Scary Halloween memories with the Vickers’ family

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Dorchester Banner/Susan M. Bautz
The Halloween troupe, from left, Jackie and Walt Vickers, BJ Brown, and Judd Vickers. By 1974 the show was so popular it drew 800 visitors ready to be scared.

CAMBRIDGE — “They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, they’re all together ooky, The Addams Family!” Those lyrics may not mean much to those born after about 1955 but they inspired the 60s generation. The Addams Family was a TV creation based on the darkly hilarious cartoons of Charles Addams. The original cast featured John Astin as the quintessential Gomez Addams and Carolyn Jones as his wife Morticia. They were joined by two children, a butler, an uncle, and “Thing,” the disembodied hand that appeared out of a small wooden box and also lived in the Addams’ ornate, gloomy mansion.

The show only aired from 1964-1966, but it influenced TV audiences from coast to coast for years thereafter. The Addams Family inspired a Cambridge family as well – in a very unique way.

The west end Cambridge home of Walter and Jackie Vickers seems an unlikely place to recreate a Halloween horror show but from the early 60s to the early 70s neighborhood children screamed in fear and delight at an 8-minute play – the brainchild of engineer Walt Vickers.

BJ Brown was a teenager when she worked as a hairdresser apprentice in Jackie’s beauty shop. “I was really into the vampire thing,” she says. “When Halloween came around Jackie would tell me how Walt would greet the children, jumping down from upstairs like he was a hunchback with a rope around his neck. He said when he was a kid there wasn’t anything scary going on – they would go to the graveyard and try to scare each other. I said ‘I’ll bet I could come around and scare you.’ I had a creepy wig and I did the whole vampire thing and went to the back door. I had blood coming out everywhere and I did scare them. Walt said ‘well I know what we can do with this.’” In 1964, just like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in the “Backyard Musical” movies they decided to put on a play.

Jackie says, “That’s how it started but Walt was the instigator. I was just happy to find a kindred spirit.” She describes how the dining room morphed into a mad scientist’s lab. There was black plastic over rugs, furniture was moved or covered, and a black curtain separated the dining room “lab” from the audience of excited children. Jackie explains, “Every year it just got bigger and bigger.”

Walt saw the show as a chance to put his engineering skills to work. The Halloween show gave him a chance to use the electronics at Cambridge Scientific Industries where he worked. Just like in the old Frankenstein movies, the equipment flashed lights, made eerie sounds, and set the stage for horror. “If you ever watched science fiction movies you would know where they got the props. We had readers that counted frequencies so it had lights that ran up and down it. We had machines like oscilloscopes that showed green sound waves.” He opened the show with a maniacal laugh coupled with lightning, thunder, and a strobe light.

BJ laughs, “We weren’t used to strobe lights – we hit into each other a couple of times.” Jackie adds, “We couldn’t do this same show today. Kids are way too sophisticated. At that time they were not.” One year the troupe added a cauliflower floating in an aquarium and bathed in red lights. “It looked like a brain soaking in blood.” Thunder and lightning added to the effect.

Jackie played a witch, possibly Morticia-inspired. After the show she helped “Thing” distribute candy using a special table leaf with a hole in the middle for the hand. “Neighborhood youngsters vied to play the part of a candy-doling hand. Calvin Stack Jr. was the first ‘Thing.’ We had a waiting list from year to year of kids who wanted to be ‘Thing.’ We made monsters out of a lot of well-known people.” “Thing” was a desired part for the youngsters and the younger ones “aged in” as the older ones aged out according to Jackie Vickers. Dennis and Mark Robbins, were also neighborhood kids, that grew into the “Thing” role.

A young County Council President Ricky Travers played Igor! Walt says, “BJ played dead.” Walt, the mad scientist, along with a nurse, examined her as the machines made “odd noises.” She says, “They were doing stuff to me and then the machines would screech like, ‘oooh-eeah.’ When I came alive and came towards the kids we closed the curtain to end the show because the kids were really frightened.” The nurse most often was Jeri Lynn Daffin Collins and assistant some years was Bibbi Jones Robinson.

Jackie says BJ did a “great job with makeup. Now you can go anywhere and buy make up for Halloween.” Back then BJ made blood out of blueberries, syrup, and red food color so it would continually drip. “It was a sticky mess.”

And the crowds grew. Walt describes how retired City Clerk Ed Kinnamon had recently become a policeman and one of his first assignments was Belvedere Avenue. “He couldn’t figure out what was going on out there. He said ‘I’m here, what do I do?’ I said, ‘just wait.’ That particular night we had about 400 people. There was so much traffic he had to call for back up before it was over.

Walt and Jackie’s son Judd remembers Halloween in the days when his home turned into a theater. Some of his kindergarten classmates “were so convinced mom was a witch she had to come into school as a normal person and convince them that she wasn’t a witch.” Jackie adds, she “put some of the witch’s stuff on so they wouldn’t be scared to death of him or me.”

Walt says, “At our last show in 1974 we peaked out around 800 people” with visitors from Easton, Salisbury, and Queenstown. “It got so big we had to stop it.” BJ adds, “By that time some of the kids were having their own haunted houses around town and we wanted to go see the spinoffs.” Judd says he still meets folks in their mid to early 50s who remember the shows well.

“I remember the last year that we did this,” says BJ, “and on the table, where Thing would be, I saw a sign that said, ‘candy, compliments of Ames.’ I was shocked that we had gotten so commercial that we had a sponsor! We thought, ‘Wow, now we are big-time.’”

The troupe agrees, “It was all Walt.” He says, “Ever since I can remember I wanted to entertain. When I was 5 years old I sang ‘kiss me once, kiss me twice, it’s been a long, long, time’ at a local theater’s talent show. That’s when I realized I like an audience and it’s been that way ever since.”

As a side-line from his engineering job he did stand-up comedy shows and impersonations like Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, and Elvis in bars and at dinners. “Where people drink they make better audiences,” he chuckles. He also worked on equipment at the local radio station and when the station added a TV studio, he jumped on the chance to work on equipment as well as perform. With photography as another passion, Walt built a darkroom in his home and earned money photographing scientific equipment. “I’ve had a very busy life and a little bit of sleep.”

At the end of the Banner’s interview, Jackie and BJ reminisced, “We had a great time.” Walt punctuated their statement with his well-practiced maniacal laugh. You had to hear it!

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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