Wild World of Shows: The Hilarious House of Frightenstein
Let me start by mentioning that I’m not a huge fan of horror-related stuff: monsters, ghouls, goblins, creatures and creepies.
I don’t hate horror, it’s just personally not my jam. I’ve always been more into science fiction (aliens, robots, super powers and high-tech) than Gothic monster lore…
…And I’m generally not into dark stuff. I like positive things.
However, I do love to laugh. I like humor, especially zany, silly humor. As such, while I’m not a big horror fan, I’ve always enjoyed bad, campy, stupid, ridiculous horror/sci-fi. Stuff like Hillbillys in a Haunted House…
…And The Horror of Party Beach.
You know, the kinds of things that get goofed on by the likes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. This fondness for dopey, cheesy, late night sci-fi/monster shtick probably explains why 3 of my favorite bands (at the moment) are The Aquabats…
…The Ghastly Ones…
…And Los Straitjackets.
So wouldn’t it be great if someone made a family-friendly sketch comedy about kooky, cheesy late-night movie monsters, puppets and weirdos in campy costumes? Thankfully, someone did. This (finally) brings us to the subject of today’s Wild World of Shows, courtesy of or neighbor to the North, Canada…
The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.
Before we begin, I think I can sense what you’re thinking (assuming you’ve been following us for a while now)…”Wha? ‘Wild World of Shows’? Didn’t you change the name of this segment??”
-Yes, a couple of years ago this segment was indeed originally called the Wild World of Shows, but we changed it to The Cartoon Couch ’cause that name sounded similar to its’ older brother segment The Retro Bin and we like things that are related to have a unified branding. However, given that this show isn’t animated* (not in its’ final form, anyway, but we’ll get to that), it seemed incorrect to categorize this as a Cartoon Couch, so from here on in, whenever we cover a show that otherwise fits the requirements of a Cartoon Couch but isn’t a cartoon, we’ll be classifying it under Wild World of Shows. Got it? Good.
For the uninformed, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein is a Canadian children’s television series, which was produced by Hamilton, Ontario’s independent station CHCH-TV in 1971. It was syndicated both in Canada and internationally (though not in Maryland where I grew up; I’ve only recently discovered this show–late to the party as usual!) and occasionally still appears in some television markets. In Canada, the series has not aired on broadcast TV for several years, but is available on streaming service Crave.
The show is a quirky sketch comedy series that included some educational content amid its zany humour, the show’s cast included Billy Van, Fishka Rais, Guy Big, Mitch Markowitz, Vincent Price, and Julius Sumner Miller.
Van played most of the characters on the show. The guy wore a lot of hats, and thrice as many costumes.
- All 130 episodes were made in a nine-month span starting in 1971; the scenes with Price and Miller were all filmed within one summer.
- The show was originally going to be a cartoon. The production started with Riff Markowitz envisioning the concept and then inviting a room full of creative friends to a spaghetti and champagne ‘brainstorming’ dinner party in his double suite at the Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto. Markowitz directed the brainstorming session while his assistant Roger John Greco made notes of everything said.
- CHCH had broadcast two other Markowitz shows: The Randy Dandy Show for children, starring Rafael Markowitz as Randy Dandy; and The Ed Allen Show, an exercise program. CHCH approved the production of Frightenstein to take advantage of the station’s new ability to reach into the Toronto market for advertising money.
- Randy Dandy’s soda pop venture was later taken up by the Count when he promoted Dracola from the castle to raise money for his Brucie project.
- Sid Biby led the station at this time. The Hilarious House of Frightenstein was one of the most ambitious shows attempted by Canadian producers during this era.
- Markowitz later began production of an animated cartoon version of the show with animator Al Guest that never got on the air. It wasn’t until Vincent Price, Billy Van and other Canadian comics of the day got on board that broadcasters began to take interest.
- Horror icon Vincent Price starred in introductions for the show’s various segments. Price, who was attracted to the project because he wanted to do something for kids, filmed all of his nearly 400 segments in four days for a fee of $13,000. Julius Sumner Miller, an American scientist and TV personality, appeared in every episode; although he put on a “mad scientist” persona, his segments featured straightforward science lessons and experiments.
- On Canadian television stations, the show generally aired as a children’s show in an after-school or weekend morning time slot. In the United States, however, many stations aired it in a late night slot aimed primarily at college students. In an interview with film critic Richard Crouse on CFRB in the 2010s, Markowitz’s brother Mitch Markowitz — also an associate producer and bit-part performer on the show — acknowledged that while he and his brother always recognized the show had kid appeal because of the zany monster characters and lowbrow humor, it was always intended to also appeal to a young adult audience of alternative comedy fans. In some American markets, the show drew higher ratings than The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson among that demographic.
Let’s hit that opening!
BTW, the show’s opening and closing credits were accompanied by a musical composition played entirely on a Moog synthesizer and written by Harry Breuer, Gary Carol, Jean Jacques Perrey and Pat Prilly. Its title is “March of the Martians”. The original recording can be found on an out-of-print Pickwick vinyl album called The Happy Moog.
As previously stated, the show was basically a sketch comedy. Although each episode was nominally structured around the basic narrative premise of Count Frightenstein’s efforts to revive Brucie J. Monster, a Frankenstein-like monster, only some sketches (including the first sketch of each episode) directly addressed the premise itself, while most sketches depicted unrelated goings-on around the castle. Only the two main characters appeared in the “plot” sketches, although they could also appear in other sketches as well, while the supplementary characters generally only appeared in their own standalone sketches and were not part of the core “plot” sketches.
Now, onto the screwy cast. (NOTE: All of the characters are played by Billy Van unless otherwise specified.)
Count Frightenstein himself, the main character, was the 13th son of Count Dracula. Exiled to Castle Frightenstein in Frankenstone for his failure to revive Brucie, the core premise of the show was that he would be allowed to return to Transylvania only when (and if) he succeeded in his quest. Count Frightenstein was also a “black sheep” vampire in other ways, including his strong preference for eating pizza rather than drinking human blood. He also fancies himself an inventor, although his inventions generally have one of three faults: they are either dangerous, useless, or already a common household object upon which his version is not an improvement.
Igor (Fishka Rais) was Frightenstein’s incompetent assistant. (So what else?)
- The Wolfman – A werewolf disk jockey at radio station EECH (get it?) who spun rock and roll records while doing a Wolfman Jack impression. The Wolfman’s theme song was Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher”. (One of my favorite Sly songs. No wonder this is one of my favorite segments on the show.) The segment featured then-current hit singles by The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, Three Dog Night (the song for that particular show was “Mama Told Me Not to Come”–any show that manages to get a song about an out-of-control pot party on a kid-vid show gets props in my book) or other Top 40 radio stars of the time (which were referred to as ‘golden oldies’ in order to avoid dating the program), with the Wolfman and Igor dancing in silhouette against a psychedelic background.
For licensing reasons, the musical numbers are no longer shown on some reruns, although broadcasts on YTV in the early 2000s included the segments.
- The Grammar Slammer – The Grammar Slammer was a disembodied voice who challenged Igor to correct grammatical errors, accompanied by an eight-foot purple monster named Bammer who threatened to give Igor a royal-ass beatdown if he failed.
- Bwana Clyde Batty – A British explorer who teaches about wild animals on Zany Zoo. His name is a spoof of animal trainer Clyde Beatty. His catchphrase is “ooga booga!”
- The Professor (Julius Sumner Miller) – A professor who provided science lessons on such things as thermal expansion and the cartesian diver.
- Dr. Pet Vet – A veterinarian who teaches about domestic animals (whereas Zany Zoo was about wild fauna). He always offers the day’s animal to Igor as a pet, but the Sloth in the basement invariably refuses to allow Igor to keep the animal.
- Grizelda, the Ghastly Gourmet – A witch voiced as a parody of Julia Child, who provides a version of a television cooking show as she cooks suitably ghastly recipes in her cauldron. In every one of her segments, she bangs her head on the pot above her cauldron, and invariably declares the recipe a failure after it causes a small explosion.
- The Librarian – An elderly curmudgeon who unsuccessfully tries to scare the viewers by reading children’s stories, such as “Humpty Dumpty” and “Henny Penny”, which he thinks are horror stories. He also sometimes reads fables with unpleasant endings. He eventually admits to not being any more frightened than the viewers, but considers reading important nonetheless.
- The Maharishi – A Hindu guru who shares bits of mystically inscrutable wisdom (e.g. “It is written, that he who kicks the blind beggar, in the marketplace, during an eclipse, can only curse the camel, for its lack of discipline.”) A large bag of flowers (dyed carnations) would then fall on top of his head afterward.
- The Oracle – A mystic who reads out horoscopes in a Peter Lorre voice, invariably knocking over and breaking his crystal ball in the process. He also would often get his hand temporarily stuck inside his replacement crystal ball. He then answers questions supposedly sent in from viewers.
- The Mini-Count (Guy Big) is a three-foot tall clone of the Count, who appears in brief sketches where he tells a joke. Incidentally, Big was originally slated to play the main role as the Count, as the original character concept was based in part on the sight gag of a diminutive Count contrasted against Igor’s imposing height and weight. However, Big was not experienced enough as an actor to properly maintain Count Frightenstein’s desired accent, so the role was recast to star Van while a new smaller role was written for Big.
- Harvey Wallbanger – The postmaster of Castle Frightenstein’s “dead letter office”, he would appear in sketches with the Count or Grizelda in which they answer letters.
- Gronk – A purple sea serpent who interacts with the Count or the Wolfman. Gronk would announce his presence with a loud call of “Gronk!” Gronk’s segments usually had the Count reading a book; the Count would then start explaining what the book was about, with Gronk interrupting him, usually mid-sentence, with a completely incorrect conclusion to what the Count had been reading. This would happen several times, leading to greater and greater frustration on the part of the Count. Segments with the Wolfman were generally one-line or two-line jokes.
- Bammer – A large purple monster who assisted the Grammar Slammer in correcting Igor’s poor grammar.
Super Hippy (Mitch Markowitz) — A hippie in a superhero costume who appears leading in and out of commercials, sitting or flying in varying locations as he delivers some variation on “Don’t change the channel; we’ll be right back after these commercials.” I’m not sure what a hippie superhero has to do with monsters in a castle, but Rule of Funny, I guess.
- The Singing Soldier — A light-operetta styled palace guard who gets a cream pie thrown in his face whenever he starts to sing “Indian Love Call” from Rose-Marie.
- The Mosquito (Mitch Markowitz) – A mosquito who tells a bad joke about insects before biting a human foot.
- The Gorilla (Van or Paul Schultz) – A gorilla who would walk out of the jungle and invariably try to scare whomever he was looking at. In every segment, however, he would be thwarted by a ping-pong ball that would hit him square in the head, causing him to keel over. He often tried to avoid the ping-pong balls, in one instance by holding up a parasol.
Like an earlier honoree of The Cartoon Couch, The Funny Company, my biggest regret concerning this hidden gem was that I wasn’t exposed to it sooner. If The Hub had lasted beyond just four years, I could’ve easily seen The Hilarious House of Frightenstein airing on that channel. It would have fit in on The Hub’s afternoon lineup, or even at night, if they had followed our advice and went with an alternative comedy format instead of just running old sitcoms and movies.
So hats off to The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. This show hits just the right level of absurd and imaginative for me. It reminds me of afternoon blocks like Wake, Rattle & Roll or local late-night cheesy monster movie fests like Ghost Host, Creature Feature, Svengoolie (or various other titles, depending on where you live/d)…or TNT’s 100% Weird…
…Just without the movie parts.
The show’s like Cartoon Planet with monsters, and frankly, I…