In the 1950s, television was becoming common place in every home and movie theaters were taking a hit because of it. The movie studios were hesitant to embrace this electronic interloper that was encroaching on their turf – except for one studio…Universal Studios.
When it came to the major studios Universal next to Columbia were at the very bottom. Each studio had their own brand, a type of picture that they were known for. MGM was big budget musicals and top stars, Warner Brothers, hard-hitting dramas, Paramount, comedies and at Universal it was monsters.
In 1936 Universal made Showboat, a remake of one of their older pictures. It went massively over budget and they were forced to take a $300,000 loan.
Though Showboat would perform extremely well, the studio couldn’t pay it back and they were forced to foreclose and taken over by Standard Capital Corp. In the ensuing years they changed hands a few times and continued to make smaller budgeted pictures with lesser stars or up and comers. Clint Eastwood would be one of their last contract players.
It was during this period that Shock Theater was started. During tough times Universal always knew they could go back to their heyday and unleash their monsters and the public would line up to be scared again. Universal took 52 of their old horror pictures and packaged them for syndication. Along with the package they decided to use a host as a way to fill up time, as some of the pictures were just over an hour in length and perhaps have the host be ghoulish. The concept wasn’t new, KABC TV in Los Angeles had The Vampira Show withMaila Nurmi in 1954, but Shock Theater would be syndicated through out the country with different hosts.
Hosts were often radio DJs or local TV weathermen pulling double duty. One of the first to achieve stardom was Philadelphia’s John Zacherle. Zacherle was an actor hired to do Shock Theater. Originally the character went by Roland, he wore a black undertaker’s frock and ghoulish make-up and would talk to his wife who resided in a coffin. He would goof on the films he showed and would have
bloody gags like severed heads and what not and sing satirical songs. He put out a few albums and had a hit with “Dinner With Drac”. Fellow broadcaster Dick Clark would dub him “The Cool Ghoul”. He was a fan favorite and would often go to horror conventions until his passing at 98 in the very timely month of October 26, 2016.
Another giant of Horror hosts was the legendary voice of ABC, Ernie Anderson. After some stints in radio he moved to local television in Cleveland, Ohio were he had a morning show called Ernie’s Place with his good friend, comedian Tim Conway. Ernie’s Place didn’t last long and was canceled but the station offered him the Shock Theater gig. From 63-66 Anderson would host the show as Ghoulardi. In creating Ghoulardi Anderson adopted some of the traits of another Clevelandite, radio DJ Pete “The Maddaddy” Meyers whose wild beatnik style speech would be the driving force of Ghoulardi. As was typical, he goofed on the pictures he presented but also put himself into the movies to make comments on the action!
Ghoulardi has become legendary. The band The Cramps adopted one of his many catchphrases “Stay Sick, Turn Blue” and his son filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has kept his legacy alive by naming his production company after Ghoulardi.
The 1970s was the time of my childhood and local television still had its horror hosts. By this time though the Universal Shock Theater package wasn’t the only one. Local stations were making deals with other film companies such as AIP- TV, and and of course England’s treasure trove of pictures from Hammer. Some of the TV stations dropped the hosts, but still played the films. One of my favorite non-host show was KTLA’s Monster Rally every Saturday afternoon. It was a montage of Gamera, Godzilla, Universal Monsters then ending with the castle from Roger Corman’s House of Usher, then a chyron with red letters saying Monster Rally.
My horror movie host was Grimsley’s Fright Night. On KHJ 9 in the LA area Grimsley was played by Robert Foster. Every show would open, as I recall, with a castle and bubbles floating around it. He was some kind of ghoul mortician similar to Zacherle but with a 70s ‘fro. I remember when he showed the Mary Waronov starring picture Silent Night, Bloody Night. There is a scene where a character named Tess gets her hand chopped off by a deranged killer then Grimsley interrupts sitting at his desk and says “looks like ‘ol Tess just fell to pieces” and then puts a rubber hand on his desk. To a nine year old kid that was pretty funny stuff. I remember this well since I had seen Star Wars for the first time earlier that day and I was staying over my friend’s house before he was to move away and we stayed up watching spooky movies.
Grimsley would be on for one more year after that August of 1977 but the station continued playing the horror pictures at the same time slot, Saturday’s at 11 p.m. and repeating Sunday’s at 3 p.m. KHJ brought back a host three years later, this time a woman. Her name? Elvira. She would transcend local TV and be a worldwide phenomenon. If Grimsley and his Mad magazine type of schtick is what I needed as a child, Elvira was what I needed going into my teens. With mass media the way it is it’ll be tough for a new generation to enjoy the horror host but there is still one doing it, Chicago’s Svengoolie. I guess that’s it for now boys and ghouls and remember – Stay sick, turn blue.