In 2000, I finished my fourth film Bike Ride, an animated documentary about a former student's fifty-mile bike trip to visit his girlfriend and his ride home after she dumps him. Bike Ride was also my first collaboration with Dave King, the improvising percussion dynamo of Golden Valley, Minnesota, who would be destined for renown with his groups Happy Apple and The Bad Plus. I recorded and edited James Peterson telling his story, then recorded Dave performing a prepared improvisation in response to the story. After transcribing both audio tracks at 24 frames per second to an exposure sheet, I drew the film in response to that structure. James’ self-deprecating story, Dave’s score and my animation worked sympathetically together and Bike Ride became the first of my movies to reach a large international audience at the major film festivals, on DVD compilations and on broadcast television.
In 2001, the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles programmed Bike Ride as the short before a feature and invited me to introduce the film. The cinema offered me a small honorarium that helped pay for a flight from Minneapolis and I arranged to stay with a friend who was working then at Cartoon Network.
The Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard is home to the American Cinematheque. Built in 1922, shortly after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the theater exemplifies the exotica-themed movie palaces of the silent film era. As a repertory film fanatic, I would have been at The Egyptian watching movies even if Bike Ride had not been playing. The night before my screening, in fact, I had seen a collection of short aquatic documentaries from the 1950’s and 1960’s directed by Jean Painlevé. The printed program for the evening noted that The Love Life of the Octopus had been scored by early electronic composer Pierre Henry and that Painlevé had eaten the star of his movie when shooting was finished, a perverse privilege that not even Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed.
When the Q and A after the show was done, I walked along Hollywood Boulevard. I was in Los Angeles, surrounded by theaters, and I wanted to see another movie. A few blocks from The Egyptian, I spotted the marquee for The Vogue. I’d recently read a book about S. Charles Lee, the preeminent architect of the original movie palaces in California, and I recognized The Vogue as one of his buildings. (The Vogue facade appears in the background of Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland.) (3:00)
The theater was currently playing a double feature by director Stuart Gordon, who’s best known for his comic horror film Re-Animator. I arrived at fifteen minutes to ten. Castle Freak was scheduled to start at ten. I entered the lobby and the man who sold me the ticket absently handed me a questionnaire. I scanned the first question:
Did you experience anything out of the ordinary during the movie tonight?
Assuming it was a customer satisfaction survey, I folded it into my pocket and walked through a velvet curtain into the rundown, but still majestic, nine-hundred seat relic of a bygone era in which movies had now been projected for sixty-five years. The theater was completely empty. Surprised, I returned to the ticket counter, glancing at the clock: ten minutes to ten.
“Are you going to show the film if I’m the only one here?”
The man looked up from a magazine, “Sure.”
“You really don’t have to go to the trouble, I don’t mind,” I insisted.
“We only need one person for it to work.”
I nodded, thinking, “Well, that’s true” and admired their commitment to the filmgoer.
Because I was the only customer that night, I took the opportunity to wander through the theater. At five minutes to ten I settled into a seat directly in the middle of the auditorium and prepared for my private screening with regal contentment. As soon as I sat down, a different man than had sold me the ticket walked toward me, waving a device that resembled a prop from a 1950’s science fiction film. He didn’t pay attention to me.
“What are you doing?” I finally asked.
“Just taking some pre-show readings with the Magnetometer to have a reference for your reactions.”
“What does that mean?”
“Don’t you know why you’re here?” he looked directly at me for the first time.
“No, I just wandered in from the street." I started to explain that I was from Minneapolis, but suddenly thought better of it.
“Oh,” he smiled, “You don’t know about what we’re doing then. That’s even better!”
“What are you doing?” I asked now with a faint suggestion of concern.
“We’re researchers of paranormal phenomena. We’ve rented The Vogue because of its history. An orphanage burned on this location before the theater was built and dozens of children died. In addition, three projectionists and nine customers, that we have record of, died of various natural causes during the screenings over the years. The building has a lot of activity.” He waved his hand in the air. “We show horror films because they produce an intense emotional response that will attract the spirit activity to the subject.” He nodded his head at me significantly.
As if on this cue, the lights dimmed and I descended into cavernous darkness, an emotional magnet for the ghosts of burned children and former projectionists who had been damned to eternally work the booth. The man sat at the end of the row I was in with his Magnetometer aimed at me. I positioned myself obliquely to the screen so that I could watch the film and also keep an eye on the researcher to my right, occasionally scanning the aisles for ghostly orphans.
The primary emotion that Castle Freak created in me, unfortunately, was boredom; the movie was cheap exploitation fare lacking the deviant inspiration of Re-Animator. Half way through the show, I sensed movement to my left and noticed that a woman I’d not seen before was also present with a device directed at me. She smiled and nodded. The phrase ‘spook house contrivance’ passed through my mind. “They can’t be serious,” I thought, “This must be an elaborate show in support of the bad horror film. But why would they go to all the trouble for an audience of one paying customer?”
The movie ended. I returned to the lobby. The two men and the woman descended upon me excitedly.
“Did you experience anything unusual?”
“Nothing other than you people freaking me out. Are you on the level about the ghosts?”
The man with the Magnetometer adopted an offended air and answered, “We are serious researchers and you are our guinea pig.”
My skepticism diminished and I answered their questions as meaningfully as I could, hoping to give them useful responses.
“Yes, now that you mention it, I did feel a little tingling on the surface of my skin, on the back of my right hand . . . “
The next morning my friend Alex drove me to an unnamed attraction while I described my adventure at The Vogue. Though a generation younger than me, Alex is also a devoted member of The Congregation with a love of B-movie horror oddities such as Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 The Black Cat. When we arrived at our destination in the Los Feliz neighborhood, there were a dozen young men standing in a small yard outside a sprawling 1970’s house. This is the Ackermansion Alex announced, the home and informal museum of Forrest J. Ackerman, an immense collection of science fiction and horror movie memorabilia and a shrine to Ackerman’s own marginal B-film celebrity. Anyone who gathered on Saturday mornings at the appointed time would be given a tour of his collection; Ackerman would also autograph copies of “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” a magazine he had edited from the late 1950’s until the early 1980’s. I suddenly recalled buying a copy of “Famous Monsters” in the Amery drugstore as a kid whenever Godzilla was on the cover.
Forrest J. Ackerman and a mute assistant appeared, welcoming us inside. I wondered aloud to Alex if the assistant was his son, a paid caretaker, or maybe just an actor hired to enhance the Sunset Boulevard atmosphere of glamorous decline. We meandered through racks of books and alien masks, ray guns and spaceship models, recognizable from well-known films. Notable objects that I remember are: a moldy King Kong puppet from the original film, a Martian ship from the 1953 War of the Worlds and the cape Bela Lugosi wore in Plan 9 from Outer Space. The tour ended in a round, shag-carpeted living room with stained glass windows where Forrest J. Ackerman showed off his fluency in Esperanto. He then re-enacted his roles in B-grade genre films, sometimes feeding a line to a member of the audience to play opposite him. I recognized the name Queen of Blood, which I’d seen on the Horror, Incorporated television program as a kid and which also featured a young Dennis Hopper.
When the performance ended, Mr. Ackerman signed everything that his fans had brought and his assistant led us out of the house. As we returned to the stark southern California sunlight, squinting up at the blue sky, I felt disoriented by the experiences of the last twenty-four hours. I had departed from the concrete solidity of the Midwest and landed in the heart of the illusion-making machinery; if I pulled aside a curtain hoping to find an exit, I would only find another hall of mirrors. Pauline Kael, in a review of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, referred to Los Angeles as “the pop amusement park of the shifty and uprooted,” and that description now seemed apt.
Alex and I stopped for coffee and talked about what we’d just witnessed in the Ackermansion. As film buffs, we were impressed by the collection, but we couldn’t shake a slight sadness for this old man who was working so hard to maintain his connection to celebrity. When we left the coffee shop, I glanced across the street and was startled to see Forrest J. Ackerman sitting in the passenger seat of a late 60’s Ford Mustang at a gas station. His assistant was whistling something that sounded like Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” while he filled the tank. In the foreground, a man wearing a dirty spider man costume passed by pulling a red radio flyer wagon.