Copyright © 1987, 2006 Thomas Hart
by: Brandon Lovested
It was a warm early-june afternoon in 1987 when I received a seemingly innocent phone call.  It was Tom Hart, someone I had meet through a mutual friend.  In 1986 we had performed in that cursed “Scottish Play” together at the Genesius Guild Theatre in Rock Island, Illinois.  Tom wanted to discuss an idea with me.  He chose the Denny’s between Brady and Harrison Streets in Davenport, Iowa.  Why there?  Only Tom knew.  Perhaps it was the convenient location, perhaps the food, perhaps something utterly unfathomable to human consciousness.   When I arrived, Tom greeted me and we began to discuss his “idea”.  As it took shape in my mind, I became very bothered by it.  The scope, the complexity, the very nature of it twisted in my skull like an auger drilling into sun-baked soil.  It was then that I realized my friend was insane.
Despite my concerns, I agreed to help Tom out with his “idea” in any way that I could, hoping to monitor his downward spiral into dementia.  Over the next several weeks his idea took shape.  It would prove to be, in loose terms, a television program dedicated to a late-night audience that was scarcely able to read.  The potential of the show was not yet known to me, nor the reason for its creation.  I felt assured that Tom knew these things though.  He was very motivated to bring this TV show (Live on Tape) into existence.
Finally, after much late-night and weekend work, the first episode of the show was ready for air.  On the Fourth of July, 1987, the first of the broadcasts that were to bring so much calamity to the world began.  At first Live on Tape started out as a hosted movie, always a movie with a “horror” theme.  It was not until much later did this irony become apparent to me.  There were various skits surrounding the ever-present commercial breaks through each week’s film.  These skits ranged from continuing characters discussing the movie being shown to outlandish and freakish events staged to inconspicuously distort the viewers’ sense of reality.  The subliminal nature of the program was so complete that even I was unaware of it... until it was too late.
I shall never be able to look at a chocolate-chip cookie the same way again.  On the first episode of Live on Tape, the world-famous Alpine Tree Lurching Team from Svengrodin was attacked by a hideous 5 ft. tall tollhouse cookie of disturbing charm.  Eventually the pastry was vanquished by the heraldry of the alpine tree lurchers.  All seemed quiet... safe... and tranquil until they discovered that the fallen remains of the cookie had vanished!  Had someone removed it?  Had woodland creatures run off with its tasty morsels?  Alas, we never learned what happened.  Some say that the cook still roams Lincoln Park in Rock Island, haunting its hills during the summer nights.  Now and again someone will claim they see a round, hulking form lurking in the shadows of the trees and bushes, its muffled wail echoing in the darkness as it searches endlessly for something or someone.  Fact or fiction?  I do not know, but I avoid Lincoln Park late at night just to be safe.
And so that’s how it was for the next several weeks, the skits of Live on Tape intermixed throughout a bad horror movie.  And then something strange happened... the movie part of the show was mysteriously dropped from the Live on Tape’s format.  Tom informed me and the other cast members that he had made some sort of deal; a deal that would keep the movie portion off the show forever, leaving only the Live on Tape skits and bits.  I asked Tom how he had accomplished this, but he only patted his shirt pocket and said, “I’ve got a good-luck charm”.  Then he laughed and walked away.  Shivers shot up my spine.  Had he really been that lucky?  Whatever the cause, the effect was profound.  We now had to develop and produce an entire half-hour show every week.  Despite the increased workload, Tom was very pleased... almost too pleased.
Tom’s pleasure was occasionally diminished after 70 to 80 hour work weeks, but he always rebounded his enthusiasm.  This was his show, his idea, his creation, and he was proud of it.  Tom knew he was accomplishing something admirable.  I had always assumed it was his goal to produce, direct, write, and star in a TV series... but there was something else driving him, a more distant and darker goal.
As time went by the cast of Live on Tape became close.  The resident man of jolly, John Horvath, kept everyone in stitches.  Being an amazingly humorous person and an excellent performer, John was always quick with a joke or to light up a smoke.  Like all of us, John was more than happy to be a part of the show and help out.  In retrospect it seems so incredible to me now that everyone was so content and happy to work for Tom.  Sure there were the occasional flare-ups from a cast member or someone working on the crew, but Tom would calmly mumble into his shirt pocket and everything would then be fine.  I just chalked this up to his “lucky charm” or his easy-going nature.  But in time, I learned it was not his nature that was influencing the cast.  Whoever or wherever Tom was at that point is anybody’s guess.  Our star of Live on Tape was not of this Earth.
I should’ve seen it.  I should’ve known that something was amiss.  Tom’s character of E.J. Crackerhorn should have been a dead giveaway.  Nothing could be that repellent and slimy, yet so enduring and adorable to so many.  Natural repugnance of all creatures wraith and pall should have turned us from him (or it), and yet we followed him.  Tom... or what we thought was Tom became indistinguishable from E.J., adopting his mannerisms right down to the facial ticks.  In public everyone would pester Tom to perform his “E.J. Crackerhorn Character”--- only, it wasn’t a performance, it was real.  Eventually E.J.’s phrases began to catch on with the public - “E.J.-isms” we called them.  They seemed harmless and fun... they were, until people started to get hurt.
It first began on the set after a long day of production.  Greg Baldwin, our studio director and sometime cast member, was looking over the script for the next day’s shoot.  He was idly chanting under his breath, “Ooo baby, baby, baby....” over and over again without realizing he was doing so.  As he read further into the script he became more engrossed in the pages, losing himself until he went to turn the page and received a paper cut.  But not a normal, innocuous paper cut, this was a large gash across his wrist that sprayed blood everywhere!  Crew members rushed around to help Greg stop the bleeding.  Sue Passe, the production manager at the time, noticed that the streams of blood where spraying near that night’s broadcast tape: A Musical Tribute to Fats Domino.  She quickly dove in and pulled the tape to safety.  If it wasn’t for the courage of the fearless Sue, Domino would be lost.  A dazed Greg was then helped to the break room and the station’s first-aid kit.  As he was lead away, Greg continued mumbling things to himself  like: “Ooo this really twists my taco... my beans are boiling...” and the like.  The next Day Greg was fine and work on Live on Tape went on as usual.
A few days later, Tom, his girlfriend at the time (Jennifer), and I dined at one of the nicer restaurants in the Quad City area.  We were celebrating Live on Tape’s success.  Everything was going well until they brought the chocolate mousse, it was a very generous portion.  Jennifer was amazed at the size and blurted out, “Oh I’m crackin’ a ham over this one!”  Tom just smiled as if this was a perfectly normal reaction.  I, on the other hand, burst into laughter at the unexpected comment.  As soon as my laughter had died down, Jennifer began to choke on the mousse.  At first it did not appear serious, but that changed all too quickly.  Jennifer’s coughing took on an almost demonic quality.  She was making frightfully loud horking noises and she began spewing up up chocolate mousse an an alarming rate.  What was coming out though was far more than she had ingested.  Quickly, the table was covered... and then other customers... the walls of the restaurant... and then as suddenly as it has started it stopped.  Jennifer slumped over on the table unconscious but unhurt.  Everyone but Tom seemed concerned about the episode.  He calmly finished his meal.
Strange events like these followed the cast and crew of Live on Tape for months.  Don Abbott (Clive Knobfinder on the show) got his hair caught in an ATM at the mall. Pete Calderone (Pepe the love god) drank what he thought was an entire beer only to discover it was a cleaning agent for horse troughs.  Scott Hoyt (Bongo the exploding clown) had what can only be described as “a run-in” with a burrito at  Rudy’s tacos that caused him to embarrass himself through his jeans, his seat, and the floor below.  Merlin Nelson Jr. (Zippy Spamhammer) was attacked by a demented viewer from Andalusia who blamed him for the demised of humanity that Live on Tape was causing (how right the veiwer was).  For weeks Merlin was picking corn out of the most uncomfortable of places.  I too was not without bad fortune.  I slipped on a grease trail from E.J.’s hair outside the dressing room that earned me a faceful of thumbtacks.
It wasn’t until months later that I figured out Tom’s plan.  There was significance in our meeting a year earlier during the summer while performing Shakespeare’s accursed play.  The parallels became obvious, but it was too late for me.  I was too deeply mired in the show and the plan to ever hope to save myself from its horrible grip.  I realized that Live on Tape, E.J. Crackerhorn, and MacBeth were linked, and it was all by Tom’s design.  I knew that Live on Tape was more than a simple show for simple minds.  It was a conduit for something dark, sinister, and evil.  Tom had figured out a way to program thousands of people throughout the Quad City area with every broadcast of the show.  Soon everyone was speaking in E.J.-isms, falling under unmentionable spells, spoken from their own lips!  But what was Tom’s “good luck charm”?  How did it fit in?  And what was Tom really?  Had he been perversed by some alien force?  Had he been replaced with an evil duplicate?  I had to know the truth.
In the summer of ’89 I confronted Tom with my concerns.  He was unfazed.  He stood there smiling and began to laugh.  I had a bad feeling about this.  His eyes were distant.  He wasn’t seeing me, but past me and yet he managed to track my every motion and word.  It was as if he was there and someplace else at the same time.  I felt that I was being manipulated and toyed with.  For the moment I was safe, but that moment was quickly passing and I felt that I was about to be struck down with unfeeling malevolence.  I decided to act.
I lunged at Tom, striking out and grabbing for his shirt pocket, hoping to find whatever it was inside.  I knew the key was that “good luck charm” of his.  As I ripped open the pocket, Tom pulled back and let out a screech that pierced the air so violently that the windows of my mind shattered!  A slender, lightly colored object fell from his pocket onto the floor.  I instantly aware of a foul wind, darkness, and things not unlike the tentacles of an octopus.  This horrifying sight was too much for me to witness.  I felt that I was losing consciousness.  Tentacles were darting out from Tom’s face, reaching toward me.  I fell backwards as I recoiled in horror.  As I hit the floor my hand landed on the object that had fallen from Tom’s pocket... a doll.  A blond haired, plastic doll - Barbie.  I was at a loss as to what to do next.  Should I rip it in half?  Tear off its head?  Was my possessing it enough to hold back the anti-Christ-formerly-known-as-Tom at bay?  In the split-second of my thinking, the wind abated, the tentacles retracted, and the light returned.  Abruptly the room fell silent.  All that remained was the figure of Tom, looking amiable, if not a little vulnerable.  I knew that I had him!
Tom’s eyes watched me carefully as I held this blonde, plastic, talisman - his Barbie.  Slowly he began to speak, “Hey, hey... careful with that buddy.  Don’t make me mash your mountain!  Oooooh!”
I responded, “I don’t think you’re in any condition to mash a potato”!   Not knowing if that was true, he started to walk toward me.  “Stand back!” I shouted,  holding up the Barbie as if I were about to smash it down on the floor.  Tom stopped.  I had to find a way to repossess this man’s soul.  There had to be a way!  Then I thought, no there doesn’t.  What a stupid thing to say.  I was very likely up shit-creek without even a boat... and I can’t swim.
Tom’s eyes turned to flame, “Give that back to me or I shall burn through your dreams!” he howled.  I had only seconds to think, and maybe less to act.  I ran--- into the studio, slamming the door behind me and then I hid behind the chroma-key screen to buy me more time to think.  Then I heard the studio door burst open, ripped from its hinges.  Before I could seek out a new place to hide, Tom had torn down the chroma-key screen and backed me into a corner, demanding that I give him back the Barbie.
I was helpless.  I held up a hand to hold Tom back.  “Fine!” I relented.  “I’ll give it to you... but first tell me, what have you done with Tom?  The real Tom?
The figure pointed to itself, “He’s in here.  I merely displaced him from using his own body.  He was the ideal stooge, really”.  For the next several minutes this creature, that looked like my friend, unfolded his plan for planetary conquest and enslaving the human species.  His real name was Zon and he was from a distant realm of existence.
“But”, I said, stalling for time, “why Tom?  You could have taken over someone more influential at the station”.
“No one here could have done the job.  No one here had the talent.  Besides I know his one weakness”.
“His fanatical devotion to the Pope”? I asked.
“His obsession with props.  Barbie was a prized possession.  By controlling the doll I control Tom”.
I was confused... “Wait, this is too simple, even for this show” I said.
The creature smiled, “It’s not the doll, it’s what it represents - your society’s version of the perfect female”.
I looked over the Barbie in my hand, wondering to myself, “But... she’s a little small for... you know.”
The figure flared with anger, moving closer, “Size does not matter!  This is a female who does not say “no”, she does not talk back, she remains beautiful and obedient!  I could have used you, but your hang-ups are too bizarre to mention.”
That peeved me.  Either the creature was trying to manipulate me or he knew of my unnatural fondness for Agnetha Fältskog from the Swedish pop/dance group ABBA.  Zon loomed over me, his face emotionless.  He held out a hand, “Your time is up, human.  Return the doll.”
I was out of time.  It was over.  I slowly handed him the Barbie, but as I did so I did the only think I could do that might catch him off-guard.  I catapulted my grip to his groin and gave him an Al Van Zee Banana-manshake, squeezing as hard as I could.  He was startled and dropped the doll as he attempted to pull away.  To add to his further confusion I shouted “PANCAKES!’  Zon began to jostle and shake as if he was having a rather large Maalox moment.  And then it happened.  A loud belly laugh and tears streaming down his cheeks.  Yes, the ol’ “pancake line” worked, as it had for countless years.  Zon was exorcized in a fit of non-sequitur humor and a painful groin-grab - an Al Van Zee Banana-manshake is a painful thing to experience. Tom was back to normal and recovering. But what of Zon?  I don’t know.  I can only assume he returned to his own distant realm of existence.
Eventually Live on Tape ended production.  The TV station was bought by owners who were more interested in broad marketing techniques than local programming.  Tom moved on, went to work for others, eventually winding up as a frightfully talented writer in Hollywood.  He still has copies of all the Live on Tape shows we did way back then.  What he’ll do with them I shutter to think.  I told him they should be burned or locked up.  But he wants to keep them.  Who knows, maybe one day they’ll prove useful.
My path was different from Tom’s after having worked on Live on Tape.  I became a software engineer.  My various jobs had me moving to Portland Oregon, then to Northern California, then back to Illinois, then to New Hampshire, then back to Northern California, then to Boston, and so on.  My days are filled with managing projects and programming.  Occasionally I get a strange feeling like I can write. And sometimes I actually get off my lazy ass, sit down, and do it.  In any event, this sad history of Live on Tape  and my personal journey is over.  There’s nothing much left, but fading memories and a bunch of people wondering what it was all about back then - and what to do if it should ever happen again.