Camp David


By • Nov 16th, 2014 •

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My name is David Del Valle. My journey is just beginning. A journey that I am hoping will somehow begin to reveal the mysteries of my past. It is a journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place….to a house high atop a stormy cliff at the edge of the sea…to a house called Wildercliff. To a world I’ve never known, with people I’ve never met…people who tonight are still only vague shadows in my mind, but who will soon fill all the days and nights of my tomorrows.” Thus,in the year of our lord 1996 I began my own personal adventure on the east coast as one of the producers of the 30th anniversary VHS presentation of DARK SHADOWS. The other producer was Barbara Steele who had recently appeared in the 1991 revival of the show that never seems to die.

Dan Curtis’s demeanor as a producer/director during the time I knew him was always that of an aggressive alpha male intensely ego driven, accustomed to getting what he wanted, a self-made millionaire ever since his brainchild, the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, went through the ratings roof in 1966, then keeping the dream alive until 1971 by which time he truly believed it was over and moved on to even greater success with his career, which by then was secure as a producer/director of both features and TV movies of the week.

The first time I met him in person he was holding court in a comfortable screening room at Gower Studios not far from Paramount, editing the powerful concentration camp footage of his mammoth ABC mini series THE WINDS OF WAR. Barbara Steele was at that time his right hand, having done both casting and location scouting but not quite yet a producer, which she would become before this project was over. Almost anyone, and this included his inner circle, who ever worked with Dan was more than a little intimidated by his “my way or the highway” manner, which could turn on a dime into rage. Barbara put every bit of her knowledge from her sixties days as what most horror fans refer to as the golden age of Italian horror of which she was undisputed queen. Her practical knowledge of European locations and film crews proved invaluable to Dan as they made their way across Europe shooting this series, which became the biggest, most expensive in the history of television.

By the time Barbara and I arrived and took our places in the back of the screening room, his presence was overpowering enough that I wisely remained speechless as I observed him studying his show, smiling and looking behind at those of us seated below him for reactions. When the lights went up after witnessing a very moving performance from John Gielgud as he made the journey into those deathly showers to die and then following this nightmare all the way to the ashes of the dead being thrown into the river was overwhelming in its power to forever remind us that the evil that men do does indeed live on. When the lights came on Dan Curtis stood up and with a clenched fist and cried out, much like Gloria Swanson did in her screening room, “Eat your heart out Steven Spielberg; try and top this!” This was my initial introduction to the man who sent a pre-Woodstock nation of schoolboys into a panic trying to get home from school in time to see whether or not Maggie Evans was ever going to get out of the old house and free herself from a lovelorn vampire.

As time went on, Barbara’s place in Dan’s work became more and more important until she became his rock, and they worked in concert on both THE WINDS OF WAR and WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, clocking more television hours then anyone could have ever imagined. I remember being especially touched by a handsomely framed photograph behind Dan’s desk which showed the two of them together with their backs to the camera, looking over a location. That image, simple and direct, clearly made a statement that their connection was based on trust and mutual respect. By the time the 1991 reboot of Dark Shadows came and went, Barbara was looking for things to do, either for Dan or anyone else, to stay in the game. She came up with a plan in 1995 to do something with Dark Shadows as a producer, and was kind enough to bring me along for the ride. We spent many hours at her home mapping out a plan to pitch to Dan about sending us to New York to cover the forthcoming 30th anniversary of DARK SHADOWS. This was now over 20 years ago, and I can’t remember all the details, but I do recall the meeting in Dan’s office’s which were in Santa Monica at the time, although at some point he moved in to a high-rise near Brentwood.

We had come up with an idea of organizing a roomful of fans all dressed as Barnabas, as well as interviewing as many of the principals as possible, shy of the one holdout from series – David Henesy, who remained steadfast in his resolve to never do a Shadows convention, and he never did. Dan Curtis never attended these either as he really was not that interested as long as he had a film to direct, which really was his passion. Whatever you may hear these days about him I will always remember that his loyalty to his crew and loved ones was absolute. There were times when one of his crew fell on hard times or needed money for an operation and Dan Curtis was what they used to call in Hollywood “a man’s man,” always one step ahead, making sure those near and dear got taken care of. In other words his heart was made of gold.

By 1995 Barbara and I had already flown back to New Jersey for her first ever convention appearance at Kevin Clement’s popular Chiller theater, which was a perfect rehearsal for approaching this kind of anniversary show for DARK SHADOWS, since it gave us real insight into the fans and their unconditional love for the object of their childhood obsessions. Our game plan was to convince Dan Curtis that the anniversary should reflect not only the fans, but the celebrity fans that grew up watching DARK SHADOWS. At this point our celebrity research only brought forth Oprah Winfrey as a die-hard fan. I can’t remember all the details of what we meant to accomplish, but the end result was anything but what we had in mind. Our meeting with Dan Curtis was something I do recall since I was at that time still somewhat afraid of him and felt that, in a certain light with his clenched teeth and wild eyes, he reminded me of a werewolf. This must have been on my mind since out of trying to think of things to say during that meeting I thought I would impress him by having some knowledge of his non-shadows output. He asked me which of his TV movies I liked best and without hesitation I said SCREAM OF THE WOLF. He smiled and asked why that one in particular and here is what I told him…”This was a landmark show because it dealt with latent homosexuality as a subtext for just why uber-macho Clint Walker was so hot to get in the woods with his boyhood buddy Peter Graves.” I then told him that this has to be the first gay-themed werewolf film on or off the big screen. Curtis sat back in his leather chair and said “Son of a bitch, are you kidding?” Now a few days later I had reason to come back into his office and just happened to hear him talking on the phone laughing in that special way of his, telling whomever on the other end of the line “Yeah we did a another television first: I did the first ever gay werewolf movie of the week!” And this was only the beginning.

One detail that does stand out from that pitch meeting with Dan Curtis was the fact that he had definitely moved along from DARK SHADOWS long ago and remained a bit puzzled at the fans for keeping it alive. However this was only possible because Dan never really took a good look at this fan base to begin with until much later in the game. When the subject of DARK SHADOWS did come up Dan was always savvy enough to predict “you know the day I die the trade papers will read ‘Dan Curtis creator of Dark Shadows passed away today” He was always aware of his legacy which he hoped would also include the mammoth WINDS OF WAR as well as WAR AND REMEMBRANCE of which its importance to television history is secure. The main source of all things Dark Shadows in the office was Jim Pierson a Texas lad who fell hard for the show long after it aired on television. Jim had never seen an episode of DARK SHADOWS until many years after the show was off the air. However his total dedication once he was hooked took him directly to New York where he haunted the former locations of the show and managed to locate as many of the old tapes as possible. His efforts became the MPI collection of DARK SHADOWS, which this year saw the release of a boxed set of the entire series clocking in at 131 DVDs.

The fans embraced this with open arms, nicknaming the company MPI: MR. PIERSON’S INCOME, which was not far from the truth. Jim was responsible for keeping the flame going, organizing the conventions as well as keeping track of all the former cast members. Jim proved to be not only a very nice man but in an odd way he had become the watchdog of the Dark Shadows legacy, shall we say the Roddy McDowell of DARK SHADOWS because like Roddy he was trusted by every cast member, becoming after a fashion the guardian of all their secrets. What Barbara and I could not have anticipated that day when Dan was giving us the green light to fly to New York and attempt to produce this documentary was the reality that Jim was going to be there to make sure the legacy was protected, which unfortunately also prevented anything fresh from being attempted either. Barbara had the idea that since the convention was to have a costume show with prizes etc., why not do a segment on all the fans who dressed as Barnabas Collins, as well as a segment on the fans and their personal experiences within the DARK SHADOWS universe.

We finally arrived in New York a day ahead of the convention’s first round of panels. In keeping with the already macabre occasion, we discovered that the hotel chosen for the occasion was in crisis mode in light of an apparent suicide that took place the day before when a guest decided to jump from one of the open corridors, falling to his death. The result left part of the lobby blocked off until the blood could be dealt with; not the best of omens for the journey still ahead of us. On the bright side our hotel was positioned right in the middle of Times Square. Once we adjusted to the already morbid atmosphere we settled into our rooms which were located high enough to allow one the same spectacular views you see televised every New Year’s eve.

Jim had after a fashion organized a film crew for us to use in the hotel and then another for our proposed trip to Rhinebeck by the Hudson River to interview the former soap opera writer Sam Hall who I would discover behaved like Truman Capote with a writing style more like that of Barbara Cartland on a good day. At that moment in time he remained a key interview simply because no one had really filmed an interview with him since NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS had its west coast premier back in 1970.

However his real claim to fame will always remain being the husband of the late actress Grayson Hall, the ultra camp diva of DARK SHADOWS. It was clear to all concerned that next to Jonathan Frid [who at that time rarely appeared at these things] Grayson Hall become a legend, both for the show as well as in New York for her amazing off Broadway performance curiosities. Grayson Hall was by all accounts a force of nature whose eccentric choices in life as well as her work on both stage and screen made her stand out even in the counterculture sixties. Her co-star on the show, Alexandra Moltke Isles, dubbed her “Auntie Mame meets the Addams family” or my favorite, Rosalind Russell, on crack. Grayson was in her lifetime well aware of both her gay following as well as her DARK SHADOWS regulars that wrote her fan mail and sent bizarre gifts to the taping of her staggering 472 episodes of the show. One of her favorite quips had been “Bear up darling, I love your eye shadow.” When asked about her popularity on the show her response was simply “Darling, my fans are Legion!” RJ Jamison wrote a very compelling study of Grayson, and during the process of putting it together reached out to me by telephone. We both were on the same page about how amazing this woman was, and especially, what an impact she had on the media in her day. The stories I am relating here were only discussed once before, and that was with RJ. When the subject of Sam Hall’s personality was finally brought up, I discovered she had come to the same conclusions I did, but since the project was an authorized biography, her personal observations were kept out of it. I have kept these to myself as well, until the death of Dan Curtis, though I don’t think he would have bothered to concern himself with these matters in the first place: Dan lived for the here and now, needing no endorsements from the peanut gallery.

I asked Lara Parker once at a party about her impressions of Grayson, and her reply was unusual to say the least. Lara said, “To really know what she was like David, well it was like this: I was standing by one of those camera monitors on set waiting for my cue, and the actress on camera at the moment was Kate Jackson. As I was watching her, Grayson came up behind me and asked the strangest thing. She wanted to know if I thought I was pretty. I looked at her and then said, ‘Well I suppose I am alright, Grayson’ to which she said ‘If you really want to see what a beautiful woman looks like, then keep watching that camera because she is perfection.’ I knew at that moment where I stood with this lady and did my best to stay out of her way. Another cast member told me that they asked Grayson to take care of her parakeet while she was out of town for a week. When she came back and went to the cage she was shocked to discover a crocheted replica of her bird in place of her pet — it seems Grayson forgot to feed the bird and to make up for it she made the replica by hand to replace it. It was no accident that this woman made horror films. All Grayson needed at this point was to care for a wheelchair bound sister to complete the image Baby Jane meets Dr Hoffman.

Prior to her appearing on DARK SHADOWS Grayson had already made a lasting impression on the big screen in John Huston’s well mounted production of Tennessee Williams THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. Her Oscar nominated performance as the sexually repressed Miss Fellows {a role Grayson referred to in private as “the dyke who chases Sue Lyons down the beach”} proved she could hold her own even in the company of heavy weights like Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. Grayson Hall quickly became an icon on the show not only for horror fans but especially to gay fans coming of age while the show was still very much on the air. One must remember that Stonewall, the Vietnam war, not to mention the age of Aquarius, were all happening during the run of this show not that DARK SHADOWS ever reflected anything more relevant than the fever dreams of decidedly hack writers forever lifting ideas from every cliche horror film of the previous era. As a gay man growing up with not only DARK SHADOWS but the Vincent Price ‘Poe’ films, I too identified with these melodramatic gestures used by coded gay actors like Price and Jonathan Frid. At the time the critics chose to refer to Frid’s acting style as “Shakespearian” in perhaps the same way Clifton Webb’s performance as Waldo Lydecker was likewise ‘Shakesperian” in Laura. The gay sub-text was always there lurking in the scripts involving Barnabas, forever trying to change what he was so that he could attempt a “normal life” and marry his Josette. I mean here for all to see was a middle aged, very camp actor wearing heavy pancake makeup with loads of eye liner living in an old house which he decorated himself filled with antiques, living in seclusion with a live-in handy man named Willy. Do the math. After a season or two the scripts changed gears a bit to accommodate the ever-changing time frames as well as the multiple characters they would play, making Grayson and Jonathan a double act of a reformed vampire and his besotted private physician battling the forces of darkness, a situation that historically occurred in real life with Lord Byron and John Polidori, and let us not forget Polidori is the author of the first ever vampire tale, based on his homoerotic infatuation with Lord Byron. Ken Russell made much of this in his dizzy horror fable GOTHIC.

However when Barbara and I were at the actual event, the fans we were confronted with were decidedly a-sexual at best, since they never really allowed themselves for the most part to mature beyond a certain point in time. The reality of interviewing all the costumed Barnabas look-alikes became tedious after testing about the first ten mostly overweight imposters to the role. One fan in his late twenties sat in front of the camera and began his DARK SHADOWS memoires much like everyone else by recalling watching the show and of course leaving school early enough to catch the next episode, however this guy told a decidedly different tale as it turned out. He told us that he made a habit of always watching the program with his mother, so one afternoon just as the show was starting his mother began feeling ill and before he knew it she simply passed away right in front of him. He then told us that he continued to watch the show until it ended and then dialed 911. It was what she would have wanted: that they finish the show together.

There were other stories, one in particular that was related to Barbara during our stay. She had met a very personable young housewife and mother of two school age children who had been a fan of the show from the time Barnabas appeared as a vampire, now as she was telling all this to Barbara she smiled often enough for Barbara to notice she had very pronounced incisors that resembled fangs. When Barbara finally asked her if she was indeed wearing fangs for the convention the lady smiled once again, this time informing the former Queen of horror that these teeth were put in professionally by a dentist friend of hers a few years ago and that they there for always. Barbara and I could only imagine what it must have like to have this woman pick her children up from school or attend PTA meetings looking like a vampire whenever she smiled.

These were isolated examples to be sure, but if we could have amassed enough of them we might have created a fascinating look into the mindset of the most dedicated and eccentric examples of carrying a torch too long for your childhood fantasy. Indeed most of these fans seemed to mirror the same situation that iconic television like DARK SHADOWS or say STAR TREK offers – a parallel universe where reality is suspended during the course of the program, and for some it goes on for years at a time. Needless to say none of this interview footage ever made it’s way into the program. Most all of the supplemental material currently on VHS or now DVD regarding DARK SHADOWS always covers the same well worn Q&A panels with the remaining cast members intertwined with footage and clips from the thousand plus episodes as well as the two feature films. The reality that this was a groundbreaking series made during a turbulent time in American history is rarely if ever addressed, nor is the popularity of DARK SHADOWS with the gay community, in fact DARK SHADOWS is more popular today with gay fans than, say, BEWITCHED was in its prime. Even with the way over the top antics of America’s favorite gay celebrity Paul Lynde as zany Uncle Arthur could not approach the popularity it maintains, now especially with the very camp Tim Burton reboot.

The main event during our time at the convention was our “road trip” to interview the reclusive Sam Hall who now lived about two hours away in what is referred to by the locals as the “Rhinebeck” region, located by the Hudson river. Barbara had spent the night at this home a couple of years before so, based on that initial meeting, she felt Sam and I would really connect since Sam was a “character” in the Truman Capote tradition. We were just about to find out how right she was. Sam Hall and his wife Grayson had lived in this atmospheric old house since 1979, and the fact it resembled the old house in the series was not lost on any of us. The house had a name of course: they called it Wildercliff, an 18th century home where, as Sam felt an obligation to tell you, Clare Booth Luce wrote her very first novel. The house and grounds were secluded with a pool house that was scaled originally for the former owner’s young daughter who apparently was a dwarf. This fact was related to us by Sam in his most Capote like voice which definitely added to the already peculiar sense of foreboding that permeated the air.

The house itself was filled with Biedermeir furniture, some of it quite nice. You got a sense the owner was “into” the macabre by degree as you passed by a large birdcage whose sole occupant was a human skull or the rather satanic oil painting of a Ram in the hallway or perhaps the table filled with dragon candlesticks. The centerpiece in the main living room was a very outre camp painting of the lady of the house, the divine Grayson Hall herself, looking very otherworldly, even in oil. Just enough props to inform your guests that this is the house where evil dwells, or was it merely barnstorming in the Tod Slaughter sense of the word.

We had arrived at this offbeat location in two cars – the camera crew with Barbara in one, and the other with Jim Pierson and myself. Sam was at this point always the grand senior inviting us in to his lair, but first he stopped me as we were about to enter and, pointing to the river, informed me “I had to throw out the last people that came here because one of them did not even know this was the Hudson river, nor did they have any appreciation of the historical background of this house.” Sam Hall was proving to be a dyed in the wool snob of the first order and we had not even gotten inside the house yet. I am sure he would have been satisfied if I referred to him as say an effete patrician writer with standards to maintain. However as the day worn on and night began to descend on the old house I decided what I saw before me was a decidedly bitter man who resented not being the center of anybody’s attention, and I am sure this was doubly true when Grayson was alive since she was always a showstopper with nostrils flaring, always using that cracking dramatic voice to make her presence known. It must have been galling to always have been Mr Grayson Hall. This was a common complaint with men who are attracted to larger than life women like say Judy Garland or Joan Crawford. In most cases the men are themselves closeted in one way or another, the most famous being the former Duke of Windsor with the “woman I love.”

The prevailing topic of conversation while we were there was Sam Hall’s dislike of all things Dan Curtis which was unfortunate to say the least since it was the success of all things Dan Curtis that more than likely paid for all this history in the first place. My personal favorite moment during our time there [which literally went on all day while we consumed way too much red wine, excluding Jim who wisely remained the teetotaler of the group} came early on when we set up the cameras in the dining area to film Sam’s first interview in decades. Jim stood in the background and we took turns posing questions for Sam to answer. We were just getting started when the question asked of when Jonathan Frid first became popular on the show and how amazing it was that a man his age became a teen idol in the process. Sam responded to this question by informing the camera that “Well we had somewhat of a problem with that in the beginning because Frid was getting literally hundreds of pieces of fan mail each week and while the majority of it was from teenage girls there was also a good deal of it from guys, teenage and otherwise, and we discovered that Jonathan was more prone to respond to the good looking guys with more attention then we felt was appropriate.” Jim immediately called for a break and walked over to Sam, saying this was not the kind of information we were looking for, and Sam, acting as if he did nothing of particular note, said “Oh I see, we can’t mention the fact that girls were not his cup of tea.” I wanted to respond to that quip by asking, “Well then are they yours?”

By this point I found his entire attitude to be hostile or self-serving, and as a result, what remains on film is slight at best considering the time and expense put out to interview this man. One of the cameramen in the crew was a good-looking lad, and I felt that was one reason why Barbara had decided to ride in the car with them in the first place, after all Barbara is a woman who appreciates good-looking men. Now, after Sam’s bitchy attempt to try and ‘out’ Jonathan Frid on camera, you can imagine how annoying it was to watch him try his best to get this hot cameraman – and in fact all of us – to shed his gear and take advantage of the weather and “enjoy that wonderful pool out back.” We all declined to take Sam up on this offer, and the tide slowly began to turn. After the filming ended which was briefly after that dicey start, we sat around the portrait of Grayson and talked about her life and how much she enjoyed being at home making her beloved Mexican dishes, although they maintained an apartment in New York as well. I had to use the bathroom more than once, which was upstairs, and soon discovered that Sam still kept his wife’s bedroom “exactly as she left it before she passed away.” This room was locked, and as much as I wanted to see it, Sam declined to show me his private bedroom, and it was clear I was never going to see it during this visit, which would be my last ever at Wildercliff.

As the evening wore on, having exhausted any more conversation on what Dan lacked or did not lack as a producer, or what Grayson did or did not do to Richard Burton that night so long ago in Pureto Vallelata, we finally prepared to leave Sam to ponder all his shadows on the hall. I remember by the end of the day Barbara had done a 180 on her original opinion of Sam Hall as a Truman Capote like eccentric, to what he was in the cold light of day, especially witnessing first hand his lack of appreciation for the man who created a landmark in television and was about to make another. So as we were exiting the old and very dark house known as Wildercliff, Barbara turned to Sam Hall and said “I want to thank you for allowing us to visit the house that DAN CURTIS built.”

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One Response »

  1. I ran home from school to watch Dark Shadows during the 1960s counter-culture revolution. The series inspired my love of classic horror, as well as the writing I now do for Fangoria and other publications.
    As a journalist, learning the behind the scenes truth about Dark Shadows personnel enhances my love for the show and offers insight into its creation and production.

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