Sunday, 13 January 2013

interview: Forrest J Ackerman

Everyone interviews Forrest J Ackerman sooner or later. I had a chance to sit down with him at the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow. A short version of this was published in SFX shortly after and I’m posting it on-line in celebration of Uncle Forry’s 90th birthday in November 2006.

As I understand it your collecting started with a fan letter to Carl Laemmle. Can you tell me about that?
"No, my collecting didn't start with that. It started with the October 1926 issue of Amazing Stories, which jumped off the news-stand, grabbed hold of little nine-year-old me. But the Carl Laemmle situation: in the 1930s there was a monthly magazine called Photoplay. He had a full page each issue, just publicising the various Universal products that were coming out. And since my maternal grandparents were capable of taking me to as many as seven films in a single day, I obviously saw all the Universal pictures. And as fast as I saw one, I would write him with my comments on it.

“Well, I astonished myself a couple of years ago by running across 62 letters from Carl Laemmle, obviously responding to ones that I had sent. Eventually I guess he thought of me as the all-American, movie-going teenager, and on his President's stationery he wrote a little note that said, 'Give this kid anything he wants.' So what I wanted was; at that time, sound was still on huge discs. It was long before we ever had video cassettes. Once you saw a movie you thought it was gone for ever. I thought, 'Gosh! If I had those sound discs once they were through with it, I could put them on my phonograph and run the movie through my mind.'

“The problem was that these discs were in the new rhythm of 33 and a third, when my old-fashioned phonograph was 78. So I would rev up the phonograph, put the record on - which oddly enough started in the centre and gradually worked its way out - and I used a cactus needle to preserve it. And I would have to physically with my fingers try to damp it down from 78 to 33 and a third, so I'd get some rather strange dialogue now and then. I'd hear Colin Clive exulting, 'It's moving! It's elyve! It's urrlerve!'"

Do you still have those?
"Stolen. And about ten years after they were stolen, a voice on the phone says, 'Oh, Mr Ackerman. I have something, I'm sure you're going to want to have these.' And I said, 'What's that?' He said, 'I have the discs from Frankenstein, and I only want $8,000 for them.' I said, 'Oh really? Is that what my discs are worth?' 'What do you mean, your discs?' I said 'Well, they were stolen from me about ten years ago.' Click! Down goes the phone!"

It seems incredible having this open house that you have regularly. Other than the odd bad apple, do you find that people are mostly enthusiastic?
"There's a sort of sinister statistic. When there are 25 people or more in the house at once, then something seems to disappear. But as long as it's under 25..."

At what point did you start to realise that your collection was becoming extraordinary?
"When I had a 13-room home, and my wife the university professor came home one day and went to the refrigerator to get food, and found that I had replaced it with reels of film, we realised the end had come. I had finally filled up the bathtub with the collection, and under the bed, and every place in the kitchen where there wasn't a cup or a spoon. So we gave up and used the entire home and three-automobile garage for the collection, and we moved a couple of miles away to an apartment. Then realised even the 13 rooms wasn't going to do any more. Also I had accumulated so many friends that when I had a birthday, considering we could only pack about sixty people at most into the house at one time, I had to have five birthdays: Friday night, Saturday matinee, Saturday night, Sunday matinee, and Sunday night.

“So during her summer vacation, my wife looked around and she found a house that seemed like it would satisfy my needs as a collector. Well, she found two houses. I fancied one, and she really liked the other best, and I thought, 'Whoever gives up will be forever complaining: we should have had that other house.' But all of a sudden she calls, she says, 'I think I've found the one that satisfies us both.' It was the home of Jon Hall who was kind of a poor man's Tarzan called Ramar of the Jungle. Its 18 rooms looked so huge to me that I thought I could never fill them up, and now once again, they're bulging at the seams."

How did you manage to move from one house to the other?
"It took 2,000 boxes, and one young lady who rented a truck and each weekend would drive things over. But when I think back 24 years ago, those 2,000 boxes seem rather trivial to what I have today."

How did Famous Monsters of Filmland come about?
"In 1957 the World Science Fiction Convention was held in England, in London. There were 55 of us chartered a Dutch plane and flew over from New York. And after the convention we had a couple of weeks to spare before we all had to return, and I for one went to Paris and Germany. In Paris I spied a movie magazine that ordinarily was about everything under the sun, but this particular issue was all out on fantasy. It had Henry Hull on the cover as the Werewolf of London, and inside about a hundred pages of Kong and Frankenstein and the Invisible Man and so on. I bought a copy just for my collection.

“Then I got to New York and as an agent I had been selling to a magazine called After Hours, which was kind of a poor man's Playboy. I met up with its editor-publisher James Warren and in the course of a breakfast pulled out this magazine from France. Now, he was looking to publish what is called a one-shot; that is, he had no idea of subscriptions or carrying on beyond just once. And he wouldn't have cared if it was about Marilyn Monroe or Madonna or The Beatles or anybody of the time, as long as it would sell about 100,000 copies.

“So he looked at this French magazine - it was called Cinema '57 I think - and in his mind's eye he could see all of the wordage turning into English. He thought all he had to do was write the publisher and borrow all the stills. Well, there were two things: he found that the stills didn't belong to any single individual, they came from about five different collectors; and also, as he began to translate, it didn't seem that an American audience would really care very much. I guess it was too dull and dry and didactic.

“He was going to give up on the idea and I said, 'Wait a minute. You don't really know me but I have 35,000 stills, and I've been seeing these pictures ever since 1922. I'm sure I could put together a magazine to your satisfaction.' Well, he didn't know whether I was full of hot air or not, so he came out to Hollywood and he saw it was all true. So the next thing I knew, we were sitting opposite each other at a dining room table. He was holding an imaginary sign in the air that said: 'Forrest Ackerman, I'm eleven and a half years old and I am your reader. Make me laugh.'

“Well, for twenty hours a day I was sitting at a smoking typewriter, afraid it was going to die of cancer, it was smoking so badly. We would get four hours rest, then back to the grind. It was right around the time of my birthday - November 24th - in 1957. I couldn't wait until February 4th when I held an issue in my hand. I didn't even think of it as an issue, I thought it would be a one-shot. It was quite different from what I had really imagined and hoped for. I wanted to call it Wonderama, and I thought of it as kind of an encyclopaedia. There'd be one definitive still of Dracula and one great King Kong and one Frankenstein, and there would be the cast of characters, what the world thought about it, what I thought about it and a synopsis of the plot. But there were 13 distributors of magazines at the time, and all of them turned down the idea of Wonderama.

“It might never have appeared, but just about that time AIP brought out the first of their teenage films, I was a Teenage Werewolf, and that started a trend. Life magazine did an eight-page feature on the new teenage horror films, and one of the 13 potential distributors remembered this madman who had been around showing them all of these messed-up faces. They called him back and said, 'Forget about Wonderama. Stick "Monsters" on the cover and I don't care what's inside.' So that's the way it developed.

“When it first appeared, it was not nationally distributed. It was just in New York and Philadelphia, just a trial balloon to see how it would sell. In New York there was a terrible snow storm on. The publisher was afraid nobody was going to go out and buy Life or Look or Playboy, let alone our curiosity, but at the end of four days he called all excited. He said, 'My God, I've been getting 50 letters a day. I got 200 letters here and they all say "More! More!" - do you think you could squeeze out one more issue?' And I said, 'Well, you don't know me very well. I don't happen to believe in reincarnation, but in case I keep coming back for the next 5,000 years I think I could go on and on without repeating myself. The first 125,000 copies sold out and we went back to press for 75,000 more, and we were on our way, and here we are at issue 209."

What persuaded you to relaunch it?
"Well, I never would have normally quit, but it was a time of rampant inflation in America and I was getting the same sum month after month after month for creating the magazine. I had a heart-to-heart talk with the publisher, I said, 'You know, at the end of the year, the buying power has diminished. I'm not asking for a raise, I would just like to keep even with the economy.' He said, 'Oh yes, yes, absolutely.' But four years went by and I just got the same salary. I figured I'd been chopped down by about one third in my purchasing power, and also I could see looming up was the 200th issue. I wrote him and said, 'I know you won't pay me anything extra, but just out of pure pride I would like to give a 200-page issue to the readers. I'm willing to do it for the same amount of money.' Didn't hear a boo out of him.

“Finally it was just too much for me financially: growing older and getting less, rather than being paid more for my efforts. So I gave up at issue 190. There was one more issue and that was the end of it. Promptly, another potential publisher got in the act, and I said, 'I've got a lot of conditions. First of all, I gotta have my name on it. It's got to say: "Forrest J Ackerman's" magazine, whatever it's called. And you have to let me alone, because the publisher was always saying to me, "Well, you may be right, but I'm boss." And so we'd do it his way.'"

My publisher does the same.
"So I said, 'If I'm going to continue to do this, it's got to be under various conditions of mine.' Every condition was met, and then the publisher went broke or whatever happened, went out of business. Once or twice through the years, other publishers have turned up and managed to make me miserable, so I thought, 'Well, I think I've done with it once and for all.' Two years ago, a young fellow who'd been an avid reader of the magazine, he woke up to a fact that had escaped my notice, namely that it was going to be the 35th year since the creation of the magazine. He felt there ought to be something done to recognise that. So he was ready, willing and able to put together a convention to which 7,000 people came from 13 countries in Crystal City, Virginia. And just for the occasion we brought back the magazine, but it was such a resounding success there was no point in stopping, and so on we go."

Can you explain what First Fandom is?
"Well, in 1939 we had the first so-called World Science Fiction Convention, a pretty imposing name for 185 kids. I don't think anybody came from anywhere else in the world other than the United States. It took Ray Bradbury three and a half days and nights to get there with the $50 I leant him for a Greyhound bus ride. Out of the 185 attending, we had a banquet of 29 people, and I couldn't even afford to lend the money to Ray Bradbury, it was so expensive. It was one dollar a plate. But somebody, I don't know who, decided that anybody who could demonstrate that they had been a fan before the first World Science Fiction Convention - if they could show a letter they had in print in one of the magazines, or if they had their own fanzine or some way to demonstrate that they really existed as a fan - they would be called the First Fans."

Do you still consider yourself a fan?
"Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Whatever I do, I'm still a fan."

You've met many great people - Karloff and Lugosi and HG Wells - but are there still people who can make you go goshwowboyoboy?
"I'm sure there are. I don't know just who's left exactly that I would like to meet. I was very fortunate in meeting just about everybody that I ever wanted to."

People like Joe Dante were first published in Famous Monsters.
"I took a little letter that he had written, complaining about the 50 worst monster movies ever made, and I saw the possibility of turning that into an actual article by bumping it up with stills and giving it subheads and so on. So I published what was called 'Dante's Inferno', and most of the movies he was razzing were by Roger Corman, who eventually gave him his first job, I think, on Piranha!"

There's a resurgence of monster mags nowadays, like MonsterScene, Psychotronic and so on. Do you look on these and think, 'I started all this'?
"Well, I don't know. I never think too much about it. Every once in a while at a convention like this, someone will say, 'Boy, do you realise you're responsible for this? You started it.' Something I sure know I started was I was the only person to turn up in a costume at the first convention. Now it's a standard part of the proceedings to have a masquerade. Finally, a couple of masquerades ago, they really took me by surprise. They called me up on the stage and had a nice, big plaque acknowledging that I was the inspiritor."

Has anybody ever entered a masquerade dressed as you?

Some of the items in your collection have reference numbers. Is the collection catalogued?
"No, I think the reason for those reference numbers is because at one time they flew, I think, 250 pieces of my collection over to Japan. They had them on display in Tokyo in nine different department stores for three months. In conjunction with that, they put out a beautiful souvenir book, and I think these little numbers you notice are just related to the souvenir book."

So is there any definitive list of your collection? How do you know, when you see something, whether or not you've got it?
"Well, I'll let you know my guilty secret - I don't always know! Sometimes I'll buy something and - oh, gosh! - the moment I get home: I had it all along!"

It seems strange that you're still a humble fan. Do you feel an empathy with the attendees here? I saw that you were very good with kids.
"I feel very fortunate, you know. I came from a time when I was the resident crazy at school. Everyone knew that Forry Ackerman was nuts. I thought people were going to the Moon in rockets and there was going to be atomic power and colour television: it'll never happen. I enjoy people, and having them come to my house, and I enjoy being interviewed. I feel very fortunate that the older I get, the further away it is from the death of Karloff and Lugosi and Price and Cushing and so on, the more the world will want of me. Not necessarily me per se, but the fact that I knew all of these people. I'm very happy to keep them all alive."

Do you see other collectors like Bob Burns?
"Yes, there are three or four of us. Unfortunately, none of the other collectors seem to have the urge I do. One of them says, 'When I'm gone, the heck with it. I've had the pleasure of it. Let my wife sell it or give it to charity or something.' I wish the other collectors had the same feeling of preservation that I do.”

Do you have any ambitions left?
"The main ambition, which I've been working on for 15 years, is to try and get this collection solidified some place in the world. Of course, I would obviously prefer to have it in Los Angeles where I was born, where I'll probably die. But even if it has to go to Berlin or somewhere, as long as it's not all broken up, if it stays together."

Sadly, Forry never found a home for his collection and much of it was sold off when he moved out of the Ackermansion into a smaller place. But as I post this on my site, the day after his 90th birthday, he’s still going strong and shows no signs of ever stopping being the world’s number one sci-fi fan.
(Forry passed away in 2009, aged 92. A fine tribute to him is the 2007 documentary Famous Monster.)
Interview originally posted 25th November 2006

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