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Today’s episode is one of the spookiest of the year…
It’s the story behind one of the wildest, strangest, and most beloved TV shows to ever air on Canadian television.
It only lasted one season, but it was beloved by children and the college crowd alike.
The show was a psychedelic experience of education, and off the wall fun, combined with a horror film icon, Albert Einstein’s friend and one of the most versatile and gifted comedians the Great White North has ever produced.
I’m Craig Baird, this is Canadian History Ehx and today I take you to The Hilarious House of Frightenstein!
That… is horror legend Vincent Price.
Each episode of the Hilarious House of Frightenstein began with his haunting voice reading a poem which continued like this.
“For if he solves this monster-mania, he can return to Transylvania! So welcome where the sun won’t shine, to the castle of Count Frightenstein!”
The episode would then normally go on to show Count Frightenstein’s efforts to revive Brucie J. Monster, a Frankenstein-like monster.
But the story behind Frightenstein begins with Riff Markowitz.
Born in New York City in 1938, he was raised in Toronto where he got bitten by the showbiz bug at an early age.
When he was just 15 years old, he left home to work as a clown for a year.
Then he secured a job as a radio announcer on CJKL in Kirkland Lake, Ontario.
By the late-1960s, he had moved over to CHCH-TV in Hamilton.
There he wanted to produce new TV shows for the station as it made its first foray into syndication.
Much like in 1816 when Mary Shelly, her companions, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron had a competition to see who wrote the best horror story…
To develop his TV show concept, Riff invited creative friends to what he called a brainstorming and spaghetti party at the Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto.
From his hotel suite the idea for a children’s show emerged.
It would be set in a vampire’s castle, full of weird characters that would teach children science, grammar and music.
The show would be best described as 75 per cent fun, and 25 per cent educational as it blended psychedelics and surreal visuals with classic slapstick humour.
The episodes would revolve around Count Frightenstein, the 13th son of Count Dracula, who preferred pizza over blood and as I mentioned earlier would often attempt to revive Bruce J. Monster the Frankenstein-like monster.
The show would be made up of sketches.
Only a few, including the first sketch of each episode, would directly address the main premise itself, while most others depicted unrelated goings-on around the castle.
CHCH-TV loved the concept and approved and with a $500,000 budget production began.
The first step was to assemble a rag-tag gang of actors and to generate ad revenue from the lucrative Toronto market by bringing in a large audience… producers needed a big name.
Preferably in the horror genre, who could lend gravitas and credibility to the show.
Enter…. Vincent Price
Born Vincent Leonard Price on May 27, 1911, in St. Louis, Missouri.
He was the youngest of the four children and started his career as a character actor in the late-1930s and early-1940s, but it didn’t take long for him to venture into horror, where he became a legend.
In 1939, he played the Duke of Clarence in the horror film Tower of London. One year later, he played The Invisible Man in The Invisible Man Returns.
By the 1950s, he was a bona-fide horror star with films such as House of Wax in 1953, The Fly in 1958, and then the Return of the Fly and House on Haunted Hill in 1959.
From 1960 to 1964, he acted in seven film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe movies, including the box office hit The House of Usher.
As the decade went on, Price moved into B-movies, while guest acting on various television programs.
Then, in 1970, he was offered to play the role of the narrator on a new children’s show in Canada.
Price had been wanting to do something that his kids could watch, so he agreed.
The role was that of the ghoulish narrator, and typically appeared in each episode four to eight times to introduce sketches of nearly all the characters, while mixing in some poems as himself.
According to the crew, Price got into makeup and costume, read his segment lines to himself, put his head down, then looked up and nailed his scenes in one take.
Once done, he was back to makeup and wardrobe, and he repeated the entire process over again as he filmed 400 segments in four days,
John Bradford, a camera operator for the show, said of Price,
“Of the hundreds of celebrities, I’ve met in the biz, Vincent Price will always be my favourite as a result of this show.”
According to Bradford, at one point during a long shoot, Price suddenly left without explanation.
He returned about a half hour later with a cab driver, carrying several cases of beer.
He then sat down with the entire crew and told them stories from his career.
Once he had finished filming all his segments, he took pictures with every single crew member and signed each of the photos before he left.
For his time on the show, he earned $13,000.
As the narrator Price served as the glue that held the sketch show together and offered cohesion as Count Frightenstein and supporting characters were played by Billy Van, except for a few like The Professor, who was played by Julius Sumner Miller.
Miller began hosting educational programs in 1959 with Why Is It So? on KNXT out of Los Angeles.
From 1962 to 1964, he was Professor Wonderful on The Mickey Mouse Club.
On television, Miller showed an enthusiasm that was not often associated with serious science and if you thought he was just an actor, you wouldn’t be more wrong.
This guy had some serious credentials.
In 1933, he earned a master’s degree in physics from Boston University.
Four years later he submitted over 700 job applications for physics jobs and was offered a position in the physics department at Dillard University in New Orleans.
During the Second World War, he worked as a civilian physicist for the US Army Signal Corps.
In 1950, he won a Carnegie Grant which allowed him to visit Albert Einstein at his home in Princeton, New Jersey where the two became friends.
In 1952, he joined the physics department at El Camino College in California, where he would remain for the next two decades.
So ya, before Bill Nye The Science Guy… there was this guy and knew what he was talking about.
[Professor Clip 15 seconds]
As The Professor, Miller filmed all his segments over the course of the summer.
And as I mentioned earlier, he often played opposite the powerhouse actor cast to bring most other characters to life…
Born William Allan Van Evera, on August 11, 1934, he would go on to tour North America with his brothers as the singing act The Van Evera Brothers.
He then took on the stage name Billy Van and forged out on his own, in The Billy Van Four, and later The Billy Van Singers.
In 1963, Billy gained national attention performing on the CBC satire program Nightcap.
The Globe and Mail called him the most talented variety performer ever developed by the national broadcaster, regardless of his talent the show was cancelled in 1967, but only four years later Billy returned to the screen to delight Canadian children as Count Frightenstein and many others.
On The Hilarious House of Frightenstein Billy played the title character and the Black Sheep of the Dracula family.
Count Frightenstein’s inventions were either dangerous, useless, or already existed as common household objects.
The Count was always joined by his incompetent assistant Igor, played by Fishka Rais, an actor from South Africa who had only appeared in one movie, Tokoloshe, in 1965.
Originally, The Count was going to be played by Guy Big, a three-foot-tall little person, to create a stark contrast in height between a tall Igor and a short Count. Guy Big originally worked as a social worker and had no acting experience before The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.
Unfortunately, Guy Big didn’t have enough acting experience, and had trouble with Count Frightenstein’s accent, so he was given the role of The Mini-Count in the show, while Billy Van took on the title role.
The Mini- Count is a three-foot tall clone of the Count, who appears in brief sketches and tells a joke.
Along with Count Frightenstein, Billy played The Wolfman, a werewolf disk jockey who spun rock and roll records while sounding like Wolfman Jack, a famous radio DJ from that era.
The segment featured hit singles by The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, Three Dog Night and were referred to as ‘golden oldies’ and as they played, The Wolfman and Igor danced in silhouette against a psychedelic background.
I’ll add links to my favorite segments from YouTube in my show notes… because I love them.
In fact, one of my favourite shirts features a silhouette of the Wolfman and Igor dancing.
The Count and The Wolfman were but two characters Billy played. There were many others.
Including The Singing Soldier, a palace guard who always got a pie in the face when he tried to sing.
Then there was The Grammar Slammer
Billy Van’s disembodied voice would challenge Igor to correct grammatical errors.
The Grammer Slammer was always joined by Bammer, a large purple monster who threatened to beat up Igor if he failed.
Then there was Dr. Pet Vet as a veterinarian that taught about domesticated animals, rather than exotic animals and always gave the animal to Igor as a pet.
Parodying Julia Child, a famous celebrity cook in the 1970s, Billy portrayed Grizelda, the Ghastly Gourmet.
The character always cooked horrible recipes in her cauldron and at least once per segment, she banged her head on a pot above the cauldron as her concoction nearly always exploded.
There was also the Librarian, an elderly curmudgeon who believes regular children’s stories like s “Humpty Dumpty” and “Henny Penny”, are horror stories and so he fails to scare children but believes the stories are important, nonetheless.
Billy was a highly gifted character actor, stating later in life,
“I don’t do standup comedy. I prefer to do characters. I’m not sure if fear is the reason for burying myself in characters.”
In The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, Billy Van played a total of 10 characters including The Oracle and The Maharishi, two characters that have not aged well because of the use of brown and yellow face.
Working alongside the tireless Billy Van were Joe Torbay, a puppeteer from Waterloo who manned Harvey Wallbanger, a puppet playing the postmaster of Castle Frightenstein’s dead letter office.
He typically appeared in sketches with Count Frightenstein or Grizelda.
Then there was Gronk y, a purple sea serpent puppet that interacted with the Count and The Wolfman.
He loudly announced his presence by yelling Gronk.
Typically, The Count read him a book only to be constantly interrupted about the book, as Gronk drew the wrong conclusion about what the book was about.
[Gronk clip 15 seconds]
Along with puppets, Billy Van would sometimes be joined by Mitch Markowitz who portrayed Super Hippy, a hippy in a superhero costume with a large blonde afro who urged viewers not to change the channel as the show went in and out of commercials.
Since Billy Van appeared in nearly every sketch, the entire production was shot around him.
For a few days, Billy was Count Frightenstein.
Then for a few days he was into a new costume and makeup, introducing music as The Wolfman.
This continued for weeks on end as Billy Van brought the castle’s characters to life.
Puppeteer Joe Torbay wrote,
“He was a joy to work with. Both cast and crew adored him, looking forward to the breaks in taping to hear his many jokes and anecdotes, told as only he could tell them.”
130 episodes were produced, in a single-camera format running at 48 minutes and each one beginning with the haunting poem by Vincent Price.
That would lead to Count Frightentstein and Igor trying to revive Bruce J. Monster then things would move through sketches that rarely addressed the overall premise of the show.
Only The Count and Igor appeared in the main plot sketches which involved reviving Brucie, however they would appear in other sketches with other characters.
Nearly all the dialogue in the sketches was completely improvised.
But if a script was needed, those were typically written by Riff Markowitz, as well as Paul Willis and Michael Boncoeur.
The last two had a lot of experience in sketch comedy and experience working with Riff because they three worked together on Party Game, a popular sketch show, in the late-1960s.
At the end of each episode of The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, a different character would say, “The show is definitely over” and although the show ran for nine months it was cancelled after its first 130 episode run.
If you grew up in the same part of Canada, I did, then you may have watched The Hilarious House of Frightenstein in the morning, typically on a Saturday.
In some other cities, it aired after school.
Regardless of when you watched it, you would be surprised by what you saw.
Bob Shiels, a columnist with the Calgary Herald said,
“One of the more remarkable phenomena this season has turned out to be an elaborate oddity called The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.”
The show did well in the ratings.
While I don’t have nationwide ratings, in places like Calgary it drew upwards of 35,000 viewers during its timeslot.
Among all those viewers, only two complaints came in stating that the show was too scary for children.
In the United States though, it was a whole different demographic that enjoyed the show.
The show quickly became popular with the college crowd when it was cut into 30-minute segments that aired at night. For those recreationally enjoying an altered state of consciousness, it was the perfect thing to watch.
The psychedelic segments featuring The Wolfman and the top music of the day were especially popular and often drew higher ratings than The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.
Camera operator John Bradford said,
“The story we heard was that it practically cleared the streets of New York of soft drug users so that they could freak out on the Wolfman segments.”
The show also made an impression on a young Canadian named Mike Myers. He wrote in his book Canada,
“I used to watch this show after school, and it had a big influence on me.”
After its cancellation the show remained in reruns for decades.
It even made it onto streamers for a while on Crave TV in Canada and now find some bootleg episodes on YouTube, or on the streaming service Tubi.
In 2019, Return to Frightenstein, an audio production was released featuring the surviving cast.
Actor Malcolm McDowell took on the role of the narrator, made famous by Vincent Price.
But what happened to everyone involved with the show? Riff Markowitz went on to produce The Wolfman Jack Show, which aired in the 1970s, and was the creator of the 1980s HBO horror TV series The Hitchhiker.
Today, he lives a retired life in Palm Springs.
Fishka Rais, who played Igor, sadly died in 1974.
Guy Big appeared in guest roles on The Tommy Hunter Show and The King of Kensington but died of throat cancer in 1978.
Julius Sumner Miller, The Professor, created The Professor and the Enquiring Minds in 1974 which aired on seven networks in Australia and became quite popular so much so that he became a spokesperson for Cadbury chocolates in the 80s.
He was also a regular guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Sadly, Miller was diagnosed with leukemia in February 1987, and died on April 14, 1987.
Vincent Price cemented his legacy as an icon following Frightenstein. His career was given new life when he narrated Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1984. The massive success of the song helped launch Price back into the public view and he continued to act throughout the 80s, including in The Great Mouse Detective. His last film role was as the inventor in Edward Scissorhands in 1990. He died of lung cancer in 1993.
But what about who made The Hilarious House of Frightenstein come alive?
As his fame grew Billy Van briefly moved to the United States in the 1970s.
He decided that he preferred living in Canada. because when he was In New York, he saw a man get shot in front of him.
Then in Los Angeles, his home was broken into…. twice.
When he returned to Canada, his wife said,
“He was quite happy to be back. He had the taste of life down there and said, okay, that’s fine. I’d rather be at home.”
But he made appearances in many American productions throughout the 1970s, including The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.
In the early-1980s, he narrated the animated show Eureka! which taught children about physics and chemistry. He also occasionally appeared on the sketch comedy show Bizarre, which aired on CTV from 1980 to 1986.
In 1997, he wrote his autobiography, Second Banana, which was eventually published online in 2018.
In 2000, he supported the creation of the Canadian Comedy Awards and appeared in many promotional materials but shortly after in December 2001, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
He died on Jan. 8, 2003, in Toronto.
At the time of his death, his picture was hanging on the Canadian Comedy Wall of Fame at CBC’s Toronto headquarters, along with other comedy icons such as Al Waxman and Wayne and Shuster.
In 2023, he was nominated for induction into the Canadian Comedy Hall of Fame. As of this recording, it is not known if he was chosen for induction.
[SFX LIGHTNING – VINCENT PRICE LAUGH… then bed)]
Information from Frightenstein.com, IMDB, Steyn Online, Wikipedia, Daily Dead, CBC, Harbour City Star, The Calgary Albertan, Calgary Herald, North Bay Nugget,