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F L I C K H E A D

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Calvin Beck (with beard) with author Richard (Bojak the Bojar) Bojarski (far left) in the early 1970s

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AN INTERVIEW WITH

CALVIN T. BECK

By Raymond Young

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    From 1962 to 1975, Calvin Thomas Beck (1929—1989) edited and published Castle of Frankenstein, a horror film magazine with a devoted cult following thanks to its hip banter and wit, among other things. Beck produced twenty-six editions of CoF, a one-shot Journal of Frankenstein in 1959, a paperback collection of horror stories, The Frankenstein Reader, in 1962, and the books Heroes of the Horrors in 1975 and Scream Queens in 1978. Beck also had small roles in the films Man Outside (1965) and The Devil in Velvet (1968). This interview was conducted in 1981.

Raymond Young: I couldn’t find any biographical information on you anywhere. Were you involved with horror and science fiction before Castle of Frankenstein?

Calvin T. Beck: It all goes back to my early teenage SFantasy roots in the late 1940s. I organized a small pen-pals correspondence club in 1948, to bring some lonely fans together via letters. At first it was loosely structured, no letterheads, nothing except me and a list of names and addresses, staying in touch with twenty-five or thirty people who paid one dollar a year to rave along with me through the mail. It was known as The American Science-Fantasy Society, and in three and a half years it gained nearly one hundred and forty members.
    I’d tried publishing a twelve-page fanzine by doing six carbon copies at a time on the typewriter, repeating the process several times. In 1950 I saved enough to buy a little manual mimeograph and launched Science & Science-Fantasy Fiction Review — S&SFFR, or ‘sassafrass’ as some called it — pushing for a circulation of about five hundred copies during its three-issue lifespan. It sold for ten cents, but was given free to members — The American Science-Fantasy Society continued activity until the late 50s. Cranking out five hundred copies proved to be excruciating torture — especially since it seemed to cost a fortune — that I had to choose between it, club work or dropping out of school. Unwisely but with no other choice, I plunged deeper into so-called scholasticism — unwisely, as I gained nearly everything I know and love from outside hobbies and pursuits. By the way, S&SFFR was a crude miniature forecast of Castle of Frankenstein. It had book reviews, very short fiction, columns on films and critiques of pro-mags.

RY: I heard you worked on pro-mags for Joe Weider for a while.

CTB: Before Weider there was Robert A.W. Lowndes, editor of Future and Science Fiction Quarterly, who I contacted in 1952 with suggestions to improve his staid and dry pro-mags. I felt they lacked departments of fan interest, but he argued he was short on space for such stuff. But I showed him how he could do it, and he grabbed at the idea and got me in as an assistant editor for Science Fiction Quarterly doing a fanzine review column called ‘The Melting Pot.’ Unfortunately my plans for other columns, incorporating reviews on films, theater and general information, were never used, though my basic formula for developing other features were used in his three SFantasy mags. His sales improved! But he was flaky and paranoid, and disliked anyone around with too many bright ideas, so we parted in 1953.
    Two years later I joined Joe Weider Publications, and helped them kick off the pictorial occult mag, True Weird, which was later changed to True Strange after people kidded the hell out of Weider by calling it ‘True Weider.’ Apart from muscle building mags, barbells and health food gimmicks where he made his fortune, Weider dabbled in general men’s mags like Safari and Outdoor Adventures. As editor and staff writer, I probably hacked out more than four hundred pieces during my three years there. I also helped Weider start two girlie mags, Jem and Monsieur, which I wanted to emulate a little of Playboy, but Weider watered them down to a lower IQ level. He had a brilliant gym and barbell mentality, but lacked education and had little sense in trends and media.

RY: Did you approach him with the idea for Castle of Frankenstein?

CTB: A magazine devoted to SFantasy in the movies and on television seemed inevitable, if not slightly overdue. By 1957 I’d heard of several challenging things TV was planning and went ape on learning through the grapevine that Screen Gems picked up the television rights to Universal Picture’s earlier SFantasy films. Britain’s Hammer Films had done a number on my head with Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and the decade was pretty much into the genre with Forbidden Planet (1956), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and This Island Earth (1955).
    I came up with dummy roughs for a magazine called Screen Wonder — even though it wasn’t as sophisticated, this was the start of Castle of Frankenstein. But I wasn’t surprised when Weider turned down the whole idea. I quit and made the rounds of magazine distributors. One was Kable News which, by some odd coincidence, launched Famous Monsters of Filmland a few months later in 1958. By some even stranger coincidence, Famous Monsters publisher Jim Warren and I bumped into one another the very same day I had my first conference up in Kable News’ office.

RY: Warren beat you to the punch!

CTB: Well, I was a pretty damned green kid with little business experience, and even less money, and very innocent about wheeling and dealing. Warren, on the other hand, was already streetwise tough from previous media battles, plus he’d already published his own girlie mag, After Hours out of Philly. So all I could do was writhe in frustration when the first issue of Famous Monsters hit the stands in early 1958.

RY: Around that time, a few Famous Monsters imitations were coming out.

CTB: Yes, there was Monster Parade, World Famous Creatures, and so on, but all of them, including FM, accented on the dullest, most sensational, least cerebral, least ideal aspects of the genre. And most of them had ‘monster’ in their titles. I cringed when one distributor suggested I change the name to Hollywood Monsters or Movie World Monsters.
    I finally went to Acme News, one of the smaller and shadier outfits. I also found a printer who’d ‘help’ by splitting profits. Originally planned to be sixty-four pages, Acme reneged on their contract and told my printer to trim my magazine, now titled Journal of Frankenstein, by twenty-four pages, cutting out several film articles, a short story and a general column. The title Journal of Frankenstein, incidentally, was chosen as a compromise to woo part of the monster market without being stigmatized as part of the heap. As I later learned, it was a naïve move, because one dictum holds true in mass market publishing: nothing succeeds more than a commercial approach. That, and appealing to the basest instincts.

RY: JoF was published in 1959, and the first issue of Castle of Frankenstein was 1962. What happened in between?

CTB: After JoF’s trial run I ended up with barely a couple hundred bucks. Acme said, “JoF has some future, perhaps, but it’ll take time and some nurturing.” I didn’t find out until 1961 that JoF sold extremely well, and that Acme and my printing ‘partner’ went back to press and sold an excess of 55,000 copies. This was phenomenal, considering Acme usually had sales of 10- to 15,000 copies on most of their publications, and a forty-page JoF at fifty cents was competing against sixty-eight-page mags selling for thirty-five cents. It was Acme, by the way, who picked up Larry Ivie’s Monsters and Heroes magazine later in the decade.
    In 1961 I finally got a call from Kable News to publish Castle of Frankenstein. Their legal department advised me that Acme’s contract could hold me liable on JoF, and that I shouldn’t use my real name on the CoF masthead for several years. Ergo, Charles Foster Kane and, as an extra added piece of schmaltz, Baron Victor von Frankenstein III, became my alter egos and small consolation until the day when I’d emerge out of my cocoon.

RY: Did Kable fare any better than Acme?

CTB: I didn’t know it at the time, but CoF was a hit in its first three issues. No one at Kable told me or advised me at any time. Whether this was deliberate or due to carelessness, years later I became paranoid enough to believe that some scheme was being worked against me. By the time I grew even marginally aware that CoF had good potential, three years had passed and the monster field boom lost its bloom after a spate of imitative atrocities and cyclical attrition.
    Shrewder than the rest, Jim Warren held on and prospered, using Famous Monsters and his other titles to bolster mail order sales, even when his magazine sales fell. Other publications use the same approach and are euphemistically termed ‘catalogs.’ But that’s where it’s at in the magazine biz — if you can’t survive creatively, or aren’t talented enough to be creative, you become a super mail order clerk. As long as it doesn’t get you down — unless you happen to be too insensitive to know what life is like beyond the pale of businessmen’s two-hour lunches and a plastic corporate routine, you can find wealth and a two-dimensional kind of happiness in such blah circumstances.
    Besides, at that time, first class national distribution was a case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Even with things going moderately well, a small one- or two-mag publisher has the deck stacked against them thanks to various secret distribution practices, usually of a collusive nature. Some distributors own or control different chains and printers under other corporate names, or have side deals worked out with backroom friends. In some cases, this means that the average distributor’s percentage, approximately eighteen- to twenty-five percent, is wiped out since they’re their own middleman. If they’re controlling the printing as well, take off another thirty percent. While a little independent publisher might barely break even on a thirty-five percent sale, distributor-owned mags make a healthy profit on such percentages.

RY: Did the business end make you want to quit?

CTB: In spite of all the setbacks, the business end of CoF doing weird numbers on my head, it was the best fulfillment of my inner creative force needing a release. Gathering a small crew to help put CoF together was easy since I’d been in touch with creative SFantasy fans most of my life. Bhob Stewart and I even had letters appearing simultaneously in 1951 and 1952 pulp magazines, ten years before we met in 1962. Ken Beale, who was the associate editor of CoF in the beginning, knew me personally since the early 50s.

RY: What attracted you to horror and science fiction in the first place?

CTB: The credit goes to my dad, the late Thomas Beck, who used to read me Walt Disney comics when I was around four. He turned me on to Popeye and other cartoons. There was also a theater in New York near Times Square specializing in two-hour marathons of Disney and other cartoons, and near our apartment on the west side of Manhattan was a church that ran old comedies like Chaplin, Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy.
    Back in the early 1940s, when Manhattan was the direct opposite of what it became in the 60s, 42nd Street was a pleasant movie mecca, showing current films and revivals. Mom, dad and myself could see double features, shorts and a couple of cartoons for a total of seventy-five cents, or twenty-five cents per head. Each theater, of the twelve or more in the vicinity, changed their bills three times a week.
    Dad was a rabid fantasy film fan, so he initiated me in both the March and Tracy versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931 and 1941), a weird little classic called The Man With Two Faces (1934) with Edward G. Robinson and Louis Calhern, and revivals of silent classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). These created incredible impressions. Dad also made sure we didn’t miss a single episode of the Dick Tracy serials. There was also Sh! The Octopus (1937), a horror comedy with Hugh Herbert. It came and went around 42nd Street several times. I remember it was unusually decadent and unpleasant despite its huge flaws, which became obvious ages later when I caught it on TV.
    I discovered the low budgeters of the late 1940s at two houses near 42nd Street. These theaters apparently worked on a tiny profit, and showed vintage stuff eight- to twenty years old. This is where I caught Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Devil Bat’s Daughter (1946), White Zombie (1932) and Voodoo Man (1944).

RY: Given that you used Charles Foster Kane as a pseudonym, were you seeing films by Orson Welles at the time?

CTB: I viewed and re-viewed all the Welles films possible — Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Jane Eyre (1943), Journey Into Fear (1943), The Stranger (1946) — anything and everything he did on the screen in the 40s or on radio. He was unforgettable in the lead in a two-part Suspense radio version of Donovan’s Brain, broadcast in 1944.

RY: Did the people who worked on Castle of Frankenstein have similar backgrounds or tastes?

CTB: Ken Beale, Bhob Stewart, Larry Ivie and myself all shared similar, though not identical, tastes. I believe I had a better commercial sense than the other guys for what the general readers wanted. Next in this area was Larry Ivie, who had a firm grasp of what he believed to be the average age and type of person who’d buy CoF.
    Bhob Stewart was ahead of his time in many literary and graphic areas, but his approach tended to be more esoteric than practical. He gravitated toward underground comics and newspapers, and other limited circulation publications that were popular in large cities but not in the middle America hinterlands and boondocks where most of CoF was sold. Our intellectual tastes were therefore hyped up on some occasions, while my commercial sense would evaporate, and we’d see the result in lower sales.
    But during the 1960s, I really didn’t give a damn. Idealistically and spiritually, I was caught up in ‘The Movement.’ What I’d seen in the business world left me cold. I began to believe creative people would soon set the world right and take over.

RY: Did you apply this to any endeavors outside of CoF?

CTB: I was spending less time on CoF and more of it being active in film clubs and running my own society, The Informal Film Club. We’d average eight shows weekly, running dozens of rarities and classics. Lectures with printed film notes were part of it. After bouncing between a few meeting halls, we became firmly established at the McBurney YMCA from 1963 to 1967. We’d also include shows about UFOs, the occult and we hosted a few mini SFantasy conventions. This led to my doing a film history series at NYU’s Washington Square campus, late in 1968 through 1972.
    In between all of this, I organized, edited and arranged a large batch of clips from films into something we called The Cinema Orgy. It could run anywhere from three to six hours, depending on the amount of time we had that evening. The show ended up touring more than two-hundred-and-fifty campuses and over a thousand performances.
    I used these activities to compensate for my dad’s death in 1964. It had a traumatic effect on me that lasted for many years. You could say that his passing influenced my drive and perspective considerably.

RY: Unlike practically all of its competitors, Castle of Frankenstein had a penchant for b- and even z-films, and was among the first publications to elevate them from the gutter to a kind of respectability.

CTB: I think that all film categories and genres should be studied. I’d evince a predilection for the b’s and z’s because this is where one finds the filmmaking DNA code. Because of their limited capital, the b’s and z’s involve a certain self discipline and structure that is, more often than not, sincere and direct. I feel that an interesting and successful a-film may only be a b-film on a bigger budget.
    Because of simpler structure, if not warmth, b’s tend to connect with audiences on a closer and more personal level than a’s. The inherent danger of ‘a’ budgets is that some producers, carried away with their sudden wealth, tend to minimize realism and story sincerity by turning a picture into an overweight clotheshorse. One can no longer see the body beautiful because of all the junk that’s on it.
    Frowned on and scorned by the establishment in the 1950s, b-film sensibility is the essence of today’s filmmaking success and why the business has rallied. Those who’ve been important in turning the film world around — Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas — are the vanguard of many other young mavericks and pioneers. Their innate grasp of ‘b’ mystique is the culmination of absorbing it from TV or in neighborhood theaters in the 50s and 60s.
    Putting it another way, b-films have been more fun, more enjoyable because they’re usually ordinary in appearance, using situations and atmosphere that nearly everyone recognizes. Turn an ordinary, commonplace atmosphere into SFantasy and you may come up with a classic like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

RY: One thing that always intrigued and frustrated CoF readers was its odd, erratic publishing schedule.

CTB: Magazine publishing is, by its very nature, a commercial, not artistic, business. Although I’ve some insight in marketing, I’ve never been a very commercial type of person. And it’s terribly difficult trying to wear two hats at one time without getting a little schizoid — that is, trying to be in business and creative simultaneously. There’s hell to pay if you embark in this business with just loving, creative motives in mind.
    Constructing an issue creatively — writing, layouts, paste-ups, etc. — is only the first step. The mind-boggling numbers are yet to come: worries over print quality, distribution, checking on figures, the chance of losing thousands of copies to carelessness or theft, strikes, storms, floods screwing up sales.
    One’s creative well being is strained trying to maintain regular schedules which conform to the establishment’s theory of productivity. This may explain why most minor magazines are infinitely superior and why most mass market mags are shit.
    The concept of clockwork frequency is at the heart of mass marketing. With ‘mass’ we sell in high volume to anyone and everyone. We get them into the buying habit by hitting them frequently. In ‘marketing’ we generate schemes to create a Pavlovian effect by appealing to common urges that a mass mentality will react to.
    The difference between a commercially marketed mag and one that’s personal and creative is like going to eat at McDonald’s or to a small, quality restaurant that cooks to order. Even in its quieter, more halcyon days, mass marketing always had some sort of dilutive effect against the standards of quality. But there was a time when we lived in a less frenzied, cheaper and more reflective environment.
    In a nutshell, good wine takes time. CoF’s twenty-seven editions — including Journal of Frankenstein and the 1967 Fearbook — include some disappointing editions. But as a whole, CoF couldn’t have made a lasting impression if it had taken a purely commercial route. In the long run, it established certain principles that may have helped inspire others to do likewise or better. The plasticity and emptiness of genre mags that have followed since the last issue of CoF are evident. There are, after all, other things to do than leech off the successes of Star Wars (1977), Star Trek (1979) and Superman (1978), but what else can they do to fill a perpetually commercial vacuum?

RY: Did the commercial end of things figure in CoF’s demise?

CTB: We began running into serious distribution problems in the mid-1970s with CoF #24, the next-to-last issue. I had a good printer named Andre Lemieux, who knew about the problems and offered to back me with his million-dollar printing establishment. We talked about launching other ventures along with CoF. Andre was running some highly successful mags and papers, including Midnight.
    I was also acquainted with a fine and sensitive friend at Kable News, the vice-president who heard and understood all my woes. He’d just been appointed for a short time. He was a freak in the business world: friendly, warm and intelligent. It was a liaison I’d always wanted but never could find until now. My sales shot up like magic.
    But then awful, terrible things began to happen, enough to fill the plot of a James Bond movie. Amrep, the parent holding company controlling Kable, had been under federal investigation for selling allegedly worthless land in New Mexico and elsewhere. These were part of the highly advertised Rio Rancho Estates. Indictments were about to be leveled against Amrep and Rio Rancho, and the whole situation got international media coverage. A number of Kable’s best people, including my VP friend, resigned in a matter of weeks. Mismanagement and demoralization became rife. I believe it had a direct bearing on Seaboard, headed by Martin Goodman, who tried to establish a new mag empire with Kable but folded twelve months later.
    Tragically, my friend Andre soon died from a massive heart attack. So passed away one of the nicest people I’d ever known. And after that, everything went downhill. CoF sales dropped as quickly as they shot up. Quite frankly, I’d had enough and wasn’t about to undergo the same painful perseverance I’d endured in the 1960s. I could have shopped around for another, perhaps even healthier distribution climate, but what I’d already experienced left a bitter taste.

RY: I assume the commercial end of things were less complicated with your books, Heroes of the Horrors (Macmillan, 1975) and Scream Queens (Macmillan, 1978).

CTB: Heroes of the Horrors was a best seller for Macmillan, having undergone four printings so far. This occurred at a time when movie books of all kinds were like a drug on the market. Scream Queens was more involved; Bhob Stewart was my associate editor on this one, and he co-authored the in-depth opening chapter, ‘From Ft. Lee With Fear,’ a detailed overview of women in SFantasy films.

RY: I understand you’ve been busy making movies and not just writing about them.

CTB: For the last two years I’ve been involved in a film project, something in the vengeance-suspense tradition of Death Wish (1974). Our hero is a guy out to track down a group of Manson-like crazies who’ve wiped out his family. My script has horror and suspense overtones, and a slight supernatural thread emerging toward the end. So far, the main problem is finding investors. If I’d gotten into the field a year or two earlier, it would’ve been a snap. But the tax shelter loophole that made it possible for small producers to begin projects was terminated by the government in 1976, one of its usual anti-cultural moves. We’re about the only advanced nation that doesn’t subsidize the arts, although practically every other developed country does.
    We put in months of scripting, organizing a crew and shot a lot of insert material. We even brought in Billy Carter for name value! All was running smoothly until our distributor ran aground. Right now I’m doing some preproduction work and hope that it’s completed by 1979.

RY: Do you prefer filmmaking over magazine publishing?

CTB: The film industry has its share of sharks, but it is probably the best of all possible worlds for creative people. The difference between it and publishing is that the latter is locked up and manipulated by a tough, tightly knit oligarchy that calls all the shots and thwarts any kind of maverick competition. A fairly creative maverick, however, has every chance at success in films because of its diffused structure.

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Text Copyright © 2014 Raymond Young

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F L I C K H E A D