Friday, Feb. 15, 2013
Did a vampire really appear in Los Banos?
By Cierra Emery
When you hear the word "vampire," many things might pop up in your head: blood, "Twilight" books and movies, anger, creepiness, umpires, Los Banos.
Wait! Did you say umpires? Los Banos? Vampires, umpires and Los Banos are more entwined than we may think.
Los Banos native Vincent Hillyer was arguably the premier expert on vampires in California. He wrote two books on the subject, and even went to Transylvania to spend the night in Dracula's castle.
"People just didn't do that back then," said Dominic Falasco, a longtime neighbor of the Hillyers. "It gave his book an edge that others didn't have. When he came back, he always told us that he got bit by a vampire bat! It was never confirmed, but we hardly ever saw his neck again."
His first book release and celebration plans put the whole town in an uproar in the late 1980s. The book was being published by Joanne Hoefer of Phoenix Mind and Body bookstore. Then-Mayor Elmer "Dude" Austin declared the day "Vampire Day" for the celebration at Hoefer's downtown bookstore.
Almost immediately, a debate ensued. Some people sent letters to the Los Banos Enterprise saying how much fun the celebration would be. Wrote newcomer Mary Bardmess: "I am delighted to discover the paper, writers, and city government have a sense of humor. I am looking forward to Vampire Day."
Others were not pleased. The Rev. Ronald McCullough and other religious leaders thought the idea promoted unreligious teachings and shed a bad light on the town.
To the delight of Hillyer, the controversy generated coverage from The Fresno Bee and San Francisco Chronicle. It didn't stop there. When news broke out that actress Elvira, actor Vincent Price, and a member of the Count Dracula Society were expected to attend, nobody wanted to miss the event. An actual vampire was even scheduled to arrive in a coffin.
When the day arrived, a large chunk of Sixth Street was closed off for the event. By nighttime, people filled the streets.
"There had to be at least 300 people there," former Mayor Mike Amabile said. T- shirts were emblazoned with "I was a Sucker at Vampire Day." When the hearse came down Sixth Street in the early evening on Oct. 26, 1988, it reportedly stopped in front of the Phoenix bookstore and people took the coffin out. When the coffin was opened, out popped Robert Manzanedo dressed as a baseball umpire.
"He sat up and said, 'Vampire? I thought you said umpire!' " said Amabile. "It was pretty creative."
None of the celebrities showed. Bookstore owner Hoefer said during a recent interview that she thought that Elvira actually had a room booked in Santa Nella but canceled at the last minute. Hillyer remarked at the time, "There were too many people there. We had to cancel just about everything for safety's sake," he said.
Falasco said he attended the event and appreciated Hillyer's humor. "I was a senior in college at the time, but I remember reading stuff on the event and that sort of thing was exactly Vincent's humor. He loved entertaining people," said Falasco.
Hillyer, however, didn't stop there. He became master of ceremonies at a vampire symposium in Los Angeles.
"He sort of became the living authority on vampires. All the actors from 'Dark Shadows' even made an appearance there," recalled Amabile.
Hillyer, according to a 1996 edition of The Fresno Bee, wrote another book called "Vampires." He offered $10,000 in gold bullion to anyone who could produce an actual vampire.
"One fellow wrote me that if I could pay for his flight out here, he was a real vampire and would come," HIllyer said in the story. "I told him, 'If you are a real vampire, you can fly out here on your own.'"
Hillyer didn't just have a fascination with the undead; he also had a love for the living and was often in the news. He had two high-profile marriages, one to the former Shah of Iran's sister and the other to an Italian movie star. He also had a Merced County road named for his family.
"The biggest thing that I remembered about Vincent was his love of animals. They had to have a least 50 cats!" Falasco remembered. "The only time I ever saw him truly angry was when someone ran over a dog and drove away. He was definitely one of the most interesting people that I ever knew."
The Los Banos Enterprise and Merced Sun-Star both reported: "The vampire story took a big bite of Los Banos history and gave the locals something to chew on for a long time."