By TOM DICKAU
Fifty years ago in 1966, a sickly 13 year old youngster began an adventure that this year culminates in its 50th anniversary.
Cortlandt Hull could, at that time, be accurately described as the “boy in the plastic bubble.” Health issues separated him from his peers on a daily basis and necessitated his being home-tutored most of his early life.
Hull turned to books and magazines related to fantasy films, while watching these classics on TV. His uncle, Louis Gagnon, recognizing the affinity Cortlandt had for these monster movies, guided him on model building of the vintage creatures. These small replicas of movie monsters proved rewarding for a while. But they were only 8” tall, Cortlandt wanted to develop these on a much grander scale.
He had traveled previously with his folks to wax museums, which often featured a “Chamber of Horrors.” His journeys led him to view historic artifacts such as torture chamber devices, but few, if any of these museums displayed the actual characters from the classic horror movies. This would become his unwavering dedication for the next half-century.
The 1960s were the era of “The Monster Craze” with model kits, masks, monster magazines, and games all related to monster movies. The horror films were hosted on TV by personalities such as “Zacherley, The Cool Ghoul” and “Vampira.” Even network TV featured shows such as “The Munsters,” “The Addams Family,” “The Outer Limits,” and “Bewitched”.
Cortlandt’s movie interest was in the family blood. His great uncle was actor Henry Hull, who starred in the 1935 film, “Werewolf of London”, the very first movie “wolf man.” His great aunt, actress Josephine Hull, was also one of the two little old ladies, who murdered elderly gentlemen with elderberry wine in “Arsenic & Old Lace.” She performed this role both on Broadway, with Boris Karloff, and again in the 1944 film, directed by Frank Capra.
Having relatives performing in the film industry afforded Cortlandt the opportunity for direct exposure on movie sets, as well as the ability to build lifelong relationships with actors/actresses and world class movie make-up artists.
Eventually, four gentlemen would all have a major influence not only on the Witch’s Dungeon, but on Hull’s entire artistic life.
Mask and prop creators Don Post Sr. and Verne Langdon, as well as Oscar and Emmy winning makeup artists John Chambers and Dick Smith, all gave personal guidance to Cortlandt’s quickly developing skills. Each immediately realized the driving passion that he had for the artistry of movie makeup, and the tribute museum he was planning. They shared their knowledge, advice and even donated original movie makeup pieces and props.
In 1966, Cortlandt would begin a lifelong passion, the Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum, which is now the longest running classic horror/fantasy attraction of its type in the country. The museum is designed as a tribute to the actors and make-up artists, who gave us the classic movie monsters. It has over the decades garnered local, national and international acclaim.
Beginning as a family project, his father Robert Hull, a painting/decorating contractor, built the original museum, in the image of a small Swiss Chalet, at the family homestead at 90 Battle St. This design was selected because it would house Cortlandt’s original character, “Zenobia, the Gypsy Witch,” who would become the Dungeon’s mascot. This building would represent the type of gingerbread style, deep in the woods, that usually housed a bewitching character, such as “Zenobia.”
In his planning stages in 1965, Cortlandt designed and sculpted, Zenobia, as a unique witch, dressed in a colorful gypsy style, fortune teller fashion. He desired to set her apart from the typical black costumed witch image, with a pointed hat. His mother Dorothea, a professional stage costume designer, created all the clothing and accoutrements for the figures. Dorothea Hull was accomplished in her costume design on Broadway, and for various other stage productions.
Louis Gagnon, his uncle, did all of the wiring in the original chalet, for lighting and a sound system that accompanied the displays. He also co-designed with Cortlandt the elaborate, laboratory displays and other artifacts utilized.
The Witch’s Dungeon first opened on Halloween Night 1966 with an admissions charge of 25 five cents. Five characters were displayed during this first season. You were greeted by the Grim Reaper at the entrance, awaiting you beyond, was your hostess, “Zenobia The Gypsy Witch” stirring her cauldron, The Phantom Of The Opera, Mr. Hyde, and Frankenstein’s Monster. This was at a time when Halloween was merely bobbing for apples and trick or treating.
Cortlandt’s family assembled to man the museum, which even in its early days was a tribute to the movie monsters. The gallery of creatures certainly evolved as Cortlandt’s artistry developed, making the figures more lifelike.
People waitied in line for hours to get a peek at the chilling display.
One year later, recognizing this public support, and numerous glowing newspaper articles, the museum opened for the entire Halloween week-end. The chalet was enlarged in order to accommodate more figures and larger crowds.
The Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum will be open starting Friday evening, Sept. 30. Located at the Bristol Historical Society, 98 Summer St., it will be open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening in October from 7 to10 p.m. It will also be open on Halloween Night from 7 to 10 p.m.
For more information, go to www.preservehollywood.org, or call (860)583-6309.