“Here they were, with these thousands of kids, and this idiot on top of this hearse with fangs, and what was going on, you know? What’s happened to America?”
A year ago, Jonathan Frid stepped out of the mystery box for a limited 13-week run as a villain on a struggling soap opera. Now it’s May 1968, and by some strange magic, Barnabas Collins is the most popular character on the hottest show on daytime TV. The ratings have jumped from 9 million viewers to 16 million, and they haven’t peaked yet. As “America’s cool ghoul”, Jonathan Frid is suddenly at the center of a pop culture sensation.
That’s good news for ABC, obviously, and the most exciting part is that Dark Shadows has caught on with teenagers, whose daily lives are the original social media.
Traditionally, soaps were watched by housewives, recluses and the unemployed. These are people with a fairly limited amount of social interaction, and word-of-mouth doesn’t spread that far. But high school and college students talk to and influence a huge number of friends and acquaintances, and they have lots of free social time when they can evangelize about their new favorite show. Plus, they’ll buy spin-off merchandise, which brings in revenue and continues to spread awareness of the show to potential new viewers. In a couple months, ABC is going to move Dark Shadows from 3:30 to 4:00, to make sure that kids can get home after school to watch the show.
And this week, they’re sending Jonathan Frid on a week-long whistle-stop national tour, traveling to 10 cities in a private Lear jet. Frid’s job for this week is to show up at airports and supermarkets dressed as Barnabas — complete with cape, cane and fangs — and tell children what it’s like to be a vampire. P.S. Jonathan Frid is a grown man.
Frid’s going to be out of town for seven days, which presents a problem for Dark Shadows. Barnabas is at the center of every storyline right now, and they can’t keep him off-screen for a whole week. So, as I mentioned yesterday, they’re going to shoot episodes out of order for a little while, to give Frid a week away from the studio without bringing the story to a dead stop.
Today’s episode was taped on the first day of that Frid-less week, so instead of watching the show, we’re going to follow him on his trip, to see what happens when you send a 43-year-old Canadian stage actor to Fort Wayne and Grand Rapids, and tell him that he’s a Beatle.
Just like the kids who flocked to the airports and supermarkets to see Barnabas, that means we’re going to miss watching an episode of the show, but the saga of Frid’s Big Week is one of the most thrilling stories in all of Dark Shadows. Let’s ride.
Day 1: Atlanta, GA
Sunday, May 19th
Atlanta is the first stop on our tour of the nation’s transportation hubs. Each of the ten stops begins with an appearance at the airport, where Barnabas meets the public for autographs and pictures. According to an article in the Memphis World, Frid was “welcomed by a barrage of screaming teenage fans at the Atlanta Municipal Airport.” That sounds pretty exciting, but it’s not like he had to be rescued by the police or anything. That doesn’t happen until tomorrow.
The airport appearance is then followed by a supplementary activity, organized by the local ABC affiliate. In this case, that’s Channel 11 WQXI-TV, who have assembled a “Face-to-Fang Press Conference” for the editors of high school and college newspapers at the Marriott Motor Hotel. No, seriously.
Here’s the Memphis World’s description, which highlights the participation of Channel 11’s “Atlanta-Eleven Girls”. I love the Atlanta-Eleven Girls.
“Approximately sixty editors representing high school and college papers in the Atlanta area were confronted at the door by Atlanta-Eleven Girl Fredda Lee, who — under hypnosis — turned from side to side in a coffin while holding a ‘Barnabas Collins Press Conference’ sign.”
So there you go, that’s the mental picture to help you understand what this week was like for Jonathan Frid. He’s whisked from the airport to a motel, and the first thing he sees is a dazed Fredda Lee, writhing in a coffin.
“The candle-lit press room was appropriately adorned with cobwebs, calla lilies, and bats. Ethereal music in the background was punctuated by occasional female screams followed by maniacal laughter.
“The station’s Atlanta-Eleven Girls, clad in black, served guests Frid Fingers, Eye-of-Vampire, Bat’s Tongue and Collins Cooler. Steaming black ice cream for ‘cool ghouls’ completed the menu.
“Guests bombarded the fanged Frid with questions ranging from ‘How does it feel to lie in a coffin?’ to ‘Why are females crazy about Barnabas?’ Frid’s immediate answer: ‘There’s something about being bitten on the neck.'”
And so our hero spends the afternoon sipping on a Collins Cooler, and answering awkward high school newspaper questions while a Halloween haunted-house sound effects record plays unobtrusively in the background.
After that ordeal is over, Frid is taken to the WQXI-TV studio, for an appearance on the afternoon Dialing for Dollars Movie. I am not making a single part of this up.
Day 2: Charleston, SC & Little Rock, AR
Monday, May 20th
The second day of the tour began in Charleston, South Carolina, where Frid had his first experience of being mobbed.
It sounds like everything went okay at the airport and the high school newspaper press conference in Charleston. Then things got rough.
According to an article from the Charleston News and Courier (quoted on the DS fansite The Collinsport Historical Society):
“From there, his motorcade, with police escort, continued to Pinehaven Shopping Center, where he was met by a group of shrieking, shoving teenagers who mobbed his car and tugged his suit.
“‘I guess I really egged them on,’ Frid commented later, while dining in a Mount Pleasant restaurant on local seafood. ‘I held up my cane, which I use on the show, and that only made them scream louder,’ he quipped.”
Police estimated that there were close to 3,000 people at the shopping center, blocking all exits. Three police cars arrived and formed a single-file line, so that Frid and his ABC publicist could climb from roof to roof, out of the crowd and into a waiting car.
So this is probably a good time to talk about Beatlemania.
The Beatles weren’t the first musicians to attract a fanatical following of screaming teenage girls. The phenomenon was first observed as “Lisztomania” in the 1840s, when the handsome German composer Franz Liszt was swarmed by fans after his performances, stealing his handkerchiefs and scheming to cut off locks of his flowing hair. Closer to home, there were the “Bobby soxers” of the 1940s, who idolized Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
But the Beatles are the gold standard for crazy fan hysteria. Following the band’s London Palladium show in October 1963, the teenagers of the world basically decided to lose their collective minds. For the next three years, every public Beatles performance was attended by thousands of teenagers, showing their devotion by shrieking at the top of their lungs. Every girl was expected to have a favorite Beatle, and the ongoing rivalry between “Paul girls” and “John girls” threatened to shake the foundations of civilization.
In fact, Beatlemania was so intense that it eventually drove the Beatles away. As demand grew, they played in larger venues, peaking with their concert at Shea Stadium in 1965. This was exciting initially, but after a while, the prospect of performing before an enormous crowd that’s screaming louder than you can possibly play becomes creatively unfulfilling. Their 1966 tour ended with one last public performance at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, and then they retired from touring.
So if the Beatles themselves correctly identified the hysterical screaming as actively destructive to their artistic expression, then why didn’t the girls get their act together? Why were they all screaming in the first place?
Well, for teenage girls, it’s liberating to have some cultural space where you can shout and cry and run around, and express a socially-approved form of romantic and sexual desire.
It’s all part of The Great Swooning, a regular cultural cycle that identifies a new object of teenage desire every couple of years. And so the Beatles are followed by Davy Jones, Shaun Cassidy, Luke Perry, N*SYNC, Justin Bieber, One Direction and the eternal struggle between Team Edward and Team Jacob. The haircuts change, but the cycle goes on. There will always be a Great Swooning.
So with the Beatles inaccessible by spring 1968, what are the girls of Grand Rapids going to get excited about? Enter the eternally young mop-top, Barnabas Collins.
And the really funny thing about turning Jonathan Frid into a teen idol is that he’s such a square. After this first brush with Fridmania in Charleston, he complained to the News and Courier reporter that he didn’t get to do any sightseeing.
“He spoke of his long desire to visit Charleston, and of not being able to see the town while here, but promised to return when he had more time. Among the particular items which interested him were the shrimp boats and shrimping industry in Mount Pleasant.”
So how adorable is that? He has literally thousands of teenage girls tearing at his clothes, and all he can think about is the shrimping industry.
In the afternoon, Frid hopped back on the Lear jet and went to Little Rock, Arkansas for another appearance at the airport. He also showed up on The Vic Ames Show on the ABC affiliate, KATV-TV, and that’s everything that I know about his visit to Little Rock. I assume that the full story has been suppressed by the authorities.
Day 3: Birmingham, AL & Indianapolis, IN
Tues, May 21st
Frid’s stop in Birmingham, Alabama included an appearance at the Lackey Field airport and a visit to The Morning Show on WBRC-TV. Then he went to City Hall, where Mayor George Siebels presented him with the key to the city.
In the afternoon, Frid flew to Indianapolis, for another airport autograph signing, a high school newspaper press conference at Stouffer’s Inn, and a visit to the WLW-I studio.
I hope this is still interesting for you, by the way, because I am fully committed to this concept and we’re only up to Day 3.
Day 4: Fort Wayne, IN & Grand Rapids, MI
Wed, May 22nd
The next day was another invigorating one, starting off at Baer Field in Fort Wayne. Things went smoothly at the airport, but then they arrived at the Glenbrook Shopping Mall.
Glenbrook was a disaster. The crowd estimate was 12,000 people.
I’ll give that a moment to sink in. Twelve thousand people, at the Glenbrook Shopping Mall in Fort Wayne. There were only 3,000 people at Charleston, and they still needed three police cars. Today’s crowd is four times bigger than that.
In a Washington Post article written later that week, the ABC publicist specifically mentioned the nightmare at Glenbrook:
“With [Frid] is Phil Kriegler of ABC-TV, a short amiable man: ‘I play the heavy on this trip. I’m the one who has to pull him away from all the women who want autographs. The last time I did it, one woman gave me a punch in the back that nearly crippled me.’
“Kriegler said that 12,000 women, children and teenagers were waiting for them at a shopping center in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“‘The screaming was unbelievable. Eleven women fainted, there were 58 lost children, one broken arm, a broken leg, and $1,500 damage to trees and shrubs.'”
So that’s how the tour feels, at this point. They’re just listing the casualties. Jonathan Frid showed up at a supermarket, and eleven people lost consciousness. This is not a normal way to live.
A few months later, Frid appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, and Cavett asked him about this day.
Dick: Jonathan, someone handed me The Grand Rapids Times just before I came on and I didn’t get time to read this, but there’s a picture of you atop a black limousine, and there’s a crowd and police, and there’s a headline: TV VAMPIRE CAUSES GRAND RAPIDS AIRPORT RIOT. What were you doing?
Jonathan: Well, in this tour that I took a little while back… The thing about it was, that no one really expected a turnout that we would get in all these airports and shopping centers and things. So there was no kind of organized control of crowds. We’d been in Fort Wayne that afternoon, and there was rather an uncontrolled crowd at the supermarket, and the supermarket sent a $2,000 bill for injury to shrubbery and things like that to the local station, and we were held up there, so we were late getting into Grand Rapids. And I would like to apologize — I hope this show goes to Grand Rapids — because I would like to make an apology to the people out there. They had this thing arranged at the airport where I was to judge a contest of ghouls…
Dick: Pretty ghouls, huh?
Jonathan: Well, they had a crowd when our plane landed, and the thing got so out of hand that the officer who ran the airport more or less ordered us off the place. I don’t blame them; it was just that there was so much uncontrolled chaos, and so we got this hearse — oh, yes, the poor chap who was running the whole show was on top of the hearse. I remember, as it turned out, we never got to this contest around the front of the airport, and I’m very sorry that I was never able to make that. But while I was getting on top of this hearse myself — I must say, I was rather, if you’ll pardon the expression, mortified — and so we were sort of circling around in front of the thousands of teenagers, and a regular commercial airliner was unloading at that point — and, suddenly, I was trying to think of their point of view. Here they were, with these thousands of kids, and this idiot on top of this hearse with fangs, and what’s going on, you know? What’s happened to America?
Day #5: Flint, MI & Washington, DC
Thursday, May 23rd
And then, the next day, he was on Bozo’s Big Top.
I swear to God, I am not making any of this up. He went to Flint, Michigan, had another airport signing, and then went to the WJRT-TV studio for a personal encounter with Bozo the Clown.
This week must have been just unbelievable; I can’t even imagine the kind of post-traumatic stress you’d have after this. Police cars, shrubbery damage, riding on top of a hearse, Dialing for Dollars, the key to Birmingham, and a hypnotized Fredda Lee, and now you’re sitting down and making conversation with a clown.
The thing that I love about this is that nobody really understands who Dark Shadows is supposed to appeal to. It’s obvious that the ABC publicists just told the local stations to arrange whatever they wanted Barnabas to do. So on some days he’s meeting with high school and college students, and then he’s judging a Best Dressed Ghouls contest, and then he’s hanging out with seven-year-olds.
There isn’t any kind of coherent plan here, which is perfect, because Dark Shadows never has a coherent plan. If you actually tried to make sense of it, the whole enterprise would just shrivel up and die. The success of Dark Shadows is a ravenous beast, sustained entirely by surprises.
Day #6: Washington, DC
Friday, May 24th
Frid flew into DC at the end of the day yesterday, in time for another high school press conference, and on Friday, he had a grown-up press luncheon at Paul Young’s Restaurant.
He talks to a Washington Post reporter, who writes up the interview in a piece called “He Shadows Women By Day“:
“Frid defends the adulation of housewives, teenagers and children that has brought him sudden fame after 20 years of hard-working anonymity as a Shakespearean actor.
“He said, ‘I take it very seriously, in spite of the kidding. An actor is not noted for his intelligence. He’s interested in creating around a situation. I’ve played in dozens of Shakespearean plays, and some of the characters are utter bores when you take away the language.
“‘In Barnabas, I get a whole range of characters to play. I play the man’s loneliness and yearnings, and feelings of guilt. It’s really a Jekyll and Hyde role.'”
It sounds like a nice conversation. Jonathan Frid is actually a very thoughtful and sincere guy, with a healthy sense of perspective.
And then he goes to the WMAL-TV studio for an appearance on Clair & Coco, another goddamn clown show.
Day #7: Philadelphia, PA
Saturday, May 25th
Okay, there’s one more day of Collins carnage before we head back to New York, and the comforting darkness of ABC Studio 16.
Frid goes to Philadelphia on Saturday for an appearance at the Devon Horse Show Country Fair, and things spiral out of control once again. Here’s a quote from a history of the Devon Horse Show:
“In 1968, it was two stars for the price of one admission. Movie legend James Cagney made a grand entrance via the carriage marathon, but he was upstaged by a vampire. The appearance of Jonathan Frid drew 20,000 fans, the largest single-day attendance in the show’s history. Frid was so mobbed by fans, he had to take refuge in the press box.”
And so, as our hero scrambles into yet another police car and flees the scene, you have to wonder — what kind of effect does this week have on the way that he approaches the role of Barnabas? You’d imagine that an experience like this would have to change the way that he feels about Dark Shadows. You can’t get mobbed by thousands of screaming teenagers, and then just go back to work like nothing happened. Can you?
On the other hand, it’s been such a random mix of highs and lows that it’s hard to say what the take-home message is. Barnabas Collins is a sex symbol who isn’t sexy; he’s adored, but never adorable. He’s a serial killer who has a standing invitation to Bozo’s big top. He has the key to Birmingham, Alabama. He is a danger to shrubbery.
In a 1968 radio appearance, Frid said:
“In real life, I find that monsters are people. We are all monsters to one another, at some time or other. You catch a friend not telling the truth, or you’re suddenly suspicious of them, and all of a sudden you see a new glow in their faces… a new look. Now, that’s what I call a monster.”
I have no idea what he means, or what that has to do with anything. But that’s the point, I think. Barnabas Collins went on a trip to find America. He gazed into the abyss of the Glenbrook Shopping Mall, and the Glenbrook Shopping Mall gazed into him. And for as long as Dark Shadows fans walk this Earth, then in our hearts, Fredda Lee is still out there somewhere, hypnotized. We are, too.
Tomorrow: Diff’rent Strokes.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Mrs. Johnson approaches David outside the Old House, he says, “Mrs. Johnson! I thought you were going to the Old House — back home!”
Joe insists that Maggie take off the emerald earrings. As they argue, one of the earrings falls off, and onto the floor. Maggie looks down, chuckles, and looks to the studio to see if they’re going to stop tape. They don’t, so she reaches up to cover her earlobe with her hand. After a few more lines of dialogue, Maggie picks up the fallen earring. She carries it to the mirror, where she’s supposed to finish the scene by looking at the earrings in her reflection. She brings the earring up to her ear, but apparently the post fell out, because she can’t put it back on. She finishes the scene with the earring in her hand.
When Mrs. Johnson watches David sleep, you can hear footsteps from the studio.
Tomorrow: Diff’rent Strokes.
— Danny Horn