“When people ask me what Horror Make-Up is, I say, ‘It’s nothing you’ve ever seen at a theme park.’”
It’s an early Friday morning, and I’m sitting on a bench in the middle of the greenroom for Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-Up Show with two of the funniest women I’ve ever had the chance to interview on either side of me. Summer Aiello sits to my right in a director’s chair, while Robyn Kelly lounges in a chair to my left (appropriately socially distanced, of course). My question of how they would describe the Horror Make-Up Show was just perfectly answered by Summer — nothing you’ve ever seen at a theme park.
There’s no better way to describe it.
Horror, But Make It Funny
I’m ashamed to admit, but it took me forever to see this show in Universal Studios Florida — and I love the horror genre! But when you’re stacked up against rollercoasters and themed lands in a small vacation window of a few days for most park guests, you can be overlooked. Luckily, I was reassured I’m not the only one.
“A ton of people don’t even realize the show is here!” exclaims Robyn. “Or people go, ‘We never knew this show was so funny. I thought it was just going to be a show about horror films.’ It’s amazing to me how many people don’t know the show is here.”
“No one expects the show to be what it is,” says Summer. “We’ve had people tell us, ‘I’ve been an Annual Passholder for four years and we’ve never seen the show. We wandered in here one day and now it’s a must-do.’”
It’s a hidden gem of Universal Studios, but it’s a gem that’s been buried in plain sight for 30 years. The show opened on June 24, 1990, just a couple of weeks after Universal Studios’ grand opening. It was originally set up to be in the style of a nighttime talk show about Universal Studios’ horror films. A perfect fit for the new park’s “riding the movies” theme, especially since Universal Studios basically created the horror genre. Over the years, the show has morphed into what it is now, two actors take to the stage as a host and a make-up artist and give the audience an inside look into how horror films are made.
OK, I can understand why some of you may not want to go sit and “learn” about how fake blood is made for movies. Afterall, you’re at a theme park, right? And some of you may be squeamish at the thought of blood, even if it is fake. But according to Summer, it’s so much more than that — it’s a celebration.
“It’s a celebration of film. It’s a celebration of laughter. It’s a celebration of friendship on stage. It is a fun tribute to horror films and to the energy and spirit of Universal itself,” says Summer.
Laughter and horror. Doesn’t seem like they would go hand-in-hand, does it? Well, it actually is the perfect fit. A fact that’s proven when people go into haunted houses screaming but come out laughing. Although the Horror Make-Up Show is about horror films and could maybe be seen as “scary” with its knife gag, what it’s really known for is the comedy the performers bring to the stage.
Small Show, Big Laughs
The simplest way to describe the Horror Make-Up Show is it’s a small stage show with only two actors. They run through the script, they perform the different gag bits, they sprinkle in a bit of improv, they cue the film clips… so, on the surface, it seems like a fun show that’s great for taking a break in the A/C from the Florida heat. And it is. BUT it’s the personalities and passion this small crew of misfits bring to the stage that makes it one of the biggest and funniest theme park shows in Orlando.
“The beauty of this show is that she [Robyn] and I can go out and do the script verbatim and it will still be funny,” Summer explains. “It’s a testament to our skill, but it’s also a testament to good writing.”
Robyn nods and adds, “That’s exactly it, and what’s great is that we get to get all the facts out and the history, and then we get to pepper in our own fun moments. There’s all this room to make the show your own.”
Here’s where I probably stared at Robyn with a quizzical look on my face. Make the show… your own? I needed to know more. What exactly does this mean?
Summer begins, “There’s really not an extensive preparation. I mean, she [Robyn] usually runs in, she clocks in seven minutes after her [start] time, does her makeup after she’s told me forever she was going to do it at home.”
[We all laugh as Robyn nods in agreement.]
“I think one of the big and cool things we get to do is we get to decide which role we want to do,” says Robyn. “Do you want to do host or [make-up] artist first? With her [Summer], I truly don’t care what we do. Sometimes we’ll rock, paper, scissors it.”
“After we come in and decide what roles we’re going to do we kinda sketch an outline for the show,” Summer explains.
“Yeah, and we just communicate,” Robyn adds. “I love that, because it always just keeps us on our toes. We’re all in the improv world, we do a lot of ‘Yes, and’.”
And that’s it. The key variable that differentiates this show from all others — improv. I can tell from my short time chatting with Robyn and Summer, and then later seeing them take the stage, that these two women are highly skilled and talented in this world.
It’s a Woman’s Time in Comedy
“You know, Summer and I, we didn’t really know each other until I started working at this venue,” says Robyn.
“I think we met each other a little bit like with a passing, ‘Hello!’” Summer recalls.
“And then we started working here and she and I just clicked,” Robyn continues with a snap of her fingers. “I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life, and this has fully surpassed any other job I’ve ever had. I love it.”
With Robyn hailing from the west coast with a successful acting career in Los Angeles (just check her IMDB!) and Summer being grounded in the theme park industry on the east coast as a powerhouse performer, host, and singer, it’s no wonder these two women can command a stage and leave you in stitches.
Between the two of them, they have close to 40 years of being at Universal Orlando Resort in different roles, from hosting live game shows to directing Christmas shows and even being a voice for a mystical fountain. Throughout my years at Universal, I’ve had the pleasure to see Summer and Robyn in some of these roles, as well as many other strong female leads. So, when I asked them both what it was like when they first started at Horror Make-Up, I was a little shocked by their response.
“Well, we can both say there were hardly any women here,” Summer starts
“Yeah, that’s something very important to note,” adds Robyn. “Back when I started, they [women] were only doing the host role.”
Now, I was a latecomer to seeing the Horror Make-Up Show, but it never dawned on me that it was primarily a male-dominated show. I guess it makes sense when you think about the horror genre and how it in itself is often more androcentric. However, Summer and Robyn pointed out that at that time it was a theme that was trending in the comedic world, overall.
“We have both weathered in different climates of culture, being in this show,” Summer says. “You don’t think about it but in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, women weren’t showcased as being funny unless they were like…”
[Summer gestures, trying to grasp the word she was looking for.]
“Ditzy,” Robyn throws out.
“Yeah, they were ditzy or dumb,” Summer continues. “It was a boys club. Men were the paragons of funny. Women were not funny. They were an afterthought, or they were the butt of a joke. If a woman was funny, she had to use a masculine energy. So when I started working here, I’d come out of that door as the make-up artist, and the audience would just go…”
[Summer looks around with a confused look on her face.]
“They didn’t know how to take it,” Robyn jumps in.
“No, they’d be like, ‘Who is this woman? What is she doing? Why is she screaming? What are we supposed to do with this?’” Summer explains. “There was an energy of us having to work twice as hard as any man at the show to get the audience on our side. Now there’s a switch though. Women that weren’t necessarily showcased for their comedy are now being elevated. Now, there are things we can do on stage that a guy could never think to do. I think it’s definitely a woman’s time in comedy right now, and we feel that in here.”
Standup comedy and improv is hard enough to get buy-in from the audience. Add in this layer of performing roles typically filled by men on a scripted show, and wow! Tough gig. You wouldn’t know it if you saw the show today, though, as Robyn and Summer leave show after show in fits of laughter and even have their own fanbase.
“She [Summer] and I have found a pattern and a way of doing our show that is now very successful for us,” says Robyn. “We literally share a brain on stage. I know I can look at her and know exactly where she’s gonna go.”
“Yeah, it’s a gift to have that with somebody,” Summer adds. “I don’t even have that with my husband and he and I did this show together for two years.”
Robyn continues with a smile, “It’s a total trust thing, too.”
“Yes, it’s also part of the improv mindset,” says Summer. “Whatever she does, I’m going to support it. Whatever I do, I know she’s going to support it.”
“What better scenario can a person have?” Robyn beams. “Coming to work, working with their best friends in a funny job, in a funny show?”
“It doesn’t even feel real,” agrees Summer.
“It doesn’t feel fair,” laughs Robyn. “We’re very lucky.”
Remember earlier when Summer said the show was a celebration of friendships? It couldn’t be truer as I listened to these two talk about the show and comedy, all while finishing each other’s sentences and taking playful jabs at one another. And that’s one of the main ingredients to this show that makes it so successful — the relationships.
The Beating Heart of the Show
When I first came into the green room, the first thing I noticed was not only the comfortable layout, but a giant bulletin board covered in photos of smiling faces. Followed up with the friendly camaraderie I saw amongst the Team Members preparing for the show, and it was quickly clear to me that the Horror Make-Up crew is one big family.
“[We’ve been hosting the show for] at least 10 years together,” says Summer with a thoughtful look on her face. “Probably longer. I will say nine of us have probably worked here at least 15 years. Some of us have been here for 30.”
No wonder the chemistry on stage seems so natural. They’ve all known and worked with each other for years, celebrated big life moments together, and even faced challenges as a team. It’s that same chemistry and the friendships that have made the show a fan-favorite with an almost cult-like following. So, when I asked them about the fans and their favorite moments with them, I was greeted with a flurry of excitement and a rush of stories and memories.
“The fans are awesome,” says Summer.
“SO AWESOME!” exclaimed Robyn.
“Some of our die-hards will bring us treats and snacks,” continues Summer. “Some of our awesome Passholders come in cosplay. We have people, like this girl who brought us two rubber ducks, you’ll see them on the stage, painted as Alex and Marty [the host and make-up artist characters].”
“This though is the best,” says Robyn. “There’s this girl in Canada, she posted on Instagram the whole process. It gives me the chills. She made a miniature scale replica of our show!”
As I’m turning my head rapidly from Summer to Robyn as they show me what they’ve received from fans throughout the years, I can’t help but smile at their excitement for the show’s fanbase. It’s an infectious feeling, seeing the effects these passionate fans have made on the individuals who bring it to life every day. But it doesn’t stop there. I learned the fans also have an effect on their fellow audience members who may be experiencing it for the first time.
“It’s so great,” says Summer, “especially to have fans and Passholders out there right now supporting us. You don’t ever think about it when you’re in an audience and watching a show or a concert, how much the audience influences how you experience that. So, you’re at a comedy show and you’re watching it and those people are laughing and those people are laughing, it’s going to make you want to laugh, too.”
“It’s contagious,” Robyn chimes in, “and that really has been so helpful. The Passholders and the die-hard fans are a part of the family here at Horror Make-Up. And just to have them lead the laughter and let guests know, ‘It’s OK to laugh, you guys.’ It’s cool.”
What Makes It Harder, Makes It Better
This year has given us a lot of reasons for laughter to be hard to come by or not even feasible for some. We’ve all faced challenges and losses.
So it came as no surprise when I asked Robyn and Summer what the most challenging moments have been working the show and they responded with the simple answer of “right now.”
“When we came back from being off for a couple of months, our show was very different from what it was originally,” Robyn says. “Right now, we’re doing this show in gloves, masks, shields…”
Summer jumps in, “Distanced away from each other! But we’re trying to make it all funny.”
“Nobody really wants to laugh right now,” Summer says, “So, it’s kind of a struggle to get people to look at what’s happening and think ‘I will laugh.’ But when they do, or they get a joke, right now that’s the most rewarding [thing]. We were able to bring a tiny, bright spot to their day.”
The fans have come out in full support and guests who experienced the new show format left nothing but glowing reviews. A large part of this is due to the performers who bring the funny to the stage five times a day, seven days a week.
“We did not think we could reopen a theme park show [during this time] and have it be this successful,” Robyn declares, shaking her head in disbelief. “We honestly should never have doubted it because now it’s perfect.”
“I was the first person to eat my words, because it’s working!” Summer exclaims.
The Show Must Go On
As I’m wrapping up my interview with Summer and Robyn, my last question to them is how has the Horror Make-Up Show lasted these past 30 years. There have been bigger attractions and shows that have closed their doors, yet, this little stage show has survived and continues to bring in packed audiences.
“I think people love the horror and the history part of it,” Robyn muses, “But I think a lot of people come to this show to see what’s going to happen today. No show is ever the same.”
“And that’s because the variable is always different,” says Summer. “I truly think people come to the show and they leave fans because it’s unexpected.”
“That’s what I love about the show,” Robyn adds. “It’s not just that every day is different, it’s that every show is different. It’s so fun. There are shows elsewhere where it’s literally just the script and that’s it and those are fun, too. But people come here knowing it’s going to be crazy. Plus, with us two, you never know what’s going to happen.”
“A lot of times the jokes happen organically,” Summer says, “Or sometimes we’ll come in prepared with a joke.”
“We try to really keep up with pop culture references,” Robyn shares. “Sometimes I’ll wake up and I’ll be like, ‘Who’s in the news today?’ and maybe we can drop them in. I feel like there’s no other theme park show in Orlando that lets you do that.”
“It’s really a show that can continue to go and change with the times,” adds Summer. “We’ve proven that we can change with the times!”
And that’s what it boils down to. The success this show has had in the past, has now in the present, and will continue to see in the future is all because of the great comedic minds who are on stage every day, the behind-the-scenes Team Members who keep it running, and the passionate fans that support them.
“If I can just give them [park guests] a little bright spot during their time here,” Robyn starts. “They get to come in here for 25 minutes, enjoy the air conditioning, enjoy a funny show, hopefully. How could we ever think our lives suck when we gave these people 25 minutes, 5 times a day, to just be silly and let them laugh? All while doing it with my best friend.”
What’s your favorite memory from the Horror Make-Up Show? Share with us below, and if you haven’t seen the show yet, come visit us soon. You can find showtimes the day of your visit in the Universal Orlando Mobile App.