“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.