Independence Branch in Philadelphia

PHILLY IMBED

The Philadelphia story

Following are reflections of my Halloween in Philly, when I presented the “Phantoms of Philadelphia: From ‘Shock Theater’ to Dr. Shock” at the Independence Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

By Mark Voger, author, “Monster Mash: The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America 1957-1972″

Fifteen minutes before my big Philly lecture, things looked bleak. There was no projector for my 182-image slideshow presentation. And only three audience members were on hand: my mom, my brother and my sister-in-law.

Then came a Halloween miracle.

Eh, perhaps that’s overstating it. Let’s say a Halloween pretty-cool-thing.

Backing up a bit: Long ago, I began to notice that Philadelphia was, you could argue, the epicenter of the pop-culture phenomenon known as the “Monster Craze” which erupted in 1957. TV horror icon John Zacherle’s on-air breakthrough happened in Philly, and the influential magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland debuted in the city — both seminal events in the Craze.

But I’d never read a connect-the-dots article about Philly’s role in the Craze. It has remained a largely untold story.

Owl Fever struck on Halloween!

Owl fever struck Market Street on Halloween.

So when it came time to promote “Monster Mash,” I wanted to finally tell this Philadelphia story in Philadelphia. Independence Branch, bless ’em, agreed to let me speak there — on Halloween, yet.

On this sunny, mild, lovely October 31st, the area around Independence Branch (which is on 7th Street between Market and Chestnut) was positively nutty.

Temple had just won something-or-other for the first time in who-knows-when, and had some big sporting match that evening. (Can you tell I’m not a sports guy?)

As my relations and I made our way toward the library, we saw lots of peppy college kids and alums; a full marching band in uniform; a group carrying a big sign of Bill Cosby’s face (I’m not sure whether they were supporting or protesting the embattled Temple alum); a few drunks; and, of course, some people in costume (though not as many as you’d think).

Now, because I own a Tracfone rather than a smartphone, I hadn’t received this informative email from the very nice folks at Independence Branch: “Mark, hi. The Temple Owls are 7 and O and there’s that big Temple/Notre Dame game tonight. Anyway, the city has granted ESPN the right to close down Market Street for a rally. It is total gridlock out there. Unfortunate timing!”

When I arrived at Independence Branch, I was warned that turnout for my speech may be low, because non-Temple people were likely avoiding the area. But this didn’t throw me. I’ve been in bar bands for decades. Our motto: “Always give your five-dollar show, even if there’s only one drunk in the club.”

Dr. Shock (a.k.a. Joseph Zawislak) was remembered in my lecture.

Dr. Shock (a.k.a. Joseph Zawislak) was one of the “Phantoms of Philadelphia” remembered.

The speechifying room was decorated for Halloween (very festive) and set up with rows of folding chairs (alas, many more than were needed). But I immediately sensed trouble when I spotted the projector, a relic from the Reagan administration. Prior to the event, I was instructed to bring a laptop and an HDMI cable. But in this projector’s heyday, laptops might as well have been flying cars or robot maids. I was told that nothing more modern was available at the library. Yikes!

“Well,” I said to my three relatives, still the sole attendees 15 minutes prior to my speech, “I’ll just turn my laptop around so you can see the big slideshow.” (My bar-band training was kicking in.)

Then a dude walked in. A younger dude who identified himself as a Temple guy who’d heard about this, and decided to check it out before joining the Temple hoopla. (Thank God, I thought, someone who wasn’t related to me.)

Then another dude walked in. A bearded dude who came off like a lifelong student of popular culture. (Two non-relations.)

I’d just begun my talk when a third dude walked in, a long-haired guy. (If one more dude walked in, I thought, the non-relations would outnumber the relations.)

Well, there were no more arrivals, so I gave my five-dollar show for a rapt audience of six.

What really made it sweet: The three dudes cared about the subject matter. Bearded Dude was into the Cold War connection with the Monster Craze. Long-haired Dude was a big Dr. Shock guy. Temple Dude had the perspective of a younger fan who knew “The Addams Family” as a ’90s film franchise.

Following my talk, everyone hung out for what turned out to be a lively, impromptu Q&A session that lasted another 20 minutes.

Long-Haired Dude amazed me with his knowledge of Dr. Shock. He remembered the first two films Dr. Shock aired (“Diary of a Madman” and “Little Shop of Horrors”), and the shortlived replacement host Channel 17 used after cancelling Dr. Shock (before 10,000 letters of protest compelled the station to reinstate him).

Long-Haired Dude told me something that flipped me out: He bought “Monster Mash” at Fat Jack’s, a legendary Philly comic shop. (The last time he was there, he said, Fat Jack’s still had a copy for sale.) I remember going to Fat Jack’s Comicrypt (established 1977) at 20th and Samson  in the early ’80s, when I was a recently-sprung college grad employed at 12th and Spruce. For “Monster Mash” to be in such a storied brick-and-mortar establishment does my heart good.

The seven of us really bonded and had a good time, I felt. So, it was a small group, but a good group.

Not only that, “Monster Mash” is now in the Philadelphia library system. (This is thanks to inquiries made by my sister-in-law.) With my own peepers, I witnessed a library staffer enter it into the computer. I was told that “Monster Mash” could be requested by, and sent to, library card holders at any of the system’s 54 branches. Since “Monster Mash” is a hardback, it will “live” at whatever branch it is delivered to, until someone else requests it.

The Parkway Central branch on Vine Street has one of the world’s most renowned Charles Dickens collections. So … “Monster Mash” and Dickens, bitches!

Read excerpts from the speech

The flyer for the event:

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View 34-page “Monster Mash” preview
Order “Monster Mash”