As a child in the south suburbs, Barry Kaufman was fascinated with operating toy trains--until he discovered even greater pleasure in destroying them. "When I was six years old, I saw a movie on TV called The Giant Gila Monster," says the 32-year-old Kaufman, owner of Wicker Park's new horror-movie memorabilia store, House of Monsters. "There was this scene where the creature destroys a train trestle and eats the train. The special effects weren't terribly convincing, but I thought it was pretty ingenious, even though I knew it was a toy train. In fact, that's what I thought was so cool. So I started making cardboard cutouts and clay monsters and putting them on my model train set in various positions of destruction."
Kaufman's fascination with horror movies bred a lifelong habit of collecting, nurtured by a mom who gifted her kid with plastic model kits of classic creatures and copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Spurred to share his happy habit with others, Kaufman put out two fanzines of his own. One, a "journal of the obscure horror cinema" called Demonique, reviewed little-known, hard-to-get horror films that Kaufman had to obtain from small mail-order houses. "But the only way I could order one was to order 25. The distributors didn't want to sell them singly. Meanwhile, people were asking me how they could see these films. So I started inventorying these titles and sending them out through the magazine as a marketplace."
Still a student at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, Kaufman also experimented with making his own product. "Our last film was a feature titled Red Christmas--you know, Santa Claus with a machete. Technically it was pretty good, for 18-year-old kids playing 40-year-olds." He enrolled in the University of Southern California film school, but soon got discouraged. "They were grooming everybody to become Steven Spielberg, and my concepts were darker than they liked. So I transferred into molecular biology. I figured I was going to become either a physician or a filmmaker." His medical studies eventually brought him back to Chicago, where today he is a practicing ophthalmologist. As his income expanded so did his horror-film collection--and his sideline as a supplier.
"I went to monster-movie conventions almost every year, buying and selling merchandise, and I kept up my mail-order contacts. Whenever I ordered something for myself I'd order extras for other people. Pretty soon I had three warehouse spaces and an apartment full of stuff. I finally decided to open a shop." Part of Kaufman's intention was to fill a gap. "I got frustrated with Chicago and the midwest. I'd walk into so-called fantasy stores and all it was was Star Wars and Star Trek. I thought if I wanted a store where I can find the stuff I like, I had to start one."
The search for space led Kaufman to the Flat Iron Building, at North and Milwaukee, an ad hoc artists' colony that houses several galleries and a makeshift theater or two. "It was the perfect place, old and atmospheric. The high ceilings and big windows are just right for displaying our inventory." Indeed, House of Monsters is almost as much a museum as a marketplace. The walls are covered with oversize movie posters and out-of-print magazines, racks of videos and laser discs cram the aisles, and the shelves are adorned with everything from tiny ceramic Godzilla toys to foam-filled latex masks of the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Vincent Price's blood-spattered Prince Prospero from The Masque of the Red Death. These cost several hundred dollars each. "They're for displaying, not wearing," says Kaufman, noting that he sells cheaper, wearable masks as well. But House of Monsters isn't exactly a discount store--which is why Kaufman's installed a no-interest layaway plan. Some items aren't even for sale--for example, the elaborate resin scale-model diorama at the store's entrance. Sculpted by master movie-monster maker Ray Harryhausen, it depicts King Kong throttling a tyrannosaurus.
"King Kong--for me that's the ultimate monster film," says Kaufman. "Today we have all these computer-generated, high-tech special effects. But a film like King Kong, with its stop-motion animation, still holds up. Those old films had a sense of craftsmanship, of the artisans' personal vision and their empathy with the creatures. Today's films--Independence Day, Jurassic Park, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies--are marvelous to look at, but they don't instill any feeling in an audience. The creatures have no personality. They're hollow films for a hollow society--very impersonal, invented just to sell merchandise."
Accordingly, House of Monsters specializes in images from classic monster movies--from the 30s and 40s, when Universal Pictures produced its Frankenstein/Dracula/Wolfman/Mummy canon, to the 50s and 60s, with its deluge of atomic-mutant and alien flicks and the Victorian thrillers put out by the Hammer and American International studios. "Now the only problem is that with the stuff in here we can't fit more than 20 people," says Kaufman. "We're working on that."
The space crunch was apparent last Saturday at House of Monsters' grand opening. A throng of people--greasy college kids and graying baby boomers, teens in leather jackets and thirtysomething parents clutching third-graders' hands--trickled into the store to browse Kaufman's seemingly inexhaustible collection and meet guest celebrity Svengoolie, the goateed, gaunt-eyed host of Channel 26's Saturday-night horror films. Like some satanic Santa he sat in a corner, signing glow-in-the-dark T-shirts and posing for pictures with fans. In the future, Kaufman looks forward to showcasing the work of local artisans and hosting visiting celebrities such as genre godfather and Famous Monsters of Filmland founder Forrest J. Ackerman.
The House of Monsters is only open on weekend afternoons. "I have a day job," Kaufman explains, "and I want to be here to run it. The schedule also gives me time to restock. I have lots of items in the back room--remember, I've been buying multiples for 20 years--and new items come in every week. I'm still acquiring stuff all the time. I can't help it!"
The House of Monsters, 1579 N. Milwaukee, is open Saturdays from noon to 6 and Sundays from noon to 5. For more information, call 773-292-0980. --Albert Williams
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Barry kaufman and toys photo by Nathan Mandell.