Ghoulardi: Cleveland’s Monster of Ceremonies

blog openerThis semester, I covered a topic in my horror-science fiction course that I never addressed before—monster culture. Monster culture was that phenomenon that began in the 1950s in which young fans of horror and sci fi embraced all things monster—from b-movies to models to fanzines like Famous Monsters of Filmland. It kept horror alive and well during the late 1950s and early 1960s when the Hollywood industry had left the genre to indie directors, who made films for drive-in and second run markets. Monster culture created an affection and tolerance among fans for schlocky examples of horror and sci fi; introduced viewers to older eras of horror; and made fans accepting of old black & white movies, extending stardom for legends such as Boris Karloff and Bela Legosi.

Television was key to monster culture from the 1950s till the advent of the home-viewing industry in the 1980s. For many of us who grew up during that time frame, watching horror films, creature features, and sci-fi was like a weekend ritual to be shared with friends. The high priests (and priestesses) of those rituals were the horror hosts—television personalities who hosted the weekly horror series on local stations. Only recently have critics and scholars begun to give horror hosts their due for cultivating monster culture and creating a fan base that embraced films from previous eras. (See The Monster Show by David Skal.) Fostering a love for classic movies is not easy—something film studies instructors know all too well.

blogvampira

THE INCOMPARABLE VAMPIRA

The first horror host was likely Vampira – who began hosting horror movies in Los Angeles in 1954. Vampira introduced b-movies in the horror and mystery genres late on Saturday nights for KABC. For her role as Vampira, Maila Nurmi fasted, dieted, and cinched her waist down to a lean 17 inches, emphasizing her cleavage. She donned long fingernails that looked like threatening claws, long black hair, very pointed eyebrows, and a shredded black gown, which gave her a gothic look. In doing so, she eluded to sex and death—those two taboos that the horror genre exposes.

I have always thought that Vampira’s on-air persona, with her angular body proportions, overt sexuality, and morbid jokes, downright subversive in terms of that era’s version of “feminine beauty.” She seems the doppelganger to Monroe’s soft blonde bombshell with her coy, naïve star image. While there were several female hosts on television during the 1950s who headlined their own shows (Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Shirley Temple), they were most often associated with tasteful melodrama, children’s programming, or variety—in other words, genres suitable for women.

Vampira was not the only female horror host, but she is the one that has become part of horror history. I know little about other female hosts, but it seems important to acknowledge them. At KTLA in L.A., Ottola Nesmith played a demented old lady who sat in front of an old-fashioned Victrola to host her films, while Suzanne Waldron of KPTV’s House of Horror in Portland, Oregon, appeared as Tarantula Ghoul, known for her deadly pets, including a boa, a tarantula, and a rattlesnake.

SUZANNE WALDRON AS THE TARANTULA GHOUL

SUZANNE WALDRON AS THE TARANTULA GHOUL

I grew up in tiny Ashtabula, Ohio, which is halfway between Cleveland and Erie. Monster Culture in Northeast Ohio was first presided over by Ghoulardi, the creation of Ernie Anderson. The former disc jockey had begun his tv career hosting a morning movie show on WJW, Channel 8. In 1962, the station decided to jump on the horror-host bandwagon. Management planned to devote their post-news, Friday-night slot to Shock Theater, a package of 52 Universal horror films that the studio sold to television syndication. The original cycle of Universal monster movies were included in addition to the lesser-known sequels and sequels of sequels. Channel 8 assigned Anderson to be their monster of ceremonies.

GHOULARDI WAS SO POPULAR IN CLEVELAND THAT RESTAURANTS NAMED DRINKS AND DISHES AFTER HIM.

GHOULARDI WAS SO POPULAR IN CLEVELAND THAT RESTAURANTS NAMED DRINKS AND DISHES AFTER HIM.

FANS MADE ALL SORTS OF CARTOONS, CARDS, AND GADGETS FOR GHOULARDI, WHO SHOWED THEM ON THE AIR -- AND SOMETIMES BLEW THEM UP.

FANS MADE ALL SORTS OF CARTOONS, CARDS, AND GADGETS FOR GHOULARDI, WHO SHOWED THEM ON THE AIR — AND SOMETIMES BLEW THEM UP.

The station held a contest to allow viewers to select a name for the new host, and management expected Anderson to play it straight. However, Anderson began to percolate his own ideas. The public selected the name Ghoulardo, but he did not think it fit the persona he had in mind—a madcap beatnik with a taste for the irreverent. Opting for Ghoulardi, Anderson immersed viewers in his own on-air world, which quickly spread outside the confines of the tv station. Ghoulardi preferred his own drink (Ghoul-aid), encouraged kids to read the classics (The Tragedy of Ghoulious Caesar), and invented a kind of language, which irritated teachers everywhere.

HANDMADE MEMBERSHIP CARD FOR THE GHOULARDI KNIF FAN CLUB

HANDMADE MEMBERSHIP CARD FOR THE GHOULARDI KNIF FAN CLUB

In grade school, kids called each other “knifs,” or taunted each other with “purple knif.” If I remember correctly, the word was pronounced “k-nif,” but its pronunciation didn’t matter as much as its derivation. “Knif” was fink spelled backwards. Other phrases tossed around included, “Turn blue,” “drop dead,” and “Stay sick.” The mispronunciation of actual words tended to drive teachers crazy. I remember my older cousin teaching me to mispronounce the numeral nine as “ny-enn,” drawing out the one-syllable word into two, like Ghoulardi had when he poked fun at telephone operators.

Apparently, parents frowned on Ghoulardi’s penchant for blowing up toys and models with firecrackers on the air. Sometimes, he blew up strange, hand-made items sent to him by fans—models of monsters or various Ghoulardi-like gadgets (i.e., knifmeters). Rumor has it that one fan sent him a live snake.

Talented at satire, Anderson included regular installments of Parma Place, a weekly skit patterned after the wildly popular, night-time soap Peyton Place. On Parma Place, residents of Parma (an actual suburb of Cleveland) wore white socks, ate Cheez Whiz sandwiches, listened to polka music, and decorated their lawns with numerous pink flamingoes. The mayor of Parma, which was heavily populated by Polish immigrants, grew angry at the ridicule. At the time, Polish jokes were all the rage, which unfairly stereotyped Polish immigrants, and Parma Place added to this ugly stereotyping. Anderson wisely eliminated the bit from his repertoire of skits and jokes.

PARMA PLACE WAS A PARODY OF 'PEYTON PLACE,' BUT RESIDENTS OF PARMA WERE NOT AMUSED.

‘PARMA PLACE’ WAS A PARODY OF ‘PEYTON PLACE,’ BUT RESIDENTS OF PARMA WERE NOT AMUSED.

Like other horror hosts around the country, Ghoulardi cut into the movies with gags and funny comments. He cracked jokes about ordering pizza, commented on horror-film clichés, and superimposed himself into the movies, often running away from various monsters in crowd scenes. As a film studies instructor, I now see how these kind of self-reflexive jokes helped fans and viewers learn the conventions of the genre. In a way, they were deconstructing the films—and the genre—by calling attention to the conventions, then spinning and subverting them. It was a kind of self-reflexive, self-aware comedy that pointed out the nature of genre storytelling.

TIM CONWAY, WHO LATER COSTARRED ON 'THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW,' WORKED BEHIND THE SCENES FOR SEVERAL OF CLEVELAND'S  LEGENDARY HORROR HOSTS.

TIM CONWAY, WHO LATER COSTARRED ON ‘THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW,’ WORKED BEHIND THE SCENES FOR SEVERAL OF CLEVELAND’S LEGENDARY HORROR HOSTS.

Oddly, in my memory, Ghoulardi seemed a bigger part of my childhood than he actually was. I was far too young to recall much of Shock Theater. Most of my recollections of him were from the half-hour show he hosted on weekday afternoons, which my parents didn’t always allow me to watch. Then in 1966-1967, Anderson left Cleveland for Hollywood, where he enjoyed a lucrative career as the prime-time announcer for ABC. Other horror hosts were hustled in to take his place, and I have more vivid memories of them. Hoolihan and Big Chuck replaced Ghoulardi on Channel 8 with a more vaudeville approach to their skits and jokes. My best friend and I spent many a Friday night together to watch their antics and to add another horror flick to our lists. After Hoolihan (Bob Wells) moved on to other opportunities, Chuck Schowdowski continued with Big Chuck and Lil John.

In high school, my loyalty switched to the Ghoul on Kaiser Broadcasting. The Ghoul was played by Ron Sweed, who had served as a production assistant for Ghoulardi before leaving for college. On his return, he worked behind the scenes with Big Chuck and Hoolihan. His act owed a lot to Ghoulardi, but, in my opinion, Sweed was much better at cutting into the movies to play snarky comments, sound effects, and snippets from songs. I owe my love of Gamera movies to the Ghoul, who played them frequently during his first tenure in Cleveland.

Monster culture began to recede when the home-viewing industry emerged during the 1980s. Horror hosts still exist, but they lack the following and stature of the old days. There was a ritual component and bonding experience to watching the horror hosts as they spun their versions of ghoulish characters who presented strange stories to acolytes and followers. It was like sharing ghost stories around the campfire in days of old.

 

34 Responses Ghoulardi: Cleveland’s Monster of Ceremonies
Posted By robbushblog : April 4, 2016 3:18 pm

I grew up watching Elvira. I thought she was awesome, and she still looks pretty good, 30 years later. I have watched Svengoolie a few times, but I guess now I’d rather just watch the movies as opposed to having them constantly interrupted.

Posted By Autist : April 4, 2016 4:30 pm

I grew up in Indiana during the ’70s, and our late Friday night horror movie show was Nightmare Theater with Sammy Terry. I trace my love for classic horror/gothic B&W movies to Sammy.

Posted By swac44 : April 4, 2016 4:48 pm

I was lucky enough to catch the tail-end of this era on Bangor, Maine’s NBC affiliate, WLBZ-TV, which had the shows WEIRD and WEIRD 2, hosted by station nutbar Eddie Driscoll. Presumably, Stephen King enjoyed it as well. (The radio station he owns used to advertise on the channel, it was a big deal in Bangor when he took it over.)

I guess it was the usual Shock Theatre package, but I remember seeing films featuring everyone’s favourite radioactive turtle, Gamera the Invincible. Luckily, I recorded a tribute to Driscoll and WEIRD when the station had its 40th anniversary and uploaded it to YouTube (sorry for the lousy VHS tracking):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoSGmUOxMGI

Posted By swac44 : April 4, 2016 5:08 pm

Apparently Stephen King attended Eddie Driscoll’s retirement party. According to his obit: “By the time Driscoll retired in 1987, after 33 years on TV, the medium had changed completely and there was little need for his kind of impromptu talent.

At his retirement party, author Stephen King told Driscoll his shows had warped King’s childhood.”

Posted By Christine Hoard : April 4, 2016 5:36 pm

I grew up watching Jerry Bishop (I think that was his real name) as the original Svengoolie on Chicago television. He was very funny, very witty. Later there was Son of Svengoolie. Unfortunately, I don’t get the station that carries the current incarnation but if I did I would still watch.

Posted By blessingx : April 4, 2016 7:16 pm

Grew up in Northern Ohio in Ghoulardi’s shadow. Especially loved every time THX1138 came around and Lil John freaked out (his most hated film of all time). Great to read this and also whenever Ernie Anderson comes up in Paul Thomas Anderson pieces.

Posted By chris : April 4, 2016 8:14 pm

In our nick of the words(southwest Indiana) it was “Tales from the Tomb”. All the classic Universals with some 50′s and 60′s b-movies thrown into the mix.

Posted By George : April 4, 2016 8:34 pm

Grew up watching “Fantastic Features” in Memphis, hosted by Sivad (Davis spelled backwards). The show’s opening scared the hell out of me as a kid. It’s still pretty creepy, although I know now that it was filmed in a park, not a cemetery. And when Sivad starts talking, his thick Southern accent sort of ruins the illusion!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QgwgDvq3t4

Posted By George : April 4, 2016 8:49 pm

Later, I watched Sir Cecil Creape on Nashville’s “Creature Feature.” That lasted until the mid-1980s.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tn1NfcFQ1n4

Posted By kingrat : April 4, 2016 9:53 pm

This was really fun to read about, even though I don’t like horror movies.

Susan, if you’re going to this year’s festival, would you please send me a PM? Maybe we could say “Hi” at Club TCM some night. I’d be glad to introduce you to some of the cool TCM fans I’ve met over the years.

Posted By AL : April 4, 2016 10:17 pm

…and ZACHERLEY ?

Posted By AL : April 4, 2016 10:37 pm

Years ago, at one of those convention-thingee’s in L.A., Vampira appeared–but as MAILA NURMI. I stood in line to get an autographed photo and, just as she was about to sign the Vampira photo I had selected, I spotted a very unusual portrait of Maila in a white wig and I yelled “WAIT!”. She paused, pen in hand, and I asked if I could have the aforementioned instead. “You want THAT one?” she asked. “Oh, yes, please, fer sure fer-sure!” It now hangs on my bedroom wall in a Cool art-deco frame… AL

Posted By swac44 : April 4, 2016 11:50 pm

There’s also an indepth documentary about the great horror hosts called American Scary that’s worth checking out. The film has a website here:

http://www.americanscary.com/

Posted By swac44 : April 4, 2016 11:54 pm

Here are the American Scary trailers. Nice to see interviews with Ghoulardi, Maila Nurmi, Zacherle, Tim Conway, Tim Lucas, Leonard Maltin, Forrest Ackerman and many more.

http://www.americanscary.com/trailers.html

Posted By swac44 : April 4, 2016 11:58 pm

I was introduced to Big Chuck and L’il John by a friend of mine who grew up in Aylmer, Ont. (directly across Lake Erie from Ashtabula, as it turns out) and had tapes of a couple of their shows that he was able to pick up from the airwaves across the water. Or possibly his cable company got the stations from over the border, just like we got the Bangor, Me. stations in Nova Scotia.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 5, 2016 12:19 am

Swac44: We used to get a CBC channel, which always showed slightly more daring movies than American channels did. I saw ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST for the first time on CBC.

Posted By George : April 5, 2016 12:53 am

CBC aired the Smothers Brothers show uncut in the late ’60s. Americans had to make do with the censored versions.

Posted By George : April 5, 2016 1:13 am

Ghoulardi creator Ernie Anderson (1923-1997) was the father of director Paul Thomas Anderson.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0026700/?ref_=nmbio_trv_1

Posted By Mike Doran : April 6, 2016 12:43 am

I’m still trying to figure out why you didn’t mention Ernie Anderson’s connection with Tim Conway in the post.
Tom Conway (as he was then known) was Anderson’s booth director in Cleveland in the early ’60s; he made his first on-camera appearances whenever scheduled guests failed to show up for Anderson’s daily movie show.
The story is oft told, but Steve Allen got word that Conway was funny and brought him to Hollywood (where he “dotted the O” in Tom). Once established in LA, Tim Conway brought ouy Ernie Anderson to be his straight man on club dates (they made a couple of albums).
When Lyle Waggoner left his post as Carol Burnett’s announcer, Conway scored the gig for Anderson; his regular sign-off was “This is your announcer speaking.”

As a lifelong Chicagoan, I well remember Jerry G. Bishop, the original Svengoolie.
He lost this post when Kaiser Broadcasting bought Channel 32 and imposed their host on Chicago – The Ghoul, Ron Sweed.
In Chicago, Sweed was an immediate and resounding flop.
One friend of mine said that he’d had funnier illnesses.
Jerry G. left Chicago for San Diego not long afterwards, signing over the rights to Sven to Rich Koz, who’s held the franchise ever since.

Just so you know …

Posted By Jim Conversino : April 6, 2016 2:40 am

Susan, I also remember Ghoulardi as a bigger part of my life than he was. I was only in grade school when he left Cleveland. My memories were more of his Saturday afternoon show. I tried to stay awake for his Friday night show, rarely making it. I loved his weekly episodes of Flash Gordon, starring Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon shown before the main feature. Chuck Schodowski has some great stories of his time with, and after, Ghoulardi in his autobiography. Have you seen the great documentary of Ghoulardi’s time in Cleveland, produced by Cleveland’s WVIZ? Definitely great memories. I don’t think there will ever be a time again where any local TV entertainment program will have that kind of influence.

Posted By SteveW : April 6, 2016 6:09 pm

In the Kansas City area there was Gregory Grave in the 1950′s, years later followed on the distaff side by Penny Dreadful, both dressed in black, or so it seemed since I watched them on a black-and-white tv.

Posted By Dan Oliver : April 6, 2016 7:01 pm

In the early ’70s Kansas City had The Creeper, who encouraged us to recite along with him The Creeper Creed: “I promise every Saturday night, instead of going to sleeper, I’ll tune in to Channel 41 and watch movies with The Creeper.”

About this same time Wichita had The Host and Rodney. The Host was always telling us to “feast your optic orbs” on whatever he wanted us to look at next.

And finally, eastern North Carolina had a former newsman dressed up like a ghoul known as Robin Graves. Love that name.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : April 7, 2016 7:21 pm

Growing up an hour from Chicago, it was also Svengoolie for me. And when the weather was right, I could get channel 13 out of Rockford that had someone known as The Phantom on Friday nights.

Not old enough to remember Jerry Bishop, but the Rich Koz incarnation of Svengoolie gave me my love for old horror films. That, and the fact that in those days when UHF channels weren’t tied to a national network, horror films played all weekend long to fill up time. I still often find myself more likely to watch “mainstream” films during the week or on Sunday, but Friday-Saturday is typically reserved for horror and sci-fi.

For the longest time, I dreamed of being a horror film show host when I grew up. To be so naive as to think that all these years later it would still be a thing…

Posted By CitizenKing : April 7, 2016 7:53 pm

I grew up in central Illinois, and our TV came from Peoria. We had the Chuck Acri (sp?) Creature Feature hosted by a local aluminum siding business owner who of course hawked his business. He played it straight, but had some costumed sidekicks roaming about. This aired on Saturday nights, I think on NBC affiliate WEEK.

The interesting thing is that the same guy showed up on Sunday mornings hosting a Comedy Classics show where I was introduced to Abbott and Costello, W. C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Bros., the Ritz Bros. and many more. Old Chuck would host the Sunday show in pajamas and slippers, sipping on a cup of coffee. It was as if he had been up late at night like we were, and was now just waking up to old comedy movies.

I always liked the tie in.

Posted By George : April 7, 2016 8:49 pm

For those who are interested, here’s an hour-long documentary on Ghoulardi.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7TcPI-vCDI

It was a short-lived phenom, lasting from 1963 to the end of 1966. That’s when Anderson took Tim Conway’s advice and moved to California. He was a flop as an actor (he couldn’t memorize lines) but became wealthy as an announcer — the “Voice of ABC.”

Posts like this make me nostalgic for the days when every city produced its own entertainment and had its own local celebrities. Everything on TV seems to homogenized today. Guess it’s been that way since most stations dumped their horror hosts and ran late-night reruns of “Dallas” (or infomercials) instead.

Posted By George : April 7, 2016 8:50 pm

Re Tim Conway’s name change: The fact that there was already an actor in Hollywood named Tom Conway (George Sanders’ brother) may have influenced this decision.

Posted By Jim Conversino : April 7, 2016 10:03 pm

George you hit the nail on the head. Now local stations produce nothing but news and public service programs.
Until his dying day, Ernie Anderson could never believe how much of a hit Ghoulardi had been. 50 years later and there is still a Ghoulardifest each year. People attend who weren’t even born when the show ended.

Posted By George : April 7, 2016 11:22 pm

It wasn’t just the horror shows. TV stations aired local talent contests, children’s shows (usually hosted by someone who showed cartoons and Three Stooges shorts to an in-studio audience of kids), and teen dance shows (local versions of American Bandstand). All that is gone in most cities. I guess it’s cheaper to air syndicated talk shows in the afternoon.

Posted By George : April 8, 2016 2:31 am

“… and ZACHERLEY ?”

Here’s some vintage clips of Zacherly:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PijVMRf6lBQ

John Zacherle is still alive at 97! He and Vampira were probably the most famous horror hosts, because they were in the biggest markets: Vampira in L.A., Zacherly in New York City (after a stint in Philadelphia).

Posted By Jim Conversino : April 8, 2016 3:40 am

Speaking of clips, what a shame it is that almost none of Ghoulardi’s clips survived. I think I remember reading somewhere that the shows were video taped, which wasn’t always done in those days, but later the station re-used most of the tapes. I don’t think more than just a few minutes of clips exist.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : April 8, 2016 3:33 pm

Cool to hear that Zacherle is still alive.

I often confused him with Ghoulardi. As a kid, I had his song Dinner with Drac on 45, and one of my earliest memories is playing it over and over when I was about 4. I think my parents refusal to keep playing it was what caused me to learn how to work a record player at such an early age.

Posted By George : April 8, 2016 11:03 pm

“Speaking of clips, what a shame it is that almost none of Ghoulardi’s clips survived.”

Same with Vampira. Her show aired live in 1954-55, before videotape was introduced, and only a few scraps of kinescope exist.

At least someone taped this gem: Zacherly’s 1967 Disc-O-Teen Halloween Dance Party … featuring the Box Tops! What a fascinating trainwreck.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lJgDL11lUk

Posted By Mike Sommers : October 7, 2017 12:05 am

I could NOT wait until the TV GUIDE came in the mail … to see what MOVIE Ghoulardi would be showing that week! In fact, it led me to sign up to have a TV GUIDE delivery route in my neighborhood! I made a nickle for everyone I sold! Loved the show! Class of 1972 here …. ORRVILLE HS!

Posted By Dodi : October 7, 2017 2:41 pm

Granted I live and grew up 40 miles north of Columbus but my Saturday night’s were with my dad watching Hooligan & Big Chuck the Little John & Big Chuck. Granted Columbus did have Chiller Theatre and Fritz the Night Owl but my horror heart belongs to Cleveland!

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