Cult TV

Cult Television Essentials: The Hilarious House of Frightenstein

Another lovely day begins, for ghosts and ghouls with greenish skin. So close your eyes and you will find that you’ve arrived in Frightenstein. Perhaps the Count will find a way to make his monster work to-day. For if he solves this monster-mania, he can return to Transylvania! So welcome where the sun won’t shine, to the castle of Count Frightenstein!

The Hilarious House of Frightenstein was a Canadian children’s television series produced by Hamilton, Ontario’s independent station CHCH-TV in 1971. It was syndicated to television stations across Canada and the United States and occasionally still appears today in some television markets.

A quirky sketch comedy series that included some genuine educational content among the 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.

All 130 episodes were made in a single nine-month span starting in 1971; the scenes with Price and Miller were all filmed within one summer.

The chief character, Count Frightenstein (Van), was the thirteenth son of Count Dracula and was exiled to Castle Frightenstein in Frankenstone, Canada for failing to revive Brucie J. Monster, a Frankenstein-like monster. Assisted by Igor (Rais), an overweight incompetent, and a three-foot-tall mini-Count (Big), each episode followed the Count’s efforts to revive Brucie and featured comedy sketches. Each episode opened and closed with an appearance by the venerable horror star Vincent Price as he recited intentionally silly poetry with toy skulls and shrunken heads in the background. Price also did introductions for segments within the show.

Fishka Rais, who played the character Igor was an accomplished jazz singer from South Africa. Brucie, though addressed as a character in the series, was a mannequin made up to look like the Universal Monsters version of the Frankenstein monster.

Other characters on the show included the following. All were played by Billy Van unless noted.

  • The Wolfman – A werewolf disk jockey at radio station EECH 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”. The segment featured then-current hit singles by The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, Three Dog Night 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. Owing to licensing issues, the musical numbers are no longer shown on some reruns, although broadcasts on YTV in the early 2000s still included the segments.

The psychedelic background was ‘discovered’ by the CHCH crew who revealed it to Markowitz, who put it in the show. The effect was video feedback produced by pointing the studio video camera at a studio video monitor. Markowitz added the blue screen and another feedback camera to create the layered effect.

  • The Grammar Slammer – The Grammar Slammer was the disembodied voice (of Billy Van) who challenged Igor to correct grammatical errors, accompanied by an eight-foot purple monster named Bammer who threatened to beat up Igor if he failed.
  • The Professor – U.S. physicist Professor Julius Sumner Miller, a veteran of the Mickey Mouse Club (where he was known as Professor Wonderful), provided science lessons on such things as thermal expansion and the cartesian diver.

When Julius Sumner Miller first arrived from California at Toronto’s Malton Airport to begin the drive to CHCH in Hamilton, he refused to ride with Markowitz in the Cadillac limo in favour of riding with his science equipment in a station wagon driven by Markowitz’s assistant John Greco. The two cars left the airport together but the station wagon was soon separated from the limo and Sumner Miller was now headed for London, Ontario rather than Hamilton. It was early summer and Sumner Miller had a short-sleeve shirt on coming from California. Eventually his driver realized his error and headed south toward Hamilton by farm roads making Sumner Miller nervous. Sumner Miller was more upset when he was driven into a freak snow storm. Eventually they arrived safely at the CHCH television station in Hamilton.

  • Bwana Clyde Batty – A British explorer character who gave Billy Van a chance to use his Michael Caine impression, who teaches about wild animals on Zany Zoo and his name is a spoof of animal trainer Clyde Beatty. His catchphrase is “ooga booga!”
  • Dr. Pet Vet – A veterinarian who teaches about domestic animals (whereas the 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 who provides a parody of television cooking shows, 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. Grizelda would sometimes wrestle “Polly” a taxidermically-stuffed Golden Eagle for the recipe or for a secret ingredient going in the pot that day. The iron cauldron was a real one borrowed from a tiny farm museum north of Toronto. It was set up with dry ice for the ‘boiling’ effect. Grizelda was very vain, often comparing her “beauty” to that of famous women of the era, including Goldie Hawn and Margaret Trudeau. Grizelda was obviously influenced by The Old Witch of EC horror comics of the early 1950s, such as The Haunt of Fear and Tales From the Crypt. The artist for The Witch’s Cauldron stories, Graham Ingels always signed himself “Ghastly”. Grizelda even resembles Ingels’ drawings of the witch.

Griselda’s make-up took hours to put on and Van would work long hours to make the most of the make-up every shooting day. As the day wore on into night Van became increasingly punchy providing hours of out-take laughs for the crew at the CHCH studio.

  • 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. He would occasionally hit “Polly”, a taxidermically-stuffed golden eagle perched near his chair.
  • The Maharishi – A Hindu guru who shares bits of mystically inscrutable wisdom. A large bag of flowers (dyed Carnations) would then fall atop 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 Midget Count – Played by Guy Big, this is a Mini-Me-style three-foot tall clone of The Count.

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!

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