The Iconic Local TV Horror Hosts
Local market horror TV hosts have helped us through nights for decades, using their quirky personalities to introduce popular, creepy, or plain old bad movies - in most instances, these were the pre-cable days that lent themselves to captive audiences. The popular figure that embodied this genre was Elvira (Mistress of the Dark). Unknown to an unfortunately large number of people, her meteoric rise would not have happened without local horror tv hosts building their audiences.
A few of these horror hosts became icons and gained national attention for their characters. However, most of these hosts were only seen locally and rarely given the opportunity to promote their programs outside their local markets. That didn't diminish the effort, entertainment, or memories of their programs for the people soaking in the shows week-after-week. With that in mind, let's look at a few of the older shows being rediscovered through the benefits of the web.
*each of the below photos are links to short Youtube clips of each show ....
San Francisco, California
Not every host dressed the part. Wilkins’ most distinctive feature as a Horror Host, he’s just himself – no make-up, no props, no gimmicks. Bob's home setting at KTVU was reminiscent of an old turn-of-the-century home decorated with standard horror paraphernalia. And then there's our average Joe host, snuggly sitting in his fatherly rocking chair, wearing a leisure suit and smoking a large cigar as he discusses the evening's movie as if it were a local news community project. The Indiana, mid-westerly accent rolling from Bob Wilkins helped to define the iconic Creature Features program. From 1971 to 1984, Wilkins held court with the San Francisco area, joking about the quality of each science fiction and horror film aired on the channel. The difference with Creature Features? They consistently presented quality movies and well-known guests.
"Don't stay up tonight," Mr. Wilkins sometimes told viewers. "It's not worth it."
Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille was a household name in Pittsburgh. The local Chiller Theater program is an iconic part of Pittsburgh horror history; its theme song, “Experiment in Terror,” was penned by Pittsburgher and internationally renowned composer Henry Mancini. But it wasn’t the only line in that history book about Chilly Billy. During his tenure on “Chiller Theater,” he interviewed stars of the ’60s, including horror legend Vincent Price, who asked permission before calling him “Chilly.” Thus Chilly Billy was born ... Another bit of history? Cardille seized the role of “TV Reporter” in the 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead,” which decades later kept him in demand nationwide at horror conventions. While juggling all other television responsibilities, Cardille somehow made time for hosting another local staple: “Studio Wrestling.” That’s where he met his best friend, wrestling legend, and WWFnight movies, Hall-of-Famer Bruno Sammartino.
The show was so popular that it aired until 1983 without changing its time slot, so Chilly Billy bumped Saturday Night Live from Pittsburgh for its first five years. Cardille was so popular that September 28 is “Bill Cardille Day” in Pittsburgh. Belushi, Akroyd, Chase, Murray, Radner and, company? That speaks volumes about the show's popularity.
Count Floyd is a fictional horror host who was played by another fictional character, reporter Floyd Robertson, on the comedy series SCTV. Both characters are played by comedian Joe Flaherty.
Count Floyd is the host of the cheesy, and unscary, Monster Chiller Horror Theater. The show was set in a dungeon where he would emerge from his coffin wearing a cheap vampire costume, including a white turtleneck, and speaking in a bad stereotypical Transylvanian vampire accent. Oddly, although he was supposed to be a vampire, he would open each show howling like a werewolf, then start to laugh as he addressed the audience.
The movies he would host were fictional and had titles like “Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Stewardesses,” “Dr. Toungue’s 3D House of Pancakes”, “Tip O’Neil’s 3D House of Representatives,” “Blood-Sucking Monkeys from West Mifflin Pennsylvania” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Whispers of the Wolf”.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
A person simply could not have grown up in Oklahoma in the late 1950s through the late 1980s without knowing about Count Gregore aka John Ferguson. Ferguson made the rounds at almost all of Oklahoma City's TV stations, re-creating his now-famous "Count Gregore" in many incarnations of the old "Shock Theatre." The icy stares and off-the-cuff comments about late night movies proved too alluring for the Oklahoman crowds to resist.
After his reign ended on the Oklahoma airwaves, Count Gregore accompanied Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, as she presented a series of clips on TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes. He was further honored by appearing on the cover of Scary Monsters in May 2011. Ferguson has continued to work in the industry all these years later and even made appearances in several films, including Army of Frankenstein’s.
After all these years, Ferguson still shakes his head and says, "I still can’t quite put his finger on why the count was — and is — so popular."
Count Gore de Vol
The nation’s capital endured a long-running love affair with horror host Count Gore de Vol, a guy who looks like a vampire with makeup styled from the silent film days. The role was played by Dick Dyszel and broadcast on WDCA, Creature Feature, broadcast movies such as Night of the Living Dead in between sketches and interviews with Penthouse Pets. Uh-huh. Often Dyszel's jokes and comments dealt with local politics. One of the landmark accomplishments of Creature Feature? It was the first show in the DC area broadcast in stereo.
Although his show was canceled in the ‘80s, the Count was still seen online giving unique performances and providing entertaining views on movies. Dyszel's Channel 20 gig lasted from 1973 to 1987, in the way of a good vampire, Dick resurrected himself with an online afterlife in 1998 at countgore.com. In 2018 Dyszel debuted his streaming channel on Roku. Roku users can still find it by searching for “Count Gore De Vol’s Creature Feature.”
Who else could it be with blackened eyes, experimental goggles, unruly shirt collars, and a lab coat that could pass as being rainproof? Larry Underwood continues to bring Dr. Gangrene to life to the thrill of local fans who remember the golden eras of Sir Cecil Creape, Dr. Lucifur or, Humphrey the Hunchback. Regardless of the southern accent, our doctor's screen-side manner reminds audiences of Bob Wilkins and Bishop's Svengoolie. Underwood's natural balance of playful fun with a respectful approach to viewers has created a loyal following for classic horror movies.
It's been how long? The good doctor began seeing patients way back in 1999 by introducing Nashville's Chiller Cinema. In quick time, Chiller Cinema was being seen on other public-access television stations across the country, making Underwood one of the first horror hosts to self-syndicate his program. After moving the show to a local cable station, Chiller Cinema became Creature Feature before ultimately taking a hiatus.
In 2008, Go Green with Dr. Gangrene, a series of Public Service Announcements began airing in the Nashville television market. The series built such a following that it won several local and national awards, including an Emmy Nomination for director Cameron McCasland, and citations from the Governor of Tennessee Phil Bredesen, and the Nashville City Council.
These days you can find Underwood up to his same tricks on Youtube - Dr. Gangrene's Cinetarium, Presents, and Countdowns.
From 1969 to 1979 Joseph Zawislak portrayed Dr. Shock to huge crowds in Philadelphia. Zawislak was a classic zombie sporting slicked-back hair, spats, and an oversized coat. He aired movies on Philadelphia’s WPHL-TV under a collection of several show names. What began with Scream-In turned to Mad Theater and finished as Horror Theater - each name was developed to attract that audience of kids wanting to pass the night with something a little more exciting and fun than network tv.
Dr. Shock featured his hunchbacked assistant Boris to help with comedy relief and jibes on the movies being played - he even made fun of the sponsors. In 1969 he named his nine-month-old daughter “Bubbles” for Bubbles-Booth Soda and soon after "Bubbles" became a part of the show as well. Like father like daughter.
Elvira / Mistress of the Dark
Los Angeles, California
The most famous horror host, Elvira has become recognizable even to those who have never watched a horror movie. Voluptuous, morbid, and funny, Elvira contemporized the template set by Vampira years before. In the origins of the character, actress Cassandra Peterson sought to bring dark gothic charm to a Valley girl-type Valley character. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was the host of Movie Macabre, a weekly horror movie presentation on Los Angeles television station KHJ-TV, in 1981. Elvira was played by actress/dancer Cassandra Peterson. She wore a black, gothic, cleavage-enhancing gown, giving her a vampish appearance, which was offset by her quirky, quick-witted personality, and Valley girl-type speech. Elvira presented low-budget horror films and made fun of them during the intermissions.
In 1989, Cassandra was sued by actress Maila Nurmi for alleged infringement of her pioneering original Vampira TV horror hostess persona. The case was tossed when Nurmi failed to appear in court.
It was not long before Elvira popped up on magazines, action figures, pinball games, comics, posters, ad campaigns, and even her own feature film Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. When ThrillerVideo began distributing horror movies on video, they chose Elvira to introduce many of the flicks as only she can. Even as recently as 2014, Peterson’s iconic character starred in the series 13 Nights of Elvira for the streaming service Hulu.
E. Nick Witty
Syracuse, New York
Monster Movie Matinee aired on Saturday afternoons on WSYR from 1964 – 1980. The show opened with classically creepy organ music with howling wind as the camera followed a path through a scale-model cemetery onto a bridge leading to a haunted mansion on a hill - complete with dry ice being used as fog. Classic! Once inside Monster Mansion, you found Dr. E. Nick Witty sitting slightly off-camera off-camera in a formal chair inside a darkened room. The doctor’s hand continuously gestures as he speaks. And in the event, you're wondering, Dr. E. Nick Witty was played by the station’s meteorologist Alan Milair. An expected weatherman move.
The doctor's facial disfigurement was too terrifying for his audience to receive a clear view of his face. The only thing given by the doctor was a deep baritone voice and an unforgettably evil, sardonic laugh.
Epal was the doctor’s assistant and face of the program - no pun intended. The character, played by Williard Everett Lape Jr, had a face crisscrossed with shoelace-like stitches running the length of his face and forehead, accented by an eye patch. Early in the broadcasts, Epal had a hook which was later replaced by a metal hand that Dr. Witty built for him.
Los Angeles, California
The Los Angeles area had its fair share of horror hosts over the years. Each host brought their spooky specialties, and Robert Foster's Grimsley was no exception. Grimsley broke the mold and built a reputation as one of the best comically dark horror hosts in the genre. From 1976 to 1978, Grimsly hosted Fright Night on KHJ-TV where he created such LA-centric names as “Grimsleyland, where you can bury your friends and have fun!”
They portrayed the character of Grimsley as an undertaker who happened to be a fan of old, quirky horror movies and enjoyed playing a giant pipe organ. The man even had his embalming bags for sale! What better way to advertise your show?
Millicent B. Ghastly
During the mid-80s, WLEX-TV ran a late-night horror host show called "Monsterpiece Theater", starring a rather cheesy lady in a fright wig off-camera calling herself Millicent B. Ghastly.
The actress playing Millicent was Barbara Ends did the gig for fun. She was not paid for the program. Just as the show was breaking through as a local fan favorite, Barbara left because of her family relocating to the east coast. The beaches vs the hills of Kentucky? Hmmmmm.
"Our studio crew warmed up to the notion that we weren't Talent Who Must Be Obeyed, and added all manner of audio and video hijinks, some of which we didn't see or hear until we watched the tape of the broadcast. Shoutouts to Keith Rightmyer, Doug(ie) Crowe, Richie, Howie, the Jeffs, and all the rest, who were all exceptional sports about going on as on-air talent when they weren't otherwise pointing cameras at us.
As far as the local commentary aspect of the show went -- we figured, why not? It amused us, and people wrote to us about it." - Steve Schwartz, co-writer
San Diego, California
Not every horror host was a monster, misfit, count, or mad scientist. In 1963, San Diego’s KOGO began airing Science Fiction Theater, a series hosted by Moona Lisa, aka local newscaster Lisa Clark, a mod astronaut clad in a leather catsuit accompanied by a live python wrapped around her body with foggy “moon smoke” covering the set.
Clark wasn't a one-trick pony, as she also portrayed several other characters on the show. In 1965 she premiered “The Roaches” (a tip to a newly popular band called The Beatles), a band of guys wearing multi-arm costumes and sunglasses. In 1972, Clark took her show up the road to Los Angeles before shortly returning to San Diego in ’73 before quickly moving to St. Louis in the same year. Even though Moona Lisa went away in the mid-‘70s, we’ll always have “happy hallucinations.”
Morgus the Magnificent / Momus Alexander Morgus
New Orleans, Louisiana
Morgus hosted the science fiction and horror movies in between experiments and was created and portrayed by actor Sid Noel. The Morgus Magnificent’s House of Shock first appeared in New Orleans in 1959 before packing up for a move to Detroit in 1964. It was only a year later that Morgus returned to The Big Easy and settled into his show lasting well into the 1980s. Noel was so keen on keeping his identity as Morgus quiet, he didn't even tell his children about the gig as a mad scientist. The doctor was dutifully assisted by executioner styled sidekick Chopsley. The doc's well-intentioned experiments typically go awry at the last minute causing comedy as they lead into another part of a featured movie. Dr. Morgus also has an assistant other than Chopsley - his name was Eric. In the early version of the show, Eric was a talking human skull. When Morgus returned in the 1980s, Eric had become part of the computer known as E.R.I.C. (The Eon Research Infinity Computer) and holds all the knowledge of the universe in his memory banks.
Dr. Morgus was the first horror host to star in his own motion picture, The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus (1962).
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Comedy Central / SciFi Network
MST3K is a cult television comedy series created by Joel Hodgson and produced by Best Brains, Inc.
The series features a man and his robot sidekicks who are trapped on a space station by an evil scientist and forced to watch a selection of bad horror and science fiction B-movies. To keep sane, the man and his robots provide a running commentary on each film, making fun of its flaws, and wisecracking their way through each reel in the style of a movie-theater peanut gallery. Each film is presented with a superimposition of the man and robots’ silhouettes along the bottom of the screen.
During its eleven years, 198 episodes and one feature film, MST3K attained critical acclaim. The series won a Peabody Award in 1993 and was nominated for writing Emmys in 1994 and 1995 and nominated for a Cable ACE Award.
Ned the Dead
Green Bay, Wisconsin
A rock star of Elvisian proportion, Ned the Dead was the quirky, campy, lovable host of a macabre, late-night Green Bay TV show: Chiller Theater. When the show debuted in 1983, there was no cable, no internet, and no other late-night entertainment in this DMA – except for this supposed Dead Guy on a really bad set. Nevertheless, Ned dominated the local airwaves after midnight each and every Saturday Night.
Steve Brenzel as "Ned The Dead" was assisted by legendary Doctor J. Morbius Moreau - aka Doc Moreau. One thousand TV shows are on Ned’s reel – that’s 10,000 unscripted, impromptu, totally insane segments, bits, and shticks. You can find Ned and crew on Youtube and Roku. Do yourself a favor, slap the table and tune in for an episode or two.
- thank you to UWGB's The Comm.
Los Angeles, California
From 1969 to 1974, actor Larry Vincent portrayed the spooky host with an undertaker’s fashion sense. The shows Fright Night for KHJ-TV and Seymour's Monster Rally on KTLA were both vehicles used by Vincent to bring his character, Seymour, to life. Seymour was a major part of the Los Angeles area’s love of low-budget horror. The unique aspect to Seymour from other hosts? He brought a respectable level of gravitas to a role that could have easily been written off as comedic.
According to James Fetters, the author of Creatures of the Night:
"Larry was much more than an actor showing up for a gig. Like Seymour, he gave us an escape from our everyday realities… to be a part of his world each week and I do believe in doing that for us fans, he had the chance, as Seymour, to escape Larry’s realities… a chance to live forever as Seymour."
Sir Cecil Creape
Sir Cecil Creape, aka The Phantom of the Opry, was played by Russ McCown, and may be Nashville’s best known horror host. The original show aired on local NBC affiliate WSMV, from 1971-1973 and titled Creature Feature. A major part of Sir Cecil's shows included skits during the movies, comical commentary of the films and plugs for local companies. The Creature Feature set was designed as a medieval dungeon including a picture of the enduring corporate giant Floyd Kephart.
The catch phrase for Sir Cecil was similar to the legendary Lurch of Adam's Family fame saying, "you rang?" Cecil would slowly enter a room in his hunchbacked and slow-moving style by saying, “did someone call?” The style of Sir Cecil was as you expected - a blue cape complimented by a giant jester's size purple collar - still unable to pull your attention from his horribly misaligned teeth.
Each program ended with Sir Cecil saying, “Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the beddie bugs bite.”
Sir Graves Ghastly
Sir Graves Ghastly was a character created by Cleveland-born actor Lawson J. Deming with the intention of becoming the star of his own television show of the same name. Sir Graves Ghastly had its longest run at WJBK in Detroit, from 1967-82.
Sir Graves Ghastly was a middle-aged vampire with a deep voice that reminded many of Boris Karloff. Each show began and ended with Deming climbing out of and back into a coffin to vamp up the vampire character. The program included classic horror films with unusually thorough inside information on the production and actors.
Other characters on the show included Sir Graves’ sidekick, Baruba, a ghostly apparition known only as The Glob, and a cemetery caretaker named Reel McCoy, who traditionally opened each episode by unearthing a movie reel from a grave. The show followed a format of back-to-back horror films, mixed with sketch comedy pieces featuring the show's countless characters.
The series aired on WJBK in Detroit from 1967 to 1982, and the show was so popular that it was aired in Cleveland and Washington D.C. where Sir Graves Ghastly continued his reign of terror. Due to a change in studio management, the series was canceled in 1982.
At end of the show he wished viewers “Happy Haunting,” and gave an evil laugh as he lay down in his coffin.
Legendary Memphis station WHBQ made a decision to hop onboard with the horror movie craze. Not sure of having any clear-cut path to make this happen, they turned to Malco Theaters Director of Advertising for assistance. That man was Watson Davis and saying he had ideas is a short sell. Davis donned vampire fangs, a top hat and dubbed himself Sivad (his last name backwards). Sivad, was a vampire with a "bless your heart" southernly Memphis accent. He was the “Monster of Ceremonies” for the Fantastic Features program featured for the mid-south tv markets.
"Memphians recall his striking intro on the show; a horse drawn carriage pulled a coffin through a fog shrouded Overton Park, and once it came to a stop it opened to reveal Sivad." - Memphis Flyer
Even after his retirement, Sivad remained an icon in the Midsouth drawing thousands of guests at public appearances. Memphis horror shows and Memphis wrestling may have been the most powerful programing in the area for decades. They love their fantasy ...
One can make the argument that Svengoolie is the most popular of the horror hosts remaining today - thanks to holding a nationwide audience, instead of being restricted to a single metro area. Svengoolie was originally played by Jerry G. Bishop and debuted on Screaming Yellow Theater, which aired on WFLD from September 18, 1970, until the summer of 1973. The name of the character describes a long-running series of locally produced television programs in the Chicago, Illinois area.
The show featured various low-budget horror and science fiction movies hosted by horror host Svengoolie, who wore face makeup, a wig and a top hat. In between film breaks, the character presents various sketches, tells corny jokes and presents song parodies spoofing the film being played.
Svengoolie is currently played by Rich Koz, who was originally a fan of the show - even writing in with different sketch ideas. On June 16, 1979, a new series named Son of Svengoolie debuted on WFLD, with Koz in the role of the Son of Svengoolie.
The Midnight Shadow Show
Joseph Fotinos, we'll call him Professor Anton Griffin, started hosting The Midnight Shadow Show in Texas during 1999. Fotinos told everyone in Central Texas that Austin needed its first true late-night horror show and he was the man to bring it. Naysayers be damned, Professor Anton Griffin became host of The Midnight Shadow Show and established the program as Texas’ premiere television late-night horror show - and Austin's first show of its kind.
Griffin’s original local Austin show, Professor Griffin’s Midnight Shadow Show (2000-2006) hosted full length features accompanied by his freakish sideshow assistants Dan-Dan and Usher. But for his return to The Midnight Theatre, the half-hour special was a detailed examination of one of horror’s most famous and infamous films, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. If he's making an appearance - catch him while you can. The guy is constantly on the go.
In addition to his Professor Griffin work, Fotinos is also a prolific writer as well, having authored a book and regularly writing for Scary Monsters Magazine and Count Gore's website.
Los Angeles, California
The Vampira Show aired on Saturday nights at midnight on KABC-TV, Channel 7, May 1, 1954, to April 2, 1955, and the show featured mostly low budget suspense films. Vampira was portrayed by Maila Nurmi, and she is generally accepted to be the first television horror host. The allure of mystery is a big part of Maila "Vampira" Nurmi's continued appeal. Although she only appeared on the air in California during the mid-1950s and almost no footage survives, she is credited with being the first true horror host, and the character she crafted has almost become something of a Jungian archetype. She famously appeared in Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space and has inspired a look which endures to this day (most notoriously co-opted by the aforementioned Peterson). Simply put, Vampira is more than a person, she is a pop culture entity.
Each show opened with Vampira gliding down a dark corridor flooded with dry-ice fog. At the end of her trance-like walk, the camera zoomed in on her face as she let out a piercing scream. She would then introduce that evening’s film while reclining barefoot on a skull-encrusted Victorian couch. Her horror-related comedy antics included ghoulish puns and talking to her pet spider Rollo.
In 1981, Nurmi had an opportunity to bring Vampira back to TV on the Los Angeles station KHJ-TV. While developing the show, Cassandra Peterson was hired as Elvira, a Vampira-like character, without Nurmi's permission. Nurmi quit and filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against Peterson.
And yes, Nurmi has the smallest waistline in movie history.
New York City, New York
Zacherley was the host of WCAU’s Shock Theater, which debuted on October 7, 1957, and ran for 92 broadcasts, through to 1958. Actor John Zacherle wore a long black undertaker’s coat as the character “Roland,” who lived in a crypt with his wife “My Dear,” and his lab assistant Igor. The hosting of the show involved several stylized horror-comedy gags that have now become standard on television.
In the opening sequence, Zacherley would descend a long round staircase to the crypt. The producers erred on the side of goriness, showing fake severed heads with blood simulated with Hershey’s Chocolate syrup. The show sometimes featured live “cut-ins” during the movie in which the soundtrack continued to play on the air, while the visual feed switched briefly to a shot of Zacherley in the middle of a humorous stunt, such as riding a tombstone.
Zacherley was a huge deal in the New York and Philadelphia areas, and aside from hosting his horror shows he also recorded novelty songs like “Dinner with Drac,” a song that broke into the Billboard Top 10. He continued working in regional television and radio through the ’90s, but he’s most remembered for his time hosting Shock Theater.
Zomboo's House of Horror Movies started as a show called Frank's House of Horror Movies in Reno, Nevada in 1999. Zomboo originally appeared only occasionally, but after a year, he took over the show fully and they changed the name. It will soon be enter a 10th year on the air. The character of Zomboo is a cross between Lon Chaney’s vampire character from the 1927 film London After Midnight, the Zombo character played by Louis Nye on The Munsters television show (originally broadcast on February 17, 1966) and Krusty the Clown, from The SImpsons.
The show has the feel of the old Soupy Sales show, with lots of visual gags and jokes that can be funny on more than one level. Also, Zomboo jumps into the movies often and is enhanced by audio and visual gags. Zomboo is joined on the show with characters such as Miss Transylvania, Werewolfie, Officer Not-so-Friendly, Bianca the Rack Girl, Quasi, Mini Z, and Nurse Feelgood, the Head Nurse. It's still racking up the ratings on Saturdays in the Reno market, i you're ever throwing dice in the area.