm at it...

Tom Weaver Horror cinema's most accoladed scribe likes to project the image of a crusty cuss who can recognize poseurs and bad apples from the get-go. All this is true; Tom isn't one to suffer fools or willingly waste his own time (we saw him make a few early exits from various festivities over the weekend, but always after bidding a formal farewell and thank-you to his hosts). But those who know Tom well will confirm that he's actually a big softie, and good company because he's someone who can always be trusted to find the humor in any situation. Favorite memory: His generous comments about me while accepting the Rondo for Best Writer... at least I think they were about me! If so, coming from Tom, they were better than winning the award!

Chris Walas How many times in life can you meet someone, not see them for 20 years, and then suddenly pick up exactly where you left off, as though time stood still? That's how it was when I went up to Chris at Wonderfest and tapped him on the shoulder. We haven't seen each other since THE FLY was in production back in 1986. For him, it's an Academy Award, two directorial efforts and two kids later, and for me, it's 125 issues of VW and two novels later, but we're still the same people -- more seasoned and experienced, but still passionate about movies. Favorite memory: Our post-banquet talk about the films of Aleksandr Ptushko and Karel Zeman, and meeting his eldest daughter, who is Chris's wife Gillian (the continuity person on THE FLY, whom I first met on VIDEODROME in 1981) all over again. (Chris has heard about a big new Russian fantasy film made within the last few years, but he doesn't know the title -- could it be that new remake of VIY I've been reading about?)

John Clymer An occasional poster at the Classic Horror Film Boards, John is just Good People. We first met at the last Wonderfest we attended, a couple of years ago, and Donna and I enjoy hanging out with him. We had a few opportunities and got to see a picture of his pretty little daughter. John held our digital camera during the Rondo Awards ceremony and took the pictures seen in Part 1 of this report. Favorite memory: Learning that John had read and enjoyed THE BOOK OF RENFIELD while on a business trip last year.

Richard and Angie Olson
Father and daughter. Richard, whose home movies planted the seed of inspiration for Joe Busam's MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES, is a towering teddy bear of a man; he raised Donna off the ground when he hugged her -- and Joe Busam says he does the same when he hugs him. A warm and effusive man, he is just about the love of monster movies incarnate, and we enjoyed the little tour he gave us of the memorabilia sideshow he helped furnish at the show. Richard's daughter Angie has her father's sweet nature and made an excellent presenter at the Rondo Awards and (as seen here) a makeup model for CSI makeup artist John Goodwin. Favorite memory: A couple of people told me they saw father and daughter sitting in the hotel hallway sharing tears of joy and sadness when Wonderfest ended. I know how they felt.

And last but never least...

Donnie Waddell Meeting Donnie, the talent coordinator of Wonderfest, was very much like meeting an old friend... because he's like David Del Valle all over again! There is a slight resemblance between them, but if I was blindfolded and listening to them, I might have trouble figuring out which one of them was in the room with me. (Well, eventually I would... eventually, Donnie stops and David doesn't!) But Donnie's mind, like David's, is a freewheeling carousel of pop cultural references that can and will keep an entire room in stitches. I'll never be able to think of Gordon Lightfoot the same way again. Favorite memory: Donnie and me riffing on the 1966 BATMAN movie and premiere episode, especially his dead-on impression of an inebriated Caped Crusader: "Robin! I've got to find Robin!"

Undoubtedly there were many other terrific people at Wonderfest we didn't meet or with whom we didn't share much time. It was good to see Vincent di Fate again, and it was only as we were preparing to leave that I met Dave Conover, who I am hoping to interest in writing a feature article about Willis O'Brien's abandoned WAR EAGLES project (the subject of a fantastic after-banquet slide show). Ah well... thanks to everyone for the happy memories.

"That's my final report / Of the Wonderfest sort / Till next year on the WatchBlog Fitzgerallllld -- Woo HOO!"

All photos reproduced in this blog are copyrighted (c) by Tim & Donna Lucas, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

INNOCENCE reviewed

2004, Artificial Eye (UK), DD-5.1/LB/16:9/French with optional English subtitles, £19.99, 114m 56s, DVD-2

This award-winning debut feature by French writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic demonstrates remarkably assured talent and an enticing command of poetic unease recalling the Val Lewton productions of the 1940s. Shot under the working title L'ECOLE ("The School") and based on the novella MINE-HAHA, OU L'EDUCATION CORPORALE DE JEUNE FILLES ("Mine-Haha, or The Physical Education of Young Girls") by LULU playwright Frank Wedekind, INNOCENCE opens with subjective images of what may be a drowning, then cuts to the interior of a school for young girls (aged 6-12) where a group of tiny ballerinas encircle a small coffin, open the lid, and welcome new student Iris (Zoé Auclair) to their world.

Iris attaches herself to a pretty older student, Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge), who is preparing for a new chapter in her life. Her adult teachers prepare her for menstruation and, each night at 9:00, she departs from the school and walks down an eerily illuminated path in the woods to some unknown place. After we discover that the school's wooded grounds are encircled by a tall, ivy-covered wall without no discernible exit, and that anyone who attempts to leave the schoolgrounds must thereafter stay forever and serve the girls who will follow, the story's focus shifts to the dilemmas being suffered by other students. Among these are Alice (Lea Bridarolli), a graceful dancer whose desperation to know what exists outside the school leads her to audition for the school's Headmistress (Corinne Marchand), and another girl who unmoors a boat and heads downstream to the heart of darkness. The film returns to Iris as she prepares to follow Bianca to her evening destination, and as Bianca and some other older girls are asked to perform for a mysterious audience in a theater that could pass for the Club Silencio.

This is decidedly not a horror film -- don't expect scares -- but if you can be content with a magic realist story that is insinuated rather than told, rooted in intriguing questions rather than answers, and which may be an allegory or a fantasy situated in the Afterlife or in pre-natal memory, this is for you. In a director's interview included in the supplements, Hadzihalilovic lists Robert Bresson and Dario Argento as principal influences, and there is something of SUSPIRIA in the tenebrous ballet school setting, as well as something of Bresson in the pensive yet hazy pitch of the narrative. I couldn't understand why, but, throughout the film, my thoughts kept drifting back to Gaspar Noé's IRREVERSIBLE, which is set in an entirely different milieu; I learned afterwards that the cinematographer of INNOCENCE was Benoît Debie, who photographed both IRREVERSIBLE and Argento's THE CARD PLAYER. Working largely without artificial light, he contributes some of his best work here, and the director dedicates her maiden effort to Noé.

American viewers particularly, I suppose, should be cautioned that the film features some of its young cast members (while swimming, and so forth) in various stages of undress. These scenes are natural, non-exploitative, and non-eroticized, but may make some viewers uncomfortable. One brief scene with Mlle. Haubruge features frontal nudity and touches on eroticism in that it concerns her curiosity about her changing body, but the scene is filmed in such a way as to almost guarantee the use of a body double.

Available domestically from Xploited Cinema.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bond Bows in Hi-Def

Sean Connery informs Prof. Dent that he's had his six in DR. NO.

James Bond is making his world hi-definition premiere today on Film Fest HD, one of the VOOM channels available from Dish Network. All month long, 24/7, the channel will be showing "Ultimate Bond in HD" -- 17 different classic Bond films in cleaner, sharper, more brilliant detail than they have ever been seen before. The festivities began today with DR. NO, LIVE AND LET DIE, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, MOONRAKER and THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, all hosted by a tuxedoed, Walther PPK-toting David Hasselhoff, who treats viewers between films to Bondian trivia amid a high-tech wash of digital graphics.

After catching the very end of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, I couldn't resist hanging around to watch a complete feature and had the luck to start at the beginning with 1962's DR. NO. The films are described as being shown in their original aspect ratios (as indeed THE SPY WHO LOVED ME was), but DR. NO was decidedly cropped to 1.78:1 from its original 1.66 ratio. The tops of some heads were cropped off, so we can almost certainly expect the same when the title comes to MGM HD DVD. That by-no-means-minor reservation aside, I was very impressed by the quality of the presentation; in HD, you can see the subtle makeup applied to Sean Connery's knuckles after a fistfight and, unlike some earlier home video releases which bumped up the color, the color volume in evidence here was absolutely realistic, with Quarrel's (John Kitzmiller's) hot red T-shirt standing out brilliantly against pools of pale green sea water. (I can see this will be an interesting and welcome aspect of HD transfers, their ability to present hot and cool colors in the same frame without heating/cooling or neutralizing both.) I don't believe I've seen DR. NO since watching the Criterion Collection laserdisc, and I remember writing about that release that the film looked conspicuously cheaper than its many successors. I don't know why that should have been the case, because this presentation gave the impression of a film that looked a good deal more expensive than I know it was. And the privilege of getting "closer" to Eunice Gayson, Zena Marshall and Ursula Andress through the miracle of HD is itself worth the price of installation. You can almost taste Miss Taro's lip gloss.

Among tomorrow's offerings: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. Having lived with HD television for awhile, one gets kind of used to it... but knowing that these two are in the offing, I'm feeling giddy about the possibilities.

A Sense of Wonderfest, Part 3

Bob Burns and the gorilla his dreams.

Have you ever heard of... KONG?

Well, he was at Wonderfest too -- in the form of the animation model armature used in the 1933 classic -- along with his similarly skinned relative, Mighty Joe Young. Carl Denham had to capture him on Skull Island and bring him to New York City against his will, but Kong is now a willing world traveller in the company of his current keepers Bob and Kathy Burns, who generously brought Kong and Joe along to Louisville in a continuation of an unofficial World Tour.

This tour began in 2005, when the Burnses took Kong for a personal visit to the production headquarters of the Peter Jackson remake in New Zealand. Kong was later Jackson's "date" at the film's World Premiere in New York City in December 2005, where Bob & Kathy were surprised to find that their participation in a crowd scene was actually a playful cover for the fact that Jackson had sneakily photographed them in close-up. You can see them onscreen just as Kong breaks free of his shackles in the theater and emerges on the wintery streets of Manhattan.

On Sunday night, after the Wonderfest banquet, Kathy Burns presented a special slide show reminiscing about Kong's visit to the KONG set and the Weta special effects facilities, where Kong met and was articulated by everyone from the coffee servers in the animation department to Peter Jackson himself. He was even animated for the first time since 1933 -- an unbelievable treat that's included in the extras of Warner Home Video's KING KONG DVD, a moment that Bob says actually brought him to tears.

The Burns slides captured the hearts of Wonderfesters because they vividly conveyed the power this comparatively (and admirably) simple prop has to excite peoples' imaginations. When people handle this model, move his jaws, arms, and multi-jointed fingers, they find themselves literally in the driver's seat of movie magic. The faces captured in Bob & Kathy's slides are a combination of intense focus, infinitely youthful admiration, and open-hearted affection.

The two armatures -- built some 16 years apart -- sport some interesting differences. Kong has no toes, while Joe has articulated toes (with some residue of their original covering still visible). Joe also has a bendable wire brow, facilitating more detailed facial expressions.

As in New Zealand, Bob allowed the two props to be freely handled by anyone and everyone at Wonderfest. I didn't witness a single instance of anyone abusing this privilege, trying to photograph Kong with an obscene digit raised, or anything that would have sullied the preciousness of the opportunity. I asked Bob if either of the armatures required any upkeep, like regular oiling or WD-40-ing, and he said that both were so well-made, they haven't needed anything of the sort. Kathy told Donna and me that it's her feeling that the models get so much exercise, thanks to Bob's generosity with them, that they are kept limber by nothing more than the loving attention regularly paid to them.

With Bob's kind permission, we photographed Kong holding his favorite magazine... but that shot is being reserved for a place of honor in our next issue, which we're finishing up this week.

To Be Continued.

"Well, you cannot go wrong / If you're meeting King Kong / So ahoy from the Wonderfestgerald -- Woo HOO!"

The KKK took my baby away...

The King Kong Kiss, that is!

All photos reproduced in this blog are copyrighted (c) by Tim & Donna Lucas, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Sense of Wonderfest, Part 2

Rondo Winners of 2006: Joe Busam, Donnie Dunagan, Donna Lucas, Tom Weaver, Basil Gogos, Tim Lucas, Bob Burns, John Goodwin (accepting for Dan Roebuck) and Kathy Burns. Photo courtesy of David Phillippi.)
One of the highlights of Wonderfest was the Rondo Awards ceremony on Saturday afternoon. Previous shows found the awards appended to another assembly, but this year, the Rondos came fully into their own with host David Colton illustrating the show with an animated Powerpoint backdrop and handing out the awards with the help of a bona fide presenter (presentrix?), Angie Olson.

Donna and I accept our third and fourth Rondo Awards for Best Magazine. (Photo by John Clymer.)

Taking the stage with Donna to accept our Rondo for Best Magazine (VIDEO WATCHDOG, of course) for the third and fourth years in a row, I explained that I felt a little guilty about receiving the 2005 award for producing six issues annually when we produced twice that many the previous year. As she is liable to do, Donna promptly corrected me by saying that we had actually produced eight issues last year. "Oh, then to hell with guilt!" I joked. Donna rightly pointed out that none of what we did would be possible without our wonderful contributors, and we closed by encouraging everyone to "Support Your Free Press!" (That doesn't mean "free" as in Internet, by the way. Support paper magazines if you like the idea of information sources you can trust and hold accountable -- not to mention collect!)

Donnie Dunagan and Tom Weaver accept their Rondos for Best Magazine Article of 2004 from host David Colton. (Photo by John Clymer.)

Another VW-related victory at the Rondo ceremony was the presentation of last year's Best Article award to Donnie Dunagan and interviewer Tom Weaver for "Here's To a Son of the House of Frankenstein: The Donnie Dunagan Interview," which appeared in VW #112 and was described by host Colton as one of the most remarkable documents pertinent to the genre ever published. Tom self-effacingly accorded all credit for the interview's quality to Donnie and his extraordinary life. As a very surprised Major Dunagan accepted his award and addressed the audience, he said that he recognized Rondo Hatton and had always thought of him as "the unsung hero." The Major has received many military honors in his illustrious career, but he accepted his Rondo with all the emotion and humility of someone who was, until the appearance of this interview, an unsung hero in terms of his own screen career.

Joe Busam accepts the Rondo for Best Independent DVD as David Colton smiles approvingly. (Photo by John Clymer.)

Perhaps the biggest cheers at the Rondo Awards were reserved for Joe Busam, who accepted two awards this year -- one for his production of the PPS Group's MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES DVD (Best Independent DVD) and another naming him "Monster Kid of the Year." Joe is a fellow Cincinnatian and he told me over dinner last night that, aside from his marriage and the births of his children and the knowledge that his first grandchild is on the way, the Rondo ceremony was the greatest moment of his life. The Best Independent DVD award is now displayed in the reception area of the PPS Group offices where Joe works, and his Monster Kid of the Year award has pride of place in his own home. I've never known a more thorough and sincerely deserving Monster Kid than Joe, and it made me feel good to see his superb efforts and his sweet nature recognized and applauded.

David and Angie did a splendid job of presiding over the festivities, and special thanks to the wonderful Eileen Colton (a Woodstock veteran!) for painting the Rondo busts so beautifully.

In closing for today, there are some more things I'd like to add about Donnie Dunagan. Since posting Part 1 of this report, I remembered another topical area that the Major and I covered in our dinner conversation. We got into a discussion of the troubles being experienced by our country and how the current political system -- a polarized situation between two basically similar parties -- isn't helping. I mentioned that, in my view, the foundation of this attitude may reside in the way we're taught, from early on, "right from wrong," which leads to a simplified, either/or view of the world when many of the truths and solutions more likely reside in the gray area between. It takes more thinking to navigate that gray area, but more thoughtfulness is what this country needs. I also wish that competitive sports weren't stressed so much in schools and recreational activities; I know the theory is that it teaches kids to excel, but it also teaches kids to excel at the cost of others' excelling and fosters a liking for seeing one's competitors ground into the dirt. I'm all for sports based on individual performance, but team sports (I feel) are... if not uncivilized, at least decivilizing at heart, fostering "us versus them" thinking that we, as adults, carry over to our politics, and "scoring" attitudes that trivialize our sexual lives (and render some men deaf to the word "no"), not to mention the barbaric levels of mob violence and destructive behavior that are increasingly noticed at sports-related celebrations. I don't expect to change anybody's mind about this, but if it can happen with smoking... and I really do see this as something we need to evolve beyond before the planet can achieve true peace.

"Where's me Pot o' Gold?" Donnie Dunagan catches a pretty leprechaun at Wonderfest.

From there, we went on to discuss the media situation, which is increasingly isolating and polarizing the way Americans think. For one political party to demonize the other, we agreed, chews away like a rat at the foundation of American brotherhood. With the number of specialized cable channels available now, right-wing and left-wing thinkers have their own newscasts and need never be exposed to the other guy's way of thinking. And increasingly, Americans don't care to know what the other guy thinks. (You should read some of the mail we've received about the unavoidable political content in the LAND OF THE DEAD round table discussion in our current issue. It's like some conservatives feel that they have the right NOT to ever be exposed to contrary thinking, however reasonably expressed, and that no one with a contrary view has the right to put forth their viewpoint. And, for the record, I don't regard the most lavishly-spending, invasive US President in history as "conservative" by definition. But that's just how I and Noah Webster feel.) As Donnie told me, General George Patton attributed much of his military success to the fact that he had read the writings of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Yes, if you expose yourself to alternative thinking, you may run the risk of having your mind changed -- not because it will brainwash you, but because you may persuaded to genuinely see the error of your own closed-mindedness. As Donnie pointed out, for those who truly do have the conviction of their beliefs, familiarizing oneself with the way "the other side" thinks could be the key to anticipating their actions and staging their defeat. The arrogance of self-righteousness is, simply put, a weakness. Many a kingdom has fallen due to assumption and vanity. And we would never have achieved civilization if the great orators of ancient Greece hadn't conceived the symposium, giving everyone an equal voice and, more importantly, equal attention.

Donnie told me that he had read extensively the writings of America's founding fathers. I haven't, but according to him, America was initially founded on the principle that the presidency would be shared by a rotating system of five privileged families, which would have been equivalent to a domestic monarchy, if a slightly more democratic one. It was Thomas Jefferson, he told me, who proposed the party system and Benjamin Franklin who wrote that the worst thing that could ever befall this new land was to adopt a two party system; his writing specified that anything less than a five-party system was corruptible and very dangerous. He said that if I was to read Benjamin Franklin's writings on American politics with the key names and some turns of phrase blanked out, I would swear I was reading a description of our current problems.

To Be Continued.

"There's much more to say / But you must wait one day / Stay tuned to the WatchBlog Fitzgerald -- Woo HOO!"

All photos reproduced in this blog are copyrighted (c) by Tim & Donna Lucas, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Sense of Wonderfest, Part 1

This must be the place!

Today is my 50th birthday -- the Big 5-0, the Book 'Em Danno, the Half Century, the Halfway Mark, the Summit, the It's-all-downhill-from-here birthday. I'm not feeling too profound or eloquent about it, but I had a few unexpectedly profound experiences while attending Wonderfest this past weekend at the Executive West Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.

Constant readers are aware there has been a sense of depression here at Video WatchBlog of late, brought on by the recent death of our friend Wayne Perry and a couple of other deaths in the family (we returned home on Monday to learn that Donna's Uncle Paul had died that morning), not to mention overwork and too many years spent without a vacation. Getting away for a weekend and spending some concentrated yet relaxed time with old and new friends was just what the Doctor ordered (his name is Dr. Gangrene, by the way, and he stands about 6' 5").

Dr. Gangrene meets your Video WatchBlogger.

The event is well-named. Being at Wonderfest is like being present at a sampling of what life would be like if people were into imaginative fantasy rather than competitive sports, politics, and other polarizing pastimes. Everyone there was so friendly and so polite; if I ever bumped into someone accidentally, another smiling apology would be made as I made mine. I felt absolutely no tension, no fannish antagonism, nothing negative or needling from anybody. It was heavenly. And, as Donna remarked, it was also uplifting to find ourselves in the good company of so many artistically gifted people:

Graphic maestri like Basil Gogos, Kerry Gammill and Frank Dietz...

Actors like Yvonne Craig (a sweetheart), Donnie Dunagan (a superman and a super man), and the wonderful Bob Burns (Monster Kid #1), who brought along the original armatures of Mighty Joe Young and, yes, King Kong ("Somebody get my picture with this guy!" cried Major Dunagan. "I finally found someone here older than me!")...

Effects artists like Chris Walas (with whom I was reunited for the first time since we met on the set of THE FLY -- could it really be 20... gulp... years ago? -- and the two of us yammered about Aleksandr Ptushko and Karel Zeman like a house afire)...

Fellow editors (like David Colton of USA TODAY and The Classic Horror Film Boards), magazine publishers (like Jim & Marion Clatterbaugh of MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT), and writers like Tom Weaver (who paid me a cherished compliment as he accepted his fourth consecutive Rondo for Best Writer) and Gary Prange (who's pregnant with what promises to be one hell of a book on silent films)...

VW fans like Paul J. Schiola and Jason Bechard, whose enthusiasm and affection for the magazine was almost palpable...

Old pals like Joe Busam (Rondo's Monster Kid of the Year 2005) and John Clymer... new friends like Larry "Dr. Gangrene" Underwood, MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES star Richard Olsen and daughter Angie, and the unforgettable Donnie Waddell (who can set any situation to the theme of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald")... and of course, that earthly angel Kathy Burns, who, during the Banquet festivities on Sunday night, was rightly presented with an award simply for being herself and so well-loved by everyone present. (My heartbreak of the show was not getting to spend more time with Kathy, or a picture together, but we share the frame in the Rondo winners roundup shot taken by Eileen Colton, which can be found at the CHFB "Horror Events" folder, under "Live from Wonderfest '06.")

If it sounds more like Lovefest than Wonderfest... well, it was that too. There was a whole lot of hugging going on.

You never know just who you're going to meet... at Wonderfest!

Some stories from the weekend...

I took a copy of the British edition of my novel THROAT SPROCKETS to Wonderfest as a gift for Joe Busam and it sat in the hospitality suite shared by him and Gary Prange through Friday and Saturday, waiting for me to sign it. Then, on Sunday morning, as Donna and I were preparing to attend the Yvonne Craig Q&A, it suddenly dawned on me that Yvonne was mentioned in THROAT SPROCKETS and could, in a sense, be called a character in it (her surrogate, anyway)! After the Q&A, I found Joe and explained the situation to him, and he graciously returned the book to me (he's getting his replacement copy tonight); I promptly inscribed it and got in line at Yvonne's table.

I introduced myself as the fellow who had asked the two embarrassing questions at her Q&A -- one about the Batgirl theme song, and another about the made-for-TV behind-the-scenes BATMAN movie, of neither of which she's very fond. "Now," I continued, "I have to bring up something that just might embarrass us both..." I proceeded to tell her the basic outline of THROAT SPROCKETS (as her eyes enlarged) and then explained that there is a fantasy-tinged chapter in which my hero finds a movie theater called The House of Usherettes (she laughed) that is staffed by four '60s starlet celebrity lookalikes (a bright lady, she now anticipated the punchline to all this preamble): Pamela Franklin, Stella Stevens, Barbara Steele... and Yvonne Craig, all of whom were responsible in different ways for, shall we say, erecting a composite Feminine Ideal in my fevered brain during my formative years.

I presented Yvonne with the book and she seemed very surprised and touched by the tribute, then she asked quickly if I had her book of memoirs, FROM BALLET TO THE BATCAVE AND BEYOND. I didn't, so she pulled one over, put it under her pen and signed a gift copy to me. "We're two authors swapping books!" she told her sister Meridel, who was assisting at the table.

Back in the House of Usherettes... but this time, it's for real.

Yvonne and Meridel. Aren't they cute together?

Sidebar: I've now been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to share THROAT SPROCKETS with three of my Usherettes over the years, the other two being Pamela Franklin and Barbara Steele. When I brought it to Barbara's attention, she was in the process of reading the book but hadn't reached the Usherettes chapter yet, so I read it to her aloud. She was amused by the key line I gave her, and later told me she thought TS "a masterpiece." Pamela Franklin, my first movie crush and an enduring one, I've never met but we have spoken a few times by telephone. I sent her a copy of the book and she later told me honestly that, while she was flattered by her cameo, the book wasn't her "cup of tea," though she did find it "very well-written." Yvonne told me that she was especially pleased to receive the book because she had been dreading her flight home, not having brought anything along with her to read. I hope she likes it; I've already read her book, which I enjoyed a good deal, and I got a kick out of thinking that we might be reading each other simultaneously. The woman conveyed by her autobiography is bright and quirky, well-read and full of humor, so she just might appreciate it. I hope so.

On Saturday night, everybody was hoping to eat together at one big table, but it just wasn't possible at the Executive West's restaurant. Donna and I lucked out because we were assigned to a booth with Donnie and Dana Dunagan, whom we've known by e-mail since the time we accepted Tom Weaver's Rondo-winning interview with Donnie for publication in VW #112. We met them for the first time when they accepted our invitation to join us upstairs in the CHFB hospitality suite hosted by Gary Prange and Joe Busam, where Donnie held the room spellbound with the story of their very scary flight to the convention through stormy skies. "His mudder was de lightnink!" indeed!

L to R: David Colton, Maj. Don Dunagan (retired on wounds), Donna and me, and the lovely Dana Dunagan (in a T-shirt of her own design)

It's one thing to talk to Donnie about his Hollywood experience, and it's an incredible thing because this is a man who shared the screen with Boris Karloff (in his Frankenstein Monster makeup no less) and took direction from the same man (Rowland V. Lee) who inspired Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill to give what are arguably their greatest performances. He also has the last line in the picture! On top of that, he was the voice and animation model for BAMBI, which might very well be the one Disney animated classic whose negative I, as an animal lover, would rescue from a burning building over all the others, if it came to that.

But after you work through all the movie questions with Donnie, and you move on to more important topics that concern anyone and everyone who draws breath, that's when you discover how fortunate you really are to be sharing his time. Women seem to love him at first sight, but there is also something profound that happens to men when they meet the Major (and I had others agree with me on this). To stand in the same room with him makes you want to stand up straighter, to suck it in, to look him right back in the eye, to cash in all your bad habits and follow his example. He is a walking inspiration. What did I take away from meeting Donnie Dunagan? I grew up without a father; I've known many men in my life, of course, and most of them are (like me) big kids. I have to say, in all candor, that the Major is the first man I've ever met who gave me a profound sense of what I missed out on by not having a father.

Donnie Dunagan - my new Zen master.

I don't have the best memory in the world where details are concerned, and after that dinner, I felt almost emotional over the fact that I knew that the details of much of our conversation would fade sooner than later. (The acoustics in the restaurant were also terrible, and I had a hard time hearing some of what he said -- and, I'm sure, vice versa.) But one thing I'll never forget: As the four of us sat there in the booth, impressed by our food, I said, "Donnie, here's a question for you: You're 72 years old, you've lived and worked all over the world -- what was the greatest meal you ever had?"

He looked up, as if in search of an answer, or humbled by one already in mind. His eyes sparkled as he told me: "An orange!" About ten years ago, the Dunagans were involved in a terrible automobile accident when someone fiddling with their CD player slammed into the side of their car. Donnie was thrown from the vehicle and Dana rolled forward, over the edge of the road and down into a nearby ravine. She suffered some relatively minor injuries, but Donnie was nearly totalled (and not for the first time in his eventful life) with a broken neck and a lot of upper torso damage. He lay in a hospital bed -- in a body cast, unable to open his mouth, fed only by IV -- for the next three months. During that time, he focused on the taste of orange juice and the simple act of eating an orange obsessed him. His desire to taste an orange again saw him overcome the odds for recovery that his doctors had given him. His damaged throat had required some reconstructive work and, after his swallowing mechanism was tested and deemed safe, he was treated to the greatest meal of his life.

I was expecting maybe a colorful description of some incredible Thai dish he'd sampled while stationed in Asia, or perhaps a mind-melting Down South dinner he'd eaten back in the days when he twice marched as a Federal agent with Dr. Martin Luther King. But, instead, Maj. Dunagan astonished me with a snap return to basics, reminding me of what really counts in life, and the preciousness of the most common, easily-taken-for-granted human experience.

To Be Continued.

"There's more in store / Of Wonderfest lore / Right here on the WatchBlog Fitzgerald.... Woo-HOO!"

All photos reproduced in this blog are copyrighted (c) by Tim & Donna Lucas. All rights reserved.