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High times for Atlanta lowbrow

Southern culture goes beyond the skids

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"If some people would pick one thing and stick with it, they would frickin' rule that one thing," says Barb Hays. "For us to take it to the next level, maybe we need to focus on one thing."

But as fellow performer Dickie Van Dyke points out, part of the fun is in the variety of performances they can pull off: "If I didn't have my hand in so many different cookie jars, I wouldn't have such a great taste in my mouth!"

The sun's shining, and it's hot and muggy on the last Saturday in June. Jonathan Rej eyes the kids and parents sauntering in for the matinee showing of the Silver Scream Spook Show.

Rej frets about today's turnout; the indie-rock music fest Corndogorama is running all day a couple miles away at Lenny's, and pop-surrealist artist R. Land is opening his first Atlanta exhibit in five years later that evening in Little Five Points.

Rej notes the crossover with a wary smile: "It's all pretty much the same crowd."

But Rej and his wife, Gayle – who pooled their financial resources two years ago to buy the Plaza – marvel at the success, and impact, of the monthly horror/sci-fi event.

"I'm surprised at their attention span during the show," Jonathan, 35, says of the children, who range in age from 5 to 10. "And the kids really stick around for the movie afterward, and they pay attention."

The Silver Scream's troupe of about a dozen members features Morton, Dumas, the Blast-Off troupe and others performing horror or sci-fi skits that recall programming from the early days of television designed to introduce that week's scary movie.

"Silver Scream's the biggest event we have," Jonathan Rej notes, while Gayle preps for her debut as the stuttering Persephone in an upcoming skit. "It shows that all of our events are not just movies. It's more interactive."

Another veteran of Atlanta's music scene, the mutton-chopped Morton is an impresario who for years has been finding an outlet for his love of all things spooky. His Decatur home overflows with action figures, movie posters and life-size creatures from camp classics such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon. "He's the Robert Osborne of monster movies," a friend says.

The Silver Scream Spook Show is the craziest scheme Morton has hatched since he and fellow tattoo artist Jim Stacy collaborated on the 16-member Star Wars tribute band Grand Moff Tarkin back in 1999. "Our basic goal," Morton says, "was to get sued by George Lucas."

Morton formed the troupe when he recruited Jon Waterhouse to play his Igor-like sidekick Retch during the Silver Scream Spook Show, and the Blast-Off crew as supporting players and script co-writers.

The show features an ongoing rivalry between his character, Professor Morté (Morton), and Morte's nemesis, the evil, conservative Doctor Wertham (Nick Morgan) – a reference to social scientist and comic-book hater Frederic Wertham of Seduction of the Innocent fame. Morton winks at the audience as he spits out one-liners. With his Eddie Munster black wig and mischievous streak, Morton comes across as a wise-cracking Bela Lugosi.

June's wafer-thin plot involves Wertham's belief that there's no such thing as aliens (from outer space, anyway). The Blast-Off Burlesque women fill in as sexy nurses and go-go dancers, with Waterhouse's sidekick, Retch, egging Morté along in his duel with Wertham.

"I came here to watch science-fiction movies and eat popcorn," Morté declares, "and I'm all out of popcorn!" He eats the toy version of Wertham and smacks his lips. "Mmm, tastes like chicken," he sneers as the kids scream in delight.

Morton saves his real enthusiasm to introduce the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, which underscores his passion for classic monster and sci-fi fare. "This was in the day before computers ruined everything," he says "You're going to see flying saucers that were made to be flying saucers, by actual humans!"

The movie rolls, and as Jonathan Rej predicted, the kids remain in their seats, transfixed, as a young Leslie Nielsen tries to save the titular forbidden planet from itself.

While the film rolls, the Silver Scream cast heads for the lobby to evaluate the performance, which invariably requires tweaking for the night show.

Morton is unfazed, even if the show precedes a five-week U.S. tour with Dumas and the Luchagors. "It's going to be a lot tighter," Morton promises. "It's never too tight. People come to watch us fuck up. It's hanging from a desperate string the whole time."

The Silver Scream Spook Show isn't the only regular lowbrow event that is happily suffering growing pains. You can see it in the prevalence of burlesque troupes, women's flat-track roller-derby matches, lowbrow-art openings and hot-rod/custom-car clubs.

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