Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Kenneth Strickfaden - Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician

Raiders Of The Lost Spark

Kenneth Strickfaden -
Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician

by Harry Goldman
McFarland Press
ISBN: 9780786420643

Okay then, just a very short review to make you aware that this book on Kenneth Strickfaden is, just about, still on the market. Mr. Strickfaden is a name which is probably not that well known to the majority of my readers here but, I bet many of you are more familiar with at least some of the marvellous machines he invented throughout his lifetime, from their appearances in over 100 movies from the early 1930s through to, and beyond, his death and into the 1980s. I’ll get to those in a minute.

As the author tells us, there’s not a great deal known about Strickfaden because, although he was much admired by ‘people in the know’ as to who he was, he didn’t really talk about himself so much and while Mr. Goldman has attempted, quite well, to put together a biography after a fashion, there are obviously a great many stories of this remarkable man’s life which just aren’t known for the retelling.

Along with one of his two brothers, Ken Strickfaden had a fascination for constructing marvellous electrical machines (such as the Tesla Coil) and radio gadgets and, while one brother went off to be a saxophonist with a famous jazz band, before going into a classical orchestra, Strickfaden had a fair few jobs both before and after serving  in World War I, including working as an electrician for hire in some of the early film studios throughout the 1920s... jobs usually associated with his fascination for electrical gadgetry. For instance, he worked for a time with a carnival show known as Willard’s Temple Of Music where he would design and build sparky inventions for acts where scantily clad performers would interact with electrical contraptions to produce music and so forth... helping the owners perfect and build on some of their existing ideas and taking them off into new ones (in terms of his musical machines, he has at least a little in common with another electrical pioneer, Leon Theremin, I would guess).

And he drifted around, at one point making an absolutely epic road trip across parts of America which, due to his logging this part of his life in notebooks, makes for interesting reading... before finding fame in the special effects departments; building, operating and renting the machines for which he became known for at various studios such as Monogram, MGM, Republic and, most famously (for me, because it's when I first noticed him), at Universal.

I remember first taking note of Strickfaden’s machines when they were used for the laboratory of Emperor Ming The Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials. I don’t know if any of the kids realise today, because they’re used to seeing things CGI faked so well in the motion picture industry but, those big old sparky, scientific machines were throwing real arcs of electricity around in a somewhat dangerous manner (on occasion... the author doesn’t tell the story in here of Bela Lugosi not wanting to go near one of those machines again after getting burned) and although the functions of the machines in the various films, serials and TV shows in which they served was almost always fake... no death rays or anti-gravity devices for real here... they were absolutely performing in-shot as you saw them. I might mention machines with wonderful names like the Megavolt Senior, the Baritron Generator, the Lightning Bridge, the Neutron Analyser, the Resonarium and the Cosmic Ray Diffuser in the various Universal horror movies such as Frankenstein, The Bride Of Frankenstein and so on. I might mention The Mask Of Fu Manchu (there’s a story in here about him doubling for Boris Karloff for a scene because... no, you need to read this book to find out), The Shadow and Batman serials or even the first in The Terminator franchise. Like I said, well over a hundred productions, for certain, that the author of this book has managed to document with probably many more which are lost to the mists of time... it doesn’t help that Strickfaden rarely received any screen credit. Be that as it may though, his sparky personality, good humour and sheer electrical inventiveness soon got him known all around the film industry as Mr. Electric.

He also made a name for himself during the depression years, and for many decades after, doing presentations and lectures involving his beautiful specimens of electrickery at various schools, colleges, universities, museums and even for studios such as Disney. This is how many of the people who crop up in this book, including Mr. Goldman the author, first met Strickfaden and were pulled into his world, many of them giving testimonials that it was his influence which got them started in their own electrical careers.

There were other strings to his bow... he also used to do a lot of movie sound effects (and even after his death, films were still using even the sounds of his machines on their foley, such as one used in Disney’s Tron) and he was also a keen photographer, taking many shots of various places in America which changed drastically many years later. You will still find examples of his photographs used in various books on different subjects.

Although the illustrations and photographs which litter the book are not in colour, there are many items of interest including some of the flyers he would use to advertise his demonstrations, not to mention some really great pages of his design doodles in one of the appendices here which are almost worth the price of the book on their own. It’s true the book is not the most thorough, how can it be given the lack of records and other minutia that a good biographer can usually piece things together from? Even so, the writer does a pretty good and entertaining job of trying to honour the man properly and Kenneth Strickfaden - Frankenstein’s Electrician, is a valuable addition for the shelves of movie goers of a certain age, for sure. It’s also the only game in town as far as a specific and more accurate record of Mr. Strickfaden’s work goes so, yeah, I’d more than recommend this one to pretty much anyone. If you’re feeling a little sparky to know more, plug yourself into this book... it’s got a lot of positive juice.

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