The Forry Identity



As I write these words, 91 year-old Forrest J. Ackerman is on his deathbed in Los Angeles surrounded by die-hard monster fans and his caregiver. It was just a day or so since he was brought home from the hospital at his own request. This is a bittersweet reflection on a childhood relationship that went sour around 1988, and until this week I have kept my feelings private regarding the circumstances that ended such a powerful tie that bound FJA and me in the magical world of fantasy and imagination.

Who is Forrest J. Ackerman? He may be a well-kept secret to most of the civilized world, but if you are connected in any way to Science Fiction or classic Horror films this man is a legend whose lifetime on Planet Earth has been utterly devoted to becoming just that: a legend is his chosen field of Science Fiction. For those of us who write about film his legacy is even more profound. From the early thirties, Forry has taken the task of preserving, at least in memory if not material, all the genre films that would have fallen through the cracks, regarded as worthless by critics of the day, if not for his magazine and his lifelong interest in them. If you look at film history in 2008, his influence is widely apparent, as we now respect the importance of cult films whether they are Ed Wood-directed fever dreams like PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE with Bela Lugosi in his final bow, or a Z-grade Science Fiction film like ROBOT MONSTER with a gorilla wearing a space helmet.

Forrest Ackerman made himself known to me at an early age through the magazine that will always be his legacy, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. This magazine united for the first time children around the age of 12 like me, who found themselves attracted to horror films thanks to the shock packages of CLASSIC MONSTER MOVIES that were sold to television stations all over America during the fifties and sixties. This was the way baby-boomers were first introduced to Bela Lugosi as DRACULA and Boris Karloff as FRANKENSTEIN. Nearly five decades cannot diminish the memory of the first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS I ever laid eyes on. My mother and I were in Portland, Oregon on a shopping trip from Seattle where we were living at the time. We were staying in a large hotel downtown that had a newsstand, and from across the lobby I saw this bright yellow cover with blood-red letters that spelled CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. Above that was the masthead that cried out FAMOUS MONSTER OF FILMLAND.

I must have read that magazine from cover to cover a dozen times before I could put it down and try and comprehend just why I was so excited. Looking back, the magazine justified my obsession with horror films, and for the first time I realized that I was not alone in my rapture for graves and ghouls. Because a guy named Forrest J. Ackerman cared about what I did, all at once as if by magic, I felt endorsed–not to mention part of a coven of like-minded kids that loved what I loved. We would all live then and there for the next issue, which turned out to be number 13.

Thus began my childhood as a fan of the Horror genre in earnest, although by then, 1960, I had already seen most of the Universal classics and never missed a horror film in the theater. My poor mother had to sit through some pretty damaging cinema as I was never “of age” to see a film. When I first saw HOUSE OF WAX in 3-D or, as she always reminds me, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JECKYLL AND MR. HYDE, being just four years-old, I cried during the credits and had to be taken home.

This experience was not unlike what happened to all of us baby-boomers during those days, and Ackerman’s monster parade was always a part of this as his magazine was akin to what the trades are for a Hollywood agent, keeping up with new releases as well as seeing for the first time movie stills from all the horror films that came before.

It was in following the development FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND throughout this period (1958-1983) that Forrest J. Ackerman became more than just the name of its editor. “Uncle” Forry, as he advised all his admirers to address him, lived and breathed what seemed then like an enviable fan-ish lifestyle devotedly to be wished by every reader in each and every issue. He published pictures of himself with notables in the field of horror films and soon we would learn that he had been a fan of science fiction even longer than most of us were on the planet. By the late sixties he had even published an article in FAMOUS MONSTERS about a day in the life of Forrest J. Ackerman. When I read this article, which depicted an adult male, by then in his mid forties, living by himself in the outskirts of Beverly Hills surrounded by nothing but books, Magazines, movie posters and file cabinet after file cabinet of photos from every horror film since CALIGARI, I realized that should be me. He even had his mail box rigged for sound to alert him to what goodies the postman would bring to his house every day. You see, Forrest J. Ackerman was the first of his kind – a FAN, and not just any fan, but a Horror and science fiction fan who lived for that purpose only.

What most of us could not have realized at that time, being so young, was a not-so-subtle variation on the Peter Pan syndrome of never growing up. Forry was Peter and Captain Hook rolled together and we were the lost boys. By the mid sixties Ackerman was allowing the faithful to visit his home if any of us happened to be in Los Angeles and wanted to attend one of his “open Houses,” which took place on Saturdays. We all knew what his place looked like, having seen pictures of every room in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS which, by this time, was simply referred to as “FM”.

This was the best of times for monster fans, remembered in the pages of Famous Monsters as “the Ghoul-don years,” and Forry more than lived up to the image we all had of him as the “PIED PIPER OF Horrordom” with a magic monster magazine that endorsed all of us who worshipped at the altar of Karloff and Lugosi and read EC comics instead of doing our homework. He even published an article entitled “Monsters are good for my children” just in case anybody should miss the point. All of this was perfect for that era where drive-ins were the teenage alterative to staying at home ignoring their hormones. At this point, up and coming studios like American International were grinding out Beach Party flicks as well as juvenile adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, all of which premiered at the drive-in.

Throughout the late fifties and sixties, Ackerman maintained the hugely popular magazine without any reference to the reality of growing up in these turbulent times, yet the readership remained loyal as these monster kids would be among the last to tune in and trip out when the summer of love loomed over the horizon. By this time other monster magazines were beginning to show up on the newsstands, with one in particular standing out as superior in style and content, CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN; yet even as adult an approach as CASTLE was, it still owed its existence to the source of it all FAMOUS MONTERS OF FILMLAND.

By 1962 I was traveling with some regularity from Sacramento to Los Angeles in time to catch Forry at the original home he had during the magazine’s heyday. This address was located in the outskirts of Beverly Hills on Sherborne Drive. The Forrest Ackerman of those days is the way I will always remember him best. Forry dressed in business suits with silk ties as if he had a nine-to-five, and he was never without something under his arm, usually press materials from some new horror film, and dozens of genre magazines. He loved what he was doing, and why not? His work was his passion, the never-ending pursuit of all things fantastic in the visual medium.

He idolized PLAYBOY and the lifestyle of its editor, the legendary Hugh Hefner who, like Ackerman, started a magazine from nothing and created a publishing empire beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. At this time I think both Jim Warren, FM’s publisher, and Forry still had hopes of creating a little empire of their own with spin-off magazines like SPACEMEN and WILDEST WESTERNS. However, as influential as FAMOUS MONSTERS was for the baby-boomers of 1958, the kind of success and fame Hefner would enjoy with PLAYBOY was always well out of reach for Warren and his editor. Ironically, years later, Warren would strike it rich with horror comics like CREEPY, ERRIE and VAMPIRELLA.

The first afternoon I spent at the old address was something a 12-year-old would never forget, walking into a house filled with paintings and posters of fantasy and science fiction, the walls lined with bookcases filled with first editions of rare science fiction, weird fiction and pulp magazines with covers of great beauty and imagination. Forry kept a section of his living room for displaying material that was placed there especially for trading to fans like me. Advance copies of FAMOUS MONSTERS, foreign horror magazines filled with rare stills of films I was yet to discover. It was Ali Baba’s cave in the eyes of even a seasoned collector of such material. I still have the hard cover French film book he gave me that afternoon, which is now in shrink-wrap to keep the pages from falling out. He also collected people like Tor Johnson, who appeared in Ed Wood’s essential PLAN NINE, and my favorite, BRIDE OF THE MONSTER. To Tor and other exotic types, whose only claim to fame were their appearances in grade-Z horror films, Forry must have seemed like an oasis in the desert after being ignored by mainstream show business. Thanks to him, they all became part of our collective consciousness.

This youthful Forrest J. Ackerman was a wonder to behold, as he gave of his time to make sure others would follow in his example–that is, to always find a place for fantasy and imagination in your life. He loved to play music for his guests, and I remember hearing Marlene Dietrich for the first time singing “Falling in Love Again” in Ackerman’s living room while he sang along; absolutely unforgettable.

I began to collect in earnest after that, adding movie posters and stills whenever I could, and of course having every issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS was a given. Forry encouraged me to collect ALL monster magazines as they popped up, and in those days imitation was the highest form of flattery: Forry never felt threatened by any of them. What is amazing to remember is how nothing we collected was of any monetary value at that time. I hate to tell you what we would have in today’s market if the twelve-year-olds of 1962 had kept everything they collected.

I saw Forry whenever I could get down to Los Angeles. As time wore on, high school began, and soon other interests would take hold, yet my devotion to the Horror genre was now part of my imagination and would never leave me completely. After high school I moved to San Francisco and started college; it was during this period that I would see Forry at Science Fiction conventions in Oakland and San Jose.

Whenever I found something from METROPOLIS (which was, by the way, his favorite film), it never occurred to me to keep it; this was an item for Uncle Forry and I would make sure he got it if possible. Forry was forever buying books and movie material from dealers and fans alike. His collection was a work in progress.

Looking back at those conventions of the mid-seventies, Forry was not the Sci-Fi icon he is today, as we were still more or less a decade away from a major critical re-evaluation of these films, or from universities creating classes examining the films of the science fiction and horror genres. Forry had a reputation for being Sci-Fi’s first fan during the early days of pulp fiction in the twenties where he corresponded with Robert Bloch and the master H.P. Lovecraft, who failed to appreciate Forry’s enthusiasm and told him so in a famous letter to the young Ackerman. Robert Bloch on the other hand became a lifelong friend.

During the brightest period in the magazine’s run, Forry was a welcomed guest on film sets and had the opportunity to interview actors no one else would have thought to question. This habit also gave Forry another career, that of the cameo player in such films as Cur

When I finally relocated to Los Angeles in 1976 and subsequently opened a talent Agency, this would be the period where our paths would intertwine the most. By this time Forry Ackerman was living above Griffith Park near the Frank Lloyd Wright house that appeared in William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL in 1959. This home on Glendower was nicknamed the “ACKERMANSION,” even though it was anything but a mansion; it was a large home that once belonged to Jon Hall, a Universal contract player known for starring opposite Maria Montez.

Forry lived at this address with his then wife Wendayne and a South American housekeeper named Suzy, who lived in the quarters downstairs where Ackerman maintained his office and housed the majority of his collection. Wendayne, a lady of German heritage, met Forry in 1950 and they stayed connected. She translated a science fiction series Forry edited called PERRY RHODAN into German, and this series is still running today.

At this point I was part of Forry’s inner circle as I passed muster with then “assistant to the Ackermonster” Dennis Billows, who took care of Forry like a mother hen, and lived to regret it as did all those who followed who tried to bring order and keep the thieves away from his collection of increasingly valuable movie stills, props and posters. The reason these assistants never lasted too long was the tension that developed when outsiders would try and trade things away from Forry or make demands Dennis felt were unfair. Sometimes Forry would place Dennis in the middle and then side with the other person against him. Dennis left after a fashion, and this would go on until the magazine was no more.

As I write this I keeping checking on Forry’s condition which is still grave, and I can’t help but read with amusement the evaluations of others who have only known him for the last ten years or so as a fragile elder with a legendary past, a Santa Clause from an alternative universe who gave of himself freely so fandom could flourish in his wake. Death is without a doubt the ultimate equalizer and I now fully acknowledge and appreciate that his intense devotion to the genre of Science fiction and fantasy far outweighs his shameless self-promotion and ego-mania that alienated many in his lifetime.

Let it be noted that Forry is and was a fascinating character, even by Hollywood standards, not without his faults mind you, but a decent man who did much for the genre he in many ways helped create. He could have been so much more, as I discovered the day George Pal died. Let me explain: for years as a reader of FM, I was accustomed to Forry’s writing being juvenile and filled with puns, and it never bothered me because the photos were more than enough to make me happy at the time; in other words I never thought of Ackerman as much of a “writer” in the sense of, say, Ray Bradbury, although I knew Forry had once long ago tried his hand at fiction. The weekend of George Pal’s passing both Chris Deitrich – my life partner, and I were on duty at the Ackermansion to give Forry an open window to draw up what he was going to say at the funeral as the widow had asked for Forry to deliver the eulogy. Forry put it together in one evening and no one saw it until he delivered the eulogy at the service. The day of the funeral arrived and as we all took our seats I was next to actor Ron Ely who had played the title role in Pal’s last film DOC SAVAGE. Forry went to the podium and knocked the text right out of the park; it was fantastic. At the reception later in the day I went up to him and said, “You know, I just don’t believe you, Ackerman. You can WRITE! Why in the hell don’t you do this more often?” His reply was typical Ackerman: “Well for one thing we don’t lose a George Pal every day, now do we?”

Chris had replaced Dennis Billows as Forry’s assistant and because of that I was at the Ackermansion on Glendower almost every day for over a year. This gave me an unprecedented view into Forry and Wendy’s daily routine, which revealed for starters a marriage that was all but in name only. When I say this I should explain that when a man is so in touch with his inner child as Ackerman was, there could never be children in such a marriage. He was always to play that role himself. Wendy had a son already from her first marriage named Michael, and Forry grew to hate this man, and with good reason. Michael was a spoiled and willful guy who tormented Forry. The relationship was like Dwight Frye and the Frankenstein monster for real. I recall seeing Michael come down the stairs with lit books of matches hellbent on setting fire to Forry’s collection of a lifetime. He finally moved to Hawaii leaving the Ackermans somewhat alone, although Wendy would dote on her son throughout her lifetime.

Wendy was, in spite of her temperament, good for Forry because she prevented certain people from taking advantage of him, as she was more practical and refused to let his collecting excesses’ climb the stairs into the main house. None of it was allowed to be displayed upstairs except for some very rare and valuable fantasy art and one bookcase with his first editions and rare Arkham house books. All of Forry’s books and movie material was housed downstairs and out in a make shift garage he dubbed the “Garage-Mahal,” which was filled to the rafters with posters and billboards and the original paintings for some of the covers of FAMOUS MONSTERS. When Mayor Bradley came to the house and gave Forry an award in the form of a beautifully designed document complete with a seal from the mayor’s office from the City of Los Angeles, this was to cement an agreement allowing Forry to donate his collection, especially his books, to the city. This of course never happened because Forry wanted them to build something to house the collection and then allow him to curate the result. I had the award beautifully framed, and Wendy reluctantly allowed it to be hung in the hall.

If only Mayor Bradley had pulled it off and Forry had not made so many demands we would have an amazing library today to honor his name and accomplishments. These failures were not lost on Forry and he became sad as the realization that the powers that be both in fandom as well as the city of Los Angeles were willing to bestow titles and nicknames on him without any real respect in a solid way he could take to the bank. What is tragic to think about is that all of it was finally lost in lawsuits and attorney’s fees in a situation beyond repeating here, which led Forry to attempt to resurrect the magazine, and he spent the next ten years in courtrooms, casting a shadow over a lifetime of service. My friend Alan White, a longtime fan and supporter of both Forry and the Academy of Science Fiction, interviewed Forry on the subject of the frustration of being the first to carry the flag of fandom and the lack of appreciation for what for him was always a labor of love. Let Ackerman speak for himself on the subject:

“I’ve no hope whatsoever in fandom, none whatsoever. I’m a member of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society. I was at the first meeting; I have been the director, the secretary, the treasurer, the publisher, the editor, the garbage man, everything you can think of. I’ve poured thousands of dollars into that club. I’ve been to over 1500 meetings of it. I have never once heard any suggestion that they pay a dime to help me out. I understand that over a hundred fans a week go to the club and I’ve put on the bulletin board that I have open house here. I’d be hoping for members of LASFS to come and see the place, but you know I just don’t seem to exist and the unkindest cut of all…finally 50 years rolled around and I went to the 50th anniversary meeting–there I was the sole survivor of the very first meeting and I thought they’d like me to get up and tell how it began, the highlights the lowlights and so on. Well, the speaker of the evening was Harlan Ellison who continually claims he doesn’t write Science Fiction and he began by saying something like, ‘I don’t know why you invited me because in 26 years I’ve only been to three meetings.’ I sat there through the entire meeting as though I was the Invisible Man, nobody ever said, ‘Oh Forry Ackerman…he was our first member.’ So I drove back with my wife and I said, ‘You know, have I lived too long or what?’ She says, ‘Well, young people, they don’t care about history, the world began when they were born and that is all they are interested in – themselves.’”

I think this was a difficult time for him as he wanted too much to see a museum or a library come forth or the funds to build one. For a time he had interest from Japanese fans to raise money to create just that but something always got in the way, Ultimately Forrest Ackerman would become a victim of his own bad judgment.

During this period I would bring genre celebrities I thought Forry would enjoy meeting up to the Ackermasion and it was always an experience to see how each one would react to the situation. Beverly Garland drove me up there one afternoon and proved herself to be not only a great lady but a good sport as well. Once she got a load of Forry’s collection she took us aside and told him this: “Are you nuts? …You mean to tell me you have people come in this office space and do whatever without a watcher? You are going to be robbed blind!” Forry changed the subject and gave her two posters from her cult films and the conversation went south after that. Of course she was right but Forry would just disregard such advice and was robbed blind right up until he moved out of the home altogether. However, not all were so candid as Beverly; most of the guests I brought up to see him were always amazed at his childlike sense of joy at having this collection and being able to share it with anyone who cared to make the journey.

There are so many memories I could relate regarding life with Forry, having experienced the best of times and the worst of times. However, as we baby boomers approach 60, looking back can be enlightening yet we can do nothing to change the past, and the future is what we make it. Forry has had a great run and for a man who lived on his own terms I can’t think of a more glorious final curtain than to be surrounded by caring fans and know that somehow you made a difference.

I will always keep this image of Forrest Ackerman in my heart: When I was going to Europe back in the 70’s Forry asked me to drop by on my way to the airport. I came up to the door and he walked outside wearing his favorite Hawaiian shirt loaded with buttons. He was smiling ear to ear and he handed me an envelope with a letter inside. He told me to read it on the plane and make as much use of it as I saw fit. I thanked him in advance for whatever it was and went on my merry way. At the bar at LAX I ordered a preflight Bloody Mary and decided to see what the Ackermonster had to say; the letter read as follows:

“For whom it may concern: this is my pal David Del Valle who has proven to me over time that he knows and loves all the same films and books that I do…Please treat him as you would my own son if I had one and let him purchase or trade for material that will ultimately serve us both.” (This note was followed by Forry’s unmistakable red ink signature on his one-of-a-kind stationary)

Forry and I often talked of time machines and how wonderful it would be to have one…Tonight I wish they really did exist because I would climb in one and go back to the day before we had our falling out and make it right. Having him out of my life all these years has truly been my loss. Goodbye, Forry.

How can you ever thank a man for giving you the key to unlock a world of Gods and monsters?

tis Harrington’s QUEEN OF BLOOD and THE TIME TRAVELERS with Preston Foster. Forry enjoyed himself hugely on these projects and has since appeared in dozens of films including a moment in Michael Jackson’s THRILLER music video. You can spot Forry seated behind Jackson in the theater as they watch–what else?–a horror film.

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