In 1970, the original Svengoolie hit the Chicago airwaves and the Windy city hasn’t been the same since! The vampire hippy, with his quick wit, rubber chickens, and hilarious commercial/song parodies made for a night of side-splitting entertainment in a region that had been starved of a horror host since Shock Theatre (Marvin’s) departure a decade before.
Prior to the current (and after 32 years, most prolific) Svengoolie – Rich Koz bringing the name to a national audience, the coffin was filled by professional broadcaster, Jerry G. Bishop. While I was too young to have watched the original Sven, he was very much a presence in our household. My father was a huge fan and I am often reminded that he was watching Svengoolie in the hospital waiting room while my mother was in labor with me (remember this was back when they wouldn’t allow fathers in the birthing room). My mom likes to recount this bit of trivia while citing it as a possible cause for what she would later refer to as “my crazy interests.”
While the aforementioned Marvin would influence native Chicagoan, and Washington DC horror host, Count Gore de Vol, Bishop’s influence was the irreverent and quick-witted Ghoulardi from Ohio. Bishop worked at a Cleveland station during Ghoulardi’s run before later relocating to Chicago’s WFLD. Therefore, the Chicago Svengoolie Dynasty (still in full force on commercial television today) is an off-shoot of the Ohio/Ghoulardi family tree.
Svengoolie debuted on WFLD’s “Screaming Yellow Theatre” which began with Bishop doing voice overs – the popularity of which would not only lead to the development of his character but eventually to “live” hosting.
Bishop enjoyed rock star like fame in the Chicagoland area during his three year run and is still fondly remembered by his fans. He even managed to bring in visiting celebrity guests such as Bette Midler, Neil Sedaka, and Barry Manilow. Much more than a TV show, “Screaming Yellow Theater” became a weekend “event” for the local party crowd here in Chicago.
Bishop left at the height of his popularity due to an abrupt change in station management – who made the grievous error of replacing him with Ohio’s The Ghoul. A direct off-shoot of Ghoulardi, so far as Chicagoans were concerned, The Ghoul’s sudden appearance (made worse by his disparaging on-air remarks towards Sven) was an unwelcome visit from an annoying distant relative. While The Ghoul was successful in other states, Illinois wasn’t going to be one of them and his tenure here in Chicago was short. It would be a few years before Bishop and Koz would convince management to bring the Svengoolie name back but, by this time, Bishop felt he’d exhausted his creative energy and was ready to move on. The mantle was passed to Rich Koz and the “Son of Svengoolie” was born.
Bishop now resides in California where he owns and operates his own restaurant. While it has been a long time since donning that green wig, he stated in the 2009 horror host documentary AMERICAN SCARY that being Svengoolie was the most fun he’d ever had in his professional life. This past March, Jerry G. Bishop was inducted to the Horror Host Hall of Fame at the Horrorhound Weekend in Indianapolis. “Screaming Yellow Theater” will forever be a part of Chicago Television history while Jerry G. Bishop’s Svengoolie one of its moved loved personalities.
Among Bishop’s loyal base of fans are a small minority who never completely accepted his successor. Perhaps Svengoolies are like James Bond; you always like the one you grew up with best. For these individuals I can only offer these facts; a)Jerry G. Bishop worked closely with and was friends with the current Svengoolie (who helped write and supply material for him), b) in 1996 Bishop gave his whole-hearted blessing for Rich Koz to carry on with the full “Svengoolie” title, and c) he would be the FIRST person to want to see Koz given the respect and admiration he deserves. We can safely say that after finally being able to watch footage of the first Svengoolie, The Daves are fans of both. While they clearly have similarities (along with playful jabs to the city of Berwyn), they also have brought their own distinct styles to their characters and the heart of a horror host fan is certainly large enough for BOTH.
We’d like to not only extend our heart-felt appreciation and congratulations to Mr. Bishop on a job well done, but to also take this opportunity to wish him today (August 3rd) a VERY happy birthday!
NOTE: In the spirit of all Horror Host Hall of Fame inductees, we encourage any and all fans of Jerry G. Bishop Svengoolie to share their own personal memories via “comments” on this post.