Boomers Did the Monster Mash

Any boomer can identify the song as soon as the Boris Karloff voice says, “I was working in the lab late one night…” It’s Monster Mash, a Halloween novelty hit that was intended to piggyback on the success of the Mashed Potato and the Twist.

Just eight weeks after its release — on October 20, 1962 — Monster Mash hit number one on the Billboard charts. Its origins came about in a fortuitous fashion for Bobby “Boris” Pickett. Bobby Pickett had aspirations beyond music, and performed his impressions in a nightclub act in Hollywood in 1959 and ’60. As a singer with The Cordials, Bobby often did impressions for the audience between songs. He was known to imitate Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, among others. At one gig, Bobby recited the monologue in The Diamonds’ Little Darling in the voice of Boris Karloff. The audience reacted in such a positive manner that fellow bandmate Lenny Capizzi suggested Bobby do more with the impression.

Together, Lenny and Bobby penned Monster Mash to showcase his Boris Karloff impersonation. Bobby slipped a Bela Lugosi line into the song, too, with “Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist.” After the song was rejected by four record companies, producer Gary Paxton’s Garpax label picked it up. Paxton had had previous luck with Alley Oop, a novelty hit in 1957. Bobby recorded the song with a group of studio musicians that some say included Leon Russell and Mel Taylor, the drummer for The Ventures. In fact, Leon was late for the recording session, so he played piano on the instrumental B-side of the 45 RPM, Monster Mash Party. Taylor is not credited on the record but rather, “Dr. Chud.” Together the group made up Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers. The album from which that 45 RPM was culled was called The Original Monster Mash, and was released in August of 1962 — eight weeks from the time the 45 RPM hit number one. For all you rock history buffs, what was the song that was number one right before Monster Mash? Sherry by The Four Seasons. And after? The Crystals’ He’s a Rebel. How’s that for being in the company of rock royalty circa 1962?

Bobby encouraged a dance along with the song, too. It was a variation on the Mashed Potato, only with outstretched “Frankenstein” arms. Ever the ham, Bobby went on TV to perform his one hit wonder. Somewhere along the way, Boris Karloff himself heard the song and loved the tribute so much that he performed “his” part on Shindig! in October 1965.

Monster Mash is the song that Bobby Pickett is remembered for, despite his long career as a songwriter, singer and playwright. But what a memory! The song is still played annually as the unofficial anthem of Halloween music. It has been recorded several times through the years, most notable by The Misfits in 1999, and mentioned in countless pop culture references, including an episode of Happy Days, in horror films, and covered by several bands, including The Beach Boys, who covered it on their Beach Boys Concert album in 1964. Perhaps one of the best ways the song has been remembered is also a blast from the past for boomers: Monster Mash has been used as an astronaut wake-up call on Halloween.

Did Monster Mash catch on in flash to become a graveyard smash for you, boomers?

Boomers Got Mischievous

The night before Halloween has been called by different names in different regions: Mischief Night, Hell Night and Devil’s Night, among them. It marks the time when (mostly) young boys, usually teen or pre-teen in age, would carry out pranks such as soaping windows, the toilet-papering of trees and homes or setting bags of feces on fire in front of a homeowner’s door — the “trick” in “trick or treat” — along with other acts of minor vandalism such as egging or smashing jack-o-lanterns.

Halloween is thought to have evolved from practices of the Druids thousands of years ago. Their year began on Samhain, which was November 1 and started with a festival the day before. Bonfires were set and crops and animals were sacrificed as a way of honoring the dead, who Druids believed returned to Earth for that night. Animal skins were worn as costumes in celebration of the first day of the new year and the coming of winter. When the Romans conquered the Celts in 43 A.D., the Roman harvest holiday of Feralia and Samhain were combined as a way of honoring the dead and celebrating the harvest. It is thought that apples became associated with Halloween through this connection.

The history of Mischief Night dates back to the late 1700s in England. Then, it was observed on November 4, the day before Guy Fawkes Night. You may recall that Guy Fawkes became involved in a plot to blow up the Parliament House in 1605, but was captured before he could ignite the fuse on the dozens of barrels of gunpowder placed in the basement by the conspirators. In subsequent years on the night before his arrest, citizens would mark the occasion by setting bonfires on what became known as Bonfire Night.

In the U.S. at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, October 31 — Halloween night — was marked by acts of mischief, presumably carried over from traditions practiced by the wave of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the late 1800s. By the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s, relatively harmless pranks had become increasingly violent toward people and damaging to property. In order to reduce the incidences of vandalism, it was suggested that children be “bribed” with candy on that night, thereby adding the “treat” to the “trick or treat” tradition of door-to-door begging in costume. It caught on and has evolved to the Halloween we see today.

In boomer times, practices on Mischief Night, which by then was observed the evening before Halloween, were regional in nature. In some areas, boomers would merely ring doorbells and run away, or toss toilet paper over houses or onto tree branches. In others, egging houses, cars, buses and occasionally, other kids, were popular. Mister Boomer’s neighborhood tended to take a walk on the mild side. On one particular night, a pre-teen Mister B recalls heading out with his brother and the neighborhood boys for an evening of wandering, pretty much like many other nights. Unbeknownst to Mister B, one boy had a couple of firecrackers that he had probably saved from the Fourth of July, and another boy had a bar of soap. As the group walked around, a plot was hatched to have one boy light a firecracker on a house porch and another would ring the doorbell while everyone ran away. Mister B was safely hidden behind a car a few houses away, along with several others. The plot failed as the firecracker went off before the homeowner answered the door. After the bang, a man flipped his porch light on, opened his front door, and, not observing anything, closed the door and shut the light.

As the boys walked, they came upon a group who were toilet-papering a tree. It was a cold, wet night, and the participants were having a hard time tossing the roll just so it would festoon over a branch and drop back down. Instead, the paper tore on the wet branches and shredded in the wind, making a mess of it. A little further on, they encountered a car that had been egged. Mister B was appalled at the scene, since he believed the urban legend that eggs could damage or even remove paint from the vehicle. That just seemed to be a senseless waste and unfair to the car owner. While boys debated whether egg would in fact remove paint, they wandered on through the night.

A few blocks later, one of the boys remarked that the boy with the bar of soap had stopped behind the group. He was diligently marking the windshield of a car. The usual method of soaping was a few scribbles on a house window, or a line drawn on side windows of a car as one walked by. Mister B, though never having participated in the practice himself, thought this one of the more harmless pranks because, unlike wax, the soap could be easily removed with water. In this case, for some reason the boy decided he wanted to completely cover every inch of the windshield. The boys scattered as a tall figure was observed in the dark on the porch of the house where the car was parked. One of the boys tried to warn the soaper with his best “stage whisper,” but he was too absorbed in his work to pay any attention. As he finished, he let out a giggle of glee. It was then the silhouetted figure spoke. “Have you had your fun?” the man said. The boy stood in silence. “Good,” he added, “Now tomorrow you’ll be coming over to clean it.” “Yes, sir,” was the muted response.

Therein lies a difference between young boomers and the generations that followed. The night became quite violent in later years in some parts of the country, escalating to arson in areas such as Detroit, Michigan and Camden, New Jersey. Yet here was a boy in the mid-1960s, caught in the act, who first of all respected his elder in his speech, and secondly, voluntarily returned to the house the next day to wash off the soap he had worked so hard to layer on that windshield.

What memories of Mischief Night do you recall, boomers?