Creeping into the Past and the Future with Virginia’s Horror Hosts
Author: Sean Kotz
Official Website: Virginia Creepers Movie
Like most Americans, my first exposure to Japanese science fiction was on television back in the day when local TV was an integral part of most people’s lives, primarily through my local TV horror hosts. It was those shows that gave me my love for films in general and horror and sci-fi in particular.
In December of 2005, I began making documentaries with a friend of mine, Chris Valluzzo, producing films for niche audiences like HOKIE NATION, a film about Virginia Tech’s football fans, and WHY OLD TIME?, a movie about traditional Appalachian music culture.
At Chesapeake’s Monster Fest in 2007, I had the privilege of moderating a panel comprised of several Virginia TV horror hosts, past and present. This was a very funny, very talented group of people… some of whom were still playing their characters after more than 30 years… who bore witness to more than 40 years of changes in television.
I had grown up watching these guys (including Dr. Madblood’s first show in 1975) and was currently watching the newer hosts online, and on the heels of VAMPIRA: THE MOVIE and AMERICA SCARY, I suddenly became aware that this was the stuff of documentaries.
What follows here is an inside look at the content of the documentary, VIRGINIA CREEPERS: THE HORROR HOST TRADITION OF THE OLD DOMINION (www.virginiacreepersmovie.com). I hope, gentle reader, that I will be able to give you a little insight on how the Virginia scene developed, of course. But more than that, the film, is a microcosm of television on the national level, especially in terms of the death of localism and the birth of internet entertainment.
WHAT WE KNEW GOING IN:
We began by contacting Virginia’s, “Big Three”: The Bowman Body (Bill Bowman), Count Gore De Vol (Dick Dyszel) and Dr. Madblood (Jerry Harrell).
Bill Bowman played The Bowman Body on three different channels in three different markets between 1970 and 1984, but he is best remembered for his version of SHOCK THEATER that appeared on WXEX 8 in the Richmond area. Bill played his character with an under-spoken, deadpan style punctuated with spurts of enthusiasm for horrible motion pictures.
He was famous for playing a ukulele, involving his audience in the show, and doing on air promotions for Liberty Grocery and other local businesses. He had a bluegrass theme song that sold 4000 copies and he is still so popular that to this day, there is a sandwich named after Bowman at Popkins Tavern in Richmond.
In 1973, Dick Dyszel hit the Washington airwaves on WDCA 20, reaching audiences not only in Virginia, but also Maryland and West Virginia. Gore reigned on Saturday night at 11:30 during the Watergate era and the sexual revolution, giving him plenty of fodder for mockery. CREATURE FEATURE left the air in 1979 (because of a sale of the station) but returned in 1984 for another three years, where his movie package expanded to include Toho films for the first time.
Gore’s CREATURE FEATURE was the first show broadcast in stereo in D.C. (surreptitiously), the first host on the east coast (and perhaps the country) to run NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD uncut, and most importantly, in 1998, he invented the internet horror host. He hosts two movies a month at www.countgore.com, and was the first host to win a Rondo award.
The third Virginia hosting legend is Dr. Madblood, whom Jerry Harrell invented for a Halloween special on WAVY TV 10 in Norfolk, Virginia in 1975. Since that time, Dr. Madblood has been on the air almost every year at least once, including his Halloween special for WHRO TV15 in Hampton this year wrapped around the HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.
At one point, DR. MADBLOOD’S MOVIE out drew all local 6:00 pm newscasts and had a viewership of more than 50,000. With the huge number of military personnel stationed in the area over the years, Dr. Madblood’s fame spread worldwide. He was syndicated in the early 1980s and broadcasts of his show have appeared as far away as Italy.
In addition, we knew about Ronald, the Ghoul, played by Jerry Sandford on SHOCK THEATRE from 1959-1968 and “The Keeper,” played by Rick Clark on CHAMBER THEATRE, both on WVEC 13 in Hampton. Both men also played TV clowns (“Bungles” and “Sandy” respectively), and both were available for interviews.
WHAT WE LEARNED IN THE MIDDLE
Originally, we thought horror hosting began in Virginia on Friday the 13th, 1959 with Ronald’s first appearance, but two completely accidental turns of events lead to some exciting discoveries.
In a casual conversation about the project, Micheal Joyner, a friend of the film, found out from Herb Tate in Richmond that Anna Inge Jump (who married Gordon Jump of WKRP IN CINCINNATI fame) played “Hazel Witch” in the late 1950s on WRVA 12’s SHOCK THEATER.
A few months after this discovery I found myself arguing with Richard Webb, a Chesapeake resident, over who was the first Virginia host. He said it was “Ghoulda” who played the role, but I had actually spoken to Jump by then. However, he had a signed photo and even audio from 1958, but had never heard of Hazel.
As it turns out, both women hosted SHOCK THEATER, with Ghoulda (Geri Chronowit Roberts) coming first. Both worked at the same station in an overlapping time period but did not know of one another and did not know of each other’s shows. We were able to get interviews with both hostesses and in the film, provide the only public record of these shows.
A wild hunch at the Virginia Tech library led me to find the true first horror host of the Commonwealth, “Jonathan” of NIGHTMARE THEATER on WSLS 10 in Roanoke, played by the now deceased John Willet. However, his producer, Dick Burton, was interviewed and we recovered several photos of a show that was otherwise lost to history as well.
Additionally, we were able to secure the only interview ever with Tiny Thompson who hosted SATURDAY THEATER in the early 1960s in Roanoke and recover footage of SLIME THEATRE from WVIR 29 in Charlottesville from 1973 and 1975 and a promo clip from SIR GRAVES GHASTLY PRESENTS. Lawson Deming actually flew down to Washington from Detroit to tape a weekly show as Sir Graves for southern audiences.
We were also able to shed a little light on The Great Zucchini who predated Count Gore on WDCA 20 from 1967-1970. Bill Miller played the role on SUPERNATURAL THEATER. Very little exists on this character for various reasons, but we were able to get the recollections of a devoted fan, Chuck Fraley.
The work of more recent hosts came into focus as well. From 1988-1995, DR. GRUESOME’S MOVIE MORGUE was on Fox 35 in Richmond and at one point had a 49% share of the market in its timeslot. Dr. Gruesome (Mark Bartholomew) and Skeeter (Matt Pak) played their show for slapstick laughs for a very loyal audience.
In 1995, Dr. Sarcofiguy began hosting THE SPOOKY MOVIE in Fairfax where it is still run on cable access. John Dimes became the first African American horror host in the country and still reprises his role on MONSTER MADHOUSE on a regular basis today.
MONSTER MADHOUSE is hosted by Karlos Borloff, aka Jerry Moore III, who has won a Telly for his work and been seen on THE TONIGHT SHOW with Jay Leno. He does his show live in Falls Church and this Halloween will be seen on the RTN network.
Jebediah Buzzard, Arkansas’s first host is also featured because he has moved his show, FRIGHT TIME FUN HOUSE to the Northern Virginia market and appears on MONSTER MADHOUSE as well.
And then there is Mr. Lobo, who serves as a Rod Serling style host for the film itself. Lobo’s CINEMA INSOMNIA has been syndicated in Virginia off and on from 2002 forward where he has a devoted following.
WHAT WE KNEW GOING OUT
Hopefully, the film cements the significance of the Virginia hosts in TV history, but as we went through the process of creating the film, we found that the history of Virginia hosting is a reflection of the history of television in America.
In the early days of TV, most entertainment had to be supplied locally. Many shows were produced locally and promoted local brands and businesses rather than national ones using local talent. Movies were a great way to fill time, but there was still an expectation of some living human connection to the audience, especially in the days of live TV.
Local horror hosts became significant icons for their audiences and were often free to experiment in ways that other TV personalities could not and became a big part of the Monster Kid culture of the 50s, 60s and 70s. They were often more recognized (and perhaps respected) then the local mayor.
As corporate ownership of local stations spread in the early 1980s, hosts began to struggle to stay on the air despite good (often exceptional) ratings. Movie packages more or less disappeared, and cheap syndication and infomercials began to drain the life from local programs.
As a result today, most programming from Norfolk to Seattle and everywhere in between is virtually interchangeable. And yet, the internet has given rise to a new breed (and sometimes an old breed) of horror hosts, which is how many Virginia hosts are reaching an international audience. They are typically stuck with public domain films like the Daiei Gamera epics, but lately, independent films have been shown on the webwaves as well thanks to Gore De Vol and others.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of a producing a film like this is the research. Photos, audio and even video thought unrestorable were uncovered and we were able to speak to all the living hosts and fans. But more than that, in the production, we became acutely aware of how much we have gained in terms of technology but lost in terms of warmth.
And this is why the horror host keeps rising from the grave, we really, really need them.
Keep watching SciFi Japan for an upcoming interview with VIRGINIA CREEPERS host, Mr. Lobo of CINEMA INSOMNIA!