It was just a typical Halloween at our house. The sound of the October breeze was gently blowing through the trees in the backyard while my mom stood tending to two pots on the stove. One of our traditional family Halloween chili dinner, the other of boiling blood. While the smells of chili and blood wafted past the half-eaten box donut holes and a jar of brains, Ellie and Chloe started to assemble their Halloween costumes and prep their trick-or-treating buckets. My brother, Dad, and I were doing our final checks. Mics, speakers, cameras, blood, smoke, it was all ready. The Shining Theme song could be heard outside. Like a wolf howl’s to the moon, this was a call to the neighborhood that Halloween was about to begin. At the first sight of trick-or-treaters on the streets, my dad put the headphones on, stepped up to the mic and flipped a switch marked “Melvin.” The wizard was in place behind the curtain and ready to give it life. The blue glow of the light indicated the mic was live, Halloween had started. “Hey kid, come on up and talk to Melvin.”
Like I said, just a typical Halloween at our house. But what made this typical night extra special was that it was the 45th anniversary of my family’s mechanical electrical interactive Halloween extravaganza. My dad was still wet behind the ears at just a mere 19 year years old when it all began. He had an affinity for the classic Universal monster movies from the 1930s and a knack for playing with electricity. Combine those two and a light bulb went off. It was a simple idea, but it appears simple ideas can grow big and last long. Little did he know that this simple guy in a box he created would develop a personality and go on to touch more people’s lives than he ever could have imagined. Melvin made his debut on Halloween night on my grandma’s front porch in 1970.
From the very beginning, Melvin, whose full name is Melvin T. Fenwick, talked to the trick-or-treaters. While the concept was brilliant from the start, the technology was a bit primitive. Melvin sat propped up in a cedar chest on the front porch near the front door. Under the cedar chest was a small open reel-to-reel tape recorder with a long cable going inside to the living room with a microphone attached to it. This is how Melvin spoke to the kids. There was no way to hear the responses though, so my uncle, a young 14 year old, sat by the front door listening. Then he would relay the response back to my dad, who would then answer to the kids as Melvin through the microphone. Pure magic at its finest.
The next year, Beulah the witch and Frankenstein were added. The witch stirred a pot of witches stew and talked, and Frankenstein’s arms moved up and down while his head turned. This was definitely before you could stop at Halloween USA to buy buckets of fake blood and latex bloody fingers by the bag full. This definitely made the characters have a unique look. Beulah and Frank’s faces were both made artisan style by my mom out of paper-mâché. Actually, all of the characters were completely homemade. Still are. All from random motors that were going to be trashed, old dress forms about to be pitched, and old clothes and random fabric reassembled truly in Frankenstein styling. Plug them in and “it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE!!! (Thunderclap).”
Quickly, word spread and my grandma’s front yard became the place to be on Halloween night. And after my parents got married and got their own place, the action moved to their yard. It was such a big hit that Doris Biscoe from Channel 7 News in Detroit had a short blip about it on the news. Sure she got their name and address wrong, but hey, it was on TV! When my parents moved to my childhood home, they kept on attracting attention there. They were featured in the local newspaper a few times too. While my parents were capturing the limelight, so were my brother and I. For a few days out of the year we were like celebrities at school (at least that’s how I remember it). We couldn’t wait to get home on Halloween after school. Trick-or-treating? Nah, we wanted to be where the action was. We loved to be on the inside to watch my dad work his magic and tell the stories through the characters.
You see, Melvin wasn’t just a guy in a box. With his characteristic clown like skeleton face and bright glowing eyes, he had a personality. He had a story. An identity. Melvin teased you and asked you for your candy. “Hey kid, come on up and talk to Melvin. You got any candy?”he’d open as a nervous kid stood on the sidewalk not sure what to do. Even more nervous when he noticed this dummy in the box was actually breathing. It was always a surprise to see how many sweet kids actually did give him candy. Some years Melvin’s shirt pocket would have quite a few pieces stuffed inside. Another classic line from Melvin was, “Boy, it sure is spooky out here tonight with all these scary people walking around.” He liked to tell stories too. Mostly with cheesy punchlines at the end. One that always came up was when people asked how he died.
“Well, I was on a road trip to visit my girlfriend, her name was Agnus. Great gal that Agnus. Anyway, I was on my way to Albuquerque to visit her. I can’t remember where I was coming from actually. But old Angus was worth the drive. Great gal, that Angus. Anyway, I got hungry and had to stop off to eat. It was at night, a night kind of like tonight actually, a bit spooky, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I went in the diner and sat down. The waiter looked down and asked what I wanted. Naturally, I said I wanted a steak. But you want to know what happened then? You do? Well, he gave me one, right in the heart!”
The other storyhe’d frequently tell was his trip to the doctor.
“At the time, I was buried in a cemetery high up on a hill. I forget the name. It was some 300 years ago or so. Anyway, this one time, it started raining. You know, like a downpour. It’s rained for days and days. Are you listening? Anyway, it rained so hard that the ground started to wash away because it turned to mud. The next thing I knew my casket was sliding down the hill. And in that mud it got really slippery so I was going pretty fast. I was sliding down right through the middle of town. I slid past the bakery. I slide past the butcher, and when I was coming to the pharmacy, I sat up and yelled, “Hey Doc! You got anything to stop this coffin?”
That was usually followed up with this tongue twister. “Was it the coffin that carried him often, or the coffin they carried him off in?”
It was always amazing to see a group of people, kids and adults gathered around Melvin hanging on his every word, listening intently through the entire story, and then groan and smile with the punchline at the end. Melvin charmed everyone. He was kind and gentle with the little ones, gave enough sass for the middle school and high schoolers, and witty for the adults.
Now, 45 years later, the display has evolved quite a bit. A simple tape recorder and a microphone had turned into a full on control room. Microphones, speakers, monitors, mixers, computer sequencers, control panels, night vision security cameras, etc. When you sit down and look at the monitors and see all the buttons, it feels like you are preparing for a NASA space launch. At the guts of it, it’s all the same though. The same cedar chest, the same old motors and pistons, the same old dress forms, and the original control box. However, papier-mâché and latex don’t hold out as long, so many of the characters are on their third or fourth face, and sporting relatively new garb. We also have many new characters in addition to the original three. A devil that rotates, blows smoke, and talks, a ghoul that rises up and down and talks, and two zombies that move and chew like they are pulling themselves out of the ground. There is also Jack Web, a giant vampire spider that drops out of the tree in front of a big web. He can talk too. One of my favorite additions is what we call “Matt in the box.” It’s a video of me trapped inside an old wood framed static-y TV. It’s simple, but it really is effective. But even after 45 years, the main attraction is still Melvin. Melvin’s eyes light up, he sits up, his arm moves, he talks, and he even breathes. But his most appealing quality is his charm.
This Halloween it was our first time putting up the display after a five year hiatus. To hear people my age say to their kids, “let’s go talk to Melvin, I used to talk to Melvin when I was your age,” is truly amazing. Or “thank you for doing this again. THIS is Halloween.” Or, “Melvin’s back!? We have to go!” My cousin who drove over two hours to bring his kids to see it said, “The Shining Theme song is no longer the soundtrack to the movie, it’s the soundtrack to Halloween at Uncle Bill’s house.” To hear those heartwarming comments definitely make the effort we put in for one night absolutely worth it.
For me, it’s more than just a Halloween display. It’s become part of my identity, and the characters are like twisted siblings. It’s not even the Halloween part I have the strongest attachment to. You’d think we were all horror movie fanatics, but we aren’t. I only watch them during the month of October, and my brother doesn’t even like them at all. It’s the family comradery while preparing, fixing, building and dreaming everything up that’s more rewarding than Halloween night. Reflecting back, I think watching my mom and dad work on this, figuring out how to make a pile of newspaper and clothes breathe, and how to turn a junk motor, some metal, and milk jugs into a zombie, I learned how to think. I learned how to think outside of the box, and how to blend linear and creative problem solving. Not to mention that anything can be fixed or repaired with a glue gun, duct tape, and some wire ties. But mostly, any idea worth having is worth bringing to life. Who would have thought building a Melvin in a box would have evolved 45 years later into what it is today?
Me chatting with Melvin circa 1983.