I Wouldn't Trade This Memory for Any Other...

It's 1973 and my brother Mark and I are on a Halloween spree. It's dark, cold, and snowy in our mountainside neighborhood in Eagle River, Alaska, and we have largely completed our October 31st rounds, collecting as much free candy as we can from the houses of our neighbors. I am nine years old, and already a veteran of several Halloween campaigns; my brother Mark is still two months away from turning five, and this may or may not have been his first trip around the neighborhood. What is important is that it is the oldest Halloween memory I still possess.

Because it is small town Alaska in the winter, our Halloween route is completed by motorized vehicle instead of foot, especially in a neighborhood where the houses are spaced at least one or two acres apart, if not more. Practically every kid celebrating the holiday used his parents in this way to collect their Halloween tribute as they wound around the gravel roads covered in snow and ice. The upside is that there is considerably less wear and tear on costumes when you only have to climb out of the car and back into it, instead of wandering about from house to house getting into all kinds of residual Halloween mischief with your friends. The downside is that you miss out on that residual Halloween mischief, which is why I always wished I grew up in a regular town with normal, paved streets.

I don't recall what Ben Nye-branded costumes we were wearing that year. The truth is that I don't remember any of my costumes when I was a kid, just that they were the kind you got in a box, had a plastic face mask of a cartoon or comic strip character, had a rubber-band stapled to the sides of the face mask to hold it on your head, and a flame-retardant outfit that was often more of a theme design featuring the character rather than the character's outfit itself. What I remember most solidly, however, is the moment that I discovered monster trading cards.

I was not yet the avid baseball card collector I would become. That would start up in two summers, though it would only be one more year before I watched the World Series with any interest (the A's versus the Dodgers in 1974) and actually became a baseball fan. And that was only after playing it miserably in Little League for the first time. I would also play it miserably the rest of the time. I am not a natural athlete. Or an athlete at all. 

When I got rolling with the hobby in the summer of 1975 (the year our local Proctors' store carried the 10-cent Topps baseball packs with the mini-cards, which are worth twice as much as the regular cards today, and I still have all of mine), it would stick with me until the mid-'90s. That was when I finally got fed up with the speculators and card shop owners that were ruining the hobby for me (part of my job at the time was as a wholesale seller of new trading cards to those same assholes), and I didn't really look at my sports cards again until a couple of months ago. But that is a story worth fleshing out at another time.

I never gave up on my monster cards, however. I also still remember the exact house we visited where Mark and I each received several packs of Topps Creature Feature Trading Cards. I don't recall who lived there (I think their daughter was a friend of mine, but I can't bring her to my mind), but I can even now get on GoogleMaps and point to precisely where their house was. They lived at the end of the same street as our babysitter, right in front of an empty lot that was used by us for years for pickup baseball games. And I also still recall being very nervous about knocking on their door, even though I had been there before. I did not like the dark of the Eagle River night in those days (with the only illumination coming from porch lights -- no street lights at all), and was always looking out for Bigfoot and werewolves in the woods that surrounded all of the houses in our neighborhood. (We weren't concerned at all about the actual bears that strolled through every now and then.)

I have a very clear memory that has never left me when I got in the car. I looked in my bag at one of the packs of cards, picked it up, and said "What are these?" In those days, like most little kids, I wanted candy. It was until I got home, when we went through our stash that I got a really good look at them. And I fell in instant love. (Didn't forget about the candy though...)

The Topps Creature Feature Trading Cards set from 1973 [see accompanying pictures] was comprised of cards with white front borders framing a black and white photo from mostly old Universal horror films (with some other studios like AIP, Hammer, Toho, etc. thrown into the mix). I did not know they were old Universal horror films at the time; I had not yet begun my deep dive into the studio's offerings. That was still a few years away. In some cases, these pictures were my first encounter with many of these monsters, such as the Mole People and the Metalluna Mutant from This Island Earth. I just knew that these were the coolest things I had in my possession at the time. These had monsters all over them, and they were mine, all mine! Mwah-hah-hah-hah!!

The purple and grey backs of the cards were another story altogether. The top of each back had the words "You'll Die Laughing" emblazoned on it; for years, because I threw away the wrapper (who knew to keep them in those days?), I thought "You'll Die Laughing" was the name of the card set (and so do many other people). The bottom two-thirds of each card was made up of text relating some of the most terrible jokes ever proffered on the card buying public. "Why is it useless to send letters to Washington?" "Because he's dead." You get the picture.

The jokes on the front of the cards weren't much better, but I am very fond of many of them. My friends and I took to appropriating many of the jokes and slogans in our own stupid games, often involving monsters, regardless of whether we understood them or not. My personal favorite were the ones that involved references to actual products used in the home, because it made things easier when riffing off of them. One of my faves is the one with Oliver Reed from Hammer's The Curse of the Werewolf, playing the titular monster in a ragged shirt, and who just has to be odiferous, asking desperately while raising one seemingly sweaty, fur-laden arm, "Who took my Right Guard?"

There is a very odd thing about the set that I noticed even without having seen the films yet. It was a mystery to me for years until the internet age. In several of the cards, the faces of the non-monster characters, i.e. the humans, don't exactly match the bodies and clothes of the figures on which they appear. The rumor I have seen stated in several places, esp. on many card sites, is that Topps replaced the heads of the human characters with those of employees at the Topps Trading Card Company. I don't know the reason for this, except possibly Topps had the rights to only use the monster images but not the photos of the regular actors, or maybe it was just a fun prank on the part of the card company.

There are a few good examples of this within this article. If you compare the photo in card #8 featuring the 1925 Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, the woman to his right looks nothing like Mary Philbin, the actress who played Christine Daaé
 in the movie. [See below...]

I am unsure, but I think the same woman appears in the card featuring a scene from Universal's The Mole People (1956) [card #2, the third one featured in this article]. So, the same woman in photos from films 31 years apart without losing her looks? Is she a vampire?

Even more lovingly egregious is the head that is several sizes too big for the woman's body in a card featuring Lon Chaney, Jr.'s famous Wolf Man. Just look at the size of her noggin!...

Or maybe his breath caused her head to puff up as he knocked her out with it?

It was all good, stupid fun; no more idiotic than the goony jokes my friends and I loved in MAD Magazine or Cracked. They were actually closer to the jokes in Cracked; even as kids, we knew the difference in quality. We also understood that MAD skewed just a bit older in its humor, which had tremendous appeal to us even when, once again, we may not have gotten much of what was being mocked. Within the year, I would see my first of the latter issues of the original run of Famous Monsters of Filmland, whose wise-cracking, pun-filled pages went hand in hand with the Topps Creature Feature cards, and would also allow me to learn more about the movies featured on the cards.

Following Halloween, I managed to find a few more packs of the cards at the store, and also supplemented my new collection via a series of small trades with my friends and brother. There was one more trick involved in maintaining my pile of Creature Feature cards: keeping it.

Over those early years, I recall a couple of times where some of my brother's cards needed to be rescued from the trash, and also a conversation between my parents about whether the cards were appropriate for me. There is nothing gory or bloody about the set. Aside from the outright monsters, which I was already considering to be friends rather than something to be feared, the most shocking thing to the tender-hearted would be some fairly gruesome posed skeletal remains. But even those are just there to tell goofy jokes. [See the "reducing pill" skeleton below.] There are a few girls in nightgowns, so that may have been a concern, though there is nothing featuring outrageous amounts of cleavage. It is a fairly tame set overall. If anything, there is a small amount of misogyny and political incorrectness in some of the jokes, but that would not have registered much in the mid-1970s.

Whatever the conversation between my parents, I won out and got to keep my cards. I never completed the 128-card set (there were two series, one with 62 cards, and the second with 66), and to this day, I still have exactly 70 monster cards from that Halloween season kept neatly in an individual notebook that resides by my desk alongside some of my movie guides (and not with the rest of my huge card collection). The cards are fairly easy and relatively cheap to get, so perhaps I will one day make an attempt to complete it. But I still have the ones that I first loved, and that is the most important part to me.

And finally, one of my favorite cards...

[All of the images of cards in this article were scanned from my personal collection. I will be posting images of numerous cards on Twitter and Facebook through the remainder of the Halloween season. Feel free to copy and use as you wish. Share in the silliness.]


Popular posts from this blog

Refilling the Flagon of Chuckles (or at Least an Extra Tall Improv Glass)...

Before We Take Off...

The Monster's on the Loose!!! Non-Chaney, Pt. 2: Werewolves Along the Wall

Guillermo Del Toro: At Home with Monsters at LACMA 2016, Pt. 2

Ignoring the Ignoramus...