Kevin Riordan: Visiting this horror house is all treat

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Tony Arena locks eyes with the Phantom of the Opera in his “Monster Room” in Audubon. (Juliette Lynch / Staff Photographer)

At Tony Arena's house in Audubon, it's always Halloween.

Especially in "The Monster Room," where his extensive collection of classic horror and sci-fi memorabilia - everything from dinosaurs to Dracula to a universe of space aliens - is on glorious display.

The posters, dioramas, trading cards, and action figures reflect the breadth and depth of one man's labor of love. He started about 40 years ago and is nowhere near finished.

"I got into all this by watching Dr. Shock and Creature Double Feature," says Arena, 55, referring to the showcases of classic and not-so-classic horror films broadcast regularly on Philadelphia TV stations in the 1960s and '70s.

A support-services assistant for the State of New Jersey, Arena scours earth and Internet for high-quality items at the right price. His nearly 800-piece collection is populated predominantly with 12-inch action figures of monsters, superheroes, and characters from vintage TV shows and movies.

Visitors can enjoy a detailed replica of Mae West and the entire Brady Bunch not far from the Wolfman and a clutch of creepazoids from The Outer Limits.

Every last thing is carefully arranged on shelves Arena built as his collection expanded. These days the Monster Room takes up the entire second floor of the cozy home he shares with Debbie, his wife of 30 years.

"He's not out drinkin', doin' drugs, or hangin' with women," says Debbie, a nurse who wears a seen-it-all expression. "He's here, playing with dolls."

Mind you, she has accumulated her own modest cache - of commemorative spoons. But Debbie clearly lacks her husband's collecting gene.

People are on a continuum with this stuff, I've found. Two of my three brothers are serious collectors; I'm interested in collecting but don't pursue it (unless you count my CDs).

"Part of doing it is to share it," says Arena, an affable guy with deep knowledge and even deeper enthusiasm for his subject. "I'm sure there are people out there who will be interested."

He's right: The Monster Room is worth a look by anyone with even a passing interest in pop culture. But only a bona fide sci-fi buff (like me) will likely appreciate the gorgeous model of an alien craft from the 1953 film version of The War of the Worlds.

Turns out the collectibles market is so lucrative that even the monster from The Horror of Party Beach - my candidate for cheesiest sci-fi flick of all time - now has its own action figure. Arena hasn't bought one yet, but it's got to be more realistic than the ludicrous sea creature in the 1964 movie.

Back to the tour.

"This is Ricou Browning. He's the second Creature from the Black Lagoon," Arena says, pointing to a framed photo. "Ben Chapman played the original, and I got him to sign this copy of his original contract!"

His favorite item? "Probably the Godzilla, which I like a lot," he says, holding up a 14-inch, spiked action figure. "I just think he looks good, although part of the tail came off and had to be put back on."

Other favorites include the "ceramic life casts" (like death masks, but not) of horror-suspense specialists like Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Vincent Price. They stare down from a place of honor on one wall.

Elsewhere, visages of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and Linda Blair in The Exorcist offer a shiver or two.

At this point you may be thinking this guy (the collector, or perhaps the columnist) really should get a life.

Arena most definitely has one, thank you. He plays bugle in a drum corps and a jazz band and sings in a choir. He and Debbie love to travel and do so regularly. They have a grown daughter.

Standing in the middle of his monster collection, Arena says: "I don't find it creepy. I think it's cool."

And Halloween, it turns out, isn't the only holiday that comes early and often to the Arena house.

"I buy 75 percent of my stuff online," he says. "I'm always getting stuff in the mail. It's like Christmas."

 


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3899 or kriordan@phillynews.com.