Happy Halloween From Longbox Graveyard
Halloween is a special day for genre fans, and to mark the occassion, I thought I’d run the obituary I wrote for the great Forrest J. Ackerman back in 2008. Forry was a profound influence on my life — the story that follows will be familiar to anyone who listened to the first episode of my podcast — and on this day of all days I thought it proper to pause and remember Ackerman and his life’s work, Famous Monsters of Filmland.
December 5, 2008
Sad word comes today that Forrest Ackerman has died. He was 92. Ain’t It Cool News had noted several days ago that Forry was in poor health, so this doesn’t come as sudden news, but it is still a sad day for Sci-Fi fans everywhere.
Forry was a life-long science fiction fan, credited with coining the term “Sci-Fi.” He was editor of the greatest magazine of all time, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and the keeper of a renown collection of genre memorabilia.
The last line of his obit at Sci-Fi Wire reads,
Ackerman, who had no children, was preceded in death by his wife, Wendayne.
And here I think the obit gets things wrong.
Forry had lots of children. I’m one of them, but far from the most distinguished. Forry was father to much of the popular culture of the last half-century. If you could see Forry’s guestbook I’m sure it would read like a Who’s Who of the great imaginative minds of our time — Ray Bradbury, Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Peter Jackson and more will likely pop up on the web in the coming days and weeks with stories of how this kind and generous man touched their lives in some pivotal way.
I have a story of my own.
In 1974 I was twelve years old and living in Hollywood. I had been inculcated into the tribe of Famous Monsters by a school friend. I had a vague idea that Forry lived in the neighborhood, so one lazy day I took down the phone book and looked him up. Sure enough, there was Forry’s number. Somehow I summoned the courage to make the call.
A voice answered on the other end, and I started to stammer something, before I realized that I was listening to a tape recording. This was the first time I had ever encountered an answering machine (remember, this was thirty-four years ago). The message had something to do with a rocket countdown, telling me to leave a message … the voice counted down to zero, and the sound of a rocket leaving the launch pad filled my ear.
After the beep I resumed my stammering, now blubbering something about being a fan, and loving the magazine, and just wanting to say, “hi,” and then the phone picked up and Forry was there, saying, full of enthusiasm, “Hello young reader!”
Pretty much everything after that is a blur. To say I was thrilled is putting it too mildly. It was more like I wet my pants. I mean, here was a guy who’d been friends with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and Ray Harryhausen and he was talking to a kid like me on the phone. Amazing.
Back at school my geek pal cross-examined me, then went ballistic when I reported that Forry had said I was welcome to come up to the house sometime.
“You got invited to the Ackermansion??”
“Well, yeah, I guess. I think he was just being polite.”
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You’re calling him back and we’re going!”
And so, when I got home, I swallowed hard and called again, and I’m sure Forry didn’t remember who I was (he got thousands of calls, through the years), but he said, sure, come on by.
When that Saturday rolled around, my mom drove my friend and I up into the Hollywood hills to tour the mansion. Forry was a gracious host, showing us what he could of the collection, apologizing that much of the display was still disorganized from the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. I remember the famous things, of course, the Dracula ring, the make-up masks of the master horror actors, the Metropolis robot, the Ymir and Mighty Joe Young. And I remember more books, magazines, and stills than I could hope to catalogue in a lifetime. Forry left us to wander while he worked on the magazine and took phone calls. When it was time to go, he happily granted my wish for an autograph (and it remains one of only three autographs that I’ve ever sought), thanked us for our interest in Famous Monsters, and sent us on our way.
Looking back, I recognize what an opportunity this could have been. Forry lived up the street from me, he was deeply into the things that I loved, he was a kind man who welcomed visitors into his home, he needed somebody to clean up and organize the collection … if I’d had the wisdom to offer up my help I might have forged a life-long friendship and met all sorts of interesting people, leading who-knows-where. But I was a shy little kid and as fate would have it, I wouldn’t talk to Forry again but once more in my life.
This would be at WorldCon in 2006. Forry was there, of course, being the founding father of fandom, and he was given an award at the Hugo presentation. He was frail but obviously delighted to be there, and he received warm applause from the crowd.
After the show broke up, there was a crush in front of the elevators in the Hilton lobby, and for some reason I walked around the elevator core looking for another way to get up to my room. Off to the side I saw Forry, in a wheelchair, with his aide close by but otherwise alone, and I thought — yep, now is the time. So I walked over, and shook his hand, and said:
“Mr. Ackerman, you won’t remember me, but when I was a kid I gave you a call and you invited me up to the Ackermansion. And I had a great, great day there. But the most important thing was that you took time to take an interest in me when I was just a little kid. That made a great impression on me — it showed me that no matter how important or busy a person might be, that they should always make time for kids, and it showed me that a grown man that I admired could make a living for himself dreaming dreams and being a part of imaginative things. Looking back, now, I can see what an influence you’ve been — thanks to your example I’ve gone on to do wonderful things in my life, writing comic books and making videogames, creating supernatural worlds and characters and stories, and I’m not sure I would have done any of those things if not for you. And to this day I remember the time you took for me, and whenever I get a call or a letter from a kid that wants to learn about videogames, I remember how you picked up the phone for me when I was tweleve, and I arrange to take the time and show that kid the same courtesy and encouragment you gave to me. So thank you for that, and bless you.”
He held my hand the whole time (and I remember how old and frail that hand looked, the age spots that reminded me of my father, near the end), and he cocked his ear a bit, probably not catching every word, but his eyes were warm and his smile was genuine, and I could tell that he’d heard this story before, many times and from people far more important and accomplished than me, but I could also tell it was a story he never tired of hearing.
Then the elevator doors opened, and he was on his way. I knew I’d never see him or speak with him again, but I also felt a satisfying sense of closure — that I’d said everything that needed saying.
And now that he is gone, I can wish Uncle Forry farewell, and thank him one last time, on behalf of all the children he never had.
Happy Halloween, everyone!