By Jerry Chandler
“Commander USA, soaring super hero, Legion of Decency, retired.”
The year was 1985, basic cable television in the form we now know it was still crawling towards its teenage years, and an eight-year-old USA Network decided to start the new year off with a new Saturday afternoon show. The USA Network had access to more quality films and programming than your average local UHF channel, but, despite this advantage, their access to films was still a wee bit higher on the ratio of the stinkers vs the great films out there. As such, the early day weekend blocks were often showcasing the not even close to being the best in science fiction and horror on the USA Network; a common thing with many early basic cable channels.
In order to make these less than stellar movies stand out from the crowd, the powers that be at the USA Network decided to take a page out of the broadcast channel playbook from years earlier and have the movies hosted by someone playing a character. The USA Network held a casting call in late 1984, and among the people that tried out for the role of the host was Jim Hendricks. Hendricks apparently had what they were looking for, and on January 5, 1985, the costumed persona of Commander USA strolled onto the TV screens of America to beam mostly so bad they were good films into American homes from his secret headquarters under a New Jersey shopping mall. By the time the show saw its last episode in 1989, it had seen more than 200 shows air, Commander USA had hosted a few events along the way, and an (unintentionally) one shot magazine, Commander USA's World of Horror, had been produced.
For some horror and science fiction movie geeks of a certain era, Commander USA’s Groovie Movies was a staple of their television diets, and for younger horror and science fiction movie geeks the show was an introduction to a lot of movies they might not have seen elsewhere during that era. When the Commander wasn’t hosting films like the various better known kaiju films, he would host some of the apparently harder to find Hammer films, host various Mexican and Japanese low budget films, host the classic Santos and Blue Demon films, and even host episodes of British anthology shows padded with extra-long skits to fill the movie length timeslot for the show.
Some of the films were good, many of the films were just middle of the road, and some of the films were just flat out horrible. But once you started watching the show, you didn’t care what movies were playing that weekend, because, no matter how good, no matter how bad, the draw of the show each and every week was Jim Hendricks playing Commander USA. The skits were often ridiculous, some were largely pointless, but Jim Hendricks brought a great heart to the character of a retired superhero hanging out in his secret headquarters with “Lefty” (a hand puppet made by drawing a very basic face on his right hand) to show bad movies and reminisce about the old days when he was still a superhero at large fighting crime and hanging out with the big league names like Superman. No matter how crazy or pointless the skits were written, Jim Hendricks made them both work and be enjoyable. Fortunately for both him and us, most of the skits by far were written quite enjoyably, and these skits made tuning in totally worth it.
Like many of the best hosts over the decades, Commander USA doled out a nice bit of information on the movies he would be hosting that day. He’d hit the highlights, slip in a little trivia, and occasionally mention the more notorious history of the movies’ film shoots. But, perhaps far more importantly, he had absolutely no qualms about making fun of the movies he was showing. But he never did it in a vicious way. Sometimes he delivered the digs in a way that almost made them sound endearing. The above linked The Loch Ness Horror was a perfect example of this. The Larry Buchanan… uhm… horror thriller… was set in Scotland and filmed in California with no attempt to hide the fact that pine trees and other native flora that don’t appear around Loch Ness were featured clearly in almost every shot and no one cast could do a passible Scottish accent even as they tried to fake them. Some of this is mentioned in the skits during the film, and the Commander even seemingly gives heartfelt praise to one of the actors for a scene in the film where he finally gets something close to the right sounding accent as the film is almost over. It was total sarcasm delivered totally straight-faced and without a beat you over the head nod and wink, and moments like that worked brilliantly because of such delivery.
Jim Hendricks and crew understood that you can make fun of the films, but the best way to do it was to laugh with them (and the viewers) rather than laugh at them by totally belittling them. It’s an important distinction, because, remember, you were dealing with films that people were likely already being made fun of for enjoying by classmates, coworkers, and peers. It could easily backfire if the humor was too derogatory, because then you’re just another person insulting the viewer and the viewer’s taste in films. Additionally, while acknowledging a film is a stinker with a wink and a smile is okay, attacking the film too viscously is counterproductive. Who wants to watch a movie if the host is spending all their time during the hosting duties telling the audience that the movie completely and totally sucks and is miserably bad?
It’s a concept and a trick understood and mastered by the best horror hosts in television history, and Commander USA was absolutely one of the best. He could poke fun at just how bad what was on really was, but, no matter how much you may have loved the film, you never took it as him insulting the film or your love of the film. Quite the contrary, you’d actually end up laughing as he did it.
Along the way, the show’s hosted skits would also touch on and play with the Commander’s superhero roots. Outside of the reminiscing about the old days, the Commander would occasionally play around with powers gone wrong, the troubles of keeping a secret identity, what to do with powers like microwave vision (make and heat snacks during the show) now that the glory days were over, and, of course, dealing with the old cliché of the evil doppelganger showing up.
The show was exactly what so many of the movies he hosted were. It was low budget fun on every level; just X10 on both counts compared to many of the movies he hosted.
For geeks of a certain age range and for geeks who were watching the show back in the day, Commander USA’s Groovie Movies was a fun memory from that era. Whether you watched it with a friend over at the house or watched it alone that weekend and then talked to fellow geek friends at school or work about it that Monday, it was a show you remembered a lot of laughter around. And that laughter helped make it a great gateway drug to films you might never otherwise watch, or, for those of us who had started to move well past that gateway, it was a great way to add to the list of films seen that no sane person would typically want to watch but we loved to watch. A lot of that was because of Jim Hendricks and how he made the character of Commander USA work so well.
Sadly, the word started to circulate last week through the online horror host community that Jim Hendricks had passed away. A short time later, some friends of his confirmed that he had passed away on the morning of Saint Patrick’s Day. Apparently the news was slow in circulating because Hendricks had requested of friends and family that he have no formal obituary published and no large fuss be made at the time of his death.
One of the things that makes the matter sadder still is that, despite his work having been done for and aired on a channel like the USA Network, many of the recordings of his work were treated like the works of other horror hosts over the years. USA Network reused film or outright trashed the film once the programs had aired. Back in 2006, a documentary about the legacy of the American horror host, American Scary, was given limited release and then a DVD release. When they put it together, they found they had less usable, quality footage of Commander USA’s Groovie Movies than they had of some horror host shows from decades earlier.
Fortunately, also back in 2006, a relatively unknown video sharing site created in 2005 was bought by Google and became much better known and thus used by many more people over the following decade. A lot of fans of Commander USA’s Groovie Movies have converted their old VHS recordings of the show (goofy 1980s television commercials and all) into digital format and uploaded complete shows exactly as they aired back in the day. A quick search of YouTube will score you a small ton of hits. I strongly suggest you go find some, look for something that might be your kind of movie, and see exactly why Commander USA’s Groovie Movies is remembered and spoken of so lovingly by fans.
RIP Jim Hendricks, and, finally, long after the character officially left the airwaves, RIP Commander USA. You will be fondly remembered by many.
To swipe a show closing line from the Commander-
“Keep your nose in the wind, and your tail to yourself. See ya, pilgrim.”
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Nerdy Laser. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.