The Rebirth of the Undead
"Okay, Count," says the man standing behind the video camera. "Bend over and let's see what we've got." The focus of his attention is a tall, lean, heavily madeup man wearing a white medical examiner's smock and a black top hat--that is, the Count. He's leaning over the corpse of a dead alien spread out on an ancient embalming table. Fog swirls around the platform, puffing out in thick billows from the mouth of a nearby Alpha 9000 Fog Machine.
"Are you okay down there, Jay?" the cameraman asks a fellow crouched beneath the table, out of sight of the lens. Jay nods bravely, simultaneously holding the table steady with one hand, manipulating a large, bobbing alien bust next to the Count with the other, and trying hard not to gag from all the smoke.
"Let's do it one more time," intones the Count, who is also known as Jake Esau, the show's host. He clears his throat and intones in classic voce Lugosi, "We may have lost the patient"--he gestures grandiosely to the dead alien on the table before him--"but at least we managed to save the Son of Alien Autopsy." The bobbing alien torso next to him looks up, then floats comically off camera. Below the table, Jay almost topples over, his arm heavy from the weight of the alien's trunk. The camera stops rolling, and the two men in front of it let out an audible sigh of relief.
"Would you believe that people have called up the station to complain I take myself much too seriously?" mutters Esau, shaking his head and taking off the white coat to reveal an impeccable black suit beneath it. He comes around to stand behind the camera and look at the just-filmed clip on a small TV screen, donning a long black cape and a pair of sparkly gold-rimmed glasses worthy of Dame Edna. When he turns around, his face is framed by the numbers 2001.
"Does it look like I take myself too seriously?" he asks.
The scene is the backroom of Twin Cities Magic and Costume in St. Paul, and Horror Incorporated is shooting the first four episodes of its 2001 season--or rather, the campy bits that Esau inserts before and after the commercials on his KSTC (Channel 45) TV show. Today he's working on framing material for the first four films of the new year, a slew of science fiction including Curtis Harrington's 1966 thriller Planet of Blood.
Esau, one of seven television horror-movie hosts left in the country, belongs to a dying breed--"in more ways than one," he adds ghoulishly, widening his red-rimmed eyes and grimacing dramatically for effect. A professional character actor for 29 years performing live shows, radio performances, and film bits both locally and around the country, Esau never slips out of his count routine while in costume, even for interviews. Nobody calls him "Jake" onstage. When the camera's on, he's just "the Count."
So it's only when the cape is off that Esau reveals how he first cut his fangs. "My first one-person show, as a character actor, had been performing as Edgar Allan Poe," he says, his personality subdued compared with that of the flamboyant count. "That was in 1982. I was looking around for subjects for a second show, and I happened to see a clip of Lugosi from the Tod Browning movie Dracula, where he's walking down the street in London in his top hat and regalia in a stately and deliberate fashion. All around him, there's this cacophony of cars and people scurrying about. He's obviously from a different time and has a different agenda. And I looked at that clip, and I said, That's my second show."
Esau polished his act, a reflection on Bela Lugosi's life and the many characters he played, just in time to unveil it at the Landmark Center on Lugosi's 100th birthday in 1982. From there, he went on to perform as Count Dracula for Halloween crowds waiting in line at Ghost Manor in Minnehaha Park, later mounting a series of shows about the life of Lugosi for the Minneapolis Park Board. Later that year Esau landed a role as host of his first television show, Count Dracula Presents. From 1984 to 1986, Channel 29--then the independent station KITN--broadcast Esau's first televised incarnation as the Count in Count Dracula Presents, a weekly late-night horror show.
When the show was canceled, Esau left Minneapolis to live in Seattle, where he performed at libraries and college campuses. Eventually, like Dracula coming back to his coffin at daybreak, Esau returned to the Twin Cities. When new television station KSTC was gearing up to start broadcasting, the station manager contacted Esau and asked if he wanted to go back on the air. Esau agreed, and Horror Incorporated rose from the ranks of the dead. Playing each Saturday night at midnight, Horror Incorporated and "TV's Count Dracula" deliver classic science-fiction and horror movies, including the original Night of the Living Dead, Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Devil Bat, and Bela Lugosi's last film, Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Yet Esau's act cannot be confined to the crypt of a studio: He has a habit of staking out a locale--say, the Mall of America or a Saints game--and running through his Count Dracula routine for unprepared passersby. These scenes are taped and incorporated into his show, although one half-suspects Esau would spend a few free afternoons each week doing this even without a program to fill. When he's not on air, the Count makes a living performing at birthday parties, Halloween and Christmas events, and at functions sponsored by libraries and art centers. His character repertoire includes Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen, Aesop, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain. But Count Dracula, he confesses, is the character almost everyone hires him for.
"I do this as a means of making a living," Esau says. "There's an artistry to it, too--I don't want to sound like there's no art to it. But what I've learned in 29 years in this business is that art has to pay the freight, that starving for your craft is greatly over-romanticized, usually by people who don't have to starve for their art." The immortal Count Dracula may be comfortable in a room full of rubble and cobwebs, but the aging Esau has come to prefer the luxuries of the living. "I've spent my time in dusty garrets, shuddering at the thought that the landlord might be knocking at the door," he says. "I don't want to do that anymore. I'm too old."
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