I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
— Mary Shelley
When I think of Kenneth Strickfaden I visualize the mad scientist grabbing the master switch in his clandestine laboratory. Suddenly the machinery hums and glows, glass tubes boil with liquids, electrical currents charge through the coiled tubes and conductance. Lighting leaps across the sky and finds its way into the diving spot in the lab. The crackle, snapping hiss and sparks of ozone. The well orchestrated machinery of mad science that now act as futuristic hardware. The electrical odor that would still permeate the air for years to come as he shaped the way we perceived the mad scientist labs and mysterious scientific exploration!
Kenneth Strickfaden was an expert in high voltage electricity, film set designer, and electrical special effects master. Using his skills as a carnival electrician, he created the science fiction apparatus that can be seen in more than 100 films and television programs, showcasing Strickfaden’s technical phantasmagoria of light and sound!
I often wonder how many of these films centered around mad science and the laboratory environment utilized some of Strickfaden’s machines and electrical effects without giving him credit.
I can see influences in Edward Dymtryk’s The Devil Commands 1941 with Boris Karloff. With art direction by Lionel Banks and props by Franz, Oscar and Paul Dallons. The Man They Could Not Hang 1939 & Man Made Monster 1941 Set direction by Russell A Gausman and John P Fulton who had worked with Strickfaden before. I believe Strickfaden did the special effects and used part of his equipment for. Doctor X (1932) , The Invisible Man 1933, The Man Who Lived Again and more!
Strickfaden’s first contribution was to Just Imagine 1930. Today it has become something of a “lost” film and nearly impossible to see on the big screen. “While the beautiful art deco sets, enormous miniatures, and remarkable projection effects still amaze,” says Production Designer John Muto, Founder of the ADG Film Series, “the music, comedy, and love story are derived from vaudeville and must have seemed very dated as cinematic musicals exploded in the 1930s. I suspect that may be why the film faded from view. Our audience will discover a very surprising film!”
“Today, most films set in the future portray a bleak, dystopian, even apocalyptic world.” Besides the beautiful art design Just Imagine featured a stunning laboratory filled with electrical equipment by Ken Strickfaden.
But it was his work for James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein that struck like lightening! Stock footage of the lightning bolt generated by Strickfaden’s equipment.can be seen in so many films and television shows. John P Fulton head of the special effects department at Universal Studios was responsible for the special photographic effects-
Jame’s Whale had wanted a lab that was reminiscent of the one in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis 1927 Lang’s art deparment/set designers Otto Hunte, Erich Kettlehut, Walter Schulze-Mittendorf & Karl Vollbrecht. Special effects by Ernst Kunstmann, Konstantin Irmen-Tschet and Erich Kettelhut. Visual effects Eugen Schufftan , Willy Muller, Hugo O Schulze and an uncredited Edgar G. Ulmer.
You can see Strickfaden’s wonderful creations in The Wizard of Oz , The Mask of Fu Manchu to television’s The Munsters, and his final work, Young Frankenstein. Strickfaden recycled a number of the pieces that he kept maintained like his “Cosmic Ray Diffuser” that he used in the original Frankenstein.
Kenneth Strickfaden was born in 1896-by the time he was in high school he was using a camera and setting up shots of amusement parks, battle scenes, and visualizing and creating his own laboratory apparatus and equipment.
When I was just a little tiny wide eyed MonsterGirl I would day dream plenty on rainy days and spend hours down in the basement assembling pieces of metal and plastic doohickeys having taken apart various appliances around the house, trying to create my very own little mad scientist lab. I’d get large pieces of wood and paint the control panels. I could literally spend hours down there pretending to be Dr. Pretorious. I was fascinated by science fiction technology and the secrets of life and death, and the fantastical story telling Universal Monsters had to offer.
My pop would continually ask me where I put his hammer, though it was true most of the time, I did take his tools to aide in my small scale construction of a basement laboratory. I was constructing panels with knobs and meters, I didn’t always have his hammer. And by no means did I have the eye or the technical brain to develop such intricate machinery that could spark and crackle streams of white heat, the suggestion of the life force arching in splendor. It just felt so good to be living my own fantasies without being told that I should go play with dolls. That’s also partly how I got to be known as MonsterGirl by the neighborhood bullies. Anyway… back to the genius of Frankenstein’s electrician.
Strickfaden had, the sort of fascination for creating a milieu of science realism , working on our sense of wonder and the possibilities of the creations these machines would aide in either creating life or destroying it, was always a draw for me. His special electrical designs and effects were visually groundbreaking for American film audiences, far-fetched perhaps but divine. He used junk yard electrical parts from the 1930s, fake wiring,high voltage jacob’s ladders (An electric current then flows until the path of ionized gas is broken or it as it rises will pull the arc apart and so extinguish it.) and spark gaps and the occasional Tesla Coil. “Ribbed ceramic insulators are a must… as are the slate front panels and wooden cabinetry that were standard of scientific and medical devices of the day”
And that’s why I wanted to do this little feature tribute to a man who’s responsible for shaping the look of so many classic horror and sci-fi fantasy film milieus over the years. The sets and laboratory apparatus that contributed to the Gothic science mood of the story, came to life because of the innovation Strickfaden used in creating with his fantastical yet plausible designs. As key to the plot structure as the players themselves.
During the grand days of classic horror between the decades of 1930’s and 1940s, the landscape might have looked entirely different if Kenneth Strickfaden hadn’t been so fascinated with creating apparatus and contraptions that flashed and sparked with high voltage, meters keeping track, tubes and coils and large equipment that paid true homage the science fiction writings he was trying to breath life into himself a technician like Pretorious and Dr. Frankenstein. The appearance of these industrial gadgets and machines, and the look of the laboratory brought such a sense of realism to an already Gothic stunner, and Mary Shelley’s story, too which was ahead for it’s day. As Harry Goldman refers to in his book title, Strickfaden was the right electrician for the job.
Though his fascination started in high school by the early 1920s film makers saw the potential in his inventive apparatus. He was given work at many Hollywood studios, in which he offered them a slew of amazing special electrical effects.
From Goldman’s, Kenneth Strickfaden, Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician, Strickfaden’s work was not easy, “Apparatus constantly failed due to overheating,” he once revealed to writer Scott MacQueen. “Most effects did not photograph as expected, or they were eliminated due to electrical failures.”
Despite these unusual, and expected, setbacks, the onscreen results were phenomenal, and far more convincing than any simulations. Strickfaden made much use of the inventions of Nikola Tesla, which had been perfected more than thirty years before the first Universal Studios “Frankenstein” movie. But, unlike Tesla, he was also concerned with the theatrical “look” of his fanciful contraptions, which had to appear to be futuristic and capable of untold wonders. The names he gave the machines were often equally marvelous, such as: “the retrogressive wave charger,” “DXL Accumulator,” and “High Amperage Pyrogeyser.”
When, in the late 1940s, real-life scientific marvels turned out to be subtler than Strickfaden’s machines, his work apparently went out of fashion and was little seen in Hollywood until the ’60s, when it was used extensively in The Munsters TV show and in commercials.
Before his death in 1984, he spent much time touring with his “Kenstric Space Age Science Show,” educationally demonstrating spectacular electrical phenomena.
A few highlights of Strickfaden’s career include:
Frankenstein (1931) the equipment brought the Mary Shelley’s monster to life.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) Strickfaden created a dazzling electrical death ray even doubling for Boris Karloff, who played Fu Manchu when the evil mastermind spreads his hands and the powerful lightning dances between his long sinister fingernails.
Murders in the Rue Morgue 1932 Bela Lugosi is Dr Mirakle- Ken Strickfaden lends his electrical gadgets to Mirakle’s laboratory.
Chandu the Magician -Strickfaden’s machines came from FRANKENSTEIN now they equip (Bela Lugosi) Roxor’s lab- His death ray, a giant ray gun that sends pulsating death beams aimed at the major cities of the world!
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)Strickfaden configured the electrical displays for the Bride creation sequence.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) He created the effect of the Wicked Witch of the West trying to remove Dorothy’s ruby slippers and receiving an electrical shock. The orb she uses to scry was a Strickfaden design.
The giant crystal ball that Margaret Hamilton uses as the Wicked Witch was actually uncovered in a junk yard found amidst the remnants of other discarded Hollywood memorabilia from a now defunct prop house. The enormous hand blown glass, with high voltage Tesla coils had a new owner who spotted it in Goldman’s book Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician. It had been used by Bela as Roxor in Chandu the Magician. It was a great prop for Boris Karloff in Mask of Fu Manchu, but once he placed it up for auction the new ownder learned that it had actually been the crystal ball used in The Wizard of OZ.
Fighting Devil Dogs (circa 1941)“Manifested projectiles of something like ball lightning.”
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) “He simulated an unusually realistic lightning strike.”
Young Frankenstein (1974) Strickfaden recreated some of his best work from the original Frankenstein.
He was born in Montana in 1896, Kenneth Strickfaden’s was an imaginative and adventurous guy who worked at amusement parks, taking myriads of photos. He traveled overseas serving in World War One. He was also an airplane mechanic so he was very handy technically, having built and tuned Tesla coils and X-Ray machines. A Tesla coil is an electrical resonant transformer circuit invented by Nikola Tesla around 1891. It is used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high frequency …Eventually he found himself in Hollywood working as a studio electrician in the late twenties.
In 1931, Kenneth Strickfaden was hired to set up the equipment for Frankenstein’s tower laboratory. He was to furnish it with a ‘powerful engine.‘ Strickfaden assembled various machines. One which was used for the lightening powered scene that would help resurrect Boris Karloff’s monster back from the dead to life on the slab. He combined his knowledge of electrical science engineering and part of his love of creating side show electrical pageantry in order to transform Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory into a place of unorthodox alchemy within a modern science dominion.
At first the designs were to be more streamline and modern in their look, but Strickfaden had managed to construct a place of Gothic dread within the medieval structure of the setting and seamlessly adapt the apparatus of modern science with the stone walls. The juxtaposition of the two worlds adds to the feeling of Dr Frankenstein’s heretical, rebellious and clandestine primacy as his secrets lay hidden away.
Strickfaden’s apparatus quivered, sparked, crackled and shrieked. The imposing levers were pulled in harmony with the dialogue, like an orchestrated scientific waltz. White hot arcs of electrical tendrils reached out and thrust wildly like serpent’s tongues. Beautifully glistening glass vials and tubes sat amidst copper spheres that wound themselves around like industrial jewels. Needles indicated where the force of energy was heading on the dials, and disks whirled like fun-house wheels. It was all so mesmerizing in Frankenstein’s laboratory with it’s arcane machinery that sung the songs of the universe, and the secrets of immortality and life from death, the sounds of voltage that pushed the machinery to its limits.
From then on 1931 James Whale’s Frankenstein with its elaborately detailed laboratory up on the mountain tops set the tone for all mad scientist laboratories to follow. Kenneth Strickfaden would utilize and reconfigure his glorious apparatus over and over again in the Frankenstein films that followed, like Bride of Frankenstein.
You can see his fantastical machines like his “Megavolt Tesla Coil” & the “Nebularium” in Flash Gordon serials and so many other horror and sci-fi features over the decades. Even in one of the most memorable episodes of The Munsters in the 60s, where Grandpa transfigures Herman into Fred Gwynn, losing his square headed, neck bolted Frankensteinian charm! The episode is called “Just Another Pretty Face.”
And Mel Brooks truly paid homage to the Universal cycle of Frankenstein pictures with his Young Frankenstein in 1974. Co-starring with Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn doing her Mae Clarke bit as Elizabeth and Marty Feldman as Igor to Dwight Frye’s Fritz.
The Gothic laboratory that Gene Wilder plays Doctor, waxes campy and raises Peter Boyle back to life using a lighting storm and complex equipment that sparks and radiates arcs of light was the very same set of scientific apparatus used from Whale’s masterpiece in 1931 film when Kenneth Strickfaden first configured it all for the set of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff.
Strickfaden died in 1984, and up until that time, he traveled the country with all machines and apparatus, and gave lectures in schools and auditoriums, also creating music with electrical instruments that he designed. He would demonstrate his lighting effects with ultraviolet light on radioactive materials, and shock and amaze students with something he called hi “gravity nuetralizer” He did these programs from 1933 til his death.
Strickfaden would step in at times as a stunt double in the films, for instance, he played Karloff’s monster for a scene that didn’t make it into the film. When Karloff didn’t want to use the “QUCH” machine fearing it was too dangerous as Fu Manchu, Strickfaden stood in for him. He held a large wand that generated a streaming arc of lightening which called for a million-volt sparks to dance over his body. in Mask of Fu Manchu, Strickfaden was thrown across the set when he wasn’t grounded properly and received a jolt of electricity.
He became the most trusted man around high-voltage trickery, yet Strickfaden admits very plainly that there’s no mystery to what he is able to do and that producing high voltage or amperage is rather simple.
One of the key apparatus that Strickfaden uses is his million-volt generator, which produces the large sparks, and fat blue flames that which can actually reach a height of 6 feet into the air. It’s his most intricately designed piece of equipment. The multi-distributor consists of a motor driven set of whirling electrodes that can throw sparks. Strickfaden does say that a shock from the circuits could actually prove fatal.
Another device Strickfaden used was called a ‘lightening screen’ This is another high voltage generator which throws sparks across a large disk with a radioactive backing. Used with a darkened stage, the radioactive material continues to glow along the path of each spark even once the current has been shut off.
A note about Nikola Tesla-THE GENIUS WHO LIT THE WORLD- “ Young Nikola Tesla came to the United States in 1884 with an introduction letter from Charles Batchelor to Thomas Edison: Nikola Tesla developed polyphase alternating current system of generators, motors and transformers and held 40 basic U.S. patents on the system, which George Westinghouse bought, determined to supply America with the Tesla system.
In February 1882, Tesla discovered the rotating magnetic field, a fundamental principle in physics and the basis of nearly all devices that use alternating current. Tesla brilliantly adapted the principle of rotating magnetic field for the construction of alternating current induction motor and the polyphase system for the generation, transmission, distribution and use of electrical power. Tesla’s A.C.induction motor is widely used throughout the world in industry and household appliances. It started the industrial revolution at the turn of the century. Electricity today is generated transmitted and converted to mechanical power by means of his inventions. Tesla’s greatest achievement is his polyphase alternating current system which lights is used throughout the world
- JUST IMAGINE 1930
- FRANKENSTEIN 1931
- THE MASK OF FU MANCHU 1932
- MURDER AT DAWN 1932
- DR. X (1932)
- THE INVISIBLE MAN 1933
- THE VANISHING SHADOW 1934
- THE LOST CITY 1935
- THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN 1935
- FLASH GORDON serial 1936
- THE AMAZING EXPLOITS OF THE CLUTCHING HAND
- GHOST PATROL 1936
- THE WIZARD OF OZ 1939
- THE PHANTOM CREEPS 1939
- THE SHADOW 1940
- FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS 1941
- SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH 1943
- THE BOOGEYMAN WILL GET YOU 1943
- HOUSE OF DRACULA 1945
- MONSTROSITY 1963
- THE MUNSTERS 1966
- GAMES 1967 Curtis Harrington directs
- DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN 1971
- BLACKENSTEIN 1973
- YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN 1974
SOLD AT AUCTION
SOURCE MATERIAL FROM-
FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #21 1963
Memorabilia Heritage Auction Galleries
Photos from the Academy of Motion Pictures homage to Strickfaden.-A selection of surviving gadgets from Strickfaden’s movie laboratories.
Modern Mechanix scan of a Popular Mechanics article from September 1949-by Eugene M Hanson.
1. Scott MacQueen, “Kenneth Strickfaden: Strange Revelations of the Man Who Lives in the House that Frankenstein Built,” Gore Creatures, no. 24, October 1975, pp. 24-26.
2. William Ludington, “Mister Electricity: The Multi-Volted Career of Kenneth Strickfaden,” American Classic Screen, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan./Feb. 1983, pp. 26-29.
This has been electrifying -your ever lovin’ MonsterGirl