Saturday, October 22, 2011

“Calling all stations…clear the air lanes…clear all air lanes for the big broadcast!”

For those of you fortunate to receive Me-TV in your households, one of TDOY’s favorite Halloween treats is going to be shown tonight on the channel at 10pm EDT: the 1948 horror comedy classic, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Faithful readers of the blog know that I unspool this movie every year on Halloween—I’m not sure when the tradition started, but it’s been going quite a while…even before the advent of DVDs (I had a VHS copy of the movie, and in fact it was one of the first pre-records I bought).

But I will probably watch it pre-October 31st because it’s going to be hosted by Svengoolie, Me-TV’s resident horror movie host.  Sven, the alter ego of Rich Koz, found a home on the channel not long ago but he’s also been a presence on Chicago’s WCIU and UToo—both entities owned by Chicago TV programming guru Neil Sabin.  Out of the Svengoolie garb, Koz also hosts Me-Too’s Stooge-a-Palooza, which presents five two-reelers featuring the knockabout clowns of comedy on a Saturday night program that Mike “Mr. Television” Doran calls “the best possible presentation of these that I have ever seen.”

Rich Koz as he normally looks.  (No, "Svengoolie" is not played by Bob Newhart.)
In fact, it was Mike who had asked me a while back what I thought of Svengoolie and I didn’t formulate an opinion at the time because I had only watched a couple of segments—but suffice it to say, he’s becoming a Saturday night tradition here at Castle Yesteryear preceded by reruns of Lost in Space at 8pm (“Oh, the pain…the pain…”) followed by Star Trek at 9.  I’m sometimes a little hesitant to see some of the movies shown on Svengoolie made sport of (the program features some of the classic and not-so-classic Universal horror films), however; it’s okay when they’re featuring some odious piece of fromage like The Mole People (1956) but last week they had a rare showing of Dracula (1931) and poking fun at that at times seems like cinematic blasphemy.  But then I remember that Mom and I often spend time watching that movie seeing who can do the best Bela Lugosi impression, so maybe I’m being a little hypocritical.

I think what I enjoy best about Svengoolie is that it’s nice to see the horror movie host tradition continue on at a time when seeing a classic movie run on a local station these days would surely send vintage movie fans into severe shock.  Back in the day, as the kids say nowadays, local affiliates would show horror movies (some great, some…not-so-great) and often featured station employees who would don monster garb to introduce the flicks…and sometimes doing comedy bits in between.  A list of these hosts would eat up indeterminate amounts of Internets bandwidth, but among the famous included Vampira, Zacherley, Ghoulardi, Sir Graves Ghastly—up to modern day characters like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and Commander USA (“Soarin’ superhero!  Legion of Decency…retired…”).

Pittsburgh's legendary Bill Cardille...who stopped being "Chilly Billy" in 1983.  (A shame, because I didn't move to Morgantown, which was in Channel 11's viewing area, until 1992.)
Growing up in the Mountain State and becoming a regular viewer of Chiller Theater on Saturday nights (on WHTN, which then became WOWK-TV) I didn’t get any exposure to horror movie hosts because WOWK didn’t have one.  Before WOWK started showing horror movies, the films had been a mainstay at rival WSAZ, which began its horror movie presentation franchise in 1959 with a program called Shockwatch, hosted by “Gaylord” (the alter ego of WSAZ news announcer Fred Briggs).  Briggs left WSAZ less than two years later (and took Gaylord with him) and eventually wound up at Atlanta’s WSB (he later became an NBC news correspondent, winning an Emmy in 1969 for his reporting).  Gaylord, on the other hand, turned up at Baltimore’s WBFF in the 1970s on a show produced by George Lewis, who went on to produce the popular Ghost Host show in that area.

Since Gaylord was before my time, the only horror movie host in the Mountain State that remains in my memory is Fat Drac, “the King of Corpuscular Corpulence”—who was the host of WVAH-TV’s Friday Night Dead.  (A show I caught quite often in the early 80s while I was matriculating at Marshall UniversityDead was where I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time, btw.)  “Drac” was played by veteran Charleston, WV radio personality Al Sahley, and was also known as “the biggest name in Mountain State monsters.”

I get nostalgic for the old days when I watched cheesy horror flicks on late night Fridays and Saturdays, their awfulness tempered by the wisecracking of the hosts…so it’s nice to see Svengoolie still going strong.  Sven has been a Chicagoland tradition since the 1970s, when he was the host of WFLD’s Screaming Yellow Theater and played by Jerry G. Bishop.  One of Bishop’s colleagues and a writer for the Svengoolie program was Rich Koz, who became “Son of Svengoolie” in 1979 on WFLD (the original Svengoolie closed up shop in 1973) and continued to host horror movies until 1986, when the new owners of the station (Rupert Murdoch and the evil empire known as Fox) handed him his pink slip.  Koz resurrected the character for WCIU in 1994, and Bishop allowed him to drop the “Son of” since he “believed he was grown up enough now to no longer be just the Son.”

So again…if you’re getting Me-TV in your neck of the woods, tune in tonight for a true TDOY favorite:

CHICK: I know there’s no such person as Dracula…you know there’s no such person as Dracula…
WILBUR: But does Dracula know it?

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Yvette said...

This is one of my all time favorite movies too, Ivan. There's just no accounting for taste, I guess. HA!

I'm going to be watching THE UNINVITED for Halloween, but I have two others lined up as well: ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE.


I love Bela Lugosi as DRACULA.

"I don't"

Squonk said...

I grew up on Svengoolie in the Chicago suburbs. I remember vividly his attempt to do 3-D TV with a showing of "Creature from the Black Lagoon." You had to get your 3-D glasses at a 7-11 store. Of course, they didn't work that well.

DorianTB said...

Ivan, we of TeamBart love horror movie hosts, but Vinnie in particular is practically a walking encyclopedia on the subject. Since Svengoolie has begun airing on Me-TV, Vin has been faithfully watching Svengoolie. I'm gonna forward the link to him. Thanks for another delightful blog post!

Mike Doran said...

So now I have become a blurb!

Honestly, I never thought I'd see the day.

Too bad it's for the show that readers outside the Chicagoland Area can't see...

Just going back in my memory to when MEtv was launched, as something to put in the overnight hours on ch26. Neal Sabin was getting tired of infomercials and thought vintage TV might attract a better class of insomniac.
He sure called that one right: within a year MEtv had its own low-power channel, 23, and started getting noticed by the local columnists. Before long Sabin's company, Weigel Broadcasting, picked up another low-power, ch48, which became MEtoo. These formed the core of the U-ME empire that sprung into place when the digital switchover happened. By then, Sabin's shopping spree was going ahead full steam, adding more and more shows to the inventory.
I have to admit that I was surprised when Sabin took MEtv national, there being a growing number of digital stations working that same street (Antenna TV just started up here in Chicago, using one of WGN's digital channels). So many of these stations have so much program overlap. That said, the ME stations show full episodes, full credits (no squashing), and no voiceovers blocking the music on the credits (networks please copy). I have no doubt that Neal Sabin and his merry band will ultimately prevail, nationally as well as locally.

Rick29 said...

Fabulous article, Ivan! When I was growing up in North Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s, I watched horror movie hosts Dr. Paul Bearer (High Point), Dr. Evil, and Deadly Ernest (both Charlotte). By the way, my Dad got his undergrad at Marshall. Go Herd!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Rick29 threw a Scooby snack my way:

Fabulous article, Ivan! When I was growing up in North Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s, I watched horror movie hosts Dr. Paul Bearer (High Point), Dr. Evil, and Deadly Ernest (both Charlotte).

Those hosts were the, most. I once said to a friend of mine, "Sure...we only had three channels back then...but you could always find something on!" Especially if you were a night owl or suffered from insomnia.

By the way, my Dad got his undergrad at Marshall. Go Herd!

Go Dad! I never finished my Marshall studies (I was yanked after two years by the 'rents for...for doing a lot of what I do now, watching old movies and TV) so while I do have an allegiance to the Herd I also adopted WVU as my team because the school I did graduate from (Armstrong Atlantic State University, formerly Armstrong State College) did not have a gridiron team. So I can officially say that whenever WVU plays Marshall I don't have a dog in the fight.

And "Mr. Television" observed:

Neal Sabin was getting tired of infomercials and thought vintage TV might attract a better class of insomniac.

While there is a certain irony in that our local Me-TV affiliate doesn't carry the channel's Laurel & Hardy shorts (and one of the Bilko reruns) because they're running informercials to pay the bills, I laughed out loud at this. I lost count how many times I'd be channel surfing at work after my night auditor duties, looking for something decent to watch and coming up with nothing but Bowflex ads and Victoria Principal hawking cosmetics.

ClassicBecky said...

A&C Meet Frank is one of my favorite comedies of all time -- Svengoolie made me laugh -- but you darn near had me in tears! We used to watch Sammy Terry on Friday nights here in Indy...cheesy ghoul outfit, pet spider George hanging on a very visible string...and we Loved Him! I first saw House on Haunted Hill and many other Vincent Price goodies with my brothers and sisters, and Sammy's dumb jokes. It was just generally a good time of life, and having these hosts was a lot of the fun we had with TV.

Wonderful trip back to good times, Ivan...

rockfish said...

I love ME and Svengoolie (in a platonic sort of way), but I have a question -- has anyone detected some speedup in the shows? I've detected it while watching the late Saturday combo of Get Smart and Car 54, most prevalent before the recent pickup of Voyage... Especially the theme song seemed a tad faster, and it included some of the episode, too. Now, that's much preferred to cutting and hacking an old show to shoe-horn some extra 30 second spot, but...

Mike Doran said...

I just spent my lunch hour over at YouTube, trying to reinforce my memories of the Two Svengoolies (Svengoolae?).
Oh brother.
Back in the early '70s, Jerry G. Bishop (Classic Sven) often opened his show - or perhaps I should say was opened - anyway, he used to have the Guest Coffin Opener, some celebrity who would autograph Sven's pine box and then make like he was opening it to bring forth Sven hisself. There are some clips on YouTube (not as many as I'd hoped), but you do get to see such visitors to Chicago as Mort Sahl, Professor Irwin Corey, Joanie Weston from the Roller Derby, Rudy Vallee (I'm not making this up), the New Christy Minstrels (really, I'm not), Bette Midler and the Harlettes (with Melissa Manchester and (possibly) Katey Sagal) and a few others (I was hoping to see the one with Hans Conried, but apparently that one didn't survive).
Lots more of the early Son of Svengoolie from ch32 survives, and shows how Rich Koz managed to develop his own style over the years. It's all worth looking up, if you don't mind losing a few hours of your life staring at the computer screen.

On another matter, I'd say it's a safe guess that MEtv does do a wee bit of speeding shows up, but not offensively so. If it means leaving the content intact, so what.

So anyway, Ivan, off to YouTube with you, and be sure to leave word with your next of kin, just in case.

Mark said...

You had nothing to worry about. The treatment of Drac was affectionate and respectful -- even to the extent of rearranging the sketches so that the first section would be completely uninterrupted.