There was an unsettling rumor going around last November that the long-running daytime drama Days of Our Lives was in danger of getting a pink slip and losing its parking place at NBC…but DOOL’s demise turned out to be a premature one, and it was confirmed that the program would soldier on with Season 56. I’m sure this is splendid news for my good friend Tammy—the most rabid DOOL fan I know—though I remember sending her a link to the rumor via Facebook and she sheepishly admitted that she hadn’t been keeping up with the show for nigh onto five years. “I can remedy that,” she assured me. “I’ll DVR tomorrow’s episode and then I’ll be all caught up.”
Tammy and I worked for the same company during my years in exile in Morgantown, WV, and one time she was filling in for me the necessary details on Days since I’d never watched the show (all I remembered was that wonderful Macdonald Carey opening: “Like sands through an hourglass…”). Tammy additionally related to me what she believed to have been the “stupidest” storyline from the series: when Deidre Hall’s character of Marlena was possessed by The Devil. This tickled me to no end (I think demonic possession can only help a soap opera) and I joshed back: “You must not remember Dark Shadows, huh?”
Tammy was considerably younger than me then (come to think of it, not much has changed) so I shouldn’t have expected her to have much memory of Shadows (when I explained the premise behind the soap, she remarked “Sounds a lot like Passions”); my own recollection of that cult show is fairly faint itself, and I grew up during that era. Thanks to my new Roku Express, I’ve been able to access classic reruns of Dark Shadows through the streaming service Tubi—shout-out to Rick Armstrong at the Classic Film and TV Café for letting me know about the Tubi acquisition via the Twitter machine.
A haunting dream about a mysterious young woman on a train was the catalyst for producer Dan Curtis to create Dark Shadows (after rejecting such titles as Shadows on the Wall, The House on Widows’ Hill, and Terror at Collinwood), which premiered over ABC on June 27, 1966. Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke Isles), a woman with a hazy recollection of her past, is hired to be a governess for young David Collins (David Henesy) by his aunt, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett). The Collins family have long resided in the seaport town of Collinsport, Maine, and possess a history that’s every bit as intriguing as Victoria’s; Elizabeth, for example, has not left the confines of the family estate (Collinwood) in 18 years, harboring a dark secret.
The eerie Gothic atmosphere of the show is what distinguished it from standard soap opera fare in its early months, with a few supernatural touches added here and there (like the occasional ghost). The ratings, however, were nothing to buy drinks over, and after ten months of anemic audience numbers the Powers-That-Be at the American Broadcasting Company told producer Curtis he had 26 weeks to turn things around or it was all over. Curtis decided to institute a storyline (in April of 1967) introducing the Collins family (and viewers) to Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid)—a centuries-old vampire revived by careless drifter Willie Loomis (Cagney & Lacey’s John Karlen) after foolishly trying to rob his coffin. Loomis would become Barnabas’ “Renfield,” and what was intended to be just a brief storyline on Dark Shadows turned out to be the show’s savior, when Barnabas became a hit with audiences practically overnight.
The introduction of Barnabas Collins opened up Dark Shadows to a variety of storylines involving werewolves, zombies, witches, warlocks, and a heckuva lot of time travel. For a Dark Shadows actor/actress, working on the show was the textbook definition of job security; if a character was killed, odds were they’d be back soon as apparitions. When the storylines took characters back to 1795 or 1897, the cast was pressed into service to play individuals from that time frame. The show’s fantastic plots borrowed heavily from classic fantasy literature, appropriating elements from such authors as Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Henry James, and H.P. Lovecraft.
Dark Shadows would soon become one of ABC’s (long derided as “the third network”) most popular daytime series, along with the Monty Hall game show Let’s Make a Deal. Shadows aired for most of its five-year-run at 4pm Eastern (3 Central), where its audience was comprised of younger viewers coming home from school in time to catch the show. Shadows soon began winning its time slot on a regular basis, even contributing to the demise of NBC’s Match Game (until it was revived in the 1970s over CBS) and CBS institution House Party with Art Linkletter. While the show was a favorite of teens, this itself was one of several factors that contributed to Dark Shadows’ cancellation in 1971—in the broadcasting biz, the “golden” demographic is identified as 25- to 52-year-olds, the folks with most of the purchasing power. (Another factor, oddly enough, was the release of the 1970 film produced to cash in on the Shadows phenomenon, House of Dark Shadows—the PG-rated film was allowed to show considerably more blood than the TV series, and it freaked a few parents out in “contributing-to-the-delinquency-of-a-minor” fashion.)
Dan Curtis really didn’t mourn the cancellation of Dark Shadows: “I was just hoping it was going to end. I couldn’t squeeze my brain any harder to come up with just one more story. I just wanted to move on and out.” The incredible thing about Shadows is that its cult status made it the first daily daytime drama to be syndicated, beginning in 1975 with 130 episodes syndicated by Worldvision Enterprises. More and more episodes were added after that, until the entire 1,225-episode-run was made available to the Sci-Fi (SyFy) Channel. Dark Shadows also bears the distinction of having all its episodes (save one) intact, unusual in that many serialized shows from that era were “wiped” in order to recycle the videotape. The entirety of Dark Shadows has now been made available on DVD, with the pre-Barnabas episodes identified as Dark Shadows: The Beginning.
I saw the occasional Shadows repeat when the show aired over one of the Savannah stations (I think it was WTOC but I’m a little fuzzy on the year) and caught one occasionally during its SyFy run so I’m glad Tubi has most of the shows available to stream. (My understanding is that the series is also available to Amazon Prime members but since I don’t plan to shuffle off this mortal coil until Jeff Bezos is marched off to a guillotine that’s of little consequence to me.) I watch a few episodes each night before hitting the hay; I’m up to the part of the storyline where they introduce Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) into the mix, and I cannot even begin to express how relieved I am that the “Blackmailing of Elizabeth Stoddard” shenanigans are over and done with. (I like Dennis Patrick, but that brogue of his as Jason McGuire was getting on my last nerve.)
Dark Shadows is just engagingly goofy fun for me: the over-the-top acting, the melodramatic plots—I especially enjoy how some of the episodes don’t quite have the professional polish you’d expect from network TV. Shadows had a grueling five-day-a-week shooting schedule and editing on videotape was difficult back then…so the majority of the scenes were shot in one take, openly inviting actors to flub their lines from time to time. Camera and microphone shadows (the show acquired the unflattering nickname “Mic Shadows”), malfunctioning props, and wobbly sets were also occupational hazards as were crew members accidentally walking into the shot (I saw this the other night during the closing credits of one episode and it was good for a chortle). The production team (luckily for us) didn’t pay this no never mind on the belief that the show was going to run once and that was it.
The streaming of Dark Shadows on Tubi is also beneficial because I’m trying to collect as many episodes as I can; I’d purchase the series in its entirety but I just don’t have that kind of scratch around the House of Yesteryear. The Roku Express is a godsend because I can watch the show in the privacy of my boudoir—the first time I tried to watch this on the “Kudzu” in the living room my Mom kept asking me non-stop: ”Who are these people?”