VIRGINIA CREEPERS: THE HORROR HOST TRADITION OF THE OLD DOMINION
HI THERE HORROR MOVIE FANS
Tell us about your fascination with horror movie hosts?
Well, I grew up in a time and place when horror hosts were truly important figures in a community. I had the great fortune to see Bowman Body, Dr. Madblood and Count Gore De Vol in my formative years and it had an impact. You have to understand that in the 1970s, there were no VCRs, let alone TiVo, so if you wanted to see a movie like FRANKENSTEIN or CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, you had to catch it on TV, typically very late at night. And kids did want to see them because between Aurora monster models, EC Comics, Creature Feature trading cards, there was a real “Monster Kid” culture.
Hosts brought you exactly what you wanted. And with a really good host, there was a sense that you were in on something . . . like a special club for cool kids (and adults for that matter). So the broadcasts were one time events and the movies were not available any other way, so therefore, the host provided something for you that was special.
For those who donβt know, who is Bowman Body? & what are some of the
horror movies that he has hosted?
Bowman Body’s “Shock Theatre” was originally just meant to be a summer replacement show on WXEX, Channel 8, in Petersburg, Virginia, which is pretty close to Richmond. He started by running the classic Universal package for the late movie five nights in a row for a week and it was a huge hit. The first film was THE RAVEN, followed by THE BLACK CAT, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN, and FRANKENSTEIN.
Then, by popular demand, he was brought back throughout the summer to do the same thing with other classics like DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, and the like. By 1971, he broadcast weekly, but that package eventually ran out and at various points he was screening “gems” like HUMAN DUPLICATORS, PILLOW OF DEATH, and VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS. (But of course, that was part of the charm.)
Actually, as part of my research, I went back through every copy of the Richmond Times Dispatch during his show years and compiled his WXEX filmography, which you can check out here. Bill had shows on WVIR in Charlottesville (“Cobweb Theatre”) and WNVC in Fairfax (“Monsterpiece Theater”) after that. In Charlottesville, they had the Universal and Hammer packages but WNVC was a public broadcasting station and they could only run public domain films to my knowledge.
What are the differences between your documentaries,
VIRGINIA CREEPERS: THE HORROR HOST TRADITION OF THE OLD DOMINION and the
sequel HI THERE HORROR MOVIE FANS?
VIRGINIA CREEPERS is a comprehensive look at the horror hosts that haunted the airwaves from Virginia and Washington DC (which broadcasts to Northern Virginia), so it had a broader mission and more than 50 years of history to cover. Through that film, therefore, we were able to not only show the progression of hosts but the progression of television history. 1950s shows played differently than those during the height of the Cold War, which were different from the hippie era of the 70s or the electronic era of today. We could also show how local TV in general went from being highly personal and community oriented to its present state of being limited to news coverage . . . and what we have lost in that.
HI THERE HORROR MOVIE FANS is specifically about the Bowman Body, a.k.a. Bill Bowman. This came as a direct result of fan requests for more about his various shows and at this point, the film has sold as many copies as CREEPERS! It allowed us to focus more but it also allowed us to tell the dozens of stories Bill had from his days in television, which were much wilder than TV today, at least as far as I can tell. And we were also able to show just how great Bill is as a performer and as a person.
What are some of the similarities between the two films?
Well, both films are hosted by the inimitable Mr. Lobo. He is a California host, but he comes out here every year now to work with Virginia independent film makers like Eric Miller (MARK OF THE DAMNED, TASTE THE BLOOD OF FRANKENSTEIN) and our company, Horse Archer Productions. Mr. Lobo is the “host” of both films and we shot the joiners in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, which is stunningly beautiful (and supposedly houses the body of a vampire as well as three presidents . . . if there is a difference). Anyway, this gives the films a nice continuity and the feel is similar. Mr. Lobo was also syndicated in Virginia by fan request so, as he says in CREEPERS, he’s not a Virginian but he has played one on TV.
What is your approach in making a documentary?
Well, my film partner, Chris Valluzzo, and I have produced and directed five documentaries so far and in each case we have avoided a narrator and I anticipate we will continue to do so most of the time. Personally, I don’t want to tell my audience what to think . . . I assume if you are watching documentaries you have a brain. We shape the story through editing, of course, and we used Mr. Lobo to transition the chapters, but the stories in both films are told by the people who lived them, which I think is important.
Also, I feel that a documentary needs to keep moving forward. Entertainment is important because if you don’t hold people’s attention it does not matter what message or information you have . . . they won’t listen. We worked hard to capture the spirit of the shows and if you watch carefully, you will see we are having fun. Fortunately, we have worked with very engaging and funny people. Bill Bowman is one of the funniest people I have ever met in my life.
Is it true that you are working on a third horror host documentary, this one on Dr. Madblood?
We have talked about it with Jerry Harrell, a.k.a. Dr. Madblood, and I think it will happen. I’d say we have agreed in principle and the ball is in our court.
Personally, I’d love to do it because I actually saw more of Dr. Madblood as a kid than either Bowman or Count Gore. There was a 30th anniversary documentary done as a special project and so I thought there was no chance of a Madblood doc. However, I really would like to put our take on this great show which still broadcasts a Halloween special each year. Heck, they were on the air in prime time within the last few years as well, so they have an incredible history.
Same question as earlier, for those who are unfamiliar with Dr. MadBlood,
please tell our HORRORNEWS fans a little about this person? & what are
some of the horror movies that he has hosted?
Dr. Madblood began his broadcasts from Madblood Manor ostensibly in the swamps of Pungo, Virginia, which is down near Virginia Beach, on WAVY 10 in Norfolk in 1975 as a Halloween special, but the reaction was so great that Jerry Harrell, the force behind the show and title character, had the leverage to get it weekly. It was broadcast after Saturday Night Live, so the crowd was devoted, staying up till 3 a.m. to see the whole show. But it was a great, great show and appeared in various forms on lots of stations off and on (mostly on) for nearly 40 years now.
He too started with the Universal package, the first film being HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but he ran many other films including CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and KING KONG, which were outside the standard package (at least initially). The KING KONG episode featured someone in a gorilla suit atop the Norfolk Scope building and was a big event for me personally. However, as the series progressed, they ventured into . . . well . . . less savory titles like SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED, kind of a combination of a Scooby Doo episode about Yetis and the Donner party.
Dr. Madblood’s show is different from any other horror host show I have ever seen (and I have seen a lot of them) . . . it is really something special and I want to document it for that reason among others. To this day, there are Madblood bits that will get me laughing to tears, which is an important thing if you are up at 1 am watching Boris Karloff at 10 years old, or any age, really.
Who would win in a horror movie fight, Bowman Body or Dr. Madblood?
To be honest, I can’t imagine either in a fight. Bowman Body was something of a combination of Bob Newhart, Jack Benny and Tim Conway . . . just too funny to punch or throw a punch. And Dr. Madblood spent most of his time sorting out bizarre problems that typically arose from his experiments or wacky neighbors (which were occasionally one in the same). Both characters were something of peace makers or the voice of rationality amid chaos.
What was the most difficult of the documentaries to make and why?
Both had their challenges, and both took longer than I thought they would.
VIRGINIA CREEPERS demanded that we keep looking to make sure we had found everything, and that was probably harder. It meant scouring TV listings from 50 years back in each market, doing extensive internet searches and calling people we did not know to get numbers for other people whom we heard might know something about a show. It was like that a lot. And sometimes, we would find a show like “Fright Night” out of Roanoke that ran for 16 weeks and died when the station was shut down due to unpaid electric bills. We found people who remembered it well, but nobody–NOBODY– would admit to hosting it, so it had to be left out.
With HI THERE HORROR MOVIE FANS the big issue was finding footage and getting the complete story. I thought initially we’d have it done in a month or two at most since we had already done the ground work but every time I turned around Bill would tell me some story I had never heard before. And when I put out a fan call, all sorts of personal stories, memorabilia and footage came out. It was great, but it kept us restructuring and moving the project back.
When doing you research on this type of subject matter, what would you
say surprised you the most?
For VIRGINIA CREEPERS, it was the number of shows and depth of the history. We discovered three shows that were otherwise lost entirely–practically no existing public record whatsoever. It was a combination of obsessive work and good luck.
In one case, to make a very long story short, I accidentally met a guy named Richard Webb in the Chesapeake Central Library and we were talking about Richmond’s first female horror host. I claimed it was Hazel Witch and he said it was Ghoulda. He was right, and he had audio back from 1958 and photos to boot. It turns out that both shows were on channel 12, both were called “Shock Theatre” and both had female hosts, but neither of the women knew each other. Richard also, by coincidence, had audio from Sir Graves Ghastly that was sent to him by a friend while he was stationed in Vietnam just to keep him entertained. It is a miracle I found him that day.
I was also shocked to find out that the very first horror host show in Virginia was not in a major market. Instead it was done on WSLS channel 10 in Roanoke in February 1958 as “Nightmare Theatre,” hosted by “Jonathan,” a.k.a John Willett. What is really amazing is that they did not know of any other host in the country. They literally thought they invented the format and the did the show live every Saturday night.
How important do you think set design is for a horror host?
What a great question! I don’t think it is important in and of itself. Bowman’s original set was detailed, but when he went weekly it was just a coffin in front of an 8 X 8 painted board (and you could see the studio behind it!), but he was beating Johnny Carson in the ratings locally. That had a lot to do with the flavor of the show and Bill’s personality.
On the other hand, Madblood has had some very complex sets, which I think reflects the complexity of the show, and as a viewer it was a real treat. Madblood’s show hadan ensemble cast, something like Saturday Night Live, and was sharply scripted . . . not that anyone followed the script, and the set complimented that. Madblood’s world is rich and comprehensively envisioned from the plots to the sets.
To answer directly, the set has to fit the personality of the show and its host. It just has to be genuine to the program.
What does the future have in store for horror movie hosts?
It is something of a mixed bag. On one hand, getting any kind of local TV show broadcast is nearly impossible and film packages are not commonplace for local TV, and to be honest, I think local horror hosting works best. Having said that there may be hope on that front since there are now more digital channels to fill.
On the other hand, there are a lot of reasons to celebrate if you are a horror host fan. For one thing, the internet has opened the whole form up . . . and Count Gore De Vol, one of our own, was the first to bring it to the net. Then there is the national syndication of hosts on retro networks. RTV has run Wolfman Mac and Off Beat Cinema for a few years and recently Svengoolie of Chicago has appeared on MeTV nationally and he screens some real classics including the Universal cannon of creepsters.
And for what it is worth . . . there may be new episodes of Bowman Body’s Shock Theatre direct on DVD in the future . . . perhaps even this year. We’d need to know people wanted it, but the wheels are turning.
Anything else you would like to add?
I would like to encourage people to check out horror hosts, especially younger people, and just enjoy it for what it is. Also, please check out our websites, www.bowmanbody.com Β and www.virginiacreepersmovie.com . If people feel like ordering a million copies of each it won’t break my heart, but if nothing else, there are some great clips, horror history artifacts and info for the serious fan.