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.”)