Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Horror Of...Universal Monsters and Shock Theater

From Screen Gem catalog.
Following my look at Universal Monsters in general, I wanted to consider how these characters emerged. Sure, they had their premieres, and found fans. But what happen in the decades to follow, to help keep them in the public's mind? I wanted to look at where those creatures went in the 1950's. And the answer is...

Shock Theater! (or Theatre, if you like)

In 1957 Universal made the decision to release 52 of it's horror movies in a package called SHOCK! It was part of a deal made with Screen Gems. (They also sold packages of other genres.) The idea was to syndicate these movies, and share them on television.

It was an important moment, as it allowed these movies to be more easily accessed by a new generation of potential fans. Like the young kids that never got to see these movies the first time around. Also those that remember seeing these movies in a different time. It was a chance to be taken back to their youths.

Among this package of movies was Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Mummy. Most of what would be called the Universal Monsters. (Obviously Creature from the Black Lagoon was still a too recent movie for them to offer up.) Also many of the sequels were also offered up. And other interesting films, like The Black Cat.

And then in 1958 a second batch of 20 movies were released. SON OF SHOCK. It included more of the Universal Monster sequels, including Bride of Frankenstein.

It all created quite a stir with TV viewers, and inspired new merchandise and new media.

The Daily Republic, Mitchell, SD, February 24, 1961 -
Shock Theatre on KELO-LAND.
Now with a massive selection of horror movies on hand, stations had a choice. They could just announce it, show a small graphic, and put on the movies on late nights, which was the option many channels went with.. Or, they could do something more. Horror movies with stylized hosting. Hosts talking and joking about the movies, and the genre. And many stations around the country decided to try and do something a bit special.

Of course, this was not the first time it was tried. Going back to 1954, Los Angeles's KABC-TV had on Vampira, in Lady of Horrors. But this show was limited to the Los Angeles area, and was sadly not recorded.

Still, Vampira managed to firmly cement her position in horror and horror host history.

The idea was such a good one. With a host, a little music, and a cheap background, a channel could make TV that drew in the viewers. And SHOCK! was a trove of classics and some just fun movies that could be the basis of years of TV. So stations across the country tried various entertainers out. Often it came down to actors from kids show, who knew how to do some theatrics, costumes, and campy humor. It made for shows that everyone could enjoy.

In 1957, Philadelphia's WCAU brought Shock Theater to the air. It's host was Roland (promnounced Ro-LAND), played by John Zacherle. He had pulled out a long black coat he wore as an undertaker in a Western, applied some ghoulish makeup, and Roland was born. He had a wife living in coffin with him, his Igor, and also a son named Gasport, hanging in a bag on the wall. Roland would walk around his set and creep out the kids, and joke, then start the movie. He also had a band on hand to play music related to skits, or tied to the movies.

And it was eaten up by the viewers at home.

A little of Zacherle opening a show.

He set an example for future generations of horror host to follow. Zacherle would continued on in horror hosting for years.,He would become Master Ghoul Zacherley (They added a "y".) in 1958, at New York's WABC. And his wife got a name, Isobel.

Zacherle continued on, and is seen as horror hosting royalty. Often he was turned to as a representative of the genre.

Here's a much later release with Zacherley where he quips and looks at trailers for horror movies.

And here's Zacherle appearing on the Mike Douglas Show in the mid 1970's.

Zacherle also began the "jump ins" joke, where during a movie you cut to the host for a quick joke or sight gag. It was generally meant to insert the host into the movie, often in scenes where a camera is cutting to various people. It's a joke that continues to be used by horror hosts to this day, and still is amusing to see.

Also in 1957, Chicago's WBKB had two hosts. Married couple Terry Bennett and Joy Bennett. They hosted their own Shock Theater. They were comic's who previously hosted kids shows. On Shock Theater they played Marvin and Dear. They had various odd and humorous skits before and after the movie, and during the ad breaks. They also had a band, the Deadbeats. The band would play parody songs.

Curiously, in both of these Shock Theaters, the wives were faceless, and mostly nameless. (Don't know what that says.)

Here's some video from the sets, and some audio from the show overlaid.

And here are a couple of the skits.

At the Lincoln Park Zoo

At Wrigley Field

1957 also saw Nashville's WSIX-TV starting showing their own Shock Theater. It might be a recreation of the opening for the show. If not, it's creepy music and Universal Horror (So it's all good.).

The Nashville show was hosted by Dr. Lucifer. Lucifer was played by Ken Bramming. He did voice overs for the show during it's first year. Then they put him onscreen, where he played a debonair variation on many of the ominous characters of Universal Horror, with a bit of a spooky accent.

These pioneers and others of 1958 established a style that would be replicated and built on over the decades to come. Shock Theater would lead to the Creature Feature and the Chiller Theatre. For some more of those first hosts in 1958, try this list.

Over the years more horror hosts have appeared and entertained viewers. Svengoolie. Ghoulardi. Son of Svengoolie. Elvira. Morgus the Magnificent. Dr. Creep. Penny Dreadful. Baron Von Wolfstein, Count Gore de Vol. Joe Bob Briggs. Mr. Lobo. Sir Graves Ghastly. Dr. Dreck. Marlena Midnite. Karlos Borloff. Dr. Gangrene. Joel and the Bots. And many many more.

And through these years, shows, and hands of different hosts, Universal Monsters have continued to be a staple that fans clamor for. How can you enjoy a Friday or Saturday night without one of them popping up? (Don't answer that.)

Anyway, here's one of the modern horror host frameworks, from the Penny Dreadful's Shilling Shockers episode where they show the 1925 Phantom of the Opera.

It would be fun to talk more about these shows and hosts, but that is best left for another day and post. If you are interested in learning about them yourself, try Horror Host Graveyard and E-Gor's Chamber of TV Horror Host.

And if you want a interesting documentary on Horror Host, try American Scary.

For me, it's time to finally get down to the scourge that is Dracula.

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