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Sunday, August 1

Interview with Count Basil a.k.a. Mike Curtis

Today I have a special guest in the lab – a former horror host, theater manager, comic book creator and memorabilia collector who owns one of the world’s largest Superman collections. It’s my pleasure to welcome into the lab the one and only Count Basil, a.k.a. Mike Curtis.

Dr. G – So Mike, thanks for joining me here on Shackle Island. It’s always a treat to have another horror host in the house.

Thank you so much for having me. I am glad that the proud tradition of horror hosting lives on in its third or fourth generation. But I must warn you.... As I told documentary filmmaker Mike Dobrzelecki, I have a hobby of collecting stories as much as I have a hobby of collecting Superman.

Dr. G – Before you began hosting horror movies you had some experience in acting, if I’m not mistaken.

I attended Jackson State Community College with my best friend Wally Hall. They had a low wattage TV station, primarily for instruction. But some people did "shows" where they were deejays while a drum with carded announcements rolled. I worked on a news show there, and was approached by a student to write and act in a show he would direct for his class project. I did AN INTERVIEW WITH GROUCHO. That went over well, and the next quarter, was asked again. I enlisted Wally and another friend and we did AN INTERVIEW WITH THE MARX BROTHERS with Wally as Chico. So in the next quarter, Wally and I became a comedy team. We each did a "deejay" show, but we also turned the camera into the control room and did sketches live on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Plus once a month we would do a big production called CURTIS AND HALL'S COSMIC BANANA REVIEW. One of the sketches was the ultimate cheap prehistoric monster film, with ten-cent plastic monsters, cardboard sets etc. It was called DINOSAUR BOOGIE.

Dr. G. –In the summer of 1974 you hosted Shock Theater as Count Basil in Jackson, TN. How did this show come about?

Fred Young was the head honcho of a very small cable TV station. In fact, the company he worked for was cable TV for the city of Jackson. So they had their own channel which they offered to advertisers. It didn't show many programs, I do recall that the old ROBIN HOOD TV series was one show and the station was only on the air from around 6 p.m. to midnight.

In 1974, Fred bought 12 science fiction and horror films, and wanted to show them on Friday nights during the summer. He called upon a mutual friend of ours named Roger Hughes and myself for the hosts. Roger would be the salesman for the Mortuary we ran, and he would do commercials for our services. I would be the more traditional ghoul host.

Roger Hughes and I worked together at the JACKSON SUN newspaper. The fellow they had on their LETTERS TO SANTA show wasn't working out, and Fred had asked me to take over. I was 19 at the time and playing Santa locally already. It's a family tradition. My father and grandfather were Santas. Such a show lends to improvisation, as does playing Santa.

Roger and I also worked together for Sears playing characters. They licensed WINNIE THE POOH and Disney sent the costumes to stores for personal appearances. The costume weighed around 100 pounds, was ungainly and extremely hot. Roger and I would tag team playing the part. I think we made $5 an hour, and the minimum wage was around $1.65 then. They replaced us once with someone's teenage nephew for a day and then called us back fast. He could barely move in the suit, but I could do a ballet spin in the costume.

So by this time, dressing in costumes, writing and acting on TV was familiar ground for me.

Dr. G – Do you remember how you created the character of Count Basil and where the name Count Basil came from?

Truthfully, I don't recall much. I liked the idea of a Count as host. I thought the idea of a dignified host who could be funny would give lots of improv room for the character. Roger came up with his own name, Clod Turndirt, and based his character on the Johnny Carson Art Fern character. Fred picked the name SHOCK THEATER. We did the show live each Friday night, and made $5 an hour, $10 a week each.

Dr. G – Did you grow up watching any horror hosts, and were they an influence on your character?

Heavens yes. I had glimpsed Sir Cecil Creape in Nashville on visits there, and seen MT Graves in Miami during a vacation there.

But you must remember that the Memphis TV viewing area was rife with hosts of all kinds. There must have been 20 of them at one time or another. Kid show hosts, wrestling hosts, afternoon movie hosts, etc. But there was only one horror host - SIVAD on FANTASTIC FEATURES. He was the only horror host for just short of a ten year run. There were still 7 kid show hosts I knew of and more I have read about since. So there were lots of styles to view. Still Sivad was the template for the Count.

I was lucky in that while I met very few hosts, I did at least get to speak to three of them through the years - Sivad, Sir Cecil and Sid Noel, who played MORGUS THE MAGNIFICENT on New Orleans TV. In watching the film AMERICAN SCARY, it amazes me that so many disparate people in different areas came up with so much of the same shtick, even though it's doubtful they ever viewed each other.

Dr. G – You had a couple of cohosts on Shock Theater, the most interesting of which was a unique fella named Booner. Tell us about Booner.

Booner was my orange tom cat. Roger and I rarely collaborated on sketches, we wrote separate ones. So that the show wouldn't get so stagebound on two characters, I brought Booner to the studio and wrote sketches around him.

Booner came in very handy once he became the cohost. I needed people to be in sketches, and he always obliged. One day we showed him a tape of himself on TV and he seemed very intent while seeing it.

Each Friday night the new comic books would come into Readmore books in Jackson. I would head out around 6 pm with Booner and go to the bookstore. He would walk around and be recognized as the cat from SHOCK THEATER and deign to be petted. Then we drove to the studio. He really liked the hot studio lights, and had his own co-host chair when Roger left after the 3rd show. He regularly got fan mail also. Our next door neighbors watched each Friday, as Booner used to be their cat and his girlfriend lived with them. It's not shown in the one picture from the show, but he had a blue turtleneck sweater he would wear to host the show.

Dr. G – You filmed live every Friday night. I know firsthand that live television presents a unique set of challenges. Talk about shooting live.

I wish I could have done the program later on, after I had learned a bit more about all the different aspects of TV hosting. I didn't know much about makeup either, and used Zinc Oxide to whiten my face.

We were very low budget, actually no budget. So the challenge was to present entertainment for basically nothing. I tapped friends who liked to goof around, like my knife maker friend Dalton Gooch III as Great Uncle Polar. We used a GHOUL rubber mask from Captain Company for an additional character, the handyman ZACK, usually played by the cameraman, technician, or even a dummy.

I wish we could have taped once or twice. I would have liked to have seen how the Count came across. All I have seen is the YouTube with him. He's got a pretty creepy smile.

Dr. G – Your show ran for 12 weeks. What type movies did you run?

I barely recall. THE MONITORS, some anthology with Peter Cushing and Vincent Price (or maybe two anthologies) and the prize, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. We showed whatever was cheap. I have no idea how Fred got ISLAND. In any case, he picked (or was stuck with) the movies on SHOCK THEATER.

Later on, I was in discussion with the new FOX channel in Memphis regarding a SON OF SIVAD show, but that never came to be. We would have had sketches like THE DEAD McCOYS and other spoofs of TV shows.

It's much like the hundreds of movies I showed as a theater manager. I will often refer to a film as one I showed, not one I watched. I technically watched/screened each one looking for problems before showing it to the public, but usually brought a book.

Dr. G- Do you still keep up with horror films?

Yes. One of my most recent favorites was LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and I am anticipating the American remake. I have a fondness for zombie movies, and like to relax and write comics on Sunday afternoons with the original DAWN OF THE DEAD, for example.

I have a special affinity for this film, partly because of where I first saw it. In Memphis, there is a Mall called Southbrook. It's been dead and dying for many years. There was a theater in the middle of it, and I saw DAWN (the original) at a midnight show there, and then walked through the dead mall to leave for the parking lot. It added a lot to the film, I think. Years later, I ran that theater and experienced my first attempted carjacking there.

It was kind of like when I went to see SUPERMAN THE MOVIE at a drive in. I had been told it had extra ambiance because the space scenes had endless stars behind the screen.

So at the start, the 3 criminals are looking up at the heavens waiting for the Phantom Zone panel to approach and suddenly you hear a train whistle headed full on! There were railroad tracks behind the screen, and it interacted well, as the criminals tried to dodge the train.

I saw CHRISTINE at the Lyric Theater in Tupelo Mississippi. It was a giant screen, and the masking (the black hanging borders on each side of the screen) needed adjusting. Frank, the manager, came out and was doing so, looking like an insect. On the screen, a row of cars were shown in the assembly line. A worker came out, and looked at the lower left corner of the screen (where Frank was). He came closer and then reached out to grab Frank, who never noticed.

The DIXIE Theater in Ripley Mississippi is where I saw the GODFATHER and the movie stopped in the middle for Bingo. That's also where one week they showed PIPPI LONGSTOCKING on Monday and Tuesday, HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS on Wednesday and Thursday, and a double feature on Friday and Saturday. I loved seeing all the little kids dropped off for this film.

I have a lot of other theater stories, but not all are fit for a family audience.

Back to the question, yes, I still enjoy and keep up with horror films. Can't wait to see Romero's latest zombie film.

Dr. G – I understand you worked as a Ballyhoo man at a local theater. Tell me about that experience.

William Steppe, city manager of Malco Theaters in Jackson, had authorized a particularly bad promo for a PLANET OF THE APES film festival. I talked to him and told him it could be done better, and I would like to try. He handed me info on an upcoming film called THE THREE MUSKETEERS. I devised a costume for around $10, with a felt sign on the back of my cape advertising the film and paraded around the only Mall in Jackson. I was paid in costume costs and passes. Thence forward, whenever a film needed promoting, he would call me. I learned about costumes and makeup on the job.

Of course, this had all been done years before by Watson Davis, the advertising director for Malco in Memphis, who was also horror host SIVAD on their show FANTASTIC FEATURES. So we just passed each other doing this work.

I did a 60-foot flight on a cables between 2 buildings in Memphis for SUPERMAN THE MOVIE. I had also been associated with a chain of waterbed stores. They would hire me, I would contact Malco to see what movie needed promoting and costume myself as a character, giving away passes while a radio remote was going. I outdrew Ronald McDonald in Union City playing Dracula, giving away tickets to the movie HAIR.

Dr. G –You also worked as a manager for a theater before your horror host gig, if I’m not mistaken. Talk about that experience if you would.

Actually that was afterward. I had done the ballyhoo for Malco for many years, and it had gotten bigger and bigger.

After a lot of that, Malco asked if I wanted to run a theater for them, so I got into that career. I didn't play characters much anymore, but I did build lobby displays and do promotions for films. I am attaching an ELVIS figure I made for HEARTBREAK HOTEL as an example. I built a posable mannequin from PVC pipe and did model clay face sculptures on a Styrofoam wig head.

The secret was the eyes. I would send one of my employees down to Kroger where they had vending machines with toys in plastic bubbles. I would take the bubbles and paint the inside for eyes, therefore they had a glassy exterior.

I ran different theaters for different companies for around 12 years. I had lots of adventures, and oddly enough, was in more violent episodes than when I was a Deputy Sheriff. In Memphis, I ejected my first customer in the traditional bouncer's carry for attacking one of my employees. That particular theater shows up again in a earlier answer. In New Orleans, I was bitten by a lady lawyer on Easter Sunday. I'm attaching the picture.

While screening the movie SWEET DREAMS in a theater I ran in Tupelo, Mississippi, the ghost in my haunted theater manifested. That's not a tall tale. Google HAUNTED MOVIE THEATER TUPELO MISSISSIPPI on Cliff Gooken Boulevard. I ran it for years and had several encounters with a real ghost there.

Finally I left theaters after running one in Beaumont Texas for around 3 years. I got 16 stitches my first week, survived two robberies, one with an UZI and lost count of how many riots happened there. The job got just too dangerous for me.

Dr. G – I find it interesting that you had a cat on your show, as that was a sort of precursor of things to come. You would later go on to work in comics, including publishing your own line of anthropomorphic comics with your wife. Talk about your work in comics, including your time at Harvey Comics.

There used to be an ad campaign "I got my job through the New York Times." Well, I got my job through Comic Buyer's Guide. Harvey Comics had ceased publication and was now restarting and needed talent. I sent in around 20 capsule ideas and heard back from Ken Selig, the editor and my mentor in comics. He taught me how to write a comic book from an idea to a finished storyline (remember this was very pre-internet) and credits there gave me the chance to do scripts for three unproduced CASPER TV pilots, and then later on to do my own comic book SHANDA THE PANDA. While at Harvey I designed a map of the Enchanted Forest where Casper, Hot Stuff and the rest live, invented Richie Rich's Bizarro double BILLY BROKE and the weird group THE MONEY WRAPPERS. Before I left Harvey, I also wrote the NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK comic, which I always refer to in doing panels at conventions. You can write for characters without caring in the slightest about them. In those cases, I wrote Monkees, Beatles or Chipmunks stories and changed the names.

Shanda is a theater manager in Cedar Rabbits Iowa. She dates Double R, a Cajun raccoon, and is best friends with Terri, a lesbian cricket. It's not a soap opera, as nobody rises from the dead or gets married 80 times. But she does have theater adventures, such as a carjacking and a riot, along with the regular happenings of her life. A lot of the comic is based on real life adventures and people in my theater career.

One particular story was special and fun on SHANDA. Since she's a theater manager, people asked me when she was going to show ROCKY HORROR. I showed it myself around 50 times at my Conway theater, and the first time my wife Carole and I danced together was at Rocky, to the Time Warp.

I wanted ROCKY to be special in SHANDA. So I contacted Tiffany Ward, the daughter of the late great Jay Ward. She gave permission to use the characters from ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE so long as they weren't on the cover or advertised. Carla Speed McNeil (FINDER from Dark Horse comics) did the regular story, but all the "screen" scenes were by Taral Wayne showing Boris and Natasha as Riff Raff and Magenta, etc. We even had a ROCKET HORROR PICTURE SHOW T shirt made.

One of the most difficult parts of producing SHANDA are the covers. They are always spoofs of movie posters or iconic movie scenes, with the cast in place of the familiar actors. It often takes as long to find a good movie poster as it does to write the story.

My wife Carole writes an adventure comic. KATMANDU is a Native American series done with cats. It's based on the real life of Woman Chief, who was taken as a slave in battle, and later became a chief with wives of her own.

We've published several anthropomorphic series. One I have a lot of fun with is ATOMIC MOUSE. We got the rights to the Charlton 1950's superhero and do new stories of him. I get to work out my Superman "jones" with him.

Our comics can be viewed and ordered at www.shandafantasyarts.org

A comic story I am rather fond of:
In 1974 or 75, Atlanta had their first comic and fantasy convention. They had three guests. Kenneth Smith, noted artist, Stan Lee, who needs no introduction, and me, with my Superman collection on display. All 200 or so items. It's around 17,000 items now.

On Saturday, one of the con organizers came up to me and asked if I had a Superman costume. Of course, I answered. He said Stan wanted to publicize a new project called SUPERMAN VS SPIDER-MAN and wondered if I would dress up for a sketch during his speech.

That afternoon, Stan was speaking and then said he saw a commotion at the back of the hall. I strode through the crowd in full uniform and flashbulbs were popping. Remember, only places like California and New York had experienced conventions and costumes at this point. This was very unusual.

I strode onto the stage and told Stan I had a request from the Justice League of America. "Gosh, what a swell bunch of guys! What can I do for them, Superman?" I reached under my cape and pulled something out. "Would you sign our FANTASTIC FOUR #1?"


Flash forward many years later. A furry comic creator, Micheal-Scot McMurry had stomach and esophageal cancer. We were doing a benefit comic and I was pulling in every string I had. I contacted Stan Lee Media and talked to his secretary. I told her Stan owed me a favor.

Sure enough, he did an introduction for the comic. It thrilled McMurry, and he got the debut his benefit comic at a convention shortly before his passing.

I told you I liked stories. We'll have some more later on.

Dr. G – I understand you have the third largest collection of touring Superman memorabilia in the world. What does your wife think of this and where in the world do you store all that stuff?

Carole likes to say, "I learned about Superman in self-defense." We've been married for 21 years, and for our 20th anniversary she bought me a Superman wedding ring. The year before that she made me my third and final Superman uniform. Shortly after she made it for me, we had a bank robbery in our little town of Greenbrier. I was in the city of Conway at the time and thought to myself. "Just my luck! A bank robbery in Greenbrier and I'm stuck in Conway without my uniform!"

She is known as the Doll Lady at the library where she has displayed parts of her collection twice. She also makes and sells jewelry as a hobby and has been active for over 30 years in the Society for Creative Anachronism. She once prepared and cooked a 5-course feast for 115 people.

I was lucky among 50's kids. While lots of people were burning comics, my mother grew up with the Golden age Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Flash, so Superman was fine for me. The first item I ever had was a Superman belt and buckle, available in 1957 for a quarter and a boxtop. I have always worn a Superman belt buckle since. In fact, when Mike McCarthy made his film TEENAGE TUPELO and had a character named MIKE CURTIS THEATER MANAGER, he had him wear a Superman belt buckle.

At the opening of my 8-screen in Omaha, we had a lot of company brass and since I had a staff of 50 I didn't have much to do. That night, two girls saw my buckle, exclaimed and pointed. My bosses laughed. I replied. "Go ahead and laugh, but how many girls point below your waist and holler SUPERMAN?"

As a reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper I covered the closing of the first Superman museum in Metropolis and bought several items. A friend at the Jackson Library asked me to an exhibit of my collection, I think I had 25 items or so then. People liked it and asked me questions. I liked talking about it, and decided I would learn more and collect primarily to exhibit. I focus on Libraries and Museums. It's around 17,000 items now, mostly paper, the rarest item being a George Reeves 1957 cape symbol. Some of it's here, some in storage, some in a bank vault.

The best part of being a Superman collector has been meeting and becoming friends with some of the portrayers of the characters. Kirk Alyn, the original screen Superman, was a friend for years, and I used to book him for conventions and do some cons with him. In recent years, we have become friends with Noel Neill, the original Lois Lane. Noel recently had a statue of herself unveiled in Metropolis Illinois (covered on CNN), and is currently recovering from a broken hip. I urge all those who remember her fondly to send her good thoughts.

By the same token, in doing comics we have met and became friends with various people we would never meet otherwise. We occasionally correspond with Sara Karloff, with whom we once discussed reviving her father's comic BORIS KARLOFF TALES OF MYSTERY.

My favorite story (you knew I'd have one) about Superman was from one exhibit in Arkansas. A lady came up and asked me if I had any photos of the actor that played Superman. I said, Yes, which one? She replied "the one that flies."

Dr. G – You also do some work writing about comic history, correct?

Yes, for many years. I do fillers and articles for COMIC BUYER'S GUIDE, and ALTER EGO magazines, among others. I have a regular site where I post articles http://glasshousepresents.com/Mike_Curtis.htm. Part of that comes from years of collecting Superman and researching. I just reviewed the Dallas revival of the SUPERMAN musical and the review is on several sites on the web.

Dr. G – You are one busy guy! I understand you’ve got a couple of other projects in the works too?

Always. I hate to be idle.

Currently, our main project is www.plainclothescomics.com , which is a tribute site to DICK TRACY. Noted comic book artist Joe Staton and I are doing a daily strip adventure there of Tracy and his crew. This site will only be around until January 2011 though.

We have 5 comic books in varying stage of production. I've got to do a history of the Superman musical and an expanded review for ALTER EGO. I'm pitching a show idea to MEMPHIS MEMOIRS. And sometime, if I ever find the time, I've signed a contract to write a mystery novel.

And of course, this Christmas Carole and I will be visiting with children. She collects stuffed animals through the year and we give them out at a daycare as Santa and Christmas Carole.

Dr. G – You resurrected the character of Count Basil a couple of months back at the Sivads of March celebration in Memphis. How did it feel after all these years to don the cape once again?

It felt astounding. More people saw the Count at the event that probably ever saw him on television. Plus, working in front of a live audience was fun and nerve-wracking. I was dumbfounded when Mike McCarthy called me and wanted the Count. I hadn't been the character in 36 years. I had a lot of trouble remembering his voice, but one day Mike and John Beifuss called me from a Jackson radio station to talk to the Count and the voice came right back. Even at the event, it took technical difficulties for his personality to really reemerge.

One thing I enjoyed and yet felt guilty about is that so many people came to remember Sivad. I was the only horror host in attendance, and they came to me to tell me how much Sivad meant to them. It was a lot like being a Santa's helper, except in this case I was Sivad's helper.

One thing that being Santa helped me with at the event is that people are comfortable approaching and talking to a character. I've learned that after 37 years of playing Santa. I think having the Count at the event was an icebreaker for most of the crowd. Even if they might have felt intimidated in speaking to Mike McCarthy or John Beifuss, a monster was okay to approach. I'm sure you've seen this as Dr. Gangrene.

I think the thing that I enjoyed the most of the Sivads event was meeting Mike Dobrzelecki and working with him and Mike McCarthy.

I met Mike many years ago when he was 19 or so, and I ran theaters in Tupelo. We had a lot of fun during that period, and it has amazed me the way he has excelled in each field he tackled. He's done comics, music and movies, and now event organization with the Sivad event. And I can't wait to see his new film CIGARETTE GIRL. He just got back from Edinburgh where the film was screened.

Mike D. is just getting started and I see in him many of the talents and traits I have seen and admired in Mike McCarthy. There will be exciting things coming from him in the future. I can't wait to see what the years ahead hold for him. Of course, you and I are in the documentary he's making, TENNESSEE HORROR HOSTS.

Dr. G – Any chance we’ll see another return of the Count in the future?

I have no idea if such is possible, but I'd like to do the character some more. I sent out feelers to all the TV stations in Arkansas after the Sivads of March event. I hope that Mike McCarthy and John Beifuss do a second SIVAD event next year at the Pink Palace, now home to the Sivad collection of the Ideker family. If so, the Count will be there, hopefully hosting films with John Beifuss.

Since resurrecting the character, I find myself devising lines and shtick for him. I was watching the remake of THE CRAZIES yesterday and thought the Count could remark how much better it would have been with Andy Griffith as the Sheriff and Don Knotts as his deputy. "Geez, Ang! You just shot Otis the town drunk!"

Plus I only got to do 12 shows as the Count. A new show would be my lucky 13th, so I am shooting for at least one more appearance on film.

I'd love to use GLOOMY SUNDAY from the 1960s album SHOCK for an opening theme, too.

Like I said in my report on the SIVADS event, the Count is merely dead, not old, and ready for more adventures.

Dr. G – Well thanks again for spending an afternoon in my lab. Be careful on your way out, the path around the moat is a bit treacherous.

A moat? Did you get that idea from Jack Benny's vault on radio? Where's the polar bear? Is that Mel Blanc I hear?

You can read more about Count Basil on Dr. Gangrene's website in the Vault of Tennessee Horror Hosts, here:

1 comment:

  1. Hey Doc,

    That was a really interesting interview. Thanks for posting it.