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L.A. STORIES : Living With a Monster of a Heritage

October 27, 1994|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I phoned Frankenstein the other day, seeing as it's Halloween season and there's a new Frankenstein movie on the way.

I found him working as a certified financial planner for a San Fernando Valley insurance company, where he's been employed for 20 years. You know, let's have a look at your--RARRRGGGHHH!--stock options . . . .

"Pretty mundane existence," I wanted to say, "for a guy who has been variously electrocuted, boiled in sulfur, burned, frozen in ice and God-knows-what."

But I didn't say it. Frankenstein hears that kind of stupid stuff all the time, and he's tired of it. So tired, in fact, that he makes a point of pronouncing the last syllable steen --just as Gene Wilder did in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein"--to discourage comparisons to Dr. Frankenstein's ill-fated experiment in better living through electricity.

I also resisted an urge to ask Frankenstein how it feels to have Robert De Niro portray you in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," coming Nov. 4. (Yes, it was the doctor who carried the Frankenstein appellation, but the monster is popularly identified with it.) Instead, I asked what it's like to go through life named Frankenstein.

Bill Frankenstein.

"I remember one time I worked as an orderly in a hospital in Pittsburgh," Frankenstein said. "And I used to take people down to the operating room. And I'll never forget, I had this one person going down for surgery who looked at my name tag and said, 'Frankenstein!' I said, 'Yes, and if the surgery isn't successful, we have other places for you to go!' "

Such is Frankenstein humor. Of course, what else can you expect from a person who must share the name of a reanimated brute whose primary problem-solving technique involved strangulation? If I were named Rip Frankenstein, for instance, I'd make sure that my business cards proclaimed: "Strength of a Hundred Men" or "Cannot Die." Or "If Found Dormant, Recharge at Own Risk." Or, a subtle one for Frankenstein film buffs, "Sit Down. " (The movies are curiously full of people ordering each other to "sit down. ") Or "Lighting Cigars in My Presence Is Inadvisable." Or just plain, "Fire--No Good!"

To make matters more dicey for Bill Frankenstein, he is the son of Dr. Frankenstein--Dr. Herbert Frankenstein, a prominent (yes, you guessed it) surgeon. It was the good doctor who first took to pronouncing the family name Frankensteen (correct German pronunciation is Frahnk-en-stine.) Small wonder! Life was initially tough for, um, young Frankenstein. (Sorry--it's hard to resist.)

"Oh, I used to get in a lot of fights when I was a kid," Frankenstein said. "You know, they'd yell 'Frankenstein monster!' My dad told me how to avoid it. I'd say, 'You're just jealous because I have a famous name.' And I'd walk away. It worked. I told my daughter to do the same thing."

Has the name always had such a, er, scarring effect? Nah, he insisted, it's even helped in his business: "People practically wander in off the street," he said, "and make remarks like 'Gee, you don't look anything like, uhhh . . . ' " Once, it got him a free lunch.

"I was a lieutenant in the Army in Germany back in 1965, and outside Frankfurt, there's a town called Frankenstein," he said. "My jeep driver and I were taking back roads, and all of a sudden, we passed by a town, and I said, 'Stop! Back up! The sign said Frankenstein.' So we went into a Gasthaus, a mom-and-pop operation, and the woman looks at my name tag and says, 'You're kidding!' And we got a free meal!"

I resisted an urge to ask him if he complimented the chef by saying, "Food. Drink. Goooooood. "

The reason I contacted Frankenstein, I should point out, was to find people with what you might call Halloween-appropriate names, and ask them for colorful and amusing anecdotes.

Aside from Bill Frankenstein, I placed a call to attorney Janet Mummey--who sadly, wasn't able to get back to me. (Probably wrapped up in her work--har!) Frank Stein was polite, but said the name hadn't caused him any trouble since childhood. I couldn't find any Renfields or Van Helsings in the phone book, and Lorenzo Draculan's number had, not surprisingly, been disconnected.

Harry and Selma Wolfman had nothing to offer; neither did Jeff nor Wilf Wolfman. (I was especially disappointed about Wilf, because of his name's unique doubly lycanthropic symbolism. Wilfred Glendon was the name of Henry Hull's werewolf character in the 1936 classic "Werewolf of London.") I was wondering why all the Wolfmans were busy--a full moon?--when the phone rang with a Wolfman on the line. Marv Wolfman.

"Everyone just thought my name was cool," Marv said. "No one ever believed the name at first, but no one ever thought it was silly."

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