Long Lost Daughters, Beach Boys, and Disco Toilets: The True Story Behind "Monster Mash"
All photos courtesy of Stuart Hersh
With all due respect to The Misfits’ “Halloween” and “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” the song most closely associated with October 31st is “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett. In its own way, the track is one of a kind. It is certainly the only Halloween-themed song that enjoys the cultural ubiquity of popular Christmas carols, and it’s one of the few novelty songs that have managed to worm its way into the public consciousness, remaining there long after the trends it parodied have faded away. Its opening lines ("I was working in my lab late one night / When my eyes beheld an eerie sight...") are indelibly marked into our psyches as children, as is its melody, cribbed from Dee Dee Sharp's "Mashed Potato Time."
The track was a smash upon its August 1962 release, and charted again in 1970, and 1972. “Monster Mash” is a popular cover song among punk bands, its pre-Beatles grooves and campy horror movie-inspired lyrics hitting the same sweet spots that bands such as Misfits and The Ramones took dead aim at. Meanwhile, it enjoys a perennial presence in film and television, having shown up in the likes of The Simpsons (twice!), Happy Days, True Blood, Cheers, and the films Halloween III and Must Love Dogs. Every October, the song sees a spike in iTunes sales—it reached number 25 on the iTunes sales charts in 2012, and currently sits at #49 on Billboard’s Digital Charts.
How does any song—especially a novelty song about a novelty holiday—manage to sink its talons into a nation’s consciousness and never let go? “Monster Mash” has effectively become “the national anthem of Halloween,” says Stuart Hersch of Bronxville, NY. Hersh is Pickett’s former manager and, after his death in 2007, the owner of one of the two master recordings for “Monster Mash,” which can be found on the song’s official site. The “Monster Mash” website is a throwback to Web 1.0, replete with odd backgrounds, excessive animations, and a free download of a screensaver featuring some of “Pickett’s favorite pictures!” It also offers licensing for the track, with the promise, “We 'MoNsTeRoUsLy' [sic] undercut Universal Music Inc. and Rhino.” There was a number listed on the site, so I called it, and Hersh picked up.
Hersh is an interesting guy. The son of Marshall King, the hypnotist on The Howard Stern Show, Hersh fell in love with humor early. One of his first memories was seeing Bozo the Clown on TV. At seven, he began acting in commercials, and at 17, auditioned for The Gong Show in front of Chuck Barris by singing “Monster Mash.” In 1979, he recorded a novelty hit himself, entitled “Disco Toilet,” a send-up of disco music featuring live flushing sounds that ended up in rotation on the novelty DJ Dr. Demento’s radio show, and eventually found its way to a Dr. Demento’s Basement Tapes compilation. A YouTube comment describes “Disco Toilet” as, “Possibly the finest song ever conceived and performed by mortal man.” Hersh is passionate about archaic pop culture ephemera: he maintains a close friendship with the original Bozo the Clown, co-wrote Tiny Tim's 1995 novelty track "I Saw Mr. Presley Tip-Toeing Through the Tulips," and while speaking, constantly finds himself on tangents explaining relationships between obscure performers (i.e., which member of Pickett's band eventually joined Paul McCartney's band, how Bozo's original sidekick went on to play Big Bird, etc.). He is a passionate, wildly interesting man.
A promotional photo for "Disco Toilet"
Over the course of a couple of conversations, Hersh—who managed Pickett for 18 years and got to know him very well—painted a picture of Bobby Pickett as a complex, multifaceted, and eccentric character. Born in Somerville, Massachusetts, Pickett grew up fascinated by horror films, and as a young man set off to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Though he dated such notables as Cloris Leachman and Dianne Cannon (who would later go on to marry Cary Grant) and appeared on an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, Pickett never quite became a star. “His inner desire was to be an actor,” Hersh says. To pay the bills, Pickett made money singing in a band, and occasionally performed in a spot-on impersonation of the legendary horror actor Boris Karloff.
Eventually, he fleshed out this impersonation into a full length track, drawing inspiration from the popularity of monster movies as well as the nascent dance craze the Twist (the titular “mash” in the title refers to the Mashed Potato, a variation on the Twist that was popular at the time). The song went to number one, making Pickett a minor star, taking such a stranglehold on pop culture that Karloff would end up covering it on national television. During one of the first live performances of “Monster Mash, he was backed by a then-unknown Beach Boys. He quickly released a Christmas-themed follow-up, “Monster’s Holiday,” and largely faded into obscurity, taking minor acting roles and occasionally coming up for air to release an errant Star Trek parody or the 1985 track “Monster Rap,” (obviously) a sequel to “Monster Mash” in which a mad scientist teaches Frankenstein’s monster to rap.
In 1989, Hersh began managing Pickett, and learned that he did not own the master recording to “Monster Mash.” Pickett was leaving thousands of dollars on the table in licensing the track for film and television. So in 1993, Hersh and Pickett recorded a perfect copy of the original “Monster Mash” that they then used to undercut Universal, who according to Hersh, were unconcerned with the song’s legacy and instead “preoccupied with how much money they could get off (the song).” Hersh and Pickett’s goal was not just to make money, but to also help keep “Monster Mash” relevant. By ensuring “Monster Mash” was affordable to independent production houses, they ensured it would always have a place in culture.
Pickett performing with a pre-fame Beach Boys
Pickett and Hersh were always looking for other, different ways to keep the song relevant. In 2004, Pickett re-recorded “Monster Mash” as “Monster Slash,” to protest President George W. Bush’s environmental policies. He once recorded a commercial for McDonald’s for a four-patty burger called—you guessed it—The Monster Mac. However, due to the mid-2000s wave of anti-fast food backlash, the commercial tanked before it could go national. “Who’s gonna eat that?” Hersh jokes. “It was dead in the water.” He later adds, “I always wanted to do scratch-off lottery tickets called ‘Monster Cash.’”
Though he would end up performing the same song over and over for over 40 years, Pickett never got sick of it. “That song was his baby!” Hersh says. “He loved performing it.” Over the years, Pickett developed a shtick that he’d break out for each performance, which he'd usually play at horror and fandom conventions. He’d take the stage wearing a white, blood-stained lab coat featuring jumping spiders, button the coat, and as he sang contort his face to look like Boris Karloff’s. Over the years, his Karloff impression deepened and darkened, as Pickett explored the nuances of the material. “It’s brilliant! It’s the same way no one could do The King and I but Yul Brynner, no one could do Fiddler on the Roof but Zero Mostel. People had their thing that was theirs, and ‘Monster Mash’ was Bobby Pickett’s.”
Bobby Pickett’s life was, in many ways, characterized by second chances. Just as he failed at acting but managed to find his way into the annals of music history, Pickett experienced great personal adversity only to find redemption. In the 1970s, his young son drowned in a pool, deeply impacting Pickett’s psyche. One day, he remarked to Hersh that he thought he might have a daughter out there somewhere. The pair searched for her, and found the woman they suspected to be his daughter. The DNA test came up negative. However, a couple weeks later, a different woman called Pickett, claiming to be his daughter. “Bobby’s addition to the story would have been, ‘I should get my DNA laminated at this point,’” Hersh joked. “They met up at the airport, and they looked so similar that they didn’t even have to do a DNA test.” Suddenly, Pickett had a family. “He went from this loner to a family guy, and he loved it.” Pickett adored his daughter and new grandchildren, spending the holidays with his new family. “It was just a blessing,” Hersh says.
Pickett with his daughter, Nancy
Ten years after he reunited with his long-lost daughter, Pickett succumbed to leukemia. “It really got to me,” Hersh says of his friend’s illness. “I didn’t realize he was going to be gone that quick.” Pickett performed until the very end, undergoing regular blood transfusions to maintain his health. “I’d call him up at the hospital, and he’d get on the phone and say in this Dracula voice, ‘Stu, there’s nothing like fresh blood!’ He’d get his new blood, and he’d go out and sing ‘Monster Mash.’ God bless him.”
More than anything, Hersh seemed to radiate pride for Pickett. “Bobby left the world in 2007 and his song continues to go on. How many people can claim that? It’s a hell of an achievement.” His ultimate tribute to Pickett, as he envisions, is placement of Pickett’s white coat into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. His argument? “‘Monster Mash’ is the biggest novelty rock ‘n’ roll record of all time! And I’m not saying that in a vain way. To everybody reading this, write the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and tell them you want that lab coat in there.”
He pauses, and adds helpfully, “Couldn’t hurt.”
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