Posted on 07 Feb 2012 by Bradford Tatum
My new book The Monster’s Muse is now available for download from Amazon, hard copies to follow for those of you interested. This book is a real departure for me, based, if my source can be believed, on absolute fact. Now there are several books about Hollywood’s famous horror cycle of the 1930’s, more on the inner workings of the studio system itself. But what drew me to this subject was that it is based on the purported reminiscences of a single individual, an individual so unnervingly unique, with such a privileged point of view into the real working of several classic horror films that I could not resist committing her tale to paper (or what ever one might call Kindle’s little read-out screen.)
It all began with a single piece of paper. A few years ago, I found myself at Comic Con (my wife was making an appearance there) among one of several Hollywood memorabilia sellers. I have always had an affinity for the ephemera of old Hollywood, especially anything from the classic Universal horror cycle of the 1930’s. There among the pristine lobby cards and super rare one sheets was this:
As soon as I had my hot little fingers on it, it was promptly snatched from me. “Oh Dude. That shouldn’t be there,” said the vendor who bore an uncomfortable resemblance Ashton Kutcher (if Mr Kutcher subsisted on microwave pizza and diet soda.)
“What’s so special about it?”
“The stationery alone is worth some major coinage but the fact that’s it’s actually used...dude.” He let me look at it from the cradle of his finger tips. It seemed just another dry communication between Universal’s distribution arm and a first run movie house. (That little sheet of inter-office flotsam actually did go on to sell for over two grand at the Heritage Auction House in Los Angeles.)
“What’s that scribbled there?”
“That’s what makes it super toasty.” Scribbled in the margins were the words: “John, the kid’s name is Maddy Ulm--she is legit! Best....”
“I don’t get it,” I said. Because I didn’t.
“You’ve never heard of Maddy Ulm? The Ghost of Stage 28? Vampire girl of Universal City?” I had heard of Stage 28, had actually worked on that stage and met my wife there while we were both working on SeaQuest a thousand years ago. It was the stage for Chaney’s 1927 Phantom of the Opera and the opera seats from the original set were still there.
“Nope,” I said, not wanting to get into my personal history.
“Well, a lot of crazy stuff has been attributed to this girl. Some say she was an editor on Chaney’s Phantom and that she really directed Lugosi’s Dracula. I even heard it was a toss up between her and Whale to direct Frankenstein.”
“That has to be total bullshit.”
“I don’t know...” the vendor went on. Now I don’t think its an indecorous breach to suggest that movie memorabilia hawkers are known to work the same side of the street as conspiracy theorists and all-night gamers. So I was incredulous. To say the least. But he went on.
“I talked to the son of the original owner of the Aztec Theater in Pacoima. It’s demolished now but back then it was a first run house and he remembers this crazy little white girl, no more than ten he said, who had been sent by the studio to organize a test screening for All Quiet on the Western Front. Her name was Maddy Ulm.”
“A little girl directed Dracula? Bullshit.”
“I know. But there was a Maddy Ulm under contract to Universal between 1930-1935.”
“What does that prove?”
“Nothing. Unless you believe Forry.” Forry was Forrest Ackerman, the creator of the bible of horror fan geekdom, Famous Monster’s of Filmland and an unrepentant hoarder of memorabilia until his death. Now everything in Memoryland is distilled through a filter, a viscous membrane of either time or pot smoke or both and so I had to take what he told me next with a staggeringly large grain of salt. Apparently, as a much younger man, Forry had presided over a small convention that honored the king himself, Boris Karloff. It was at that little get together that Forry said he saw Mr. Karloff embrace a weeping ten year-old girl, after having exchanged several “friendly” words with her. Forry distinctly remembers Karloff calling her Maddy. And this Maddy, whomever she was, calling the king Billy. Now this was 1963 or something. Ten years old in ’63 and the 1930’s? Weird.
I suppose that should have been the end of it. This vendor was obviously in the throes of some major psychotropic substance and I needed to eat something other than a cheese hot dog. So we left Comic-Con, my wife and I. And I tried to forget it. Maybe I was sentimental about the Stage 28 connection, or there was something in her name. Or I just liked a good mystery like anyone else. Suffice it to say I went a little nuts. I also had an advantage. As an actor I was lucky enough to do several guest spots on the Universal lot where I quickly ingratiated myself to anyone who looked over fifty. Surprisingly, I was able to find a few people who, although they had never met Maddy themselves, knew stories about her. I was even allowed (long story) into the Universal archives one lunch break and saw Maddy’s original contract and pay stubs as well as a few repair bills for a modified Packard pick-up truck she owned and leased to the studio.The girl was real. Even if the stories attributed to her were not.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I was going to tell her story. All that was missing was the words from the girl (woman) herself. Some things are destined. And the way I finally net Maddy Ulm was definitive of those things. One day, last summer, our gardeners brought their grandfather to work. He sat on the tail gait of his son’s truck while his grandsons blew leaves and mowed. It was a hot day and so I brought the old man a cold beer. He took the beer with a gracious bow of his head and when he looked up at me I saw he had incredible blue eyes. None of his offspring seemed to share this trait and when I told him, in very broken Spanish, how beautiful I thought they were, he again thanked me and told me, in English far better than my Spanish, that he was half German. His mother was a full-blood from Mexico but his father had been a German WWI vet who ended up working as a stunt man for Universal in the thirties. He then went on to say that his father, having been badly wounded in Belgium, was actually the model for the Jack Pierce Frankenstein creature make-up. He said he father had come to this country with his best and only friend, another wayward German named Maddy Ulm. I almost fell over. Was he really telling me that his father was best friends with the girl/legend I was desperate to meet? He took several more beers, but by the end of the afternoon, I had an address.
Meeting Maddy far exceeded my wildest imaginings. I don’t know what I expected, some shriveled woman, well into her dotage, steeped in vague bitterness and the smoke from her menthols, a dithering, half-demented old curmudgeon who couldn’t resist, in her whisky raped voice, to dress down the terrible powers that be in tinsel town. Nothing prepared me for what she actually was. Is. Her apartment is exactly as I describe it in the opening pages of the book. Her appearance is as close as my descriptive powers can get. But the person, the entity of the Maddy Ulm I spent several months with, listening to, laughing with, crying with, arguing with, I can only hope I have done justice to her.
“Words are not my medium, mein lieber, “ she said to me once I had decided to tell her story. “Write it as fiction. That’s the only way you’ll get people to believe it.”