Forrest Ackerman, AKA 4E, AKA The Ackermonster, AKA Dr. Acula, is gone. We all mourned his loss in December of 2008, and many of us still feel a sting that we live in a world without our favorite Uncle. But fear not my fright-fans, Forry lives on in a different way.
Recently I had the honor of talking to one of Forry’s closest friends, Joe Moe. His insights into the Ackermonster and the Ackermansion are both touching and sad. Though Forry is no longer with us, he will always be in the hearts of the monster kids all over the world.
Heather Buckley: How did you meet Forry?
Joe Moe: Like many of my generation within our genre, I was an avid reader of James Warren and Forrest J Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. I met Forry around 1982. I waited nearly two years from the time I’d moved to California (from Hawaii) before summoning the courage to visit the Ackermansion.
Forry welcomed me into his home on a sunny Saturday afternoon along with a dozen other fans. Stepping into that Fort Knox of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror memorabilia, I was dumbstruck. It was all there; the stop-motion models from King Kong, the familiar props, the rare books, the vivid Basil Gogos FM cover art and Forry! The man who had inspired my love of all of it! He was so generous in letting me wander through his home soaking up all the history and art. Handling priceless objects and artifacts. By the end of the tour I knew I needed to distinguish myself from the crowd so that I might express my gratitude and respect to Forry. I was so thankful for the tour and for his oblivious mentorship via his magazine throughout my childhood.
The Ackermansion would have been a full-time job for a dozen people to keep up. At the time it was in relative disarray, so I boldly asked Forry if he needed help cleaning the place up. His eye twinkled like a diamond hit by a laser. I spent every weekend from then on volunteering my time. Organizing boxes and papers, cleaning and refining displays. Oh, and having lunch with my favorite Uncle.
HB: Did other folks tend to the Ackermansion or was it just you?
JM: My best childhood pal, Sean Fernald started the ball rolling with me. Eventually I moved in with Forry at his request. Funny thing: One day Forry asked me to move in and I declined at first. I liked my independence and wasn’t keen on living in the fishbowl that was his museum.
I recall telling Forry that the only room I would ever consider living in was the little maid’s quarters, off the beaten path, in the basement of his 18-room house. Forry and I both knew that room was occupied by his housekeeper of 16 years. She wasn’t going anywhere. It just couldn’t work. Three days later, Forry’s housekeeper informed him that she was moving back home to El Salvador! I packed my bags and moved in. I figured it was meant to be.
Once I lived at the Ackermansion, I was able to accomplish a lot. One of the things I succeeded in doing was surrounding Forry with people who loved HIM and not just the collection. These were professional folks that had nothing to gain except the satisfaction of helping out their hero. If you ever meet these folks, give em’ a pat on the back: Lorene and Michelle Simpson, Sean Fernald, Doug Aiken, Glen Phipps, Jessika White and Nivek Ogre are principle among many. Together, we did our best to restore the Ackermansion to its former luster AND maintain it, much to the delight of the Ackermonster. We’d take a room, empty it into the next. We’d conquer the empty room, make it beautiful, and then move on to the next and then the next.
HB: How many folks visited the Ackermansion while you were there?
JM: Hundreds. Fans, friends, film crews, tour groups; you name it. Forry estimated around 50,000 had toured his home since the time he began inviting people in during the 50’s. I can’t recall anyone being turned away unless Forry was out of town. If Forry were too busy to give a tour, he’d let folks wander around unattended. Some fans complain about the pilfering that went on. If you think about it, considering how many bodies trod the 70’s green shag carpet of the Ackermansion, there wasn’t a great amount of theft going on. Only rarely did things go missing. I, and other Forry friends, were diligent in watching over tours and keeping an account of important items.
I think most of the thievery went on before my time. And most of it was by werewolves in sheep’s clothing – Forry-friends turned greedy! They know who they are. Most visitors were polite, reverent and respectful. Just imagine the implications of Forry’s generosity. I mean, would you open your home (stuffed to the rafters with valuables) day after day to strangers? It’s really quite outrageous. But the one-of-a-kind experience of the Ackermansion could never have existed any other way. Forry seemed to view the risk of theft as a necessary evil he had to face in order to share the collection with fans.
HB: Any of his famous friends frequent the Ackermansion?
JM: John Landis was the most frequent celebrity guest. If you’ve ever met John, you love him. Not just “like” him. Absolutely LOVE him. He is one of the kindest most genuine grouches you could want to meet. In Forry’s life he was a constant. Through thick and thin he was there. Unconditionally. Always bringing other fascinating people to meet his favorite Uncle. Always sending toys and postcards from his world travels.
Other famous guests on my watch included Penn and Teller, Spike Jonze, The artist who draws “Where’s Waldo”, Leo DiCaprio and too many others to mention. Stars and fans alike became 14-year-olds once they crossed the threshold into “Forryworld.” Guillermo Del Toro had big hugs for Ack. Rick Baker’s face glowed in Forry’s company. Benecio Del Toro beamed when he shook the Ackermonster’s hand for the first time. Steven Spielberg called his youngest son over to tell him, “Meet Forry Ackerman. This man and your grandfather are the reason I make movies.” Forry was an inexhaustible flint that sparked many bright creative flames.
HB: Was he still collecting all his wonderful things during this time?
JM: Forry never stopped collecting, whether he liked it or not (and he liked it a LOT). Even when Forry wasn’t actively acquiring pieces, people constantly brought things to him. One of the remarkable things about the “Forry experience” was, that he was not just a typical collector; most of the treasures that ended up on his wall were given to him by the people who made them.
A wealth of artists and craftspeople honored Forry by donating artifacts they had created in their careers. I can’t think of any other collector who can boast that the majority of their treasures were created through their own encouragement and nurturing of the very artists that created them.
Another collector could acquire all of Forry’s stuff but it would never have the same context as it did when Forry was sitting amidst it all, telling his stories. Sad to have lost Forry the man AND Forry the “experience.”
HB: When did the Ackermansion “experience” end?
JM: It simply ended when Forry ended. When he passed away, the experience of sitting around his chair and listening intently to the oral history of each piece in his collection, ceased. Nobody can give the same meaning to the stuff. Nobody has the relationship to the stuff that Forry did. Nobody has the delightfully oddball personality that Forry had.
Add to that Forry’s age (92) and the fact that he was a virtual time machine who could transport you back to a day when the genre was really being formed and developed. He was there to witness it all. I mean, in the early 1930’s the president of Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle, was writing to a young Forry telling him to watch out for their latest movie, Frankenstein! Well, you can see what a void his absence leaves. The “Forry experience” never diminished in his lifetime. He never lost his sharp mind or wit. He entertained visitors right up until his last few days on Earth. Granted, toward the end, out of respect, most visitors were close friends. But Forry still told stories, rattled off puns, smiled and laughed every day.
HB: Is there anyone to carry on the oral tradition of Forry?
JM: Yes! All of “us.” Of all the things Forry collected WE were his most treasured items; his nieces and nephews in fandom. He gathered monster kids and movie fans alike and instilled in us the same kind of passion for filmmaking, creativity and storytelling that was so important to him. Forry was a happy accident. An alchemy of personality, era and culture coming together in a big BANG! to deliver us lucky kids our strange and wonderful Pied Piper. And we followed eagerly.
Arguably, we might not know and love Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff as we do today, if not for Forry’s enthusiastic fanfare and tireless promotion of their classic horror legacies. When Forry died, we lost a lot. But looking on the bright side, he left us each other. And the genre community is a strong one made up of some of the most soulful, intelligent and talented people I’ve ever met. In our own ways, each of us can carry a piece of Forry into the future he always dreamed of. Carrying Forry “Forryward” might help us achieve that future he dreamed of; A Utopia where there’s room for everyone, cruelty is abolished and a sense of wonder is at a premium. Up, up and away!
JM: There were a number of reasons that the collection had to be downsized. The most public reason was the expense of the now mythical lawsuit between Forry and a rat whose name I won’t speak – who ultimately lost the case to Forry (another story for another day). The more intimate reason was that Forry had just had brain surgery for a blood clot in his head. He needed to recover and the rundown 18-room mansion on the hill was just too much for he and I to manage.
Some of the stuff went to private parties (like Mr. Jackson) who will treasure and preserve it for all time; a sizable chunk of the collection went to Paul Allen’s Museum of Science Fiction. If you travel to Seattle, you’ll find the otherworldly chrome and steel Frank Gehry structure under the shadow of the iconic Space Needle. Forry’s presence is a permanent fixture there. Forry kept a number of key pieces (Dracula ring, cape, etc.) for himself, which I transported to his final home at the foot of the Hollywood hills in Los Feliz just a mile from the former house.
It was a strange day when we left the Ackermansion for the AckerMINImansion. I’d decorated the new bungalow to look as much like the old place as possible. Driving Forry down the hill from the big house, he got teary. He turned to me and said, “Well, I guess this is the last time I’ll ever see the old place.” By the end of that day, having spent a whole afternoon in the new bungalow, Forry remarked, “I suppose I could never see more than this much of my collection from any one room at a time in the big house. I think I prefer this place!” Forry continued his tradition of open houses every Saturday until the end of his life.
HB: I would love to see a book on the subject written by everyone that knew him, sort of what they did in the book Please Kill Me, about the punk movement, it weaves everyone’s dialogue on the subject to create the full picture. That would be just wonderful to have, in your own words.
JM: That would be interesting. Particularly considering that so many people would have their personal interpretation of the same stories. Hearing others tell Forry-stories is always fun for me. I have observed that all of us tell Forry-stories in his voice. It’s so odd and delightful. You can tell which era a person spent the majority of their time with Forry by the impression they do of him. Some do the sprightly 1960’s-70’s Forry. I do the 80’s slowing-down Forry. Young Forry-protégé, makeup artist Casey Wong does a spot-on impression of Forry in his last years. When we sit around and reminisce it’s impossible not to crack up at a whole room full of Forry sound-alikes.
HB: Any thoughts on having Forry’s visage as a Sideshow action figure or Aurora garage kit? Everyone could have a lil’ Forry to love! I know I would want one…
JM: In the past 10 years, there was a movement and even an on-line petition to try to get Forry his own Sideshow figure. It never happened. I don’t get it, but I love and respect the Sideshow guys and have to believe they know what’s viable for their business and what’s not (Hi, Matt Falls). But I do wish they’d reconsider (Hi again, Matt! Nudge, nudge). A Forry figure makes perfect sense to me. For example, I recently picked up a set of Japanese Seven Samurai figures. Among the Samurai is a figure of director Akira Kurosawa in his sunglasses and golf cap, holding a script. It’s so cool. Landis was jealous when he saw them. Heehee. Imagine being able to set Uncle Forry among the Monster models? The grand old man in his beige 1970’s Polyester leisure suit and Dracula cape! C’mon, it’s a slam-dunk! Somebody, make it happen. Pretty pleeeeease!? (Hey, Matt…)
HB: I get a lot of fans very sad that he was not laid to rest in his ring and cape. Any reason why?
JM: Forry was a collector of the highest order. Unlike typical collectors who gather things to possess them, Forry amassed things primarily so that he could share them. When he died, I followed his wishes to the letter. He didn’t want ANYTHING of value put in his coffin. He couldn’t stand the idea of valuable or historic items fans would want to see being buried with him forever.
If you think about it, it would have been entirely out of character for Forry to shutter away anything that brought joy to fandom or attention to our genre. If other collectors buy them at least they’ll be out in the world circulating. Forry simply made me promise to bury him without a tie! I dressed him in his favorite collarless tux and the last blue Aloha shirt I’d brought him home from Hawaii. He wore a friendship-ring; a simple band a Swedish girl friend had given him. As he requested, I put a picture of his late wife Wendy and his friend and lady lawyer Jacie Appelbaum in with him. Even in death he looked like the Forry Ackerman I’d come to know and love. And now…I’m officially choked up…
HB: What prompted the estate sale? I assume Forry would have wanted to keep the collection together. Are there any reasons why there aren’t any other museums that would keep and display the collection together?
JM: Museums were contacted prior to the Profiles in History auction being arranged. I can only guess that they weren’t interested in or funded for such an acquisition? I presume museums are just as welcome to bid on items in the auction as the general public. The estate has been incredibly mindful of Forry’s wishes and legacy.
In the time I lived and worked with Forry, there were dozens of promises and near misses when it came to housing the collection in a permanent museum. Something always fell out. Even when Forry was willing to “gift” the entire collection to the city of LA, a freeze on public building purchases nixed it.
You may be surprised to learn this, but Forry wasn’t that interested in preserving the collection after he was gone. Forry was a sworn atheist from his teenaged years on and didn’t believe in survival of personality after death. Therefore, he didn’t have any romantic illusions about his collection living on beyond him. He simply wanted it to be preserved in his lifetime so he could have the satisfaction of sharing it. Once he was gone, he believed he would never even know that he’d been alive to collect anything.
HB: What items are up for sale? What did these particular items mean to him?
JM: Frankly, I’m not sure of the entire catalog. I know it’s considerable. You have no idea how much stuff can be crammed into every nook and cranny of a 5-room bungalow. It’s more than you’d think. I know because I personally stuffed a lot of it there! I can tell you this; I believe there will be big-ticket items as well as affordable lots.
I hope there will be something for everyone and in reasonable price ranges so that any collector or fan, big or small, can make a bid on something. The major pieces include the Bela Lugosi Dracula ring and cape (from Plan 9). A 1st edition Dracula book signed by Bram Stoker himself and just about everyone who ever played Dracula – other than Gary Oldman and Udo Kier (I’d actually called Udo and tried to arrange a signing, alas too late). A Mary Shelley inscribed Frankenstein edition (titled: The Man Demon). His favorite piece; the “Robotrix” from Metropolis (which he had commissioned). Much, much more. Just scads of photos, artwork and memorabilia. I am happy at the thought that people who love it will have a chance to possess it. Please continue to share it!
HB: Forry is being remembered next month at the The Egyptian Theatre can you give us a hint of what the event will be like. I know I would love to go, as would other fans.
JM: It’s going to be F-U-N! The bigwigs naturally wait until last minute to confirm in case they have scheduling conflicts. But I’m planning for this event to be made up of not just celebrities but friends and fans that knew and loved Forry. I have some terrific people confirmed so far. Tim Sullivan, John Landis, James Warren and Verne Langdon, to name a few (bring your FMs if you want em’ signed by Warren)! A couple of other notables will speak if they’re in town (and not shooting some little picture in NZ). I’ll present a little something too!
My only criterion for the day is that everyone on the dais has something engaging to contribute. Not a tall order. Also, that it remains a “tribute” and not a “memorial” as Forry would have hated that. It will be a multi-media affair with some slide shows, video snippets of Forry cameos and maybe even some music. The tribute portion of the event is free and open to the public. The movie screening that follows will have an $8 ticket price. We’ll be hosting the American premiere of the acclaimed Canadian Forry documentary; Famous Monster followed by a screening of Ib Melchior’s The Time Travelers (featuring a Forry cameo). We’ll start at 3PM and end around 10PM. It’ll be a full day of laughter, tears and surprises. Just the way Forry would have wanted it. I’m sending along an invitation.
JM: I made sure Forry saw every card that came in. There were so many I couldn’t open them all. But I was earnest in reading each sender’s names off of every single envelope that came to the house. Forry was so impressed by the outpouring of love. So many people expressing how deeply he’d affected their lives; so many emotional folks just wanting to say their good-byes.
In the end, once Forry was gone, I arranged a shrine in his bedroom. All the medical equipment was removed leaving a space that I filled with all of his favorite things. Pictures of his favorite women – his wife Wendy, Marlene Dietrich, Vampirella. A stack of his Aloha shirts. A bust of Forry at 21 cast by Ray Harryhausen. I made a long and winding trail of all your cards and letters that stretched from one end of the room to the other. In this way, I tried to reclaim the space as a happy one full of good memories and shadows of Forry’s wonderful life and accomplishments.
HB: If you had one thing to tell the monster kids that mourn Uncle Forry what would you say? I am still very sad about the situation and wear my Famous Monster’s Fan Club pin everyday.
JM: I have a few words of comfort I would offer you. First, know that those of us with Forry at the end loved him as much as you do and took extra good care of him. When people tell me they’re grateful for what I did to maintain Forry’s quality of life, I answer, “you would have done the same if you could have.” I truly believe this. Also, know that Forry was in charge of his life until the end of it. So, while it’s sad to lose him, it’s a relief to know that he left us on his terms, peacefully, quickly and without suffering.
I couldn’t imagine a more dignified way to go. The only time I broke down during this whole trauma was when Forry first informed me that he was giving up the fight. I lost it completely. He took my arm then and told me, “Joey, everyone has to die. Why, there are people dying every day who never died before!” I laughed then, despite the torrents of goo running down my face. (Here comes choke-up number two…) Finally, I’d like to leave you with one of Forry’s favorite poems by Harry Warner Jr. (untitled). I think it characterizes Forry’s views on life and death pretty succinctly:
When we’ve lived our brief season
On this mad mundane mass
And both body and reason
To oblivion pass
Our impression will linger
As the dew after dawn
As the hole made by finger
When from water withdrawn
Heather! Wear that Famous Monsters Fan Club pin proudly and proclaim with the rest of Monsterkid-dom, ‘”Forry Ackerman Shall Not Die!”