I took a few moments to take in the majestic oak and maple trees that populate the arboretum on the VAV grounds, and the crisp autumn air combined with the rustling of multi-colored leaves. This time of year reminded me of the approaching Halloween festivities. And, because I single-mindedly relate everything I see to early TV, I wondered about all of those late night horror-film hosts that flickered on TV screens all across the country so many years ago.
You probably remember them. Arguably the most famous was Zacherley, who was seen primarily in the Philadelphia and New York City viewing area. But there was Marvin seen in Chicago Illinois, Morgus in New Orleans, Louisiana and the long running Selwin who brought scary, schlocky movies to the fans in Indianapolis, Indiana. Thanks to Ed Wood’s epic film “Plan Nine from Outer Space” most of us are familiar with the iconic Vampira from Los Angeles, CA. Portrayed by the late Maila Nurmi, her show didn’t last long, only one season from 1954 to 1955, but hers was the first and the blueprint for those that followed.
And, boy, did they follow. Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bob Wilkins in San Francisco, The Cool Ghoul in Cincinnati, Ohio and Moona Lisa of San Diego, California all found local work on TV by introducing drive-in style movies combined with dark, silly humor to local audiences. I’m sure you have a favorite from when you were growing up.
But where did most of these local stations get these odd-ball films and how come all these hosts cropped up around the same time?
Well, it was actually the result of a brilliant observation from some people at Screen Gems. They noticed that TV viewing by adults dropped after 10PM and continued to decrease as the night moved on. And that was truer on weekend nights. The only people watching were teens. Screen Gems had some old Universal movies gathering dust that they speculated were suitable to capture that teen market.
Screen Gems acquired a 10-year lease of the television rights to 550 Universal Pictures features in June 1957, with the intention of packaging them by formats and stars, including horror, crime, and comedy. Screen Gems combed through that film library and selected titles that they figured might appeal to teen viewers. They picked primarily horror, adventure and mystery movies.
Screen Gems then packaged fifty-two of those films together and named it “Shock!”. Fifty-two films were packaged for fifty-two weekend broadcasts. The “Shock!” package included classics such as “Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, “The Mummy”, “The Invisible Man” and the “The Wolf Man”. It also had lesser known films like “The Frozen Ghost”, “The Great Impersonation” and “Pillow of Death”. It sold these packages to local TV stations.
The decision by the local stations to wrap these movies around campy hosts and hostesses was not a new one. Successful old time radio shows such as “Inner Sanctum” featured macabre, dark humored hosts. It was simple, and more importantly, inexpensive, for a station to build a cheap set, recycle some classic vaudeville humor with a dark twist and hire a local actor, or get the weatherman, to take on an over-the-top personality.
The gamble paid off in spades! Viewership in some important national markets, according to Billboard Magazine, rose between 38% to 1,125%. Viewership in San Francisco went up 807%. Most of the stations participating in the “Shock!” program trumped their local competition.
“Shock!” stimulated interest in the classic horror films and performers. Actors, long forgotten, were pulled out of retirement to attend parties, and, after a time, monster conventions. Interest in monsters and those that designed and portrayed them led to Forrest J Ackerman launching “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine in early 1958.
Since 1957, “Shock Theater” has become a generic term, referencing either late night television showings of horror films in general or the genre of early horror films with their emphasis on spooky mood and implied horror, as opposed to the explicitly graphic horror films that followed. A second package, “Son of Shock”, was released for television by Screen Gems in 1958, with 20 horror films from both Universal and Columbia.
In many markets the tradition of wacky hosts coupled with unintentionally funny films continues. From 1988 to 1999 Comedy Central, aired “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. Hosts Svengoolie and Elvira have shows that are still syndicated nationally. Many local stations continue to find it an economical way to bring in revenue.
“Shock!” revolutionized the weekend TV market, revived interest in forgotten old films, invigorated interest in the horror genre in general and made “stars” of some local performers.
Now, I’m going to get some apple cider and warm up by the fireplace in the VAV rumpus room. You can also contact any of our contributing VAV columnists by clicking on the Reporters Hot Line. We love hearing from you.