Sunday, October 28, 2012

From Vampira to Commander USA: A Review of Elena M. Watkins' "Television Horror Movie Hosts"

Are you among the millions of film buffs first introduced to Universal horror classics such as Bride of Frankenstein by the likes of Zacherley, Ghoulardi, Sir Graves Ghastly, or The Bowman Body? If so, you will certainly enjoy Television Horror Movie Hosts, Elena M. Watson's informative, affectionate examination of 68 horror film hosts. These denizens of local, late night television range from Vampira (who made her debut at KABC in 1954) to Elvira (who was popular enough to appear in her own 1989 feature film).

Watson estimates there has been over 200 local horror movie hosts, most of whom appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Vampira, who was played by Maila Nurmi, laid the groundwork for her successors. A Finnish actress with a modest filmography, Nurmi was "discovered" at a costume ball in which she dressed in a form-fitting, low-cut black gown with shredded sleeves. The costume was inspired by Morticia Addams, the Charles Addams cartoon character that appeared in The New Yorker. The striking Nurmi caught the eye of television producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr., who eventually signed her to host horror movies as "Vampira" on a local Los Angeles TV station.

Maila Nurmi as Vampira.
Vampira became an overnight celebrity and also the prototype for all horror movies hosts. She opened her shows with lines like: "I hope you were lucky enough to have a horrible week." She mastered the macabre pun and introduced viewers to her pet spider Rollo. However, her career proved to be short-lived, a fate that would befall future television horror hosts as well. Her KABC series was cancelled in 1955, although she continued to appear as Vampira elsewhere on TV and at special events. She returned to acting and, in 1956, appeared as Vampira in Ed Wood's infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space--ironically, a film that would secure her fame for later generations.

Yet, if Vampira set the stage, Watson credits Screen Gems with starting the horror host craze. After a television showing of King Kong set ratings records in 1956, Screen Gems acquired the television rights to 52 Universal horror films from the 1930s and 1940s. It sold these films to local stations in 90 markets as its "Shock!" package. Part of Screen Gems' strategy was to "encourage the local stations showing the films to add their own macabre hosts." Thus, local television viewers were introduced to Gorgon the Gruesome (Dallas-Fort Worth), Mad Daddy (Cleveland), M. T. Graves (Miami), and Gregore (Omaha).

Bill Bowman as The Bowman Body.
Watson's entertaining horror host profiles reveal the varied backgrounds of the men and women behind the make-up and costumes. Many of them were working in other capacities at their TV stations--making them in the right place at the right time. Bill Bowman was a production supervisor at WXEX in Richmond, Virginia, when the station manager cast him as a horror host. Bowman told Watson: "I thought he was putting me on, until the day the carpenters came to measure me for a coffin." Bowman subsequently became The Bowman Body and enjoyed a long career in television. He still makes occasional appearances in Richmond.

Other horror hosts boasted resumes with acting experience or perhaps a touch a of magic. John Zacherle, who played Roland and later (more famously) Zacherley the Cool Ghoul, appeared in a Western serial called "Action in the Afternoon." Larry Vincent, who played horror host Seymour at a couple of Los Angeles TV stations, was once Kirk Douglas's understudy in a Broadway production of Alice in Arms. And Joseph Zawislak, who played Dr. Shock on WPHL-TV, Philadelphia, was a former magician and insurance agent.

Chilly Billy Cardille in Night of
the Living Dead.
Watson also points out that a handful of hosts, like Vampira, extended their fame to other media. Zacherley had a Top Ten hit on Billboard with the novelty song "Dinner with Drac." Chilly Billy Cardille from Pittsburgh appeared as a news reporter in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). John Stanley, who hosted Creature Features for six years on a Oakland station, wrote The Creatures Features Movie Guide, a lighthearted collection of capsule horror film reviews.

Although the popularity of horror hosts had already faded by the mid-1970s, Watson credits Saturday Night Live and the late night talk shows with putting the final nail in their coffins. Dr. Paul Bearer (Dick Bennick), the longest-running horror host, shifted successfully to Saturday afternoons and Elvira made a splash in the 1980s--but they were the rare exceptions. Most horror hosts returned to their day jobs. Still, some seem to return from the dead on rare occasions, such as Chicago veteran Svengoolie (Rich Koz) who now introduces horror films on Me-TV on Saturday nights.

Elena M. Watson, who died in 1994, successfully captures the history and pop culture impact of these mostly-forgotten local celebrities in Television Horror Movie Hosts. I think she would have been pleased to  know that Svengoolie is on the airwaves again and that The Bowman Body still enlivens Halloween festivities.



This post is part of the Classic TV Horror Host Blogathon, sponsored by the Classic TV Blog Association. For a list of all the blogathon entries, click here. McFarland & Co., Inc. (www.mcfarlandpub.com) provided a courtesy copy of Television Horror Movie Hosts.

6 comments:

  1. Here in the Atlanta area we had Dead Earnest on Friday Night Frights.

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    1. There was also a Dead Ernest in Charlotte on Channel 36. I remember him doing a skit in appliance store one night and his vampire teeth popped out. It was pretty funny at the time.

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  2. This sounds like the perfect reference for the Horror Movie Hosts blogathon! What a fun blast from the past!

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  3. I'd love to have that book. I wonder if our Sammy Terry is in there? It's so interesting to find out who the hosts were and how they go to do those fun shows. I particularly loved Bowman, who said "I thought he was putting me on, until the day the carpenters came to measure me for a coffin." What fun! Good one, Rick!

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  4. I lived near Richmond, VA when I was little. I remember the Bowman Body. Always thought he was so cool. Hadn't thought about him in many years. Was surfing the net and read this today. I enjoyed it!

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  5. I WANT THAT BOOK! I'm in well over my head with this topic but it's fascinating to me how popular some of the horror hosts are despite the fact the majority never really got national attention on their shows. I also didn't realize Vampira's career as a host was over by the mid-fifties.

    Great post!

    Aurora

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