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'Dark Shadows' Pumps New Blood Into PBS

November 03, 1987|JIM WALTERS | Walters is a Times copy editor. and

More than 20 years after it began "Dark Shadows," the tale of the occult, continues to haunt the airwaves. In fact, the gothic soap opera is pumping new lifeblood to many fund-hungry PBS-TV stations around the nation.

"It has really made our late night," said Lary White of KFME-TV Channel 13 in Fargo, N.D.

"It's our top membership program," said Neal Hecker of public television station WNYC Channel 31 in New York.

The show also is rerun on independent stations. Locally, it's in its third year at KDOC-TV Channel 56 in Anaheim, screening weeknights at 7.

"We get more mail for it than any other show," said KDOC-TV program director Claudia Draeger.

Devotees of "Dark Shadows" also venture forth from their television sets.

Last weekend, the faithful celebrated Halloween at the Los Angeles Marriott at a three-day Dark Shadows Festival. More than 700 fans braved rain-snarled traffic for screenings, costume contests, a charity auction and a chance to buy and sell memorabilia and meet members of the cast and crew.

Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Maggie Evans, one of the show's few mortals, said of her role: "Lying in a coffin was the most awful experience of my life. I remember having to lie in this store-bought, funeral-style casket with the lid shut to test the air holes, and it was just a horrid experience."

Chris Pennock, who bowed on the soap as "the thing in the box," a Leviathan child, said Saturday: "We had our own repertory company. Where else could you get to play eight characters in two years on TV? It was great place to start on TV because if you were a ghost you didn't have to talk for the first couple of months."

Two prime-time television stars of the '80s who started their TV careers silently haunting the halls of "Dark Shadows"' Collingwood mansion are David Selby, now in his sixth year on "Falcon Crest," and Kate Jackson of "Charlie's Angels" and the recent "Scarecrow & Mrs. King."

Emmy Award-winning John Karlen (Harvey on "Cagney & Lacey") said Saturday that playing the soap's grave-robbing Willie was good training ground for an actor. "I learned my lines on the subway (on the way to the New York studio), so I had time while we rehearsed to try new movements and go a little overboard. I also learned to be on time at the script table: Whoever got there first got the three doughnuts."

Lara Parker, who does frequent guest spots on episodic television, recalled the blown lines and prop problems during her days as Angelique the witch: "We rehearsed, blocked and shot each episode in one day--and taped it all in one shot. We knew that we just had once to do each scene. No one would ever see it again."

But die-hard fans keep watching.

Mario Ficarola, 36, of Tustin brought along her son, Tory, 10, and daughter, Leah, 7, to the festival to mingle with the ghouls they watch nightly on Anaheim's Channel 56.

"The kids watch it with me now, but from a different perspective," Ficarola said. "Back when I watched it in high school and college, those were troubled times with the Vietnam War and the protests. We watched it as kind of an escape. I think kids nowadays don't get the same enjoyment out of it. They've really been overexposed to gory stories--something 'Dark Shadows' was not--and I don't think the novelty of it comes across to them."

Susan Kagan, who handed out business cards reading "vampirologist," said she first watched the show in her "pre-junior high days" in Honey Creek, Ind. "This was intrigue and imagination. Today, kids don't have to have any intelligence to watch things on TV," she said.

"It was like the old serials--Tom Mix and Buck Rogers--exciting and scary," said Alvertise Sanders, adjusting the brim of her witch's hat. "I'm just one of those people who likes to be scared to death. My kids would come home from school and we'd watch--well, a few of them we're too frightened--but the rest of us would watch. And we'd never miss it."

Few were watching when "Dark Shadows" debuted on ABC June 27, 1966, as a half-hour gothic mystery starring Joan Bennett. In its first months, the show, set outside a small Maine fishing village, was buried in the ratings. Producer Dan Curtis then introduced a few ghosts, and added the character Barnabas Collins, a guilt-ridden vampire played by Jonathan Frid, to help boost the ratings. At its peak, the show attracted an average weekly audience of 15 million. The show was canceled in 1971.

Nowadays, the show is adding dollars to the coffers of many public television stations.

WNYC-TV's Hecker reports that viewers contributed more funds during the screening of "Dark Shadows" than any other program in the station's latest pledge drive. The station, he said, has signed for 260 episodes "and if things keep going the way they are, we'll re-up for another year's worth."

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