Kenneth Strickfaden’s (1896-1984) career as an electrical technician in movies and television spanned over 50 years. Surprisingly, there is only one biography written about his fascinating life and contributions to cinema, television and construction of electrical apparatus. Kenneth Strickfaden: Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician (Harry Goldman, McFarland & Co., 224 pages) is a fascinating celebration of an enigmatic man who self-taught himself during an era dominated by apprenticeship and mentor-pupil relationships. Strickfaden essentially pioneered and monopolized electrical special effects during the 1930’s and was the go-to-man for several decades. Author Harry Goldman even makes note of Disney engineers consulting with Strickfaden on ways to synch audio with talking automatons used at a Disney theme park.
Strickfaden’s resume of films was impressive, but generally spanned from Frankenstein (Universal, 1931) to Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein (1974). Author Harry Goldman notes he made contributions to over 80 films, including Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), War of the Worlds (1953), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Munsters Dr. Shrimperstein episode (1966) and many others. He also helped with silents before and some television and film consulting afterwards. Mel Brooks called the man a genius. Strickfaden’s talents have become a bit of a lost art in cinema. It is safer and typically more cost-effective to render lightning effects using computer-aided graphics. The next time you watch one of these old horror films try and spot one of Strickfaden’s devices.
Kenneth Strickfaden: Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician is essential horror film reading that will also appeal to Nikola Tesla fans. The book consists of 19 Chapters and 4 Appendices. Several of Strickfaden’s sketches and notes are included in Appendix B. Also check out a few screen captures and images I have presented below.
Here’s the opening shot of Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). That’s Strickfaden’s Nebularium, although it also looks a bit like another mirrored device he called the Scintillarium. In any event, the distorted gargoyle-like mug of Fu Manchu is appropriately distorted by Strickfaden’s device and DOP Tony Gaudio’s striking cinematography.
Dr. Fu Manchu tests a soon-to-be debunked sword of Genghis Khan using a Tesla coil (conical apparatus with an orb on top).
Boris Karloff as the nefarious (“three times a doctor”) Fu Manchu. That’s Strickfaden’s Multistributor behind Karloff.
Kenneth Strickfaden in Fu Manchu makeup, by Cecil Holland, standing in for a voltage-shy Boris Karloff. In an earlier take, Strickfaden took a nasty arc due to an improper ground, but he returned to finish the shot.
Kenneth Strickfaden, age 85 with the giant primary Meg Sr., used during educational exhibitions and in several films, including Young Frankenstein (1974).
Here’s a shot from 1975 with Kenneth Strickfaden (center) and friends with the Nebularium electrical device seen in several Golden Age horror films, including The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).