The hilarious history of Frightenstein
There wasn’t much of a reason to think Mitch Markowitz’s idea would work.
It was a country mile outside the usual box for a television show: A children’s program based on classic horror movie tropes mixed with sight gags, educational segments and a pop culture groove befitting the early 1970s.
The madcap idea had already been turned down once by the fledgling CHCH-TV station in Hamilton, so on their second pitch in 1971 Markowitz and his brother Riff Markowitz put some extra bait on their hook.
“So we said, ‘What if we got one of the classic Universal horror movie actors to be our narrator?” Markowitz said while visiting Mostly Comics on St. Paul Street in St. Catharines Saturday. “So the guy says ‘Like who?’ And we said ‘Vincent Price,’ because he was classiest of those actors.”
CHCH brass were so impressed they told the Markowitz brothers if they had Price onboard, they would sign a contract right there, right then. As it turned out, Markowitz had a contract in his back pocket. The TV station signed for 137, onehour episodes and just like that the
Hilarious House of Frightenstein — a show that would become a cult classic in Canada, the United States and parts of Europe — was born.
There was just one teeny, tiny problem.
The Markowitz brothers didn’t actually have an agreement with Price. When the deal with CHCH was signed, they hadn’t even talked to the actor.
“We just believed we could do it, and I suppose if it didn’t work, we would have tried something else,” he said. While the brothers oversold
Frightenstein to CHCH, they purposely undervalued their idea when they finally met Price.
“So we said, ‘Look, it is being filmed in Hamilton, Ont., on a TV station no one has ever heard of. No one is going to see it. So it if flops, it won’t hurt you. Plus, we’ll pay you and we’ll get all your work done in two days,’” Markowitz said. “He agreed. But it ended up taking longer than two days.”
Markowitz regaled fans with tales of Frightenstein — including his bit part in front of the camera as stoned superhero Super Hippy — as part of the reopening of Mostly Comics, which was recently bought by Norm Hearn of St. Catharines.
Hearn, who had retired from his career in government and works with disabled adults, recently bought the store from retired Niagara Regional Police officer Kim Stevens.
“I had left my government job, but I wasn’t ready to retire,” said Hearn. “This seems like a really good opportunity. When you work in government, you are often making hard decisions when you deal with people, and at the end of the day, someone is always upset or disappointed by the decision you had to make. Here, everyone is talking and sharing about something they love, something they are passionate about. I really like that.”
Local cosplayers, Welland artist and Captain Canuck creator Richard Comely, and Markowitz were on hand Saturday to celebrate the reopening of the comic shop.
Markowitz said he remains humbled that Frightenstein continues to have a following more than 40 years after it first aired. Although it was pitched as a kids show complete with educational content and slapstick humour, cultural references
and sly innuendo were aimed at young adults, which he said contributes to its longevity. Markowitz, who said a reboot of Frightenstein is in the works, said in some American markets late-night reruns of the show did better numbers than The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
“The kid who first watched it in the ’70s remember it. And then another generation who watched the reruns remember it. And now their kids are watching it on DVD or on YouTube,” he said. “Honoured is the word. I’m very honoured.”
Mitch Markowitz, producer and screen writer and sometimes actor from the Hilarious House of Frightenstein, appears in St. Catharines while celebrating the reopening of Mostly Comics on St. Paul Street.