Just as the Frankenstein monster kept getting brought back to life, the same thing is happening to The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.
The wildest kiddie show ever to come out of Hamilton, Ontario — or anywhere else for that matter — is being re-energized across multiple platforms. As of Friday, July 19, all 130 episodes of the series, which premiered in 1971, are available for streaming at Crave.
Frightenstein starred versatile Canadian comedian/actor Billy Van as a green-faced (for those who had colour TV sets back then) vampire. “The Count” had a full-sized Frankenstein’s monster (which resembled, a little too closely, the famous monster from the original Universal films) on the slab in his laboratory. His rotund assistant, Igor (Fishka Rais), helped the Count jump-start “Brucie.” Van also played several other character – Bwana Clyde Batty, an Auzzie adventurer, The Wolfman, a dancing DJ, The Librarian, a creepy and dusty old reader, Grizelda, a witch and more. Van was so disguised and talented I was 20 before I figured out that was him under all that hair and latex.
The series was produced by Riff Markowitz and co-produced by his younger brother Mitch. Mitch Markowitz also appeared as one of the few characters not played by Van — Super Hippy, a skinny, blonde-wigged superhero who was so stoned he always appeared to be flying sideways.
With Van long gone and Riff retired to Palm Springs it has been largely left to Mitch Markowitz to carry the Frightenstein torch. He’s lighting things up in a big way this year, with the franchise nearing the 50th anniversary mark. But don’t take it from me; let’s hear from Markowitz himself, starting with the incredible story about how Riff and Mitch originally sold their series on the promise that it would be headlined by a famous Hollywood star:
Your brother Riff was already making the afternoon favourite Party Game for CHCH. How did you sell the station on Frightenstein?
We had a meeting with the general manager at CHCH. We pitched the series and he said, well, let me think about it. We knew he wasn’t sold, so we made another appointment. We came back in and said, ‘What if we got a really big-name Hollywood movie star to be the host?’
‘Who?’ he asked. My brother looked up in the air and pulled down a name and said, ‘Well, like Vincent Price?’ The General Manager said, ‘If you can get Vincent Price to come to our shitty little station in Hamilton, I’d sign right here, right now for 130 episodes.’ That’s the story.
We happened to have a contract with us and he did sign. We got back into the car, looked at each other and said, ‘How are we going to get Vincent Price? How are we going to find him?’ Of course we did.
Now you’re bringing Frightenstein back to life. Tell me about some of the new projects.
I’ve licensed the rights to do a reboot, a 50th anniversary special, to air in 2021. It’s with a company called Headspinner Productions. It’s a husband and wife team, Michelle Melanson and Ken Cuperus, two young producers specializing in children’s productions. They were huge fan of Frightenstein. Ken, who did sketch comedy, used to watch growing up in The ‘Peg.
They also want to do an animated version of the series aimed at three to seven-year-olds called The Happy House of Frightenstein.
Are they going to try and model the voices on Billy Van’s original interpretations?
No, you can’t really. Everybody’s giving it their own spin. The reboot’s not going to look exactly like our show did. We’re going to use some children as actors and go for much more diversity.
Take the Wolfman for example. Everybody’s very concerned about Wolfman. This is going to be a deal with a big time network. Nobody wants to get sued! We had no concerns back in 1971 especially since we knew nobody was ever going to watch Channel 11 anyway. Their concern was with Universal coming after then because of the original Universal Wolfman films of the ‘40s.
This new Wolfman isn’t going to be a wolfman at all. It’s called “Wolfy,” and she’s female.
What other projects are in the works?
The Headspinner folks were introduced to me by another young man, an actor-producer by the name of Anthony Mann. He asked if I had ever considered doing Frightenstein as an audio drama? He’s now 98 per cent ready to drop it on iTunes and has a distribution deal for CDs, vinyl — all over the place. I do a couple of cameos on it as Super Hippy.
Anthony pulled together a coup — not dissimilar to the coup we pulled. He managed to land another big name Hollywood star to reprise the introductory parts played by Vincent Price in the original. It’s Malcolm MacDowell, who broke out with “A Clockwork Orange” in 1971 – the same year Frightenstein started.
The story gets even better. Anthony lives and works out of Kingston, Ont. Malcolm wasn’t interested in going to Kingston or even Toronto for that matter. He recorded his part in LA; Anthony directed him via Skype.
Malcolm evidently was very close friends with Vincent. When Anthony put it to him, he took about two seconds to make up his mind and said,’ I’d be honoured to do Vincent’s part.’ He nailed it, the whole thing, in one take. He was in the studio for 40 minutes.
At the end of it, Anthony said, with his hands clenched praying that he would say yes, ‘That was terrific Mr. MacDowell. Would you consider taking another 43 seconds and doing a sound bite I could use for promotional purposes?’ MacDowell said, ‘Sure, not a problem.’
He did the read and then ended it with, ‘This one’s for you Vinnie.’
Retrokid is coming out with a new line of Frightenstein hoodies and T-shirts. The people behind this line grew up watching the show and are huge, huge fans. They got in touch with Headspinner and said we’d like to do Frightenstein swag and merchandise. They just dropped the product line on their website and are bombarded with orders.
Wait — there’s more?
There’s a special effects expert a guy named Mike Emiglio. He has a company MFX & Manufacturing. I did a movie about a year or two ago called “Human Cattle.” It’s kind of weird and somebody’s head gets blown off—that’s Mike’s area of expertise.
He’s also a sculpture and does bobble heads. He just finished one prototype of me as Super Hippy. He’s probably a month or two away from going to market with Wolfman, Librarian, The Count, maybe Grizelda.
Tell me about the deal with Crave.
Their Head of Acquisition, Tory Jennings, grew up watching the original show or the first set of reruns. It’s nice that these people are now able to make buying decisions!
They wanted it big time. I always want to get it out there in front of the original fans and all the subsequent fans who watched it and in front of a new generation. So we came to terms.
They had to reformat it to 1080 which works these days on the rectangular television sets. Then they had to close caption it and bring it up to today’s standards. Hey, it’s nearly 50 years ago!
Bell then had to work it into their Crave schedule. They’ve got HBO, Starz and Showtime. They’ve brought more product in the last month than I’ve got hair left on my head!