I apologize for following one biographical lecture with another here in the Free Film School (last week’s lecture was all about horror visionary Tod Browning), but there is a fellow who needs to mentioned before we celebrate Halloween. I need to bring up one Forrest J Ackerman. He did not use a period to abbreviate his middle initial.
I have written a lot about movies in the pages of CraveOnline. I’m what you might call a movie fan. If you’re reading this lecture, you probably are too. I have been properly obsessed with movies for much of my life, and almost every single one of my jobs was connected to films or the cinema in some way. I have collected posters before, I have visited a few sets, and the number of films I own on home video numbers close to 1000. And I know there are others who are far more passionate than I when it comes to collecting trivia, memorabilia, autographs, and even props and costumes from their favorite movies. There is an entire culture of collectors and traders who thrive on knickknacks that have been discarded by their favorite actors.
More than that, though, you’ll find that modern pop culture has exploded of late. Over the last 15 years or so, pop culture has reached a level of saturation unforetold in the history of technology. Thanks to the internet (mostly), people who once had “geek” or “niche” interests can gather in large number, spend money, and celebrate their pop culture passions. Those who previously loved collecting Planet of the Apes merchandise now have an outlet somewhere in the world. The word “geek” is tossed around a lot, to the point where it pretty much describes anything known popularly. The notion of “fandom” is now what describes just about anyone with an interest in anything, and rarely relegated to outsiders anymore.
This notion of “fandom” was pretty much birthed by the passionate interests of a single man: Forrest J Ackerman, a Los Angeles-based collector, and OG fanboy. And what was Forrest a fan of? Why monsters, of course.
Forrest J Ackerman (1916 – 2008) was an L.A. institution. He was often seen at all the local grindhouses and B-features beginning as early as the 1930s. He just loved the macabre tales of weird creatures, and was especially fond of the old Universal classics. He was certainly not the world’s first autograph hound, but he did regularly write to the studios to request lobby cards, posters, and production stills, just for his own edification. In the 1930s, advertising materials like posters were seen as cheap and disposable, and theaters rarely kept them around. Maybe a big hit would lend collectors’ status to its advertising materials, but that stuff was ordinarily considered junk. It wasn’t until around Star Wars that posters became seen as valuable to a large number of collectors. Ackerman cherished all the advertising materials and posters, and amassed them in his small L.A. home. As the years passed, Ackerman became well-known to studio publicity people, and his collection grew by leaps and bounds. He was soon the owner of costumes, props, and rubber monster heads used in soon-to-be-classic films. He had the head of the Mutant from This Island Earth. A Creature from the Black Lagoon. Starships. Claws. Teeth. Masks. Name the old movie, he probably had something pertaining to it.
He also collected books, mostly penned by horror and sci-fi authors. Back in the ‘30s, before TV, many genre fans would go to movies, and read the yellowing pages of pulp sci-fi serials out of dime novels. Ackerman ate this stuff up as well. Indeed, he has even penned hundreds of his own sci-fi stories, and has even won awards for his writing, although Ackerman’s fiction has not had the impact on popular culture the same way his non-fiction has. So in addition to his old first-edition pulp magazines, he also has more recent authors like Stephen King. He also, thanks to his fandom, became friends with authors such as Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and special effects guru Ray Harryhausen. His mad collection of B-grade literature and friendship of sci-fi authors, was, if I must remind you, not common when Ackerman was doing it. This was essentially a guy who was into collecting comics before there were any well-known mainstream comics. He was even the first to wear a costume to a sci-fi convention, all the way back in 1939.
The behavior you see at comic book shops across the country, the mad vitriol to complete series runs and obsess over adolescent fantasy… however old you are, Ackerman was doing it first. He was the template for the generations that followed. Popular culture would not look the way it does today without Ackerman’s near single-handed approach to scary movies and monster memorabilia. It was he that, for all intents and purposes, started the notion of an underground geek community. It had to begin somewhere. It began with a fan. If sci-fi is taken at all seriously in this world, it’s partly due to authors like George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Yevgeny Zamyatin, but it was just as much a brave journalist who dared to trumpet fantasy lit and movies.
Ackerman’s most impressive contribution to the world, though, was one of the world’s first genre-based film magazines, Famous Monsters of Filmland, which began publication in 1958 and is still running to this day (although It did take a hiatus in 1983). Famous Monsters contained a wealth of knowledge for the monster movie buff. Largely, it was an excuse to show off the production stills he had amassed, but it was also an outlet for actors and filmmakers that Ackerman had taken notice of, but weren’t necessarily in the middle of the Hollywood public eye. It was an attempt to find others like him. Forrest wanted to find other fans.
He found them in droves. And, more impressively, he created them. Some impressionable young boys picked up the magazine in its early days, and grew up to make monster films themselves. John Landis, Peter Jackson, and makeup master Rick Baker are all outspoken fans of Famous Monsters. The magazine regularly featured original paintings on the covers of whatever the featured monster was that week. These iconic paintings became, fittingly enough, collectors’ items in themselves, and back issues of Famous Monsters are being reprinted merely for their lovely photo spreads and vintage interviews. Famous Monsters was also one of the first film magazines to offer up a view of what film production was like. Other more “mainstream” film magazines at the time were typically gossip or puff rags that only offered gam shots of teen idols. Forrest had a more passionate interest in how movies were made. We all know was Liz Taylor looks like, but what does she look like in between takes, next to a camera? Forrest revealed that. Only instead of Liz Taylor, it was a werewolf.
As the film climate changed, Ackerman remained staid. It didn’t matter to him that monsters became slimier, or that the special effects to create them were always in flux. In Ackerman’s mind, all monsters were created equal, and should be celebrated. Surely he had his favorites, but he realized that Godzilla had as many fans as Frankenstein. More recent issues of the magazine feature Lord Voldemort on the cover. Ackerman likely saw Voldemort, the evil wizard from the CGI-heavy Harry Potter franchise as yet another in a long tradition of movie creatures. If you have any interest in monsters, horror movies, sci-fi, or fantasy, you owe it to yourself to at least thumb through an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland. You’ll be glad you did.
Oh yeah. About sci-fi. Who do you think shortened “science fiction” to “sci-fi?” That was Forry.
A good tourist destination for monster fans: 915 Sherbourne Dr. in L.A. That was the site of Forrest J Ackerman’s original home, dubbed by local fans as The Ackermansion. Ackerman simply kept all his memorabilia in a small home at that address. Visiting friends likened it to a museum, but full of rubber creatures rather than fine art. When Ackerman moved into a larger (but still modest) home, this time in Los Feliz, he renamed it Son of Ackermanstion, of which he would give (very, very coveted) tours from time to time. He gave tours up until 2002. I never got to take the tour, and it’s one of my greatest regrets. Imagine the stories he must have told! Ackerman died in 2008.
By 2008, hundreds of thousands of people were going to comic book conventions, trading sci-fi pulp with a passion Ackerman helped perpetuate. More than a local colorful fan, Ackerman did what all fanboys hope to do someday: change the world simply by their passions. If Ackerman’s life taught us anything, it was that loving monsters, pursuing starships, and writing fantasy stories can indeed change the world for the better.
So this Halloween, when you sit to watch an old monster movie, know that Forrest J Ackerman watched it before you, and wrote an article about it because he loved it. If you have a venue where you discuss movies, monsters, sci-fi, superheroes, or anything that could be considered “geek,” know that Uncle Forry is your uncle too. He was the first. And the best.
Homework for the Week:
Watch an old monster movie. Go for Bride of Frankenstein if you haven’t seen it. Consider how much it moved an earlier generation of monster movie fans. Buy a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland and read it cover-to-cover. What kind of journalism is it? How does it move you? And, for the heck of it, watch Premium Rush. Did you see that? They namecheck Forrest J Ackerman a lot.