“There were infinite possibilities in infinite combinations.”
Monday’s episode was the first credited to Violet Welles, one of the best writers on Dark Shadows, and one of the most mysterious. She was a theatrical press agent, working on a varied slate of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. She also wrote for several television shows, but almost always as a ghost-writer; Dark Shadows is her only credited work as a writer, and she had to be talked into becoming a full-time writer on the show.
There are several websites that list Violet’s credits as a press rep — Playbill Vault, Internet Broadway Database and the Internet Off-Broadway Database — but almost nothing is known about her television work.
Happily, there’s a fan resource to the rescue: The World of Dark Shadows, the flagship DS fanzine which ran from 1975 to 2001. Issue #59/60, published in June 1991, ran a four-page interview with Violet Welles, giving us a rare glimpse into the day-to-day experience of the Dark Shadows writing team. The interview is fantastic, and I’m going to post it here in its entirety. It was conducted by Meghan Powell-Nivling, who I have not contacted for permission, so I hope nobody minds. Here’s Violet.
AN INTERVIEW WITH VIOLET WELLES
Conducted by Meghan Powell-Nivling
When did you write for Dark Shadows?
I wrote for Dark Shadows for about one year, from 1969 to 1970.
How did you get the job?
I was a press agent then. I had been working with Gordon Russell, I’d been ghosting for years on everything he’d done. Dan Curtis had a sort of horror series, an hour anthology series that he was doing that I think never actually got on. Gordon was doing a show called Mr. Splitfoot and I worked on it with him. It never got on the air.
And it came time for a story conference with Dan Curtis, and Gordon said, “Look, you’ve worked on the script as much as I have, you come to the story conference.” So I came and we talked and at the end of it, I knew they’d been looking for a writer for Dark Shadows because Gordon told me this. It was nothing that particularly interested me.
So we talked, and at the end of the story conference, Dan Curtis said to me, “How’d you like to be one of the writers, how’d you like to write for Dark Shadows?” And I said, “Nonsense, I’m a press agent, I have three shows on Broadway, and I have this and this and this.” What I didn’t know was that in television, the rule is if you’re unavailable, you must be had. So Dan Curtis pursued me and insisted that I do it.
And for a while, I was being a press agent and writing for Dark Shadows. And finally someone said, “You know, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You’ve got to do one or the other.” So I went to Dark Shadows.
I had ghosted it quite a lot, actually, with Gordon. We had a kind of arrangement. I would do a flimsy. What happens first is there’s the 6-month story projection, the long-range story projection. The writers get together and do the flimsy, which is breaking down the story projection into actual days. It’s structured so we have the prologue and three scenes or four scenes. Withiin each one is a 1 or 1 1/2 page that will say, “David goes to Bangor to meet So-and-So.” And it was difficult, because each one of the scenes had to end with a certain zinger. That was one of the interesting things about writing Dark Shadows. I’ve done other soaps and you can kind of meander on forever. I remember ghosting one and sort of whatever was happening in my life, I would put it in. I was painting my house; everybody (on the show) started painting.
In order to do the flimsies, Gordon and Sam and I would get together and it was like a no-exit. We’d get together at one or the other’s houses and you did not get out until you finished the flimsies. We’d get so silly. I remember once, when things got bad, Sam would retreat, he’d like to lie under coffee tables and say “I’m in China today.” And one day we were having lunch and all of a sudden Gordon said, in a very thoughtful voice, “Did you ever realize that Tad is ‘dat’ spelled backwards?” It totally cracked us up, we couldn’t work for several hours. We really had a lot of fun. Strange but fun.
The roughs — Gordon would give me the roughs. I would always write sub-text, I would write kind of the emotional, the way-out stuff I thought should be in the series. I’d write it kind of out of left field. He would take that material and very quickly he’d shape it and turn it into a scene and keep the different threads to fall in line. I’d been doing that and I loved doing that.
When I became a full-time writer… I had to be at my desk at home at 9:00. At 4:00 I had to be at the studio with five copies of a completed script and that was usually anywhere from 38 to 42 pages long. Usually we were a couple of weeks in advance, sometimes we’d crunch it, sometimes there’d be an extra thing, sometimes the story wasn’t working and we’d have to go in a different direction. Then we’d have meetings with Dan Curtis.
Which storylines did you work on?
There was one, kind of where the Wolfman meets Rebecca (Rachel Drummond and Quentin Collins, in 1897). I did one in Victorian times, then we went into the present.
We were all so tuned into it. It became such reality to us. I remember once Gordon and I were in the elevator, and we were talking about one of the problems we had and one of us said to the other, “Yeah, it would be great to bring such-and-such character back from the dead. And in order to do it, you’ve got to have a body for him to come back in.” And we suddenly realized we were in a public elevator, and everyone else was sort of cringing against the walls wondering what they have in with them! We truly believed in it, if you had to call up the dead, you called up the dead. If you had to get rid of a vampire, well, you did that. It was as real to me as going to the supermarket, after a while.
You know the telephone scene in Bye-Bye Birdie with people on the phone? Well, that was us. We were all on the phone constantly, the three of us to each other, saying, “I’m writing next Wednesday’s script, number so-and-so. Is David in thrall today or isn’t he? Is Quentin alive or dead? Does Elizabeth know that Quentin is dead?” Nobody knew. We would just laugh hysterically about this. We got to the point that we didn’t understand it… but it didn’t matter at all. There were infinite possibilities in infinite combinations.
There’s one character I remember, Count Petofi. Count Petofi started as just a throw-away in one of Sam’s scripts, somebody said something about “the notorious Count Petofi”, and for some reason, I just loved the idea of Count Petofi. I kept nagging and nagging until they said, “All right, we’ll do Count Petofi,” and they did. And it was a great storyline. He had the hand, and he put everybody under — he was another one who put people under thrall.
How did the show’s popularity affect you?
We had reporters around all the time, and the endless articles in the teen magazines for all the kids, or the TV magazines. David Selby was already becoming pretty hot. I was so popular with my friends’ children!
Did you ever get any fan mail?
Occasionally, I would get one, but I never got too many. The ones that I got — my mother had been a school teacher, and she had a friend who was teaching on an Indian reservation in the Dakotas, and this woman, Mrs. Cook, told the children that she knew me, and they all wrote me letters, and they wanted a photograph, etc. etc. So there I was, pinned up in the school! The only fan letters I got were really from people who had some connection to the family or me and used it with people they knew. Not a whole lot of letters.
One sort of perk we could do that’s sort of funny was I would write in, if somebody had to be named, or had to go visit So-and-So, I’d write in like all the names of my godchildren: “We’re going off to see Stevie Simmons today.” And this child in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, would sit around with all his friends!
How were the storylines developed?
Dan Curtis decided. It was Dan Curtis’ privilege to say. He’d get some idea, like he’d want to sort of play around with this notion like Parallel Time, and we’d go right into it. If we read something or thought about something, we’d discuss it, but by and large, it sort of came down to us. The story bible was handed to us, and I thought that I functioned creatively most of the time, day to day.
It was very strange because, sitting in my little house, writing it, I could never really think a whole lot about the fact that what I was writing was going to be seen by 6 million people. But then, I think that I would’ve really gotten terrified. I’d just sit there and write a scene because I just loved to write the scene. We believed it. We took it very seriously — I mean, we did our best. Basically, I thought it was a very well-written show. We all kind of wrote a little differently, but we were all able to write into each other.
Mine was a little more sentiment, a little more subtext. I responded to different things about the characters. Sam (Hall) I think was the wittiest, Sam could be just devastatingly funny and arch. Gordon (Russell) was just the best all-round. Sam and Gordon developed the plotlines. I was a terrible plotter, awful plotter! It’s because I was writing into characters, not into story.
You know what the characters sound like and look like, and you just write for that person. That character more than that person, they become the same thing. Certain characters can sustain certain kinds of speech. The characters more than the actors become very very close friends, and you know them inside out. Some got to do great death scenes. In Dark Shadows, they got to do a lot of death scenes! Many, many, many!
When you did the show, you felt Gothic all the time. You really did. When you work on a show, you get so into it, it becomes your reality. We were doing this six days a week, and then after I finished a script I’d go into the studio and hang around and watch the rehearsal and watch the taping, and didn’t have much time for anything else.
The only time we really used research was if we were going to go into something, if we had a character like Gilles de Rais or a couple of times I think I had to call up the Devil. How do you do that? You know, it’s a little hard to do that! So occasionally I’d read books about it, just to get the names. We would occasionally try to find new things, new wrinkles on the vampire thing.
What were your favorite episodes?
I like the one where Quentin turns into a zombie at the end. That used to terrify me. It terrified me so much, in fact, that most of the time, I wouldn’t let my husband leave the house. I was afraid of it! That is a terrible confession to make, but I must make it.
Do you have any other observations on Dark Shadows?
It got to the point where it was like a stock company. Very often, when I’d see a show when it finally got on the air, I could swear that I’d already seen it, because I knew who was playing it, I knew all the voices, I’d heard it all in my head, I saw it before it happened. If you had a fairly easy flimsy to do, one that really excited you, you could even go off the brink.
The difficult ones were — we were in 13-week segments, and there were sometimes characters that didn’t work, and because they didn’t work, they didn’t use them as much, they weren’t part of the plot. So at the end of the 13 weeks, toward the end of the cycle, you’d have characters who were really not a lot of interest who had to play scenes with other characters who really didn’t have a lot of interest, dealing with things that basically didn’t concern them. Those were hard to write. But you never felt particularly overwhelmed.
I always watched it. I was astonished that I’d written that! It was so far removed from sitting at home doing it. I think it was a very well-produced show. I was always astonished.
I think that there was a level that the show worked on, and somehow, it had been struck. We were all most comfortable writing it that way. Somehow we all just did it that way. We were all very literate writers, we three, anyway. That’s what came out.
I got to know (the actors) somewhat. I remember one thing we did that was very nice. There was one Thanksgiving, and we suddenly discovered there was a whole lot of people in the show who had no Thanksgiving plans. So we went to Nancy Barrett’s house and we had a Thanksgiving where everybody brought something from the part of the country that he or she had originally come from. It was such a nice Thanksgiving. There were about ten or twelve of us.
The actors pretty much stuck to the script. There really wasn’t room to ad-lib on that show because it was so structured, and you had like eight pages to get to a plot point, to build to really a high scene, and you couldn’t really play around. It was an awfully-paced show.
I always liked Dorcas Trilling, one of the doxies. They had these poor little girls who got written in just so Barnabas had somebody to munch on. Was Quentin the one who did in Dorcas? Sam thought of that name, and that was such a sad name, Dorcas Trilling.
What kind of person do you need to be to be a soap writer?
I think you need no ego. Because you have to write a lot and you sit down and you write it the best you can and if somebody says this is wrong, you go and change it. It’s a very workmanlike role. You have to think of yourself as doing the best that you can, but you can’t think of yourself as the only artist. It never occurred to me that you could look at this as writing.
Why do you think Dark Shadows has experienced this revival of interest?
I think because it was the only thing of its kind and it continues to be the only thing of its kind. It was just something that worked well. I think to the degree that the 60s were a period when people were dealing with things that they hadn’t been dealing with emotionally or intellectually before. They were opening up. I think that in a way it was a product of that time, that people were sort of looking into time and space, and this opened up time and space. That was kind of it. I think it continues to do that. On one level, we’re dealing with a much more literal world, and on the other level, we’re still kind of wondering. There was a certain amount of “What if?” on the show.
When Dark Shadows went off the air, I was very busy doing some other things. As a matter of fact, I came back in the last couple of weeks and wrote some of the final stuff, like the last two or three episodes. [Danny’s note: Gordon Russell is credited for 27 of the show’s last 28 episodes, with Sam Hall credited on the final episode. Violet must have been helping out.]
I don’t know if the show could be written today. I think we’re in a different period of time. I don’t think people are as free, as receptive as they were, or as tolerant. I think in a way the show requires a great deal more than tolerance. Think about the fact that this cousin’s a vampire, this one’s a werewolf, and yet they all got along fine. In a way, the show said people who are different may still not be all bad. Maybe people that you have to cope with. I don’t think people are still like that. It’s acceptance.
Monday: The Generation Gap.
— Danny Horn