August 20, 2013

Shock Theater, Part Three
Shock Theater Frankenstein

Horror Host Warren Reed of Seattle’s KTNT entertains his sidekick, “Frankie”, with a reading of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in this shot from the May 26, 1958 issue of Life, as the fabled picture magazine reported on the rise of the “ghoulish announcers” introducing horror movies on late night TV.

Right from the start, in October ’57, many stations running the Shock! Package dressed up their broadcasts with humorous voiceover introductions or short sketches with comically macabre hosts in cheap dungeon sets and flashing bulb castle labs, attended by rubber-mask assistants. As Monster mania began to spread across America, the Frankenstein Monster stomped front and center.

Things had been percolating for some time. Back in March of ‘57, Boris Karloff had guested on The Rosemary Clooney Show, with Clooney’s backup singers pulling a gag in Don Post Frankenstein masks. At the movies, Hammer Films had scored a major summer hit with The Curse of Frankenstein, and AIP was set to release I Was a Teenage Frankenstein by year’s end.

In September ‘57, the advertisers’ trade magazine Sponsor reported on deals that would “highlight the trend in the so-called ‘horror’ field. The befuddled columnist announced two new series in the works: “Screen Gems will produce a tv series called Tales of Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff as host. Hammer Films Productions is readying a half-hour Baron Frankenstein program… this is the same company that made Curse of Frankenstein for Warner Bros.” These turned out to be one and the same, a doomed transatlantic effort between Hammer and Screen Gem, Tales of Frankenstein, sans Karloff. The pilot, The Face in the Tombstone Mirror, was an uncomfortable hybrid of classic and contemporary movie Frankensteins, with Anton Diffring as a Cushing-style scientist and Don Megowan as a lumbering flattop Monster in Glenn Strange mode.

In February 1958, publisher Jim Warren posed in a Frankenstein mask on the cover of the inaugural issue of Famous Monster of Filmland, the instant touchstone title of the Monster Kid era, its punning editor, Forry Ackerman, providing a pitch-perfect mix of information and humor, a Horror Host in print. By year’s end, Zacherley, the most famous of all TV Horror Hosts, expanded his reach with Dinner with Drac, a pop-chart top ten novelty record. A rash of Frankenstein movies released in 1958 included Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein, AIP’s Teenage Frankenstein and Teenage Werewolf meeting in How to Make a Monster, a schlockfest Frankenstein’s Daughter and Boris Karloff as the Monster-making Baron in Frankenstein 1970.

The monster fad, fanned by Shock! showings that brought the classic horror films to home screens, ruled through the Sixties, translating into an avalanche of merchandising that would include monster bubblegum cards, plastic kits, puzzles, toys, monster fan mags and comics. And on it went. Bobby Pickett scored a number one hit with Monster Mash and The Monster was reconfigured to comic effect in a sitcom, The Munsters.

Through it all, TV’s Horror Hosts, dubbed “harbingers of horror” by Life magazine, were the first-line facilitators who introduced countless new fans to classic horror movies. They made monsters cool and, for many of us First Generation Monster Kids, “Frankenstein” was the coolest monster of them all.

A comprehensive list of Horror Hosts, compiled by George Chastain.


Rick said...

I love all this Shock! stuff, Pierre. I saw only one installment of the original Shock! run (FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN in Feb. '58). I'm pretty sure we had no host, horror or otherwise, just the movie.
When Shock! had its second visit to Louisville in '62, I spent the whole year glued to the set every Saturday night at 11:15. Our host was just a local radio personality in a cheap suit. Almost all my initial looks at the Universal classics date from that experience. It's a treasured memory. Thanks for all the goodness.

wich2 said...

Great to see the terrific Norm Saunders Monster peeking over the top corner of your page, Pierre - the Classics Illustrated version of the story is a classic in its own right!

John McElwee said...

Fantastic research and writing on your part, Pierre. This is the best account I've read so far on the impact of Screen Gems' "Shock!" package. Bravo To You!