Friday, January 13, 2012

Spotlight On The Night Stalker Trading Cards — That Weren’t

By Gary Gerani

I began creating products for Topps back in ’72.  Most of the movie and TV tie-ins were pretty bland back then (Adam-12, The Rookies, The Waltons – c’mon, what kid was gonna buy cards on those shows?), but things started to turn around by ’74, largely because of the new CBS TV series based on Planet of the Apes.  Lots of gorgeous 4 x 5 trannies on that hot property, resulting in a nifty trading card set celebrating what turned out to be a major pop cultural disappointment.

But on the same night as POTA, 10 pm Fridays, was ABC’s The Night Stalker, aka K:TNS.  I loved the TV movies and was an equally big fan of the series.  Fortunately, my boss and new best pal Len Brown also enjoyed stuff like this, so we conspired to give Jeff Rice’s rumpled Van Helsing a shot at bubblegum immortality, a process that would begin in our next focus group/concept test.

In other words, Len grabbed a handful of NS slides when he was up at ABC; then I had photos made to card size, fabricated a spooky border and wrote some simple captions.  These four or five dummy cards were glued to black presentation board and shown (along with countless other boards pushing various Topps ideas) to a bunch of kids hauled in for some product testing.  Often we’d view these toddlers through one-way mirrors, which was kinda weird—kids would catch on and make funny faces at us through the glass, which was no less than we deserved.

At the top of our board was a banner proclaiming, in one word, Nightstalker (I wasn’t responsible).  My dummy cards included a vertical image of K brandishing his cross (CARL KOLCHAK – NIGHT STALKER), a horizontal pic favoring Oakland, with McGavin browbeating him (INS EDITOR TONY VINCENZO), a scene from “The Spanish Moss Murders” (SWAMP MONSTER ATTACKS!), an image from MR. R.I.N.G. (MORE THAN HUMAN) and that vertical posed image of McGavin and Richard Kiel from “Bad Medicine” (DEATH FROM THE PAST).  Hopes high, Lennie and I sat down and waited for the kids to get to our board.


Sad to say, the rating for our proposed product was extremely low (one little boy seemed enthused – bless his heart).  The geek culture obviously hadn’t emerged yet, and we were still a few years off from the direct sales comic book revolution.  And Star Wars.

Amusingly, I was warned by a Topps exec that 10 pm shows were not designed for our audience, so it was suicide for me to propose The Night Stalker.  A year or so later Charlie's Angels debuts at 10 pm on a weeknight, we can’t help but tie-in (Farrah’s everywhere), and it launches the most successful TV series-based card set ever issued (five or six series, as I recall).  Life, alas, is change.

PS: Did anyone ever issue a Kolchak set?  I proposed the property to Rittenhouse a decade ago (along with Night Gallery) when they were doing their retro-TV autograph cards (Outer Limits among them), but never heard back… and never bothered to look back.  Kolchak certainly has a place as a limited edition collector card product for fans, and it would be a damn shame if nobody in the biz got around to publishing one.

P.P.S.: A small Florida company called Monsterwax issued a now out-of-print limited edition set called The Night Slasher, which was a photo-card parody of Kolchakian adventures. But no officially-licensed card products based on the actual TV show, as far as I can tell...

Gary Gerani is the author of Fantastic Television, the first book to focus on science-fiction, fantasy and horror TV. In association with IDW, Gerani's publishing company, Fantastic Press, released TOP 100 HORROR MOVIES and TOP 100 SCI-FI MOVIES. Next up is TOP 100 FANTASY MOVIES. His graphic novel, BRAM STOKER'S DEATH SHIP (which takes on that famous nightmare voyage from Varna to Whitby, as you-know-who feeds on the crew of the Demeter), is available now and has garnered several nice reviews. 


  1. All I can say, Gary, is I wish I had been one of those kids in 1974. I would have been the seven year-old staring in awe at your Night Stalker cards. I think I'll cry now....

    By the way! I collected those Planet Of The Apes cards! Happy Days, Major League Baseball, and so many more. Topps was indeed, well, tops!

  2. Things really began to take off in '77, with STAR WARS and CHARLIE'S ANGELS. People still recall THE INCREDIBLE HULK cards with great fondness, MORK AND MINDY, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, whatever. It was a relative age of innocence, and a fun time for me, personally and professionally. I had only been at the company a year when I made the hard push for NIGHT STALKER and felt a bit like Benjy Stone going out on a limb for Alan Swan in MY FAVORITE YEAR ("A 10 pm show, kid? If this doesn't work, it's your ass!")

    BTW, I originally said it was four cards (for our board), but I've actually listed five; there may indeed have been five, or one may have been replaced with a more monster-centric image at the last minute (like MORE THAN HUMAN, possibly instead of the Carl/Tony exchange). It was a really, really long time ago...

  3. Socked away in my mom's cellar is my complete set Planet of the Apes cards (along with the Creatures Features jokey-horror set). I once had some Charlie's Angels ones, too - but, sadly, no more!

    Thanks for the memories, Gary!

  4. I'm actually "in" one of the CREATURE FEATURE sets... Even though these photos had been printed a gazillion times in FAMOUS MONSTERS-type magazines and newspapers, trading cards were in truth a "product," with different legal rules in place. U never secured the card rights for recognizable "human" actors -- it's okay to show Chaney Jr. in Wolf Man make-up, but Evelyn Ankers' very human head needed to be replaced. So, one day, all the guys (and gals) at Headquarters got a little smashed, and photos were taken of us mugging appropriately, to be dropped over the original actor's heads. "Look Albert, a vegetable stand!" says Gary Gerani (impersonating Onslow Stevens from HOUSE OF DRACULA), maniacally pointing a finger as the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange, unaltered) looks on. I also remembering doubling for Karloff in an A & C MEET JEKYLL AND HYDE shot (probably captioned "Me... and My Shadow --" with musical notes). Like I said, the good old days...

  5. Holy crap! Kolchak meets the Ebonite! Imagine the conversation:

    "You will be invited to participate in an exploratory interview. I shall conduct it."

    "You, sir, are from Hell itself!"

  6. Indignant Darrin McGavin in a straw hat vs. no-nonsense John Anderson in a rubber mask. Yep, the possibilities are limitless...

  7. Thanks, Gary - I'm going to check those cards out (next time I'm at my mom's, that is!).

  8. These would be the ones from around '73 or '74, with white borders. I put together another Universal CREATURE FEATURES set for Topps about a decade later, which had ornate picture frames around the photo in various colors -- fewer "phony" head images, more single shots of the monster -- and again, with funny captions. In many cases, the same funny captions ("Hi! I'm the new baby sitter!"). It's a tradition I maintained for Topps' test-marketed but never-launched Hammer horror series (SHOCK THEATRE) in the mid-'70s, which were made from full-color trannies (including some amazing 4 x 5 CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN originals!), and were adorned with blazing red borders, if I recall. The final "funny caption" movie monster set was the one I put together for Topps in the late '80s... FRIGHT FLICKS, which had Freddy, the Predator and even my own Pumpkinhead with those goofy gaglines beneath them. Somehow, there's a nice sense of pop culture continuity about all this, with cine-monsters from the classic '30s and modern '80s coming at us with those same dopey jokes. Again, tales of fun times from another century...

  9. I pulled out my CF set to see if I could find you in there to post on the blog, but I've got the later series. I had forgotten there was a shot from SSSSSssss in there amongst the classic Universal Monsters. :)

    I also remember appreciating that the Fright Flicks set had images from Romero's Day of the Dead (even with the silly captions).

    Having heard a handful of your stories from the Topps trenches, I'm convinced that you need to write a book on those years... your View From The Topps, as it were.

  10. I totally had those "phony head images" set of 1973/74 monster cards. In fact, I may still have some. I'm SURE I had the ones you were in, Gary. Man, that is too cool (!).

    I also collected the STAR WARS cards, JAWS 2 cards, WELCOME BACK KOTTER cards (right?), Close Encounters Of The 3rd Kind cards, and Battlestar Galactica cards (and probably others).

    Oh, and Wacky Packages!

    OK, back to Kolchak...

  11. Yeah, wish we could've done that NIGHT STALKER set... As for FRIGHT FLICKS, John... I remember driving our man-who-makes-the-deals Sy Berger (head of the sports department) crazy, because we had a bunch of contracts with various film companies for that set... Many refer to it as the "Stan Winston" trading cards, because of Terminator, Predator and Pumpkinhead (at a time when the pre-released film was known as VENGEANCE: THE DEMON, still identified as such in some of the cards.) But yes, I made sure we head some bloody Romero stuff, a deal with Columbia that gave us FRIGHT NIGHT and GHOSTBUSTERS, even Paramount's THE KEEP, if I recall correctly. Freddy was our front-man, of course... love to see those cards again. BTW, the CREATURE FEATURE cards from the early '70s were a mix of Universal and AIP properties (some nice b/w Dr. Phibes shots, and even a GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER image or to). That next generation CREATURE FEATURES set was 100% Universal, though I managed to work Hammer's THE MUMMY, a WB property since the early '60s but originally released by U-I, into the proceedings... knowing full well that nobody would ever notice, or care.

    Yeah, I've been approached about doing a book about four decades of creative work in the card biz, and I suppose I should, before the brain cells pop completely.

    But yes... back to our rumpled hero. The "character cards" of a KOLCHAK series could have been hilarious... with not only Miss Emily and Ron Updike beaming for our pleasure, but maybe even a "Monster Hall of Fame" line-up (I'll trade you a Rakshasa for two Aztec Mummies!). I'm sure they would have let me have some fun with that one... Unless, of course, Universal didn't clear the rights from writers for individual scripts, a la the classic OUTER LIMITS cards. Then I'd have to make up my own original stories for these monsters and re-name them -- maybe The Energy Eater would become The Brainless Glob revisited!

    Fun and entirely logical touch: How about having all the cards "written" by Kolchak himself, breathless reports from the monster-hunting front with his colorful style of wordplay? Might've been fun to try...

  12. Oh Gary, you've GOT to do a book on Topps trading cards. That would be a must-have for any kid who grew up in the 1970's. What a treasure that would be, seriously.

  13. I still want to book of Star Wars card reproductions like they've done for the Wacky Packages...

  14. I have a vivid memory of my mother buying a bag of JAWS 2 cards to hand out to tick or treaters for Halloween and my young mind worked overtime trying to concoct a scheme to ensure that i ended up with all of them. I could never comprehend why my mother would buy something that she KNEW i would want to collect with the sole purpose of them being given away to other kids.Pure sadism! I managed to slowly swipe a good amount one day at a time and the card set would up being a great one. Always liked the card layout and the Kastel puzzle on the back sides.

    Still not as nightmarish as seeing JAWS 2 as a kid at a local drive-in and having to sit through COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER first.Egads...

    JAWS 2,you caused me some serious grief.

    Gary,one thing i always wondered about and your post ties into this: I know STAR WARS was huge and all but ALIEN was probably THE least kid friendly studio film of the post SW era yet there were cards,games and the infamous Kenner figure aimed at kids. If KOLCHAK was deemed to not have a market due to its 10pm time slot,then what about a graphic and bizarre R rated film kids couldn't see in the first place? Were companies simply hoping to capture some of STAR WARS thunder regardless of the subject matter?

  15. STAR WARS in '77 changed everything. Topps tied into properties they normally would have passed on in earlier times. To begin with, movies were generally frowned upon as the subjects for trading card sets because they came and went so quickly; TV shows were on every week, so there was a better chance kids could get hooked. Think about it... How many movie sets were done prior to STAR WARS? There was PLANET OF THE APES in '68, of course; Dino's high-profile KING KONG in '76... And that's really about it.

    "Why couldn't they have called it 'UFO' or something?" I remember Len Brown saying about CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND when it was presented to us... Topps never released a card set with such an adult title, and we were concerned that Arthur Shorin, President of the company, was going to say, "Are you kidding? This isn't for kids!" But STAR WARS was so huge that CLOSE ENCOUNTERS was able to reap a great deal of the benefit simply by being "the next one out of the gate along these lines." Coming up fast was SUPERMAN ('78), which pushed all the right buttons and was certainly not a problem for Topps in any way. But in the summer of '79, if memory serves, we released three high-profile movie sets: ROCKY II, MOONRAKER and indeed, the second trading card series based on an R-rated movie, ALIEN (for the record, our competitor's SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was the first -- don't ask me how Topps missed out on that one; eventually we did GREASE and made a fortune). "When I sold you (the license) to STAR WARS, I was giving you another Mickey Mouse," Mark Pevers, Fox's licensing agent, told us in '78. "Now I'm giving you The Blob" -- that was Fox's pitch to us for ALIEN. Given how everything in the sf genre was doing amazingly well for us, we couldn't resist giving Scott's movie a shot, despite the adult angle (ALIEN ultimately performed well as a card set). BTW, that very same year, we began to develop a series based on the Frank Langella DRACULA movie, but pulled out for some legal reason after I started worked on it. In those days, when I was preparing a product, I'd visit Photo Department Head Corinne Deluca at Universal in CA and she'd let me go through hundreds of slides and trannies. Today, no one is permitted to develop decent working relationships like this with department heads (which get chopped off very quickly anyway); I'm not even allowed to call these people, even in an emergency. Everything is handled electronically, soullessly, resulting in massive bureaucratic b.s. and constant delays. In general, film corporations compartmentalized and dehumanized in the mid-'90s; people still sorta do their jobs, but no one seems to honestly takes an interest in their work anymore, so everything has to be explained twenty times before they grudgingly get it. At 58, maybe I'm an old fogey, but I'll take the organization and work ethic of the 20th Century over this escalating apathy any time...

    1. Thanks for that informatively long winded reply,Gary!! Haha there's no such thing as too much information. The trading card scene of the 70's was out of control,there were so many cards to choose from between WACKY PACKAGES (my all time favorite),movie themed cards,endless TV shows (MORK AND MINDY for crying out loud!),novelty cards,the ever present sports cards,free cards in Wonder Bread..they were everywhere. The ALIEN cards were great,did any parents ever complain like they supposedly did with the Kenner figure?

      Thanks again for the reply and especially FANTASTIC TELEVISION. I endlessly took that book out of my school library on a monthly basis and it was an invaluable resource. Fed my desire to track down and see THRILLER,a show I had never even heard of at the time.

  16. Glad you enjoyed FT, and the other goodies I worked on. WACKY PACKAGES had been out for a year or so when I joined the company, but before I knew it, I was writing gags and coming up with concepts for that ongoing franchise. I'd also scour the local supermarkets for products we hadn't parodied, buy the product, and then Len and I, often with Art Spiegelman and Ric Varesi sitting in the same room, would stare at it for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe someone would come up with the visual parody, another guy might suggest the "main" gag (Slaytex Living Gloves, for example), still another would come up with the funny tagline. Great times. And, no, we never had complaints about ALIEN. I did deal with some irate moms regarding DINOSAURS ATTACK!, but I managed to convince them that "fantasy monsters stomping on people is therapeutic for kids, who require power symbol substitutes; it enables them to get out their frustrations." Which, in all fairness, is true! Anyway, Tommyrot, I hope you found these tidbits interesting... and thanks so much for your support over the years!

    1. WACKY PACKAGES were a HUGE part of my childhood (including one less than cheerful memory when i covered my entire bedroom door with WP stickers and my dad read me the riot act)and still haunt me to this day,with a file cabinet at home and some stuff at work covered in them.I even have an uncut sheet of them that i would hang up but i would need to make a custom frame to manage that task.

      I was probably too old for DINOSAURS ATTACKS cards but i owned a bunch of them anyway haha.

  17. When Topps later did X-FILES comic books, they had rights to KOLCHAK. but never did anything with them, so Moonstone proved them wrong and launched their successful series.