As I write this, exactly one week has passed since news broke of the passing of original Dark Shadows icon Jonathan Frid. 2012 has sadly been a year characterized by the death of beloved entertainment icons associated with the 1960s, including Monkee Davy Jones and music impresario Dick Clark—yet aspects of the response to Jonathan’s demise are unique.
It began with the manner in which the news was revealed. Jonathan was apparently hospitalized in Hamilton, Ontario, after suffering a fall and passed away in his sleep on Saturday, April 14, 2012 (there was initially some confusion about the date and most online sources still claim it was Friday the 13th of April, but the family and The New York Times both now confirm the 14th). The family waited until after a private memorial with close family and friends was held on Wednesday, April 18 (exactly 45 years after his first appearance as Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows), to release the news. The manner in which this sad information was disseminated to fandom and the general public is a rather interesting case study.
Although internet rumors apparently began to swirl hours earlier, the first credible source to reveal news was his Shadows co-star and friend, Kathryn Leigh Scott. At 12:19 a.m. Pacific Time on April 19, she tweeted “I am so sad about the passing of my dear friend #JonathanFrid” and included a link to a brief remembrance she had written.
This was enough to send rapid and far-reaching ripples of grief across the fan community, yet the general reach was limited and circumscribed. No major news outlets picked up the story for almost six hours. Instead, it was left to bloggers like myself to hurriedly prepare memorial tributes and obituaries. Interestingly enough, Wikipedia (which supposedly has a mechanism in place to prevent adding the dates of death to the listings of live persons without verification), was one of the first outlets to confirm the fact and place of Jonathan’s demise.
The professional news organizations, apparently caught unprepared despite Jonathan’s age and the impending release of a major motion picture starring Johnny Depp as his signature character Barnabas, resorted to Twitter and blogs to obtain background information. This continued for quite some time. CNN contacted me via e-mail at 12:33 p.m. Eastern Time to request information, almost nine hours after the news began to spread.
“There was a lot of confusion,” another network contact confided to me. “Yes, of course we knew there was a movie coming out, but we weren’t sure the general public would remember Frid. In fact, some of the few people in our newsroom who recalled the name immediately thought he might have died years ago. We had to do some research. It would have been different if he hadn’t been retired for so long—or maybe even if he lived in the U.S.”
It was not until 9:27 a.m. ET that Marcy Robin, the editor/publisher of the longstanding Dark Shadows Newsletter Shadowgram, sent the following via e-mail:
“In Memoriam – Jonathan Frid
December 2, 1924 – April 13, 2012 (editor’s note: see note above regarding the date of death)
“Donald Frid, Jonathan’s nephew, who assisted Jonathan at many of the recent Festivals, has informed us that Jonathan passed away at the age of 87 on April 13, 2012, in Hamilton, Ontario.
“His health had been declining in recent weeks and he died peacefully in his sleep in a local hospital.
“At Jonathan’s request, there was no funeral and there will be no memorial service.
“Donations in the memory of Jonathan Frid may be made to Hillfield-Strathallen College, the school where he got his first taste of acting.
Or a charity of your choice.
“Donald and the other members of the Frid family are grateful for all the support and appreciation Jonathan received from the Dark Shadows community over these many years.
“At a gathering of family and friends on April 18, the family remarked on John’s passing on Friday, April the 13th, and the fact that they were remembering him on April 18, the 45th anniversary of the broadcast of his first appearance at the door of Collinwood.”
This information was rapidly disseminated by many of us via Twitter and Facebook. The mention that there would be no funeral or memorial service seemed to cause some consternation, as fans desired the opportunity to corporately mourn the loss of the beloved star.
Within hours, the hashtag #JonathanFrid was trending worldwide on Twitter.
While it is not necessary, and may indeed be impossible, to record the exact number of memorials and tributes published during the following week, they do fall into three distinct categories from which I have culled examples:
1) Statements by Castmates:
Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans and Josette Dupres): “May Jonathan Frid ‘our reluctant vampire,’ live on in our hearts! How blessed I am to have known this dear man and to have such wonderful memories of him, both on screen and off…I am so grateful to have worked with Jonathan, and to have known him as the charismatic, entertaining, complex and plain spoken man that he was. What fun we had working together! He was irascible, irreverent, funny, caring, loveable and thoroughly professional, and in the end became the whole reason why ‘kids ran home from school to watch’ Dark Shadows…I love you, Jonathan. Rest in peace.”
Lara Parker (Angelique and Cassandra Collins): “He was a warm-hearted and compassionate man with a lovely sense of humor, and he was a staggeringly charismatic actor, who is personally responsible for the lasting success of the Dark Shadows TV show in so many ways… I was looking forward to a big hug and kiss this summer at the festival, and another set of self-deprecating, witty remarks to his adoring audience where the love in the auditorium was always palatable…I will miss him so much. I am grateful to have known him. Take care, Jonathan, now that you have reached your island. Hopefully it looks like Hamilton. Our love goes with you.”
David Selby (Quentin Collins): “Jonathan…You never mentioned that you were contemplating a long trip… You were never anything but considerate to me, gentlemanly, a throwback to when there were gentlemen – courteous – exquisite charming manners but always with a quiet, respectful, measuring with those skeptical eyes, and then an easy smile… What is it about love that made Dark Shadows so needed by millions? They loved you, Jonathan, as did I.”
2) Remembrances by Family and Acquaintances:
“‘He was a shy guy and he didn’t want a lot of fuss,’ said Don (Frid, Jonathan’s nephew). Ironically, life in Ancaster afforded a certain level of privacy for Frid. While Dark Shadows was a hit throughout North America, ABC’s Buffalo affiliate passed on the show, making it difficult to find in the Golden Horseshoe area during its initial run.” (hamiltonnews.com)
“Frid’s family held a wake on April 18 at Sammy’s Restaurant in Ancaster. Frid stopped cooking years ago, and frequented Sammy’s daily for lunch and dinner. Anna Kalecki, owner of Sammy’s, said Frid was like a member of the family. When she, her husband and two sons went out for dinner, they’d bring Frid along. ‘He’d say, “Tell people I’m your grandpa,”’ Kalecki said. ‘He was such a special person.’ She said he’d often come in the door of the restaurant and do a little dance, swinging his cane. ‘He was a really entertaining person,’ Kalecki said. ‘All the customers liked him.’ (thespec.com)
“In the 1980s I interviewed Jonathan in his New York apartment, and for a time was visiting him each Sunday to go through his archives to gather information on a book I was researching, and to reflect with him about those days. It was certainly surreal to know that one Sunday Jonathan Frid would be buying me breakfast or lunch, and on another Sunday I would return the favor. Perhaps the greatest compliment I got from him was when I wrote my first profile on him and presented it to him when it came out in print. (He) read it over and commented, ‘It feels as though you truly got to know me…. I’m a little uncomfortable that you got to know me so well.’ (Ed Gross, Blog of Dark Shadows)
“Jonathan Frid, in his life and his work, represented a bygone period of great dedication, civility and romanticism. As with Barnabas, he seemed to be a figure from another era but, like that fictional creation, Jonathan has transcended time with a legacy that is destined to live on for centuries to come.” (Jim Pierson, Dark Shadows archivist, quoted at darkshadowsnews.blogspot.co.uk)
“Jonathan’s larger than life personality and will make it all the harder to accept his death, though I actually prayed for it when learning of his hospitalizations and other problems. Many nights sitting in Central Park, admiring the bright stars he talked about death, his lack of fear about dying, and his wish that he could die in his sleep. I am so happy that work out for him.” (Nancy Kersey, Jonathan’s longtime personal assistant)
“I’m saddened to learn of the death of Jonathan Frid. He was a delightful, considerate, witty man, and the perfect vampire for Dark Shadows. I was intimidated by him when I was a kid—he treated me nicely, and he and Mom often roared with laughter at the crazy things they had to do for the show—but he was a star, and thus, even though he was kind and thoughtful when he was in our kitchen, I never quite knew how to behave around him. The man had charisma. (Matt Hall, son of Dark Shadows scriptwriter Sam Hall and series co-star Grayson Hall)
“ ‘Actors forget their lines! The sets look cheap! The “special effects” are a bat on a string!’
“Yup. It’s true. All of that. Those people miss the point, but I’ve long since ceased my efforts to disabuse them. Let them laugh. Frid himself laughed, I saw him laugh. In my high school and college days, when I worked for him in a variety of capacities, I would sit with Barnabas Collins in his New York City apartment and watch Dark Shadows on a New Jersey PBS station. Sometimes he would giggle at himself, other times he would wince, and switch the channel in disgust.
“ ‘I can’t watch it!’ he bellowed once, slamming down the remote on his desk. ‘It’s unwatchable!’
“I never tried to explain to him why I liked the show, or why I was so forgiving of his propensity to forget his lines. But if I had, or if I could now, I might say, ‘There’s far more right with Dark Shadows than there is wrong. And the right is right enough to make us not mind the wrong. Not only that, the wrong is so entertaining that it becomes part of what’s right.’ …
“I used to organize groups of fans to attend rehearsals in his apartment on Saturday afternoons. I’d sit there, usually on the floor, looking up at that imposing figure, the man I had seen for the first time in a TV broadcast of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (the 1970 feature film based upon the series) in 1982.
“ ‘Villains!’ he would shriek, reading from Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart and punching at the sky. ‘Dissemble no more! I admit the deed. Here, here! Tear up the planks! It is the beating of his hideous heart!’
“It gave me a chill every time. Even typing it gives me a chill. Particularly now.” (Will McKinley on TheCinementals.org)
3) Responses by Fandom and Media:
“You were such an amazing actor…you are and will forever be Barnabas, the quintessential vampire with a soul. You portrayed the role with such style and gave Barnabas an air of dignified sadness. You were fascinating, and sparked a creativity in me that made me write my imaginations and dreams down on paper. Thank you.
“Rest in Peace, Jonathan Frid…” (J.J.Lopez Minkoff on the SkyDancingBlog)
“The last time I saw him was August 21, 2011, in Brooklyn, New York, at the 45th Anniversary Dark Shadows Festival banquet. Aged and infirm, walking so hesitantly with his familiar wolf’s head cane, he could hardly eat once he had settled at his table because so many fans stopped by to say hello, to photograph him, to touch him or let him know how his moving performance had touched them. Frid’s family always seemed a bit bemused by all the attention Jonathan received. The show did not play in Canada, so the prophet was never really famous in his hometown. On the road, however, kindly old Uncle Jonathan was a Beatle.” (Frank Jay Gruber on TheWearyProfessor.wordpress.com)
“Most of us wouldn’t get on Facebook and participate in dozens of threads to talk about the death of a friend or loved one. The loss is too material for us to share with people who are virtually strangers. But we do just that when a celebrity dies, even one who has been as personable and reclusive as Jonathan Frid.
“His death is not our loss. But then again, it is, only not in a way that’s easily identifiable. It’s a communal loss, which is why we’re so prone to discuss it with strangers. Because, all other differences aside, we loved Jonathan Frid in our own way. No matter what else sets us apart, we’ve got that much in common.” (“Cousin Barnabas” of CollinsportHistoricalSociety.com)
“It hurts right now. I have tears in my eyes as I write this. The man who helped inspire all of this is gone. But look at all that came after him, just think about it. We’ve got all that magic and all those memories and those aren’t ever going to fade. So tonight I’m going to curl up on the couch and I’m going to watch Jonathan Frid do what he did best. I’m going to watch him bring to life a character that will never ever die. And thanks to that magic, in a way, neither will he.
“Thank you sir, you were a true gentleman.
“The little girl in front of the TV.” (Jessica Dwyer on Fangirlmag.com)
“Fortunately, nearly all 1225 episodes of DARK SHADOWS survive in some form or other. In them, given the nature of the medium (which was in essence live theater), you will see Jonathan Frid forget his lines, look for the teleprompter, and fumble his dialogue into amusing Yodaisms, but you will also see hundreds of episodes in which he thrills you, breaks your heart, or chills your blood.” …
“In what now amounts to his final public gesture, Frid personally signed 2500 cards that were included in MPI Home Video’s coffin-shaped box set DARK SHADOWS THE COMPLETE ORIGINAL SERIES, a 133-disc limited edition set that sold out well in advance of its street date. It is the most handsome DVD box set I’ve ever seen, but — the next time I reach for a new set of discs — it’s going to be bittersweet to have to open Jonathan’s coffin to fetch it!” (Tim Lucas on Videowatchdog.blogspot.com)
“Long after ‘Dark Shadows’ ended, Barnabas remained an albatross. Mr. Frid reprised the role in the 1970 feature film ‘House of Dark Shadows’; the few other screen roles that came his way also tended toward the ghoulish.” (The New York Times)
For the purpose of this essay, many of the commercial media responses in the latter category are of little interest (hence their omission). They include similar litanies of facts and credits, and very little unique observation or insight.
In addition to the three categories mentioned above, another minor trend is the non-specialized reprinting of archival material from the heyday of the program published during its original ABC run. Some of this material is remarkable for its derisive and rather disrespectful tone, mocking not only the show but the actors involved. Memorably, one piece reposted from the archives of The Saturday Evening Post includes lines such as “’That vampire’ is, in reality, a 44-year-old Canadian actor named Jonathan Frid, a tall, attractively homely man with a face like a gardening trowel.” This is not the usual type of material you see presented during a period of mourning.
It is certain the tributes and memorials will continue for some time to come. In fact, it was announced earlier this week that the July 28-29 Dark Shadows Festival event to be held at the Lyndhurst Mansion (the site which served as the Collinwood Mansion in the two original theatrical films) and the nearby DoubleTree Hilton Hotel would serve as an official fan memorial. During the Tarrytown event, Jonathan was scheduled to again host a video retrospective of some of his favorite series moments. This event will now be attended by his nephew Donald and will undoubtedly be a poignant and cathartic time for fans.
My primary concern with this piece is to document and discuss how the death of a cult celebrity of Jonathan’s magnitude, a man whose popularity during the late 1960s was Beatle-esque, was disseminated and treated in this age of social media and fan empowerment.
While Jonathan, as the eventual headliner of the program (his character was first introduced in April 17, 1967’s episode 210 as a choking hand and forearm almost ten months after the series premiered on June 27, 1966), is undoubtedly something of a special case, his death must be a clarion call to other celebrities, both prominent and otherwise, to ensure that efficient mechanisms are in place to alert their faithful fans and the general public to any news of magnitude. At the very least, a process should be in place for trusted fan information sources to be alerted.
The death of this memorable, talented and beloved actor is not only of lasting significance to his generation-spanning body of fans, but the media response, both in the social and professional spheres, is an important case study as we struggle to understand the democratization of information currency in the 2010s.
Just as Jonathan Frid’s portrayal of the famously reluctant vampire was groundbreaking and significant, and as his character’s popularity dominated popular culture in the 1960s, how apropos it is that the end of his time on Earth should be so relevant and important to our understanding of the modern world in 2012. Barnabas, too, had a vital place in the past and in the present.
Rest in peace, Jonathan.
The Collinsport Historical Society has published a convenient listing with links to many of the resources cited in this article at www.collinsporthistoricalsociety.com/2012/04/round-up-of-jonathan-frid-memorials.html
Full addresses for the others may be obtained via search engine or by contacting Frank Jay Gruber at WearyProfessor@gmail.com.
All photos accompanying this article are (c) 2012 Frank Jay Gruber.