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.|
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.|
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.
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.