G-FEST (Godzilla Festival) is the quintessential celebration of Godzilla and all his fellow Kaiju (Japanese Monsters). I’ve been a fan of Godzilla and Gamera ever since I was a kid. Growing up in the 1970′s, it was via shows like Creature Features or The Son of Svengoolie to bring those movies to me. People who did not grow up with a horror host usually have a hard time understanding why some of us adult fans get so weepy with adulation at the mere mention of our childhood ghoul. Well, when you’re a “monster kid,” surrounded by more “normal” kids who want to play baseball or watch The Dukes of Hazard, the person faithfully delivering your favorite films becomes more than just a TV star, he becomes your idol…one of Godzilla proportions. In my case it also helped that I found my host’s corny humor hilarious and his less than stellar singing voice pitch perfect.
The other day I was at work perusing Facebook during my, ahem, lunch break when a post written on Svengoolie’s wall caught my attention. The negative comment was regarding Sven showing non horror related shows like tonight’s DUCK SOUP as well as suggesting that he change the name of his program to “The Abbott & Costello Show.” Apparently the writer, who felt the need to publicly chide Sven as opposed to sending him a direct complaint (which he would have responded to), had a TV black-out the previous weeks when he aired HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and THE DEADLY MANTIS.
Last year, we posted a blog featuring the classic horror hosts of Southern California (which you can revisit HERE). California, however, is a large state and has an equally rich history in its northern region. The new book, “Shock it to Me,” written by Michael Monahan a.k.a. Doktor Goulfinger, is a MUST HAVE for any Horror Host fan’s library – highlighting these very hosts!
Ever since Vampira cooed to her pet spider, “Rolo,” and the great Zacherly whispered “my dear” to an invisible paramour just outside the camera’s reach, sidekicks have been a common feature of horror hosted shows.
These companions are often as colorful and diverse as their host creators. Some are the skeletal variety such as Svengoolie’s Tombstone or Wolfman Mac’s conniving Boney Bob. Others are even more bizarre and imaginative such as Doktor Goulfinger’s Count Zygote (the world’s first horror host fan), Ms Monster’s..”ahem”.. melons “Tit & Tat,” or even a coy houseplant whom Mr. Lobo affectionately refers to as “Miss Mittens.”
For matters of horror host history, I always seek out my friend, Michael Monahan (Doktor Goulfinger), to supply the answers. I asked him if he had any idea who some of the first host sidekicks were and, expecting him to need some time to ponder the question, was surprised when he responded almost immediately. The following is a list of early host sidekicks the good Doktor shared “just off the top of his head.”
Aside from the aforementioned Vampira, he also listed Kansas City’s The Host – Rodney, Son of Ghoul in the 90′s – Fidge, Sammy Terry – George the Spider, Dr. Paul Bearer – a spider named Spinjamin Bock, Commander USA – Lefty, The Ghoul - Froggie, and Morgus the Magnificent – Chopsley.
Less common were the “living” sidekicks. This was a luxury few commercial hosts could afford with barely enough money in the station’s budget allotted for themselves let alone an assistant. This, of course, is not an issue with hosts working on public access as it is all the labor of love. Good friends, loved ones, and fellow horror fans show their support by acting as supporting cast members.
One should, however, take their time before adding names to their roster. This is a lesson Kenosha’s Dr. Destruction learned the hard way. Once, while hosting a dinner party that utilized multiple sidekicks, an on-air battle erupted between them (apparently jealous over their host’s attention). Destruction, none too pleased at having to interrupt his performance to put an end to the altercation, decided to leave all the footage intact for public viewing. I would like to add that I met his latest sidekick, Deadgar Winters, last weekend and he was one of the nicest, easy going guys you could ever meet. The on-air sidekick battle was clearly before his time.
Behind every great man lies a great woman and this is certainly the case with many other hosts such as Zomboo’s Miss Transyvania, The Bone Jangler’s beautiful Enchantress Nocturna, Dr. Dreck’s Moaner Lisa, Count Gregula’s Countess, and Undead Johnny’s Romania. Perhaps in these instances the word “partner” would be more appropriate than sidekick, though they still serve the same role of enhancing the performance of their host.
Great hostesses can also rely on their men to back them up as well. If not a great man, than certainly a great “wolfman!”As is the case of Penny Dreadful’s partner, both on and off screen, Garou!
I met Garou last March at the Indianapolis Horrorhound Convention and then again at “Rock & Shock” last month. This was the first time David met the wily lycanthrope and he was very impressed with the way he stayed so flawlessly in character.
This was something I had witnessed at Horrorhound and I wasn’t alone. Brian Maze, the fantastic artist who created the horror host illustrations used in our current updates, also met Garou at Horrorhound. Apparently Mr. Maize made the mistake of handing Garou a “silver” marker to sign his autograph, prompting the werewolf to toss the Sharpie while reacting as if he’d just been burned.
Garou is played by Penny’s real life husband, Magoo Gelehrter. While putting together her show, Penny recognized Magoo’s comic potential and asked if he’d mind playing a non-speaking werewolf character. According to Penny, his response was a simple and direct, “Cool, Baby!” And the rest is “Shilling Shocker” history.
With the aid of a werewolf translator, Garou delighted me by taking some time out and answering a few questions….
DAVE: Tell us how you came to be “Garou?”
GAROU: I’m always pulling faces to make Danielle laugh, and when we decided on the witch, werewolf and monster hunter characters, the name Garou, as in Loup Garou, just came to me, and that was decidedly that.
DAVE: I know that prior to Penny Dreadful, Danielle had some experience with acting, had you as well?
GAROU: It has long been my ambition to be a silent film actor, but it’s very hard to find leading parts that don’t have spoken lines. Danielle and I were both in a film called THE ART OF ETIOLATION in 2002. I’ve also been in some plays. Danielle and I were in the play “The Hot_l Baltimore” together a few years ago.
DAVE: Did you grow up a fan of monster movies and, if so, what are your favorites?
GAROU: I used to watch Creature Feature when I was a kid, my favourite then was ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. My favorite classic horror film is of course, THE WOLFMAN but I also love so called “bad” horror films – like Ed Wood’s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER and Herschel Gordon Lewis’ GRUESOME TWOSOME and stuff like THE GIANT GILA MONSTER.
DAVE: What episode of SHILLING SHOCKERS are you the most proud of?
GAROU: This is the hardest question! I love the movie CARRY ON SCREAMING! (Season three). I also have a certain fondness for the Coffin Joe movie we showed in Episode 2 of Season Three, and our hijinks in that episode always make me laugh because we filmed some of it at my wonderful in-laws’ home with Danielle’s mother and her mom’s best friend Mary Lou and they nearly feed Garou until he explodes. They didn’t have prior acting experience but they sure were Method actors! They were really shoving the food in my yap, I was lucky I didn’t swallow my fangs! Seeing them dance with us around the coffee table and seeing little Twinkie the dog chasing us around makes me nearly cry with laughter. And the episode where we show SWEENEY TODD, Garou gets a haircut from Danielle’s since departed grandfather as the barber he was, so having family in the episodes always makes it extra special for me. Those are both pretty early episodes and we do get better technically in the later ones, so those might be more to be proud about. Our director Rebecca Paiva does the hard work of shooting the episodes and editing them, so she’d be the one to ask about what’s the episode to be proudest of. The episode where we showed THE SEVENTH SEAL was a very hard shoot. We shot on the beach in Rhode Island during the summertime and it was hot as blazes and we didn’t bring enough potable water. It is not the only episode where I found myself dangerously dehydrated, but I was really close to the edge when we were randomly saved by beach goers who let us join their picnic and revived us all with their generosity. They noticed we were running around and when we finished shooting they invited us over, and ended up doing a song for us which closes out the episode. They were real lifesavers!
DAVE: You were a lot of fun at “Horrorhound” and “Rock & Shock” – managing to always stay in character. Do you enjoy making public appearances?
GAROU: I love doing appearances! Being in character comes naturally once I am dressed as Garou. At most of the conventions we go to there are kids, and Garou tends to have a Pied Piper effect on them. They can relate to him because they know how it feels to be mis-understood, and to communicate non-verbally, plus he’s funny and not afraid to be silly. And I respect the right of children to enjoy their innocence, so staying in character is a must. I don’t want some little kid to see me break character when I’m Garou, and then start to wonder that if Garou isn’t real, then what about Santa and the Easter Bunny, and then poof- their childhood is over, just like that! I don’t wanna be that guy, the one who kills the joy of simple pleasures for them. Also being in character all day at a convention is a great way to get into character and come up with bits that we can use in the show. Doing a convention before we start a new shooting season really helps get me ready. And much as I love to talk, I really do enjoy communicating with people non-verbally. For me, that is the most addictive part of wanting to be an actor. Though being able to memorize large monologues would be great, and a well delivered line is a thing of great beauty, for me the soul of acting is not what you say, but what you convey when you’re not speaking. One reason I like to watch movies more than once is so I can enjoy watching the people in scenes when they are not the one speaking. That’s where the real acting is, if you can see them listening to the actor who is speaking, that’s where the magic happens.
DAVE: How long does it take to make your “transformation” into Garou? Do you do your own make-up?
GAROU: When the moon is full and the wolfbane is in bloom, it takes no time at all! I had no experience using makeup until we did this show, and I learned everything the hard way! I tried all kinds of different fixatives to apply the Garou nose before I finally found something reliable. But now that I know what to use and how to use it, it only takes about half an hour or so to pull myself together. It also depends on the humidity. The fixatives I use take a bit longer when it is very humid before I can attach the nose and ears.
DAVE: Your comic timing is impeccable. Who would you site as your comedic influences?
GAROU: Thank you for the compliment! I’m sure my answer will surprise very few people: Harpo Marx is at the top of my comedy influence hit parade! But I am also a huge fan of George Burns, he is the all time best second banana ever. There isn’t a day in my life where I am not inspired by his words. I also love W.C. Fields and quote them both at least twice a day. But it’s not for a lack of love of the man that I never quote Harpo! He did it all without saying a word. I also love Mel Brooks, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. I wish I could do a better Stan Laurel! Along with Burns & Allen, Ace Goodman and his wife Jane Ace were a great comedy duo who are not remembered often enough these days. And I love Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” That show had an amazing cast. Aside from Sid with his amazing physicality, he had Howie Morris whom I utterly revere, Imogen Coca, and Carl Reiner. Howie Morris is another huge influence. You might recall him as Professor Little Old Man in Mel Brooks HIGH ANXIETY. My mother took me to see my first Woody Allen film when I was seven and it had a huge influence on me. I hadn’t been too optimistic about my prospects until I saw that film- it let me know it was okay to be a nebbish and a runt, that you could still attract women not only in spite of that, but because of that! I have always loved his physical comedy for which he’s always been under-rated, yet he moves so well. He does some his best physical comedy in SHADOWS AND FOG and ZELIG. I know it’s not PC to like him these days, but funny is funny and he has always made me laugh and to feel less alone in this world. Aside from comedy, I think Lon Chaney Jr. is one of the all time great actors, his pop was no slouch either but I love the humanity Lon Junior conveys without having to say a word. Even in his last roles when his health was failing, he managed to impart incredible pathos. I put him right up there with actors like Cary Grant and George Sanders.
DAVE: I know that Danielle did not grow up with a horror host. Did you?
GAROU: I used to watch Creature Feature when I was a kid, they showed double features, lots of Godzilla movies mostly. They had a voice-over announcer telling us to stay tuned but not a character who appeared onscreen.
DAVE: What advice do you have for other horror host “sidekicks?”
GAROU: It’s okay to occasionally lick the scenery but try to avoid chewing it. You don’t want to drown out your co-hosts when they are speaking or pull focus from them with your antics. Try to find the balance between adding a little color without upstaging the focus.
DAVE: This one I can’t resist. I love the story of how Penny Dreadful, through a misguided spell, became a hostess. What is Garou’s back story and how did a werewolf end up the love interest of a 600 year old witch?
GAROU: I hate to leave you hanging but you’ll just have to stay tuned to Shilling Shockers to find out more about Garou’s past.
Well Dave, thanks for asking all these great questions, you gave me much to consider. I think this is where I should say goodnight but I’ve never been good at goodbyes, so I’ll leave it up to someone else. And to end, since I can’t quote Harpo, here is something one of his brothers once said. Groucho to be specific, though I love them all, even Gummo and Zeppo. Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chico as well. “Until then, so long, skol, arrivederci, prosit, salud, hasta la vista, a bientot and ciao. (Ciao, in case you don’t know, is an Italian salutation. It is also a breed of dog that will bite your ass off for no reason at all.)”
“The Chiller Drive-in” is divided into four sets. Across from the concession were three additional venues for Mac and his fellow cast members to carry out their signature story-lines. On the far right was a faux laboratory complete with its own mad scientist. The table was littered with science beakers containing unknown liquids that appeared even more diabolical via illumination.
To the left of this set was The Projector Room, where Mac greeted fans and made numerous announcements. I had seen this room many times while watching the show and always enjoyed seeing the great embellishments that, literally, covered its walls. What I did not know, however, was how much history existed here. While “The Chiller Drive-in” is, in itself, a tribute to a bygone era of our cinematic history (even peppering it’s own show with public domain clips of drive-in advertisements and messages to its patrons), I discovered during the open house that it actually goes much deeper than this.
Sitting in the room is an actual projector from a vintage Michigan Drive-in. As my brain tried to register all the amazing sights in the room, a friendly crew member invited me to come on in and take as many pictures as I’d like. The man’s name was Todd Vierk and he is part of the drive-in’s creative team. While I ogled the enormous projector, Todd explained that it was from the Gratiot Drive-in from Roseville, Michigan (east side of Detroit).
Vicki Vanderkolk shared the following information regarding the outdoor theater…
The Gratiot Drive-in, which opened in April, 1948 was billed as the world’s largest drive-in, featuring free pony rides, merry-go-round and other playground amusements for the kids, a large restaurant that even warmed baby bottles on schedule for patrons, and a living curtain waterfall illuminated by colored lights to simulate Niagara Falls.
The Gratiot Drive-in opened in 1948 and closed down in 1984. “If you drive there now it’s a big Sam’s Club and strip mall, ” said Todd, “it’s really kinda sad.” While the site was demolished a short time after its closing, some of its artifacts live on at “The Chiller Drive-in.” Along with the immense projector, there are also original film canisters containing actual movies shown during it’s 36 year tenure. “We’re not sure what movies these are,” said Wolfman Mac. “For all we know it could be GONE WITH THE WIND and we’re spilling Pepsi on em’ every week.” Mac’s jesting aside, I could tell that he, as well as the entire cast and crew, viewed these items as sacred.
To the left of the projection room, is a smaller set designed as the crypt for the Drive-in’s newest cast member, Scary Grant (see previous entry). Despite its recent addition to “The Chiller Drive-in,” this set boasts an amazing bit of local history itself.
While Ohio’s, The Ghoul (Ron Sweed) enjoyed a healthy tenure on Detroit air waves, Michigan already had a classic host of its own. Sir Graves Ghastly (Lawson J. Deming) reigned supreme from the late 1960′s into the early 1980′s. His legion of fans include many of “The Chiller Drive-in” crew members as well as Wolfman Mac himself.
As Ghastly’s show began, the camera led viewers through a set of iron gates to his signature coffin. These very same gates have been given new life at “The Chiller Drive-in” and are now featured in Scary Grant’s locale (allowing the S.G. initials to remain relevant to this show). Even my refined friend, Michael Monahan (Doktor Goulfinger), lost his composure when I shared with him my picture of the gates. “HOLY CRAP! The Sir Graves gates!?! That is so super cool! I have one of his capes in the vast Goulfinger Archives – but this is just too, too amazing! Wow!…I am so jealous at the moment!”
One of the crew members shared this poignant story. “I’ll never forget when those gates arrived, ” he said. It was at night and many of use were still working. When they carried them in we all stood around it and stared silently. It was an amazing moment for us.”
Tune in next time as I focus on meeting Wolfman Mac, as well as the most talented ogre you’ll ever meet….
Saturday promised to be the busiest day of the Horrorhound convention. Wanting to get an early start, I immediately went down to the main hall after breakfast. Due to the large number of hosts attending the Vampira Tribute, I had no illusions about meeting them all. In an effort to stay focused, I created a short list of the ones I really wanted to meet.
As I approached the area designated for the hosts, I was happy to see that one of my “high priority” selections was present. Michael Monahan, a.k.a. Doktor Goulfinger, has the distinction of not only being a horror host, but a fervent fan of the art itself. His work on the documentary AMERICAN SCARY earned him a recent Rondo Award in the category of “Best Independent Film of 2009.” As I mentioned in an earlier blog, this is a “must see” for anyone interested in learning about the history of horror hosts, as well as a look at some of the colorful characters from its golden age.
Michael has since chosen to place his Doktor Goulfinger character on hiatus in an effort to focus on other projects. This includes extensive research on classic horror hosts for an upcoming book. Despite his relatively short tenure, I was able to track down a copy of his work as Doktor Goulfinger prior to Horrorhound. True to form, he not only used his show to perform his own hosting shtick, but also as a means of spotlighting classic hosts. During his presentation of THE DEVIL BAT, Goulfinger proudly shows off a mock candy wrapper used by the late Dr. Paul Bearer. This is just one of many artifacts Monahan has acquired during his years of collecting.
There was no doubt that if I wanted to gain a better understanding of classic horror hosts, I would be wise to seek Doktor Goulfinger’s counsel. Prior attempts at contacting him proved futile as he had shut down the website featured on his program. I couldn’t locate him on Facebook and knew that if I walked away from this convention without obtaining his email address, I’d be making a grievous error.
As I approached him, I noticed he was wearing his signature 3D glasses while holding his character’s cigarette holder. Although he had since shaved off his beard, there was no doubt that it was him. As I did not want to offend my fellow conventioneers, I opted to forgo my sweaty “It Came from Berwyn” T-shirt in favor of “Zomboo’s House of Horror.” This elicited an immediate positive response from Goulfinger who, like myself, is also a big fan of Zomboo. I introduced myself and he gave a warm handshake.
We talked for about 2o minutes but I could have easily stretched that into hours. Most of our conversation revolved around the subject of the Tribute, Maila Nurmi. Doktor Ghoulfinger was one of the few hosts present who had not only met the great Vampira, but also acquired extensive interviews with her during his work on AMERICAN SCARY. I could tell by his eloquence that he truly cared for her as an artist and his insights helped me gain a much greater appreciation for her work. The next day he would provide a moving tribute to her at the event itself (to be covered in a future post).
I am happy to say that I was successful in my goal of obtaining Michael’s contact information and we have kept in touch since the convention. Despite my numerous questions and requests (like allowing me access to the wonderful photos attached to this blog), he is always willing to share his insights and help in any way that he can. Although I had once held on to the hope that he would, once again, stand in front of a camera and host movies of his own, I have since come to realize that his role as historian and preserver of this nation’s classic hosts is far more valuable. His contributions can not be overstated, and I am very happy that I had the honor of meeting him.
As I walked away from Doktor Goulfinger, I noticed a flurry of activity at the table featuring Count Gore de Vol. This classic host is not only a legend in Washington DC, where he hosted movies in the 1970′s and 80′s, but in the world of horror hosting itself. Regardless of his status as a “classic” host, Count Gore (Dick Dyszel) has proven himself downright innovative in our modern world. No longer interested in performing on commercial television, he is now available to the entire world courtesy of the World Wide Web. As Doktor Goulfinger states, “Count Gore actually led the way on the ‘net. He came from years of television, was always attentive and media savvy and saw the changes coming. He’s a real leader.”
To the vast majority of hosts working today, he is a great deal more than that. By using his status to reach out and bring hosts from all over the country together, he has become the ultimate elder Statesman. Dissolving the older practice of horror hosts being solitary performers – protective of their own territories, he now makes frequent appearances on other host’s programs while also encouraging them to support each other. He is the latest recipient of the Rondo Award for “Best Active Horror Host” and was also recently featured in the latest issue of “Rue Morgue.”
Count Gore was a pleasure to meet and, despite the noise of the convention, enjoyed talking about his show. The previous weekend, Count Gore had presented the film BEAST FROM YUCCA FLATS. During this Web-cast, he contended that this film was easily “the worst film ever made,” contradicting conventional wisdom that this honor belongs to the Ed Wood disaster-piece, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. After watching his show, I found myself in agreement with the Count though, in truth, there are many movies I find less enjoyable than PLAN 9. After sharing a laugh about that, the Count advised me to “be sure and catch next week’s show the night that it airs because there’s a good chance its going to be pulled.”
I was hoping that Count Gore would have had some advanced copies of his documentary EVERY OTHER DAY IS HALLOWEEN to purchase but he said that attempts to get some in time for the convention had failed. “They told me they could get some to me on Monday, but that defeats the whole purpose,” he sighed. He did, however, sign a poster of the film for me as well as a photo of himself to pass on to Svengoolie. That autograph, along with Penny Dreadful’s, was shown on a recent Svengoolie mail segment.
After my conversation with Count Gore de Vol, I saw a professional television crew set up on my left. The night before, I noticed an elaborate booth being set up for “The Chiller Drive-in.” Now, with the addition of its host Wolfman Mac, it was fully operational and the perfect time for a visit….
(to be continued)
Slinking down a dark corridor, illuminated only by the glow of soft candles and dry ice, Maila Nurmi makes her grand entrance. In the unlikely event that her seductive gaze failed in seizing your immediate attention, there is no doubt that her skin tight black dress, accenting the quintessential “wasp” waist, certainly would.
Little did Los Angeles viewers of local channel, KABTV, know it at the time, they were not just witnessing the debut of Vampira but the birth of the American horror host. While the Finnish beauty stood alone in 1954, there were easily over 100 active horror hosts (including commercial television, cable, public access, and Web) at the time of her death in 2008.
Although her tenure was relatively short, her contribution to television can not be overstated. Whether you’re in Chicago (like myself) tuning in to Svengoolie every Saturday night, howling with Wolfman Mac in Michigan, or holding your sides from laughter while watching Zomboo in Reno, you are enjoying the fruits of Vampira. In March, 2010 a cavalcade of grateful, modern hosts descended upon the Indianapolis Horrorhound Convention to pay tribute to this remarkable woman.
For me, the timing could not have been better. It wasn’t long ago that I had been under the false impression that Svengoolie was the only horror host still active today. This past year I was able to experience the work of numerous others from across the country. They include men, women, vampires, witches, werewolves, and mad scientists. Horror hosting, it would appear, is the ultimate equal opportunity job. Some are creepy, some hilarious, and all are quite unique. Learning about them was not only fascinating but also highly entertaining.
The majority of horror hosts today are comprised of passionate individuals, taking their love of horror films to the “next level.” They return from their day jobs only to don make-up and adopt a clever alter ego. They are often joined by an attractive assistant, with their best friends acting as film crew. These dedicated folks air their shows via public access television. They can often be seen doing interviews at local conventions and eagerly selling the fruits of their labor. I always try to support them whenever I can which is probably why I now have over ten different versions of THE GIANT GILA MONSTER.
The rise of corporate television, and consequent near extinction of local channels, has all but killed the “classic” horror hosts that many of us were fortunate to grow up with. These are the ones that cause older fans, like myself, to develop lumps in their throats and become weepy with nostalgia at the mere mention of their names. Some have managed to survive the odds and are still standing today. They are the rarest and most influential in the horror host realm. They would include such titans as Svengoolie, Zomboo, and Son of Ghoul. Like their predecessors, these men are professional hosts working at local, commercial television stations. Their job security is based, like any network program, on ratings and viewership. This is no easy feat when one takes into account the movies that are available to them, and the fact that most people can readily access these same films from Netflix or the $1 DVD bin at Walmart.
Another emerging group of hosts are comprised of those who have taken their shows into the new age via weekly web casts. Classic host, Count Gore de Vol, has evolved into this medium. This year’s Rondo award winner for “Best Horror Host” has been presenting movies since the 1970′s. Consequently, he has developed a huge following of fans, one of which created an amazing documentary EVERY OTHER DAY IS HALLOWEEN. While watching that movie, I found it so fascinating that while I was enjoying the Son of Svengoolie in Chicago, kids my age in Washington DC were sharing the same devotion with Count Gore de Vol.
Representatives from all facets of hosting were represented at the Vampira Tribute. There was, however, one glaring exception. As I checked the Horrorhound website, I noticed that Svengoolie was not listed as one of the attendees. I started feeling like I was being disloyal celebrating horror hosts without my favorite one being present.
As fate should have it, Svengoolie was making an appearance at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo the day before Horrorhound. As a volunteer of the zoo, I had planned on attending the event anyway (raising money for “Vital Grounds” an organization dedicated to obtaining land for grizzlies) only to have my worlds collide with the announcement that Svengoolie was going to be our guest of honor.
I had met Rich Koz numerous times since 2003, but this visit was a bit different than the norm. This time I was seeking the blessing of my patron host, to fraternize with his peers (yes, folks, I was raised Catholic).
I researched some of the hosts attending Horrorhound and discovered that Penny Dreadful and Doktor Goulfinger were both fans of Svengoolie. When I met Rich at the zoo, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind signing one of his WCIU promo cards for these two hosts. I clenched my teeth, half expecting him to yell “TRAITOR!” while flicking the cards back at me. Instead, he was very happy to oblige. He instantly knew who both of these hosts were and I could tell by his facial expression that he liked them. He also told me he was sorry he was unable to attend the Tribute and wished me a great time. Phew!
My conscience clear, it was now time to meet some of the other hosts……
(To be continued…..)
It’s hard to imagine what my life would have been like had I not had the honor of growing up with Svengoolie. The “1970′s world” I was raised in was devoid of VCR/DVD’s and DVR cable. Consequently, watching monster movies at your own convenience was simply not the option that it is today. I suppose this is the “you kids don’t know how good you have it” story that my generation gets to tell in place of “having to walk six miles to school in the freezing cold.” All kidding aside, however, you really did have to be home at the right time to catch a rare showing of what interested you. During this era, many of us “scary movie” kids depended on our local horror hosts to reliably deliver those goods.
I was eight years old when I was first introduced to the “Son of Svengoolie.” Played by Rich Koz, he was actually the second Svengoolie, after the previous Sven (Jerry G. Bishop) moved on to pursue other endeavors. My parents tell me that while my mother was in labor with me, my father sat out in the hospital waiting area watching Jerry G Bishop’s Svengoolie. I suppose it’s a great example of irony that I should grow up to be so enthralled by his protege. To say it was a match made in heaven was definitely an understatement. “Son of Svengoolie” came on every Saturday night here in Chicago via UHF channel 32 (WFLD). Those nights were sacred in my household as I was not only guaranteed to see my favorite genre of movie, but also have it presented with a comedic flair that would influence me well into my adult life.
Like his predecessor, The Son of Svengoolie was chock full of flying rubber chickens (usually directed at our self-depreciating host) along with the occasional poke at the Chicago suburb of Berwyn. Any time that city (or any other for that matter) would be mentioned, you were sure to hear a humorous “Berrrr-wyn” sound off in the background. Aside from airing my favorite movies, the show was also characterized by funny skits and commercial spoofs such as “Dr. Rabies” – a send up to THE AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON actor, David Naughton, and his popular “Dr. Pepper” commercials that aired during that time. Often during the next school day, my friends and I would re-enact those commercials, usually taking great liberties with, and arguing over, the “correct” lyrics. To us it was like a live action version of the Topp’s “Wacky Packages” cards many of us avidly collected during that time. These trading cards would mock popular products of the day and were prolific in my third grade world. Needless to say, we couldn’t get enough Son of Svengoolie!
The Son of Svengoolie could also be counted on to deliver a hilarious parody song, often designed to compliment the featured film. I remember during an airing of THE DEADLY MANTIS, he sang “Eating Folks Alive” to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5″ illustrating the giant, voracious insect’s penchant for devouring people. In another show, he sang “Raw Hen” to the “Theme from “Rawhide” while cracking a whip at oncoming rubber chickens. This part of the Svengoolie legacy I would carry with me for the rest of my life. Later, in my teenage years, my co-worker/friend, Jason, and I would write and perform parodies of KISS songs revolving around a local grocery store we worked at. To this day if I get a jingle stuck in my head I will often create my own lyrics and start singing it as a parody (which my kids have now come to simply accept as one of my many idiosyncrocies). With all due respect to Weird Al Yankovic, it is Svengoolie that us Chicagoans will always regard as the master of novelty songs. In fact, it was the Son of Svengoolie who had first mocked Michael Jackson’s “Beat it,” also using a food theme. Before Weird Al’s “Eat It” brought national laughs, us Chicagoans had already been treated to the Son of Svengoolie’s “Re-Heat it” sung by a Julia Child character amid some very unappealing images of “left-overs.”
One of my favorite memories of Son of Svengoolie was when he presented the classic film, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, in 3D. I remember my mother coming home from the local Dominick’s Food Store and presenting us all with special 3D glasses designed specifically for the show. That evening, we all camped out in front of the television set wearing our special glasses and gobbling air-popped popcorn. Years later I learned that there had been a lot of controversy concerning the quality of the 3D and some disgruntled viewers. I’m happy that my memories of the event are anything but disappointing. The anticipation and fun we all had far outweighed any negatives. My parents had recently divorced and money was tight. It can be said that the free movie and those cheap glasses made for one very priceless evening.
By the latter half of the 1980′s, many local channels succumbed to the onslaught of corporate television. WFLD was no exception with channel 32 becoming the “new” FOX Network. It wasn’t long after this that many horror host programs, including the Son of Svengoolie, found themselves canceled. Time went on and I reluctantly grew up (well..sort of). Gradually those old memories of Svengoolie would become locked into the back of my psyche. It would not be until my early thirties when these recollections would finally be released.
I’ll never forget that fateful day in 2003 when I was channel surfing and stumbled upon a familiar visage. The face was a bit fuller, and the make-up slightly different, but there was no mistaking that Svengoolie had returned! I was literally knocked back into my chair when I saw, once again, the image of my favorite host gazing back at me. Much to my chagrin, I learned that Rich Koz had returned to hosting movies back in 1996 on a new local channel known as WCIU (The “U”). With Jerry G. Bishop’s blessing, Rich Koz dropped the “Son of” moniker and was now simply known as Svengoolie. His new show still consisted of parody skits and songs, while dodging the customary rubber chickens. The only thing different was my ability to see him clearly, without constant fights with “rabbit ear” antennas. My thrill at rediscovering him was tempered with my wondering how the hell I managed to miss him for seven years(?)! Regardless, Svengoolie was now back in my life and there to stay. Now I would not only have the privilege of watching him again, but also the ability to tape his broadcasts for endless replay. Best still, I could share a bit of my childhood with my own kids.
2003 was also the year that I would have the honor of finally meeting Rich Koz. He was appearing at The Ford City Mall up north and I anxiously made the trip. The event was a promotional gathering for WCIU and I arrived at the perfect time, finding my idol sitting alone at a table. It was a great honor and one that I would repeat many times in the coming years. The quick access I had at the mall was a definite fluke; last fall I waited over two hours to see him at The Party City store in Orland Park. But that first meeting, we had him to ourselves. I took a picture of my son and daughter with him and was delighted when he showed the photo during one of his mailbag segments, immortalizing the moment even further.
In 2004, my son did as many Chicagoans do during the Halloween season – dressed up as Svengoolie! That November our favorite host made an appearance at a new horror themed store (appropriately located in Berwyn) called “Horrorbles.” As of this date, Horrorbles is also the “official” supplier of Svengoolie rubber chickens as well as the perfect venue for meeting a horror host. Prior to this event, I had submitted my son’s Halloween picture to the show. It was a great thrill when he walked into the store, immediately pointed at my son and said, “Your picture is going to be on TV next week!” Although it was hard to tell through the make-up, my son was grinning from ear to ear. We couldn’t wait to tell all our friends and family that Alex would be on the Svengoolie show. Everyone stayed up to watch, including my 80 year old grandmother who almost had a coronary sitting through TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT.
While corporate TV has killed the connection that many hosts used to have with their local communities, it brings me great pride that THIS city, via Svengoolie, has retained theirs. In fact, I would argue that Svengoolie is even MORE connected to his public than past hosts via his daily blogs, interaction with the Svengoolie YAHOO group, monthly newsletters, and numerous public appearances. But the biggest thrill to kids (as well as to a big kid like me) is to get an on-air mention from the man himself. It’s a great feeling sometimes to have that “local” connection to your community – particularly those that still choose to watch their local horror host despite now living in a VCR/DVD and DVR cable world.
I submitted the photo I had taken of my costumed son meeting Svengoolie along with my memories of Svengoolie to “Scary Monsters Magazine.” The “blurb” I contributed at that time was pretty much a “Reader’s Digest” version of this one. Both the piece and the photo saw print in a special tribute issue to Svengoolie. There is no doubt that Svengoolie’s popularity is getting ever stronger. On May 1st, 2010 he scored a ratings bonanza by receiving the highest Chicago Nielson ratings for his HD presentation of THE BIRDS. This is virtually unheard of with local horror hosts and, as my friend Michael Monahan (Doktor Goulfinger) stated in an email to me, “I couldn’t help but be reminded what a big impact Svengoolie continues to have in Chicago. Just amazing. The quality and consistency of the films he’s showing these days is incredible. It’s a real reflection of his status.”
This past year, I have discovered many new hosts from across the country and also had the opportunity to sample their work. They are all quite unique and many of them are absolutely hilarious. I intend to pay tribute to many of these personalities in future posts. But before I could do that, I knew that I had to start with the man who, in my world, started it all. He not only enhanced mine and my family’s lives, he has made a positive impact on the city itself. He, along with Brookfield Zoo and deep dish pizza, is one of the many reasons to love Chicago!