The Man Behind Warren Vanderdark
By Noah Wullkotte
Today we interview Lucian Tomes Jr., the actor who plays Warren Vanderdark at The Baxter Avenue Morgue in Louisville, Kentucky. Warren has become a haunt icon and has cemented himself as a legendary actor in the haunt world. This is our interview with the man behind Warren Vanderdark.
* Tell us a little about how you first got involved with Baxter Avenue Morgue and how you were hired to play Warren Vanderdark?
I first started acting in haunts back when I was in high school (over 30+ years ago!), playing the Wolf Man at The Louisville Jaycees’ annual haunted house. I was semi-retired from haunting in the mid-90’s for various personal reasons, although it’s kind of like what they say about the Mafia, you never REALLY leave (*chuckle*). I got the bug again in 1999 and played what I called “The Wolf Man’s Farewell Tour” at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom’s Fright Fest that season.
Flash forward to late summer of 2000 and I’m thumbing through the classified ads of the local free alternative weekly newspaper, LEO, when I spot a notice for auditions for a new haunt opening up. I figured I’d give it a shot. When I walked through the door with my then fiance that afternoon, it was like something from an old Hollywood b-movie, the directors looked at me and said “You’re perfect!” and that day, a semi-genuine urban legend was born.
* How is the history of the morgue incorporated into the haunted attraction?
The building that we’re in is a bit of a mystery. If you stand across the street and look up, you can see carved in stone the name of the commercial laundry that was originally there over a century ago. But given the low hanging beams in the basement (some of which are unusually long and quite thick), it wasn’t possible to be able to fit any of the commercial equipment of the era in such a space, so that area was utilized for cold storage.
We’ve tried researching the building’s past only to meet with several dead-ends (no pun intended!), since a great many of the city’s property and zoning records had been destroyed over the years by such events as the ’37 flood. We have theorized that given the record number of deaths that occurred in Louisville during the flu epidemic of 1914 and being that two of Louisville’s older and larger cemeteries, Eastern and Cave Hill, are just a few blocks away, that it’s quite possible that the building’s basement could very well have been utilized as a stand-by morgue.
There are two features that lend some credence to this theory, such as the floor drain located in our “Yellow Room” funeral parlor (which was originally accessible only by an iron door!) and a crypt-like concrete room located toward the center of the attraction. So you have a morgue with a shadowy past and a natural atmosphere that no amount of money could replicate. Being that people tend to get easily creeped out by death, the haunt’s storyline practically wrote itself.
* What’s involved in getting Warren Vanderdark ready for a night of acting?
That’s a little hard for me to put my finger on exactly. I guess you could say that I’m just getting in touch with my inner-Vincent Price. *chuckle* I’ll spend some time chatting with cast members back in the dressing room, grab a little snack, perhaps a bottled water or energy drink, checking to see if any special groups might be paying us a visit that night and other bits of business.
The directors will give the cast a pep talk and then the call to places. I have developed one little ritual that I’ve been doing over the last couple of years. As I’m walking down the backstage hallway to the front of the house, I’ll whistle a few bars from the opening theme to “Tales From The Crypt”.
* Can you give us a little background on the character Warren Vanderdark and what role he plays at Baxter Avenue Morgue?
Here’s a condensation of the “official” storyline, to which I’ve added one or two minor embellishments of my own: Originally opened in 1901 by Warren’s father Victor, the then Vanderdark Morgue was promoted as being a uniquely full-service facility for its time, offering embalming, cremation and having a funeral parlor on premises. Warren was born not too long afterward and in his youth, was a basically normal child, until his mother died in the flu epidemic of 1914 (her full-length portrait hangs on the wall of our “Yellow Room”), an event that helped to horribly warp his psyche forever.
Victor had started teaching Warren the mortuary arts and as the various bodies would arrive over the months, Warren became obsessed with the mysteries of the human body, thinking about the possibility of somehow “restarting” these seemingly broken “machines”. He began visiting local libraries, poring over books about alchemy, spiritualism, the experiments of Conrad Dipple in Germany and Dr. Herbert West of Miskatonic University.
Confident that he’d managed to uncover the elusive secrets of life after death, Warren began conducting secret experiments on some of the bodies that were brought to the Vanderdark Morgue. He succeeded, but not in the way he’d hoped. The test subjects, while seemingly alive, were either hopelessly insane, homicidal or exhibited “unnatural appetites”. These failed experiments were hidden away in cages in the far corners of the Morgue’s basement, in the hope that by studying them, he could determine where he’d gone wrong.
Warren managed to hide this secret from his father for several years, until Halloween night of 1932, when Victor uncovered what had been going on and confronted Warren. A violent argument ensued, culminating with Warren killing his own father with a fireplace poker. This was the starting point for an out-of-control spiral of madness, murder and atrocities that would grow to encompass not only Warren’s wife Lilly and their children, but any souls foolhardy enough to cross the threshold into the Morgue itself …
Warren’s role at The Baxter Avenue Morgue is that of an officious, yet genial, host welcoming visitors and giving them a few helpful rules to follow while they’re taking the tour of the morgue. Granted, he’s hiding his sinister ulterior motive, scouting out potential subjects for future experiments.
* Are there any paranormal experiences you’ve had at the morgue you’re willing to share?
I’ve been with The Baxter Avenue Morgue since Day 1 and I heard numerous stories from other cast members about strange things that they’d seen and heard, but I’d never heard or seen anything myself UNTIL last season. One night I was standing back in a little alcove off the front entrance hallway when a voice whispered the name “Jessica” in my ear. Of course, there was nothing behind me but a wall.
Then two weekends before Halloween, I was standing in that same alcove, looking into the “Yellow Room”, when I saw a figure in a white hooded shroud pass from right to left in front of a casket and then seemingly diminish and vanish beside a glass display case in the room. When my eyes had finished registering what I had just seen, I ran into the room, only to find no one there. I found out later that night that the same entity had been seen by cast members in other areas of the haunt.
(Pictured: Lucian Tomes Jr. as Warren Vanderdark, Aidan Cowgell as Lillian Vanderdark and John Cowgell as Warren’s Son Reginald)
* How have you seen Baxter Avenue Morgue evolve over the years?
When we started out, we had sort of what I like to call a “carnival funhouse” feel, with such things as guides wearing black monk’s robes and day-glo painted items under black light. Our later creative team of Joey Arena and Verity Jones, helped to refine the mythos of the Vanderdark family and developed the overall image of the Morgue and its inhabitants, even to the point of writing mini bios for each character.
* What’s life like when you aren’t working at Baxter Avenue Morgue?
It’s that of your average guy, being married to my wife of 7 years, Sandra, looking after and playing with our dogs, going to work. It’s surprisingly “unscary”. *chuckle*
* What was it like working at Fear Fair Camp in 2011?
Teddy Summers, Tad Dezarn and I were invited to be guest speakers at their first “Scare Actor” camp that August. While I must confess that my teaching skills leave a LOT to be desired, it was a wonderful opportunity to network with fellow haunters and to get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the outstanding haunts in the region.
* Do you ever get recognized on the street as Warren Vanderdark and what do people usually say?
I do and the reactions run the gamut from “Hey, aren’t you? …” to “Oh my gosh, it’s YOU!”. When my wife and I had gotten married, we were checking in for a little weekend stay at what was then the Executive West Hotel here in Louisville when one of the hotel’s out-of-town guests recognized me and began asking me questions like when did we open for the season and could you purchase tickets in advance and so on. I think my wife’s eyes were rolled back so far it’s a wonder she didn’t suffer permanent strain. *chuckle*
* What are some of the reactions people have had when they first meet you at the Baxter Avenue Morgue?
The reaction that I get from people has been set-up in large part by the Morgue’s back story, which seems to have taken on almost a life of its own at times. There’s a full-length portrait of me hanging in our “Yellow Room” funeral parlor and when I make my entrance, I’ve had a great many people remark that I “look JUST like the guy in the painting!” Season before last, I actually made a young girl pass out just by glaring at her. I think it kind of throws people off that instead of being confronted by the usual rail thin undertaker that they’re accustomed to seeing in movies and TV, there’s this guy who’s nearly six feet tall and built like a bear.
* Have you ever pursued acting in films or TV and if so, how has that gone?
I have, it’s been kind of sporadic, but there are now far more opportunities to find such work in the Louisville area than there were 30 years ago. My first TV appearances were back in the mid-80’s, when I played none other than Santa Claus for WKPC-TV’s annual Christmas show for two years in a row.
In March 2011, I appeared in “The Borgia Codex” for Todd Fluhr’s murder mystery theater troupe The Game Plays You and followed that up with playing The Criminologist in two sold-out shadowcast showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at The Alley Theater here in Louisville.
I’ve also had bit parts in three films for local filmmaker Beau Kaelin’s Schadenfreude Productions, recently appeared as an extra in the upcoming film “A Wish For The Dead” produced by Herschel Zahn and have been cast in an upcoming crime drama directed by Gregory Fugate that’s currently in production.
Earlier this year I had the honor of appearing in The Alley Theater’s first annual “Inhuman: A Festival of The New Undead American Theater” in the staged reading “Keep Hope Alive”, directed by Dana Hope and written by Gregory Fugate. All in all, it’s been kind of a hit or miss proposition, but I sure can’t complain.
* What’s your favorite part of working at Baxter Avenue Morgue?
My favorite part is growing up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine and being glued to the TV every Saturday night to watch the films of the likes of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It’s my chance to star in a real-life horror movie. It’s sort of a dream (or nightmare?) come true.
We would sincerely like to thank Lucian Tomes Jr. for answering our questions for this interview. For more information on Baxter Avenue Morgue, please visit www.baxtermorgue.com.