Hollywood movie studios and the television industry now enjoy such a cozy relationship as wholly-owned subsidiaries of each other it is easy to forget that back at the close of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the beginning of television’s, the two were not close allies but bitter adversaries. The advent of television threatened Hollywood’s life’s blood revenue stream. Rental of films to movie theatres (preferably theatres the studios owned) was a key part of the economic model on which the old studio system was built. The studios did not want to play nice with the TV industry, but faced with anti-trust lawsuits (over the theatres) and competition from the hot new technology that made both sound and pictures fly through the air into the audience’s living room, Hollywood eventually made peace with the new media kid on the block.
Consumer demand for TV sets and programming to watch on them had reached critical mainstream mass by the mid-50s. That helped convince the studios to swallow hard and start selling the television broadcast rights to what we now consider “classic films.” The studios (through the syndication arms they created when they were forced to divest themselves of their theatres) sold packages of what were then just “old movies” directly to local TV stations, where movies were handy multitaskers. Stations drew an audience with films, but also relied on them as time-fillers, to–let’s face it–give talent and crew a break when much of the broadcast day was still nearly all-live and mostly locally produced.
One of the most notable syndie packages was made up of horror films from Universal, including the original 1930s versions of Frankenstein and Dracula and other now-classic examples of the genre. By the late 1950s these films had spent up to 25 years gathering real dust (not a light atmospheric coating of fuller’s earth from the prop department) in what was then Universal International’s vault. The studios hadn’t yet figured out that their vaults–their crypts, if you will–were about to become a new goldmine.
A station in what was at that time a medium-sized market of about 300,000 TV households might have paid $1000 per airing of an “A” movie with big stars, but as little as $300 per airing of a “B” western or a horror movie with little perceived value. That low dollar amount could be earned back by moving very little “inventory”–airing just a few commercials–and everything else was gravy.
Or ketchup. With the local broadcast of horror films came the local horror host. Local stations employed assorted spooky characters to host the monster movies in weekend late-night “fringe” timeslots that were a tough sell to advertisers–airtime that station sales departments already considered to be a “graveyard” of unsold commercial spots.
Imagine, then, your local station’s surprise when horror flicks proved immensely popular. Perhaps it was Cold War Paranoia, perhaps the local hosts exercised a mysterious power over their viewing minions. (Perhaps the next sound you hear will be…a theremin) Classic hosts ran the gamut from KABC-TV’s Vampira, the original Lady of Horrors, and Elvira, the stacked Mistress of the Dark and presenter of Movie Macabre on KHJ-TV (both in Los Angeles), to Count Gore DeVol, the (literate!) vampire host on WDXR-TV in Paducah, Kentucky.
The local horror movie broadcast was quite lucrative for TV stations. The film packages were a cheap source of programming, the local host segments were no-budget productions–often to hysterical effect–and the monster chiller horror theatre shock show quickly proved itself a reliable vehicle for delivering many bloodshot eyeballs to local advertisers. Long after TV was a mature business, in Omaha, Nebraska the Saturday night Creature Feature broadcast with Dr. San Guinary (played by a KMTV staff director, the late John Jones) was still pulling an estimated 52% share of that market’s TV audience at the height of its popularity in the early to mid-70s.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the local horror host tradition lives on in the person of Doktor Goulfinger (no “H,”–”they’re for the weak,” he says). The Doktor keeps the scary flag flying on Berkeley cable access, in personal appearances and at his web site, The Hip Crypt of Doktor Goulfinger.
The Dok is also one of the nation’s leading experts on local TV horror hosts. He maintains a huge memorabilia collection including props, costumes and airchecks–expertise that led him to a gig as an Associate Producer and research specialist on American Scary, a documentary overview of the horror host genre by filmmakers Sandy Clark and John Hudgens.
Dok Goulfinger was kind enough to
write the rest of this piece for us answer a few questions on the history of local TV horror hosting earlier this month as he completed preparations for his busy season:
How did you get interested in horror films and horror hosts?
DG: I think kids have a natural attraction to monsters. It’s a natural extension of fairy tales. I grew up in the era of the ‘monster boom’, the early to mid-60s, when horror and science fiction films had established themselves as broadcast staples. In the San Francisco Bay Area, it seemed every local station had one or more regularly scheduled horror movie programs. My earliest childhood memories include films like Bride of the Monster (the first horror film that gave me nightmares), Tarantula, Creature Walks Among Us and The Magic Sword.
The defining moment for me was one Halloween night when I was about 5 or 6 years old. I was trick or treating with my brothers when my bag started to tear – this was back in the days when a kid could literally gather a shopping bag of booty in the course of an evening. I was close to home and ran in to grab a new bag. My dad was laying on the couch in the dark watching Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and I walked in just as the monsters were being revived. The whole image – the monsters on the screen, my dad on the couch – imprinted itself deeply onto my psyche. That movie defines Halloween for me, and ever since it first came out on video tape, I’ve watched it ever year and think of my father.
The shows I was seeing at the time were unhosted, but most had a menacing voice announcer introducing the film and setting the mood. This was back when you only had three stations, four stations tops, to choose from. Sometime in 1969, my mother bought portable TV that had additional UHF stations, and there I discovered KEMO CH 20, which had a program called Shock It To Me Theater — and this show had a host called Asmodeus. Shock It To Me had the Universal package, so I finally got a chance to see the classic Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy and Wolf Man [characters and] movies I had been seeing in Famous Monsters of Filmland. So it was pretty exciting time. Shock It To Me was also where I first saw Carnival of Souls, which really popped the top off my skull and spanked my brain.
And of course there was Asmodeus. Afternoon kid’s shows had hosts, so the concept was familiar. But having that type of character transposed to the dark hours was startling and intriguing, to say the least. Asmodeus was an imperious, sarcastic character. His garb was macabre mod, he smoked a cigarette and had a fairly elaborate castle set.
A year, year and half later, Creature Features debuted on KTVU CH 2, hosted by Bob Wilkins. Wilkins was the absolute antithesis of Asmodeus. He was a mild, slightly built guy with glasses and a cigar. And in contrast to the Shock It To Me top class film library, Creature Features came out of the gate with Horror of Party Beach, followed in quick succession by Curse of the Living Corpse and the immortal The Vulture, with Akim Tamiroff in a turkey suit.
Somewhat incredibly, Creature Features flattened Shock It To Me. Wilkins was an appealing presence, a bit like a cornball Bob Newhart. The ratings went through the roof. Creature Features soon became a twice weekly double bill on Friday and Saturday and knocked Shock It To Me off the air.
The program’s popularity led other stations to launch their own hosted horror movie shows. KBHK CH 44 tried first by syndicating The Ghoul from Cleveland in 1973, and again a decade later with Son of Svengoolie from Chicago. In the meantime, KEMO rather peevishly ran an unhosted show called The Original Creature Feature.
Another huge influence was the Carlos Clarens book, An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films, which took these movies out of the gee whiz world of Famous Monsters and placed them in the larger context of cinema. It was the first book that led me to look at horror films critically.
What circumstances led to local stations creating their own horror movie series/hosts?
DG: Although Vampira initially appeared back in 1954, the horror host genre officially followed the release of the Universal SHOCK! package of horror movies in 1957. It’s difficult to conceive now, but this was the first time this type of thing was being seen on television (Vampira was a localized Los Angeles phenomenon), and to an audience in the late 50s and early 60s, this was pretty strong stuff. This is also the best explanation for why so many of the hosts were comic in their approach. Humor further softened the experience.
Most strange is that the vast majority of hosts across the nation appeared to adhere to the same template, even though, as late as the 1980s, most local hosts had no idea what was going on in other markets. The most logical explanation for this universality seems to be in the Spook Show circuit of the ’40s and ’50s. These were traveling stage shows involving magic, monsters and crazy ghost effects, presided over by a magician/host with names like Dr. Evil and XXXXX. Following a raucous program mixing screams and laughs, a cheap movie, like The Ape Man or Mad Monster, would be screened. So these performers were, in effect, the first horror movie hosts.
So most stations felt it was necessary to wrap the horror material with host segments?
DG: [Their reasons were] a combination of creative and practical. Local stations were always keen to create identifiable personalties as spokespeople for the channel. News, variety and kid’s show hosts were already established, so it was a natural to extend it to the horror movie host. The other important benefit of the host was filling time. Many of the films in the Universal package ran 60 to 70 minutes long, and needed some padding to fill out a 90 minute time slot.
Which horror hosts have influenced you?
DG: Asmodeus and Bob Wilkins were clearly the biggest influences. I’ve recently been privileged to do a number of stage and convention appearances with Bob, as well as the second Creature Features host, John Stanley. You want to talk about childhood dreams come true? Wow. At one of these shows, someone told me I reminded them of Asmodeus. Double wow.
My interest in local hosts expanded well outside the Bay Area, and I’ve really felt the impact of folks like Ghoulardi (Cleveland), Son of Ghoul (Akron), Crematia Mortem (Kansas City), The Host (Witchita), Sammy Terry (Indianapolis), Dr. Paul Bearer (Tampa), and of course [Philadelphia's] Zacherley.
You mentioned that stations were often unaware of what other stations were doing. What are some of the classic bits of local horror show hosting? Were these replicated by stations all over the country?
DG: Probably THE classic bit of hostdom was Zacherley’s dissection of the giant amoebae. Zach made his amoebae by wrapping Jell-O in chees cloth, which was pretty effective and cheerfully disgusting. He would pat it, whack at it, and it would jiggle like crazy. But the best was when he would then slice it open with a scalpel and squeeze out the innards. I know Dr Speculo from Florida recreated the bit, giving full credit to Zacherley. And The Ghoul did an uncredited take on it in Detroit, which naturally emphasized the messier aspects of the gag.
I actually continued the experiments of the great Zacherley on a few of my own shows. I love the bit, and it gives me a chance to talk about horror host history on the show. The first time was a straight recreation of the dissection, and a second show found the Dok mating the giant amoebae with the common household parakeet, creating the first flying giant amoebae.The experiment was a spectacular failure. Made a nice big splat though…
Animal rights activists excepted, the fans must have fond memories of their local hosts…
DG: The absolute coolest thing about slipping into horror host drag is that people you meet will instantly start talking about the local guy or gal from their childhood. And they’re always so enthusiastic.
Everybody is 12 years old again. I’ve talked to many myself, and have been at conventions with Bob Wilkins where grown men were approaching him with big silly grins and sharing their experience of watching Creature Features from behind the couch, or with their family, or with their best friend. But most importantly, they talk about the effect the show had on them, the fun and inspiration they got out of it. It’s the warmest possible exchange, and I’ve seen it time and again. Nothing but smiles.
Rechercher is the senior editor at Beyond The Roots of Lounge.