The Museum of Broadcast Communications lies near the foot of Chicago’s Marina Towers which, so far as this night was concerned, was not without its irony. Back when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, it was home to our favored UHF station, WFLD Channel 32. Whenever I was home sick from school it provided a welcome alternative to the soap opera-soaked major networks by offering much more satisfying shows such as Tennessee Tuxedo, The Munsters, and Banana Splits.
Of course those programs would only tie me over until the weekend when Channel 32 would unleash its REAL entertainment. On Saturday nights I’d drop a blanket in front of the family television set and prepare for two hours of monsters, air-popped popcorn, and guaranteed laughs via my favorite horror host, Son of Svengoolie. Yes, despite the constant struggle with our TV antennae in an effort to minimize the often snowy reception, my memories of those nights remain crystal clear.
I remember his hilarious parody songs and wonderful skits such as “Mr. Robbers Neighborhood” which, as I always pointed out to my friends at school, was a much better parody of PBS’ “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” than Eddie Murphy’s similar sketch on Saturday Night Live. I can also remember singing the “Dr. Rabbees” song on the playground in fourth grade…making up whatever lyrics I couldn’t recount from that one time I saw him parody David Naughton’s “Dr. Pepper” commercial. I remember making the other kids laugh while I’d contort my face so they’d have an easier time imagining my implied transformation into a werewolf like Son of Svengoolie did.
But one thing none of us could ever have imagined was that over three decades later Rich Koz’s Son of Svengoolie (now simply Svengoolie) would still be entertaining us on Saturday nights (thanks to WCIU and MeTV) while alongside our own children. Nor could I have dreamt that one magical evening I’d bear witness to that familiar coffin of his (the one that faithfully protected him from a weekly onslaught of rubber chickens) finding its way into an official Svengoolie exhibit at a downtown museum.
Regardless of my limited imagination, BOTH would prove true with the latter having taken place just two weeks ago. Friday October 10, 2014 was a night of a thousand Sven fans (or at least a few hundred really colorful ones) converging on The Museum of Broadcast Communications for “An Evening with Rich Koz: Celebrating 35 Years as Svengoolie”…an experience none of us will ever forget.
It started at 6pm when my friends and I arrived just in time for the doors to open for a special Svengoolie reception. As we entered the building, we were given a program of the evening’s events, along with some MeTv buttons & swag.
After checking in, we were directed to an elevator that was to take us up to a private room on the 3rd floor. Before stepping on, I ran into my friend, Elliott Serrano, who writes for the Chicago Red Eye . We both stopped and ogled the set of Family Classics which aired on WGN back when we were growing up. It was hosted by local legend, Frazier Thomas, and I can still recall the theme music playing with the host sitting cozily amongst a library of books; all burgundy in color and having the title of the featured films on their covers.
Crazy as it sounds, I think I was more excited being in the presence of those books than I was the entire exhibit. My favorites were Mysterious Island and Journey to the Center of the Earth with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (the 1938 one with Reginald Owen as Scrooge) during the holidays. Although there’s about hundred different renderings of that story, that version remains my absolute favorite. There was also a painting of Garfield Goose who was Chicago’s favorite fowl (way back before the days of Kerwyn) and the star hand puppet on WGN’s morning show, Garfield Goose and Friends (also hosted by Thomas) hanging on the wall.
This was my first time at the museum and I’d barely taken ten steps before being bowled over with nostalgia. It would only be the beginning…
The elevator opened and we were immediately treated to the colorful costumes and props used for Bozo’s Circus. Chicago’s franchise of the Bozo Show (which also ran on WGN) would prove the most successful and my generation will always equate the clown with the raspy voiced, Bob Bell, who was our Bozo from 1960 – 1984. That role was then adopted by Joey D’Auria who took it till the show’s end in 2001. Both Bozo costumes along with those from his familiar supporting cast were on display.
We also ogled the exhibit for the Ray Rayner Show that not only included the host’s familiar jumpsuit but also his canine companion, Cuddly Dudley.
As we walked on, snapping photos, we came across the location for the then, unveiled, Rich Koz Svengoolie exhibit. It was blocked by a heavy black curtain and was a not so subtle reminder of why we were here in the first place. It was time to stop dawdling down Memory Lane and locate the private reception room.
We located the spot and were soon treated to hot dogs and soda courtesy of Chicago’s Superdawg. Each hot dog was warm and wrapped in individual boxes along with French fries. Tables loaded with condiments were nearby, allowing everyone the opportunity to dress their dog to their tastes. Elliott and I forewent the traditional “Chicago-style” hot dog (a.k.a. the works) in favor of just mustard and onions.
The room was already pretty full and had tables set up at standing level (no chairs) so you could eat and schmooze. I located my friends Don & Bunny who were dining with Branka Stephens (dressed in her “Svengirlie” attire) along with the colorful Jim Verheyen Currie who had on a full orange & black Halloween suit. Jim has an amazing yard haunt near Brookield Zoo and I’d last seen him at one of Svengoolie’s holiday “Sventa Claus” appearances. I believe Svengirlie was one of the first female fan versions of the host with a “Sven-Julie” out there somewhere and, of course, Jamie Lee Cortese. It’s always fascinating to me how most of the prominent Elvira impersonators are men and the Svengoolie ones are women.
Some of us Svengoolie fans stand out more than others and I soon spotted one of the most interesting of them all. Local film-maker, David”the Rock” Nelson,” nearly knocked the can of soda out of my hand while running around with his camera and infamous “Devil Ant.” We’ll have more on him as this story progresses but, for now, I enjoyed communing with some of my other fellow “Goolies,” like the aforementioned Jamie Lee (without her Sven attire).
Jamie’s written for this blog on more than one occasion and also interned at Svengoolie’s station, WCIU/MeTV last year. She’s a student at Northwestern and is currently hosting her own radio show on Saturday mornings. It’s a “Dr. Demento” like program called “Jammin with Jamie” (details in a recent post you can find HERE) and she plays many of Svengoolie’s parody songs for her audience. Jamie, of course, is too young to know who Dr. Demento is so I brought her some copies of his Halloween Show as inspiration. In the years I’ve known her, she comes off as rather soft-spoken but I’ve learned she can also be quite tenacious when it comes to achieving her goals. I confess my ultimate goal was that she become inspired to make contact with Demento and somehow get him to air some Svengoolie songs via his radio show (and then blog my scheme here, Jamie, in case you missed the hint).
It was also great seeing my friend, Brian Bernardoni. Brian gets credit for helping make possible something we fellow Sven fans could only have dreamed of…having the State of Illinois proclaim October 31st, 2014 “Svengoolie Day” (which we discussed in greater detail HERE).
But what of the man who brought us all together in the first place? Svengoolie was indeed here and greeting his fans off to the side throughout the reception. Prior to the event, there was some question amongst fans if he’d be there as Rich Koz or as Svengoolie but he was in his full horror host attire…this time sporting a black bow tie to signify this was a special occasion. I waited for the line of well-wishers to leave before approaching. I congratulated him on his special night before stepping away so others could do the same.
The hour flew by and it wasn’t long before we needed to head down to the 2nd Floor for the official “Welcome” and festivities. We quickly took our seats and awaited the Svengoolie main events to begin…
Next up…Accolades for Rich Koz Svengoolie