stan sinberg

stan sinberg
San Francisco, California, USA
February 25
Stan Sinberg did the popular "Take a Stan" commentary on KFOG for several years. He also writes for MAD magazine, and the dearly-departed gonzo supermarket tabloid, Weekly World News.

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JUNE 26, 2009 1:45PM

How Bela Lugosi Saved "Thriller" & Changed History

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By Stan Sinberg

As has been noted repeatedly since Michael Jackson’s untimely death, the “Thriller” video changed music history. The video effectively “integrated” MTV, and it revolutionized the way music videos were conceived, produced, and budgeted. And it all wouldn’t have happened if not, in an odd way, for Bela Lugosi.

At the time, John Branca was Jackson’s entertainment lawyer. Branca represented many rock acts, including The Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac, but landing Jackson was certainly a coup.  At that time, in 1983, rock music videos were in their infancy, had an average budget of $50k, and MTV was being criticized for ignoring black artists.
In that atmosphere, Jackson told Branca he wanted to budget a million dollars for his next video, “Thriller.” When the entertainment lawyer objected, Jackson snapped, “Make it happen.”

Branca came up with the idea to persuade Showtime to pony up $1.2 million for a “Making of ‘Thriller’” video – the first “making of” video documentary of its kind.

After “Thriller” was completed, but before its release, Jackson, a Jehovah's Witness, told church elders that in the video he turns into a werewolf. The elders scolded him for promoting demonology. Jackson then ordered Branca to destroy the video.

That was insane,” said Branca, who had the master copy. “I couldn’t destroy it.”

Desperate, Branca recalled that the King of Pop was a huge fan of actor Bela Lugosi, who'd played “Dracula.”  So on a bluff, he phoned Jackson. “You know, Bela Lugosi was a very religious man,” he began, although in truth Branca had no idea whether or not this was true. .  “And Bela has a disclaimer on his movies that his films don’t endorse vampirism.”  This was a complete falsehood.

Branca convinced Jackson to place a similar disclaimer on the beginning of ‘Thriller” (“"Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way...") - and music video history was changed. In the five days following the release of the video, the album “Thriller,” which had already been out for months, sold a million copies, and was on its way to the stratosphere.  

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Interesting tidbit. Thanks
Great post Stan. I'm glad to see a little Forry Ackerman going on here.
this is an awesome insider bit, thanks for sharing. Things can be so full of serendipity.
Bela Lugosi's dead!
Great story.

It kills me that Vincent Price did the narration on "Thriller".

But now, I've got to go and rent "Plan 9 From Outer Space" again!
You can fool some of the people some of the time.....
A sweet story. Reminds me to take another look at Burton's "Ed Wood," in which Martin Landau gives an equally sweet performance as Mr. Lugosi.
Actually that's true. MTV was basically all white before that.
Hey, this is interesting. This is the first time I've looked at your blog. We have the same birthday!

I always wondered about that disclaimer & thought it to be unnecessary.
Loved this little story. Ah, religion and how it can get in the way of art.... Thanks for sharing it.
Wow, didn't know! Thriller was so cool, I watched it over and over. My nieces, Melissa and Jesse, who were tweens at the time, memorized every thing about it. We were at a wedding recently, and the DJ put it on. Melissa got on the dance floor and led us all through the steps. A great moment!
And thus he destroyed music.

Sorry, I'm not a fan of the videos with no talent hacks "singing" between quick cuts...Michal Jackson had immense talent/immense demons.

You could hold the camera on him and he amazed. He didn't need the electronic wizardry of today.

Which makes anyone look and sound good.

I've heard he was the best ever.

I've heard he and Lennon created music.

He was one for the ages. He also had flaws for the ages.
Very interesting story. Talk about quick thinking!
Very cool anecdote. Thanks.