Saturday, September 8, 2012

My Journey Was Beginning: Dark Shadows

 The first time I wrote a magazine article about television, the subject matter was Dark Shadows.

I was not of the generation that ran home from school to catch this groundbreaking gothic soap opera; in fact I had never watched an episode until the series debuted on home video back in the VHS era. It’s a testament to the show’s enduring popularity that all 1,200+ episodes were released on more than 200 sequential videocassettes. Nobody tried that with Search for Tomorrow.

Dark Shadows aired for five years, barely a blip by daytime drama standards where success is measured in decades. But its legacy is a powerful one, having inspired a prime-time series in the 1980s, a feature film earlier this year and a cult following that endures more than 45 years later. 

I was working at a radio station when a colleague suggested I check it out, and after Volume One of the tape series I was hooked. Distributor MPI Video wisely began the VHS series not with the first Dark Shadows episode in 1966, but with the story arc the following year that introduced vampire Barnabas Collins, so memorably played by Jonathan Frid. It was that story that revived the series’ dwindling ratings, and transformed Dark Shadows into a phenomenon (and had 40-something Frid sharing Tiger Beat covers with Davy Jones and Bobby Sherman).

Vampires are everywhere in pop culture these days, but long before Twilight and True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, and even before Buffy first picked up Mr. Pointy, Barnabas Collins became the most famous bloodsucker since Dracula.

The genius of Dark Shadows was its adaptation of classic gothic horror themes into a sophisticated modern setting that appealed to housewives, college students and even Jackie Kennedy, who was a big DS fan. Vampires, werewolves, mad scientists, witches, ghosts – Dark Shadows had them all. But these weren’t monsters to be vanquished – they were supernatural creatures with souls. As a reluctant vampire repulsed by his very nature, Frid established an archetype that was revived by David Boreanaz in Angel, and that sparkly Twilight dude.

As I neared the end of my first trek through the series, a new magazine debuted called Baby Boomer Collectibles. Its subject matter was all the stuff I already loved – classic TV, boomer era toys and collectibles and cult films. I pitched them on a Dark Shadows piece and they bought it.

I wanted to interview someone from the cast and figured the most accessible would be Kathryn Leigh Scott, who portrayed both Maggie Evans and Barnabas’s true love Josette DuPres. I selected Kathryn because she was one of my favorite actors on the show, and because she had written a book on the series, My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows. I always like when I can acknowledge my appreciation for help with an article by offering something like a book plug in return.

Kathryn consented to the interview, which went very well. Still in my first flush of DS fandom, it was a real treat to speak with one of the stars that made such an indelible impression on generations of soap opera and horror fans.

The article was published a couple of months later – coincidentally, the same month that a Dark Shadows convention was scheduled at a Marriott in Los Angeles. I attended with the friend that introduced me to the show, and looked forward to meeting Ms. Scott and the rest of the cast in person.

The nice thing about Dark Shadows cons, as opposed to Star Trek cons, is that the atmosphere is more relaxed and informal. It’s much easier to have a conversation with the talent without obtaining a colored wristband, paying for the Deluxe Super Gold Convention Package, or being manhandled by the power-hungry morons usually entrusted with security at these affairs.

So it was that on the first Friday night of the con, I found Ms. Scott seated at a table outside one of the ballrooms where most of the attendees had gathered to watch video clips. I introduced myself and held up a copy of the article.

“Oh, yes,” she said, “How are you?” Then she paused and added, “There were a lot of typos in that piece, weren’t there?”

At the time, that felt like getting gut-punched by the head cheerleader just as you had worked up the courage to ask her out. But she was right – there were a lot of typos in there. That early dressing-down probably made me more conscientious about careful proofreading than any editor’s red pencil ever did. So thank you, Kathryn, for that.

I stayed with Baby Boomer Collectibles for the next three years, writing stories about the Adam West Batman series, Mission: Impossible, Bozo’s Circus, Rocky & Bullwinkle and several other shows. Kathryn and I stayed in touch after that first convention, and a few years later her publishing company, Pomegranate Press, published my book on Charlie’s Angels, which also began as a Boomer article. 

So in a way, much of my career as a TV historian and author actually began with that first episode of Dark Shadows. As Victoria Winters says in the series’ first episode, “My journey is beginning, a journey that I hope will open the doors of life to me, and link my past with my future.” My journey may have been less eventful than Victoria’s, but it’s been less stressful as well.

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