We’ve come a long way since Nanook Of The North was made in 1922. Where documentaries were previously left to the world of Public Broadcasting and overly enthusiastic teachers who think showing movies in class is an innovation, now documentaries are an artform so pervasive that there are few subjects that don’t have one or two films about it. Case in point, the world of Horror Hosts, where American Scary does a wonderful job of introducing you to, and showing clips of and interviews with, some of the most colorful characters in television history.
The story of the Horror Host is, essentially, a frame narrative, itself a device long associated with Horror Stories, with masterful examples of it being developed by Mary Shelly, Henry James, Washington Irving & Ambrose Bierce. It was clear that this story-within-a-story format worked very well for producing big scares. Radio and comics picked it up almost immediately, and shows like Inner Sanctum and EC’s horror line, where the gimmick was always that someone would prepare you for the shocks you were about to receive. As TV got up and running, it was pretty clear that the most instinctive form was to have a host, so it was only the question of having access to scary movies that led to the need for a Horror Host.
The world of regional horror hosts is one that is loved more than anything by local audiences, and is absolutely unknown to anyone outside of it. American Scary paints a magnificent pictures of these idiosyncratic characters with interviews and clips of these hosts doing what they do best, and is an excellent place for audiences unfamiliar with this kind of television to see what it was like, and meet some of the most fascinating characters in the genres. It should be noted that this tradition continues to this day. It isn’t that Horror Hosts have disappeared from the TV landscape, making them an antiquated piece of history. In fact, since the ’50’s, there has been a steady string of horror hosts in most regions in every year since the Shock Theater! package first dropped on viewers, and the turnover is actually pretty incredible. (Many only lasted a few years.) But as with all things, a little history lesson offers tremendous insight into this rich and impressive tradition in the US, and makes any of the people you might see as part of a longer tradition, handed down from generation to generation.
Early TV Was Nothing Like It Is Now.
Almost every city of any notable size has a local news show to this day, but imagine a time when almost all of your TV was locally made? For anyone who grew up in the Internet Age, it is hard to imagine that TV stations were once local, let alone that most of the shows you watched were not nationally syndicated. For for most, it is also hard to imagine a world before the addition of FOX to the three channel line up, let alone the pre-cable offerings that came many years before that world. Even my limited experience with the medium as a child was only a glimpse into the home-brewed universe of small-time television, and as I watched Ramblin’ Rod I had no idea that this wasn’t the same experience of every kid in the country. For all I knew, TV was the same everywhere, and how exactly wrong that was is almost impossible to convey.
As TV got going in the ’40’s, the model for running a station was lifted from that of radio: shows could be syndicated to other stations, but for the most part you made everything in-house. Big networks like Dupont or Mutual would get a really hot show that was produced locally somewhere, and then “sell” it to local stations across the country, with the idea that the local station was now part of the Dupont or Mutual network as an affiliate. But in those days, even a big network couldn’t provide your station with everything. You had to have on-air hosts and announcers to fill time between programs, news was only regional in those days, and sometimes the local station owner would still want to run a ball game or a special event in favor of the national shows at his fingertips, and that required local staff on sight to run the shows.
It must also be mentioned that TV didn’t have the same kind of traction as radio did when it was first on the market in the ’40’s and early ’50’s. TV cost a lot, didn’t go everywhere in the country, didn’t broadcast for as long during the day, and was a very new technology compared to radio. Radio already had a 30 year history in the US by 1950. Movie theaters were still a far superior viewing experience when judged by the size of the screen and the quality of the images, and the number of shows there were in the early days was very small on the earliest stations. Unless you were a nerd, rich, or an early adopter, TV seems like it might be a fad.
As the post-WWII boom of the early ’50’s began to really settle in, a couple of cultural shifts happened that had a huge impact on the country: American prosperity, the break-up of the American Studio System in Hollywood, the manufacture of cheap and long-lasting television sets that hit stores, and the expansion of the broadcast range for most stations as broadcast towers became better and more powerful. It was also helped by the development of a few bonafide hit TV shows on a national level, which managed to reverse TV’s bad reputation in less than a decade. Suddenly, staying at home and watching this this was affordable for nearly everyone, and with the movie business in the tubes, there was more of a reason to adjust the rabbit ears rather than go out and spend money. This created a demand for more televison programming, programming that only local stations could provide with local staff.
While a TV Station might seem like a huge thing, in reality they are often run by a handful of people on the tech side, with a few extra people in front of the camera, and in much the same way that cost savings are at the center of most conversations everywhere else, every station owner was of the opinion that any job you could hire for you could also have someone on staff do it for you, too. As a result of these shifts, the mid-’50’s saw a huge proliferation in locally produced shows to fill the on-air demand, hosted by people they already saw on the TV elsewhere: kids shows, talk shows, cooking shows & game shows, all with the weatherman running over after he finishes one segment to get in his Cowboy Costume to host the afternoon cartoons. Even as someone who had no relationship to that kind of television, I get a nostalgic glint in my eye when I try to imagine that every station in America was on the air and showing something different at any given time.
Shock Theater! Enters The Picture.
Certainly, TV stations toyed with late-night programming from the beginning, and the occasional suspense movie (from the station’s archives, most likely) would make it on the air from time to time. But it was Vampira and her show The Vampira Show that delivered to the world a taste of what late night programming could be, and what Horror Hosts in America would soon aspire to. Vampira was not just a local LA celebrity, but she had proved during the single year her show was on the air that horror was starting to catch on in a big way, and could draw big numbers at a reasonable cost. In 1954 the show not only launched her career, but was prescient of everything that would boom in the next few years.
Vampira used simple sets and “mood” lighting to achieve incredible effects, and her knockout figure, tight black dresses and graceful movements on screen were uncanny and breathtaking. Anyone with even the remotest interest in scary movies tuned in, and only partly to see the film. Her horror-puns, affinity for all things macabre, and knowledge of these cinematic offerings was something to behold, and people watched obsessively, even if the movies were bad and, more pointedly, not exactly “horror” films (in the mid-’50’s, few horror films had yet been sold to stations yet, leaving Vampira with things that were “suspenseful” at best). Enough viewers were excited about her that she became instantly famous around town, largely because she actually dressed like she did on screen in real life, too. (Something she’d been doing in LA for years previous, anyway.)
The editors at Life Magazine ran a photo essay on her, quickly turning her local late-nite movie show into a legend that people talked about across the country. It wasn’t just that she was stroke material for the repressed denizens of suburban america, although that was very much a part of her fame, too. Vampira had tapped into an interest in horror that had almost gone dormant since the Universal Horror Pictures were in a small slump. The problem, as she saw it, was presentation. “Double Features” were impersonal, and theaters were cutting costs everywhere, making the experience of going to one snot as interesting, or fun. But Television offered an intimate opportunity to enjoy a film in the comfort of your pajamas. If the quality of the film wasn’t that great, well, at lest you had her to look at during the breaks, and it didn’t cost you anything anyway.
Screen Gems was starting to pick up this thread that Vampira was weaving from too, and by 1957 had assembled the legendary 52 film package that they sold across the country on behalf of Universal Pictures. Since both Universal & Screen Gems had no network affiliations, and because the overall cost of these films was almost rock bottom by comparison, the package was a smash success across the country. It was either get a year of weekly programming for an incredible deal, or take a chance on another syndicated show that might not fly with audiences.
At first, stations would throw on a couple of the more well-known films in the package, to test the late-night waters. But it wasn’t until these stations started taking their cues from Vampira’s show, the trend really began to take off in a big way.
Zacherley for President! Let’s Put A Vampire In The White House Today!
At the same time Vampira’s show was on the air, John Zacherle began getting work on local TV in Philadelphia, who had previously made a name for himself playing bit parts in any show that needed extras. As a tall and pale man, he was cast as an undertaker in a western, which was a perfect fit for someone of his build, and became his defining role up until that point. It made sense, then, in 1957, when Philly got their Shock Theater! package, that they turned to the undertaker to fill the role of the host for these films, hoping that they could recreate some of the magic they had heard about with Vampira.
What started then led to a forty year career for Zacherle in TV, music, cartoons, film, books & radio, as John found out exactly how successful Vampira’s format was. His run as a horror host – first as Roland, then as Zacherle – made him an instant hit on the east coast, and when he moved to New York shortly afterward, put him on the map nationally. His success on TV let to movie roles and, of all things, music contracts, where he recorded a string of 45s and LPs in the early ’60’s of Halloween novelty hits that gave “Monster Mash” a near-run for its money.
He secured some cartoon voice work too, and edited a handful of collected of ghost stories, but when it seemed as if the horror hosting was beginning to fade, he moved to radio in the ’70s, making a name for himself as a progressive rock DJ, as well as a charming personality on and off the air, which always led to more work here and there. By the time the ’80’s rolled around, and Horror was coming back into vogue, he was in a fairly comfortable routine of showing up at conventions in costume as Zacherle, as well as taking on odd TV, movie and radio gig here and there to help pass the time and put money in his pocket. His last regular job – a radio gig in the mid-’90’s – ended when the Alternative Rock format hit in 1996, but by then Zacherle was in High Demand, given more exposure from appearing on Rob Zombie’s Halloween Hootenanny CD. To this day he has lived comfortably on public appearances and the royalties from his long career, and in terms of the golden age hosts, he is the one to beat.
Ernie Anderson was a strange dude to begin with. A bit of a Cleveland hipster in the late ’50’s, he held many jobs, most famously as a Top 40 DJ who hated playing the hits. Instead, Ernie dug R&B and rock ‘n’ roll 45s, and would listen to The Mad Daddy when he wasn’t on the air himself. But at Ernie’s station, it was always some pop pap that they would ask him to spin, and it drove him nuts. Ernie loudly complained about the suburbs – where he thought his broadcasts were being sent to – and imagined what it would be like to really terrify the squares around him with some actually good music. At every chance he could, he would slip into his show a record he liked, or recycle some old vaudeville routines or ethnic humor to help pass the time when he thought he could get away with it, but mostly he sat there, playing shitty music, bored.
As he would smoke cigarettes and light off firecrackers in the alley on his breaks (firecrackers were illegal in the late ’50’s in Cleveland, and he bought them any chance he could get from even the most disreputable street vendor) he tried to envision something that he could do other than the shit job he’d found himself in. It all came to a head when Ernie’s sense of humor did not go over well at a station cocktail party, and after the exchange of some well-timed but ill-intended four-letter-words directed toward the management, Ernie found himself unemployed in 1960, offering his services to a local TV station who needed an extra set of hands here and there to pick up the slack. He immediately found a friend in Tim Conway.
The two found that they had a comparable sense of humor, and began working as a comedy duo on a show called Ernie’s Place, where they would do skits and routines in a Kid Friendly form with shortened movies, in the style of Bob & Ray, who were incredibly popular at the time. It wasn’t exactly what Ernie wanted, but at least he was in control, and that worked. For a while, until Tim was very discovered by Hollywood through this show, and left Ohio for fame and fortune.
Since the show fell through, the network offered Ernie the chance to Host another movie show, but during their late night horror films they were showing as part of the Shock Theater package, until something else could be worked out that was more his speed. Ernie, who had seen Zacherley and was already feeling like the idea was a little played out, took the job on the condition that he had total control over these live shows. The station agreed (what have they got to loose with late night, more or less “untested” programming?). Ernie began to exaggerate his own hipster tendencies when he would host these movies, with a fake beard and other ridiculous clothes on the air, mocking himself, the movie, the audience, the commercials, hipsters, horror hosts, suburbia, and anything else in-between. When he ran out of ideas, he would blow up something with a firecracker (on air!) and smoke a cigarette. Ernie was convinced they would let him do the show twice, maybe, and once anyone actually saw it, it was all over.
Instead, audiences loved it.
Ghoulardi – as he became known – was everything that Ernie wanted television to be. Improvised, full of double-entendres and new slang that was gibberish to the squares in charge. The movies were always awful, and the station only ran them because they were cheap anyway. Ernie used this to his advantage, and called the turd a turd when that was the case. He wasn’t about to go around try to get an audience excited about a movie that was clearly gonna blow. He bad-mouthed the films relentlessly, and this bled over to the way he discussed other terrible media, where he mocked other TV personalities, radio DJs and station managers, while playing selections from his record collection, all in an effort to bring Cleveland the kind of show that Ernie so desperately wanted to watch. And, to his own astonishment, it became the biggest thing, ever.
The station immediately responded to his popularity, giving Ghoulardi three shows a week (!), and offering Ernie the chance to continue to work unimpeded on all of these shows. He developed a segment called Parma Place – a take off on the very popular Peyton Place – to skewer the boring people in the suburbs, and would fill time when the movies fell short with other routines and oddities, largely improvised. He would use the equipment used to superimpose sports graphics onto broadcasts, and insert himself into the terrible movies, running away from the monster, or interacting with the other characters by responding with jokes to their dialog. His connections with Tim Conway and the popularity of Ghoulardi led to a pilot for a show in Hollywood to be developed (!!), unheard of for regional hosts like Ernie. However, Ernie refused to compromise when it came to what the character of Ghoulardi was like, and his in-your-face attitude, inappropriate jokes and jabs full of insults, sex (and what he called “ethnic humor”) bombed in Hollywood, about the time he pulled out fire-crackers to use on the set. It seemed that Ohio was going to be the extent of his fame.
His dedication to the character was absolutely his undoing. Ghoulardi did not take notes, nor did he respond to the pressures to change the show in any way, and while he was an incredible hit with viewers, his fearlessness when it came to language and explosions began to cause the people at the station to get worried about this kind of “live” show going out to the public. Parents groups were already beginning to form in the US, concerned about the diet of television people were ingesting. After three years of absolute wanton chaos, Ernie’s show was canceled, on the grounds that going out “live” was too risky for a TV Station. (This was code for, “He might insult the Polish viewers and make too many sex jokes.”)
However, it seemed as if Hollywood wasn’t completely lost on his talents. When it was clear that Ghoulardi had ended, Tim convinced Ernie to follow him out to LA anyway, where Ernie was offered a tremendous number of voice over jobs. His reputation soon led to ABC asking if he could be the voice of their network, a job he kept throughout the ’70’s and the ’80’s. Once Ernie moved to Hollywood, he never looked back.
And The Rest!
These are just my favorite hosts from American Scary, but there are almost 60 of these characters interviewed and mentioned during the film. The clips are incredible, and the view into the world of Horror Hosting is addictive. If this has piqued your interest, dig in. There is a treasure trove of clips and movies to watch that will not only introduce you to this phase of TV history, but it gives you a chance to see something that isn’t slick, and that isn’t produced.
Horror Hosts live in a world that is almost – but not quite – professional, and they linger on the mistakes as much as the successes, too. It’s an aesthetic that begs for you to participate, and to ignore the shortcomings and embrace the fun that is being had. Put up a sheet, wear a silly costume, and you too could be a star! What American Scary illustrates more than anything is that, if you want it, you can become a star, too, and on your terms.
All you have to do is try.