By John C. Alsedek:
There are few institutions more uniquely American than that of the television horror host. Starting with The Vampira Show from 1954–1955 and continuing to the present day, costumed ghouls of all sorts have helped enliven even the most dismal Grade Z horror films; and some have become even bigger than the movies they screened. But for every Elvira, there have been hundreds of local hosts who garnered small but enthusiastic followings. Philadelphia had two horror hosts of note during the seventies through the early eighties:
The first of them—and the one I grew up with—was WPHL Channel 17's Dr. Shock. He was the creation of magician and Roxborough resident Joe Zawislak. Zawislak was a huge fan of the beloved John Zacherle (aka Roland), who hosted the nationally syndicated Shock Theater in the late fifties into the mid-sixties—so much so that he dressed as Zacherle for his magic act. So, when a random meeting with WPHL's station manager in a barbershop led to Zawislak getting a chance to host the station's newly acquired package of horror films, he did the screen test in his Zacherle costume. The screen test was a success; Zawislak asked Zacherle (who had retired from horror hosting) for his blessing to use the look. Zacherle (by then a radio DJ in New York City) agreed, and "Dr. Shock" was born.
Zawislak got a thirteen-week trial run in 1970 and was then cancelled, in large part because his ad-libbing caused his show to frequently run up to thirty minutes long, wreaking havoc with the station schedule. But then ten thousand angry letters and telephone calls rolled into WPHL, and the station realized the error of its ways. Shortly thereafter, Scream-In premiered on Saturday nights and quickly became a ratings winner for WPHL, which was perpetually third-out-of-three among the Philadelphia independent stations. Zawislak continued his variation of the Zacherle riff, but added enough personal touches to really make Dr. Shock his own creation. A new addition to the show was Zawislak's little daughter, Doreen, who was known as "Bubbles" because the show's then-sponsor was Bubbles Booth Soda. Including the adorable child was the show's way of letting parents know that Scream-In was kid-friendly, and that was wholly accurate. For while Dr. Shock arose from a coffin at the beginning of every show and had a ghoulish appearance, his repertoire was enjoyably silly, with lots of magic tricks and bad jokes. For an entire generation of Philadelphia-area kids, his sign-off phrase "Let there be fright!" was a very familiar one.
In the mid-seventies, WPHL decided to try and double the ad revenue generated by Dr. Shock: it replaced the double-feature Scream-In with two separate Dr. Shock shows, Horror Theater and Mad Theater. These versions of Dr. Shock are the ones I'm most familiar with: Dr. Shock's face slowly superimposed over a painting/mummy, with a scratchy version of "Toccata & Fugue in D Minor" playing. The new format and time slot proved problematic for two reasons. First of all, Dr. Shock was now on directly opposite WKBS's Creature Double Feature, so I imagine a lot of viewers did what I did: check which movies were on both channels and decide which one would get my afternoon based on that. The other issue was that a Saturday afternoon time slot left both Dr. Shock shows open to be pre-empted by Phillies baseball or other sporting events. Still, Dr. Shock retained a very high level of popularity throughout the tri-state area (Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey) until his sudden, tragic death of a heart attack in 1979. He was just 43 years old.
Ironically, later that same year saw the emergence of his replacement as Philadelphia's horror host. Since 1976, WKBS had been running Creature Double Feature, which was actually produced by fellow Kaiser/Field station WKBG in Boston. But in June 1979, WKBS replaced it with a similar show produced by another Kaiser/Field station, WFLD in Chicago: the revival of the beloved Screaming Yellow Theater. Original host Jerry G. Bishop had retired, leaving duties in the hands of a fan-turned-show-writer named Rich Koz. The name of this new monster fest? Son of Svengoolie.
Son of Svengoolie ran on WKBS until the station went dark in 1983 and on WFLD until the station was sold to Rupert Murdoch's fledgling Fox network in 1986. However, Koz returned to the role on New Year's Eve, 1994 on WCIU; he was now referred to simply as "Svengoolie," as original host Bishop had told Koz that he "believed he was grown up enough now to no longer be just the Son." Svengoolie ran on stations across the Midwest for nearly twenty years, with Koz garnering local Emmys and regular Rondo Hatton Awards for his slapstick horror host work. And then in April 2011, he hit the national stage as Svengoolie was picked up by MeTV, where the show has run Saturday nights ever since—an "overnight success story" decades in the making if ever there was one. And Dr. Shock lives on in Svengoolie in a small but meaningful way. If you've ever seen Svengoolie, where they do the rubber chicken bit at the end of each broadcast . . . well, according to former Dr. Shock producer Rick Fox, that bit originated with Dr. Shock!
You remember how, at the beginning of this column, I mentioned that Joe Zawislak lived in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia? Well, next time we're headed up to Roxborough to visit the world-famous Roxborough Tower Farm. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.