Eugene Harold Mashontz was a funny comedy writer and performer who seemed to specialize in playing vampires, mad scientists and silly characters with a classic-monster bent. Monsters were big from 1957-1967, especially with children fascinated by all things Frankenstein, Dracula or Wolfman. Famous Monsters was a best-selling magazine (it even spawned an LP), Bobby "Boris" Pickett's Monster Mash was a number one single, Milton the Monster was a popular cartoon, The Munsters and The Addams Family were sitcoms that debuted in the same week, and every city seemed to have a Late Late Show of classic horror movies hosted by a local personality draped in make-up, surrounded by coffins and cobwebs.
Into the mix came Gene Moss. The market was flooded with novelty recordings sung by the living dead after the success of Monster Mash. The list of monster related novelty music is too huge to tackle today, but one of the greats was a full length LP that featured the masterful vocal talents of Gene Moss. It was called Dracula's Greatest Hits. Get your Halloween party started right by listening to the entire, very scratchy, LP here.
In 1959, the Topps company, best known for baseball cards and teeth-shattering gum, put out a line of classic horror related trading cards called Funny Monsters. They were a huge success and were quickly copied by several other companies. Brilliant Mad Magazine veteran Jack Davis provided the illustrations on the cards. Davis was also a prolific illustrator of record covers, having provided countless drawings for folks like Homer and Jethro, Bob and Ray, Jonathan Winters, The Guess Who and countless others (a coffee table book of Jack Davis' LP artwork is desperately needed). It made a lot of sense that RCA Victor would call Davis to illustrate the cover of Dracula's Greatest Hits. As an extra-added bonus, the original album came with an uncut sheet of pseudo-Funny Monster collectables dubbed "Monster Fan Cards." (Davis also illustrated the cover for Zacherley's 1962 Monster Mash Party LP and Milton Delugg's 1964 Music for Monsters, Mummies & Other TV Fiends). Dracula's Greatest Hits appears to be Gene Moss' first major project. In 1965 came Gene's most enduring work.
Kenneth C.T. Snyder's group was a company responsible for plenty of animated dreck. Snyder made one of the earliest "educational" cartoons, something called The Funny Company. It had the prefix 'funny' in its title in order to let viewers know that it was supposed to be. In the late sixties Snyder created a square-jawed animated series called Skyhawks and what amounted to a half-hour animated commercial - the cartoon series Hot Wheels. Despite those three dreadful programs, Snyder somehow put together a hilarious satirical animated series called Roger Ramjet. That somehow was Gene Moss.
Ramjet had the same limited animation and lack of budget as The Funny Company, Skyhawks and Hot Wheels, but it was lucky in that it had several very talented people working on it. Gene Moss and his writing partner Jim Thurman wrote several hilarious scripts that took the piss out of America's often jingoistic value system. The character of Ramjet believed in the all-American battle against evil and was often deployed by the military to fight on their behalf. Ramjet downed "Proton Energy Pills" giving him "the strength of twenty atom bombs for twenty seconds." There's plenty of Roger Ramjet to view here.
Fred Crippen, a wonderful animator, designed the great look of the characters. Crippen became prominent in the nineteen fifties during the heyday of "stylized" animation and design, what has become known as the "Cartoon Modern" look. Crippen worked for the most successful company in that school of animation, UPA. Check out this lovely looking Crippen drawing from the era. Watch a famous UPA cartoon here.
Radio personality Gary Owens, possessing one of the greatest voices in show business history, gave Roger Ramjet his larynx. Owens' commanding voice was utilized for other cartoon heroes like Hanna Barbera's Space Ghost and The Blue Falcon. Many years later he was recruited by Roger Ramjet devotee John Kricfalusi for the voice of Powdered Toast Man. Gene Moss and Jim Thurman also lent their voices to incidental characters on Ramjet. Watch some Gary Owens cartoon clips here.
RCA's budget Camden label put out, what is now, a very hard to find Roger Ramjet LP. The show lasted only one year, but thankfully ran in syndication for decades. Buddies Moss and Thurman worked together again shortly after Ramjet's demise.
Fred Rice was both a record and television producer. He produced Dracula's Greatest Hits at RCA and received co-writing credits on some of the tracks, although he probably just came up with the ideas that Moss flushed out. Rice once described his role in record production as "an idea man." Rice had got his first modest gig in showbiz as an in-betweener at the Waler Lantz cartoon studio. He worked for a spell at Disney and then moved into the Jack Davis field of record cover illustration. "I worked on 15 Bozo the Clown books and records," Rice recalled. This led to a long association with Capitol Records, where he designed covers and after twenty-seven years, slowly inched his way into audio production. Three years after Dracula's Greatest Hits, Rice was still convinced that monsters were a sure-fire formula for success. Rice encouraged his acquaintance Mike Normer, a Los Angeles radio personality, to come up with some spooky characters that he could merchandise. The idea turned into a local Channel 9 television show called Shrimpenstein.
The idea of a kiddie monster show was not new. Several local stations had an afternoon show modeled after the successful freeform style of Soupy Sales, or even Bozo the Clown, in which children's letters were read, prizes given away, live animals brought on, pies thrown and cartoons shown. When the monster craze took off, this concept was married to that other staple of local tv stations - the aforementioned Late Late Shows hosted by a local guy in a get-up (Tim Conway's one time comedy partner, Ernie Anderson, had cult status around Cleveland with his regional television character Ghoulardi and Billy Van hit big in Hamilton and other parts of Canada with his clever turns on CHCH television's Hilarious House of Frightenstein - there were countless others).
Gene Moss' adept voice work made Shrimpenstein stand out. It is regarded today as a cut above the other shows in the genre. Shrimpenstein was the name of the adorable Frankenstein ventriloqouist dummy that would sit on Moss' knee. The program was sometimes sponsored by Hormel Wieners. Their products were often hocked by another puppet, Wilfred the Weenie Wolf. You can listen to some audio files from Shrimpenstein here, here and here. You can also mosey over to The Saturday Morning Blog and watch just over six and a half minutes of the show.
As with most local kiddie shows, Moss introduced cartoon shorts. In his timeslot were the early Grantray-Lawrence cartoons based on the Marvel Comics superheroes. They were among the very first cartoons based on comic book heroes and they set the bar very, very low for all that would follow. Moss often pointed out their lack of quality in character as Mad Professor Von Schtick, stating, "And now, time for another one of those cartoons that doesn't move," or "Here's another Marvel mediocrity!" Watch a Captain America short from the series here. Moss' Von Schtick voice kind of oscillated between an impression of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff - and he was known to get sick of it. One story goes that Gene Moss actually broke character live on the air, saying, "I'm sick of this stupid voice."
The show's opening theme song states that the scientist created little Shrimpenstein when he "dropped a bag of jellybeans into the Frankenstein machine." Legendary Hollywood designer Wah Chang, built the neat looking puppet. Chang has an incredible resumé. He was responsible for the construction of the tricorder, the communicator and the notorious tribbles on the original Star Trek. He created The Time Machine for the film of the same name, Elizabeth Taylor's elaborate headdress in Cleopatra (1963), the creatures in Land of the Lost, aspects of The Planet of the Apes (1968) and all kinds of other wonderfully nerdy shit.
Shrimpenstein's home base was KHJ TV, Los Angeles. KHJ's "Boss Radio" division was popular at the time. Being situated in Hollywood helped a great deal in helping them snag top stars to do small promotional turns for the station. Listen to Burt Ward and Adam West plug KHJ at the height of batmania here. One of Radio KHJ's popular personalities was the legendary Roger Christian, one of the key brains behind America's explosive surf music craze. Christian co-wrote several songs with Brian Wilson and another surf music whiz, Gary Usher. Christian also made contributions to the music of Jan & Dean, The Hondells and several more obscure surf groups. These connections made it simple for Roger to enlist The Beach Boys to do a KHJ jingle. Listen to it here.
In the summer of 1967 KHJ TV granted Gene Moss and Jim Thurman their own late night talk show. It went under the ridiculous name The Moss & Thurman Show or The Thurman & Moss Show or The Or Show. It aired Monday through Thursday nights. Some recall them being dressed as referees for the duration of the program. It was able to score a higher-level of celebrity than you might expect from fly-by-night local TV, but again, being situated in the middle of Hollywood helped in bounds. Respected studio musician Stan Worth was the Doc Severinsen to Moss & Thurman's Carson and McMahon. Worth was making his first forays into television at the time, having just composed the theme song to the Jay Ward cartoon George of the Jungle. He was also finding work creating fast paced beats for game shows like The Hollywood Squares, High Rollers (with host Alex Trebek), The Liar's Club and Name That Tune. The talk show was off the air in less than a year.
Moss and Thurman moved into the world of advertising with their agency Creative Advertising Stuff. They followed in the footsteps of fellow novelty recording personality Stan Freberg by trying to make commercials funny. They also, like every other comedy writer in show business, spent a short time writing material for Bob Hope. Moss and Thurman went their separate ways as Thurman found work on the hit CTW productions, Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact and The Electric Company. He continued his long relationship with PBS, co-creating Square One in the eighties. Thurman was also a writer on season four of The Muppet Show.
Moss found plenty of work doing voices for the Saturday Morning ghettos. He spoke for incidental characters in Depatie-Freleng's horrible Fantastic Four (in which the Human Torch was inexplicably absent, replaced with the cutesy and obnoxious H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot). Gene Moss was also providing the voice of Smokey The Bear in animated commercials airing around this time. Moss not only provided voices, but also wrote several scripts for a WFMU favorite. I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali is a 1977 camp classic that not even kids would sit through. It lasted only thirteen weeks. Watch it here.
The next twenty years were sporadic in terms of work for Moss. Thurman threw him a couple bones with guest appearances on Square One. One of Gene Moss' final television gigs was as a singer at a wedding in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 - nobody is quite sure how that happened. He passed away in 2002.
LINKS TO VARIOUS MONSTROUS 1960s NOVELTY RECORDINGS THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH GENE MOSS
Songs our Mummy Taught Us - Performed by Bob McFadden and Dor (1959, Brunswick Records)
Monster Dance Party - Riboflavin-Flavored, Non-Carbonated, Polyunsaturated Blood Performed by Don Hinson (Capitol Records, 1964)
The Newest Teenage Singing Group: The Munsters - Inspired by the TV Characters The Munsters (Decca Records, 1964)
At The Monsters Ball performed by Milton Delugg and The Vampires (1964, United Artists)
Various Recordings from Frankie Stein and His Ghouls (1964-65, Power Records)
A Gallery of Jack Davis LP Covers