May 2, 2010

My Early Education


Too often neglected and dismissed, local TV horror show hosts have for decades now served as useful landmarks dotting the American cultural landscape. From New York’s Zacherley, to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, to the Internet-based Count Gore de Vol, to SCTV’s Count Floyd, local TV horror hosts serve a much more important purpose than even local children’s show hosts. Every Friday or Saturday night, some poor schlub—often a staffer with no acting experience—has the thankless job of putting on a costume, donning makeup, stepping in front of the cameras at some podunk TV affiliate, and making wisecracks throughout a classic (or not so classic) horror film. The hosts may be dismissed as stupid and irrelevant jokes by the masses, but to those geeks among us who have nothing else to do on Friday or Saturday night, local horror show hosts can be among the most important and influential people in the world.

            I know a number of such geeks (ahem), so it’s not surprising that venerable Chiller Theater host Zacherley comes up in conversation more often than perhaps he should. Not being from the East Coast originally, I didn’t grow up with the Cool Ghoul, but that’s okay. Back in the seventies and eighties, every major town in Wisconsin—that is to say, those with their own TV stations—had their own local horror hosts to corrupt the minds of impressionable ten-year-olds who’d somehow convinced their parents to let them stay up to watch the likes of The Curse of Frankenstein or The Leech Woman. We weren’t the cool kids, maybe, but we sure had something to talk about in school on Monday.

Friday nights at midnight from 1971 until 1973, Green Bay’s horror show, Eerie Street, aired on WBAY (Channel 2).The joke was that “Erie Street” was actually a major traffic artery through the west side of town. Thanks to the show, it took me several years to figure out that Erie St. was spelled with only two es.

            The set was very simple: a black backdrop, a street sign, and a coffin. The host was a chubby guy with a fringe beard who wore a long black cape. He wasn’t terribly funny, as most hosts try to be. I think he was trying to be genuinely creepy. His real name was Al Gutowski, and he went under the character name, um, “Alexander.” It wasn’t a terribly creepy name, but he wasn’t a terribly creepy guy. Mostly he was just dorky. And chubby. But I still watched him every week, and to this day regret not ordering one of the autographed promo cards he was always hawking.

            Eerie Street went off the air in ’73. It was replaced in ’77 with T.J. and the A.N.T. (All Night Theater), which was much hipper and funnier and had a catchier theme song. That was replaced in ’82 with Creature Feature, hosted by Misty Brew. And Misty was replaced a few years later by Ned the Dead. Ned wore a Dracula outfit, zombie makeup, and used the show as an opportunity to work on his Gilbert Gottfried impression. He became incredibly popular among local horror movie nerds.

            In the end it was Eerie Street that had a major and lasting influence on me. In retrospect it was the least interesting of the lot, but it hit me at the right time. Every Friday night between the ages of seven and nine, I’d sit alone in the chilly, unfinished cement basement in front of the clunky old black and white TV, waiting for that theme song to come on. Every time it did, I felt a little tingle. Even if I don’t remember full plots or the names of the actors, a number of specific scenes were burned into my psyche as I watched them in that basement—the 4-D Man sticking his hand through a shop window and grabbing an apple, the Neanderthal Man flushing a toilet out of curiosity and running from the room in terror, the Creature from the Black Lagoon on fire.

            Those films I can identify. I also saw one film on Eerie Street that has haunted me my whole life. Every few months, two scenes from this film would come back to me. The troublesome thing was, I had no idea what movie it was. Those two scenes were all I had—a cane poking into the hand of a corpse, then sinking through it as if it was a rubber glove, and a man swinging an axe at something that looked like some kind of turtle or armadillo critter. The only other thing I knew about the film was that I had only seen it that one time in the early seventies.

            This sort of thing can drive me unduly nuts—I needed to identify that film in order to exorcise it.

            One recent rainy Sunday afternoon those two scenes, and Eerie Street, came back as I was, once again, talking with someone about Zacherley and Chiller Theater.

            I had tried doing some research into Eerie Street in the past without any luck. Maybe nobody knew any more about it than I did, or maybe it was just my imagination doing it’s thing again, creating a dream childhood for me. But I decided to try again, just out of curiosity. The itching in my skull needed to know what that armadillo movie was.

            Well, I’ve said it before. I may despise the Internet, but at least it gives the obsessive geeks among us an outlet. And god bless our obsessive geeks. I found a website devoted to the TV horror hosts of Wisconsin (there were more than I realized), which included a page devoted to Eerie Street and its brief run on WBAY. I hadn’t invented it after all. There were no pictures of Alexander, but there were several examples of the newspaper ads that used to appear in the Green Bay Press-Gazette plugging the show. More importantly, though, was the List.

            It was a listing of every single film ever aired on Eerie Street. Not only would I at least get a head start in trying to identify that splintered old film that kept scratching away in my memory—it would also give me a concise snapshot of my early education. In no small part, it was those films and that show that molded my psychology into the gnarled ugly wreck it is today.

            From House of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter to Curuku, Beast of the Amazon and Dinosaurus, I could recall nearly all of them. What’s more, the listing gave the dates the movies aired as well, which helped set the scene. Was the basement freezing, or a pleasant relief from the heat upstairs? Was the old couch down there yet, or was I sitting on the torn old rug? Had I gotten over my fear of the Basement Phantom yet, or was he still lurking back in the storage area, forcing me to turn all the lights on to keep him at bay while I watched the movie?

            It was easy to narrow down the titles to the one I was trying to identify, as most of the things Alexander showed were, nowadays, commonplace classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Creature From the Black Lagoon, together with what were then rarely seen low-budget numbers like The Invisible Ray, Calling Doctor Death, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster—even weirdies like The Sniper. It’s important to remember that this was long before the age of home video, and Green Bay didn’t have any revival houses. The only way to see these films was when they were shown on television, and so you were left to the whims of the programmers. Plus I was seven, so all these films were new to me. There was no way I could have seen The Wolf Man, say, before it played on Eerie Street.

            That’s what I mean by my education—Eerie Street provided me with the basic cultural fundamentals—something fewer and fewer schools are willing to do nowadays. It’s from those fundamentals like Dracula and Frankenstein that everything else (like Son of Frankenstein and Brides of Dracula) is built. In that sense, maybe it’s best that Alexander wasn’t cracking wise throughout the movie. That sort of thing drives me nuts nowadays.

            Scanning though the titles, I was able to narrow things down to a single title, soon thereafter confirmed by the fellow who brought up Zacherley in the first place: Island of Terror, with Peter Cushing and a bunch of weird turtle-armadillo monsters.

            I felt a strange sense of relief flood through me as my whole body relaxed. Not being able to solidly identify the film that had been following me all these years had lead to a tension in my head I could never shake. And do you know why?

            Because I am an idiot.


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