Vampira, Ghoulardi, Dr. Shock: 20 Classic Creeps Of Regional Horror TV
Left: Finnish-born actor and television host Vampira, a.k.a. Maila Nurmi, circa 1956. Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Right: Dr. Shock and Bubbles on the cover of a TV Guide-like supplement to the (Philadelphia/South NJ) Courier Post. Source: Flickr.
Horror hosts on local TV stations shepherded us through the night, using their quirky, macabre personas to introduce movies that were creepy or terrible, back before cable and streaming. The figure who emerged as the national embodiment of the concept was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. But Elvira could not have happened without dozens of local heroes who created the genre, including Ghoulardi, Zacherley, Sinister Seymour, and of course, most controversially, Vampira, played by Maila Nurmi.
The movies were often laughable, drive-in fare like The Beach Girls and the Monster, Son of Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Dracula’s Daughter. In this pre-internet age, you got what you got -- and if the movie was awful, the host had to make the show worth watching. Local horror hosts on regional TV shows with names like “Creature Feature” and “Shock Theater” portrayed ghouls, mad scientists, and mock-European counts who cracked wise about the movies with a DIY ethos. It was a form of standup or sketch comedy -- except it wasn't always funny. But it was always weird.
From Los Angeles to Cleveland and Detroit to New Orleans, regional horror hosts donned grease paint and inspired their young fans to fall in love with genre films. Some of the most famous, like Count Gore, Zacherly, and Vampira inspired an undying fandom, but the impact of each of these horror hosts from the groovy era can’t be overestimated.
From 1954 to 1955 Vampira ruled Los Angeles. Even though The Vampira Show was only on the air for eight months it managed to set the standard for what a late night movie show looked like. Sauntering out of the dense fog, Vampira, played by Maila Nurmi, beckoned to the viewer with her sharp, claw-like fingernails and jabbed them and the films with caustic humor.
Like many of the copycats that followed, The Vampira Show was created as a way to show inexpensive - and in some cases free - horror movies that needed a hook beyond their mere existence. And even if the movies were bad, at least Vampira was fun to watch.
In 1981, Nurmi had an opportunity to bring Vampira back to TV on the Los Angeles station KHJ-TV. In the process of creating the show, Cassandra Peterson was hired as Elvira, a Vampira-like character, without Nurmi's permission. Nurmi quit, and filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against Peterson.
From 1957 to 1960 John Zacherle hosted two different late night horror shows, Shock Theater, and Zacherley at Large. Initially, he played “Roland” a ghoul who performed skits in-between moments in the film while speaking to his wife, a character who never exited her coffin. In 1958 he moved from Philadelphia's WCAU for New York's WABC, where he changed his name from Roland to Zacherley (the station added the "y" to his last name), and his show continued as if nothing was new.
Zacherley was a huge deal in the New York and Philadelphia areas, and aside from hosting his horror shows he also recorded novelty songs like “Dinner with Drac,” a song that broke into the Billboard Top 10. He continued working in regional television and radio through the ’90s, but he’s most remembered for his time hosting Shock Theater.
If you were able to look at the names of every regional horror show in America you’d find that most of them were called something like “Shock Theater.” No one was trying to infringe on anyone’s rights, and honestly what’s a better name than Shock Theater? WJW-TV in Cleveland, Ohio played host to Ghoulardi, a super cool hipster who had a beard, custom pins, and glasses with no lenses. His show ran from 1963 to 1966.
Ghoulardi’s show made prominent use of people around the station. Weatherman Bob Wells and even Tim Conway (yes, that Tim Conway) played bit parts on Cleveland’s Shock Theater. Aside from being one of the first horror hosts to make use of his surroundings, he was the first horror host to really antagonize the films. As with Vampira, many later hosts would crib from Ghoulardi’s work.
From 1969 to 1974, actor Larry Vincent portrayed the spooky host with an undertaker’s fashion sense, Seymour, on the shows Fright Night for KHJ-TV and Seymour's Monster Rally on KTLA. Seymour was a major part of the great Los Angeles area’s love of low budget horror, and he brought a gravitas to a role that could have been incredibly silly.
According to James Fetters, the author of Creatures of the Night:
Larry was much more than an actor showing up for a gig. As Seymour, he gave us an escape from our everyday realities… to be a part of his world each week and I do believe in doing that for us fans, he had the chance, as Seymour, to escape Larry’s realities… a chance to live forever as Seymour.
From 1982 to 1985, yet another Shock Theater excited horror fans in the Dayton, Ohio area. Dr. Creep, played by Barry Hobart, was a Dr. Caligari-looking ghoul who shocked and entertained on WKEF. Dr. Creep’s shtick was erred on the side of comedy (Hobart also hosted a children’s show), but the series was similar to other shows at the time.
During his time on the show, Dr. Creep ran for President, and towards the end of the series, he began hosting a series called Saturday Night Dead that played before NBC’s Saturday Night Live. No one said horror hosts were subtle.
Admittedly, “The Ghoul” isn’t the most dynamic name for a horror host, but it gets the point across. Ron Sweed grew up in Ohio where he watched Ghoulardi, and he even became the popular host’s production assistant for a time. After Ghoulardi retired and Sweed returned from Bowling Green State University he took on the mantle of The Ghoul.
The Ghoul Show premiered on Cleveland’s WKBF-TV in 1971, and during the show, The Ghoul was known to blow things up with firecrackers, smear cheese all over things, and of course make fun of the movies he was watching. The Ghoul moved around from Cleveland to Detroit, and in the late ‘90s, he made a return to Cleveland.
The Cool Ghoul
For some reason, there were a lot of horror hosts in Ohio, and most of them had “ghoul” somewhere in their name. The Cool Ghoul hosted Scream-In on WXIX in Cincinnati while wearing an orange wig that was supposedly made from the wig of a woman who died in a car crash - now that’s a dedication to being spooky.
Even though Scream-In only ran for about three and a half years the Cool Ghoul continued to make public appearances and he popped up on TV every Halloween. Then, in the early ‘80s, the Cool Ghoul surfaced North Carolina on WCTI-TV. It’s hard to keep a good ghoul down.
In 1971, Jerry G. Bishop created one of the longest-running horror hosts in Svengoolie, a kind of horror hippie meets vaudeville-era comedian. The character first appeared on Chicago’s Channel 32 Screaming Yellow Theater until it was canceled in 1973, but that wouldn’t be the end of Svengoolie. In 1979 the character was brought back by Richard Koz.
Initially, Koz performed as Son of Svengoolie from ’79 until ’86 when the show was canceled once again. However, Svengoolie rose from the grave a third time for WCIU before moving to MeTV where you can still see Svengoolie get his ghoul on.
The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the horror of Texas? While he sounds more like a bad B-movie monster than horror host, Gorgon was actually a fairly well-respected television presenter in his day. Appearing on Saturday nights on KFJZ in Dallas/Fort Worth Gorgon hosted Nightmare, a fairly straight forward horror show that eschewed jokes and gags and went heavy on atmosphere.
Usually, the KFJZ crew went out of their way to create elaborate sets that mirrored the film that was being broadcast, and versions of the film’s creatures appeared on the show. Many of them did away with Gorgon as the credits rolled.
What’s so spooky about a guy named Marvin? From 1957 to 1959, this skinny little beatnick in a black turtleneck hosted Chicago's WBKB’s Shock Theatre. Marvin was played by Terry Bennett, and his companion “Dear,” on whom he performed his gruesome experiments, was played by his actual wife Joy Bennett.
Marvin’s Shock Theater was so popular that WBKB added an extra 30 minutes to the series that was called The Shocktale Party, where Marvin hung out with a bevy of creepy characters as well as “The Deadbeats,” a band made up of musical zombies.
Morgus the Magnificent
From the late 1950s into the 1980s, Sid Noel portrayed Morgus the Magnificent, a mad scientist who presented horror films with his sidekick Chopsley. Rather than simply make fun of the movies, Morgus created inventions around the concept of the movie. At the end of the episode, his creations usually went wonky.
Morgus the Magnificent’s House of Shock began airing in New Orleans in 1959 before moving to Detroit in ’64. But a year later he returned to New Orleans and the show continued off and on until the ‘80s. Noel was so keen on keeping his identity as Morgus on the DL that hardly told his children about his gig as a mad scientist.
From 1958 to 1961 a ghoul named Selwyn wearing a bolero hat, cape, and pasty makeup presented Universal horror movies to the greater Indianapolis area. Aside from giving the gift of horror to his viewers, Selwyn’s show was performed in front of a live studio audience.
Selwyn was played by Ray Sparenberg, a producer for WISH-8 who had a theater background, which is what made him so adept at the character. But Dave Smith, former program manager and “creator” of Selwyn, told the Indy Star that Sparenberg's writing wasn't up to snuff, so Smith wrote every word that Selwyn said on the show. Even though the show was modeled off of Zacherly’s Shock Theater, Selwyn’s fans didn’t care and they continued to tune in.
Not every horror host was a ghoul, count, or a mad scientist, some of them were astronauts. In 1963, San Diego’s KOGO began airing Science Fiction Theater, a series hosted by Moona Lisa, a mod astronaut in a leather catsuit who often performed with a live python wrapped around her body while a plume of “moon smoke” wafted around her.
Moona Lisa also portrayed other characters on the show. In 1965 she premiered “The Roaches” (as opposed to The Beatles) a band made up of guys wearing multi-arm costumes and sunglasses. She moved up to Los Angeles in 1972 before coming back to San Diego in ’73 and then moving to St. Louis in the same year. Even though Moona Lisa went away in the mid-‘70s, we’ll always have “happy hallucinations.”
Unlike most of his horror host compatriots, Chilly Billy, also known as, Bill Cardille, has a serious horror pedigree. This Pennsylvania native appeared in the original and the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead, and he even has an uncredited role as a zombie in Day of the Dead. In 1964, Cardille began hosting Chiller Theater, a Saturday night series that showed creature features while Chilly Billy deadpanned about their substance.
The show was so popular that it aired until 1983 without changing its time slot, which means that Chilly Billy bumped Saturday Night Live from Pittsburgh for its first five years. Cardille was so popular that September 28 is “Bill Cardille Day” in Pittsburgh.
Sir Graves Ghastly
Out of all the horror hosts who thrived in the ‘60s and ‘70s, no one had as great a name as Sir Graves Ghastly -- the guy was knight, after all. While hosting Sir Graves' Big Show, Ghastly presented black and white horror movies with his cohorts Baruba, The Glob, and the gravedigger Reel McCoy, who started each episode by digging up reels from a cemetery.
The series aired on WJBK in Detroit from 1967 to 1982, and the show was so popular that it was aired in Cleveland and Washington D.C. where Sir Graves Ghastly continued his reign of terror. Due to a change in studio management, the series was canceled in 1982.
Not every horror host wore a pound of pancake makeup and a cape. KTVU’s Creature Features was hosted by the dry and nerdy Bob Wilkins. From 1971 to 1984, Wilkins regaled the San Francisco area with jokes about the science fiction and horror films that aired on the channel. While many regional horror shows aired cheapo horror movies, Creature Features showed genuinely good flicks.
The first episode of Creature Features presented Horror at Party Beach, a notoriously camp film. Wilkins was a slight and shy young man who had a sharp wit. Even after the show ended Wilkins popped up from time to time to host a late night horror film or two.
On November 4, 1975, WAVY-TV premiered the character Doctor Madblood during a special viewing of House of Frankenstein. Madblood’s characterization is a bit more slapdash than many of the other horror hosts included here, with Jerry Harrell portraying the character in a big curly wig and a lab coat. To this day Madblood is joined by an odd cast of characters that make the whole thing feel like a high school production - in a good way.
Madblood is still performing in different reunions, and thanks to PBS his most recent performances are online. So if you want to relive the feeling of watching b-horror in Virginia check it out.
From 1969 to 1979 Joseph Zawislak portrayed Dr. Shock, a classy zombie with slicked-back hair, spats, and a big coat. He aired movies on Philadelphia’s WPHL-TV Channel 17 under a collection of different show names. What began with Scream-In turned to Mad Theater and finished off as Horror Theater - each name was fitting to draw in a kid stuck at home watching horror movies.
Along with ripping on the movies, Dr. Shock brought out his hunchbacked assistant Boris to goof around, and he even made fun of the sponsors. In 1969 he named his nine-month-old daughter “Bubbles” for Bubbles-Booth Soda.
Los Angeles has had its fair share of horror hosts. Every one of them had their own spooky specialties, and Grimsley was one of the most darkly funny horror hosts ever. From 1976 to 1978 he hosted Fright Night on KHJ-TV where he dropped grim bon mots like “Grimsleyland, where you can bury your friends and have fun!”
The character of Grimsley was portrayed as an undertaker who just happened to be into movies and playing a giant pipe organ. He even had his own embalming bags for sale for a while. Can you think of a better way to advertise your show?
Count Gore de Vol
Washington D.C.’s longest running horror host was Count Gore de Vol, a guy who looks like a vampire who fell into a vat of pancake makeup. His show on WDCA, Creature Feature, showed movies like Night of the Living Dead in between sketches and interviews with Penthouse Pets. Many of his jokes had to do with local politics, and Creature Fear was even the first show in the D.C. area to broadcast in stereo.
Even though his show was canceled in the ‘80s, the Count can still be seen online giving unique performances and goofing on movies. He’s also a regular at Baltimore area horror conventions.
Tags: Ghoulardi | Local TV | Maila Nurmi | Popular Lists Of Everything From The Groovy Era | TV In The 1950s | TV In The 1960s | TV In The 1970s | Vampira
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