ANIMATION SPIN
October 22, 2019 posted by Greg Ehrbar

Breakfast with Count Chocula at The House of the Seven Gables

Animation Spin celebrates Halloween with the cartoon creepies of the grocery store aisle and records fresh from their cereal boxes, followed by a detour to a dark house in Salem.

MONSTER ADVENTURES IN OUTER SPACE
COUNT CHOCULA GOES TO HOLLYWOOD
THE MONSTERS GO DISCO

General Mills Premiums (Laminated Paper Records / 6” 33 1/3 RPM)

Released in 1979. Voices: James Dukas, Bob McFadden. Running Time: 5 minutes each.

Original Song: “Monster Mania” (Uncredited).
Public Domain Music: “Love’s Old Sweet Song” by J.L. Molloy, G. Clifton Bingham; “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding” by Stoddard King, Alonzo Elliott “Home Sweet Home: by John Howard Payne, Sir Henry Bishop; “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss.

Kids love to laugh at the things that scare them. Monsters have been spoofed as far back as Abbott and Costello movies and lampooned by the masters themselves in such American-International potboilers as The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors. Television gave us The Munsters and The Addams Family (from the magazine cartoon) and funny monsters have been staples of animation from Hanna Barbera’s Gruesomes and Frankenstones to the now-revered Rankin/Bass feature Mad Monster Party (which I wrote about in this Animation Spin).

None have had the continuous careers of Count Chocula, Franken Berry and Boo Berry, who sell cereal that has been part of a nutritious breakfast since March 1971. Sure, there have been the odd interlopers like Fruit Brute and Fruity Yummy Mummy, who only enjoyed sporadic success. But the three sugar-coated shockers are still stocked in supermarkets to this day. There have been several redesigns (including a revamp in 2014 by DC artists Jim Lee, Terry Dodson and Dave Johnson. Their animated commercials have gone from cel to CG.

In one of his finest books (and let’s face it folks, they’re all quite fine), Part of a Complete Breakfast: Cereal Characters of the Baby Boom Era, my colleague Tim Hollis chronicles the strange stories of the marshmallow-and-grain ghouls.

In his detailed section about the Monster Cereals, Tim wrote: “The running gag, lifted from the Quisp/Quake competition—which was beginning to wind down—was that Count Chocula and Franken Berry would constantly be at each other’s throats (where else would the two creatures be?) as each tried to promote his cereal over the protests of the other.”

The three Monster Cereal records were distributed inside specially marked boxes of all three cereals in 1979. Having no regard for recording equipment of any kind, General Mills did not poly-wrap the discs but tossed them right into the sticky, sugary cereal. The instructions advise the listener to “wipe the record with a tissue before each use” but it’s too little too late, after placing it on Dad’s $1500 Marantz turntable with the $300 cartridge and $200 diamond needle, and just before he plays his pristine new 50-gram imported Japanese vinyl Beatles album on it—just to ground all those marshmallows into those grooves!

The records, probably produced by the advertising agency creatives, have the same lively wit as the commercials. James Dukas and Bob McFadden to all the voices. Dukas was the original Count Chocula and provides narration. Like so many outstanding New York voice actors, he gets very little recognition for a massive amount of work during the golden age of baby boom television and records. A favorite of children’s record producer Ralph Stein, Dukas’ catalog of releases reaches near one hundred at least, if you count all the reissues, singles and read alongs on Golden, Pickwick, Happy Time, Panda, Tiger Tail and many other labels. Here is one of his Ralph Stein albums for Panda Records (the Tiger Tail editions had jigsaw puzzles on the back cover:

The much more widely celebrated Bob McFadden has a legion of fans for such voices as Milton the Monster for Hal Seegar, Cool McCool for King Features TV and Snarf on ThunderCats for Rankin/Bass.

The stories are amusing little sketch comedies filled with kid-friendly one-liners and puns (e.g. “Disco? Disco where?” “Disco here!”) The Monsters Go Disco is unabashedly plastered in its era, complete with a references to “wild and crazy guys.” The three monsters meet a Wolfman Jack character and win a dance with “Donna Disco,” named for “Queen of Disco” Donna Summer. This is the only disc of the three with an original song, an undoubtedly meant-to-be-ridiculous disco tune called “Monster Mania.”

When Count Chocula In Hollywood with his frenemies and they get to Sunstruck Blvd. to check into the Hollywood Monster Motel, it should come as no surprise that the crunchy Count’s chance at starring in “Haunted House On The Range” didn’t turn out as expected. In the tradition of TV sitcoms and Vaudeville, he’s going to be the stuntman for movie star Luke McSpook. (Even he didn’t realize how many bloodsuckers he’d find in the City of Dreams.)

The Monster Adventures in Outer Space record is a little more convoluted, in the tradition of cheesy sci-fi. Like Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, Josie and the Pussycats and the Far Out Space Nuts, they find themselves way, way out. They are contacted by the Control Computer of the flying marshmallow from the planet Moxie, where all teddy bears are born. They must free the teddy bears from the evil Ignoroid or total destruction will ensue. (Sounds like a snappy three-hour 2021 tentpole movie to me!)


SPOOKY SOUNDS FROM
COUNT CHOCULA CASTLE

Compass Productions (Canada) #48232 (Compact Disc)

Released in 2009. Executive Producers/Writers: Tony Braasch, Mark Fiora for Gjerbonn Productions. Music: Jeff Victor. Voices: Chris Phillips, Robb Pruitt. Creative Director: Paul Jarman. Art Director Megan Schaefer. Designer: Kate Opseth. Creative Advisor for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising: Pat Giles. Running Time: 40 minutes.

Dialogue Selections: “Intro!” “Lost in Transylvania,” “The Courting Count,” “The Bribe of Franken Berry,” “Labyrinth of Knowledge,” “Thrill on Boo Berry Hill,” “The End.”

Spooky Sound Adventures: “The Count’s Lair,” “The Laboratory,” “The Secret Chamber,” “The Graveyard.”

Song: “It’s Time to Do the Boogie Woogie” by Jeff Victor.

According to the liner notes, the producing team of Tony Braasch and Mark Fiora (a.k.a. Gjerbonn Productions) was responsible for music programming in Target Stores, which might mean they either created or helped created those large music kiosks filled with a mix of popular hits and Target exclusive CDs that varied according to the season. It’s possible that, at least for a time, this was a Target product. At any rate, it’s not available for download and can only be found at this time through auction sites.

Produced in conjunction with Saatchi and Saatchi, the advertising agency that handles General Mills’ Monster Cereals, this album seems to be cut from the same cloth as the cardboard records above in that involved (or required the approval of) the agency creatives.

It had been ten years since the original three cardboard records had been made and a few details had changed. The voices were recast more than once (Larry Kenney, mighty voice of Lion-O on ThunderCats, portrayed the Count). For this disc, again a pair of New York actors handle all the voices–Chris Phillips and Robb Pruitt.

What is delightful about the album is how faithful it is to the core concept of the Monster Cereals (not as easy as it sounds). They’re still bickering rivals who can’t live with or without each other. The premise of the album is a tour of sorts through the Count’s mansion, the ownership of which is of course disputed by Franken Berry.

The creators of this album must have been familiar with the earlier three records because it cannot be a coincidence that it ends with a disco/hip-hop number in the same wonderfully silly manner as The Monsters Go Disco. The scoring, referred to as the “Frightfully Delightful Orchestra” in the notes, is keyboardist Jeff Victor, adding humorous silent-movie-like touches to the proceedings as well as little themes for each of the “Spooky Sound Adventures.”

In order for this album to serve as a Halloween scary sound effects device to play through the window when hosting trick-or-treaters, the “Spooky Sound Adventures” are sound and music design tracks with small touches of dialogue. The idea was to program the CD on Halloween night to repeat only these tracks. It’s like two albums in one, because all the tracks blend together when played in sequence.

It is also not a stretch to assume that the album creatives were inspired by the ultimate Halloween sound effects record, Disneyland’s Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House, because the narration is written in the same furtive, first-person style performed by Laura Olsher on that landmark album we talked about in this Animation Spin.

The final gag on the disc is very subtle and can only be heard by listening carefully. The three monsters are walking off into the distance, arguing back and forth about their cereals, when one suggests ordering a pizza…

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“The Bribe of Franken Berry / The Laboratory”

This gives a good idea of the album format, with the narrator, characters and then the extended “Spooky Sound Adventure.” Note the eternal clashes of the cereal brands between Count Chocula and Franken Berry, to be broken up by Boo Berry, who delights in unnerving the other two.


Ben Wickey’s
THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES

The Motion Picture Soundtrack
Composed and Conducted by Jonathan David Dixon
Vistavox Records (No Number / Compact Disc)

Released in 2018. Running Time: 23 minutes.

Selections: “Vistavox Logo,” “The House of the Seven Gables (Main Title),” “The Story of Matthew Maule,” “The Building of the House,” “The Death of Pyncheon,” “Clifford’s Trial,” “The Story of Alice Pyncheon,” “Hepzibah versus Jeffrey,” “Maule’s Revenge,” “The Deed is Found,” “The House Finds Peace,” “The House of the Seven Gables (Solo Piano)” by Jonathan David Dixon.

Dialogue Excerpt: “Hawthorne Quote” Featuring the Voice of David Frankham.

And now for something completely serious for Halloween—the soundtrack to a remarkable stop-motion animated short, featuring the voice of the distinguished actor David Frankham, performing his first animation voice work since Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmatians in 1961.

The House of the Seven Gables was the student thesis project of Ben Wickey, who graduated from the Cal Arts animation program in 2018. It’s a 28-minute retelling of the 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne novel.

“Ben comes from Massachusetts and was raised in and loves the environment of old Salem and New England, the history of the infamous witch trials and Nathaniel Hawthorne,” the film’s composer, Jonathan David Dixon, told me. “He’s also a big fan of old and classic horror films, so he wanted his film to evoke the early 1960s Roger Corman/Vincent Price Edgar Allan Poe films. Various characters in his films resemble classic actors from those films: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and so on.”

The recipient of a number of awards, including the Rondo Hatton “Best Short” Award, and the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival “Best Adaptation” Award, Seven Gables has been screened at the real-life House of the Seven Gables in Salem. At one of these screenings, Vincent Prices’s daughter, Victoria was in attendance with his grandson, Jody. They both love the film, calling it “the best movie Vincent Price never made”.

David Frankham–whose career also includes iconic roles on Star Trek (“Is There in Truth No Beauty?”) and opposite Vincent Price in Return of the Fly and Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror—was invited by Wickey to narrate the film as the “Storyteller” character. “Ben became a Facebook friend of my friend David,” recalled Dixon. “We looked up some of Ben’s work on YouTube and were stunned at the quality.

“Coincidentally, I had recently read the original novel The House of the Seven Gables, so as we talked to Ben on the phone, I said, ‘I know a harpsichord plays an important part in the story, and I have this sort of eerie, mysterious tune I wrote years ago that sounds good on a harpsichord and might work in your film. You can use it if you want.” I played it for Ben over the phone and he loved it and asked me to not only to do the music for the whole film, but to also voice the younger version of David’s character.

“It has always been a dream of mine to try to compose for a film, so Ben and I collaborated by internet. He sent me his animatic scenes as he completed them–rough, scribbly animated drawings, but with the dialogue and timing exactly as he would animate to them, so I could get a sense of the mood and pacing and compose to that.

“Having no budget, I played everything myself, which made it easier because I could sit at my keyboard with the rough animatics playing on the screen, and then work out what I thought worked, working out the themes and variations, beat by beat. When I got a good, well-timed basic take I would send that to Ben, describing exactly where it should start, and if he approved it, I would use that as a foundation to layer on overdubs and other instruments. What was really rewarding was how well our sensibilities meshed, with ideas flowing back and forth and building on each other. Basically, we wanted it to be very gothic, mysterious and beautiful.”

The soundtrack album is an impressive package, fully designed to have a “personality” of its own. The label name “Vistavox” is Dixon and Wickey’s affectionate nod to Buena Vista Records. It was produced and manufactured so that it could be sold the first time the film was screened in Salem at the House of the Seven Gables.

The design of the cover suggests the days of Roger Corman and American International Pictures. “Ben designed a wonderful “retro” cover, evocative of the swingin’ early-60s Les Baxter-type records of the time. I’m very proud that the disc is now being sold in the gift shop of the real House of the Seven Gables. But if anyone wants a copy directly, they can message me through Facebook — Jonathan David Dixon. The cost is $12 (which includes the U.S. postage cost). Or, my email is: jdixonLPC@yahoo.com

The House of the Seven Gables has been released on DVD and Blu-ray as part of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival’s “Best of 2018” collection, along with other winning shorts. The print and sound quality are wonderful, and it can be ordered from their website. But …

Ben Wickey is also working on his own version of the DVD, to be released in the near future. It will include a plethora of “making of” features, including an audio commentary with Wickey, Frankham and Dixon, a music commentary track by Dixon, video interviews and the original. More about that and Wickey’s website.

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
Main Title from THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES

This is the music that impressed Wickey so much that he invited Dixon to score the entire film, a pensive, haunting melody very much in the style of classic suspense movies.

5 Comments

  • Thanks for a “frightfully delightful” post. It’s worth remembering that even those cereal box giveaways were created by some highly talented individuals.

    I wonder whether James Dukas was related to Paul Dukas, composer of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. The composer’s only child was a daughter who died at 38 and, as far as I’ve been able to determine, never married or had children. In any case, that’s quite a nice poem — maybe not in the same class as Goethe’s original, but very well written with vivid imagery and a fine sense of cadence.

    I read somewhere that Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp had an idea for a short story about a vampire with a sweet tooth who only fed on diabetics, but they never got around to writing it.

    I had no idea there was an H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival! By Cthulhu, I’d give my copy of the Necronomicon for tickets to that — as long as they don’t show that boring version of “The Dunwich Horror” starring Sandra Dee.

  • Loved the commercials; NOT a fan of any cereal containing marshmallows.

    • After Post packaged Just Bunches,sans the cereal part of their Honey Bunches & Oats,General Mills just brought out bags of just the marshmallows from Lucky Charms. They are really Jet-Puff Marshmallows made to look like the mallows found in the cereal. General Mills and Heinz Kraft collaborate to further Diabetes II an attainable goal for America.

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