Kathryn Leigh Scott starred on “Dark Shadows” and is the author of several books, including “Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood” and “Dark Passages.” She has written the newly published mystery romance “Down and Out in Beverly Heels.” www.kathrynleighscott.com
I’m hopelessly addicted to “Mad Men” and my obsession with the show has a lot to do with déjà vu all over again. As a young actress launching a career in New York in the mid-’60s, I was there!— just where Megan Draper has been in the most recent season of “Mad Men.” In fact, Megan Draper’s life is occasionally a little too close to mine for comfort.
An episode from Season Five titled “Dark Shadows” particularly got under my skin. I watched Megan poke fun at another actress, Julia, who had an audition for a role on a soap opera “Dark Shadows,” featuring vampire Barnabas Collins and call the show a “piece of crap.”
To be fair, Megan actually said, “What do you want me to say? That I’d kill for an audition in this piece of crap? I would.” But I am admittedly prejudiced, and more than a little defensive, about “Dark Shadows.” I was a regular on the cult Gothic series — the show that “every kid ran home from school to watch” — from its first broadcast on June 27, 1966, and 47 years later, I still collect residuals on the 1,225 episodes. And the show wasn’t “a piece of crap” at all, but an enduring television classic.
Megan’s trajectory as a young actress in New York was quite different from mine, probably because I did not live in a Park Avenue apartment with a handsome, wealthy ad exec while launching an acting career. Any actor who’s lived in a spooky fifth-floor walkup with five deadbolts knows what I’m talking about. That’s probably why I more readily identify with Julia, who pointedly told Megan, “Some of us act for a living and we wait tables when we don’t.”
That was my life, too.
I arrived in New York on a red-eye (wearing a homemade suit and high heels because I figured everyone in New York dressed up all the time) that puddle-jumped from Minneapolis to Milwaukee and Cleveland before arriving at Idyllwild Airport, which only later would be renamed after John F. Kennedy. I’d won prizes in both journalism and acting back in Minnesota, but a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts set me on course to study theatre in New York.
I grew up on a farm so New York was a shock to my system. The city was so sooty that you could leave home with a white collar in the morning and find that it was black on the inside by noon. I moved into Ferguson House on East 68th Street, a “Stage Door” boarding house for wannabe models and actresses. The rent was $30 a week, including two meals a day six days a week. Eventually, about the time I got the role on “Dark Shadows,” I moved into a tiny $60-a-month rent-controlled garden apartment on 59th and First Avenue. Greta Garbo and I shared my umbrella on one of my first rainy days in the neighborhood. Racing to catch the 57th Street crosstown bus to the studio at 7 a.m., I would occasionally pass Elaine Stritch sauntering home in evening gown and cape, carrying an armload of sheet music.
I eked out a living waiting tables, doing tradeshows and showroom modeling to make ends meet. There were certainly “Megans” among us at auditions, but for most of us their world of taxis, supper clubs and posh apartments with a view and a housekeeper was but a dream.
In the “Mad Men” days, a casting call meant auditioning for real people, not someone’s handy smartphone, and “pounding the pavement” literally meant walking from one agent’s or producer’s office to the next and dropping off a picture and resume with a secretary in hopes of getting an audition. It was a transitional time; some actresses showed up wearing 1950s-style white gloves, suits and beehive hairdos while others were decked out in miniskirts and little white boots. For my first “Dark Shadows” audition for the role of a governess, I wore saddle shoes, a pleated skirt and a Shetland sweater with a Peter Pan collar and managed to look normal.
I was on my way to an audition one day when a guy on a bike grabbed my handbag—and I wouldn’t let go. I tripped on a manhole cover and sprawled onto the pavement, skinning my knees and hands. My dress was ruined, my shoes badly scuffed, but my cheap plastic handbag containing three bucks and change was still in my possession. A triumph! The thief was pedaling up the street before I could pry myself off the pavement. That experience and a few others less notable for bruises and bloodshed were enough to establish a life-long bond with New York. Imagine Megan coming home to Don with a story like that?
I was working at Bloomingdale’s for $21 a week when the Playboy Club opened. It paid a lot more, and soon I was in Bunny training along with a lot of young women who would go on to bigger and better things, including Gloria Steinem.
“Mad Men” had a storyline that ventured inside the Playboy Club, and when they were working on that, I got a call from a research assistant (“On which hip does the Bunny name tag get pinned?”). I’d written a memoir about my time at the club, “The Bunny Years” which I promptly mailed to the production office. I also told them about the evening I walked to work past girls crowded around the Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue at 59th Street, where the Beatles were staying―never imagining they would show up at the Club later that night. My Bunny pal, actress Susan Sullivan, served the Fab Four their favorite tipple, Scotch and Coca-Cola. I left the Club to apprentice at an Equity theater, but it went belly-up, and I went back to working evenings as a Bunny and mornings as a dog walker.
Show creator Matthew Weiner chose to place Megan on a troubled soap that she feels will stymie her career. She plays two characters and constantly worries about being fired. “Dark Shadows” was also my very first job on television and I ended up playing four characters during my run on the show. Unlike Megan, I was not terribly concerned about being dropped from the series because no matter what role I played, I was always the main squeeze of Barnabas, arguably the template for all modern-day vampires. Our love scenes involved fangs, bats, bites and a good deal of fake blood, all of it presaging “Twilight,” “True Blood” and “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.”
There’s a good deal of speculation about Megan’s future in Hollywood without Don in tow, but her outlook would have been rosy had she got a role on “Dark Shadows.” The series was the launching pad for many of us who were regulars, including Kate Jackson; appearing in guest roles were Susan Sullivan, Donna McKechnie and Marsha Mason. I got to star in an MGM feature film based on the series, “House of Dark Shadows,” which was a critical and box office success that helped save the studio from bankruptcy.
Dan Curtis created a classic with “Dark Shadows” and secured his legacy with “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” Thanks to Dan, “Dark Shadows” lives on, attracting new generations of viewers to the series on DVD. It’s still fun—and wouldn’t it have been fun to see Megan Draper join us for the ride. If Megan had been cast in “Dark Shadows,” it would probably have been as “Daphne Harridge,” the role Kate Jackson played―and how amazing it would have been to watch myself on “Mad Men” playing scenes with her!
(Parts of this post are cross-posted on kathrynleighscott.com)