Sunday , August 10, 2014 - 12:00 AM
The term “monster boomer” has been used by author Frank J. Dello Stritto to describe himself and it is an apt definition. He’s one of those born in the decade after World War II, and a significant portion of his taste in popular culture was shaped by television and movies, and the shows and films most likely to be enjoyed by a boy growing up in New Jersey in a traditional, two-parent family.
In his memoir, “I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It: Growing Up in the 1950s & 1960s with Television Reruns and Old Movies,” (Cult Movies Press, 2014) Dello Stritto describes a world in which youngsters carved imagination from technology far before the computer age. On the TV set, for a while a luxury for a 1950s family, the author and his siblings were introduced to vampires, monsters, atomic supermen, Superman himself, space heroes, Abbott & Costello, and the old, already-creaky Universal horrors of the ’30s and ’40s. Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, joined Superman as his first TV heroes, the “Little Rascals” was an early favorite, and the culture was reflected as the television dictated; crimes occurred in the chilly downtown city, situation comedies in the warm residential neighborhoods.
The first sentence of Dello Stritto’s title is from the Abbott & Costello film, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein,” a film the author believes played a huge role in shaping the boomers’ fondness for the old monsters created by Universal studios. In the comedy, the pair engage in adventures with Dracula, as portrayed by Bela Lugosi, the wolf man, as portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr., and a Frankenstein monster that resembles in features Boris Karloff’s iconic character. Youngsters such as Dello Stritto, wowed by the film, are responsible for the long-lasting perception of these monsters’ visages appearing as they did in the old movies. In the 1950s, these Universal films, as well as similar offerings from studios big and small, were gradually fed to television to air on ”Shock Theater,” or “Creature Feature,” on afternoons or evenings. The Universal films were even reissued to 1950s theaters, competing on screen with the nuclear-age and space monsters.
As Dello Stritto notes in the book, the later outer space monster movies scared him more than the old Universal monster flicks. Nevertheless, the old monsters made a larger impression on the youth. One suspects that more than Abbott & Costello moved the author’s heart to favor the old monsters. For one thing, the old monster films were more difficult to track down. The Draculas, Frankensteins, wolf men, mummies, and so on appeared on TV sporadically, sometimes too late for the youngster Frank to watch. Other times his mother might say no or his father would veto a film Frank had his heart set on due to a football game or these dreaded words, “what else is on.” Dad was master of the TV.
Today one can chart the evolution of the Universal horrors from the first film of a series to the last. Dello Stritto saw them when he could, and never -- the first time -- in the appropriate order. Later, as a young adult, Dello Stritto would haunt New York City and other locations to find revival theaters that played films such as “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” “The Old Dark House,” and “Mark of the Vampire.” In something I (almost a generation younger) can relate to, Dello Stritto would haunt bookstores looking for magazines, or authors, such as the late William K. Everson, who made deeper dives into the subject matter. (I made my own searches for books by Everson, and others, at now-gone booksellers such as B. Dalton “Pickwick,” and used stores such as Acres of Books in Long Beach, Calif.)
But the adult Dello Stritto took his interest much farther, working his way through old public records to unearth treasures about Bela Lugosi, who is clearly his favorite subject. The young adult even wrote a biography of Lugosi 40 years ago, but discarded it after learning more intensive biographies of the subject were forthcoming. His memoir also provides entertaining recaps of fandom a couple of generations ago, including a tryst the author had with an attractive female genre fan.
Besides the movies and TV shows, life several decades ago is captured in the memoir. From the early days of TV, to tenement life sans showers or baths, to a world where the new TV was never switched off, to the Cold War and arms race with the Soviet Union, to the boxing bouts between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, to dad losing his steady job and having to work on the docks, the author captures a life that shaped him into the man he is today.
Dello Stritto has enjoyed a strong tenure in the monster boomer genre. Instead of a biography, he -- along with British writer Andi Brooks -- unearthed original information, as well as dispelling lazy myths, with the book, “Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain,” that recounts the actor’s last major stage assignment as Count Dracula. A frequent essayist for generations, his detailed work is compiled in the anthology, “A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore.” “I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It” provides the answers to the life that shaped Mr. Dello Stritto into being such an authority on Lugosi and the horror/thriller cinema genre. (To read an interview with Dello Stritto, go here.)
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