Lee Lambert and the History of Don Post Studios [Interview]

Lee Lambert and the History of Don Post Studios [Interview]

I’m a lover and a collector of all kinds of movie and TV memorabilia and I love pretend shopping the catalogs of the top collectible auction houses like Blacksparrow.

A few months ago, I got an update from the company that surprised me so much, I had to double check to see if I wasn’t confused. The update was all the upcoming release of the The Illustrated History of Don Post Studios: Deluxe Edition. I didn’t know that Blacksparrow was a publisher but I was so excited to see a book dedicated to one of the most famous mask makers of my childhood. I saw them advertised in the back of Famous Monsters magazine when I was a kid and I desperately wanted one but $34 (in the 1970s) was way out of my reach.

When I saw the book, it brought back so many childhood memories that I had to interview the author; Lee Lambert. Lee isn’t a writer by trade but once he got pulled into the world of Don Post, there was no turning back until it was done. . . and then done again for this new, deluxe edition.

I’ll let him tell you the whole story. . . .

Let’s start with you: give me your bio in a couple of sentences.

Lee: I was born and raised in Toronto, where most of our television in the ’70s came from Buffalo. One of the stations used to show old monster movies every Saturday morning and that was where I caught the monster bug. I never lost my love of monsters and, like many monster kids, considered running away to Los Angeles in my teens to pursue a career as a monster maker. I stuck around though and grew up to have a day job as a lawyer for Children’s Services. I spend most of my down time with my wife and our dogs, but I still love my monsters. I’m often found enjoying my masks and old Halloween decorations while reading 40-year-old Famous Monsters magazines for the 100th time.

Why did you decide to write a book on Don Post Studios?

Don Post and FriendsLee: As a mask collector, I see Don Post Studios as far more than just another business; I see it as an institution. Not only is it where this hobby began, it’s also a significant piece of the Monster Kid era which I see as a big piece of 20th century pop culture. I had a few reasons for wanting to write this book, but first and foremost was to preserve the history of DPS for the current and future generations of monster kids.

When DPS shut its doors for good in 2012, I simply assumed that someone would step up and write the book as the time was right for it. I knew there had been attempts in the past to write a book about DPS, but nothing was ever completed for one reason or another. I also realized that almost everyone connected with the golden age of DPS was gone, and that the next wave of DPS staffers weren’t getting any younger. As much as I hated to admit it, us monster kids were also starting to drop off and I felt there was a sense of urgency to get this history documented while there was still time.

In 2011, when I was in Burbank for Monsterpalooza, I was at the home of fellow monster kid Dan Roebuck and browsing through his binders of old DPS publicity stills and advertisements. Something I noticed, that really bothered me at the time, was that so many of the old photographs and print ads were starting to fade and disintegrate. We talked about scanning them to make sure they would be preserved, but we never took it further than that.

Ultimately, I just felt it was a project that needed to be taken on by someone before it was too late. When nobody else stepped up to do it, I decided it would be a good way for me to give something back to the hobby.

 

This book was quite an undertaking. I was surprised to learn that you didn’t actually work for the studio. So how did you go about gathering the materials?

Lee: That was not a simple or quick process. It was in December of 2012 that I began to consider writing the book. I knew at the time that I did not have the knowledge or access to the materials I needed to take on the project, but I knew who did. I got hold of Dan Roebuck right away as he is a mutual friend of myself and everyone whose help and support I would need. He was enthusiastic in his support and within a few weeks, had obtained the approval from Don Post Jr. for me to take on the project.

I began collecting materials and learning as much as I could as quickly as I could before heading to California in April for a meeting that would determine whether the book was doable or not. That meeting involved several long time mask collectors who have been closely associated with DPS for decades. Their collective knowledge could easily fill a multi-volume encyclopedia on the subject of Don Post Studios, so their support was necessary. If any of them had expressed any reluctance to participate, I would have pulled the plug on the project then and there. Something I’ve never shared before is that a friend of mine lost her fight with cancer that day and I got the word while I was waiting for the cab to take me to the meeting. Putting that off to the side in my mind and focusing on the meeting wasn’t easy but I pulled it off. Fortunately, the meeting went really well and everyone was enthusiastic, offering to help out in any way they could. That became a constant theme in writing this book. Everyone I encountered along the way was more than generous with their time and allowing me access to their materials to include in the book. I’m also fortunate enough to have a decent collection of DPS products so most of the mask photos you see in the book are shots of masks from my own collection.

[tweetthis]”Another way we relate to the monsters is that . . they’re just outsiders that don’t fit in.”[/tweetthis]

Tell me about some of the people you interviewed. Who stood out in your mind?

Lee: So many people helped out along the way and I just can’t acknowledge them all here. Everyone I asked for an interview made themselves available to me and gave me everything I asked for. There were a few people that really went above and beyond in their support, and that does make them stand out.

The first would have to be Dante Renta. Dante has been collecting Don Post masks almost as long as I’ve been alive and has spent a lot of time hanging around DPS over the years. He has this encyclopedic knowledge of Don Post Studios. Anything about the history or the products there is to know, he knows it. On the Halloween Mask Association forum, he wrote a series of Showcases where he would discuss the origins of various DPS masks and how they changed throughout the years. I learned so much through these, yet had never met Dante prior to starting the book. I was actually a bit intimidated at first, just because he had such a vast knowledge and here I was waltzing in to write the book on something that was his passion years before I got into the hobby. He was absolutely phenomenal to work with and he taught me so much. In addition to all the knowledge he shared with me, he also allowed me to use over 100 photos he took at Don Post Studios while the 1998 Calendar Reissues were being produced.

Monster CalendarThe next would have to be Evil Wilhelm. Another longtime collector, his knowledge of Don Post Studios in the 1960s, and especially the Calendar Masks, is second to none. His level of expertise is so highly respected that Don Post Jr. recruited him to consult on the creation of the Reissues in 1998. Like Dante, I was familiar with him by reputation however had never met him prior to my starting the book. From our first meeting, however, he was immensely supportive and helpful every step of the way.

I also have to acknowledge Rob and Cathy Tharp. Their work with Don Post Studios goes back to the 1970s and lasted right up until the end. In fact, Rob was the last DPS employee to leave DPS and lock the door for good. Something that was never lost on me is that they lost their livelihood when DPS was shut down. This was something that really hurt them and continues to hurt them to this day, and they still stepped up to help with my book. They opened up and shared a lot of their memories with me and ultimately with the readers, some good and some very painful. They also dug into their own personal photos and found a lot of fantastic shots that they allowed me to use. Throughout the entire process of writing my book, they were in touch with me to lend support whenever I needed it.

All four of these people were known to me before I started on the book, yet our paths had never crossed. I respected them a great deal before I knew them personally and my respect for all of them has only grown. Most meaningful of all, I’m proud to call all four of these people my friends.

 

I was a dedicated Famous Monsters reader and I remember wanting those masks so badly but they were far beyond the reach of my allowance!

Lee: I was a monster kid of the ’70s! Alan Ormsby’s Movie Monsters was my favorite book, Hugo: The Man of 1000 Faces [Cyn: I had one of those!] was my favorite toy, and Famous Monsters was my favorite magazine. You’re exactly right in that I had my introduction to Don Post Studios through those mask advertisements. At the time, there was no internet and my local Woolworths only carried the cheapest masks available, so these ads were the only opportunity a Canadian kid like me had to see these amazing masks. Unfortunately, like many monster kids, as much as I loved the masks the odds of my parents spending $40 on a rubber mask were about the same as the odds of them letting me drive the car.

Something that I didn’t realize at the time, but appreciate now, is how much everything changed in the spring of 1977 with the release of Star Wars. As much as I loved monsters, that summer they took a back seat to aliens and droids. Looking back at Famous Monsters, they didn’t skip a beat as their cover featured Darth Vader instead of Dracula. The Don Post mask ads changed too, as they released their set of 4 licensed Star Wars masks. I’ve heard it said that Star Wars signified the end of the monster kid era and I can’t really disagree with that.

 

What’s your favorite Don Post mask?

Don Post Skull MaskLee: That’s a really tough question, just because there are so many I love for different reasons. I love the Skull that Pat Newman sculpted in 1967 that was released in various forms over the years, right up until the doors closed in 2012. To me, it’s one of those instantly recognizable masks that just screams Halloween. The Glenn Strange Frankenstein mask that you see on the cover of the book, also a Pat Newman sculpture from 1965, is probably the mask that I think best represents Don Post Studios and the Monster Kid phenomenon. Another, that most people find surprising, is not one specific mask but rather a line of masks. The cheap low-end 300 line masks from the late 1970s are the ones I remember seeing and wanting in my local Woolworth’s every Halloween. I just get a really nostalgic  feeling from them.

 

Why do you think classic monsters in general have endured.

Lee: I think they’ve endured for the same reason an entire generation of kids embraced them 20-30 years after their original release. When they were released, monster movies were about more than seeing how many people could be killed in as many gruesome ways as possible. They were good, well made stories with monsters that people could relate to. Even though our lives don’t involve being bitten by a werewolf like the Wolf Man or being resurrected from the dead like the Mummy, we can all relate to difficulties in our lives that are caused by circumstances beyond our control. Another way we relate to the monsters is that they are not malevolent creatures, they’re just outsiders that don’t fit in. That’s something else we can all relate to at some point in our lives. The reality is these monsters stopped being scary to audiences decades ago, but the fact we can all relate to them on an emotional level still connects us to them.

 

Come back tomorrow for Part Two of my interview with Lee Lambert, author of The Illustrated History of Don Post Studios.

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