Sam Tweedle: Not long ago I had an encounter with Alice Cooper and I was getting him to sign a photo for an old girlfriend of mine who happens to be named Grizelda. Well when he was signing the photo he said to me “Hey. Did you ever see the show The Hilarious House of Frightenstein? Wasn’t that a cool show? It’s one of my favorites.” We bonded over the show for a few moments.
Mitch Markowitz: That’s cool. I’ve never met Alice but people have told me that he’s a fan. I’ve had a lot of brushes with celebrities over the show. Mike Myers was given the key to Scarborough and he told the mayor that he was a big fan of the show and it inspired him to do the Mini Me/Dr. Evil bit. It was inspired by The Count and Guy Big.
Sam: So how deep was your personal involvement with Frightenstein?
Mitch: My brother and I produced the show and I also played Super Hippie. They tell me that I was “The Mosquito” as well but I’m not really sure. It all went so fast.
Sam: Super Hippie was weird. Where did that character come from?
Mitch: I don’t know. Drugs may be involved. I don’t really know. Nobody knows where Super Hippie came from because he doesn’t fit at all in the context of Frightenstein. It was a throwaway. We decided one day that I should do a cameo and my brother and I were both Superman fans and we just grew it from there. We got the costume and got the big blonde afro wig.
Sam: So that wasn’t your real hair.
Mitch: No. That was a big uncomfortable wig. We were using chromo key anyway to make it look like I was flying. So that was that.
Sam: A lot of people don’t remember that there was even a plot and a backstory to Frightenstein. The idea of Count Von Frightenstein getting exiled to Canada to build a monster is really funny.
Mitch: And unfortunately he couldn’t make that monster work. Bruce never moved. Yeah. A lot of thought went into the show. We had about twenty writers.
Sam: Where did the concept of The Hilarious House of Frightenstein come from? What is the origin story of the beginnings of the show?
Mitch: We were sitting in a hotel room at the Windsor Arms in Toronto, just sort of brainstorming, and the idea of a scary kids show with some educational twists to it came up and we started to explore it. We talked to Syd Bibby, who was the general manager of CHCH-11 and he was into the idea, but not 100% sold. By that time we started to talk to agents and we were looking for a real big star to anchor the show. Well we ended up doing a deal with Vincent Price.
Sam: Now it always baffled me that Vincent Price came to Ontario to do a kids show. How did you ever get him?
Mitch: Just through his agent. He’d had never done a kids show and he liked the idea. He had some time to spare and we only needed him for three days. He said he liked Toronto and he agreed to come up. The rest is history. It guaranteed to be picked up at CHCH-11 and also syndication throughout the United States. You don’t get anybody much bigger in the world of horror than Vincent Price.
Sam: I’ve interviewed a lot of people who worked with Vincent Price and everybody who met him loved the guy.
Mitch: [He was a] great guy. Very personable. He was one of the few big personalities that I’ve ever worked with that when he walked onto the set he’d walk over and introduce himself to all of the stage hands and electricians and technicians and shook hands with everybody. He was a really really nice guy.
Sam: How did Billy Van get involved with the show?
Mitch: That’s a good story. We didn’t think of Billy Van originally. We thought of a couple of other people. One of them was Jack Duffy. My brother did a show called Party Game on CHCH and Jack Duffy was one of the stars. So we thought about Jack, and we thought about a couple of other people, but none of them seemed to gel. Then we thought about Billy, and he was absolutely perfect. As you know, he did all the characters. He morphed into whatever we asked him to morph into immediately. He had a great sense of humor and a great sense of timing. He was one of the all-time pros.
Sam: Who created the different Frightenstein characters? Was it you and Riff or was it Billy, or was it a combination of both?
Mitch: We had, more or less, created all of them before Billy came into the picture, but he groomed them and bent them and shaped them.
Sam: Now I remember being a kid and waking up at the crack of dawn to watch the show, and I remember the opening and closing sequences to the show with Vincent Price scaring the crap out of me as a kid. There was nothing like it. It was terrifying, unlike the content. But that’s why I liked it. It was very psychedelic. Were there a lot of psychedelics on the set?
Mitch: Well there was the opening and the closing, but when you ask about the best use of psychedelics on the show you gotta be talking about The Wolf Man, where he is dancing with Igor. We came up with all those new concepts. We shot the camera into a monitor and back into another camera and created all those crazy effects. They are now commonplace but forty years ago it was something new and exciting. So between that and the rock n’ roll that the Wolf Man played, it was groovy.
Sam: My favorite character growing up was The Librarian. I didn’t get the joke as a kid. I just thought he was really scary. As an adult I realized he was hilarious. Who were your favorite characters?
Mitch: Maybe Grizelda, because we were basing Grizelda on a secretary we had which was a really wild drag queen. That’s where we got Grizelda’s way out “WHOO!” The Librarian was the scariest and the one that Billy disliked the most because the makeup was so intense. It took two and a half hours to get it on him and to wear it all day was tough.
Sam: Was it true that you guys would label the props on the Grizelda set and just get Billy to improve it when he read all of these goofy ingredients?
Mitch: Yes. There was a lot of ad libbing. He had such a quick mind that he could do that. He would take a look at something and then just go “boom” and come up with something funny.
Sam: Fishka Rais had such an important impact on the show as the loveable Igor, but he remains to be such a pop culture enigma to fans. What was he like? He died not much longer after the show ended, is that correct?
Mitch: Yes. It was a shame. He took the money that we paid him for the show, which was around ten thousand dollars, which was a lot of money in those days, and he used the money to get himself gastric bypass surgery and it didn’t work. This was way back in the beginning when that operation was being done, and he didn’t survive. Fishka was funny. He was a South African Jewish guy, and his South African accent worked for the Transylvanian accent.
Sam: He was so funny. He was like a gentle giant.
Mitch: He was. I’ll tell you the funniest story about Fishka. We rehearsed all the segments at the house we were living at in Etobicoke, and Fishka had a VW beetle, and on the way out to our house he would stop and pick up Guy Big. So when he got to our house it was the funniest thing you ever saw because Fishka was the size of the VW beetles, and Guy Big had to jump out of the other side. To see the two of them together was surreal.
Sam: Whatever happened to the Harvey Wallbanger and Grammer Slammer and the other puppets?
Mitch: That’s a good question. I don’t know. All of the puppets and all of the props disappeared. You can only store things so long. At the time nobody ever knew this would be around forever. This took a life of its own.
Sam: I love the fact you named a puppet from a kids show after an alcoholic drink.
Mitch: Well you would have had to be an adult to have known that. There was so much of that humor that was aimed higher than most of the five and six years old that were watching it.
Sam: Were you surprised when Frightenstein became a cult hit in the US?
Mitch: Absolutely. We thought it was for local consumption and that we’d do the hundred and thirty episodes and we’d get paid and everybody would be happy and that’d be the end of it. But it sure didn’t end up that way. It’s been forty five years now and it’s still running in some areas in the US. It was a huge cult hit there, and especially with the college audience. Kids would get stoned around eleven pm and watch it. In California, we were on from eleven to midnight opposite The Tonight Show. Well these stoned college kids would watch our show and we out rated Johnny Carson!
Sam: I heard a rumor a number of years ago that somebody destroyed all the original tapes of Frightenstein. Is there truth to that?
Mitch: Not that I know of. What I think ended up happening was that CHCH-11 stored them, and they owned them, and you can only grow your library so much. They can only keep so many video tapes and they had lots of inventory. The video tapes themselves are very expensive, so what I think happened is that at one point most of them got erased and they shot new shows on that tape.
Sam: Are you surprised that Frightenstein has lasted the test of time?
Mitch: Yes. Surprised and overjoyed because it gives me the opportunity to do autograph shows and conventions and to meet fans and the fans kids and, in some cases, their grandchildren. It’s been great.
I can’t always say that I always understood the humor of The Hilarious House of Frightenstein when I was a kid, but I knew that it was unique and I knew that I liked it. I loved the characters, the costumes, the creepiness and the all-round weirdness of the show. But the one thing I remember was the last thrill I’d get during the final moments of every episode when Vincent Price sat on a silent set and closed the program with another terrifying poem: “The castle lights are growing dim. There’s no one left but me–and him. When next we meet in Frankenstone…don’t come alone.” Oh man. It was chills right down the spine. The Hilarious House of Frightenstein is a quirky piece of Canadiana which has become part of our national pop culture landscape. A special program that the people who see it will never forget.
POP CULTURE ADDICT NOTE: We’d like to give a shout out of thanks to Chris Dabrowski and the organizers and volunteers at Hamilton’s Hammer Town Comic Convention. Making their debut in 2013, Hammertown Comic Con was the most satisfying convention I attended that year. Looking forward to 2014′s show. For more information visit http://www.hammertowncomiccon.com/ Thank you for being a part of a great weekend and PCA looks forward to working with you again and watching the convention grow!