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13 June, 2009

The Show Goes On: The New Wave of Horror-Hosts

Some of the typical MonsterKid’s earliest memories involve watching movies like HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD via a black-and-white television, on a program hosted by a pudgy adult wearing monster make-up and a cheesy costume. With weird, outlandish names such as Bestoink Dooley, Ghoulardi, and Sammy Terry, they introduced generations of youngsters to Dracula and the Mummy, Godzilla and Gorgo, Karloff and Lugosi.
The era of the Horror-Host began at KABC, when they hired a young woman to host a series of cheap, poverty-row thrillers and Horror films. Her name was Malia Nurmi, but she became forever known as Vampira. Three weeks after she debuted in April 1955, she was featured in TV Guide, and three weeks after that, she had a photo-spread in Life magazine. With her exotic beauty, tightly cinched 19” waist, and sultry, throaty voice, she instantly captivated audiences who tuned in to see her, if not the less-than-stellar movies she hosted.

Though the Vampira show lasted only a year, the concept was here to stay. Soon, a Philadelphia DJ named John Zacherle began hosting his own program, as Roland. Funny, irreverent, and able to connect with teen-agers on their own level, he soon migrated to New York City, where he became Zacherley the Cool Ghoul, the most popular of the early hosts.

Prior to 1957 though, such programs were hampered by a dearth of quality Horror Films to screen. Limited to such low-budget, public-domain programmers as THE CORPSE VANISHES and REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES, stations found it difficult to accept that there was a demand for old Horror Films on Television, or that it was worth allocating valuable airtime to them. In that year, however, Universal, through Screen-Gems distributors, released their Shock Theatre package of films nationwide. Now, stations everywhere could, for a reasonable cost, acquire the greatest Horror Films ever made for broadcast. Hundreds of stations leapt on the opportunity, and beginning in the fall of 1957 Hosted Horror shows started springing up everywhere. Larger cities, most notably Chicago, could boast three or four such hosts; most towns large enough to have a TV station could claim one of their own.

The hosted Horror shows were staples of local broadcasting well into the ‘70’s, but eventually changing viewing habits, and increased pressure to generate greater profits from each hour of airtime, doomed the horror-hosts to a forgotten obscurity. Only a few survived to carry the tradition forward, most notably Rich Koz. Taking over for the great Jerry G. Bishop, Chicago’s beloved Svengoolie, Koz began as the Son of Svengoolie thirty years ago this week, on June 16th, 1979, with the broadcast of IN THE YEAR 2889 on WFLD-32’s Creature Feature. Son of Svengoolie remained on-air until 1986, though Koz’s character remained popular among the Chicago-area Monster faithful. In 1995, it was resurrected by WCIU-26, as The Svengoolie Show. While Koz kept many of the program’s hallmarks from the WFLD days, he also placed his personal stamp on it, growing it into what is widely regarded as the premier Hosted Horror show on the air today.

The 2007 season’s coup, the acquisition of the Universal Horror classics for broadcast locally, established Koz as the dean of modern Horror-Hosts, and WCIU as a major player in the field. The station, in the person of General Manager Neal Sabin, has demonstrated a commitment to Chicagoland Genre fans, many who’ve never previously been exposed to the Universal classics, and it would not be an exaggeration to proclaim The Svengoolie Show the best such program on the air today. This year Rich was recognized for that, when he won the 2008 Rondo for Favorite Horror-Host.

Though Svengoolie may rule the roost, his is far from a lonely perch. Just in Northeastern Illinois and Southeastern Wisconsin, several other hosts ply their trade on Public Access Cable or Broadcast TV, most notably Undead Johnny and his World of the Weird Monster Show. Though it never deviates much from the tried-and-true standard for such programs, it’s well done and entertaining. Whether it’s the cold weather, the Lake Michigan water, or the rich history and tradition of Chicago Horror shows, the Windy City and environs is definitely the hot spot for Hosted-Horror shows.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the country is neglected. Tennessee has Dr. Gangrene, Ohio has The Mortician, Las Vegas has the Sinister Minister, and a score more are scattered around the U. S. Perhaps the best of this ‘second tier’ of hosts is New Bedford, Massachusetts’ Penny Dreadful. Portrayed by Danielle Gelehrter, Penny is accompanied on her adventures by her werewolf husband Garou, and less-than-successful monster-hunter Manfred von Bulow. Though the episodes are uneven in quality, overall they are well-done and entertaining; enough so that Penny won the inaugural Rondo award for Best Horror-Host in 2007.

But even those unlucky enough not to have a Hosted show in their area need not miss out on the quintessential MonsterKid experience. This is, after all, the age of the internet, and many hosts have on-line webcasts of their programs; many are exclusively internet-based. One of the first, and in my admittedly biased opinion one of the best, of these is Count Gore De Vol. The long-time alter-ego of Dick Dyszel, Count Gore is one of the few Old-School hosts who’ve made the transition from Television to Internet, and done so very successfully. Broadcasting for many years out of Washington, D.C., Count Gore successfully transitioned to a web-based program when his TV run ended. His web-site continues to be one of the most up-to-date and comprehensive of any Horror host’s, with original articles and columns on virtually every aspect of the genre. As a frequent contributor to Count Gore’s site, I have the pleasure of regularly appearing with some of the most knowledgeable, involved people in the genre; the likes of Prof. Anton Griffin and Halloween Jack.

While the heyday of the Horror-Host may be past, that doesn’t mean that the breed is extinct. The popularity of hosted shows is rising, as an aging populace grows nostalgic for the comfortable and familiar trappings of youth. Recently, the Documentary AMERICAN SCARY [see review below] premiered to rave reviews, as the fans whose first introduction to the monsters came in the form of a hosted show rediscovered those roots, and their love of Horror-Hosts. Though the era where locally produced programming is, if not dead, then in a coma, there still exists a desire among viewers for a storyteller, as writer John Morrow puts it in AMERICAN SCARY, a “…guide” to the underworld. Even if that guide is wearing make-up and dodging rubber chickens.














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