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October 2016

Nobody much was scared

Back in the days of drive-in movies, low-budget horror movies were a staple of the double features on Fridays and Saturdays. Naturally they found their way to TV screens. In 1957 and 1958, a studio licensed the “Shock” and “Son of Shock” packages, encouraging local stations to use hosts to stitch the shlock together.

Station managers and film buyers saw merit in scaring 7-year-olds and selling products to beer-guzzling teenagers. When it came to a host, they didn’t bother to look much beyond their own building. Who knew that every station had a booth announcer, weatherman or production director who was a closet comic, ready to don a creepy costume?

So a genre was born – the campy horror movie host, still remembered fondly by people of a certain age.

Detroit had Sir Graves Ghastly, a/k/a Lawson Deming. Washington had Count Gore De Vol (Dick Dyszel). In San Francisco, Bob Wilkins broke out his extensive knowledge of monsters and movies and occasionally advised kids not to stay up too late because “this movie isn’t worth it.” (In fact, few were.)

Most of the hosts became so locally famous that they were called on to make personal appearances, in costume. In Richmond during the early ‘70s, the Bowman Body (Bill Bowman) tooled around town in a hearse sponsored by Arby’s. Bill’s old station, where he once was production manager, ran a tribute to him at Halloween last year.

Most of the shows, like Bill’s, have long been canceled. But some are still around, including Svengoolie in Chicago (originally played by Jerry G. Bishop, now by Rich Koz.)

Judging from the lists of hosts compiled at various websites, almost all were male, reflecting the ways of TV at the time. But the most famous one wasn’t. That would be Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

In 1981, Cassandra Peterson beat out 200 candidates when KHJ-TV in Los Angeles was casting a horror movie hostess. With great looks, a shiny black wig, cleavage and a charmingly sarcastic approach, she rode the gig to international fame. (Sample quote, courtesy of IMDb: “And if they ever ask about me, tell them I was more than just a great set of boobs. I was also an incredible pair of legs.”)

Cassandra has a new book out, which includes more than 350 pictures of her. It and other merchandise are available at her website, Elvira.com. LA Weekly has a preview here.

Welles never panicked America

On the 78th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous “The War of the Worlds” broadcast on the CBS radio network, I will again try to debunk the urban legend that the program sparked a mass panic. Popular history textbooks are wrong. So is the latest retelling, a PBS documentary from 2013.

The broadcast — a play incorporating an account of Martians invading Earth — produced extremely isolated instances of panic, but the New York newspapers ran with them. Why? Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow have the story straight in Slate:

“How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.

“In an editorial titled Terror by Radio, The New York Times reproached ‘radio officials’ for approving the interweaving of ‘blood-curdling fiction’ with news flashes ‘offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.’ Warned Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry’s trade journal, ‘The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove … that it is competent to perform the news job.”

“The War of the Worlds” should have been a footnote in radio history, but the legend grew. Pooley and Socolow explain: “As the show receded in time and became more infamous, more and more people claimed to have heard it. As weeks, months and years passed, the audience’s size swelled to such an extent that you might actually believe most of America was tuned to CBS that night. But that was hardly the case.”

Indeed, the ratings for Welles’ “Mercury Theater of the Air” series were rotten. There is evidence that the competition on NBC, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s “Chase & Sanborn Hour,” probably drew 10 or 15 times more listeners. Furthermore, a number of CBS affiliates pre-empted Welles that Sunday night for local programs, easy to do because Welles’ plays had no sponsor at the time.

As CBS President Frank Stanton remarked years later, “In the first place most people didn’t hear it. But those who did hear it looked at it as a prank and accepted it that way.” That is what Welles (then 23 years old) intended on Halloween Eve. His closing remarks that night summed up his attitude:

“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that ‘The War of The Worlds’ has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be – the Mercury Theater’s own version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’

“Starting now we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night so we did the next best thing — we annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed CBS. You will be, I hope, relieved to learn that we didn’t mean it and both institutions are still open for business.

“So goodbye, everybody, and remember the terrible lesson that you learned tonight — the grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian, it’s Halloween.”

We close with a tip of the hat to radio historian Jim Ramsburg, who covers the medium’s Golden Age at his website.

Freeze your credit report

[This originally ran last Nov. 12.]

Clark Howard’s syndicated radio show is a snooze, but his website — http://www.clarkhoward.com — is a gem. It’s an outstanding collection of consumer stuff, including tips on fighting identity theft.

Every few days a new story comes along. One of the latest is from Britain, where high-end retailer Marks & Spencer got caught accidentally exposing customer data to other customers. In other words, they screwed up and hacked themselves. Word swept across Facebook, and the TV networks were on it. One shopper told ITV News: “I have just found the name, address, e-mail address, date of birth and mobile and land-line numbers of a lady I have never met. This is appalling.”

M&S acknowledged “technical difficulties” and promised to fix them.

Clark’s #1 tip for fighting identity theft is to freeze your credit report. The three major credit reporting bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – will work with you. Even if the bad guys get personal information through a data hacker or from that pleasant woman in the doctor’s office, a frozen credit report cuts off the low-hanging fruit.

Of course, while your credit report is frozen, you won’t be able to apply for a mortgage or a car loan or a credit card, either. That is handled with a 24- or 36-hour “thaw,” triggered by PIN number. Then the information is automatically frozen again.

So thank you, Clark, and accept this bouquet: You’ll never be able to out-bore Dave Ramsey, the human equivalent of Ambien.

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