The Boy and I had gone down to Knott’s for a daytime tour of the Halloween Haunt, and since the park is right next to the Korean movie theater, I had planned to see and review The Devil in the Lake for you all. But as happens occasionally—actually, I think it may have happened last on Halloween—there were no English subtitles for the film yet.
But Knott’s was more-or-less the birthplace of the modern horror “switchover” that so many theme parks do these days, and on this tour, I was surprised to learn that the guy who got the ball rolling was none other than Larry Vincent, the local Los Angeles horror host for about five years in the ’70s. He had a show called Seymour Presents, and some of my earliest TV memories are being trapped in a snowy cabin in Lake Arrowhead and watching Little Shop of Horrors with “Sinister Seymour” as the host.
Larry got the idea to take his show live one year, so he went up to Magic Mountain. The show was apparently a hit, marred only by the constant sound of roller coasters. So he took the idea to Walter Knott, who had just built a theater that would be far more suitable for spooky hijinks. Knott liked the idea but insisted they do it up big, with a three-day celebration the weekend before Halloween 1973. The rest, as the say is history.
And the tour we took was very interesting, but not what I wanted to talk about. The remembrance of “Seymour” and the appearance of Cassandra Peterson on Joe Bob Brigg’s Halloween special last weekend got me thinking about horror hosts and the nature of commentary, or “meta” entertainment.
The Horror Host
Home video technology has gone through multiple iterations with each succeeding wave of technology repeating almost fractally. As TV became commonplace, but content limited, many larger metropolitan areas needed content, they needed it fast and they needed it cheap. Network consolidation happened gradually and never comprehensively, and then cable came along and instead of geographical lines, we saw demands geared toward genres (The Comedy Channel and the original American Movie Classics, e.g.) and demographics (MTV and the Cartoon Network). More bandwidth brought more specialization (although never an ESPN 8, talk about a missed opportunity) which the old conglomerates (like Disney and WB) are still struggling to absorb.
And of course the Internet blew the demand into millions of tiny hyper-specialized pieces. And while YouTube has too much control this, too, shall pass. (If the fractal pattern continues, with even more independent and idiosyncratic entertainment niches.)
One of the odder manifestations of the need for content is the rise of the horror host. Television stations with limited film libraries (not always legitimately sourced, as in the early days of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” on KTMA) needed to entice people to watch, and they did it with commentary on the movie itself, or at least thematically appropriate schtick.
Vampira and Zacherle
Maila Elizabeth Syrjäniemi, better known as Maila Nurmi, and even better known as Vampira was the first. She had a short run in ’54 on the local (L.A.) ABC station followed by another short run in ’56 on KHJ a local (L.A.) independent station. From what I can tell, while the popularity wasn’t sustained, it was intense, and Vampira became burned into the public consciousness. In later generations, perhaps ironically, it would be her brief appearance in Plan 9 From Outer Space that kept the image and character alive.
In Philadelphia in 1957, John Zacherle debuted the character of Roland on “Shock Theater”, a ghoulish horror host who broadcast from a crypt with his lab assistant Igor and his entombed wife. At the final movie intro for “The Last Drive-In” which Joe Bob Briggs presumed would be his last intro on his last show (for the movie Pieces of all things), he gave a lovely tribute to the recently deceased host (d. 2016 at the age of 98!) as well as a brief (insofar that anything JB does is “brief”) horror host history.
Briggs makes the distinction that Vampira hosted in the sense of appearing in the interstices to tell corny jokes that weren’t particularly related to the film, whereas the films were central to Zacherle’s performance who did things like cut his own reaction shots (the Kuleshov effect) into the film. I’m not sure that these two branches of hosting are cleanly separable, since I think Vampira did do some movie commentary, and Elvira certainly has over her various iterations. (And Briggs is certainly in the Zacherle camp but he also traditionally begins his shows with an off-topic commentary.)
However, Zacherle’s injection of his own material directly into the existing stuff (mostly cheaply licensable RKO pictures) is significant as a major progenitor to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in the ’90s, and to wide swaths of YouTube accounts today.
Unlike Vampira, Zacherle kept his character alive for decades in a variety of different formats: Besides guesting on many other horror hosts’ shows, he filled in on “American Bandstand” (!), recorded a number of songs including a minor hit in the “Monster Mash” era (“Dinner with Drac”), and edited a couple of collections of horror short stories. His last credited “Roland” appearance on IMDB was in the ’80s for a “last” show not unlike the Briggs marathon in 2018, though he kept playing the ghoul into the 2000s—into his 90s, in other words, and was definitely the inspiration for the flood of horror hosts to come.
Svengoolie and the Locals
In much the same way there were local kiddie show hosts, a thousand late night horror hosts blossomed, all with their own stories and bits. In Fort Worth, Bill Camfield played kid show host Icky Twerp by day and Gorgon, host of “Nightmare” after dark. In Detroit, Sir Graves Ghastly had a show that ran from the ’60s to the ’80s. In Portland, Suzanne Waldron played Tarantula Ghoul, and had an intense short run ended by a scandalous pregnancy. In Brazil, an aspiring horror filmmaker creates a character called Coffin Joe who ends up escaping the confines of the movies to become his own character. “Moona Lisa”, the alter ego of a San Diego-based newscaster (who had a brief bit as a Siamese twin in Saboteur!) had a show through the ’60s and briefly took over for the ailing Larry Vincent in L.A. and even appeared with him at Knott’s for one year.
Meanwhile, Ghoulardi out of Cleveland was a breakout hit who might have achieved national prominence had Ernie Anderson not wearied of portraying him (lured out only one before his untimely death to appear on “Drive-In Theater” in the ’90s). Svengoolie, out of Chicago, deserves special mention. Originally created by Jerry Bishop, the character was taken over by Rich Koz (original “Son of Svengoolie”), it’s sort of “the show that wouldn’t die”, running initially from 1970-1973, brought back in 1979 with Koz until ’86, brought back again in the ’90s, ’00s and currently runs today on MeTV.
The mythos/community of Svengoolie reminds me of “The Simpsons” with jokes and characters and memes built up over decades, but I also see it as a kind of cultural artifact: the horror host gig is “postmodern vaudeville” as Briggs would say, and to watch Svengoolie is like holding up a fun-house mirror that reflects somehow back to the 19th century.
The greatest of all these—”great” meaning “large or immense”—was certainly Elvira. In the early ’80s, after Sinister Seymour had passed and “Fright Night” petered out, KHJ wanted to bring back Vampira. They invited Maila Nurmi back who quit when the producers rejected her idea of getting Lola Falana to play the part. (Falana was pulling down $100K/week in Vegas; I’m not sure how Nurmi thought KHJ was going to entice her away with a cheap horror host gig. But Nurmi seems to me to have been highly unstable.)
Enter former go-go-girl, pin-up girl, showgirl, starlet and someone you totally wouldn’t expect to fall for the old “just take off your clothes for a test shoot, honey”-bit Cassandra Peterson. Peterson was also a Groundling and had created a “Valley Girl” character that would serve as the basis for the new Vampira. Since Nurmi had withdrawn her support, Peterson decided to model her new character after Sharon Tate’s in Fearless Vampire Killers which would’ve been quite different from anything in the horror host world before (or since!).
But the suits said, no, all black. And although they had no notes on her improbably plunging neckline, they did tell her to make the slit in the leg higher. The 71-year-old Peterson, who has now retired the wig (not for the first, but possibly for the last time), has a memoir out called Yours Cruelly for those interested in more details. Elvira’s Movie Macabre ran from 1981-1986, but the character lived on and on and on in movies, video releases, merchandising, and—to tie this back to the beginning—became the face of Knott’s Halloween Haunt for decades.
The Boy and I her saw retirement show at Knott’s 2001—and then (with the Flower in tow this time) her most recent retirement show in 2017. It was a fun, polished act, being performed by a sexagenarian in six-inch-heels, which probably impressed me more than anything. (I hope I can rock heels like that when I’m 65!) In last week’s appearance on “The Last Drive-In” she talked about how much work it was as part of the reason for retiring—and I cannot quibble with that.
Why did Elvira take off and go national where others failed to break out? Was it the boobs? It was probably the boobs. Except boobs were prominent in most hostesses going back to Vampira. No, I think it was a mix of things: Syndication was getting to be a huge factor. Elvira’s character dovetailed perfectly with Frank Zappa’s (only) hit song: “Valley Girl”. Elvira was sexy but dealt in pretty safe (again, vaudeville level) double-entendres rather than overt crudeness. And Peterson’s dedication to performance (even while she felt Elvira would be a short-term gig) came through. Also: Boobs.
The Cable Guys
Cable created a whole new world for hosts, as well as new libraries for them to exploit. The horror host had expanded into a “general schlock” host. USA’s “Up All Night” (primarily hosted by the buxom Rhonda Shear and the late, great Gilbert Gottfried) seemed entirely focused on teasing the audience. From Shear’s provocative outfits to her guest players (b-movie starlets like Michelle Bauer, Darcy DeMoss, Monique Gabrielle, etc.) to the movies, which were insanely varied and might be a Spielberg or Woody Allen movie one week but might just as well be a (heavily edited) Marilyn Chambers erotic anthology or the latest entry in the “Bikini Beach Squad Car Wash Ninjas” franchise.
An honorable mention here to Pat Prescott of “Night Flight” who, even as a voice only, was a constant companion through that new iteration of content creation: All manner of public domain movies, shorts, music videos, comedy bits, etc., stretching out over long nights, suitable for whether you were partying or studying or just staying up because your parents were out of town.
This same era saw the concept of riffing a movie in the movie—remember Zacherle’s Kuleshov effect back in the ’50s!)—continuously integrated into the film itself in the form of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. The movie was practically incidental to the experience. So even when John Bloom’s drive-in film critic persona Joe Bob Briggs who would introduce his show with, “You know what? Just go ahead and switch over to Rhonda Shear because we’ve got nothing but dogs tonight,” you stayed tuned in—or at least switched back for his closing commentary.
The Joy of Idiosyncracy
While the oft-cited Joe Bob and aforementioned Ghoulardi are with us today, and MST3K and Rifftrax thrive, the hosts of tomorrow are, without a doubt, being founded on YouTube. My own kids, who are not big fans of any of the hosts of the past, watch commentators like Danny Gonzalez and of course Red Letter Media. And there are literal horror hosts as well, in the exact same mold as Vampira or Zacherle. And that’s cool.
The thing about horror hosts—or any of these “meta” commentary characters—is that they are touchstones in our lives much the way other elements of popular culture are: Wherever you are now, if you were a kid in Miami 50 years ago, the name M.T. Graves will take you back, or the opening to “Creature Feature” if you were a Bay Area kid in the ’70s. If “House of Wax” is on, you might remember the 3D frenzy of the ’80s, and Elvira throwing popcorn at you.
You might even remember the movie itself, but it’s not necessary.