Saturday, October 6, 2007

A Host of Horrors

If you're a relic like me, you probably grew up with a horror host. You know the drill: a guy in cheesy makeup, stalking around a set full of styrofoam props and phony spiderwebs, delivering wilting puns while showing a gamut of the best/worst horror films an independent TV station can afford. On the west coast you had the likes of Seymour, John Stanley, and Elvira. The folks in the east enjoyed Zacherly and Count Gore. Here in the midwest, a fertile ground for the horror hosts, we sat up on weekends nights and watched Ghoulardi, Sir Graves Ghastly, Svengoolie, and even the Son of Svengoolie (Rich Koz, one of the most talented guys in Chicago television; I'll have to devote a full column to him at some point).

Sadly, the horror host has largely gone the way of the drive-in movie (another future column), and these days you'll mainly find such programs on the internet (hardly the same) or on hard-to-find cable access stations. Thank goodness there are still folks keeping that faith, though, as the horror host is a very special breed, and for many of us takes up a very special place in our nostalgic hearts. These days, the torch has been passed to the likes of Dr. Zombie, A. Ghastlee Ghoul, and The Bone Jangler. If you're interested in the subject, there are a number of websites out there, including The Horror Host Underground, TV Horror Hosts, and E-gor's Chamber of TV Horror Hosts.

For me, the greatest of the horror hosts was Indiana's own Sammy Terry. In 1961, disk jockey Bob Carter moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and began filling a number of positions at WTTV-TV, including hosting a three-hour morning talkfest entitled "Coffee with Carter." When Universal Studios began offering a package of its old horror films, however, a number of independent stations created horror host programs to facilitate the showing of these classics. WTTV was no exception, and launched Shock Theater, with Carter doing voice-overs as they showed still photos during commercials. These intros and extros proved so popular, though, that the station pressed Carter to create an on-camera character, and Sammy Terry was born. The name of the show was changed to Nightmare Theater, and boy, that's sure what it was for me.

How do I describe Sammy? Well, he was a cloaked, hooded creature straight from the bowels of Gehenna...with a rubber spider named "George" on a very-visible string to keep him company. Sammy would do host segments to break up the movie, usually humorous stuff in typical horror host fashion, but there was always something damned deadly serious about him, too. Bob Carter had this wonderful voice, this cadence that could've made him the rival of most Shakespearean actors, and when he'd do a monologue, it would be a thing of beauty. The most unforgettable thing about Sammy, though, was his laugh. Oh, god, that laugh. On Friday nights, I'd huddle under the covers, and when the show began, and I'd hear that coffin lid creak, I'd pull the blanket up over my head and wait for THE LAUGH.

Sammy was a mainstay of Hoosier television from the early 1960s all the way into the 1980s. For many of us, his show was our first exposure to the classic Universal monster movies, and to countless other horror classics (and not-so-classics) as well. Heck, I remember once in the early 70s when Sammy was doing a live stage show at various Hoosier venues, and when he came to my town, you can bet I nagged my folks until they dropped me off at the Mars Theater in downtown Lafayette to see Sammy do his combination comedy/magic act schtik. I don't remember all of it now, but I do recall a guillotine was prominently featured. Afterwards, Sammy graciously talked to folks in the lobby and signed posters. I tell ya, at the time it was the highpoint of my life.

Bob semi-retired Nightmare Theater in the late 80s, but every few years since then, WTTV has brought him back for Halloween specials, during which he's shown films like the original Night of the Living Dead and, inexplicably, Batman Returns??? He also makes regular appearances at various "haunted houses" around the state in October (which lead to an interesting incident a few years ago in which some scoundrel was going around MASQUERADING as the real Sammy Terry and making some dough for these public appearances).

Sammy Terry and Bob Carter have played a bigger part in my life than they'll ever know. If not for them, I'm not sure I'd be the massive uber-nerd/comic writer I am today. I think about that pretty much every day, when I see the pic of Sammy I have affixed to the front of my refrigerator (I just wish it'd scare me away from the food).

Here's to you, Sammy Terry, and to all the horror hosts who have made our lives a bit more filled with wonder. Pleasant nightmares!


NuclearToast said...

One of the fun thing about horror hosts was how the good ones could effectively combine camp with scary. Except I never remembered that Elvira was talking...

Slickriptide said...

It seems like there were a lot of Nightmare Theaters back in the good old days of Friday night horror shows.

KIRO TV in Seattle had its own brand of Nightmare Theater, featuring the Count. He managed to balance schlock and scariness and to a 10-year-old staying up past bedtime, Nightmare Theater was deliciously frightening. If nothing else,I have The Count (Joe Tooey, a producer at KIRO back in the day) to thank for my everlasting love of Vincent Price movies.

The Count became something of a local celebrity for the years he was on TV. He'd show up at parades and promotional events and what not. They just don't make TV like that any more.

Troy Hickman said...

As I recall, Slick, wasn't The Count also used as a character on the J.P. Patches kids show?

Mekadave said...

That brings me back to my childhood, when we had Creature Feature on Saturday mornings down here in South Florida. Everything from Godzilla movies to B&W horror flicks. Good times.

You should check out this webcomic, Midnight Macabre, an offshoot of another pretty good webcomic, Something Positive.

From the FAQ:
Midnight Macabre is the story of Gaspar Baugh, a twenty-something comedian trying to keep a long-standing midnight monster matinee show going on a small, often overlooked UHF station in northern Texas. It is also the story of the people he meets along the way. Starting in 1981, the comic takes place twenty-six years ago.

Jim McClain said...

In northern Michigan we had Count Zapula on Saturday nights. His terrifying Yorkie named Igor (pronounced eye-gore) was always at his side.

Troy Hickman said...

Hi, Jim! And yeah, Yorkies ARE terrifying, with all that yapping and such. I think I accidentally swallowed one in my sleep...