New Light on 'Dark Shadows'
[Did we misspell Barnabas all the way through this story? Yes.--lrh]
Frid, Minus Fangs, to Read in O.C.
Performance: The actor has less than fond memories for his years as vampire Barnabus Collins on TV's 'Dark Shadows.'October 26, 1991
By JESS BRAVIN, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
In 1967, the Yale-trained Frid, a sometime Shakespearean who had toured public schools performing the Lincoln-Douglas debates, won the part of Barnabus Collins, a courtly vampire on the ABC-TV daytime serial "Dark Shadows." The soap opera with gothic overtones would run through 1971, spawn two feature-length movies and a small marketing phenomenon and also earn Frid a footnote in the annals of popular culture.
Frid, who never cared for horror movies as a child (he recalls sneaking off to see matinees of musicals) would forevermore share Barnabus' curse: Like the vampire who spent 175 self-hating years sucking blood, Frid would find his career kept alive by a predicament he hates.
"Everywhere I go," sighs Frid, now 66, "I get a few morons who expect to see the vampire."
And, Halloween notwithstanding, he warns that those who expect to see the vampire tonight will be sorely disappointed when Frid, sans fangs, appears at Yorba Linda's Forum Theatre to read a set of short stories under the somewhat cumbersome title of "Jonathan Frid's Fridiculousness."
The program, which Frid describes as "readers theater," leans heavily on wits from the first half of the 20th Century, including Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx. He adds a few items by writers known for somewhat heavier work--Somerset Maugham and Robert Frost--as well as a couple of modern pieces, including one by illustrator and humorist Gahan Wilson. "Jonathan Frid's Fridiculousness" also contains a few items by its eponymous performer: a humorous genealogy of his name titled "Freaks, Frights and Fridians," and a set examining the frustrations of modern telephone usage.
As a seasonal courtesy, Frid does plan to end each half of the program with a story drawn from what might be called genre fiction. "Here There Be Tygers" by Stephen King concludes the first act, and "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe wraps up the show.
"It is," Frid allows, "what's expected of me."
Frid, a native of Canada, insists that recent years spent on tour with his one-man act "have been the happiest time of my life in show business" but that, inevitably, he finds himself recalling the "Dark Shadows" that defined his career.
And recalling the program's hallmarks--turgid dialogue, shoddy production values and metaphysical mumbo jumbo--Frid is less than charitable.
"It was just garbage, just preposterous; even for its day, it was awful," he says. "All of us, and especially the vampire, would be given these long, convoluted sentences that go on forever. It was a show that tried to be different, but most of the time it fell flat on its face.
"Some people try to apologize for it, saying that's how television was done in the '60s. Well, there was a lot of brilliant television in those days, and we weren't a part of it, I'm afraid."
The program's success--and the continuing fascination that Barnabus holds for thousands of fans--befuddles Frid.
"I guess there was something vulnerable about the character, if you accept the idiotic premise of coming out of a coffin after 175 years. It must have been the vulnerability--I was so humiliated all the time, maybe there was a bit of humility in my work."
But roles for ex-vampires were few after the series was canceled in 1971, so Frid began the odyssey that eventually would lead him to Yorba Linda.
Through the 1970s, Frid won an occasional small film role, but he largely remained out of public sight. Unable to shake his "Dark Shadows" lineage, he finally consented--in exchange for room, board and air fare to Los Angeles--to attend one of the innumerable conventions staged for fans of the program.
"They're a strange lot," he said of the fans. "I feel like a Martian when I'm among them. Let's face it: Most of the people who work in this world, the haves and the achievers, don't watch soap operas."
Nevertheless, Frid said he enjoyed the free travel and so continued to attend "Dark Shadows" conventions through the 1980s. Tired of answering the same questions over and again at these events, Frid proposed instead to present readings. First, his programs consisted entirely of poetry written by "Dark Shadows" fans.
"Most of it's not very good," he said, "but some of it, at least, wasn't bad. They were mostly romantic things based on Barnabus the lovable vampire, the romantic antihero, you know, the longing and yearning of this man who was condemned by this curse, the longing and yearning, the longing and the yearning," Frid says. "Please don't ask me to repeat any of it."
After Frid was cast in a 1986 New York revival of "Arsenic and Old Lace," he regained enough stature to book himself outside of "Dark Shadows" conventions. Juggling several programs, he now offers different versions of his readers theater, based on humor, horror or Shakespeare, playing mainly at schools, colleges and corporate functions.
Frid finds himself in particular demand this time of year. A New York foundation engaged him to read a horror story at one of its public events, and MCI, the long-distance company, hired him to read a three-minute condensation of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" as part of a Halloween promotion.
Still, Frid recalls a 1963 tour of Pittsburgh's inner-city schools as the highlight of his career. "We put on the Lincoln-Douglas debates in every classroom," he says. "The kids were poor, and they were tough, but by God they were sharp. It was the most thrilling thing I've ever done."
So then, has Frid given any thought to picking up his long-delayed ambition to be a teacher?
"Well, I'm almost 70," he says. The former vampire adds without a hint of irony: "I'm getting a little long in the tooth for that."
* The gothic soap opera is long gone from network TV but not forgotten. As the series finds new fans in reruns, a festival to celebrate it opens Friday.July 6, 2000
By SUSAN KING, TIMES STAFF WRITER
"Dark Shadows" has seemingly endured about as long as its most beloved character, the 175-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins.
Well, maybe not that long. But the daytime gothic soap opera, which premiered on ABC on June 27, 1966, and continued until 1971, simply won't die. In fact, the show has found new blood in reruns--first in syndication, then on PBS and now on the Sci-Fi Channel.
This weekend, an estimated 5,000 fans are expected to attend the annual "Dark Shadows" Festival, to be held Friday through Sunday at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel.
Among the original series actors scheduled to appear are David Selby, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott, John Karlen, Nancy Barrett and Mitchell Ryan.
The festivals attract all age groups, says Parker, who played Angelique. "We have lots and lots of new fans," she says. "There are people who show up who name their children Angelique. There are people who have been coming back for 20 years, and they all know each other. For them it's a real pastime. It's based on 'Dark Shadows,' but they all know each other and enjoy being together."
New generations have access to the 30-year-old program, with all 1,225 episodes available on MPI home video. The series' creator, Dan Curtis of "The Winds of War" fame, is even preparing a stage musical based on the series, and the second "Dark Shadows" feature film, 1971's "Night of Dark Shadows," is slated to be restored.
"Sometimes fans wait for an hour and half just to say hello," Parker says of the autograph-signing sessions. "They give us presents. They talk about their experiences and what it meant to them to be watching the show as teenagers and how much the characters meant to them. Sometimes it's quite touching."
"We take it pretty serious," says Scott, who played Josette. "'We raise tons of money for charity."
Though they played enemies on the series, Scott and Parker are the best of friends. In fact, the cast is closer now than when they did the series. "We were young and we were very career-oriented," Scott says. "One of the reasons why we love going is because there are all of these new fans who keep coming to the show because of cable. What they are really interested in is what we are doing now. It would be stultifying if we went to one of these things and we were lost in some retro world. It would be horrible."
Scott formed her own publishing company, Pomegranate Press Ltd., 15 years ago when she wrote her first book, "My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows." She's published 43 books, including five "Dark Shadows" tomes. Her latest, "Dark Shadows Almanac: The Millennium Edition," which she co-wrote with Jim Pierson, is currently in stores. And Parker is writing her third "Dark Shadows" novel for HarperCollins.
"We have all had careers and, actually, acting careers that have gone on gratifyingly long," Scott says.
About 20 cast members, says Scott, normally show up at the festivals. Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas and once complained about his identification with the character, is noticeably absent. "Jonathan hasn't come in the last couple of years," Scott says. "He's been touring with his one-man show and he lives in Canada. He'll return. Others come in from wherever--we get them all."
Scott and Parker say their feelings toward the "Dark Shadows" cult following have changed over the years.
"It was my first job, and so my feeling was onward and upward" after the show was canceled, Parker says. "I came to Hollywood feeling extremely confident that I had done five years on a very successful series. Of course, I said, 'I'm putting this all behind me. I am never even going to think about this show again. I'm going to get on with my life and become a famous movie star.' "
Though she never achieved that stardom, Parker says "Dark Shadows" never "stood in my way at all. I got to play an awful lot of roles on TV, but I never got another big series. It just turned out that the thing that gave me the greatest number of opportunities was 'Dark Shadows.' I have come to appreciate it."
Scott believes she's put her finger on the enduring appeal of "Dark Shadows," which premiered the same year as another cult sensation, "Star Trek."
"It's always my feeling that ["Star Trek" creator] Gene Roddenberry was a genius like Dan Curtis," she says.
"Gene Roddenberry went ahead in time, and we went back in time. Both of the series borrowed liberally from the great classics--from Melville to Henry James to the Bible. They told universal morality tales. They are the kind of stories told around the campfire, the kind of stories children adore and the stories that adults gravitate to."