“Back in the day,” classic horror hosts not only thrived on commercial television but also retained a powerful connection to their local communities. Whether attending a parade, shaking hands at a mall, or giving a birthday message “shout out” on their programs – these men & women endeared themselves to viewers in ways national celebrities could not.
Often their popularity and legacy was never fully realized until many years later when their younger fans would “grow up” and associate them with carefree times, now lost to the stressful adult world they live in today. Filled with nostalgia, these fans develop a strong devotion towards their host that can almost be considered “religious” in nature.
As a Chicago man, I understand this phenomena quite well. We middle-aged fans in the “Windy City” are fortunate to have the same host from our youth (Rich Koz/Svengoolie) still churning out weekly presentations on local, commercial television today. This is an extremely rare situation when looked at from a national perspective and has also created an interesting mindset amongst Chicago viewers.
Frustrating to many “outsiders,” Chicagoans have been living in a proverbial horror host “box.” Svengoolie’s longevity, coupled with our nostalgic devotion, have caused us to become “Svengoolie-centric.” This condition is characterized by not only living under the false belief that Svengoolie is the only horror host, but that he is the inventor of many time-honored horror host traditions such as “Svensurround” (injecting comments and sound effects into the films being presented), the “man at the door” shtick (made famous by Soupy Sales) and commercial/song parodies.
Mentioning to my Svengoolie brothers and sisters that other hosts exist is guaranteed to be met with a mixture of disbelief and scorn, especially if you dare mention that you have come to appreciate their work as well. A local fan, such as myself, who dares to broaden his horizons can quickly be viewed as a modern day Benedict Arnold if not careful. Even the national “Mistress of the Dark,” Elvira, was far from achieving a hero’s welcome when her new “Movie Macabre” debuted a few weeks ago. So far as many Chicago genre fans are concerned, she can place that low-cut, black dress back into mothballs and keep it there. This is despite the fact that she not only shares the same channel as Svengoolie (at a much inferior time slot), but is also able to claim Rich Koz as one of her fans.
This “invisible fence” has successfully kept many ambitious commercial hosts from achieving syndication in Chicago’s powerful media market. It is important to note that this shield is composed of “fans” and not Svengoolie himself. Our patron host, for his part, has never said anything negative about his fellow hosts. In his unique position, however, he really doesn’t have to. So powerful is the fervor of his fan base that I believe it will retain its hold for many years after Svengoolie is (God forbid) no longer on the air. It may be a long time before any new host is accepted, no matter how talented he or she is, unless Svengoolie were to crown them himself. Even in that unlikely event, this would still be far from a guarantee.
But what of the public access hosts who dwell within this barrier? How do you attempt to build your own flock amidst the presence of an active “god” and his fanatical followers who view you as a hapless “wannabe” and interloper? On the Northern edge of Svengoolie’s vast empire, lies the quaint town of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Here you can find another host, whom locals know as Dr. Destruction (Dale Wamboldt). This public access host caught my attention shortly before the Horrorhound convention last March and, upon viewing some of his work, completely fascinates me.
I can only describe his show as a sort of macabre version of the “Tonight Show,” featuring a horror host in place of a regular one. Dr Destruction sits at his desk while having an open, unscripted conversation with his guests. These individuals range from other hosts, a colorful ”sidekick,” or local personalities which may include (but are not limited to) politicians, artisans, Kenosha union workers, or even a Chicago dominatrix. He discusses a myriad of topics but his favorites deal with current events and local politics. Not being employed by a television station gives him the freedom to discuss virtually anything he wants, and Dr Destruction is a highly dogmatic individual.
I drove up to Kenosha to commune with him at the Jerry Smith Pumpkin Farm this past Saturday. It’s about 90 minutes from where I live and I made record time. This fall festival features camel/pony/hayrides, home grown pumpkins, apple cider, and face-painting.
For older fans looking to explore the more sinister side of Halloween, there is Dr. Destruction’s Haunted Forest. This attraction has been part of the festival since 1992 – eight years before Dale would begin work as a host. It’s structure was created by Destruction himself and features many classic monsters of whom he is a fan.
Tickets were to be purchased directly from Dr Destruction (in costume) who sat at the entrance, inside a replica of the old gypsy wagon from THE WOLF MAN. This was also a creation of the Wisconsin host and, as a big fan of the Universal classic, I found it utterly fantastic!
Destruction greeted me before inviting me to go through his attraction. Lots of twists and turns through a corn maze led me to encounter some of the denizens of his haunted woods. Some lucky Kenosha teens have an opportunity to make extra cash by dressing in their own costumes to haunt the visitors. Dale refers to them as his “spooks” and allows everyone an opportunity to make a contribution without being micro-managed. It’s a delicate business dealing with teenagers, but Destruction is careful to treat them like adults, while not allowing them to forget that he is always the boss.
Afterwards, he invited me into the wagon to chat. I was expecting to stay and socialize for about hour, but it would be another four hours before I’d leave. I found the experience to be highly informative, if not surreal. Dr. Destruction’s quick wit, coupled with his unerring ability to “tell it like it is,” played like a “Live” horror host presentation, with me as his only audience and the visitors his unwitting cast.
While most of us genre fans savor and enjoy the Halloween season, Dr Destruction is hard at work at the farm, though still filming his “Crimson Theater” shows every Friday morning. “In many ways I am like a farmer,” said Dale. “I work hard all year round and don’t see the pay-off until harvest time (Halloween season).” When it comes to hard work, Dr Destruction is, hands down, one of the most productive hosts operating today. According to Dale, in the nine years he has been hosting films, almost EVERY week has been a new episode with the word “re-run” scarcely in his vocabulary.
Raised by a blue collar/union worker, Dr. Destruction not only exhibits the spirit of his father’s legacy through his own work ethic but by routinely paying homage to local Kenosha workers (devastated by the exportation of jobs during the current economic crisis) themselves. His show has featured some of these men, many recently unemployed, treating them like celebrities – allowing them a public forum to vent their frustrations while also providing much needed encouragement.
In between customers, Dr. Destruction took the time to chat with me, despite having to manage the ”spooks,” coaxing leery customers into the attraction, and attending to his own personal matters via text messages. It was chaotic, but multitasking is one thing Destruction appears to do quite well and, might I add, humorously.
Despite the laughs, there are issues plaguing the mind of Destruction this day. The local paper, which has for the last several years featured him on the cover of their weekend “Get Out” entertainment section, has decided that, in the spirit of sensationalism, they would pit him against another costumed personality who runs a local haunted attraction named “The Mayor.”
The unusual photo blends the two mens faces together so that they are literally sharing the middle eye ball. Making matters worse, the paper listed a non-existent rivalry by stating “The Mayor vs Dr Destruction.” This was a slap in the face to a man who has a devout love of classic monsters. “Everyone knows that whenever there is a title that shows ’versus” the first one listed is always the one who wins!” says Destruction.
While the paper may have inadvertently declared a “winner,” his public would no doubt disagree. Destruction’s presence in Kenosha is not reserved for Halloween and he has actively plugged local activities on his show while also overseeing many of his own. A student of art, he has worked at art fairs (most recently the “Summer of Lovecraft” featured on this blog), created some of his own amazing paintings, organized a Godzilla festival at a local Dinosaur Museum, mesmerized guests with his “Haunted Bus” attraction, while tirelessly performing with his punk band, “The Dead Leathers.”
It is hard to fathom anyone so creative having the moniker “Destruction” but Dale suggests that the name, held by him since 1980, may be indicative of his own “Jekyll & Hyde” personality. While casting the paper aside he says, “These people don’t understand that there is another side to me and it will come out.”
Ultimately it is the mind of Destruction that would temper any impending violence. Summoning his old friend, and fan of horror hosts, Ari Lehman to provide some star-powered support in lieu of the newspaper’s apparent betrayal. Dr. Destruction is not merely a man in a costume, he is exactly the same person on camera as off. He has built strong ties in the horror/music world and Lehman exemplifies the marriage of both. The actor/musician is most famous for playing the young Jason Vorhees from the original FRIDAY THE 13th. He will forever be remembered by horror fans as the young boy leaping out of the water during the film’s dramatic conclusion. This weekend, Ari Lehman will perform with his band (known as “First Jason”) at the pumpkin farm to celebrate the haunted forest – and Destruction himself.
The ironic part of this situation is that Destruction very nearly became an ACTUAL mayor, having thrown his top hat into Kenosha politics a few years back. For those who find the idea of a horror host becoming mayor far-fetched, I’d like to turn their attention to the town of Chatfield, Ohio run by a certain David Lady. Mr.Lady is not only the town’s mayor but also a horror host, accomplished mask maker, and proprietor of a Haunted Hotel once featured on HGTV.
Dale suggests that he may run again someday, hoping that this time the locals will have become more accustomed with the notion. It is important to note that, despite his political ambitions, he never once violated his public access forum by discussing it on his own show. This could have been no easy feat for a man as outspoken as Dr. Destruction.
Despite his various projects, Destruction asserts that he is more committed than ever to his show. He has expanded his viewership to Milwaukee and, during a recent visit, was inundated by fans he scarcely knew he had. For a man routinely mistaken for Svengoolie, perhaps his future lies here. He is close enough to be considered a local, yet far enough away to no longer be eclipsed under the shadow of a Chicago icon. I have no doubt that a community once home to classic hosts such as Touloose NoNeck and Dr. Cadaverino would be hungry for a new host of their own and can’t think of a better candidate than Dr. Destruction.
As the evening came to a close (a prosperous night for the Haunted Forest in lieu of the beautiful weather) the mood became somber. Destruction leans back, stares out into the now empty festival grounds and laments his own future. “I wonder sometimes where this will all lead. Like 20 years after I’m gone, what will people say about me? Will they even remember who I was?”
Not long before, a young boy seeking admittance to the Haunted Forest pointed to Dr Destruction, beamed a huge smile and said, “You’re that guy on TV!” Unbeknownst to Dr. Destruction, the child may very well have already answered his question.
This past weekend, Chicago celebrated it’s annual Wizard Con at the Donald E. Stephen’s Convention Center in Rosemont. This is the Midwestern version of the famous San Diego Comic Con – largest of all fan events.
It’s been a long time since I collected comic books and about 12 years since my last Wizard Con (or whatever they called it back then as it has changed ownership periodically over the years). Upon discovering that THE EXORCIST star, Linda Blair, along with a few alumni from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” would be in attendance, I decided to give it another shot.
Last July I had attended G-Fest at the same location. Unlike the Godzilla Festival, which boasts about 1300-1500 attendees, Wizard Con utilized the full main floor of the convention center to accomodate it’s 500 celebrity guests (actors, artists, etc) and legions of fans.
In regards to fan conventions, I can safely say that bigger is not always better. Despite it’s immense size and impressive guest list, Wizard Con offers little to its fans aside from sore legs, hurt feelings, and empty pocket books.
We went on Friday, specifically avoiding the Saturday crowds, arriving a couple hours after the show opened to avoid waiting in line. Since I had prepaid online, we were able to enter the main hall with relative ease.
I walked past the “Buffy” section featuring James Marsters (Spike), Clare Kramer (Glory), and Nicholas Brendan (Xander). It was great seeing them “live” and I was about to enter their autograph lines when I noticed a sign hanging above them which read, “No Pose Photography.”
This was a common feature of Wizard Con along with their convention staff/volunteers acting more as gestapo (preventing anyone from getting close to their idols) as opposed to providing assistance to the conventioneers. Most of the celebrities, with a few exceptions, sat like automatons providing minimal interaction with thier fans.
Needless to say, I decided to remove myself from the line. I love “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and will always consider it to be one of my favorite television programs of all time. If I was meeting Sarah Michelle Gellar, that would have been one thing. However, we’re talking about supporting cast members who haven’t engaged in a whole lot of noteworthy projects since the show’s demise.
While celebrity signatures make great collectibles, I prefer to have a photograph taken with them instead. An old friend of mine once had a room in his apartment covered with framed photos of himself along with members of the rock band KISS, Judas Priest, etc. To me, this was the ultimate trophy room and I could have stared at those walls for hours. At the very least, a genuine moment of me expressing admiration for their work along with a glimmer of appreciation from them (considering the lengths I took to tell them so) would suffice.
With my dreams of getting a photograph with the “Buffy” stars up in a proverbial cloud of “vampire dust,” it was now time to meet Linda Blair. There was no line to meet her and she was readily available. Handling her business transactions was “her neighbor” who was very friendly. Blair had a wide assortment of photos to choose from which could be divided into two main categories; EXORCIST shots and those depicting Blair cuddling with fuzzy puppies (hows that for contrast?).
An avid member of PETA, the 51 year old actress has dedicated her life to dog rescue and adoption. She does this via her own “Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation.” All the money she charges for her autographs ($25) and/or photo with her ($15) was exclusively donated to her charity. Her dedication to man’s best friend is admirable. In terms of celebrity meetings, however, I’d have to rate Ms Blair a paultry “four” out of ten.
She was not interested in talking about THE EXORCIST, only her foundation. Her appearance at Wizard Con was clearly all business, with little regard for the role that made her famous let alone her devoted fans. I could almost imagine the conversation that took place between Blair and her business manager while going over her foundation’s finances. Manager: “Gee, it looks like we may be going over budget.” Blair: “Oh crap, I guess I’ll have to do a few of those damn fan conventions! Don’t worry, Fido (while stroking a canine’s head) for you I’ll gladly enter the gates of Hell!”
As soon as you got in front of her, she handed you one of her fliers. When she saw me hand it off to my son so it wouldn’t show up in the photo I was taking with her, she looked annoyed and tossed another one at me. Don’t get me wrong, I love animals. But this was a fan event and not a dog show. Furthermore, if I want to support dog rescues, I have a local Humane Society that doesn’t have the benefit of Blair’s celebrity status to bring in much needed funds.
It would be in the best interest of the “WorldHeart Foundation” if Ms Blair took a tip from FRIDAY THE 13TH actress, Adrienne King. By embracing her horror heritage as opposed to shying away from it, Ms King discovered that cozying up to her fan base can be downright lucrative (see earlier post). Here’s an idea Linda, how about selling your own brand of pea soup with a shot of you possessed on the label? You’d please your fans by offering a hilarious collectible while, at the same time, make plenty of cash for your four-legged pals.
The one thing I will give Blair is that she was willing to personalize my autograph exactly as I specified. The photo I had taken with her ended up a bit too bright but this lovely collectible prevented the entire experience from literally going to the dogs!
I’m sure some people had better experiences than I had meeting with their respective celebrities. I’m not a Trekkie nor a Batman fan so I have no idea how they were treated. I saw that Illinois public access host, Count Sam Gregula, had a bit more luck thanks to his persistence and press pass. I’m hoping he’ll share his experience with this blog so perhaps readers can get a more rounded view. I did notice that TERMINATOR star, Linda Hamilton, was very ingratiating towards her fans and seemed genuinely pleased to meet them. During the numerous times I walked past her booth, I observed her joking around and happily posing for pictures. It’s nice to know that a few celebrities remembered the reason they were asked to attend this event in the first place. Ultimately, however, I hold Wizard Con responsible for allowing them free reign.
I noticed the following day that former Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich, made an unscheduled appearance. It is my understanding that, for a price, he would pose for photos and sign autographs. The press treated it as a groundbreaking story though I exhibited no surprise. As far as I was concerned, the disgraced “pay to play” Governor had certainly come to the right place.
The main hall of the convention was immense. Locating the horror hosts required careful navigation through crowds of people to reach the opposite side. Once there, you’d find an entire section dedicated to them, along with a schedule roster listing their availability. As many of them were also filming excerpts for their own shows or even entire web casts, catching them all would require frequent visits.
The first host I had the honor of meeting was Doctor Destruction from Wisconsin. My friend and I saw him earlier that evening while dining at the hotel’s restaurant. It was actually a comical moment; in walked the good doctor wearing full make-up, along with his assistant, Eyegore (photo below). I should mention that Horrorhound was not the only convention taking place at our hotel. A smaller group of Veterans had also convened that weekend, creating a bizarre mix of gore hounds and conservative, senior citizens. When Doctor Destruction entered the restaurant, you could of heard a pin drop as all the elderly patrons suddenly stopped conversing and began staring, awestruck. To ease the tension, I called across the room, “Hi Dr. Destruction!” He nodded in return, though I have no doubt he’d grown used to being stared at.
Prior to formally meeting him in the main hall, I had watched some of his “Crimson Theater” shows and enjoyed them. I approached his booth and introduced myself. He was very personable and I was thrilled that, along with his autograph, he was selling copies of his work. He asked which of his episodes I had seen and I responded, VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE. “Oh God, that’s so old!” he said. He pointed to a stack of DVD’s assuring me that, “These are much more current.” I went through them, buying just about every single title. After Horrorhound, I popped in one of these shows and was shocked at how much his program had evolved since VARAN. The sound quality had noticeably improved and he had expanded his empire from local public access in Kenosha, into Milwaukee, Racine, and Muskego via a local, commercial station.
Dr. Destruction has grown quite popular up in Wisconsin with a growing number of fans referred to as “Ghoulies.” He certainly warrants a closer look and will be featured in an upcoming Horror Host Spotlight.
The next host I had the privilege to meet was none other than Penny Dreadful herself! This New England hostess was the winner of the 2007 Rondo Award for “Favorite Active Horror Host(ess).” She was also one of six hosts featured in the latest issue of “Rue Morgue.” This is one witch whose ascension can not be credited to a mere broomstick! Smart and savvy, she has used more than an ample bosom to distinguish herself among her horror host peers (though tongue-wagging, male fans won’t be disappointed in that regard either). She will be covered in much greater detail in my next Horror Host Spotlight.
Penny was joined by her partner (both on and off the screen) the werewolf, Garou. They were both a lot of fun and delighted me by signing her season 5 box set of “Shilling Shockers.” Garou was a bundle of energy and actually very funny. After I left Penny, I was so enamored with meeting her that I left my autographed photo (duh)! True to his character, Garou tracked me down to bring it to me, which was very nice of him.
Prior to Horrorhound, I had watched Penny’s latest, 7th season. My kids and I decided to present her with a gift basket worthy of a witch; rubber creepy crawlies and potions courtesy of the local trick shop. I also included some Svengoolie clips I had burned onto a DVD and the WCIU promo card Svengoolie had signed for her the night before. She graciously reciprocated and that autograph (along with Count Gore de Vol’s) was aired on a recent episode of Svengoolie.
In an effort to support the “home team,” I wore my Svengoolie shirt that first night in the hall. This attracted the attention of another host, and fellow Illinoisan, The Bone Jangler. He was very warm and, despite being an imposing figure, immediately put us at ease. Clearly he loved his status as a horror host as well as being among his peers. I had recently watched his Web presentation of BLOOD FREAK and we talked about that as well as how disappointed I was at not being able to meet his co-host, Nocturna, who was appearing at another event.
Later, I saw The Bone Jangler conversing with the legendary, Son of Ghoul. He noticed me and used the opportunity to introduce me to his famous friend. I thought that was an incredibly nice gesture on his part and I was thrilled to meet the Ohio legend. Son of Ghoul is celebrating his 25th year on commercial television and has legions of Midwestern fans. I found him to be very down to earth and anxiously purchased a stack of his shows. I was alarmed when I heard that he recently suffered a heart attack , but am comforted at the news that he is recovering well. I know there are countless Ohio horror fans that feel the same way.
Others I met included Web hostesses Marlena Midnight and her co-host, Robyn Graves from “Midnight Mausoleum.” We also met Helena the Hussy. I had not viewed any of their works prior to meeting them but they eagerly sold me some episodes to rectify the matter.
As the night waned, I left the convention hall feeling a great sense of accomplishment. Little did I know, however, it was about to end on an even higher note. Exiting the hall, I noticed a VERY familiar face signing autographs to my right. My evening’s finale was about to be served up…..courtesy of The Mistress of the Dark!
(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…..)