Sunday, July 14, 2024

Of Masks and Music – The Verne Langdon Story

For some time now, my phone’s ringtone has been “Be a Clown” performed by Verne Langdon. There has never been an occasion when my phone has rung and the tune it plays has been appropriate. Not at the doctor’s, at work, at funerals, whilst shopping… it’s guaranteed to provoke weird looks and, for some reason, is seemingly decibels louder than any alternatives. Perfect. But who is Verne Langdon? To me, he’s a musician and composer of creepy circus music; to others, a monster mask-maker; for some, a wrestler or a stage magician. Of course, he was all of those and more.

Vernon Loring Langdon was born in Oakland, California in 1941, an only child to two musical parents – his mother was first cellist in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and his father an amateur violin and occasional saw player, who had used his skills to pay himself through dental college. His uncle, Red Nichols was a noted jazz band leader with The Five Pennies, famous enough for Danny Kaye to play him in a Hollywood biopic in 1959.

By the age of ten, Verne was studying classical piano with Thomas Ryan, head of music at what would become San Jose University. At fourteen he had dispensed with conventional musical training and was demonstrating pianos at a local music store, where he was spotted by Korla Pandit (real name John Redd), the celebrated faux-Indian exponent of mystical organ-playing, firmly putting the Exotic into Exotica. He offered to teach Langdon both theory and practical organ and Wurlitzer skills, something which he accepted. After leaving college, Verne hosted shows on local radio stations, as well as playing keyboards when required…at this stage, you probably feel you could write the rest of his bio yourself from this information – good luck with that.

Langdon’s childhood wasn’t all music. He had an early fascination with the circus, more specifically clowns, and was in an unusually fortuitous situation in having a dentist for a father. Langdon senior did all his own laboratory work, taking impressions of patients’ mouths and casting and sculpting everything from single teeth to gold bridge work. Langdon junior was given free rein to play in this playground of putty, wax and moulds, creating little creatures and having his father cast a clown’s nose from his own face. An ability to combine his innate artistry with the mechanical know-how of how to make full-head casts would serve him well for years to come.

Langdon’s fascination for clowning and dressing up led to him buying a couple of masks from the overlord of mask creation, Don Post Snr. So enamoured was he with Post’s work, that he and his father tracked him down to meet him in person. Over the course of Langdon’s schooling, he and Post kept in touch, essentially becoming pen-pals, with Post increasingly aware of his protegee’s skills in creating face prosthetics. His skills became more widely known when he started producing his signature clown nose for a local theatrical supplies company, later creating a zombie mask due to demand. Hollywood shows by theatre companies, illusionists and variety acts started using masks made by Langdon alongside the far more well-known Don Post creations.

Although initially fearful that Langdon was stealing his business, a gentleman’s agreement turned into something far more formal in 1963 – Post sold Langdon half his company. On the surface, this was an ageing businessman bringing in new blood to gradually take over from him, though in reality Langdon soon found a company swimming in debt. The company had four employees, creating anything from a dozen to 150 masks per day in times of plenty, for both the average Joe to film and theatre productions. An early order came from the perhaps unlikely duo of Tom Tryon (later to author the terrific book, ‘The Other‘) and model and star of ‘Attack of the 50ft Woman’, Yvette Vickers. Their planned Grand Guignol-type theatre show demanded full-body gorilla costumes – the assignment would prove an excellent trial run for Langdon.

Visitors to the studios included such luminaries as Tor Johnson, Felix Silla and Glenn Strange, and with debts cleared, the company started creating a wide range of new masks at not-inconsiderable prices – $25 for a standard zip-back head mask equates to over $250 dollars today. A full gorilla suit? $450 – $45000 in 2023 money. I’m sure you can see how the maths are working there. An unfortunate ‘borrowing’ of ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’s‘ logo could have spelt disaster legally but turned into a business partnership which led to all-time high sales, with advertising in Warren’s comics and magazines.

From 1963-1968, Langdon helped to re-shape the company, bringing in new sculptors and launching the legendary ‘calendar mask’ range. The end to the relationship with Post can about purely as Langdon was increasingly in demand to work for local studios, leaving little time for any other work. Amongst other gigs, Langdon worked on all the ‘Planet of the Apes’ films, as well as the spin-off TV show, ‘Lost in Space’ and a parade of Hollywood stars, from Liberace to Karloff. Perhaps cementing himself in pop culture lore even more strongly was a project he did for his own amusement, a zombie. It soon appeared on the front of the 1972 ‘Creepy‘ annual and has since become iconic, an image which conveys the horror, inventiveness and humour of the whole scene. Langdon was quickly called upon to create masks of the image, which he duly did – contrary to popular assumption, this was not a Don Post creation.

The turn of the decade saw Langdon refocusing on creating music, though those expecting the sounds of Laurel Canyon were in for a surprise. The catalyst was something we would now associate with the use of samples on dance and rap tracks – a cease and desist copyright claim. However, this was not from a no-hit wonder aggrieved that their tune was being exploited by another artist – it was from the estate of Bela Lugosi. Back in 1966, Langdon had co-produced the album, ‘An Evening With Boris Karloff & Friends‘ for Decca, a release which combined Boris Karloff introducing spoken word snippets from classic Universal horror films with over-the-top (but actually really good) spooky musical accompaniment.

The music in question was composed and conducted by William Loose, one of America’s most accomplished composers of library music, used in everything from cartoons (and later, posthumously, ‘The Ren & Stimpy Show‘) to sections of ‘Night of the Living Dead,‘ as well as full scores for exploitation classics such as ‘Big Bird Cage’, ‘Swinging Cheerleaders’,  ‘Mako: The Jaws of Death’ and several Russ Meyer films. Decca was in no mood to argue over copyright claims, despite the album’s good sales and it was duly pulled from the shelves. Attempts were made to buy back the album by Langdon and his friend, Milt Larson, the founder of The Magic Castle – a private members club for magicians (an inner circle of the magic circle, perhaps?) but these failed, igniting in them to creative spark to make their own similar disc.

Released in 1973, this album was ‘The Phantom of the Organ,’ with Verne Langdon playing the part of the unhinged but brilliant tinkler, Erik. Recorded at Whitney Recording Studios in Glendale (much used by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart) on a 34-pipe Wurli-Morton pipe organ, it features seven tracks of ominous, echoing laments from “The Phantom” (Langdon isn’t actually given the name-check). All original tracks, they are fantastically evocative of black and white horror films of the thirties and forties, without ever descending into cheese or corn.

Crystal clear, they combine eerie melodies with occasional jarring discordance, tagged with over-the-top titles like ‘Dementia Macabre’ and ‘Depression’. If they bring to mind haunted house theme park attractions then it’s small wonder – it’s where many of the tracks found a home (in fact, you could even buy the album at Disney resorts). It’s far more than a sound effects album – it’s a work of great skill and holds up fantastically as one of those strange paradoxical monuments – a time capsule of a time capsule. Adorned with a fantastically alluring painting by Bob Juanillo and with accompanying liner notes by Famous Monsters’ Forrest J. Ackerman, the album sold by the bucket load.

It was the first of a slew of album releases. 1973 saw the first of two volumes of ‘Circus Clown Calliope!‘, which I can recommend highly. The first collection features a truly disturbing photo of a clown on the cover, bizarrely taken by celebrated furniture-maker, Charles Eames. I am completely numb to the apparently commonly-held fear of clowns, but this triggers even me. Appropriately, the music within, whilst intending to transport you to all the fun of the fair, is more of a trip to the shadowy curtained areas behind the big top. It’s impossible to shake the image of the hideous clown when listening to ‘The Silly Sorceror’ or ‘What D’ya Mean You Lost Yer Dog?’ – it’s almost certain he ate it.  Volume 2 also features a clown photo on the cover, though this time he looks less murderous and more suicidal. With that in mind, what better to play with a noose around your neck than the oddly downbeat, ‘Barcarolle’ or traipse to the top of a multi-storey car park with a haunting rendition of ‘The Stripper’?

The same year saw the release of ‘Doctor Druid’s Haunted Seance‘, which set out its stall on the cover:

“This record is intended for entertainment purposes only; responsibility for any psychic phenomenon which may occur (either directly or indirectly) as a result of playing this record will not be assumed by the manufacturer”. 

It featured ‘Erik’ once more on the organ and looked to discover what happened beyond the veil of death – “WE WILL MAKE CONTACT“. At a time when a Saturday night might be either movie night or sat at home faffing about with a ouija board, In fact, the album goes as far as to instruct the listener on how to conduct a seance in their own home, giving directions on how to make ‘spiritual happenings’ occur in the room at specific points during the record. Far more of a truly interactive album than any of his other releases, it’s joyously silly, a great companion record to something like the ‘Criswell Predicts‘ album.

There was more. In 1974, Langdon released what is considered the follow-up to ‘Phantom of the Organ’ – ‘Vampyre at the Harpsichord‘ (indeed, they’ve since been released on one CD). No prizes for guessing which direction ‘Vampyre’ takes, though the identity of the player is a little confused – Ackerman announces it to be – wait for it – Draculon – on the sleeve, whilst the front and rear image shows the face of The Hypnotist from the lost film, ‘London at Midnight‘. Though atmospheric, it’s not as loveable as ‘Phantom’ and is overly ponderous in places. It’s such a brilliant piece of trashy daftness that it’s easy to overlook the, let’s be honest, fairly important fact the music isn’t all that great here. It’s as well they were reissued as original copies go for silly amounts of money online.

1974 was a busy year. There was still time for ‘Music for Magicians‘ – an end-to-end collection of organ fanfares and ‘ta-daas’ for on-stage illusionists to perform their art. It’s a much-overlooked album in Langdon’s discography, far from throw-away cues and leaning heavily on the mystery and strangeness of magic. The cover helps, a great piece by Ron Cobb, concept artist for films including ‘Conan the Barbarian‘, ‘Total Recall‘ and the mind behind many of the cantina aliens in ‘Star Wars, A New Hope‘.

Not enough? There are still his releases as Johann Sebastian Bork to check out, a pseudonym for Langdon to inhabit a new character with his recognisable trademark nose. ‘Johann Sebastian Bork’s Honkeychord‘; ‘Bork/Live!‘ and the later, ‘Musical Menopause‘, ‘Get Leid‘ and ‘Fugue You!‘ offer dozens of rags and themes as interpreted by a grotesque harpsichord player bashing out tunes from a time unspecified. Understandably, this outpouring of creativity slowed down, with only one album of note released in 1975 – ‘Poe with Pipes‘. This album finally redressed the ills of the Boris Karloff project, with John Carradine stepping in to be the narrator of Poe’s tales (‘The Raven’, obviously, plus ‘Conqueror Worm‘, ‘Ulalume‘, ‘The Sleeper (Irene)‘, ‘Annabelle Lee‘ and ‘Dream Within a Dream‘ with Langdon providing musical backing on a funeral organ.

All these albums were released on Langdon’s own Electric Lemon Record Company, along with two releases later in his career – ‘Music for Zombies‘ (a piano and synth affair – fun but not particularly zombie-ish) and ‘Halloween Spooktacular‘, a disappointing collection of sound effects and organ. There were, shockingly, many other releases, mostly under the ‘new age’ banner for the Dejavue Record Company, though this does them a disservice. It’s well worth seeking out ‘Carnival of Souls‘ and ‘Black Gardenias‘, both spooky, inventive and a rare opportunity to hear some vocals on his work.

Langdon returned to make-up and monsters in the mid-1980s, creating the Castle Dracula Horror Show for Universal Studios and many television shows. We’ve not even touched upon his (less spectacular) wrestling career or his work on the Wookies who appear in the Star Wars Holiday Special. Verne died on New Year’s Day, 2011. A true polymath and enricher of lives.

Daz Lawrence 

For all your Verne needs, go here

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