To many Chicagoland TV viewers, old and young, it would seem as if horror movies have always been running on television. But such is not the case. According to a new book co-written by Brookfield resident Mark Yurkiw and Chicagoan Ted Okuda, the beginning of it all was back in 1957.
Also, horror and comedy may seem a strange mix, but around here such a concoction has been brewing and bubbling over with excellent success since that time, and especially since the fateful date of Sept. 18, 1970.
That is, of course, of when the original “Svengoolie” show hit the airwaves, then called “Screaming Yellow Theater.” It’s also true for Sven’s successful successor (try saying that three times fast!), the “Son of Svengoolie” show. Between them came a rip-off by the name of the “Ghoul,” remember?
Say, have you ever wondered how, in 1975, the Ghoul, coming from Cleveland (“It Came from Cleveland!”) killed off the original Svengoolie, played by Jerry G. Bishop? And how Sven’s “son” came to be, after the Ghoul was pulled from the Chicago area screens?
There is now, about to hit the bookshelves, a long-awaited book that tells much of the story about that, and also about the early roots of horror movies on television, beginning in 1957. Its title is “Chicago TV Horror Movie Shows: From Shock Theater to Svengoolie,” to be published by the Lake Claremont Press soon.
Yurkiw, who has long been a freelance contributor to the Landmark wrote the book with Ted Okuda, a film historian. While Yurkiw is well known for his articles on local subjects, Okuda has written several books and articles on a variety of film topics.
It was a perfect collaboration. While Okuda was mostly interested in the horror films, Yurkiw was the expert on the comedy end, and especially the Svengoolie years.
The 12-chapter, 260-page book begins with an explanation of the proliferation of horror movies on TV (movie studios sold them to TV to make a quick buck) and then recounts how local Chicago television stations served them up. As early as 1957 “Mad Marvin” (aka Terry Bennett) presided over “Shock Theater” for two years on Channel 7. In 1961, Channel 5 followed suit with “Thrillerama” which aired horror flicks into the wee hours of the morning. Godzilla movies were a staple, as well as other low-budget horror films.
During that same time, Channel 7 tried their luck again with “The Big Show,” which aired films (particularly from the American International film studio) in the afternoon Monday through Friday.
Channel 2 also got into the game during the 1960s with its own afternoon show “The Early Show,” which focused on science-fiction movies, though some horror films also made it to the air. The 1960s editions, however were not hosted by anyone.
Where was Sven, in the 1960s, when we needed him? He was a disc jockey, Jerry G. Bishop, working at a number of radio stations, including WCFL-AM in Chicago, getting involved in wacky ratings stunts such as the “Win A Cow!” contest during the summer of 1967.
It was Bishop’s “Screaming Yellow Theater” that changed the horror movie show landscape in Chicago starting in 1970. In the summer of 1972, Bishop’s alter ego, “Svengoolie” announced to viewers that he was “going live.” Now they would see the man behind the Lugosi-like voice, whose appearance was previously only hinted at by static, motionless slides on the TV screen.
Bishop brought personality to the horror movie shows, becoming so popular that viewers began watching the show not for the movie, but for his presence. Together with co-hosts Durwood the Dummy and Zelda the wisecracking, sarcastic be-wigged skull, Sven made the show his own, even attracting famous guests to the show-even himself in his other identity, as Jerry G. Bishop, once.
When Kaiser Broadcasting took over WFLD-TV (Channel 32) from Field Communications, Sven was deep-sixed and The Ghoul was brought in. But The Ghoul failed to attract a Chicago fan base for many reasons-the chief one being, well, that he just wasn’t Svengoolie.
Mark Yurkiw recalled that “Locally, people reacted violently to him. The change was done very abruptly. The station was bought, and Kaiser thought, “Why should we spend the money to do Sven in Chicago, when we can just send this Ghoul out?”
By 1974, the Ghoul made his exit, setting the stage for the return of Svengoolie. But Bishop was hosting a morning radio show, and thinking of going into politics (can’t you just imagine the campaign ads?). But Sven had attracted plenty of fans, including a Northwestern University student named Rich Koz. Koz ended up on the show as writer, voice actor and rubber-chicken thrower.
In 1978, Bishop and Koz began talking about resurrecting Sven, since Kaiser Broadcasting was then out and Field’s was back in. Eventually Bishop went off to “do his own thing,” but gave the role of Sven to Koz, who made himself Son of Svengoolie.
Looking back, the mix of horror and comedy truly was inevitable. Scary (and not-so-scary) television hosts have been making us laugh during the breaks from such movies. That is exactly what this book celebrates, thanks to the three long years of research and writing by authors Yurkiw and Okuda.