Boomers Watched the Original Dark Shadows

Recently Mister Boomer went to see Dark Shadows, the Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp. He thought the movie was OK as a campy romp, but came away no more of a fan of Dark Shadows than when he entered.

Long before there were Twilight movies for tweens, boomers enjoyed the Dark Shadows TV show. Having been indoctrinated with the classic movie monsters of the 1930s and ’40s — namely, Dracula, Frankenstein and the Werewolf — boomer minds were ready for a TV show that tapped into the supernatural.

In April of 1966, ABC tossed Dark Shadows into the mix of daytime TV as a gothic soap opera. Created by Dan Curtis, the show originally was not pitched or intended to feature supernatural elements, but six months in, a ghost made its way into the script. Over the next five years werewolves, zombies, witches, warlocks, time travel and a parallel universe became part of the storylines. Yet contrary to some boomers’ memories, it wasn’t until episode 210 that Dark Shadows writers introduced the most famous character of its franchise, the vampire Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid).

Something about the character attracted boomers — especially teen girls. Perhaps they latched onto the romantic leanings of the character as much as the supernatural elements. Barnabas was hopelessly in love with Josette, but Angelique, a witch, had designs on the young man. When her love goes unrequited she casts a spell on Josette, causing her to leap to her death at Widow’s Hill. Unsatisfied that Barnabas still would not return her affection, she turns him into a vampire which forces him to stay away from everyone he loves. Throughout the series Barnabus remains a reluctant vampire, agonizing over his need for blood and the killing he had to do to maintain himself. Angelique then turns the townspeople against him and his family. Barnabas is arrested and, as a vampire, is sentenced to a locked-coffin prison.

After two hundred years, Barnabas is unknowingly freed by a would-be grave robber. He immediately sets out to seek his revenge on Angelique. Returning to the family estate, Collinwood, he disguises his true identity to the current Collins family and tells them he is a cousin from England, there to assist in restoring his family’s prominence in the town that bears his family’s name. While at the mansion, a young governess named Victoria Winters catches Barnabas’ eye for her uncanny resemblance to Josette. Thus was the basis for complex storylines involving the characters, monsters and ghosts of Dark Shadows from 1966 to 1971.

ABC placed the show at 4 p.m. Eastern time. Mister B’s sister was a big fan, and would hurry home from school in order to catch each episode. Mister B’s spouse recalls the same scenario at her house, where she and her sisters watched the show after school. The original black and white filming lent a scarier atmosphere to the drama, but the show switched to color broadcasts in 1967. Meanwhile, as soon as the spooky strains of the theremin signaled the show’s distinctive opening, Mister B was out of the living room and into his bedroom to study and do homework before dinner. Melodrama — with vampires or not — was not Mister B’s cup of tea.

At its peak, the show was the most-watched TV series for the age demographic of 18-35. As 1971 arrived advertisers backed out, not because of the waning ratings — which were still high for daytime TV — but because the audience for the show was too young to afford to buy their products. Dark Shadows was cancelled in April of 1971. There was a movie made, and an attempt at reviving the show in the 1990s, but neither caught the imagination of boomers like the original.

Were you or your siblings fans of Dark Shadows on TV, boomers?

Boomers Got Their Prime-Time Washed Out with Soap

There are many things that help to define us as boomers, and certainly TV is among the top contenders. We were infants at the same time as early TV, so you might say we grew up together. After the War, our mothers were promptly thanked for “filling in” and dismissed from the factories, relegated to the urban expansion known as Suburbia. There, the Baby Boom took flight as they became domestic engineers, baby-makers and the prime targets of advertisers of daytime TV soap operas.

A form of serial narrative called the soap opera had been broadcast on radio since the 1930s, but now, in the age of TV, the genre was transformed to the still relatively new medium. The term “soap opera” was coined by the media in the 1930s to describe the fifteen-minute serialized dramas that were sponsored by the manufacturers of household products. Since the 1930s, Proctor and Gamble was among the biggest sponsors, establishing a soap opera ad division exclusively for the purpose. Radio had the distinct advantage in that members of a household — especially homemakers — could listen while doing other things, like household chores. With the advent of regular TV broadcasts in the late 1940s, producers had to put a visual face on stories that would appeal to women who may or may not have had the time or inclination to stop what they were doing and watch. Though the genre began in uncertainty, TV executives’ concerns were quickly allayed as soaps caught on.

As the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, soap operas became the staple of daytime TV, expanding from radio’s fifteen-minute format to half-hour TV programs. It seemed only natural, then, that big advertisers of daytime soaps would want a bigger piece of the prime-time viewing pie (the hours of 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.) as well. By this time, radio soap operas had disappeared, replaced by the daytime TV soaps. It was ABC that fired the first salvo by introducing a prime-time soap opera in 1964. Called Peyton Place, it was a half-hour program that was based on a 1956 novel of the same name, by author Grace Metalious. It was aired twice a week.

The buzz around Peyton Place spread across the country like wildfire since it was among the first to deal with sex, infidelity, teen pregnancy, the draft, riots and God in a frank manner; in other words, all the subjects that are de rigueur for today’s soaps. Since its storylines were peppered with very adult subjects, ABC aired the show at 9:30 p.m., a time when we boomers were supposed to be in bed. Buoyed by the show’s popularity, the network switched to airing the show three times a week in 1965. Viewers didn’t care for the change of being forced to follow a serialized narrative over the course of three times per week, and ratings dropped. The network reluctantly switched it back to two episodes a week, but the damage had been done as Peyton Place never regained its Top 20 ranking.

Despite a gradual decline in viewership, ABC continued to air the show twice a week. By the fall of 1968, the show was losing more viewers every week, so it was moved to an 8:30 p.m. time slot in a last-ditch effort to bolster its ratings. Ultimately Peyton Place was cancelled in June of 1969. It had paved the way for future prime-time soaps, and like many of its daytime counterparts, helped to launch the careers of many actors, including Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, Mariette Hartley and Lana Wood.

Mister Boomer’s mom was a huge daytime soap fan, tuning into one after another all afternoon — her favorites included As the World Turns (1956-2010), All My Children (1970 to present) and General Hospital (1963 to present). Yet after giving Peyton Place a try once or twice, TV variety shows remained king of the Boomer household prime-time viewing, much to Mister B’s preference. Whenever Mister B was home from school for whatever reason, he tried to make himself scarce when his mother’s soaps came on; he never had the stomach for the overacted melodrama. The same was true of Peyton Place. Though it was talked about among Mister B’s peers in the schoolyard (as taboo subjects were), Mister B was completely uninterested, so he was pleasantly surprised when his mother passed on a nighttime soap addiction.

Mister B’s parents continued to avoid prime-time soaps even after the immensely popular Dallas hit the airwaves in 1978. That record was shattered one evening a few years later when Mister B paid a visit. As he entered the house, his father was on the couch, beer in hand, watching Dynasty (1981-89), but no sound was emanating from the TV. “Is your TV broken?” asked Mister B. “No, I turned off the sound,” answered his father. Alexis (Joan Collins) was pulling Krystal’s (Linda Evans) hair as the two started fighting, their shoulder pads poised like the battle-ready edges of suits of armor. “See?” he continued, “you don’t need the sound to enjoy watching this show.”

What experiences did you have with prime-time soaps, boomers?