It’s been a 25-year journey for Stacey Case, a Billy Van super fan.
Those who don’t recognize Van’s name probably aren’t fans of Hilarious House of Frightenstein, a children’s television series produced by Hamilton’s independent station CHCH-TV. All 130 episodes were made in a nine-month span starting in 1971.
Although the show only lasted one season, it has been syndicated both in Canada and internationally. It’s a quirky sketch comedy series that achieved cult status due to its zany humour. Van played most of the characters on the show. The cast also included Vincent Price.
Van passed away in 2003 following a battle with cancer, leaving a legacy that reached beyond the cult following of an obscure Canadian television show. And it’s on Case’s bucket list to have Van’s legacy documented in a book.
“I contacted Billy for an interview for my zine I used to publish called Rivet back in the ’90s,” said Case. “In Issue 5, I published an interview with Billy. It was reminiscing specifically about Hilarious House of Frightenstein and, ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by his career and lack of recognition. Twenty-five years later, it has resulted in the opening of the Billy Van Museum while we work on a book.”
Van wrote an unpublished autobiography before he died called Second Banana. Case said Van’s autobiography had no interviews with anybody he worked with or his ex-wives. He only told you what he wanted you to know.
“So his own book is very dry,” Case said. “It’s very impersonal. He’s just talking about his career and … it could be so much better, so we’re doing a different book.”
Case always wanted to elaborate on the original article he wrote for Rivet, but, until now, he has been too busy to get involved with creating a book.
“I’m not a full-time writer,” he said. “I have a full-time job as a screen printer, but it doesn’t mean the book doesn’t deserve to get done. In 2007, I contacted my friend Greg Oliver to pitch him the idea of working on a book … So that’s what is going on. I’ve known Greg through professional wrestling; he’s a sports writer and he’s written excellent books on wrestling. He writes kids’ books – all kinds of stuff. He’s also a fan of Billy Van and Frightenstein, so this is right up his alley.”
“I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan. I mean, I was a fan,” Oliver said. “I’m not an obsessive personality the way that Stacey is. When he gets into something, he gets into it whole hog. That’s not quite my style. I’m not knocking it. It’s awesome – contagious is a good word for Stacey. He gets really into a project like this, really enthusiastic and you can’t help but ride that, so he’s been a great wingman as we work on this book …. It makes for a good tag team, to use a wrestling metaphor, because I’ve written a lot of wrestling stuff.”
Fast forward 10 years, both Case and Oliver have more time to concentrate on the book and Oliver has acquired 10 years of writing experience, which has set him up to do a better job than he would have in 2007.
Case and Oliver were both pro-wrestling fans who got to know each other through Apocalypse Wrestling Federation in Scarborough, Ont. They became friends and did an “epic road trip” to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“That’s where we talked about these kinds of ideas that came together more than a decade later,” Oliver said.
Over the years, Case’s fascination with Van’s life has not wavered. The book remained the No. 1 thing to accomplish on his bucket list.
“I just think he has a really interesting life – the whole thing has just been so fascinating to me, every aspect of it,” he said. “I think he’s a genius and he deserves a well-done book — hopefully a documentary too. That would be cool.”
A few months into working on the book, Case noticed an ad on Kijiji for a small storefront to rent on the east side of Hamilton.
“I wasn’t looking for a space, but it popped up,” he said. “It fit with the phenomenon of the Japanese tiny museum. I saw the space and thought I can do a Billy Van Museum in here. This will be great. It’s great marketing for the book.
“It’s too early for pre-orders,” Case said, “but we can still fundraise and that’s what the museum does …. Basically, it’s paying Greg an advance, so he’ll continue to work on the book.”
Oliver is doing the bulk of the work. He is the writer on the team. Copy does go through Case, though, and he offers feedback and has conducted a few interviews.
Van’s daughter Tracy has been supportive of the museum and the book. She has donated some personal family items until the lease ends on the Billy Van Museum in May 2020.
“She is our link to the rights to the life of her father,” Case said. “For chain of title to publish a book we need to establish direct contact with the family members for when it comes down to paying royalties. Those details will be worked out with Tracey. She comes to all the fundraisers. She’s a sweetheart.”
This experience has been super gratifying for Case. Only 200 copies of his zine were published in 1994 because that’s all he could photocopy.
“I wrote that article,” he said. “And I was like – goddamn! Here is a guy who just needs to be super famous because he warped us all and it’s him, not Frightenstein. It’s him. It’s him. He was Frightenstein. Igor was cool. Vincent Price was cool. Everybody knows that, but Billy Van was Frightenstein. He was everybody on Frightenstein.”
After meeting Van, Case was adamant that more people should know about Van.
He decided he’d be the person to spread awareness so starting the museum and having people pick up on it, especially in the media, was part of that.
CBC did a story on the museum and it’s up to about 700,000 views.
“At 200,000, CBC wrote me to congratulate me to say that was the most views they have had of digital content online,” Case said. “Somebody at CBC is paying attention.”
Case tracked Van down through ACTRA, the actor’s union, in 1994.
“I asked to do an interview for my magazine,” he said. “I never used the word zine because old people didn’t know what a zine was, so I just said magazine.”
Case received a call the next day saying Van had agreed to the interview.
“I went down and hung out with Billy Van for an hour. It was awesome. Anybody that has met Billy Van always has a special story about meeting him.”
“He treated me very professionally,” Case said. “He was happy I had questions ready and I brought up things he hadn’t thought about for a long time. He had photos in his desk from the show.”
A couple of years later, Case had Van as a guest on his radio show in Toronto, doing all the voices of Frightenstein.
“I did live improv with Billy for 45 minutes,” he said. “That’s a special memory.”
Case says bookings at the museum are creating new memories he cherishes.
“These all become special memories as well,” he said. “The day my father died, about two weeks ago … there were two bookings that night. Two couples …their energy helped me… their energy and enthusiasm helped me … I was able to get through it … these are all special moments.”
The museum is making enough to pay the rent and then there is extra left over from T-shirt and postcard sales to make sure Oliver gets “a little scratch.”
Oliver, meanwhile, says he’s done “90 per cent of the interviews and 90 per cent of the research. So in the end I’m the guy sitting upstairs in my office writing it and putting it all together.”
Since getting into the research for the book, Oliver has been amazed by Van’s career.
“It goes from 1958 when he first got on CBC … so I’ve talked to all those people from his career that are still around,” he said. “It’s amazing the amount of stuff he does, by and large. Everybody I talk to raves about him as a performer.”
The interesting part for Oliver as a writer has been getting a little bit of negativity in Van’s personal life.
“He certainly wasn’t a perfect father, by any means,” Oliver said. “He liked to have probably a few too many drinks and all these things finally add up to making him a more complete human being and not just a jokester. So, I’m loving that aspect of it, even if it shows flaws in a man. It shows he was completely human like the rest of us.”
Oliver estimates he has another month of work to get the book to where he wants it to be.
“So that should be done end of February,” he said. “Then you’ve got to get it proofread and edited and I hope to have it out by fall, but ideally in the summer.”
Oliver grew up in Kitchener. He was an avid writer, getting a job at the Kitchener-Waterloo Record as a high school student. He happened to be there one evening when a budget leak broke and he saw how the newsroom came alive. That really stuck with him. He knew he wanted to be involved in the writing and news business.
He attended Ryerson for journalism and got a job at the Toronto Sun library before he graduated. Libraries at the time were key. There was no internet, so journalists couldn’t check everything from the comfort of their desks.
“You’d have to get up and go to the library,” he said. “So you got to know everybody. When I was ready to expand my career and move into other positions I knew everybody there so, in the end, I did about 13 different jobs at the Sun.”
When the Sun started Canoe.ca in late ’96 and early ’97, Oliver was involved from day one. Then wrestling came along.
“I did a wrestling newsletter when I was a kid, from 1985 to 1990 when I went to Ryerson,” he said. “I did a newsletter about professional wrestling and that got me into the wrestling business .… Everybody was watching wrestling, so our wrestling site took off .… SLAM! Wrestling has been going more than 20 years now. There aren’t many websites like that and we do good journalism and really enjoy what we do.”
Michael Holmes, editor at ECW Press contacted Oliver and asked him if he’s like to do a book.
“I said I’d love to do a book about famous Canadian wrestling,” Oliver said. “I’m up to 14 books so far and there’s another one coming out from ECW Press this fall .… I’d like the Billy Van book to be done about the same time, so I could have two different brand-new books to sell when I’m out at events.”
Of all the jobs he’s done, Oliver says the best one was stay-at-home dad.
“My son is now 12 so he doesn’t need me as much,” he said. “I was able to combine writing and not needing to make a full-time living, because my wife had a really good job, still does, with staying home with him and being able to say I have this opportunity to go hang out with Bobby Orr, let’s skip school this afternoon – that’s by far the best job I’ve ever had. It’s fortunate. It complemented writing very well.”
Visits to the Billy Van Museum, 1576 King St. E., Hamilton, are by appointment only. Go here to book your visit. Admission is by donation.