Dan Curtis' Dream Becomes Reality
In 1965, a young TV executive named Dan Curtis had a nightmare that changed his life -- and the destinies of countless others. Curtis was an Emmy-winning producer of CBS Golf Classics and he was more than a little bored in that job. One night, he dreamt of a mysterious young woman on a train.
The next morning at the breakfast table, the producer told his wife, Norma, about his eerie dream. She thought it sounded like a great plot for a new TV show. Soon he pitched it to ABC, and network officials agreed with Norma.
Curtis (pictured right) hired Art Wallace to develop a story from the fragment he'd dreamed. (Among other elements, the writer gave the show its name, Dark Shadows.) Robert Costello joined as Line Producer (Curtis' own title was Creator and Executive Producer), and Lela Swift, one of the few female directors in the industry, agreed to take the helm of the new soap opera. John Sedgewick and Henry Kaplan directed as well. Robert Cobert composed theme music, and Sy Thomashoff set out to design the spooky mansion that would be the eventual home to the girl on the train. Next Curtis had to find that girl -- as well as the rest of the cast.
Alexandra Moltke (pictured left), a young actress with some stage experience, was cast as Victoria Winters, the orphaned governess who finds herself working at a spooky Maine mansion called Collinwood, in search of clues about her mysterious past. Movie star Joan Bennett was tapped to play Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Victoria's employer. Elizabeth's hard-drinking brother, Roger, was played by Louis Edmonds, a Louisiana-native who had spent the previous twenty years acting on the New York stage. Petite blonde stage actress Nancy Barrett was Elizabeth's daughter, Carolyn, and child actor David Henesy played Victoria's charge, David Collins, Roger's son.
The first episode, starting with Victoria on that dreamed-about train, was taped June 13, 1966, and aired two weeks later.
Variety reviewed the first installment of Dark Shadows in its June 29, 1966 issue. "Writer Art Wallace took so much time getting into his story that the first episode of this neo Gothic soaper added up to one big contemporary yawn." The reviewer would have preferred to see more of movie star Joan Bennett, and less of Alexandra Motlke, who "did okay in her ambiguous part." Variety did praise producer Robert Costello and director Lela Swift for creating a dark and somber mood. But critics and fans were fairly unanimous: There wasn't much happening on this new show. Ratings were bleak.
Dark Shadows is best remembered as a supernatural thriller, filled with vampires, zombies, werewolves, and mad scientists. But in the beginning, the scariest thing on the screen was the bad blonde wig Kathryn Leigh Scott was forced to don for her first few outings as waitress Maggie Evans. As Victoria poked around Collinwood's dusty deserted west wing, trying to figure out if she was a long-lost Collins, there were occasional supernatural undertones. Young David Collins claimed to see ghosts all over the place, and in the 70th episode, which aired September 30, 1966, viewers saw a specter emerge from the portrait of Josette Collins, then dance around the grounds of the great estate. Dark Shadows was finally heading where no soap opera had strayed before. The ratings, though still anemic, were goosed a bit by the unusual story.
In December, almost six months into the show's run, Diana Millay (pictured left) was cast as Laura Collins, Roger's wayward wife, who turned out to be a real monster. Now there was more than hinting about the supernatural -- the writers showed Laura using magic to make trouble for her family members. The character's evil deeds caused the ratings to climb a bit, but Diana was pregnant, so her stay on the show had to be short, and Laura was destroyed. With waning viewer and advertiser support, the show itself was facing an unceremonious demise. Then in April1967, a vampire named Barnabas Collins showed up at the front door of Collinwood and changed the face of daytime programming forever.
NEXT: A Vampire Changes Everything