Thursday, March 12, 2015

All Hail the Horror Host - Part 1 by Jerry Chandler

Millions of years ago, back in the prehistoric days of television, say, the 1950s, the television landscape looked a wee bit different than it did today. For one thing, your viewing options were rather limited when it came to available channels. You had your networks, all three of them, and, if lucky, more than two local UHF channels. Even PBS didn’t come along until 1970.

That was, with regards to variety in television viewing, the downside. The upside was that your local stations, even the network affiliated ones, were far more independent than they are these days. When outside of the hours where they carried the network lineups they had the ability to play around, to create programming that catered to the local or regional tastes, and made their own programming in their own production studios. Some of this might be simple, inexpensive to make programming like game shows for kids, some of it might be DIY programming like gardening shows, and then some of this programming became the almost uniquely American art form known as horror hosting. If you never saw a good horror host at work, if you’ve never had a horror host of your own, you’ve missed out on something.


Many people credit Vampira as the first horror host with her 1954 debut, but this isn’t actually true. In my home state of Virginia for example, we had Bob Dalton on the air as early as 1952. Likewise, there were likely others in other states doing the same thing that have similarly been forgotten by most people over the decades. But what Vampira certainly can claim was being the first host who was widely recognized beyond simply the reach of the station that carried her, and she influenced the way some later hosts performed.

The late 1950s saw an explosion of horror hosts across the country, more or less all of them unaware of what the others were doing. This sudden eruption of hosts was due in part to the release of film packages by the likes of Screen Gems and others. The “Shock!” package containing some 50+ classic horror films was released for syndication in 1957. This was followed by “Son of Shock!” in 1958 and later “Creature Feature” packages in the 1960s and 1970s. Some studios actually encouraged the use of hosts with the release of these film packages, and many stations that used them created hosted shows with names like “Shock Theater” and “Creature Feature.”

It’s actually almost hard to explain the appeal of a horror host. They were these guys and gals who were, for the most part, pulled out of the ranks of workers at the station, either given a character to play or told to create one, and given a budget of about $3.75 per show. They were typically tasked with doing a short opening to introduce the film, doing several shorter bits that would run either at the beginning of a commercial break or when coming back from one, and then doing a short closing bit to run after the film’s credits. Compared to the film they were showing they actually got very little of the overall show’s airtime, but the good ones would ultimately become a bigger attraction than the films they were showing.

The job of a host was, on the surface of it, a simple one. They were there to make their station’s airing of various movies different than some other station’s airing of those same movies. They did this by assuming colorful personas and doing skits, anything ranging from simply being the scholarly, dispenser of information to doing complicated comedy bits, and being as entertaining as possible while doing it. It sounds easy, but I can assure you that it’s not. For every successful, long-lived host there was a short-lived one that was less successful, with even a few that were flat-out rejected by the local fans. But of the ones who were successful? Some of them became local, or even national, icons and legends.

Those sound like pretty heavy words to throw around when talking about guys dressed in outfits that sometimes looked like dime store Halloween costumes, but they’re accurate ones. Vampira became an iconic image over the years. Zacherley was immortalized on the covers of magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, had a short lived comic book devoted to him, and released a record that charted the Top 10 nationally. Ghoulardi became a phenomenon in the greater Cleveland, Ohio area, working with the likes of friends like a young Tim Conway, garnering almost 1,000 fan letters a day at his peak, having the local police attributing the airings of his highly rated shows to a 35% drop in the crime rate at those hours, and eventually going on to be the voice of ABC throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He even lived on through famous fans when, years after Ghoulardi going off the air, Drew Carey would sport a Ghoulardi t-shirt on The Drew Carey Show. Count Gore de Vol would become an iconic figure in the DC area of the 1970s and 1980s before eventually heading off to be the first host on the web and spurring the creation of the Horror Host Underground. The Bowman Body was recognized by the Virginia General Assembly, and he even had a sandwich named after him. And all of them, and more like them, went on to inspire a lot of creative folks in more fields than simply horror hosting.

So, the question comes up, why did they go away? Did their popularity suddenly drop across the country in a massive wave? Did they run their course like a style of music? Or were they victims of the ever changing entertainment media landscape? The truth is that there may have been a small amount of those first two in some cases, but most of it was due to #3.

For decades across the country popular hosts became a part of the regional culture. Slogans, catch-phrases, and signature sign-offs would enter the local language and be used by kids in school, adults in the workplace, and even the odd politician. Some of them became sought after by the local government, requested to become the face of public safety promotions. Many of them moved merchandise. Sales of t-shirts were not unheard of, buttons, stickers and posters were common, and official fan club kits were regularly offered up to loyal viewers in many areas.

And they had some very loyal fans. Pretty much wherever you had a popular host, you found a loyal, rabid audience. Doctor Madblood, Svengoolie, Big Chuck and Lil' John, Sir Cecil Creape, Dr. Gruesome and Skeeter, Stella, The Maneater from Manayunk, Dr. Creep, Sir Graves Ghastly, Bill "Chilly Billy" Cardille, and an army of other hosts kept people entertained and up way past their bedtimes with their eyes glued to whatever channel would air them. And they did it, far more often than not, not because people wanted to see the movies, but because many people wanted to see the hosts.

One of the things that inspired such loyalty, that made them cool in their way, was that, no matter where you lived, they were “your” host. It was almost like knowing a secret that no one else knew. Everybody had a Johnny Carson no matter where you went, but here on your local channel was this funny, cool, occasionally sexy, host talking to you, referencing things from the area you lived in, and no one else had him or her. Your cousin on the other side of the state didn’t have your host. Your family three states over didn’t have your host. You had your host, and you could even meet them. You might never meet a Johnny Carson, but events around town would sometimes feature your host.

Some hosts played up their local connections quite a bit in their shows, mentioning local places and events as a part of their weekly routine, and honing their act to best fit their regional audiences and pull in as many viewers as possible. And some of them were unquestionably ratings successes, some of them pulling ratings that showed that anywhere from 50% to 70% of all local TV viewers watching TV during the hours their shows were on were watching them.

Even in the age of cable TV, hosts stayed firmly entrenched in the television landscape, some of them still finding enormous ratings success. As a matter of fact, some cable television channels created hosted shows of their own. The USA Channel ran Commander USA's Groovie Movies hosted by Commander USA on the weekends in the 1980s, the early 1990s saw The Movie Channel give Joe Bob Briggs a full set to host Drive-In Theater, and later on the early days of the Sci-Fi Channel saw them turning to Mystery Science Theater 3000 to help get eyeballs tuning in. Yes, MST3K really is one example of a horror host format program.

But parts of the landscape did begin to change in the 1980s in such a way as to slowly push the horror hosts off of their longtime local channel homes. Telecommunications began to become greatly deregulated. Before then, ownership by one corporate entity of various media entities in any given area was limited. A company could only own so many newspapers, television stations, or radio stations in a given region.

That changed, and when that changed the dominoes started falling. Large entertainment corporations could come into any area and start buying up multiple properties. For them, ownership of television stations wasn’t about serving or servicing the local community; in part because the corporations weren’t local to those communities. Their overriding goals were their bottom lines and maximizing their profitability.

The problem with maximizing profitability in cases like this is that what the people of a community want is not always the same as want an accountant seven states away wants. A popular host could be successful, drawing good ratings, and even being profitable with regards to ad revenue, but an accountant, an efficiency expert, they’re going to see ways to make that slot even more profitable.

One thing that was common in many stations was the halting of all local programming other than news if they even intended to keep a local news broadcast at all. This was followed by the dismantling and removal of local production facilities not related to the news. Game shows for kids? Gone. Hosted morning or afternoon blocks of programming for kids? Gone. Horror hosts? Gone.

And, as counterintuitive as it sounds, ratings really didn’t matter. In my area we had Dr. Gruesome's Movie Morgue on TV for seven years. When the local station was bought out, they were quickly taken off of the air, for the first of several times, despite having a 49% share in their timeslot. For those who don’t speak TV lingo that basically means that half of all TVs turned on in their viewing area during their show hours were tuned in to their show. A massive letter writing campaign and calls to the station brought them back, but, eventually, good ratings or not, they were still canceled. By the view of the station’s new owners, they could lose ratings but still make more money by running their own syndication package of old TV shows or, even more profitable for them, running infomercials.

This scenario played out all over the country. By the time we rolled into the 2000s, the horror host as a weekly fixture on a local VHF or UHF television station was all but extinct. An amazing art form, an almost exclusively American art form, that had been around for over 50 years seemed like it was about to be lost.

But horror hosting shared something in common with some of the creatures featured on the various creature features. A bit like a stubborn vampire, you could drive a stake in its heart and it would still come back when and where you least expected it to. But that will be Part 3. No, that’s not a typo. You’ll see why with Part 2.

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