(Part 1)

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The Secret Vortex

"Dark Shadows was an extraordinary use of the television medium, in the sense that if someone gave you 1,225 half-hours of network television, it would never occur to you to make anything even remotely like Dark Shadows. Even the people making it didn’t understand what kind of show they were making, until it suddenly became a huge success and it was too late to do something more sensible."
    --- "Dark Shadows Every Day" site, run by the very amusing Danny Horn.

"Welcome to Collinwood. You're doomed."

Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins

   In 1966, a strange little soap opera titled Dark Shadows debuted on American television. Created by Dan Curtis and starring well-known classic era movie actress Joan Bennett, Dark Shadows had a Gothic feel to it, complete with a huge, dreary mansion, a matriarch with a troubled past, a young and pretty governess attending to a strange little boy, ghostly apparitions, and every character carrying around secrets and grudges. While definitely different from other soap opera fare at the time, the series was one of the least popular soap operas on the air in 1966, and was in danger of being canceled.

     Six months into its run, Dark Shadows was dead last in the soap opera ratings and it was do or die time. In what was less of a desperate attempt to revive the show and more of a "What the hell, we're probably going to get canned anyway" move, Dan Curtis added a vampire character to the proceedings. Enter Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire with a heart if no a soul.

    Frid joined the cast of Dark Shadows in the knowledge that he would play the vampire for thirteen weeks, at which point the vampire Barnabas would be killed and Frid could move on to other endeavors.  But Barnabas Collins became popular with viewers, mainly housewives and children who just got home from school, and both the vampire and the show got a reprieve. Barnabas, as played by Jonathan Frid, became one of those cultural icons that pop up and capture people's imaginations, like Adam West's Batman or Fonzie from Happy Days. Dark Shadows became a cult classic and ran for four more years, getting wackier as each season went on.

     I've only just started watching Dark Shadows a few months ago as of this writing. Since I have a long way to go yet, I will just highlight some favorite players, aside from Jonathan Frid. Caution: there may be spoilers, though I will try not to reveal anything too... well... revealing.

Joan Bennett as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard

     Although Joan Bennett had starred in numerous movies in her career, including such classics as Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street and Father of the Bride, by 1951, her Hollywood days were virtually over owing to a scandal (I'm not going to go into details). In 1966, Dan Curtis offered her the choice role of matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in Dark Shadows, a role which brought her renewed fame and popularity. She loved being on the show, even if she wasn't always comfortable with the unrelenting daily pace, where retakes were almost non-existent, cameras and boom mikes frequently made appearances on screen, and flubbed lines were all part of the show. Bennett soldiered on, bringing old school Hollywood glamour and mystery to the show as a woman who hadn't left her gloomy mansion in over a decade. (Why? See the show!).

      If you only know Bennett from Dark Shadows, please track down Scarlet Street and/or The Woman in the Window for some real classic  film noir.

     Ms. Bennett died in 1990.

Kathryn Leigh Scott as Maggie Evans

     Maggie Evans was a friendly, bubbly young waitress at The Collinsport Inn whom everybody liked, especially her boyfriend, the tall and handsome Joe Haskell. Enter Barnabas Collins, who wandered in to the Inn one night and took a shine to Maggie, deciding there and then that Maggie would be his replacement for Josette, the woman he loved and lost ages ago.

      The kidnapping of Maggie Evans was the first major ongoing story to the show once Barnabas Collins arrived, and at the heart of it was the actress who played Maggie, Katheryn Leigh Scott, who played so many different emotions perfectly as she struggled to escape Barnabas's clutches. Throughout the weeks it took to tell this tale, Scott had to play Maggie Evans, Maggie Evans as Josette Collins, Maggie as pretending to be Josette Collins, and Maggie Evans having no idea who she was. It was a tour de force which she handled beautifully over dozens of episodes. Although she remained on the show for most of its run, the "Maggie Evans Gets Kidnapped" is what she will be remembered for.

     In 1986 Kathryn Leigh Scott launched Pomegranate Press, and has written many books, including several about Dark Shadows.

John Karlen as Willie Loomis

     Willie Loomis was one of the most sympathetic "bad guys" in the world of Dark Shadows. Originally a second banana to the show's more popular villain, the blackmailing Jason McGuire, Willie became more compelling after he was attacked and bitten by Barnabas Collins, eventually becoming the vampire's right-hand man / slave / interior decorator. Although Barnabas had a mystical hold on the poor schnook, Willie still had some pride left and would occasionally stand up to his Master, which often led to vicious beatings , usually in the form of being whacked about the cranium with a cane. Willie was crazed, violent, sympathetic, insane and gentle, sometimes all at once.

     Willie Loomis was an essential part of the "Maggie Evans Gets Kidnapped" story mentioned above, a story which showed Loomis doing his best to keep Maggie out of danger while at the same time attempting to keep Barnabas from beating the hell out of him - a fine line to walk indeed! He did what he could, trying to be as nice as possible to the enslaved Maggie while at the same time trying to convince Barnabas that what he was doing, kidnapping and brainwashing the poor woman, was wrong.

     John Karlen was not the first person to play Willie Loomis. Actor James Hall played the role originally but only for a handful of episodes (roughly about a week) before being replaced by Karlen, who,  like many actors in the show, went on to play other characters as well as reprising Willie Loomis in the 1970 movie House of Dark Shadows.  Aside from playing Loomis, Karlen is best known for his role as Harvey, husband of police officer Mary Beth Lacey on the popular 1980's show Cagney and Lacey.

Grayson Hall as Doctor Julia Hoffman

     In 1967, Dark Shadows fans were greeted with a new character that would send the show spinning off in several directions. Doctor Julia Hoffman, played by Grayson Hall, was in charge of rehabilitating Maggie Evans, who, after a long stint in Barnabas's dungeon, had developed amnesia. As Dr. Hoffman attempted to bring back Maggie's memories, she began to suspect supernatural foul play centered around that creepy guy in the old Collins house who never came out in the daytime. And she was off to the races!

     Like Jonathan Frid before her, Grayson Hall was scheduled for thirteen weeks, after which she would be killed off. But her chemistry with Frid was so good, she wound up staying for the entire run of the series.

     Dr. Hoffman will do "anything and anything and everything" just to get what she wants, and if that means hypnotizing patients without their consent, lying to everybody she knows, or refusing to give even a hint to her colleague Doctor Woodard as to what and why she is up to, so be it. Half the time, when she's dealing with people she knows aren't nearly as smart as she is, you get the feeling she's thinking "My God! This is the Planet of the Idiots and I'm Charlton Heston!"

     Oh, and you can usually tell when Doctor Hoffman is lying. She's awake.

     Julia Hoffman spends a lot of time with Barnabas. Much of their time features Barnabas threatening to kill her or just strangling her. Luckily, Dr. Hoffman is smarter than just about anyone, including Barnabas, and always has some hogwash nonsense she can babble whenever she's in trouble that will intrigue Barnabas enough to not kill her. At least until the next episode, when the lying and the choking  resumes. Think of it as their platonic version of foreplay.

     Julia also spends a lot of time at the main Collins house, pretending to be interested in researching the Collins family ancestry, while actually trying to determine if Barnabas is a vampire or just your average ordinary waitress kidnapper. It often feels like she's in both places at once, which, when I think about it, is always a possibility in Dark Shadows.

     I really enjoy watching Grayson Hall in Dark Shadows. Her "Julia Hoffman" is the woman of a thousand expressions. Watch her in just about any scene and try to keep track of how many facial ticks and contortions she has. She assumes she's always the smartest person in the room, and she's usually right, and her myriad facial contortions, one after the other, are her way of exorcising her urge to slap everybody and tell them to wake the hell up. While someone is talking to her, she is likely to look away, clearly thinking about something else, then look back in confusion, wondering why the person she just turned away from is still saying words when it's clear she's no longer listening. Whatever face she is showing you now, it is not the one she is hiding behind it. Except if she shows you her "smug face" (see photo above!). That's the face  that says "I'm Doctor Julia Hoffman, and you aren't. Therefore, by default - I win."

Alexandra Moltke (Alexandra Isles) as Victoria Winters

"My name is Victoria Winters..."

     The first character Dan Curtis created, based on a dream he had. was a young girl applying for the job of a nanny. The character would be named Victoria Winters, and be played by Alexandra Moltke. Although she had no real acting jobs before joining the show, she was perfect as the pleasant young nanny in charge of talking care of a somewhat disturbed child named David as well as being a good friend to just about everybody she met. She was almost too perfect. Moltke was fine in the role, but the scripts gave her limited ability to really shine. After a few seasons, Moltke begged to be given a chance playing a different character (Dark Shadows will always be remembered for its shuffling of characters and actors whenever things got a little bit too staid). Unfortunately, she was never allowed to be anybody else but Victoria Winters.  "All I do is stand around saying 'I don't understand what's happening!'" she complained. Moltke eventually got married and left the show when she became pregnant.

Thayer David as Ben Stokes

     In a time-traveling story that took place in 1795, Ben Stokes was an indentured servant to the somewhat loathsome Joshua Collins, head of the Collins family. Despite a long prison term and the subsequent nasty treatment by Joshua Collins, Ben was a nice, gentle man who appreciated any little kindness from others. Like Willie Loomis, Ben tried to make the best of every situation he could, even while being mentally enslaved by the wicked with Angelique and later being the unwilling manservant to the never too mentally stable Barnabas Collins. Actually, compared to the treatment he got from Angelique, Ben's gig with Barnabas was not all bad. Yes, there were occasional chokings - that's gonna happen where you're buddies with a deranged vampire - but Ben actually felt for Barnabas and often counseled the bloodsucker in his moments of need. It didn't always work (what Barnabas really needed was Doctor Phil) but Ben kept trying. Ben also saved Victoria Winters from being burned at the stake as a witch, which she wasn't.

     Actor Thayer David played several roles during his time on Dark Shadows, the most famous being  Professor Timothy Eliot Stokes, an erudite descendant of Ben.