Thursday, Oct. 28, 2004 | 8:22 a.m.
What: Black Box.
"I like this."
Just as the philharmonic has its season, so too does Mollner.
Tall, lean, dressed in black and with short reddish-brown hair, he's a perfectly kind maestro and a boastful man when it comes to his annual craft of haunting.
"We've had many people faint," said Mollner, owner of Freakling Brothers, which operates three haunted houses in Las Vegas during the Halloween season. "Five times as many wet their pants.
"I pride myself on having the best haunted houses, not only in Las Vegas, but in the country, as far as mobile haunted houses go."
The way Mollner sees it, he and his two former partners, one of them his son, J.T., revolutionized the haunted house industry when they pieced together trailers, built a facade and installed electricity, props and customized music.
No more tents, no altering a building that was designed for other uses, Mollner keeps it all in the trailers, which contain narrow passages that twist and turn, spilling into full-sized themed rooms with caskets, electric chairs, funeral chapels and cryogenic chambers.
"When we went to trailers, we took the patron out of the hallway and into the room," Mollner said. "You are in the room.
"The beauty of it, the real beauty is that a crew of six guys can put up any one of these trailers in a day. All you do is roll the doors down and cart it off until next year."
A former performer who sang and danced in "Casino de Paris" at the old Dunes hotel, Mollner has been haunting since 1976 when, one Halloween morning, he built a coffin, dressed as Dracula and put some candy out. Rather than Freddy Krueger, he introduced Frankenstein's monster and the Wolfman.
Mollner and his wife, Ginnie, went from 35 kids the first year to 1,000 visitors by their 15th year.
"Eventually Channel 8 would come out and do the 6 o'clock news in front of our house," Mollner said. "Nobody had done anything like it."
The family started attending an annual haunted house convention in Chicago, and by 1992 had built a wooden building called Circus of Horrors, planted on the corner of Sahara Avenue and Decatur Boulevard. The chore of tearing it down each year led them to create in 1995 their first haunted house made of trailers: The Dungeon.
The following year, they created the Black Box, a house "where your nightmares are born" and terror, horror, doom, dread and shock are its themes.
The Morturary, a four-year-old house operated by Mollner's son J.T., star of "Tony and Tina's Wedding" at the Rio, features cryogenic chambers, an autopsy room, body storage vault, catacombs and funeral chapel.
Castle Vampyre, Freakling Brothers' new house, uses optical illusions and features, among other things, a vampire feeding room, a coffin storage vault and a bottomless cellar.
"We steer away from blood and gore," Mollner said. "Blood on the wall, a chainsaw and a guy with his guts open, for me that's the difference between a roller coaster and an automobile accident.
"Scares and themes are the life's blood of a haunted house."
Cast of horrors
With all the cheering Mollner gives to his props and structures, the real merit, he says, goes to the actors who scare the guests weaving through dark hallways and entering rooms with no exits.
"There's nothing scarier than a live actor," Mollner said. "Most haunted houses don't want to work with live actors because it's a pain in the (butt), get tired, quit. It's hard work. So most people buy expensive equipment."
The cast, many of whom work year after year, must commit to 23 days of haunting. They haunt the first two weekends in October, then as Halloween nears, they work 17 consecutive nights.
"That's 17 nights of sitting in a cramped, dark corner with a water bottle, jumping out to scare people," Mollner said. "After two nights, the novelty wears off. And yet, there's a group of people who would do it for free."
Many actors return each year. Whacky Jackie, a deranged inmate in striped prison garb, is actually Robert Flagg, a security officer who has been an actor with Freakling Brothers for 13 years. Last year Flagg was awarded, by Mollner, the Lifetime Achievement Award for his work.
"I've built the character," said Flagg, an imposing man with a shaved head and bearded chin. "I've always wanted to do something like this, but never have had the resources. I used to dress up as a girl, but I got too old for that."
The cast at the Mortuary haunted 25-five-year old Scott Pearce and Mary Cueva, 22, who giggled and shrieked their way through.
"To me, it's the not knowing," Pearce said. "In the dark room, where you couldn't see, I kept walking into walls."
Pearce and Cueva said they had an evening of fright before them that included at stop at the Black Box and possibly a drive across town for Castle Vampyre.
"We went to two or three last year," Cueva said. "It's fun to be scared. You can only do it one time a year."