Thursday, October 25, 2012

Classic TV Horror Host Blogathon: Svengoolie – Keeping the Tradition Alive

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Classic TV Horror Host Blogathon, being hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association from October 24-31.  For a complete list of the participants and their posts, check out the list at the CTBA here.

Back in the good old days when TV sets only had three channels, old movies were a programming staple of local stations.  They showed them in the morning, they showed them in the afternoon, they showed them in the evening…and if they didn’t have to sign off too early, they’d also stick a feature or two on The Late, Late Show.  It was the best of times…it was the worst of times.  “Worst” in that a lot of these classics were often interrupted by a plethora of commercials (there’s a scene in The Apartment [1960] that nicely spoofs this).  “Best” in that inane talk shows (I’m talking to you, Katie Couric) or insipid “reality” shows were rarely on the boob tube radar.

Friday and Saturday nights, as a rule, were reserved for movies with a horrific bent.  I mean no offense to the horror fans out there…but out of the gazillions of fright flicks churned out by Hollywood and independents since the dawn of cinema, a few of them are quite good…and the rest of them are just plain odious hunks of fromage.  And if your local station bought a package to show the good horror movies…chances are they had to screen the terrible ones as well.

That’s where the “horror host” came in.  Practically every major TV market had one, some station employee who’d dress up several times a year (even if it wasn’t Halloween) as a haint or witch or mad scientist to provide a little macabre levity during the presentation of the horror films on TV…all for a little extra mazoola in their paycheck.  Many of them went on to transcend their local origins to become pop culture icons.  A lot of us may not remember the individual generally recognized as the first horror host (whose countenance graces the banner of this blogathon), Vampira (Maila Nurmi), but you’ve probably seen her performance (which was sadly ignored when Oscar time rolled around) in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  John Zacherle, who turned 94 this September 26, was a popular Philadelphia and N.Y.C. horror flick host (known as both “Zacherley” and “Roland”) who scored a nationwide Top Ten pop hit in 1958 with Dinner with Drac.

Even if you never watched any of these hosts (probably because you weren’t in the viewing area), their names may be familiar if you’re student of horror: Ghoulardi, Sammy Terry, Sir Graves Ghastley, Moona Lisa.  They’d crack jokes and perform skits in between the dreck they were forced to show, with audiences who were hip to their atrocious puns and black humor.  Just about anybody you talk to from the baby boomer generation can provide fond memories of spending unproductive hours in front of a TV set “turning your mind to garbage,” as my mother so colorfully (and really, in hindsight, truthfully) described it.

When I was an impressionable young lad—and this is a subject I’ve talked about on the blog before—growing up in West Virginia, there was nothing I liked more than staying up late on Saturday nights to watch WOWK-TV’s Chiller Theater…and it was even more enjoyable when the ‘rents were out for the evening, because it was sort of an act of defiance (“Sleep?  Sleep is for fops and popinjays!”).  Unfortunately, WOWK couldn’t afford a host—the program would simply begin with eerie music and a graphic of a forbidding haunted castle on a seaside cliff and then the eventual announcement of the program.

Some individuals with better memories than mine recall that WOWK (which also went by WHTN in its early days of operation) did feature brief horror-based pantomime skits between the films and commercials, with employees wearing masks and costumes.  Mark Justice, a Kentucky-based blogger,  remembers in this post that he was in WOWK’s viewing area and recalled some segments the station used that were recorded by the late Jonathan Frid, the star of the daytime gothic soap Dark Shadows (WOWK was an ABC affiliate).  But for the most part, Chiller Theater—which originally aired on Friday and Saturday nights before the station moved all the movies to Saturdays under the aegis of “Triple Chiller”—was hostless; the Mountain State would not get a regular TV horror host until WVAH started its horror movie program. Friday Night Dead, which starred longtime radio/TV personality Al Sahley as “Fat Drac”—“The King of Corpuscular Corpulence!”

I only saw “Fat Drac” a handful of times during his stint on WVAH; I was in college and most of my Friday and Saturday nights involved drinking enormous quantities of a substance we called “beer” back then.  But it was also about that time that the USA Network started their Saturday afternoon horror movie presentations, hosted by “Commander USA” (aka Jim Hendricks)—soaring super hero!  (Legion of Decency…retired.)  The show ran from 1985 to 1989, running double features on Saturday afternoons before being whittled down to a single feature on Sundays.  The Commander showed a lot of Mexican wrestling flicks and Japanese monster movies, but occasionally he’d host a goody like Cat People (1942) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943).  (There’d be an occasional non-horror movie thrown into the mix, chiefly for its cult value, like Up in the Cellar [1970] or What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [1966].)

None of the television stations in our area showed Movie Macabre, the syndicated package of horror movies hosted by Cassandra Peterson, better known to horror host fans as “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark”…but the home video releases that featured the character were popular rentals at the Ballbuster Blockbuster store in Savannah that once employed me—and I even bravely checked out her 1988 film Elvira, Mistress of the Dark one weekend out of curiosity.  (It’s not Citizen Kane, but it gave me a few chuckles.)

So despite being somewhat horror host deprived as a kid and young adult, I’ve been making up for lost time on Saturday nights at 10pm. EST…because that’s when Chicago-based Me-TV schedules horror movies hosted by Svengoolie, the alter ego of longtime broadcast personality Rich Koz.  Me-TV has the broadcast rights to most of the old Universal horror classics, both good and bad…and though I kind of found it unsettling at first to watch comedy skits interspersed with movies such as Dracula (1931) or Bride of Frankenstein (1935), I’m becoming a Svengoolie devotee with each passing week—because movies like Dr. Cyclops (1940) and The Mole People (1956) need all the help they can get.  Sure, Koz’s Svengoolie does the corny comedy that we expect from horror hosts—but he’s also got the street cred to feature interviews with personalities associated with horror films to fill up the time if the movies run short.  He aired a clip back in April of this year in which he spoke with Vincent Price’s daughter Victoria that I found positively riveting.  All this and flying rubber chickens, too.

Svengoolie has been a Chicagoland tradition since the 1970s, when he was the host of WFLD’s Screaming Yellow Theater and originally 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 (the flagship station of Me-TV), 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.”

Classic movie fans like myself are fortunate to live in times when indulging in our passion for vintage cinema is as easy as sliding a DVD into a player or turning on TCM or FMC to see if there’s anything worth watching.  (AMC…you no longer count.)  But I love the fact that there’s still an outlet for horror hosts like Svengoolie, and that the market has even expanded to keep Elvira in business (with a new version of Movie Macabre) and introduce new folks like Mr. (Erik) Lobo, whose Cinema Insomnia is syndicated to many TV stations (Lobo got his start on a local station in Sacramento back in 2001).  It’s a nostalgic reminder of simpler childhood times, and it’s comforting to see that some outlets haven’t completely given up on showing these classic films and introducing them to a new generation.  Because let’s be honest—given the choice between an infomercial, babbling talking heads discussing politics, and cheesy horror movies hosted by even cheesier personalities…well, it won’t be much of a contest.

This Saturday on Me-TV (October 27), Svengoolie is going to show the proto-lycanthropy classic Werewolf of London (1935).  If I still had a pair of footy pajamas I’d put them on and complement the viewing with a tumbler of RC Cola and some HoHo’s.  If the television gods have smiled upon you and bestowed Me-TV on your cable company (or if you can get it with a digital antenna), why not join me in spirit?  (See what I did there?)


hobbyfan said...


What about the late, great, Seymour? His show aired--gulp---in broad daylight in Albany NY in the 70's at times. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. Unfortunately, it ain't easy finding footage of Seymour Presents on YouTube or anywhere else.

You neglect to mention that Werewolf of London stars Warner Oland (The definitive Charlie Chan) and Warren Hull. I may watch if the World Series bores me......

Mark Means said...

No mention of Dick Von Hoene...the "Cool Ghoul" from the greater Cincinnati area.

I grew up watching the "Ghoul" and, to me, he's one of the best. A total legend in the Tri-State area.

Rick29 said...

Delightful and affectionate post, Ivan! I remember those days quite well. I grew up in North Carolina watching Dr. Paul Bearer, Dr. Evil, and Dead Ernest (the cheesiest of them all--his vampire teeth popped out one night while doing an appliance commercial between flicks). In college in Bloomington,IN, I watched Sammy Terry. Later, when I visited my future wife in South Bend, I saw “Son of Svengoolie." Thanks for bringing back a flood of great memories, Ivan. For the other commenterts, why not post about your favorite host as part of this blogathon? Just send your web site address to and we'll put up the link.

M. Bouffant said...

Seymour, like Elvira, started locally here in Laws Anhgeleez.

And Elvira & her hubby own approximately half the apartment buildings in Hollywood.

OK, at least a couple. One of my friends actually lived in one of their bldgs. in the early '80s.

Chris Vosburg said...

Thnaks to being wised up to the existence of ME-TV by M. Bouffant while lamenting the loss of Perry Mason from local channel KDOC, I've also had the chance to get to know Svengoolie, and while at first I thought he was just an appallingly goofy amateur, he's growing on me, and I now find his shameless yet self-deprecating low-hanging-fruit-gathering sort of endearing.

Thanks for that, Ivan.

Also, M.B., used to run into Cassandra "Sandy" Peterson (Elvira) at Nickodell's Bar and Grill on Melrose, next to the KHJ studios where Elvira was shot back in the day. She was surprisingly petite, and quite adorable, with lots of curly red hair (or was that a wig too?) and the cutest little butt. I think she and her Producer "hammered" out the scripts there. Matter of fact, given the bits they came up with, I'm sure of it.

Sadly, Nickodell's and KHJ are no longer there at the south end of the Paramount lot, having been replaced, along with the fabled and enormous Western Costume Company, by the relentless advance of more parking spaces and new administrative offices for Paramount. Phooey!

ClassicBecky said...

Here in Indiana it was Sammy Terry, and I loved the guy. His jokes were dumb, his pet spider hung from a very visible string, and sometimes his coffin would tip a little when he got up, but what fun! I'm going to be writing about him for the 'thon, so I'll say no more right now.

I have been fortunate enough to finally get Me-TV and I just adore Svengoolie. He's on my series record list, and I am sure not going to miss Werewolf of London, one of my faves. Oh, and I, lover of Shakespeare, laughed like a loon at Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I thought it was hilarious!

Speaking of "classics were often interrupted by a plethora of commercials", one of my worst late-night movie experiences featured that in the most horrendous way. I was watching the fabulous Tale of Two Cities with Ronald Colman. So he goes up the steps to the guillotine and recites those beautiful lines ... "It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It's a fa..." The film clipped off and a Ban Roll-on commercial started. I still have nightmares about it.

Loved your article, Ivan!

Chris Riesbeck said...

Though no one will ever top Zacherly for me (I even have two paperback horror story collections with his name listed as editor that are actually pretty good), Svengoolie is indeed a worthy addition to the tradition. I particularly like the segments where Koz highlights the actors and their appearances in other classic films, something he does nicely with his 3 Stooges show as well.

Citizen Screen said...

Wonderful! I'm jealous of your memories AND bet you really do have footy pajamas! I like the idea for Svengoolie watching.


J F Norris said...

I've grown to like Koz' interpretation of Svengoolie with his dumb jokes and flyignrubber chickens that seem lifted from Laugh-In and his constant maligning of the poor oft maligned suburb of BER-WYN! Until today I thought he was only seen in Chicago, didn't know that show was syndicated. Or maybe it's the power of super cable subscription services.

Chris Riesbeck said...

FYI, the Chicago Tribune reported today (Nov 6), that Koz is recovering from a heart attack he suffered Saturday. Weigel Broadcasting's press release said "Rich's condition is improving and his family has asked for privacy at this time"