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Remember family and friends as we ring in ’09

by Mark Burger

Remember family and friends as we ring in ’09

The end of the year brings to mind two very important people in my life, both of whom passed away within the last few weeks. One was Dorothy Latshaw (1913- 2008), who was my grandmother. The other was writer and historian Forrest J. Ackerman (1916-2008), who was “Uncle Forry” to many more people than me. Both lived long lives, rich in memories and history. Both were proponents of the written word and the imagination. Much as every journey begins with the first step, every story begins with the first word. My grandmother was an English teacher for more than 40 years, and couldn’t have been more proud of her only grandson, the journalist. (She is the only person on the face of the Earth who could still get away with calling me “her baby boy.”) Had it been a different time, she might have liked to become a writer herself. But this was the 1920s and ’30s, and aside from novelists there weren’t a great deal of women writers out there. She loved Steinbeck and Hemingway and Poe, to name a few, and did her part to instill an appreciation of those writers in me. (As you might have guessed, I took very readily to the works of Edgar Allan Poe.) She didn’t like foul language, which usually kept me on my best behavior, careful not to let one of those epithets of which I’m so fond slip out in casual conversation. The worst I ever heard her say was “damn” — and that was after yours truly spilled Kool-Aid all over the carpet. I was about 11 at the time and it surprised me to hear her say it. (Believe me, in the years since, I’ve said far worse when spilling things on the carpet.) Her legacy exists in her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and undoubtedly a large number of students fortunate enough to pass through her classroom through the years. That’s a greater legacy than many of us will have to offer when our time comes. Forry Ackerman’s legacy is a bit more widespread, but it too came from the heart. One of the world’s foremost historians of fantasy film — it is Ackerman who is widely credited with coining the term “sci-fi” — he possessed one of the world’s greatest collections of film memorabilia and was instrumental in the creation of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland (or FM, for short), a publication whose readership included the likes of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Joe Dante and any number of kids who loved horror, fantasy and science-fiction. Here was a grown-up who was one of us. Here was “Uncle Forry.” He liked creepy things, but he never gave the impression of being creepy himself — those screaming polyester leisure suits notwithstanding. Not only did he like these movies, but he encouraged us to like them, too. His playful enthusiasm, which manifested itself in any number of groan-inducing quips and puns, was irresistible. Moms didn’t understand horror, but Uncle Forry did. Forry’s collection of movie paraphernalia was legendary, and it was heartbreaking to learn he had to sell some items off — many for less than they were worth — to cover his bills in the last several years. (His declining health didn’t help matters any.) His stint at Famous Monsters lasted 25 years (1958-1983), and following his departure — which was a matter of huge conjecture back in the day — the magazine limped along for only a few months without him. Never again would he achieve the sustained success of FM, but as a mainstay on the convention circuit he would encounter hundreds, if not thousands of young people whose lives he inspired. It wasn’t until 2000, at the “Chiller Theatre” convention in Secaucus, NJ, that my path crossed with that of Forry’s. This was the only time I ever met him, but it felt like I had known him all my life and was greeting an old friend. Interviewing him was a treat. It was easy. He was as effervescent and funny as ever, proudly wearing the same ring that Bela Lugosi wore in the 1931 version of Dracula, more than happy to talk over “the good old days” and to contemplate, with excitement, the potential of what was yet to come. He spoke warmly of his associations with the classic horror stars: Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee…. A lot of people still don’t take the genre seriously, but some of those who do can thank Forry for showing them the way. Even if you felt like the biggest geek on the planet for liking these films, Forry let you know that there were other geeks out there. And, what the hell, he was one, too! It would be impossible to condense the highlights of two lives that each spanned nearly a century, but it can be safely said that I’m a better person — or at least a happier one — because of the impact that Dorothy Latshaw and Forry Ackerman had on my life, and that the world is better place for them having been in it.

To comment on this story, e-mail Mark Burger at marksburger@yahoo.com.

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