Welcome to…BLACK MUSEUM!
By Perry Martin
When my good friend Floyd Perry, curator of this blog, recently asked me to share my memories of KTXL-40’s long departed horror movie showcase BLACK MUSEUM, I readily agreed. How could I not? I seem to be one of the few people around who actually remember the show — which I avidly watched as a child, and which inspired my life-long affection for classic monster movies.
Airing every Saturday night between May 3rd, 1969 and May 2nd, 1970, BLACK MUSEUM offered the rare opportunity for Northern California monster-fans to consort with Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf-Man and their various brides, sons, daughters and friends. For me — a boy growing up in Yuba City (a quiet suburb north of Sacramento), where movie monsters were as scarce as vampires at dawn — BLACK MUSEUM arrived like the answer to an ardent wish.
Long before I’d seen a classic horror film, I’d been fascinated by all things spooky — especially, the Universal monsters. I can actually pinpoint my first encounter with them: Christmas Eve, 1964. I was 6-years-old, strolling with my parents through the toy department at Sears, when suddenly they jumped out at me — Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Wolf-Man — all poised on the wonderfully creepy box covers of a new line of model kits. It was love at first sight; and although my parents pulled me away — empty-handed and pleading — I eventually acquired and built every one of those models.
Unfortunately, seeing the movies that inspired those kits proved far more challenging, and my desire to track them down grew into a passion — as though it was the single most important goal I could ever hope to accomplish.
Those were the dark days before home video or DVD, when the only way to see vintage films, horror or otherwise, was on television. At the time, there were only three TV stations broadcasting to my area: KCRA-3, KXTV-10 and KOVR-13 — none of which owned “Shock Theater,” the Universal-licensed package of films that contained all the monster classics I desperately longed to view.
Of those three local stations, KCRA was the only one that regularly broadcast movies of a fantastic nature: on Saturday afternoons, the station unspooled 50s sci-fi films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH on a program called CPM THEATER. Then, if you were lucky enough to have parents who’d let you stay up past midnight (I was), you could catch such low grade fare as MONSTER FROM THE SURF and CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS on another KCRA program called 7-ARTS THEATER, hosted by Bob Wilkins. As readers of this blog well know, Wilkins’ trademarks were a peppy theme song (Neal Hefti’s “Gotham City Municipal Swing Band”), a rocking chair, a cigar and his own dry wit. I liked him a lot — much more than most of the movies he played. It was the classic Universal monsters that I longed to see — and they were nowhere to be found on Northern California televisions at the time.
My yearning was further fueled by the discovery of Famous Monsters of Filmland, a kid’s magazine filled with eye-magnetizing photos of classic creatures. Still, the films themselves remained frustratingly out-of-reach.
Then, in 1968, cable television came to my home — like a raincloud to a desert — and everything changed. Suddenly, a whole new crop of stations began to flower, including KTXL-40, an independent channel carving its niche as the area’s prime source of vintage movies. KTXL began casting its signal on October 26th, 1968. Exactly 189 days later, on the night of May 3rd, 1969, the doors of BLACK MUSEUM creaked open for the first time to present the original FRANKENSTEIN. I wish I could say I was there for that occasion, but the program ran for about six months before I finally stumbled upon it.
Dissolve to Friday, October 31st, 1969, approximately 9:15 p.m. Dressed as Dracula, I returned home from a highly successful night of trick-or-treating, entered our living room and — lo and behold — there was my father watching BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN on television. The movie was almost over — I’d arrived just as the monster was hurling a victim from a castle tower — but I knew in a flash that I’d struck the monster-lode. Finally, a genuine horror classic on my own TV! I peeled off my cape and plastic fangs, plunged to the floor, and fixed my eyes on the glowing tube.
Watching the remainder of the film, I soon discovered that I was actually in the midst of a FRANKENSTEIN marathon, presented by KTXL in celebration of Halloween. While I’d missed all of the original FRANKENSTEIN and most of BRIDE, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN were on their way, and nothing — not God, the Devil or bedtime —was going to keep me from seeing them.
Immovable, I sat in front of my TV for the rest of the marathon and, before the night was over, learned that KTXL had a weekly horror movie program, something called BLACK MUSEUM, which aired Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. I resolved to be there the following night, a Saturday — and for every Saturday night thereafter.
BLACK MUSEUM was a “no host” horror show —there was no equivalent of Zacherley or Vampira to chaperone the ghoulish proceedings. Instead, the program began with a highly atmospheric animated sequence. It’s been almost 40 years since I’ve seen it, but I’ll do my best to accurately remember and describe it…
It’s night, and a series of disembodied footprints are creeping through a moonlit graveyard — past some crumbling tombstones, a crooked fence, a few barren trees — all to the beat of some ominous music: dum-dum-dum-dum-DUM! Lightning flashes and a flock of bats take flight. The footprints continue on, winding toward a castle silhouetted on a hilltop against the night sky. Suddenly there is a flash of lighting; as it recedes, the program’s title appears and a foreboding voice intones: “Welcome to…Black Museum!” The camera pushes closer as the music builds to a crescendo. Then, as the music’s final note trails off, there is another flash of lighting and the screen goes black. For a moment — just long enough to catch your breath — all is still and dark. Then we slowly fade up… Often on the antiquated, black-and-white footage of a small airplane, its engine humming as it circles a spinning globe, and the words: “A Universal Picture.” The evening’s entertainment has commenced.
From beginning-to-end, that opening sequence probably ran less than 20-seconds. Nevertheless, I loved it — not only for what it was but also for what it promised: an evening that would capture the senses, excite the nerves, and fire the imagination.
Watching BLACK MUSEUM, I first encountered all of Universal’s horror classics from the 1930s and 40s, and many other ghastly gems. It was there I met Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and their brethren. I also discovered one of my favorite movies, the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and even saw a few assorted krimi. (KTXL owned a package of the German-made thrillers.) Of course, I always preferred the Universal classics, but whatever movie was scheduled, I was there for it: watching with a level of intensity that can only be experienced by a 10-year-old boy.
Each episode of BLACK MUSEUM lasted 90 minutes. During commercial breaks, the announcer would sometimes provide reassuring comments like, “We shall return to THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON on…Black Museum!” For some reason, his words for one of these segments still echo in my mind verbatim: “Stay turned for the frightening conclusion of SON OF DRACULA, starring Lon Chaney, Evelyn Ankers and Louise Allbrit-tit-tit-tit-ton….” (His voice trailing off strangely.)
When the night’s program had ended, we would return to the spooky animated landscape where, as the ominous music reprised, the disembodied footprints would retrace their route away from the castle and through the graveyard. The announcer’s voice would also return, uttering lines like: “Thank you for watching tonight’s feature. Tune-in next week when George Zucco and David Bruce star in THE MAD GHOUL on…Black Museum!”
You can bet that I did just that — after seven days of agonized anticipation. At the time, nothing seemed more important to me than watching BLACK MUSEUM. I even negotiated a deal with my family that amounted to me relinquishing all say over what we watched on television for the rest of the week in exchange for full control on Saturday nights.
Over that year, our area’s cable service widened and we began to receive other stations — including KEMO-20 from San Francisco, which had its own horror film program, SHOCK-IT-TO-ME, airing opposite BLACK MUSEUM. SHOCK-IT-TO-ME was hosted by a droll character named Asmodeous; I liked him a lot and sometimes watched his show, but most of the time I remained loyal to BLACK MUSEUM.
Then, on the night of May 9th, 1970, I turned-in to KTXL at the usual time, braced myself for the start of BLACK MUSEUM — and received a disorienting shock. Instead of launching into the expected title sequence, the camera faded up on a mysterious figure seated on a darkened set, and a very familiar piece of music began to play: Neal Hefti’s “Gotham City Municipal Swing Band.” A second later, the lights came up, illuminating the figure: none-other-than Bob Wilkins, complete with cigar and rocking chair!
For a moment, I was wildly confused. What was going on? Had a time warp transported me three hours into the future and changed the channels on my TV? Of course, even before the music had ended and Wilkins had greeted the KTXL audience, I’d figured it out: I knew that Wilkins had left KCRA several weeks before; clearly, he’d jumped ships and was now going to be hosting movies in this new time and place.
I was excited: I really liked Bob Wilkins — as I saw it, the only deficiencies of his KCRA show were its late night timeslot and the generally poor quality of its films — both would clearly be corrected by this change. It was going to be the best of both worlds: a great host showing great movies. A whole new era of monster movie watching was beginning, and I was thrilled to be there for it. However, with some sadness, I also realized I’d never see BLACK MUSEUM again. It was a fair trade, but I’d grown very attached to the show — which had introduced me to so many spine-tingling treasures.
Of course, BLACK MUSEUM only consisted of those opening and closing animated sequences and the announcer’s voice — that’s all there ever was to the show. But as I remember, it was all elegantly done: the animation was colorful, imaginative, and nicely rendered — like a Halloween greeting card come to life; the music struck just the mix of menace and playfulness; and the announcer (whoever he was) read his lines with a solemnity that was perfectly in tune with those of us who took their monsters seriously.
In fact, BLACK MUSEUM had the most stylish bookends of a horror movie program I’ve ever seen — certainly classier than any of those for Bob Wilkins’ various shows, including CREATURE FEATURES, which I always found rather tacky, even as a kid. Unfortunately, I’ll probably never see those sequences again: they probably resided on a single roll of film that gathered dust on a shelf at KTXL for years until finally getting tossed away. (I would have paid $1,000 for it.) If there’s an upside to that loss, it’s that the footage probably could never live up to my memories of it — which most likely have been aggrandized by time, nostalgia and my romantic disposition.
Nevertheless, if there were a single piece of film that I could rescue from oblivion, the intro and tag for BLACK MUSEUM would be it. Others can have the lost spider sequence from KING KONG, Bela Lugosi’s misplaced screen test for FRANKENSTEIN, or even Lon Chaney’s vanished silent feature LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT; I’d trade them all for BLACK MUSEUM. I remain hopeful that, despite the odds, one day that reel of film will resurface — perhaps in a forgotten cardboard box stored for decades in the garage of a long-retired KTXL employee. Until then, I’ll have to settle for my memories — where the doors of BLACK MUSEUM will always be open and bidding us welcome to an evening of thrills and chills.