Sunday, December 5, 2010

Unsung Heroes

Sometimes it's easy to forget just how sprawling and diverse Dark Shadows was. was established over 10 years ago to celebrate the show in all its forms, both on and offscreen, but it's impossible to cover everything properly. With over 1200 episodes and hundreds of actors and behind the scenes contributors, it's easy to overlook so many things. To this end, I've set myself a challenge – to find five things that I've not written about before. So, in no particular order, here are a few aspects of Dark Shadows that I think deserve a little more praise.

1. The Blue Whale Set
Sy Tomashoff's designs for Dark Shadows were nothing short of genius. With limited resources and studio space, he created a whole world for the show to live in. My favourite set is, without a doubt, the Blue Whale pub. Why does no one ever talk about this? It's a truly beautiful piece of design. Of all the Dark Shadows settings, it feels the most distinctive, and the most like a real place. From the sea reflections at the windows (such a lovely touch, achieved in low-tech style by a stagehand rippling a tray of water), to the little details like the hanging fishing nets and lanterns, you can almost smell the beer and cigarette smoke.

2. Violet Welles
During my recent 1897 re-watch, I became mildly obsessed with the episodes by the mysterious Violet Welles, an occasional writer on the show. She's seldom discussed, but for my money, hers was the voice that captured Dark Shadows best. With clever, sometimes raucous dialogue, a heartfelt sense of character, and a penchant for particularly bonkers dream sequences, Violet's scripts made me fall in love with the show all over again. She's also the writer responsible for Count Petofi, giving Dark Shadows its most entertaining villain. Surprisingly, she wasn't a full-time writer, earning most of her living as a Broadway theatre publicist. I'd love to know more about what influenced her and drove those wonderful, passionate scripts. Alas, information about Violet is scant, but somehow that adds to her appeal all the more.

3. Mrs Johnson
Spare a thought for Collinwood's perpetually-anxious housekeeper, played to perfection by the late Clarice Blackburn. With her quavering voice and frayed nerves, Mrs Johnson's semi-regular appearances were always a particular delight. Compared to rest of the characters, with their increasingly-convoluted melodramas, Mrs Johnson's greatest virtue is that she barely changed during her four years on the show. Most soap characters evolve beyond recognition, but Mrs Johnson remained resolutely the same – no one at Collinwood ever became familiar enough to dare call her Sarah. Endearingly anxious, God-fearing, and ever-so-slightly nosy, amidst Dark Shadows' gods and monsters, it was great to have one character whose ambitions extended no further than doing the dusting.

4. Fashions by Orhbach's
Though its heart was rooted in the past, the Orhbach's department store on West 34th Street kept the residents of Collinsport firmly connected to the present. In return for an on-screen credit, the store supplied free clothing for all the contemporary storylines. Occasionally the Ohrbach's credit would confusingly run on a flashback episode, so perhaps they had a Young Republic department tucked away in the basement. Carping aside, it's fair to say that a small but significant part of the Dark Shadows look can be traced to Orhbach's. From Victoria's trademark sleeveless dresses (a speciality in various shades of shapeless nylon) to Barnabas' cape (cheaply made by cutting up two identical coats from Menswear), Orhbach's deserves a little love for their seemingly-endless range of plaid shirts, and for giving the spectrum a particular shade of bilious lime green not seen before or since.

5. Dan Ross
When I first discovered Dark Shadows as a teenager in the mid-1990s, there were no episodes available here in England, so all I had to go on were a couple of magazine articles with blurry photos. Something instinctive told me that I would love Dark Shadows if only I could get to see it, but America and actual episodes seemed unobtainable and far away. All was not lost, when I discovered some yellowing copies of the Dark Shadows Paperback Library tie-in novels at a London comic fair. Suddenly Collinwood (or Collins House, depending on which book you were reading) was alive and real, and I steadily began to track down copies. The books were written by author Dan Ross, under the more marketable pseudonym Marilyn. Ross didn't have access to broadcasts of Dark Shadows at his home in Canada, so relying on scripts and story outlines, he crafted his own alternative Collinwood, where the supernatural was usually explained away in Scooby Doo fashion by the final chapter. With hindsight, it's easy to dismiss these stories as flawed, pulpy tie-ins, but for giving me my first proper chance to experience those characters and storylines I loved them dearly.


Dave VT said...

As I am now plowing through 1225 DVD episodes, I agree wholeheartedly about the set design, having never really paid that much attention to it when I first watched the show as a kid. The set design was amazing for a show of such small budget. The different rooms, houses and places that were continually added into the mix is very impressive. I often wish I could just go LIVE in some of these many different spaces as I watch the show. (Roger's den is so warm and cozy, I want to just move in)! The small details really made you feel like you were looking at a real place, not some cheap TV set. As far as the Ross books, they were also great, affording me even MORE Shadows after the show was over for the day. Clarice Blackburn: she would have made a great replacement for Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz (and I mean that in a good way!) A lot of unsung heroes on D.S.!!

Chad Moore said...

I love Clarice Blackburn's performance as Mrs. Johnson, particularly during the series' first year. She was given some of the best lines and the funniest deadpan observations.

Debjorgo said...

I liked the Marilyn Ross books. I got four or five of them. The drugs stores and convenient stores where I used to get them didn't readily carry them or I would have read more.

I could only find one or two of my copies the last time I looked.

susied said...

I love all the sets, they looked like real rooms with all those beautiful antiques.

I finally managed to get copies of all the Dark Shadows books. Have read 5 of them so far.

Thanks for a wonderful post!

alangallant said...

Kudos to The Blue Whale, although I also found the various Collinsport Dock sets very interesting and oh-so-atmospheric. Sy also did wonderful things with so-called limbo areas, such as a tiny space for an alleyway, or the occasional phone booth area. His clever re-use of set pieces, such as sections of Lang's Lab ending up at The House By The Sea, was also great!

Anita said...

I never thought of the Blue Whale as much of a set but how you describe it, it is a good set. Always a meeting place for the people of Collinswood.
DS books, loved them and I donated the whole kit and kaboodle to the public library.
Clarice Blackburn - she was funny, and not a good cook. Originally sent to Collinwood to spy for Burk, she was the only housekeeper we see.

Charlene said...

I use to have all the Dan Ross novels. Hard times made me sell them years ago. Now have found about 4 or 5 at flea markets. Still love getting them out and re-reading them.

Michael said...

I just watched the new DVD release of the 1958 Douglas Sirk movie "The Tarnished Angel." The lead character, played by Rock Hudson, is named, yes, Burke Devlin. The movie is an adaptation of William Faulkner's "Pylon," but the character is unnamed in the book, so the name Burke Devlin was added when the movie was made. Does anybody have any clue as to where the name Burke Devlin came from for "Dark Shadows"? It seems to good to be just a coincidence.

Dale said...

I have always been fascinated by the wonderful sets used on Dark Shadows. They helped to create an atmosphere of suspense and intrigue. One of my favorite sets is the foyer and drawing room of Collinwood. I am now watching the series on DVD's and there seems to be a noticeable gap between the french doors at the main entrance that allows the passage of light. I would hate to have their heating bill; I guess the Collins family could afford to let that go.

As for Clarice Blackburn, she was a true delight to watch in her various roles. Her portrayal of Mrs.Johnson is priceless.

Count Petofi was one of my favorite characters. Thayer David had a way of making this character take on its own life with his diverse talent.

I enjoyed reading several of the Dan Ross books and still have them in my possession. A least one of them served me as a source for a book report in high school.

Mark said...

I too loved the Dan Ross books. I faithfully checked the magazine/paperback stores to locate a new title, or hopefully, an earlier release that had been re-shelved and suddenly available (this happened several times). I even had other family members checking for titles on my list. I have located a few copies to replace my treasured original books in recent years.