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Inside Bob Burn's Basement!

By Steve Ryfle     January 12, 2001

Bob Burns and Ib Melchior, in my mind, are forever linked, so it was a lot of fun to see them both in person last weekend at Dark Delicacies, a macabre-themed bookstore in Burbank, California. Burns was signing copies of his new, hot-off-the-presses book, It Came From Bob's Basement: Exploring the Science Fiction and Monster Movie Archive of Bob Burns (Chronicle Books), while Ib was there with his biographer Robert Skotak, signing copies of Ib Melchior: Man of Imagination (Midnight Marquee), which has been out for a while now. The two men are linked because they both were involved, in very different ways, in an unmade late-1950's movie called The Volcano Monsters, but that's getting way off-topic (shameless self-promotion: the full story is in my unauthorized Godzilla book, Japan's Favorite Mon-Star).

Everybody from the old-school daze of genre movies seems to know and love Bob Burns. He's a great guy, and he's worked on just about anything and everything, from old AIP flicks like Invasion of the Saucermen, to playing Kogar the Gorilla in various films and TV shows (like Ray Dennis Steckler's Rat Pfink and Boo-Boo!) to working with and befriending some of the biggest names in fantasy films. Burns is probably most famous, however, for the incredible Halloween parties at his San Fernando Valley home (which was routinely dressed up with actual props from movies like Alien, and for his incredible fantastic-film prop and costume collection, which fills that house with more than 1,000 artifacts from the world of sci-fi and horror movie history. (He and his wife made a 3,000-square-foot addition to their home to accommodate this stuff.) Forrest J Ackerman is the one that news crews always visit when they want a weirdo Hollywood photo-op, but Burns' in-home museum is truly top of the heap.

It Came From Bob's Basement, co-written with John Michlig, is a fantastic book, full great stories and hundreds of amazing color photographs; it's truly one of a kind. I asked Bob a few questions about the making of the tome, and he was glad to oblige.

THE OBVIOUS QUESTION: HOW DID YOU BECOME A COLLECTOR OF FILM PROPS?

My first prop I ever got was the cane head from The Wolf Man. I was 13 years old when I got that in 1948. Ellis Berman, the fellow who had made that for the film, he did a lot of props for movies back in the '40s and '50s, and I went to school with his son. His studio was only about three blocks from my house, here in Burbank. I used to go over there after school and watch him do things. He was building all the stuff for Unknown Island (1948) at the time. And the cane head was just sitting on a shelf; it wasn't on the cane anymore. It was made of rubber actually, because they had to beat Lon Chaney with it [laughs]. I knew what it was, because The Wolf Man was one of my favorite films when I was a kid, and I used to play with it. Then one day, he just gave it to me, and I've always said that maybe subconsciously that started me collecting this stuff. I didn't start getting a lot of props like I have now, until probably the 1960s or so. It was just a weird thing; people would just call me and say, 'I've got this thing in my garage; would you like it?' I've also known a lot of these guys when they were just starting outJames Cameron, Rick Baker, Dennis Muren, all these guysand when they started building this stuff, somehow I got a reputation for saving this stuff. I never made a big deal about it; I just thought this stuff is movie history and it has to be saved.

WHAT'S THE MOST UNUSUAL PIECE IN YOUR COLLECTION?

There's two pieces that are probably icons. One of course is the King Kong armature, because there's only one left in the world. The Smithsonian has tried to get that away from me for years. And the time machine [from George Pal's The Time Machine (1960)]. I found the time machine in a thrift shop in Orange, California, in 1975. I was a friend of George Pal's; I knew him for years. They had an auction in 1970 at MGM, and I went there hoping I could buy it then, but I missed it. I had $1,000 saved up, but it went for something like $10,000, to a guy who had a traveling show. The DVD of The Time Machine has a special supplemental feature about how I found that prop, and how we had to reconstruct it, because it was really damaged.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE A BOOK?

I've had people asking me for years to put some of my anecdotes down. I didn't think that much about it, because I'm around all this stuff every day. And then John Michlig, who put the book togetherit was his idea really. He did this really successful book called G.I. Joe: The Masterpiece Collection,. He was researching a King Kong article years ago, and he called me up. We kind of became friends, like pen pals or whatever. And then one day he said, 'Bob, have you ever thought about doing a book?' He was the one who came up with the concept. If he hadn't pushed me, I probably still wouldn't have done it. He helped me put it together, because I don't know the ins and outs of that stuff. So far, all the feedback I've gotten on the book has been extremely positive. One thing we tried to do was keep it humorous, I didn't want to do a textbook, or something dry. This isn't a technical book. I was really nervous about how this book would be received, because I've never done anything like it.

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