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24 November, 2007

Thank you, Forry… for Everything.

Like many of my contemporaries, the treasures and pleasures of my formative years were a mix of horror movies, comic books, model airplanes, baseball cards, and monster magazines. Of the last, the most notable when I was a child was Famous Monsters of Filmland, published by James Warren, and edited by the Godfather of Horror fandom, Forry Ackerman.

Born Forrest James Ackerman on the 24th of November, 1916, Forry’s life-long love of Fantasy, Science-Fiction, and Horror films began at an early age with, according to his web-site biography, a viewing of the Fantasy film ONE GLORIOUS DAY when he was 5½ years old. That love affair has now lasted nearly eighty-six years, and along the way, he has inspired thousands, if not millions, of fans of genre films with his quick wit, vivid writing, and, most of all, his accessibility.

For decades, at his home dubbed the Acker-Mansion, in Horror-Wood, Karloff-ornia, visitors could just drop by, and with little more than a polite knock on the door and friendly hello, receive a tour of the Ackermonster’s incredible museum of Movie treasures, everything from the original Stegosaurus miniature from the 1933 classic KING KONG, to the golden idol from the beginning of RAIDERS FROM THE LOST ARK. Thousands of movie posters, photographs, props, costumes, scripts, books… all laid out for viewing, just for the asking.

Occasionally, Forry's openness and generosity have resulted in loss; the list of items that have been stolen from his collection would do many museums proud—the head from the Zuni fetish doll from the 1975 TV classic TRILOGY OF TERROR; the medallion worn by Bela Lugosi in 1931’s DRACULA; a pair of Mr. Spock’s ears from the original Star Trek series. These and many more items from his tremendous collection have disappeared through the years, primarily because the man who owned them wanted the world to share in and enjoy his love of the genre, rather than locking the pieces up where only he could enjoy them.

Still, visitors to the Ackermansion seldom left disappointed, and often were treated to what amounted to a history lesson on the world of Horror, Sci-Fi, (a word that Forry himself coined…) and Fantasy films, from one who was present almost from the beginning.

In 1958, Forry made what is perhaps his greatest contribution to Horror and Sci-Fi fandom, when he joined with publisher James Warren to create what would become the most influential Horror magazine ever: Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Famous Monsters was THE magazine when I was a kid. I’m not sure how old I was when I got my first issue of FM, but I can vividly remember the cover to this day, more than three-and-a-half decades later: The grinning visage of Barnabas Collins, fangs bared, glared out at the reader in bold vibrant color. I can’t remember the articles, and I have no idea when I got it or how much it cost. But that cover never left me. For most of the next eight to ten years, FM was a part of my life. From the fun, easy-to-read articles that seemed written with youngsters in mind, to the prolific photos, to the gorgeous artwork that adorned every cover, the magazine was designed to be kid-friendly, as open and accessible as Forry himself. Even the few ads that were allowed into the mag were aimed at us kids, ads for such diverse treasures as Don Post masks, (expensive even then…) life-sized Frankenstein’s Monsters, (little did we know that they were just posters…) 8mm prints of the great Universal Horror Films, (sure, they were edited down to about fifteen minutes of footage, and there was no sound, but in those pre-VCR days, I dreamed of having my own projector and a collection of my favorite movies…) and, of course, ads for all the other Warren magazines.

I think that the ads were always my favorite part of FM. Though I doubt I ever ordered anything from them, I loved looking at them and dreaming. Dreaming of having my room filled with the masks, toys, posters, and other memorabilia of the genre. Dreaming of the day when I would be old enough to have my own house, decorated top to bottom, front to back with monster movie posters and monster masks. Sadly, I haven’t quite achieved my childhood dreams… but I’m still working on it.

But it was the articles that fired my desire to see as many of these great films as I could. It was in these pages that I first learned of Hammer films, of George Pal and Ray Harryhausen, Julian’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Though it would be years, even decades, before I would see some of these films, my search for them began at the meta-forry-cal feet of the Ackermonster.

As the ‘70’s passed into the ‘80’s, I began to lose touch with FM, and the Horror genre in general. Though I still loved to go see Horror Films, my teen years began to draw me to other interests. The Monsters, though still there, slipped into the background of my life, much like extended family; I would occasionally think of them, and realize how much I missed them, but just didn’t have time to visit. By the time I started college, in 1982, FM had slid quietly into the same recess in my mind as my Comic books and baseball cards. Thus it failed to register entirely when, in 1983, Forry was removed as Editor, and the magazine ceased publication.

While Jim Warren and Forry had never been best of friends, their relationship in the final years of FM had grown increasingly strained, and reached the breaking point when Warren tried to take control of FM away from Forry, naming him Editor Emeritus, but stripping him of his day-to-day duties. Forry balked at this and, when the smoke had cleared, Famous Monsters of Filmland was no more.

But I was blissfully unaware of all this intrigue until years later. As I gradually re-entered the genre in the late ‘90’s, I slowly became aware of the story behind the demise of the magazine that played such a huge role in my love of horror. I also learned of a new Famous Monsters that was being published, and of the perfidy of the person trying to usurp the reputation and position held by my childhood hero. Though Forry eventually won the court battle over this issue, the effort left him, no longer a young man, physically exhausted and financially bereft. In 2002 Forry moved out of the 18-room Ackermansion, into a small, one-bedroom bungalow he’s christened the Son of Ackermansion. In the process, he was forced to sell off the preponderance of his vast collection.

How did he do this, you ask? At one of the great auction houses like Christie’s, or Sotheby’s? In a quiet sale to a museum or private collector? No. Forry had a yard sale.

Ask any horror film-maker of the ‘80’s and 90’s, and most of them will tell you that Forry Ackerman, and Famous Monsters of Filmland, was a pivotal influence in their lives and careers. Spielberg, Jackson, Landis, Dante… all credit, to varying degrees, those early issues of FM with growing and guiding their love of genre films. Add to that the sheer millions of ordinary kids whose natural love of fantasy and imagination found a friend in Forry, and it’s easy to see that Modern horror wouldn’t exist without his contributions, nor would we still have the respect and admiration for the classics of yesterday that he instilled in us.

In his long life, Forrest J. Ackerman has been many things: Author, actor, agent, editor, even, according to his own web-site biography, the first lesbian President of the United States. (There’s no way I can explain it, just go there and read it for yourself…) But most of all, Forry’s been two things: A fan, and a friend.

Thank you, Forry, for being both.

1 comment:

ServoCrow said...

Very nice post indeed...honoring the man and leaving all the nasty hub-bub out...as I was ALSO unaware of all of this stuff too, growing up until MUCH MUCH LATER. You've honored the man very well here, my friend...very well indeed.