Put on a frightful face: This former CNN makeup artist got his start in horror
John Kelly
The Washington Post
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Skip Smith, right, with a cast member from the Twin Beach Players’ production of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” in North Beach, Md. Smith created the makeup for the production. Smith was a makeup artist at CNN for 25 years. (Skip Smith)

Quite often during the 25 years that makeup artist Skip Smith spent at CNN, someone sitting in his chair — and Skip had everyone from Larry King to Raquel Welch, Bernard Shaw to Holly Hunter — would ask him how he got into the business.

Skip would say, “If I tell you, you’re not going to let me finish making you up.”

Oh really, they would say. Why’s that?

“Because I started out making people really ugly.”

Skip’s first love was horror. Think bloody face instead of smoky eye.

SmithMakeup artist Skip Smith wears fake teeth, a scar and a contact lens. He learned how to apply makeup doing horror makeup for haunted houses. (Skip Smith)

“I’ve been a Halloween monster fan my entire life,” Skip said. “That’s what got me into the makeup business.”

It started with the haunted house business. After graduating from Suitland High, Skip went to St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland. In 1971, he met a fellow student there named Edwin “Itsi” Atkins. Itsi was an entrepreneurial thespian who created what was arguably the first live-action haunted house, a place called Blood Manor in an abandoned convent.

Skip was Itsi’s main collaborator, helping come up with scary effects and transforming the actors into ghouls and monsters.

“That was on-the-job learning,” said Skip, who used techniques he found in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Some involved latex rubber, a new medium for him.

By mixing the liquid latex with cotton or paper, he could create gruesome effects: “The face looks like it’s burned up or the veins are popping out. You could take fake eyes and implant them. You could ‘tear’ the face.”

It could be tricky to handle.

“Once it’s applied, you have to dry it with a hair dryer,” he said. “And it’s a mild irritant. It has ammonia in it. We discovered the hard way you’ve got to be careful with it. And definitely don’t get it in your hair.”

Not unless you’re going for the bald look.

A big breakthrough for the Blood Manor shows came in 1974 after Skip saw a memorable movie in Philadelphia. He was up there as part of a traveling troupe of players Itsi had put together for a play called “The Patty Hearst Follies.”

“It was an insane show,” Skip said. “While we were in Philadelphia, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ had come out. So we went and saw the film.

“When I got back to St. Mary’s County, I said, ‘Itsi, my god, they just put this movie out where this guy cuts people up with a chain saw.’

“You could see the lightbulb go on.”

So the next Blood Manor featured a chain-saw room. Skip said when every haunted house had its own chain-saw room, it became a cliche: “It got stupid, where people were using weed whackers and chasing people in the fields.”

Skip eventually got work on a non-horror movie shot in Baltimore — “The Man Who Loved the Stars,” featuring Ossie Davis as surveyor Benjamin Banneker — then in 1986 heard that a new kind of TV channel called CNN was looking for a makeup artist.

His horror makeup experience turned out to be good preparation for cable news.

“When you’re doing haunted houses, you might be making up 20 people,” Skip said. “You have to be fast with it. That translates to television beautifully. You’ve always got somebody yelling at you, ‘We need him now! We need him now!’ ”

Once, a child came in to be interviewed for a segment on foster homes. The boy had crashed his bike into a rose bush an hour before he was scheduled to go on.

“He was scratched up from top to bottom,” said Skip. “I said, ‘Oh my god, we can’t put this kid on looking like this.’ But if you know how to make cuts, you know how to cover cuts. So it worked out fine.”

Skip survived an encounter with Hannibal Lecter, too. When he did Anthony Hopkins’s makeup at CNN, Skip screwed up his courage and said to him, “I know you’ve been asked this 100 times, but you’ve got to do that fava bean thing.”

Said Skip: “I swear to god in a split second he went dead into character and he did the whole thing.”

Hopkins even autographed a life-size cardboard Hannibal Lecter cutout that Skip had gotten from a video store.

“He signed it for me: ‘Bone appetit. I’ll be watching you.’ ”

Skip left CNN in 2006. He does freelance makeup work now. He’s 71 and lives in Calvert County, Md.

He still loves Halloween, and this Saturday his house’s decorations will be themed around the “Hocus Pocus” witches.

“All the candy is going to be individually bagged and delivered by a sprite on a zip line, bursting out of a curtain,” Skip said. “There’s a little scare there and no direct contact. I refuse to just not do it.”

Scary story

Itsi Atkins has written about his Halloween horror exploits in a new book that’s available on Kindle: “Itsi Atkins’ Blood Manor: America’s First Haunted House.”

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