On the Great Ghost Shows of Dr. Silkini

June 28 is the birth date of one John Edward Kessler, a.k.a. Jack Baker, a.k.a., Dr. Silkini (1914-1980). If you are easily frightened I urge you to turn back now!!!

He was born Kessler but adopted by the parents of one Wyman Baker, who was to become his producing partner, and whose surname he would adopt. In 1933, the Baker brothers created  “Dr. Silkini’s Spiritualistic Séance and Ghost Show”, later known as the “Asylum of Horrors” and by many other names. Yes, the Baker brothers are essentially the innovators who brought us the midnight spook show. What they did was to mash-up two previously separate vaudeville disciplines: supernaturally charged magic acts like those of Blackstone and El-Wyn…and fast-paced blackout sketch comedy like that of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin. It’s like chocolate and peanut butter makin’ a Reese’s, right? This historic moment may very well represent the birth of horror camp!

Silkini’s shows were spooky and creepy and featured genuine illusions, but were also full of jokes and skits and hokum like phony hypnotist acts and people in monster costumes and skeletons and ghosts on fishing line. As the second wave of Universal Horror waxed big in the early 1940s, film screenings became the climax to the show.  The Asylum of Horror toured from city to city with hoopla and advance publicity and gimmicks like temporary graveyards with markers announcing the show. Dozens of competitors sprang up, freely stealing Baker’s ideas and material.  Things that would probably not exist without Silkini include the showmanship of William Castle, The Rocky Horror Show, AIP horror comedies, and funny tv horror hosts like Vampira, Svengoolie and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

By the mid 60s, Baker and his show, which had once been incredibly lucrative, had run out of steam. He died in 1980. At that point his apprentice Steven J. Conners purchased the rights and all the sets and illusions to the show, and revived it, presenting it throughout the 1980s, mostly in the L.A. area. He is currently working on a biography of Dr. Silkini, which will be published by 1878 Press and is scheduled to be released in time for Halloween!

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