“The Most Frightening Album Ever Made!”
When Hanna-Barbera Records & flamboyant horror movie Producer/Director William Castle got together on vinyl, the result was murder!
Edgar Allan Poe’s
THE TELL-TALE HEART
Starring William Castle
Hanna-Barbera Records – Cartoon Series HLP-2056 (12” LP / Mono)
Released in 1966. Executive Producers: William Hanna, Joseph Barbera. Producer/Director: Charles Shows. Music: Hoyt Curtin, Ted Nichols (H-B Stock Music Library) Adaptation: Charles Shows. Cover Art: Paul Julian. Art Direction: Harvard Pennington. Editors: Tony Milch, Hal Greer. Engineers: Richard Olsen, Bill Getty. Running Time: 19 minutes.
Voices: William Castle (Himself, The Narrator); Daws Butler, Mike Road (Police Detectives).
William Castle was an unabashed showman who found his niche in chintzy horror movies with goofball gimmicks attached to them.
For example, a skeleton was flown over the theater patrons as they watched The House on Haunted Hill. Mild electric shocks in theater seats made audiences scream, thinking The Tingler was in their seats (a gimmick given homage in the Disney Parks 3-D film, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, in which mice seemed to run rampant through the theater).
Presiding over these delightfully silly antics was camera-friendly Castle, a K-Mart Hitchcock who chomped on cigars and offered insurance policies in case someone was stricken during his “horror fests”.
Castle is first heard as himself at the beginning of Hanna-Barbera’s The Tell-Tale Heart album, giving a nod to his insurance gimmick and puffing up the scariness of the story and the dangers of listening to it. Like Arch Oboler’s famous suggestion on the classic radio horror show, “Light’s Out”, Castle asks listeners to listen in a darkened room.
He then very comfortably settles into his broad performance as the “Narrator” of Poe’s grisly short story. A born performer, Castle sinks his teeth with zeal into the histrionic role and keeps on chewing—acting as if he were on an airplane and saw was a monster on the wing. HBR writer/director Charles Shows keeps the tone of Poe’s work, allowing for the use of sound effects from the Hanna-Barbera library.
Therein lies one of the album’s sticking points–not flaws, mind you, because the use of the music and sound effects is done in the same superb manner as on other Hanna-Barbera “Cartoon Series” discs. The editors chose the least recognizable H-B TV series music cues they could, but a fan of H-B shows and records cannot help but be taken out of the “drama” by recognizing the same cues that accompanied The Herculoids, Jonny Quest, Birdman and so many more. When the police come knocking, they’re doing so on Fred Flintstone’s door.
Still, it’s a raucous romp. Some of the material, while certainly not the “most frightening ever” (a Castle claim if there ever was one), would would disturb some listeners, particular when the Narrator dismembers the body. This ain’t Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm on The Good Ship Lollipop.
The most remarkable and historic thing about this album is the fact that Paul Julian designed and painted the cover art in a way that could have served as concept art for UPA’s masterful 1954 animated version of The Tell-Tale Heart, narrated by James Mason (to whom Castle offered no threat as an actor). While the some details and colors are different, the lettering is similar and the overall pallor is striking. We even get to see the Narrator, who does not appear in the film.
UPA’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1953)
During the time this album was recorded, Castle was in discussions with Hanna and Barbera about joint ventures. The only result of their collaboration, to my knowledge, was a low-budget sci-fi feature called “Project X” starring Christopher George, Monte Markham and good ol’ Whit Bissell.
In a rather clever way to get around the threadbare finances, Hanna-Barbera created “Special Sequences” for Project X to affect dream sequences and foggy memories without building sets, shooting on expensive locations or employing more sophisticated effects.
It’s kind of neat to see H-B and several artist names in the opening credits. Some of this art is quite impressive, and there’s eve some rotoscoped animation–but there is still the look of Jonny Quest to betray the artificiality. Perhaps Hanna-Barbera was looking to diversify into being a special effects facility for feature films. Warner Archive has reissued the feature on DVD.
(By the way, the “it was murder” phrase in the subhead is used with apologies to the ’70s TV show “Hart to Hart”.)
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“The Tell-Tale Heart”
One of the last of Hanna-Barbera’s Cartoon Series albums, this LP is also notable for its nearly wall-to-wall background music. This was also commonly done in H-B’s cartoons, but the records parsed the music cues intermittently, for emphasis or punctuation.
CHILLING, THRILLING SOUNDS OF THE HAUNTED HOUSE
Walt Disney Records Vinyl Vault Collection D002237401 (New Reissue / 2015)
Original Release: Disneyland Records DQ-1257 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / 1964)
Also available for download on iTunes
Producer/Writer: Jimmy Johnson. Narrator: Laura Olsher. Sound Effects: Jimmy Macdonald. Running Time: 27 minutes.
Stories in Sound: “The Haunted House”, “The Very Long Fuse”, “The Dogs”, “Timber”, “Your Pet Cat”, “Shipwreck”, “The Unsafe Bridge”, “Chinese Water Torture”, “The Birds”, “The Martian Monsters”.
Sound Effect Collections: “Screams and Groans”, “Thunder, Lightning and Rain”, “Cat Fight”, “Dogs”, “A Collection of Creaks”, “Fuses and Explosions”, “Birds”, “Drips and Splashes”, “Things in Space”.
If Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House had been a movie or a TV show, it would probably be hailed as a pioneering popular classic of its kind, much imitated but never equaled. As a business venture, it was sheer genius.There were lots of sound effects records in the late ’50s/early ’60s, when hi-fi and stereo consoles were the virtual reality devices of the day. Even though “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds” came later in the game, it introduced a sub-genre in to children’s records as well as a technique for producing a record for practically nothing yet reaping millions in sales.
When Chicago actress/writer Laura Olsher (she wrote for TV’s Days of Our Lives) came in to Sunset Sound to record her script for an educational album called “Learning to Tell Time is Fun”, Producer Jimmy Johnson asked her if she wouldn’t mind also reading a short page of creepy haunted house phrases for another project he was working on.
It was simple, quick work. In minutes, Olsher was off on her way, little realizing that her narration would be part of a Halloween staple in millions of homes for decades. She had been paid what is called a “buy-out”. This is a perfectly acceptable one-time payment for services rendered that does not allow for residuals. Children’s records as a rule do not command the big bucks and control only a sliver of the music industry pie. So it was a day’s work for a day’s pay, and that seemed to be the end of it.
But once in a while, lightning strikes. The album went through the roof. Originally packaged in a nondescript white cover (which is the design Walt Disney Records has just re-created), it was reissued in bright orange with “Spooky Party Hints” printed on the inner sleeve. The LP was sold alongside Halloween costumes and candy, just as you might see video and audio on Halloween shelves at Walgreens or Target today.
No one anticipated the success of the album. Johnson was justifiably proud of his concept. Olsher was justifiably bitter throughout her life because the album never earned her any additional payment, nor was she entitled to such. Not a lady of particularly sunny disposition (she could be a bit chilling herself), Olsher shared her resentment with anyone who would listen until her death in 2012.
It’s a shame that things sometimes happen this way, because both Olsher’s performance and Johnson’s script are what make “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds” so iconic. Despite the printed disclaimers on the cover warning against the record being heard by tender young ears, the stories on side one are done with such tongue-in-cheek verve, his lines and her distinctive delivery are endlessly quotable (“You thought there was going to be a heeewwwwwge explosion, didn’t you?”).
Whether Olsher was paid residuals or not, it would have been nice if her name appeared on the cover or the label (her name was prominent on all her other Disneyland albums). The absence of a narrator credit led countless listeners to believe that it was Oscar-nominated actress Grayson Hall who narrated the album.It’s an understandable mistake. Hall appeared in Disney’s 1965 comedy hit, “That Darn Cat” as the kidnapping bank teller, and might have been accessible on the Disney lot to narrate the album. Later, Hall landed a major role as Dr. Julia Hoffman on ABC’s classic horror/fantasy soap, Dark Shadows (1966-71), frequently narrating the opening recap—and the vocal resemblance was uncanny.
Olsher, mostly out of the public eye by that time, focused on writing and teaching. Her rare presence in film and TV was impressive, though not as visible. Perhaps her most immortal role (besides this album) was playing Mrs. Cratchit (“The founder of the feast, indeed!”) in UPA’s immortal TV special “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol”. Each is destined live on forever in some form or another.
It’s also worth noting that a sequel of sorts was produced by Jymn Magon in 1979 called New Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. In many ways the stereo album was superior, with truly vivid, “dead”-serious audio depictions of the Frankenstein monster, Jack the Ripper and others. This time, the stories were done with no narrator or dialogue (except for one of Jack’s victims). However, the original is a hard act to follow. Selections from this LP pop up on various Disney Halloween compilations.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“The Haunted House”
Head and shoulders above even Laura Olsher and Jimmy Johnson as the ultimate “star” of “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds” is Disney Legend Jimmy Macdonald, who collected, created, edited and supervised the sound effects in hundreds of films and TV shows—and this album. It would not be the classic it is without him. Listen for portions of Lonesome Ghosts in this excerpt.