For Rue Morgue’s 13th Anniversary Halloween Issue, I was given the opportunity to write about a great new documentary that looks at the highly beloved line of Aurora monster model kits of the 1960s and ’70s and the huge impact they had on “monster kids” who built them. The program, The Aurora Monsters – The Model Craze That Gripped The World (now available on DVD) is a delight to watch and will have fans of vintage monsters collectibles drooling at the many images of gorgeous and colorful box artwork of James Bama, not to mention never-before-seen pics of prototypes for unreleased figures like The Metaluna Mutant (from the sci-fi classic This Island Earth) and kits from the controversial Madame Toussaud’s Chambers of Horrors and Monsters Scenes lines.
Hosted by iconic TV horror host Zacherley, the Cool Ghoul and a gargoyle puppet named Gorgo, the program also features insight into the sculpting, production and marketing of the kits from some of the people who originally worked on them as well as thoughts from such fans as artist Daniel Horne, Sideshow Collectibles sculptor Mat Falls (who gives a wax sculpting demonstration) and Moebius Models president Frank Winspur on how the kits inspired them to get into their chosen careers.
For the article, The Horror That Tiny Hands Built , I spoke with the program’s co-director/writer/producer, Cortlandt Hull (who is also the man behind the non-profit Bristol, Connecticut wax museum, The Witch’s Dungeon – open during the Halloween season and who is a relative of Werewolf of London star Henry Hull) and here’s more from him on his fun and fascinating new doc.
How did the project come about?
“This was originally meant to be a four hour documentary called ‘Legends of Film and Fantasy’ and it was going to be an overview of fantasy films and the last segment of it was going to be about how Hollywood promotes the movies. And that’s what James Bama’s part was going to be in. And it then become unwieldy because I realized that I had over 50 interviews and there wouldn’t have been time to go in-depth with each one, which is what I wanted. So, I decided that it would be better to do this as a series of documentaries under the banner of ‘Legends of Film and Fantasy’ and that we would concentrate on specific areas. And the next one to come out will most likely be about the makeup artists.
“But it wasn’t just because of the Aurora model kits that I wanted to do this. It was also the feeling of how it was like during the 1960’s during the ‘Monster Craze’. That’s what I tried to get across with this, and the fun of the period. I didn’t want it to be simply to be a very dry documentary where ‘this was this’ and ‘that was that.’ Everything that’s in it is factual; there are no inaccuracies or anything. But what I wanted to do was to present it in a way that showed it how fun this era was.”
How difficult it was to track down key Aurora personnel such as artist James Bama, sculptor Ray Meyers and project developer Andy Yanchus and how did they respond when asked about being interviewed for this documentary?
“James Bama was the toughest one to get hold of. He really doesn’t enjoy doing interviews because he likes his privacy. I felt that it was a chance of a lifetime because he won’t do conventions and he’s turned down numerous interviewers.
“I was so fortunate they were willing to do this because neither Andy Yanchus nor Ray Meyers had ever appeared on camera before. For that matter, this was the first time that James Bama had ever appeared on camera talking about his Aurora paintings. You see, he left advertising and went to do fine art, and that’s really where he made his fortune. He’s done a number of interviews related to his fine art, but nothing before on the Aurora Monsters. In fact, before I went out to see him – and I had to travel all the way out to Wyoming to see him – he really had no idea of the impact that his work had on people over the years. He’s really inspired people of several generations with his paintings and he really didn’t know that.
“But it turns out that we both have a mutual friend, Roger Kastel, who is a wonderful artist and created the posters for The Empire Strikes Back and Jaws. I knew Roger and I was explaining what I was trying to do and he said, ‘Well, I can’t guarantee you anything, but give me the first documentary (The Witch’s Dungeon) you did and let me send this to Jim and see what he thinks of it and see if he’ll agree to it.’ So, Jim Bama looked at it and he liked the way I handled the interview I did with Basil Gogos. And what he liked about it was we allowed Basil to tell his story in his own words and it wasn’t interrupted by an interviewer – which is how I do all my interviews. I ask them questions, but then I ask them to answer as though they’re telling a story. So, you never have to hear me, because I think it wastes time.
“So, it meant a lot to me because it really was his paintings that were the inspiration for me to start The Witch’s Dungeon. And things really came full circle because here I have him holding the original box I’ve had since I was a kid of Frankenstein – the man who painted it holding it in front of my life-size figure of Karloff as the Monster (the exhibit piece from the Witch’s Dungeon wax museum) That was a big thrill for me, it really was.
“When we interviewed Ray Meyers, he hadn’t seen those model kits he’s done since he created them back in the ’60s. You have to realize that many of these artists made so many wonderful pieces, and they just cranked them out one after another. Jim Bama said that some of those paintings he did in four or five hours. And Ray Meyers said he’d go from doing something for Aurora to something for the Marx toy company or then eventually for The Franklin Mint. Back then, they didn’t pay all that much money for this work.”
Tell me a bit about working with Zacherley. It looks like from the outtakes that you all had a lot of fun working with him?
“Absolutely. I call him the ‘Vincent Price of horror hosts’, because he has both the voice and the bearing. There are horror hosts all over and a number of them have sprung up in recent years. And I know that their hearts are in the right place, but they’re of varying quality. But, with Zach, he had some stage training; he also was on the radio. And it shows. And the one thing you can’t train is the spontaneity and improvisational skills that Zach has – which I used when we were shooting. I had written a script for all of his wraparound segments, but I had written it loosely, so that if Bill Diamond, who played Gorgo, happened to come upon an idea, of which several times they did, I could rewrite it on the set. And you have to realize that Bill Diamond used to work for Jim Henson and The Muppets, so he comes from an improvisational background. And I felt that the two of them created a great chemistry.
“When I was a kid I was very sick and I got to stay up late at night to see Zacherley on Shock! Theatre. I was only 7 or 8 years old at the time. But that’s how I got introduced to horror films. And I never forgot it. It was so much fun and the point was that Zach made it fun. You could have easily at that age have been maybe frightened by these movies but it was Zach who made it fun.
“I can’t say enough good things about Zach. He just gave this his all. He’s such a great guy with a wonderful sense of humor.”
Tell me a bit about the unreleased kits, such as The Metaluna Mutant for example. How difficult was it getting material on the prototypes for the documentary?
“If it wasn’t for Andy Yanchus, I don’t think we could have put this all together. When Aurora folded, Andy gathered up all the files – because they (Aurora) didn’t want them. If it wasn’t for him, a good deal of Aurora history would be lost. Virtually all of the photos that you saw in the documentary of what they call patterns, which is really like prototypes, all those photos have never been seen before – they were from Andy’s collection. For instance when you saw the shots of the Metaluna Mutant, Ming the Merciless and several others, they’ve never been seen before. They’ve never been printed in a magazine. Also, a lot of advertising material and rare photos of (sculptor) Bill Lemon and Ray Meyers were from his collection.”
The program also goes into the destruction of some of the James Bama’s original artwork – painted over when Aurora re-released the kits in glow-in-the-dark versions.
“When I first saw those photos (of the re-painted artwork), my heart just sunk. The two that I saw were Dracula and Phantom of the Opera. When I saw that they had been painted over, destroyed, I couldn’t believe they (Aurora) could be so stupid. And there’s very few that survived that weren’t altered. Thank goodness they never redid Gigantic Frankenstein. I believe that some of the ones for the monster hot rods/go carts still exist. But the sad thing is that some of the most beautiful ones were destroyed. And no one really knows what happened to The Wolf Man (artwork).
There’s also a bit about how some of the Aurora box artwork differed from how the monster characters actually looked in the films themselves. The Wolf Man, for example, looks like a cross between Lon Chaney, Jr. and Oliver Reed from Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf. Jeff Yagher even shows off some of his kits in the doc where he’s made them to appear just like the James Bama’s cover artwork.
“Back then the Universal publicity department wasn’t too keen or who was Glenn Strange, who was Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney. With the Wolf Man, they just sent whatever pictures looked like that monster. But as Jim Bama said to me, ‘I just tried to use my imagination.’
“And for me, that’s what really inspired me – in particular, the way he did the backgrounds in the Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Dr Jekyll as Mr. Hyde and several of the other ones. As a kid, I didn’t see any of these in color and this beautiful artwork inspired me.”
You have interviews with several artists and actors, people like Daniel Horne, Jeff Yagher and Daniel Roebuck, the Mad Gettepto artists, the guys behind Sideshow Toys and so on. Tell me a bit about their inclusion in the program.
“I wanted this to be not just something that was in the past and stagnant, I wanted people to understand that, yes, this is what happened back in the ’60’s and it was a lot of fun. But for the people who experienced it like me and Daniel Horne, it also was a stepping stone to go onto do other things.
“I couldn’t believe that Mat took the time to do a demonstration of the wax figure. And I have to give a big thanks to Frank Winspur who put me in touch with Andy Yanchus. And it was through Andy that we got to Ray Meyers.”
What do you feel is the appeal of the Aurora Monster model kits? Why do people still love them four decades after their first release?
“The Aurora model kits weren’t ordinary toys. With an ordinary toy, you bought it, then played with it. With a kit, you built it, painted it yourself. It didn’t mean you were the best painter or model builder in the world but it was something that you did yourself. And there was some gratification in that. You didn’t have to paint it like the box or like everyone else; you decided what you wanted to do and I think that’s what made them so unique. And for someone who wasn’t an artist per se, or had much in the way of art training, it was something they could try their hand at and be proud of. They built it, they painted it and could put it up on the shelf for their friends to look at. That’s what I was trying to get across. They put their own stamp on them.
“This whole thing was more than making a documentary. It was a labor of love. It was a rewarding experience.”
For more information on The Aurora Monsters – The Model Craze That Gripped The World or to order a copy of the program, go to www.preservehollywood.org.
For more information on this Halloween’s schedule for the Witch’s Dungeon museum, see below: