The 50th anniversary of "Dark Shadows" marks the launch of my acting career when, straight out of drama school, I appeared as wise-cracking waitress Maggie Evans in the very first episode of the Gothic soap broadcast “live” in black-and-white on ABC June 27, 1966. I was scared to death that day as the camera light blinked red and I spoke my first lines. Come hell or high water, there were no edits, no retakes in live television.
During our run of 1,225 episodes, we grappled with plenty of hell, high water and worse, thanks to complex special effects, a maze of elaborate sets and time-tripping plotlines requiring actors to change costumes, switching from modern dress to pantaloons and bustles, during commercial breaks. One of my favorite stage directions was, “when the hand comes out of the grave, turn to camera three and scream.” We became famous for boom shadows, dropped lines, shaky scenery and, yes, fangs snapping in half and dead bodies moving. After a particularly disastrous show, Dark Shadows creator/producer Dan Curtis would assure us, “Don’t worry, it’ll only be seen once by a bunch of housewives.” Fifty years later, the “blooper” reel is the best-selling Dark Shadows DVD.
Did you know...
- I was the first of the Dark Shadows actors to assume multiple roles when Dan Curtis insisted I play both Barnabas’ fiancé, Josette DuPrés, in 1790s ringlets and corsets, and present-day Maggie, who began as a waitress before taking over governess duties at Collinwood. Were viewers confused? Apparently not, because I went on to play Rachel Drummond and Lady Kitty Hampshire in 1800s plotlines.
- Jonathan Frid, a middle-aged Shakespearean actor, was on the verge of chucking his career until he got the role of Barnabas Collins, a vampire character Dan Curtis dreamed up as a last-ditch effort to save the failing show. Ratings soared, attracting some 20,000,000 viewers at its peak. "Dark Shadows" became a cult classic and sexy Barnabas Collins the granddaddy of today’s romantic and reluctant vampires.
- Speaking of sexy, Josette DuPrés was selected as one of “TV’s sexiest undead creatures.
- Five episodes a week were produced on a budget of $70,000, which accounts for such primitive special effects as cameraman Stu Goodman using plastic wrap and Vaseline smeared on the edges of the lens for dream sequences. An electric fan and a bucket of dry ice created fog and a paper bat dangling from a fishing pole once signaled the sinister arrival of the vampire.
- "Dark Shadows" is the first daily network soap to go into syndication... yes, we still get residuals 50 years later.
- Two of the iconic paintings, the portraits of Josette DuPrés and Barnabas Collins, are not of the actors portraying the characters. Both oil paintings were commissioned before Jonathan Frid and I were cast in the roles.
- Barnabas Collins’ coffin was not made-to-measure and was a tad too short for Jonathan Frid, who also refused to climb in and out of it on camera because it was “too undignified.”
- "Dark Shadows" was innovative in many ways: It was the first soap opera to be shot in color on ABC, and the first soap opera to spawn three films. House of Dark Shadows (1970), Night of Dark Shadows (1971) and the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton Dark Shadows (2012), in which Jonathan Frid, David Selby, Lara Parker and I appear in cameos during a party scene.
- The celebrated soap has also spawned a series of novels, cookbooks, comics, bubble gum cards, phonograph records, games and generations of fans so devoted that thousands show up to attend annual cast-reunion Festivals. The 50th anniversary of Dark Shadows is taking place this weekend at the Doubletree Hotel in Tarrytown, NY.
To learn more about how "Dark Shadows" went from the "Show that Kids Ran Home to See" to a cult classic, be sure to read Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood, co-written by Kathryn and Jim Pierson. This picture-packed history of the successful, pooky Gothic soap opera is sure to enthrall any Dark Shadows fan.