Now. Now is the time when ghosts walk the earth, monsters eat babies (and candy), witches ride their broomsticks... Oh, and it is Halloween today, too, I hear. Well then, what better time to take a look at one of my favorite topics: The Television Horror Host.
The floodgates for horror hosting were opened in the mid-1950s, when Hollywood, gradually getting over it's fear of the television, opened the door of their vaults and began selling the television rights for many of the retired films of the 30s and 40s. Universal especially jumped on the bandwagon, but they had a clever plan: rather than let the scores of local TV stations cherry pick only the best titles, they sold their catalogues in packages. What's that, you want to show Frankenstein? Well, bub, get ready to show The Spider Woman Strikes Back as well.
Stations responded by coming up with a gimmick that would help them package the films - especially the less recognized ones. And thus, the horror host was born.
Vampira, Zacherley, Morgus, Ghoulardi, Elvira, and many more...
Starting in 1954, Vampira (ie, Finland-born Maila Nurmi) was the first one to dress up in spooky garb and introduce horror and thriller films for television. She actually came before the aforementioned movie packages and was tapped to host a late night show in L.A. based almost entirely on her striking appearance, which caught the eye of a television producer when she showed up for a costume party as Morticia Addams. But from the very beginning of TV horror hosting a notable trend was born: the films were rarely good. Her show featured mostly forgotten old films (even by 1954 standards) like Strangler of the Swamp, Return of the Ape, and King of the Zombies.
Vampira was wildly popular and quickly became a West Coast icon and gossip column regular, thanks to her dabbles with James Dean and Orson Welles, but her show only lasted a year - a combination of political nastiness from the local ABC station and Nurmi's own growing demands tarnished their relationship. None of the tapes from her original broadcasts survived but you can read the whole Vampira story and see a list of all the films she played on her show. And YouTube has a trailer for the upcoming Vampira documentary.
The Cool Ghoul: ZACHERLEY
Only a few years after Vampira's unfortunately early retirement, the Universal vaults opened. The first one to explore those films way none other than Philadelphia's John Zacherle. A bit player in a TV Western, he made a striking presence as a creepy undertaker. So, when WCAU began looking for a horror host, they asked him to dust off his long black undertaker coat, and a legend was born. Starting in 1957, he hosted a slew of Universal horror films for his weekly show Shock Theater, posing as a character named Roland whose girlfriend ("My Dear") lived in a coffin and actually liked to be staked in the heart. He also had an assistant named, what else, Igor.
Zacherley pretty much defined the horror host from this point on: a creepy, campy look coupled with corny jokes and gags and a couple of assistants hanging around. His popularity grew faster than anyone imagined, and in 1958 he teamed up with his good friend Dick Clark to cut a novelty record, which resulted in the top 10 hit "Dinner with Drac". You can listen to it and watch the record spin here.
Zacherley then moved to the New York area to work at WABC. Since then he has jumped around to different television and radio stations in the NY area, and has not only been a horror fixture, but also hosted a New Jersey based teen dance show, and was a popular rock DJ. Now 88 he's still going strong, appearing at conventions and doing cameos in cheesy films.
The longest running horror host still on the air (though mostly in repeats of older shows), Morgus the Magnificent is the New Orleans king of TV horror. From 1959 to today, he has dressed in a cheesy lab coat and fright wig (or at least wildly teased hair) to host horror and sci-fi films on The House Of Shock. A mad scientist, Dr. Morgus' experiments rarely turn out well, which could because his assistant, Chopsley, has no face (he sneezed after a face transplant. Oops). See them in action.
Morgus (aka Sid Noel) is noteworthy for being the first horror host to get his own film, The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus. Hardly a gem, it's mostly filled with bad humor and sly perversion. Not so his own attempt at pop music stardom, the insanely catchy "Morgus the Magnificent" (mp3), performed by Morgus and the Ghouls (which include Dr. John and Frankie Ford).
He's also a regular on one of my favorite radio shows, the truly terrifying Coast to Coast AM.
Cleveland's most legendary horror host was unmistakably Ghoulardi. He was only on the air for about three years (63-66), but he left an indelible impression. His real name was Ernie Anderson, and after retiring Ghoulardi, he moved to Hollywood and become a legendary voice-over artist (he was the voice of The Love Boat, the Carol Burnett Show, and pretty much every top 40 radio station). He is also the father of none other than director Paul Thomas Anderson, who pretty much based the Philip Baker Hall character in Magnolia on him.
But most importantly, Ghoulardi used that booming, commanding voice to unleash an anarchistic spirit. Rather than just play bad movies and make jokes, he began setting up blue screens and dropping in random images over the top of the film, or making strange noises over the soundtrack. And things weren't any better outside of the movie, where his set could be pure chaos. He was topical, he was funny as hell, he was just plain weird, he WAS the counterculture invading the average middle-American's television. Nobody that saw a Ghoulardi show ever forgot it, and in a way he shaped the weird climate of Cleveland in the late 60s and early 70s. David Thomas of Pere Ubu was one of his disciples and describes watching his show as such:
"Everyone who saw Ghoulardi will tell a favorite story - like the night he set off a egregiously large home-made explosive device sent it by a fan - he was always setting off fireworks and blowing up things in the studio - and quite clearly off-camera crew were telling Ghoulardi not to light it up and you could see people running across the studio, the camera abandoned to skew off balance, pointing at the floor, and then the entire room was stunned senseless for some minutes... live... smoke, curtains on fire, people stumbling around..."
There is a nice documentary on Ghoulardi on Youtube. Get in touch with the punkest of all the horror hosts.
The Mistress of the Dark: ELVIRA
What can I say about Elvira that hasn't already been said. I can't ignore her, or we'll be hitting elephant in the room territory. Let's just say this, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson, in case you didn't know) is bar none the most successful horror host in history. It started simply - evolving from a character she performed in The Groundlings, she partnered with writer John Paragon (who was also a frequent guest on the show, and went on to play Jambi on Pee Wee's Playhouse) to create Movie Macabré, her L.A. based horror show. And obvious descendant of the Vampira legacy, but with Valley Girl sass, she was an instant success -- and then grew into an international cultural juggernaut. She even made it on CHiPS. Twice!
Rather than try and give you a complete history of Elvira's rise (which you can read in detail elsewhere), let's just stick with her original show. Started in 1981 on KHJ-TV, Movie Macabré became hugely successful when Elvira showed her first 3-D horror film (Vincent Price in The Mad Magician), a gimmick which proved how strong her audience could be - as they sold over 2 and a half million 3-D glasses in L.A. just for this show. From there, her show became the first horror show to become syndicated throughout the county (the only state she didn't crack was New York). It was a godsend to those of us who didn't have a passable horror host of our own (like, say, Denver in 1983). With opening titles that were both frightening and sexy, and the sense of humor that could make any 12-year-old shoot milk through his nose, Elvira pretty much defined puberty for a whole generation (for instance, the tassel routine at the end of her 1988 movie was alone worth the price of admission).
Her transition to "home video hostess" didn't have quite the punch of her show. For instance, the "Sack Time" reader mail segment was almost the highlight of the television show, and video didn't allow that kind of interactivity. But we can now rejoice because DVDs have recently been released of many full length Movie Macabre episodes.
Some Other Horror Hosts!
The "Monster of Ceremonies" for Fantastic Features spooked Memphis from 1962 through 1972. Even though his name is simply "Davis" spelled backwards, the opening segment is truly creepy. Then Sivad devolves into the bad jokes, which are at least told in a rather unique Southern accent (unique for a horror host, that is).
"CHILLY" BILLY CARDILLE
A pretty normal host with bad lounge-singer hair, he did happen to have a castle, which is spooky. One big advantage to being a horror host out of Pittsburgh: he was featured as a reporter in Night of the Living Dead. On the air regularly until 1983, Chilly Billy still pops up from time to time.
SIR GRAVES GHASTLY
Scaring Detroit for so many years - from 1967 - 1983. His closing line was "Happy haunting" combined with an evil laugh.
The Ghoul has been on and off since 1971, and is about to celebrate his 35th anniversary. His show is based in Cleveland, but has also made it into Detroit and a few other towns. The opening will give you an idea of the kind of explosive hi-jinx that ensue, but for a real treat, check out this video of a young fan in 1976 whose dad took him to the set to be humiliated (don't forget to read the "about" text. The story behind the clip is pretty choice).
COUNT GORE DE VOL
For fifteen years, starting in 1973, he terrorized the airwaves of Washington, DC with horror films and a silly Dracula impression. Not much from his show on-line, but you can take a tour of his
Traverse City, Michigan doesn't have much of a horror show television audience, but Count Zappula (aka Don Melvoin) couldn't resist trying, even if they wouldn't give him a budget. His show was so cheap that the guest host is only a toy skull. Still, it's the heart that counts. Here's a nice blooper reel (from one of those vintage Ed McMahon specials, co-hosted by Elvira).
(Son of) SVENGOOLIE
Chicago's Svengoolie was created by accident when WFLD announcer Jerry G. Bishop did silly Transylvanian voiceovers. He did the character for a couple of years, then passed it on to Rick Koz, who has kept the character (though not always the accent) alive since 1979. Here's a clip from before his show was cancelled due to Fox takeover (he's back now). And you can see much more thanks to this Chicago TV fan.
STELLA, THE MANEATER FROM MANAYUNK
This Philadelphia comedy-horror show ran right after SNL, thus the title. Stella is also known as the "Daughter of Desire" and she reigned the late night airwaves from 1984-1990.
Much much much more is out there, and I recommend you visit these folks for more information.