THE MOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Rummaging through the rubbish in the storage room, today, I came across a relic of my childhood. When I think of all the wonderful things my mother threw away, while I was in France, it mystifies me why she saw fit to keep this piece of crap. I’ve noticed it, from time to time, among the refuse of my life, and always passed it by. All I could see was its overwhelming ugliness, evidence of the enormous gap, between my youthful aspirations, and my ability to make them materialize at the time. And yet, this artless artifact does represent a first attempt at “sculpting”, and perhaps, the promise of better things to come. I took another crack at the same subject matter, 40 years later, working on MAXx FX
And so, today, I lifted this hideous object up, and discovered, to my surprise, that sometime in the past 60 years, a mouse had built a nest inside. I’ve, heard about, and, in fact, have seen, the Bride, Son, Ghost, and House of Frankenstein, but I never knew about the Mouse of Frankenstein!
I created this “monsterpiece”, when I was just fourteen. The idea was to use it in a scheme to scare people, on Halloween. This was another scenario my buddy, Bucky and I conjured up. This time, we were aided and abetted by my other two friends, Ed Goodman and Bob Betz.
Bucky as you know, already, if you read any of the above stories, was my best friend, who lived nearby. Ed and Bob were my two best friends at Mumford high. I was the link that brought this diverse group together, the uncommon denominator.
Ed Goodman was about as regular a guy as anyone could hope to meet. He was everything I wished I could be. His hobby, long before he was old enough to drive, was fixing up an old “Model T”, which he purchased for $50, with his newspaper route money. I adored Ed’s family, and spent many afternoons at his house after school. His mother reminded me of “Blondie”, and was every bit as pretty. She was always in the kitchen, wearing a white apron, and baking cakes and cookies. His father was extremely fatherly, although rather strict. He worked for the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad, and loved classical music, which he played on the “Victrola”. He had a collection of 78 RPM recordings, 12 inches in diameter, the size reserved for classics only. Ed also had a younger brother and little sister; I liked them too. The entire family went to church, religiously, every Sunday. Later on, when Ed began to date, it was always a girl from his church group. They say that opposites attract, and that was, indeed, true of Ed and me. We once attended a costume party, impersonating Laurel and Hardy.
Here are Ed and Bucky, three years after this story took place; the year was 1954, out in front of my house on Seven MIle Road. The car, with wood grain siding, was Ed’s pride and joy.
My other best friend was Bob Betz. He was clearly smarter than me, evidenced by the fact that he read voraciously, pulp science fiction, mainly, was good at math, and could easily clobber me in chess. Bob was a perfect lookalike for the mad scientist in the movie, "Dr. Cyclops".
Getting back to Halloween; at fourteen, we were all too old to trick or treat. Nonetheless, it seemed that the holiday should be celebrated in some way. So we decided that it would be a good idea to go out and treat unsuspecting tricksters to the sight of something really scary.
It’s hard to believe that in the early 1950s the Universal Monsters, who, today are regarded as misunderstood, and even friendly, were still considered to be scary. Dracula was, perhaps, a little tame, but the Wolfman, the Mummy and the Frankenstein Monster were still the scariest creations that most 14 year old kids, had ever seen. So, we decided to dress like them on Halloween, and frighten anyone we encountered on the street.
Ed chose to borrow a black suit from his dad, and wear a pair of rubber teeth. He would be Dracula. Bucky whose father was a doctor, secretly” borrowed” a year’s supply of bandage, and planned to wrap himself up as the Mummy. Bob, who was the most cerebral, sensing that the Wolfman was too work intensive, came up with an original concept of his own that he could throw together in half an hour. I, of course, partly because of my size, and, more importantly, the size of my ambition, would naturally be Frankenstein. My costume, required weeks of preparation.
I began by visiting the Army Surplus store, a place that was both fabulous and foreboding. The store was filled with useless but intriguing gadgets, bombsites, tank scopes, gas masks and camping supplies, all left over from the Second World War, and all ridiculously inexpensive, compared to what they ‘d cost the military. Although, the War, itself, as every kid knew from Newsreels, took place in black and white, everything in the Army Surplus store was colored “kaki”. This was where most kids stocked up on whatever they required to attend summer camp: knives, flashlights, canteens, in which the water always tasted funny, and nasty scratchy army blankets. On this occasion, I was there to purchase a large rubberized poncho and a standard army helmet.
Then, after a visit to the art store, where I picked up several pounds of Plasticine, I set about sculpting the Head of Frankenstein. A photograph of the famous Monster proved to be hard to find. Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine didn’t exist, yet, and Universal Studios made sure all images were scarce. They didn’t want the monster's face to become commonplace. Maybe that’s why it remained so scary. To get a glimpse of it, movie goers had to pay.
I had a book on marionettes and followed its instructions for making puppet heads. First, I sculpted the head out of clay. At that stage, it looked OK. Then, I made a plaster cast and pressed a shell of “Plastic Wood” into that. The book said to let it harden under water, using bbs to weigh it down. As it was so large, I used marbles, instead, and submerged it in the laundry sink. Then it began to shrink! When the head was finally dry, it was much smaller than expected, but still biger than mine. I glued the two halves together, affixed some electrodes made of dowel rods, and painted it with oil paints. Like the undying monster it depicted, the object that you see below somehow, survived the ravages of time..
Next I built a harness that rested on my shoulders, to create a second set, above my head. I hid this apparatus beneath the kaki colored poncho, and cut a window in the front of its chest, where my real head would be, so I could see. I covered the hole with a piece of netting, so it was not easy to see me. Then I affixed a rod to the top of the army helmet and sent it up through a hole in the raised shoulders, exactly where the neck would be. To this rod, I attached the head. And, thus, the head of Frankenstein could turn, from side to side, whenever I turned mine. This, I theorized, would make it look ALIVE!
And that was it! I didn’t bother making shoes. My own size thirteen’s, would do. And so, this six foot four teenager became a monster, bigger still. With all the various parts in place, I was nearly eight feet tall.
We gathered at my house, the afternoon of Halloween. Ed arrived all dressed and ready. Apart from a makeshift cape his mother helped him make, and his rubber vampire teeth, he looked a lot like he did, the time that we were Laurel and Hardy.
Bucky, still had to get ready. Not being ancient Egyptians, we found out the hard way that it isn’t easy to wrap a mummy. The process took well over an hour. And in the end, which came when we ran out of bandage, he did look really scary, but more like an accident victim than the “Mummy”. The fact that he had the characteristic Mummy walk down pat, one hand on chest, the other grasping, and one leg dragging, helped a lot.
Ironically, Bob’s casual concept turned out to be the most effective. He wore his regular red and gray zip up jacket with elastic around the waist. We helped him pin a leather glove to the left arm of the jacket. Then we stuffed the hand and empty sleeve, with this and that. When his fake hand was in his pocket, the arm looked quite relaxed and realistic. With his real right arm in the right sleeve of the jacket and his left arm held against his chest, we zipped up the front up, just enough, to let his hand pop out of the zipper, when he chose. It hid inside, most of the time. I wouldn’t say that this was exactly scary, but it was really very clever.
After the others helped me into the harness, with the cumbersome contraption balanced precariously on my shoulders, and the poncho, covering my body, we were as ready as we would ever be to terrorize the community. And, thus, with darkness falling, we set out from Bucky’s house, into the depths of Palmer Woods, to haunt the wide deserted streets.
I had never been trick or treating in the neighborhood behind my house before. But that is where we headed now, and we found the streets there to be dark and suitably scary. Alas, they were also nearly empty. I guess everybody was trick or treating in Ed’s bountiful neighborhood, which was the place, where everybody in the know, myself included, used to go.
Each year, on Halloween, my father would drive me to that neighborhood and set me free. My trick or treat bag was a pillowcase, and by the time the night was over I had nearly filled it up to the top with treats. Curiously, it was a Detroit tradition not to cry “Trick or Treat”, but rather to ring the doorbell, and when someone opened the door, holler “Help the Poor”. Could that have been a premonition of things to come? “Help the Poor”, would seem to be a plea, more appropriate for Detroit today, and 365 days a year, not just on Halloween.
Eventually, we encountered several small children, accompanied by their parents. They were impressed with our effort, but not frightened. As the night progressed, we came across a few more trick or treaters; some even pretended to be scared. Well I’d be scared too; wouldn’t you? What were kids our age doing out there, anyway? As we wandered the almost empty streets, our costumes began to deteriorate, Bucky’s bandages, especially, were unraveling and dragged behind him, just like the Mummy, in the movie.
Finally we gave up our plans to terrorize the neighborhood, and, even though, we were too old, decided to trick or treat, instead. So, everywhere we saw a porch light shining, we went up and rang the doorbell. Over aged, though we might be, we, nonetheless, were the event that saved the evening for many of the homeowners we met. They, too, had overestimated the number of trick or treaters who would be haunting the streets of Palmer Woods that night. So when the door swung open, we were a welcome sight.
Bob Betz was the hit of the evening. When he stepped up to the door to receive a treat, apparently without a costume, his hidden hand popped out to grab it, and people found this most amusing. That was Bob Betz, off hand, and easy going! He, later, relied on his brains, more than his hands, to earn a living.
The last time I saw Bob was on the day that he got married. Eunice and I had borrowed my mother’s car, and attached a U-Haul to the bumper. We were heading back to Ann Arbor to leave Michigan for NYC, the following morning. On the way, we stopped at Bob’s wedding reception, gift in hand, and offered our congratulations; then, we drove on to meet our destiny. That was our final stop in the city of my childhood. And although we returned there, once or twice, before my mother moved to Florida, I never saw Bob Betz again.
He called me, one evening, 30 years later. “This is Bob Burns”, he said. “You used to know me as Bob Betz!” I was amazed to learn that he had changed his name. He had become a CPA, and said he felt that he was losing business, because his name sounded “too Jewish”. Therefore, he had legally changed it from Robert Betz to Robert Burns! Oh my God, that was my brand! I smoked half a dozen Robert Burns’ cigars, a day.
He further amazed me, when he said his hobby was, now, raising dogs. I recall he never had one as a kid. And he visited New York City, once a year, to display his current canine in the Westminster Dog Show. We discussed the possibility of getting together, as we are a not too far away from NYC by train. Sadly, the conversation revealed the fact that we no longer had a lot in common, perhaps we never did. I believe we both knew, there and then, that a meeting was never going to happen. And that was that. I never spoke to Robert Burns again.
I realize, now, in retrospect, how much Bob’s changing “Betz” to “Burns” came as a shock to me. Detroit was always synonymous with conformity, and worrying about other folks would think, but to change one’s name in order to hide one’s religion, for the sake of increased business, is, to say the least, disturbing. And what Bob told me was not without a certain eerie irony that borders on “hard to believe”. For as he spoke, I recalled a Birnkrant family legend that my father, once, told me: During the First World War, my grandparents, Maurice and Tillie, along with their 13 children, lived in Canada, where, because Birnkrant sounded “too German”, they changed their name to “BURNS”!
What is this Burns thing, anyway? Is that the name that all Jews, whose name begins with “B”, choose, to hide their ethnic identity? And is Burns not a Scottish name? If one is looking for a CPA, would they be inclined to choose a Scott, over a Jew? Jews are considered good with money, while Scotts are often thought to be thrifty.
This kind of mishigas is typical of Michigan. I grew up in a society where most people did only what they were “supposed to do” and nearly everyone I knew worshiped at the altar of conformity. It is a miracle that I escaped “Scott Free”!