Joe Moe: Horrorwood Babbles On: The Forrest J Ackerman Tribute
(Note: This story will be "stickied" at the top of our headlines for the day. Being able to host it is an honor beyond words.)
It was a Blood-Red-letter day for fandom as pros and fans alike gathered to bid a reluctant “Forry-well” to the late great genre-icon Forrest J Ackerman! Hollywood’s historic Egyptian Theatre served as a temple for the filled-to-capacity ritual sponsored by the American Cinematheque, Profiles in History auction house and the Ackerman estate.
Guests began waiting on line at around 1:00PM for the scheduled 3:00PM reception. By 2:30 over 200 bodies had congregated at the doors of the theater. Inside, staff was scrambling. Pieces of Forry’s collection were being displayed (A first edition of Dracula signed by Bram Stoker and almost everyone who ever played the famous Vampire on screen, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula cape and Forry’s fave prop: the “Robotrix” from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). Caterers worked until the last minute putting finishing touches on the expansive Sci-Fi themed buffet. A huge globe of cauliflower punctuated a long table; kumquats ringed satellites of smaller melon-planets. A futuristic silver fountain streamed crimson punch. When the doors opened at 3:00PM, the line already extended up the few hundred feet of theater courtyard and down Hollywood Boulevard…
I suspect you’ll be hearing a lot of accounts like these from a lot of people for a long time to come. Many folks shared the experience of laughter, tears, loss and camaraderie on this remarkable day. I wish everyone in fandom could have been there. Many on-hand deemed it; THE BEST TRIBUTE EVER! Here’s my little peek behind the making-of the tribute.
Tragically, this triumphant story must begin with the loss of our beloved Uncle Forry Ackerman. Our ol’ guy reached the end of his 92-year run on this planet and he knew he was soon to make a final journey with Prince Sirki. One of the reasons I was so close to Forry is that I’d always talked straight with him and honored his wishes -- to the letter. He had lived a long life without anyone “managing” him. I wasn’t going to mess with that formula because his life was drawing to a close. Forry practically delighted in reminding me that he was an atheist and would die one. But he also promised that if he woke up in heaven, he would gladly take time out from his reunion with his wife Wendayne and conversations with Boris and Bela to send us a sign from “beyond.” In return, I promised not to hold a funeral service of any kind. Immediately I began nudging him to let me at least hold a memorial. Forry reacted as Frankenstein’s monster to fire, “Argh-grrrrr!” arms flailing! His silver spaceship-fin of hair stood at attention. OK, OK! No memorial! How about a “tribute?" Forry, gave me a begrudging shrug and finally a yes!
A devastating blow for our community. I was luckier than most. I could temper my grief with purpose. I had one more job to do for Forry: A tribute. Kevin Burns (many editions of A&E "Biography", "The Girls Next Door"), Forry’s longtime friend and executor of his estate, was supportive and trusting of me to throw a good party. John Landis (Schlock, An American Werewolf in London, Innocent Blood) called and suggested we hold the event at the Egyptian Theatre as he’d participated in other memorials (his word, not mine) there. Soon after, the Cinematheque agreed and we set our date: Sunday March 8th, 2009.
At that point, writer Dan Madigan (See No Evil) joined me and my close friend and director Tim Sullivan (2001 Maniacs, Driftwood) to spearhead the tribute. Tim is a talented director and his enthusiasm in fandom is notorious and infectious. Dan was busy with family and study but was there to back us up as we went forward. Most importantly, they both loved Forry. We reached out immediately to Forry-friends who might want to speak at the tribute. Tim got quick responses from John Landis, Rick Baker (6-time makeup Oscar winner) and Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth). I heard back from Verne Langdon (Famous Monsters magazine regular, and Don Post Studios partner,
We were excited but a little nervous. John Landis had taken a keen interest in the event and was (in his good-hearted but blustery custom) riding us - "What do you have planned? Who’s invited? What the fuck is going on?!" Everyone insisted this event be worthy of the memory of Dr. Ackula. Tim and I decided it should be an event populated by speakers who were not only celebrities but also old-time Forry friends and fans alike. We didn’t want to be overly ambitious in trying to create a performance, per se. Just a well-paced, multi-media tribute with heart-felt testimonials, video clips and maybe some music. Having planned and carried out countless Forry birthday bashes, I was confident that this event would take care of itself if we didn’t over work it. Landis was skeptical. I sent out a few hundred invitations and by the week of the tribute had received over 300 RSVP’s. The invite was available on Forry’s FaceBook page (not his friend yet? What are you waiting for?) and I’d gotten a good response from that posting as well.
By the weekend of the tribute, we’d assembled all of the media: Paul David’s (Timothy Leary's Dead, "Roswell") clip from The Sci-Fi Boys. A cameo reel originally assembled by Charles Henson for Ron Adam’s Monster Bash in PA, and a trailer for Famous Monster, a Canadian Documentary about Forry that had been made by Michael McDonald and Ian Johnston of Roadhouse Films. Finally, I had arranged a secret surprise intended to be shown at the end of the tribute. Sadly, at this point, Verne Langdon and James Warren dropped out of our line-up. Both Verne and Jim had sent me lovely e-mails explaining that they’d already said their good-byes to Forry and that they felt they’d given him a great tribute when they appeared together at Comic-Con in 2008. They respectfully decided they weren’t up to saying good-bye again. I understood, but they really deserved to be there to feel all the love fandom holds for them. On the bright side, we’d previously begged good pal and brilliant editor Jovanka Vuckovic (Rue Morgue Magazine) to speak and she agreed to lend her voice to the festivities.
On the day of the event, the Cinematheque staff was in full force, House manager Barry made everything run smoothly. All of our guests were confirmed. The lead-up to the tribute was a blur as all the set-up was hastily completed and eager friends and fans filed into the theater. Dan Madigan wrangled the lobby quite impressively while Tim Sullivan and I watched the clock and made sure all of our speakers were present. We’d managed to get everyone inside and the 600-seat house was filled to capacity. Familiar faces dotted the crowd: Ann Robinson (War of the Worlds), Ron Chaney, Carla Laemmle (Phantom of the Opera, Dracula), Angus Scrimm (Phantasm), Dan Roebuck (The Devil's Rejects, Rob Zombie's Halloween), Johnny Legend (2001 Maniacs), Steve Niles (30 Days of Night), Ogre (Skinny Puppy, Repo: The Genetic Opera), Mike Mignola (Hellboy), Spooky Dan Walker, Ryan Rotten (Shock Till You Drop), Kerry O’Quinn (Starlog, Fangoria), Feo Amante, Brinke Stevens (Transylvania Twist, Hell Night) Ryan Fleming (2001 Maniacs), Dave Parker (The Hills Run Red), David J. Skal (The Monster Show, Dark Carnival), Joe Pilato (Day of the Dead), Mike Mendez (The Grave Dancers) and many more. The legendary American filmmaker, writer and artist Kenneth Anger (Fireworks, Scorpio Rising, Hollywood Babylon) showed up in Kabuki makeup. Forry had had a falling out with Ken in recent years. Some friends were worried that he might make a scene, but I was happy he was there. Ken is an eccentric genius and he and Forry shared many more fond memories than acrimonious ones. He was a gentleman through the entire tribute.
The lights dimmed and Tim Sullivan took the podium.
Tim Sullivan: "Known to the world as one of the greatest living authors of our time for such science fiction classics as Fahrenheit 451 and the Martian Chronicles, to Forry our first speaker was simply known as “Best Friend”. Since their early childhood, Forry nurtured this gentleman’s career, forming a pattern of mentoring and cheerleading that has spanned generations. Ladies and gentleman, Ray Bradbury."
The audience stood, applauding wildly when Ray rolled up to the podium in his wheelchair. Ray spoke of Forry’s responsibility for his career. How when Ray was poor, selling newspapers on the street, Forry would pay for him to attend Sci-Fi events. As he’s said many times, “if there was no Forry there would be no Ray Bradbury.” The audience was reverent and somber as they listened to this icon lament the loss of his dear pal. Finally, Ray said, “Today I give you permission to be sad. I’m very sad.” and broke down in tears as he was taken back to his spot in the audience. We all held our breath through this, the first emotional speed bump we’d encountered at the tribute.
TS: "What can you say about John Landis that he won’t tell you himself? Ladies and gentlemen, John Landis!"
John Landis is one of Forry’s closest friends. Like family. He read a letter that Mick Garris ("Masters of Horror", The Stand) had received from Stephen King (The Shining, IT) which simply stated, “Tell em’ I love that man.” Next he read a letter from Ray Harryhausen (The Valley of Gwangi, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) expressing how inspirational and supportive Forry had always been from the beginning of his friendship with he and Bradbury through mutual love of the movie King Kong, until the last days. Next, John talked about Forry’s presence in his own life as a budding filmmaker and his cameos in his own films over time. John cracked some Scientology jokes (Forry was L. Ron Hubbard's first agent).
TS: "A regular contributor to Starlog, Fangoria and nearly every genre publication in the country, not to mention the author of Keep Watching the Skies, our next speaker is a longtime friend of the Ackermonster, a fellow Hawaiian shirt aficionado, and one of the foremost authorities on the beginnings of the genre which Forry coined, Sci-Fi. Bill Warren."
Warren talked mostly about the early days of Sci-Fi. He started by asking for a show of hands to determine how many in the audience knew of Forry prior to his Famous Monster days? Very few hands went up. George Clayton Johnson ("The Twilight Zone", Logan's Run) was one. Bill talked about Forry’s early days in Sci-Fi and how he made others take the genre seriously. When Bill mentioned that, “Forry was more important to me than my own Father” he choked back tears whispering, “I can’t talk anymore” and quickly left the stage. All of us felt for him -- and with him.
TS: "Like many of our guests here tonight, our next speaker went from fan to filmmaker responsible for several feature films and award winning documentaries, including The Sci Fi Boys, the Saturn Award winning tribute to the original bat pack, FJA, Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen. Paul Davids."
Before showing a scene from his Forry documentary The Sci-Fi Boys, director Paul Davids spoke about the influence Forry had on monster-making kids who grew up to be monster-making pros. He then screened a clip of Forry eulogizing George Pal at Pal’s graveside. This was the first media clip of Forry and it was a little shocking to see him as the frail man he’d become toward the end of his life. Still, it was a comfort to see him and hear his reassuring voice once more.
TS: "An oft-time Forry collaborator on such coffee table volumes as WORLD’S OF TOMORROW and countless articles, our next guest is a prolific force in genre writing. His speculative novel, MOON OF ICE was a Prometheus Award winner. He can also be seen chewing up scenery right beside Forry in VAMPIRE HUNTER’S CLUB. Here he is, Brad Linaweaver."
Brad Linaweaver talked about his collaborations with Forry. Proudest among them was the hardcover coffee table book: Worlds of Tomorrow: Amazing Science Fiction Art which Brad held up for the whole audience to see. In a show of how even pros turn into little kids at the mention of Forrest Ackerman, Brad proudly displayed Forry’s autograph in his copy of their book. Brad also spoke of Forry’s willingness to participate in ANY genre project, big or small.
TS: "Our next speaker became a fan of monster films as a TV-addicted, insomnia-racked child in Toronto. She began writing for the Canadian horror mag Rue Morgue and was soon asked to take over as editor-in-chief, thus fulfilling the same function as FJA with Famous Monsters where she follows in his footsteps to this day. Jovanka Vuckovic."
Jovanka took the stage, fire-colored hair cascading, to represent the women of horror as well as the new generation of monster kid. She actually coined the term “Monster Grandkid” on the spot! She had traveled from Toronto with a large contingency of her crew. She compared Forry’s collection of monster paintings on his walls to her collection of monster tattoos that graced her arms. She knew how much her Halloween issue of Rue Morgue (with Forry’s Gogos portrait on the cover) had meant to him. She gave a terrific speech punctuated with deep emotion.
TS: "Forry claimed to have made 112 cameos in his lifetime. Here’s a montage of Forry performances created for Ron Adam’s MONSTER BASH convention by Charles Henson in 2008."
The reel was a bit of comic relief as the image of a healthy and happy Forry mugged and emoted through a montage of his performances; The Time Travelers, Aftermath, Innocent Blood, The Howling, Vampirella, interspersed with some candid videos of Forry looking every bit his charming, vibrant self. The soundtrack was the song “Bad Boy” as performed by the group Sha Na Na. On a side note, I’m proud to say that Forry made his last formal cameo in my own feature film Red Velvet.
TS: "As a monster- struck teenager, our next guest submitted an article to FM which Forry published in issue 18 entitled “Dante’s Inferno”, a list of Must NOT See horror flicks. Since then, he has made a career making Must SEE horror flicks including Small Soldiers, Gremlins and The Howling, the latter featuring Uncle Forry himself. Ladies and gentleman, Joe Dante."
Joe Dante contributed one of the most impactful speeches of the afternoon. Amidst personal anecdotes of how thrilling it was to see his first writings in print within the pages of Famous Monsters magazine, Joe made the statement that the loss of Forry was, “a final nail in the coffin of our childhood.” That proclamation resonated with everyone in the theater. Some were put off by its blunt severity and some felt it perfectly articulated their feelings. Nobody could deny it was a profound observation.
TS: "One of the legion of kids who grew up reading Famous Monsters, and ended up making famous monsters of their own, six time Oscar winner and one of Forry’s proudest creations, Rick Baker Monster Maker."
Another graduate of the University of Famous Monsters, Rick Baker spoke of Forry’s inspiration and guidance in his career. Rick wanted to be a medical doctor until he realized it was a makeup artist who actually made movie monsters! Rick was his usual humble and sincere self as he talked about Forry’s support of his work in the pages of FM. Forry’s magazine introduced Rick to the idea that monster making could actually be a job! Rick came to visit Forry in his final days. It was a relief to know that Rick had a chance to say good-bye and that Forry was able to tell him, once again, how incredibly proud he was of Rick’s accomplishments.
TS: "Such a super-fan that he had to open a second home to accommodate his comic book and memorabilia collection, with films such as The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and the upcoming Hobbit he’ll have to open up a third home to accommodate all his awards. One of Forry’s most beloved monster kids, director Guillermo Del Toro."
Maestro Del Toro was his usual authentic, warm and funny self. He’d flown in from New Zealand where he was working on The Hobbit. He came straight from the airport to the tribute. He told the audience about his lonely childhood and how much Famous Monsters magazine had helped him get through it. He actually learned to speak English by reading FM (and MAD Magazine)! A young Guillermo wrote to Forry begging him to adopt him! While he’d asked to be moved earlier in the line-up because he had to leave early, he ended up staying to the very end and meeting and greeting some extremely grateful fans.
TS: "A Forry friend and confidant for more than two decades, the executor of his estate, our next speaker is an Emmy Award winning filmmaker and documentarian as well as the foremost collector of Munsters memorabilia in the world. He can also do an impression of nearly anybody and make you feel like you’re in the room with them. Ladies and gentlemen, Kevin Burns."
Kevin Burns is a terrific friend of Forry’s. He’s one of those quiet folks who seemed to appear in Forry’s life when he needed him most. Kevin talked about his friendship with Forry and explained to the crowd how he was administering Forry’s estate. He made it clear that he’d sat down with Forry and asked exactly what he wanted. I am happy to tell you that Kevin is not only fulfilling Forry’s wishes but he’s doing it with incredible grace and with an eye toward Forry’s legacy. Kevin then did a terrific impression of Forry’s answering machine: “By recording, this is Forry Ackerman. What can I do for you?” It brought the house down.
TS: Our next guest has the distinction of being considered “best pal“ by Forry himself. Friends and fans consider him a miracle worker who kept Uncle Ack happy and healthy over the last two decades. If not for the diligence of this fellow, we would have been holding this tribute many years earlier. But he’s more than just a glorified Ygor. He is an accomplished artist, writer, filmmaker and studio vocalist. Forry simply called him “a son among nephews!” Welcome Joe Moe.
That’s me! I made it to the stage, joined by a string trio (Heather Lockie: Viola, Denny Moynihan: Uke and Marc Doten: Stand-up base). I called some of Forry’s Monster kids up, including Forry-makeup protégé 18-year-old Casey Wong. I explained that I was going to sing a song that I sang with Forry though life and that I sang to Forry on the sad day I laid him in his grave. I asked the audience to help me. I told them that I believed if we sang our hearts out, Forry might send us one last message from beyond. Then I launched into a rendition of Al Jolson’s Sonny Boy with lyrics changed to “Forry Boy!” Casey flipped cue cards for the sing-along. Kevin Burns channeled the voice of Forry ...
When there are gray skies…
(Kevin: “what don’t you mind in the least?”)
I don’t mind the gray skies…
(Kevin: “what do I do to them?”)
You make them blue…
(Kevin: “what’s my name?”)
I looked out at the crowd and there were smiles and some tears. People sang out and laughed when the cue cards got mixed up. I hadn’t really rehearsed, believing that no matter what happened, the musicians would follow their charts and everything would work out the way it should - for Forry! I just wanted to represent the magical nature of a conversation with Forry; the thing I’d miss most. I felt he was there with me. I wanted to keep it light because I knew what was coming next.
The song ended and the entire audience rose to their feet. I couldn’t think of it as a standing ovation for me. It was for Forry. We’d all laughed and cried that afternoon and now we were acknowledging each other as family. We were proud to be part of Forry’s legacy. We all settled back down and I confessed that I thought Forry had heard us and might send us one last message. I knew he would. I’d taped it at his request just days before he left us. The house lights went down slowly to blackness. A shimmer lit the screen as a fuzzy image faded in and out of view ...
Applause, much sobbing throughout the theater and then lights came up and the event was over. The audience rose as one and slowly made for the exits. There were hugs all around. Pics were snapped with celebs and more stories were exchanged. Tim Sullivan got the appreciation he deserved as friends and fans approached him to tell him what a great job he’d done. Dan Madigan beamed! Landis pulled me out of a crowd (uh-oh) to let me know, “OK, I thought you were gonna fuck it up for sure ... but it was good! Really good!” (Yay!)
We’d given our favorite Uncle a stylish send-off. I’d fulfilled my last promise to Forry. My last official task on his behalf. I was so grateful to everyone who came together to make the day perfect. Strange. Now I’m a civilian. Merely a volunteer in the Ackermonster brigade. But it’s with full voice and eternal conviction that I’ll stand on any mountain peak and yell, at the top of my lungs;
“FORREST J ACKERMAN SHALL NOT DIE!”
I'm in NO way superstitious, but Forry appeared to me in a dream last night.
He was the Forry of nearly 20 years ago. Older, but still energetic and mischievous. He had his hands behind his back as if to play his notorious "pick a hand" game. Instead he leaned forward, raised his eyebrow and said, "Say, pal. Been to any good Hollywood tributes lately?" I laughed, "Did you like it, Ack?" He shrugged, "Fair" -- and then he beamed, "The best I ever saw. The 9th Wonder of the world!" As I began to wake up, I realized that dream-Forry called the tribute the ninth wonder of the world because he figured after the seven ancient wonders of the world, King Kong was considered the eighth! Our tribute would have to settle for ninth place.
Wow! My brain channeled Forry! So, without having to believe in ghosts, I know he's still around.
- Joe Moe
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