Saturday, October 26, 2019

Horror Hosts

Joe Bob Briggs, John Stanley,
Zacherley, Elvira, and Ghoulardi
From the Fifties to the Eighties, local television stations around the United States were filled with horror hosts, individuals who hosted programs that aired horror movies and related B movies. The horror host usually adopted a horror-themed persona, often one that was humorous in nature. At their height, there were only a few television markets that did not have at least one horror host, sometimes more. What is more, some horror hosts, such as Vampira and Zacherley, achieved fame well beyond their local area. While horror hosts would go into decline in the Eighties, they have never completely gone away. They remain a fond childhood memory for many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.

Although horror hosts today are associated with movie anthologies shown on television, they actually originated on Old Time Radio. It is difficult to say who the first horror host on radio was, but it could well have been Old Nancy on The Witch's Tale, which debuted in 1931. Each week Old Nancy, the Witch of Salem, would introduce another tale of terror on the show. The Witch's Tale would be followed by The Hermit's Cave in 1937, which was hosted by the Hermit. Perhaps the most famous horror host in radio was Raymond of Inner Sanctum Mystery (often known simply as Inner Sanctum). Raymond (played by Raymond Edward Johnson) introduced episodes of Inner Sanctum Mystery in a sardonic voice complete with dark jokes and puns. He would close the show with the phrase, "Pleasant dreeeeaams, hmmmmm?" Raymond left the show in 1945 to join the United States Army, but his successors kept his darkly humorous tone. Raymond would leave his imprint on all horror hosts to come. Debuting in 1941, Inner Sanctum Mystery inspired imitators with their own horror hosts, including The Mysterious Traveller, The Strange Dr. Weird, and Quiet Please.

It was because of the horror hosts of Old Time Radio that EC Comics' famous line of horror comic books would feature their own hosts. The first of these was the Crypt-Keeper, the host of The Crypt of Terror and Tales from the Crypt. The success of The Crypt of Terror would lead to two more EC horror titles, each with its own host. The Vault of Horror was hosted by the Vault-Keeper. The Haunt of Fear was hosted by the Old Witch. EC Comics' horror titles proved popular. Unfortunately, they would also find themselves the target of the moral panic over comic books that lasted from around 1947 to around 1954. To avoid censorship from outside the industry, several publishers banded together to form a self-regulatory organization called the Comics Magazine Association of America, complete with its own Comics Code. If anything, the Comics Code was even stricter than the Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code of the Thirties and Forties, and effectively put an end to horror titles of the sort published by EC Comics.

Television's first horror host would come about even as EC Comics' horror titles were coming to an end. In 1953 actress Maila Nurmi attended the annual Bal Caribe Masquerade held by choreographer Lester Horton in a costume inspired by the as-of-yet unnamed lady of the house in Charles Addams's cartoons, later named Morticia Addams for the TV series The Addams Family. Miss Nurmi's costume caught the attention of producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr., then program director for KABC in Los Angeles, who was looking for a host for horror movies aired on the station. It took Mr. Stromberg several months to track Maila Nurmi down. Together the two of them would create the character of Vampira.

Vampira was inspired in part by the character later known as Morticia Addams, silent film vamps such as Theda Bara, the Evil Queen from the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Dragon Lady from the comic strip Terry and the Pirates, and the artwork of John Willie in the fetish magazine Bizarre. It was Maila Nurmi's then husband Dean Riesner who came up with the name "Vampira." Vampira followed the tradition of such horror hosts of radio in introducing films with sardonic remarks and a dark sense of humour.

A preview of Vampira's new show, titled Dig Me Later, Vampira, debuted on April 30 1954 on KABC. The Vampira Show itself debuted the next night, on May 1 1954. Although Vampira was television's first horror host, she introduced more than just horror movies. The first official episode of The Vampira Show featured the Italian crime thriller Atto di accusa (1950).  Over the course of the show Vampira would introduce an eclectic mix of movies, including White Zombie (1932), The Flying Serpent (1946), The Man with Two Lives (1942), and Murder by Invitation (1941). The Vampira Show proved popular, to the point that Maila Nurmi appeared on national television programs. She made appearances on such shows as The Red Skelton Show, The George Gobel Show, and Playhouse 90.

Despite the popularity of The Vampira Show, it was cancelled in 1955 when Maila Nurmi refused to sell the rights to the character to ABC. The show was briefly revived as Vampira Returns in 1956 on Los Angeles station KHJ-TV (now KCAL).

While The Vampira Show was successful and would have a lasting impact, it would be another event that would spur the creation of horror hosts on television across the United States. In 1957 Screen Gems began syndicating a package of old Universal horror movies to local stations under the title Shock!. Shock! proved very popular with television stations and viewers alike, with many stations electing to air the movies in the package under the title Shock Theatre. In many instances stations elected to use a horror host on their airings of the movies in the Shock! package. By the late Fifties horror hosts were a common sight on television sets throughout the United States. Like Vampira before them, many of these horror hosts would become famous beyond their local areas.

Here it must be pointed out that most horror hosts were not hired specifically to host scary movies. Most were already part of the existing staff of a television station, such as an announcer, weatherman, or floor manager. It was not unusual for a horror host to host a local station's kids show as a different character entirely or, at least, to have hosted the local kids show. Regardless of what position in which they had started at a television station, most horror hosts found themselves to be local celebrities (at least as their character) and a very few would actually turn being a horror host into a career.

Among those who obtained national fame was John Zacherle, who would turn his character Zacherley into a career. Mr. Zacherle began his career at WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, where he appeared as a Coroner in the station's live Western Action in the Afternoon. When WCAU purchased the Shock! Package in 1957, the station hired him as their host of Shock Theatre. He played a character called "Roland," who lived in a crypt in which his unseen wife ("My Dear") who rested in a coffin. In 1958 CBS bought WCAU and as a result John Zacherle moved to WABC in New York City. He continued as Roland for a time there, but it was in October 1959 that he became known as "Zacherley" (WABC having added a "y" to his surname) and his show was renamed Zacherley at Large.

Dubbed "the Cool Ghoul" by friend Dick Clark, Zacherley proved very popular. He even released novelty records. In 1958, while still playing Roland, he released "I Was a Teenage Caveman", "Dinner with Drac," and "Eighty-Two Tombstones." In 1960, as Zacherley, he released "Ring-A-Ding Orangoutang". In 1962 he released "Hurry Bury Baby". He released several albums including including Spook Along With Zacherley (1960), Monster Mash (1962), Scary Tales Featuring John Zacherley ‎(1962), and Zacherle's Monster Gallery (1963). Over the years he hosted programs on WABC, WOR, and WPIX. In 1986 as Zacherley he was the host of a series of VHS tapes called Horrible Horror, which featured sci-fi and horror films in the public domain. He also continued to make public appearances as Zacherley nearly until his death in 2016. Ultimately, Zacherley would become one of the most famous horror hosts of all time.

While Morgus the Magnificent would not attain the fame that Zacherley did, he would have a long career. Sidney Noel Rideau was a disc jockey at New Orleans radio station WWL (AM) when he auditioned to become the host of television station WWL's new horror movie anthology House of Shock. For the show he created the character of Dr. Morgus, also known as Morgus the Magnificent, a mad scientist with an IQ in the 300s. House of Shock debuted on October 3 1959 and the show proved to be a success. It ran until 1962. In 1964 Mr. Rideau moved to Detroit where he hosted Morgus Presents on WJBK. The show moved back to New Orleans in 1965 where it aired on WJBK  and afterwards returned to WWL. Over the years Morgus Presents would return from time to time. There was a brief run on WDSU from 1970 to 1971. Morgus Presents returned in 1987, airing on WGNO. In 2005 Morgus Presents entered syndication. One curious thing about Morgus the Magnificent is that, unlike other horror hosts, Sidney Noel Rideau tried to keep the fact that he was Morgus secret for over fifty years. He didn't even tell his own children that he was Morgus.

If anything, there may have been even more horror hosts on television in the Sixties. Much of this may well have been the release of several film packages following Shock!. In 1958 Screen Gems followed Shock! with another horror movie package, Son of Shock. In 1958 Associated Artists Productions released its own horror movie package. Well into the Sixties such movie packages as Thrills and Chills (1961), Creeping Terrors (multiple volumes), and Thrillers from Another World (1965) were released to television. The end result is that much more product became available to local stations throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies. By the Seventies not only could local stations broadcast the Universal horrors and other Hollywood horror movies of the Thirties and Forties, but a wide array of science fiction movies, Japanese kaiju movies, and even some Hammer Films.

Among the significant horror hosts to emerge in the Sixties was Ghoulardi, who hosted Shock Theatre on WJW in Cleveland from 1963 to 1966. Played by Ernie Anderson, Ghoulardi was a hispter dressed in a long coat and wearing a Van Dyke beard and moustache. Ghoulardi was characterised by his Beat patter and a tendency to irreverence, particularly with regards to individuals Ghoulardi regarded as not being hip. Lawrence Welk, then Cleveland mayor Ralph Locher,  talk show host Mike Douglas (then a local Cleveland TV personality), and others were frequent targets of Ghoulardi's humour. A frequent target of Ghoulardi's jokes was Parma, Ohio. Ernie Anderson abruptly retired as Ghoulardi in 1966, although he would be well remembered in the Cleveland area.

While Ernie Anderson retired Ghoulardi in 1966, his legacy would survive in another horror host. Ron Sweed had served as a production assistant on Ghoulardi's show. In 1970 he approached Ernie Anderson about reviving Ghoulardi. While Ernie Anderson had no interest in reviving the character, he gave Ron Sweed his blessing to revive the character on his own. Since Mr. Sweed could not use the name "Ghoulardi" (which was owned by Storer Broadcasting), he created the character of "The Ghoul." The Ghoul made his debut on Cleveland station WKBF-TV in 1971. While inspired by Ghoulardi, The Ghoul had his own personality. He blew up models and vehicles with firecrackers. He inserted his own dialogue into movies. In contrast to these often juvenile antics, he would also perform often mature skits.

The Ghoul would develop a good deal of popularity, and the show would be syndicated to Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles in the late Seventies. The show was cancelled in 1975, but the following year Ron Sweed revived it on independent station WXON and later on WCLQ. For the next several decades The Ghoul would be on and off television stations in Cleveland.

Late in the Sixties a horror host would emerge in Chicago whose legacy would also prove to be a lasting one. The original Svengoolie was Jerry G. Bishop, and he hosted Screaming Yellow Theatre on WFLD from 1970 to 1973. The original Svengoolie was a guitar strumming hippie with a green beard and green hair. He slept in a psychedelic coffin and during commercial breaks told jokes that dated back to vaudeville, although with a dark edge. In 1973 Field Communications sold WFLD-TV to Kaiser Broadcasting, who replaced Screaming Yellow Theatre with The Ghoul Show. Because of this The Ghoul Show never proved particularly popular in Chicago (the city resented losing Svengoolie).

It was in 1979, with Jerry G. Bishop's blessing that Rich Koz revived the show as Son of Svengoolie on WFLD-TV. Son of Svengoolie would also prove popular, and for a time it would even be syndicated to Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, and San Francisco. Son of Svengoolie ended in 1986 when WFLD was sold to the News Corporation. In 1995 the show was revived on independent station WCIU. This time Rich Koz assumed the mantle of Svengoolie, as Jerry G. Bishop told him that "he was all grown up now." Svengoolie would prove to be very successful. In 2011 MeTV began airing the show, so that it now reaches a nationwide audience.

Horror hosts were still a common sight on television sets throughout the United States in the Seventies. Among those that would have some longevity was Count Gore de Vol.  Played by Dick Dyszel, Count Gore de Vol was the host of Creature Feature on WDCA in Washington, D.C. Creature Feature ran until 1978 on WDCA. It returned on WDCA in 1984 and would run again until 1987. Since then Dick Dyzel has never quite stopped playing Count Gore de Vol, becoming the first horror host to have a weekly show on the Internet in 1998. Count Gore de Vol has hosted a show as recently as 2018.

Another long time horror host to emerge in the Seventies was Doctor Madblood. Doctor Madblood is the creation of Jerry Harrell, who started working at WAVY in Tidewater, Virgnia in 1974. He noticed that there were no local TV programs that were genuinely creative, and so he set about creating a horror host character. He thought vampires had been done too often and so he came up with the mad scientist Doctor Madblood. Doctor Madblood's Movie debuted in 1975. The show is notable in that it has considerable mythos built around its horror host, with several different characters appearing throughout the show's run. The show ran on WAVY until 1982, when it moved to PBS station WHRO. There it was renamed Doctor Madblood's Nightvision. Doctor Madblood's Nightvision ran on WHRO until 1989, when it moved to WTVZ and was once more titled Doctor Madblood's Movie. Doctor Madblood's Movie lasted until 2002. It then moved to WSKY and was renamed Doctor Madblood Presents. In this incarnation it served as a wraparound for reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller, and later Night Gallery. Doctor Madblood Presents lasted until 2007.

While horror hosts were still relatively common in the Seventies, events would occur in the decade that would lead to their decline. The broadcast networks began expanding into late night programming, taking up time slots which had been occupied by shows hosted by horror hosts. CBS had historically had little luck with late night programming, but in 1982 the network introduced its CBS Late Movie that aired each weeknight. It proved to be a success. In 1975 NBC began airing Saturday Night Live late on Saturday night. As a result stations affiliated with either CBS or NBC had fewer time slots in which they could air horror movie anthologies. Of course, this would naturally lead to fewer horror hosts.

The Eighties would see yet other problems for horror hosts. The growth in cable channels during the decade meant more competition for local television stations. The growth of cable channels also meant that costs for movies began to rise dramatically. Many local stations would then find themselves priced out of the market when it came to movies for which they had originally paid very little. The end result of the networks' expansion into late night programming and the growth of cable channels is that many horror hosts would find themselves out of work as the Eighties progressed.

This is not to say that there were no horror hosts of note to emerge in the Eighties. In 1981 KHJ wanted to bring back its late night horror anthology Fright Night. To this end they approached Maila Nurmi about bringing Vampira back. KHJ and Miss Nurmi eventually came to have creative differences, and so she left the project. The station then held auditions and it was actress Cassandra Peterson who won the role of the station's new horror host. It was Miss Peterson and her friend Robert Redding who came up with the idea of a sexy punk rock vampire. Further setting Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, apart from previous horror hosts was a notable Valley Girl accent. Elvira's Movie Macabre debuted on September 26 1981 and soon became very popular.

Unfortunately, Elvira's Movie Macabre did not sit well with Maila Nurmi, who maintained the character plagiarised Vampira. Miss Nurmi filed a lawsuit, but the court would decide in favour of Cassandra Peterson. The lawsuit did nothing to harm Elvira's popularity, as in 1982 Elvira's Movie Macabre was being syndicated to stations across the United States. So popular was Elvira that in 1988 a feature film based around the character, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, was released. Elvira's Movie Macabre lasted for five seasons. Elvira would also serve as the host of a home video series called ThrillerVideo in 1985 and later another home video series called Elvira's Midnight Madness. In 2010 there would be a short lived revival of Elvira's Movie Macabre. Another new series streamed on Hulu in 2013, titled 13 Nights of Elvira. Over the years Elvira has appeared in comic books, calendars, books, and a variety of other merchandise.

Another famous horror host to emerge from the Eighties was Joe Bob Briggs. Joe Bob Briggs differed from most horror hosts in that instead of being a vampire, mad scientist, or some other horror figure, he was simply a Texas redneck who loved drive-in movies. John Irving Bloom had created the character of Joe Bob Briggs while working as a movie critic as the Dallas Times Herald. His stage show, An Evening with Joe Bob Briggs, would lead to him being signed to host Drive-In Theatre on The Movie Channel in 1986. Joe Bob's Drive-In Theatre proved popular and ran nearly a decade, showing a variety of drive-in fare, including horror movies. After the show went off the air in 1996, he moved to TNT where he hosted MonsterVision. The show lasted four years. More recently, in 2018, he hosted The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs on the video on demand service Shudder.

While the Eighties would see a decline in horror hosts, they never completely went away. The Nineties would see new horror hosts emerge and the 21st Century would see the reinvigoration of the format. Among the most successful of the new generation of horror hosts has been Dr. Gangrene. Dr. Gangrene was created by Larry Underwood and first appeared in 1999 in a half-hour public access cable show titled Chiller Theatre in Hendersonville, Tennessee. It was not long before Chiller Theatre was airing in Nashville on Community Access Channel 19 and later on other public-access television stations throughout the nation. In 2005 Dr. Gangrene moved to Nashville station WNAB, where he hosted The WB58 Creature Feature. While the show ended in 2010, Dr. Gangrene has continued to be active. He has his own YouTube channel, as well as his own blog. He is also a regular columnist for Scary Monsters Magazine.

Another one of the new generation of horror hosts to see success is Mr. Lobo. Mr. Lobo is the creation of Erik Lobo. Unlike many horror hosts, his persona is that of someone wearing glasses, a black tie and suit, and a haircut that is decades out of date. He hosts Cinema Insomnia, a movie anthology series that is still in syndication. Cinema Insomnia began on Sacramento, California television station KXTV in 2001. It ran until 2002. A new version of the show would emerge on the public access channel Access Sacramento, and would also be distributed to other public access channels across the nation. This version lasted a year, after which Cinema Insomnia was syndicated nationwide. This version ended in 2008 when Apprehensive Films signed an exclusive contract with Cinema Insomnia for a series of DVDs. The show returned to television in 2009 and has never left the air since.

Since 1957 there have been literally hundreds of horror hosts on American television. Not only have there been so many that I have only been able to mention a few here, but there have been so many that entire books have been written about them. There have probably only been a few television markets in the United States, if any at all, that have never had a horror host. And while horror hosts would go into decline in the 1980s, their continued success in the 21st Century makes it clear that they will be around for a long time to come.

1 comment:

MichaelWDenney said...

A great history showcasing some of the bigger names in horror host history. I personally watched The Ghoul and Elvira growing up and still enjoy watching Joe Bob. The horror hosts tapped into not only a love of horror movies but also the willingness of most horror fans to poke fun at their love. There are few things I enjoy more than getting together with some like-minded friends to watch horror and crack snide comments. The horror hosts allow people to have that experience even when they were watching alone.