Dear Vance: Whatever happened to Lara Parker, the Memphis woman who starred in the TV series Dark Shadows? — L.V., memphis.
Depending on your age, you may remember this talented woman as Lara Parker. Those from an earlier generation may recall her as Lamar Rickey. But her real name is Mary.
Allow me to explain.
Mary Lamar Rickey was born in Knoxville in 1937, but moved to Memphis at a very young age with her family. Her middle name pays tribute to her great-great-grandfather, a Mississippi statesman with the remarkable name of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. As an attorney and congressman in the mid-1800s, he played a role in Mississippi’s secession from the Union, but after the war tried to work out the conciliation between the South and the North. (Yes, Lamar Avenue here is named after him.)
The young woman’s parents were Albert and Ann Rickey. Her father was a prominent attorney in Memphis, and her mother played a role in many civic groups here. In other words, she was well-connected.
Lamar — she preferred that name to Mary — graduated from Central High School, took classes at the Memphis Academy of Arts, and then attended Vassar College, where she studied philosophy. After two years, she came back to Memphis, telling reporters, “I wanted to be home, and it’s a good school.” “It” was Southwestern at Memphis, now known of course as Rhodes College, but why was a college student talking to reporters anyway? Well, she had begun appearing in several plays here, mainly working with the old Front Street Theatre, and then in 1958, at the young age of 19, she was selected to be Wink Martindale’s lovely assistant on his hit TV show, Dance Party.
Talking to Press-Scimitar reporters about this new gig, she took pains to point out, “Please don’t give anyone the idea I’m a square. I like rock-and-roll. Elvis is terrific. I like Pat Boone. Sinatra is a favorite, and I also like Tommy Sands.”
Dance Party was a huge hit, helping to make Wink Martindale (who’s been mentioned on these pages about a hundred times) a national star. But Rickey wanted more, so she left home to attend graduate school in creative writing at the University of Iowa.
About this time, Lamar Rickey evolved into Lara Parker. I guess you figured that out. She didn’t tell me where she picked up the name “Lara” but “Parker” came after a trip to Europe, when she met an artist named Tom Parker, who came back to Iowa with her. They soon married, and with two children, settled down on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin, so Tom could teach at a nearby university. “But by the time the children were 6 and 7 years old,” she told Commercial Appeal reporter William Thomas, in a cover story that ran in the old Mid-South magazine, “I knew that I just couldn’t sit there and look at those fields for the rest of my life.”
When her husband landed a teaching job closer to New York, she joined a professional touring company and “I did seven leads in seven plays. I worked with New York actors, and eventually moved to New York, living in the Phoebe Warren House for Girls,” which she thought would be filled with aspiring actresses, but “instead, it was a smelly, ill-kept place full of disagreeable old ladies.”
She was only in New York three weeks when “I just walked in and got the part in Dark Shadows,” she told Thomas. “They were casting a witch and they’d seen a lot of dark-haired, sexy girls. I came in looking blond and angelic and younger than my age. I think I just happened to hit them right, and everything fell into place.”
Dark Shadows, a “gothic/horror soap opera,” was one of ABC-TV’s biggest shows from 1966 to 1971. If you’re not familiar with this series, one of the first in that genre, it’s almost impossible to describe it in the space I have here, but it basically focused on the witches, warlocks, vampires, and other unsavory characters who came to inhabit the normally sleepy village of Collinsport, Maine. Viewers were understandably slow to embrace such a show, at a time when its main competition was the decidedly more family-friendly Let’s Make a Deal, but they eventually warmed to it. In fact, one critic believes Dark Shadows was “distinguished by its vividly melodramatic performances, atmospheric interiors, memorable storylines, numerous dramatic plot twists, adventurous music score, broad cosmos of characters, and heroic adventures.”
It’s ironic, because that’s the blurb I was hoping somebody would write for my forthcoming 57-volume autobiography, Bound for Glory.
But if you think describing the show is hard, you may appreciate the challenge of trying to summarize the character played by Lara Parker, a time-traveling witch and vampire named Angelique Bouchard. You see, Angelique was born as Miranda DuVal in Martinique in the seventeenth century, and — no, I’m sorry, I just can’t do it. It’s too complicated. Let’s just say that over the six years the program aired, Angelique lived (and died!) over a three-century period, changed her name (and appearance) at least a half-dozen times, and — according to one synopsis — possessed all these powers: conjuration, elemental control, mediumship, necromancy, spell casting, telekinesis, and voodoo. Needless to say, it was a role with considerable range, and Parker recalled, “I came to enjoy playing an evil, conniving woman.”
Despite its huge cult following, ABC canceled Dark Shadows in 1971, replacing it with the game show Password. I doubt the viewers who had followed the gothic-horror lives of the Collins family stuck around for the new show.
Afterwards, Parker remained one of the hottest actresses of her day. She appeared in several Broadway productions and in 1972 moved to Los Angeles, guest-starring on such well-known shows as Hawaii-Five-0, Kung Fu, Remington Steele, The Incredible Hulk, and many others.
After a divorce from Tom Parker, she married a contractor named Jim Hawkins, raised three kids, and somehow found the time to work on a series of novels and short stories based on the characters from Dark Shadows. Her third novel, Wolf Moon Rising, came out in 2012. She also taught college in L.A. and conducted workshops in horror writing in New York City.
If I’ve given you the impression that she stays very busy in “retirement” then I’ve done my job. In 2012, she made a cameo in the remake of Dark Shadows starring Johnny Depp. She’s contributed dialogue to more than a dozen audiobooks based on Dark Shadows or the immortal life of her character, Angelique. But it’s not always about that. She’s written scripts and screenplays; formed a company called Old Canyon Press to publish an illustrated collection of verse, Bugs and Critters I Have Known, written by her mother and aunt; has appeared in the crime drama Doctor Mabuse; and in 2014 starred in the TV mini-series, Theatre Fantastique.
She also maintains a website (laraparker.com), where she offers DVDs of Dark Shadows and movies where she’s appeared, along with autographed books and photos.
Not a bad career at all for the girl who got her start spinning records on Dance Party.
Got a question for Vance?
Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine,
460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103