The Following highlights were “transcrammed” from the 2019 Flashback Weekend panel celebrating 40 years of Rich Koz’s Svengoolie. The event began with a video presentation narrated by the original Svengoolie – the late Jerry G. Bishop. The panel was moderated by WGN Radio’s Nick Digilio and proved an entertaining 90 minutes – with a few surprises!
Nick Digilio: You started working with Jerry G. Bishop when you were just a kid.
Svengoolie: (laughs) It was that long ago, wasn’t it? I’d just graduated from high school and was about to go to college. Jerry was a live announcer back when they used to have live staff announcers on all the TV stations. He happened to be on Friday nights when they were running these horror movies and started to do the voice (Transylvanian accent) and more schtick before later expanding it out with old sound effects…many that are now my sound effects. I was a fan of his radio and television work and he used to run jokes that people would send in. So I started sending some and he used a lot of them. I told him I was a broadcasting major and he volunteered to come on my show at the college station. Then he said, ‘Would you mind writing song parodies, parodies of commercials, and such?” Eventually, I started working with him and when his show was canceled he was nice enough to bring me with him to WMAQ Radio. Back then you weren’t a sidekick, you were a producer, so I was doing that while also playing 80% of the people who called him on the phone. (Sven discusses some of the skits they did) Later when the opportunity came along for him to reprise the role of Svengoolie he wasn’t interested but suggested I take over as the Son of Svengoolie with his blessing. I shopped the idea around to various stations and one program director laughed and hung up on me. Eventually, I called WFLD-TV (Channel 32) which was the station Jerry’s Svengoolie had originally run on and they said, “That sounds really interesting…let’s have a bake-off!” and open it up to anyone to compete for the role. Here I’d created full scripts, had all these ideas, and everything else but had to audition with other people doing different things. Eventually, I did get the job. So in 1979, forty years ago, I hit the air as Son of Svengoolie.
Nick: And what was the first movie you presented?
Svengoolie: In the Year 2889 (1967) and boy was it terrible.
Nick: Let’s talk about the makeup changes over the years. You look a lot different than when you first started.
Svengoolie: Actually, I did more shading back then, more subtle and not with the straight lines you see here. I used a real crepe mustache…crepe was real hair…and for the little beard. I used this stuff called spirit gum as an adhesive. Spirit gum is absolutely awful stuff and I remember going to my dentist and he said, “Wow, your gums are in really bad shape” and we couldn’t figure out why. Finally, we realized that it was the spirit gum because I was constantly touching the area to adjust it and getting some in my mouth. That was when I decided it was better to just paint on the mustache. I figured if Groucho Marx could paint his on, that was good enough for me.
Nick: You mentioned the sound effects that you shared with Jerry G. Bishop. My favorite is “Ow Ow OWWW!”
Svengoolie: A lot of people ask where they came from and, with most of them, we aren’t sure. They were taken from old comedy records, commercials, and stuff Jerry had recorded with his colleagues. We’ve also added to our collection and now have over a 1,000 different ones. They’re all numbered and we try and keep track of them. All of the ones you hear I’ve scripted but in-between filming Chas (Ailing) will often play a few and it’s a lot of fun.
Nick: I’ve been at the station many times and one thing I’ve noticed is how much work you put in. I’ve seen your scripts and it’s hours and hours and hours of work for each show.
Svengoolie: Well we have a very small staff. People think TV shows have huge staffs of people and in many cases they do. With ours, it’s just me, my producer (Jim Roche), my director/editor (Chris Faulkner), and our video guy (Chas Ailing) and then whomever they assign to be floor supervisor while we’re taping.
Nick: How different is your current set compared to the one at WFLD?
Svengoolie: Well it’s a whole different feel to it. For the WFLD stuff, they put up a few walls with a door. And then they found some flats that had been stored upstairs which were used back in the ‘50s for “Shock Theater” featuring the horror host, Terry Bennett a.k.a. Marvin. After I started up again at WCIU in 1995, I’d been told they gave them over to Columbia College but when I called them they said, “Oh, we repainted those and took them apart a long time ago.” So we had to start over with just some black curtains and then we finally got some walls. Eventually, we got a brand new set built for us by Acme Design of Elgin. They built the coffin first and then all the great sci-fi features like what one of our fans calls the “Clux Capacitor.” There is a new door and gargoyles that are designed after Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. It’s great stuff and has such a great look to it. Now, with all the additional lighting, it really stands out.
Nick: I watch you every week and love your parody commercials. One of my favorites is the one for “Die Pillow” (parody of “My Pillow). Let’s play that for the audience.
Svengoolie: Okay, and after you see it, I’ll tell you the story of why I don’t like him. (audience laughs)
Nick: Well I’m sure we each have a story as to why we don’t like him. Anyway, let’s roll the commercial…
Svengoolie: Are you familiar with the local radio station that comes from MeTV, MeTV FM? They play various eras of music and it’s a lot of fun. Like most radio stations they do commercials and “line reads.” So they were going to do line reads for “My Pillow” and the boss came to me and said, “Well, you’re our main live person on MeTV, so do you want to do these commercials?” and I said, “Sure, that will be fun.” Suddenly Mr. ‘hug the pillow’ over there says, “Oh, no! He hosts horror movies and that’s terrible! I don’t want him doing my commercials!” (While Sven is quoting him, he’s using a hilarious voice impersonation that Nick sites as Dr. Smith from “Lost in Space”).
Nick: So what are your favorite skits from the earlier years?
Svengoolie: We did one at WFLD called “Mr. Robbers Neighborhood” that was done before Eddie Murphy did his “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” on “Saturday Night Live.” It was a Mister Rogers parody about him going into people’s homes and stealing things. He changes his shoes to sneakers so people won’t hear him and when he has trouble opening things he had his friend “Mr. Crowbar” to help him out. I always liked that one. We also did one that would not have been politically correct today called “Gandhi and Dagwood” based on the Blondie and Dagwood movies.
Nick: How do you come up with the ideas for your parodies?
Svengoolie: Basically, you have to keep your mind open all the time. You’ll notice something and that’s when things happen…and I’m not sure how quite honestly. I’ve learned to pay attention to everything, even if you aren’t really focusing on it.
Nick: We have to talk about this…Revenge of the Creature (1955) in 3D. It was 1984 and people are still upset about it.
Svengoolie: Well, at that time somebody held the rights to Revenge of the Creature in 3D and it was played around the country at various local stations with 3D glasses being sold at select stores. We shot promos for it all over the place like Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago lakefront, and Shedd Aquarium. I even played an announcer during the show who would say “Put your glasses on” and “Take your glasses off.” I guess they were afraid the Empire Carpet man (commercial personality on ‘70s/’80s Chicago TV) was going to pop out at them during breaks (audience laughs).
Here’s the thing…first of all, there weren’t a whole lot of big things that popped out at you during the film. You had the electrifying thing, the creature falling forward, and always fish in the foreground. Meanwhile, the station was worried because they had a lot of big sponsors who paid a lot of money for their spots and didn’t want any mistakes. So they dubbed everything…the movie and my bits…all onto one tape. If you know anything about videotape, when you make a dub the quality won’t be as good as the original. Secondly, I’ve heard rumors that the transmitter for the station was not at full power. I don’t know if that would affect it or not but here’s the main thing; remember those old TV’s, the adjustments for a lot of their features were in the back. So you’d have to be behind the set to adjust them for the 3D. The way they did it was show a screen with two different sides to it and then adjust one of the controls until you saw (with your glasses on) both sides looking the same. So you couldn’t see anything but had to yell to your friends, “How bout’ now? Nope? Okay, how about now?” – And you only had a minute to get things set up. So some people had problems with that and were unable to get the 3D effect. 7-11 (local convenience store that was one of the two locations selling the glasses) had to give out coupons as restitution and someone even did a Class Action Suit. From then on I’d get people yelling at me at appearances, “Hey, I want my 89 cents back!” So some people won’t let me forget while others ask if I’ll ever do it again. That would be rather difficult on a national level and, to be honest, I’d be happy NOT to do it. (audience laughs)
Nick: So how are movies chosen?
Svengoolie: Getting movies is a lot harder now than it was back on WFLD because you have so many streaming services and cable channels that get all the rights. Before, you’d have distributors knocking at your door trying to sell packages to you. It just doesn’t work that way anymore. We have to seek them out and there’s a lot of competition. My boss, Neal Sabin, managed to get the Universal movies which have been the cornerstone of our show. And now we’ve managed to get some from other distributors including Warner Bros and Sony/Columbia which help to widen things out but the Universal films are our main stock and trade. People love them though occasionally I’ll get people saying, “Oh no, another Frankenstein movie…” And I’m thinking, “It’s Frankenstein, c’mon!”
Nick: And people complain you show the Abbott & Costello movies all the time but Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is your most requested movie.
Svengoolie: Yes, and they’ll request Munster, Go Home! (1966) and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). We ran The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) recently and it had over a million viewers.
Nick: On that note, I have a surprise guest here. Ladies and Gentlemen, Virginia Madsen…(Cheers)
Svengoolie: This is so cool! Nick and I were just talking on the radio and I said, “Boy, I’d love to meet Virginia Madsen” and now here you are!
Virginia Madsen: Yes, where’s your rubber chicken? See, now you know I did watch you.
Svengoolie: Was that back in the Son of Svengoolie days? (NOTE: Madsen grew up in Evanston, Illinois)
Virginia: I just know it was a long time ago
Svengoolie: I read an article that said you and your son would watch horror movies, is that true?
Virginia: Well, he was little and I was showing him the classic originals, even silent ones like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923 ), and he just loved all those Creature Features. But then I traumatized him. I was very tired one day and thought he’d be fine watching The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945 ). He was like five or six and there’s this moment when the portrait of Dorian Gray is revealed and there’s this burst of color in an otherwise black and white movie. So he’s getting nice and sleepy then that scene comes and he about levitates off the floor. Needless to say, we watched a lot of cartoons after that. He’s 25 now and still a big horror fan.
Nick (to Virginia): Are you a fan of horror movies yourself? I mean, you’re in Candyman (1992) obviously.
Virginia: Oh my god, ever since I was little. I would stay up late and watch you (points to Sven) and “Creature Features” on a little black and white TV.
Nick (to Virginia): So did you enjoy filming Candyman?
Virginia: Oh, it was great. We really genuinely had an excellent time. The Director (Bernard Rose) wanted me more “real,” as he said. So he was bringing me pizzas every day because he wanted me to fill out a little bit. And I loved that because this was a time in Hollywood where they always wanted you to be skeletal which was just not my frame. So every day I had pizza.
Nick: At least it was Chicago pizza.
Virginia: Well actually it was in LA. We only shot four days in Chicago. The rest was shot in the same studio they filmed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). The only time it became disturbing was close to Christmas and it seemed like every day had to do with blood. There was the dog head scene, me screaming and bloody, it was someone getting disemboweled, the doctor getting disemboweled.
Svengoolie: That sounds like every day here in Chicago (laughter)
Svengoolie: You know I heard a story of when you were shooting Sideways (2004) that there was someone with a crossbow watching you?
Virginia (at first looks confused as I shift in my seat having been the one who told him this story): Oh…yes…that’s true. They had rented his house to film scenes at night and at first, he was really amiable but when all the filming trucks showed up he went up in the hills and was very upset about it. He went riding off on one of those gator tractors with a crossbow and we’d hear him screaming up in the woods. But nothing happened, he was just aggravated.
Nick: That so weird because I watch that movie monthly, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time and your monologue in it destroys me. Now I’m going to be thinking about a crossbow every time I watch it.
Virginia: He might be somewhere out there in the darkness but that was the only…I mean that valley was so beautiful and everybody knew him and was like, “Don’t worry about it, he likes to go off with his crossbow.”
Nick: Where did you hear that story, Rich?
Svengoolie: Somebody that I know here (which would be me) told me she has a great story about a guy with a crossbow. Was I not supposed to share that?
Virginia: Well I just don’t want to make anyone feel bad.
Svengoolie: Especially someone with a crossbow.
Nick: Well, it was so nice having you, Ms. Madsen!
Virginia leaves the stage and, for the record, the “man in the woods” story came from Paul Giamatti’s commentary on the Sideways Special Edition Blu-ray. The “crossbow” part I heard from Madsen, herself, earlier that day.
Nick: Your appearance itself has altered over the years. I remember you telling me this story where you made this fantastic decision to start wearing a turtle-neck.
Svengoolie: When I was at WFLD I wore the official red, Son of Svengoolie T-shirt with the green, disco scarf – which was so slippery it kept getting untied. The whole costume was awkward. I had a chain I’d wear that was actually part of a wall clock I owned that was supposed to look like a pocket watch. When I went to WCIU I thought, “Let’s do something different. I know! I’ll wear a red turtle-neck.” A red turtle-neck under hot television lights. This was not the smartest decision I ever made. After a while, I decided to go with the red tuxedo shirt which was more comfortable
Nick: Let’s talk about you going national. That’s gotta be really amazing, right?
Svengoolie: It is and I’m stunned to be hearing from people all over the country. It’s nice because many have grown up with a local horror host and I always equate your favorite horror host like Dr. WHO…you always prefer the one you grew up with. I’ve been very fortunate that these people like what I do and tell me how happy they are that I’m keeping horror hosting alive.
Nick: How about the fan letters which is one of my favorite segments. What kind of stuff do you get?
Svengoolie: We get so much stuff. A lot of framed artwork people send…we should open a branch at The Art Institute and put them all up. We have a bust of me someone carved out of a tree trunk that must weigh 200 pounds. People take so much time and effort on these things and from all over the country.
Nick: Holy smokes, Ted Raimi’s in the house!
Ted Raimi: The great Svengoolie! How nice to see you! (looks out at the audience) And look at all you civilized horror people sitting out there. These things legitimize shit you wouldn’t show your own mother!. I mean, I love horror so much – and I know all of you do, too, and can’t get enough of it…but it’s hilarious to think they have conventions for it. I mean, have you ever stopped to think about that? Yes, it’s a legitimate thing, we all need to be scared but it’s a little like porno conventions. To what end are you having a convention…what do you talk about? Watching heads fly?
Nick (reeling him in): So, uh, did you have a local horror host growing up?
Ted: We did have a local horror host…Sir Graves Ghastly. He’s one of the reasons I love horror so much. (Raimi then proceeds to do a dramatic impersonation of him) . “Close the shades…turn out the lights…you’re about to be TERRIFIED!”
Nick: Do you have a favorite horror movie?
Ted: Yes, depending on what day of the week it is. There are ones I watch over and over. At the top of that list is David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). First of all, it’s a Canadian film so it looks rather Canadian with its own unique style. So that gives it a weird look anyway. Then you have Cronenberg who’s a weirdo and a movie that’s a love story at its heart. It’s the classic story of “boy meets girl, then boy turns into a fly and tries to eat girl” which we’ve seen a thousand times (audience laughs). But it’s a very powerful film because like any romantic story it has to end with someone breaking off the relationship which, in this case, is done so dramatically. Jeff Goldblum’s character begs Gina Davis’ to kill him which is so powerful. It’s so emotional and yet so grisly. It has all of the elements that make a really lasting picture.
Ted Raimi leaves and Nick continues his interview with Svengoolie. He mentions his favorite parody commercials and they play one of his modern classics – “Boa Brace” which mocks the infamous Health Hotline commercial with terrible animation.
As it happens, my friends Ron and Angela Urban (“Don and Bunny”) were guest stars in this commercial and sitting in the first row. Svengoolie has them stand for applause.
Nick: Hey, I don’t see him wearing his “Boa Brace” out there.
Svengoolie: Well, that’s because he’s all better now. See, it works!
Nick: Let’s talk about Doug.
Svengoolie: I’d be happy too. Doug Scharf, who plays “Doug Graves,” has been a friend since high school. We played in high school band together, hung out, and used to make 8mm films for fun. I think he’s been a part of every TV show I ever did. He’s an incredible musician who taught himself to play the piano after he’d broken his leg. He’s a trumpet player who can play so many other instruments. He does the complete music tracks for the songs we do every week. So I’ll say, “Here’s the song we’re going to do” and then he produces the whole track while I write the words. Then he’ll show up at the studio and we’ll film the segment. I love his deadpan humor.
Nick: He’s hilarious and the vibe between the two of you is just great. All the songs are so funny and, for me, it’s a highlight of the show (audience applauds in agreement).
Svengoolie: And this brings us to another song. You’ve heard me mention Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, a famous icon of the ‘60s. Just out of nowhere one day he sent me an email saying he loves my show and wrote a song for me. And I’m thinking, “He wrote a song for me? The guy who sang ‘Palisades Park?” And he sends it to us and we were blown away by it, it was such a great song. And we ended up meeting him and he was just the nicest guy. He told us so many great stories about hanging out with Elvis and various celebrities. The fact that he wrote this without my even knowing about it was just so cool and it was produced on a 45 record and is available on iTunes. And I think it might even be available right here…
Nick: What were some of the worst movies you’ve shown?
Svengoolie: Oh, man…well, when we were on WFLD, we presented a movie called Track of the Vampire (a.k.a. Blood Bath 1966). Part of it was made in Yugoslavia and part of it was made in Los Angeles and neither side knew what the other was doing. It was truly awful and there was this one scene with this girl named Dorean (Lori Saunders) who dances. Her big number is like 4-5 minutes long and they use this kaleidoscope lens so you see multiples of her as if you were a fly. It was so awful. The late film editor I used to work with had a great sense of humor and did a couple things with it that made it really funny. There’s this one scene with no dialogue where the vampire is chasing this girl into the ocean. So we added dialogue to make it sound like it was her swim coach and she didn’t want to get in the water. And there was this bald lifeguard whom we dubbed as Curly Howard. Then there was another part where we patched a whole bunch of film clips from different movies along with clips of dialogue from celebrities like Liberace and Dean Martin. This went on for like three minutes. I’m sure if management had seen it, we would have both been fired but, fortunately, I don’t think management ever watched my show. It was such an awful movie that made no sense.
Nick: You have to watch every single one of these movies because you have to do all your bits and time everything out…
Svengoolie: Yes, I have to watch them and as I’m doing this I’m breaking them down for the different segments – if it needs to be edited for time or content. I take copious notes so when I get down to writing the bits I can go back and read them.
Nick: I love Sven-Surround. Like you just did recently with Village of the Giants (1965).
Svengoolie: I think that one needed some help.
Nick: I think it’s hilarious and when did that start happening?
Svengoolie: Actually it goes back to when Jerry was doing his Svengoolie show. He was the announcer on duty back then and he’d get bored. So he and the engineers would take his sound effect parts and add them into the movies. Sometimes it was so funny because it would be so incongruous. So you might see some guy walking through the jungle and then all of a sudden hear a phone ringing. When I first started at WCIU, we would do one segment of every movie in “Sven-Surround” which we can’t really do now with the Universal classics. We do it sometimes as a separate part so we don’t interfere with the movie. Coming up this fall we’ll be re-running a show that had a Commando Cody (old movie serial) episode in it, so we redubbed all of that. People seem to enjoy those.
Nick: Let’s talk about Kerwyn. When did Kerwyn come into existence?
Svengoolie: At first when we started at WCIU, Doug would read the mail with me. Since he couldn’t always stay around we had various characters do it. There was “Ed the Bat” who had an electronically raised voice that my boss, Neil Saban, hated so much he said, “You gotta get rid of that character!” So we actually shot a bit where he fires Ed and hits him with a club. And then we used a Godzilla (Tri-Star 1998) figure and the Wacky Dactyl DJ (made with a Hasbro Jurassic Park III pterodactyl toy) and then finally as a surprise to me, my Director (Chris Faulkner) and Jessica Carlton who worked at the station for a kids’ show, created the prehistoric rubber chicken, Kerwyn. We were trying to come up with a voice for him and we looked at those eyes and goofy teeth and thought Jerry Lewis would be the best inspiration. He’s become very popular and it’s quite possible a special limited-edition T-shirt featuring him will be coming out in the future.
Nick: So what’s going on for your future. It’s your 40th year…how long are you going to do this?
Svengoolie: I’m now old enough to retire but we’ve just become so popular all over the country that I can’t see giving that all up right now, especially when I’m having such a good time with it. The fact that people like it and have made it so popular – I’ll keep doing it for a while. (audience applauds).
Nick: I saw a guy around the convention with a Svengoolie tattoo.
Svengoolie: Yes, we saw him yesterday (and so did YOU in my last Flashback post)
Nick: It’s gotta be weird seeing your face on somebody.
Svengoolie: It is. My own family would never put a tattoo of me on them. I’d have to say I’ve seen about thirty different ones out there and the artwork is often really incredible.
Nick: You guys tape just about every week, right?
Svengoolie: We tape about four days every month. After my heart attack, we decided not to shoot two days in a row but to break them up. It’s hard to say how long it takes to put a show together because pre-production with some movies often overlaps with the post-production of others.
Nick: And you’re still doing public appearances, obviously, because you’re here. Your busy season is coming up, right?
Svengoolie: They used to only be in October but now my appearances go all year long. The demand is high and we want to do as many as we can but, again, I have to stay healthy and don’t want to overdo it. Now we’re getting a lot of requests to do appearances outside of Illinois at various conventions. We’re talking about doing that and recently went to Phoenix, Arizona for a private Dish TV event and that was fun.
As the interview winds down, a young girl dressed as Svengoolie is brought on stage to say ‘hello.’
The show wraps with a montage of celebrities visiting the Svengoolie set.
Svengoolie: When I started, I never imagined I’d be doing it for forty years – back then I was just grateful I had a job on TV. It’s only possible with the support of everybody out there and it means a lot to me.
Coming up…Svengoolie greets his fans!