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Nerdstalgia: Dinner with Drac and Zach

 

Ah, Halloween. I love Halloween, because I love candy and horror movies and… um… okay, here’s an admission: I never trick-or-treated. Wasn’t born with the cosplay gene. (Shhh — don’t tell Chloe) And the very idea of knocking on strangers’ doors and demanding candy seemed odd, especially with all the stories about razor blades in apples and tampered-with candy. (Never mind that the stories were apocryphal; no parent to this day lets their kids eat trick-or-treat candy that doesn’t come in a sealed package) Me, I preferred handing out the candy. I’d see my friends and classmates come to our door with sheepish expressions in half-hearted costumes or plastic masks bought at Kresge’s and dole out the good stuff — Kit Kats, Milky Ways, Starbursts, Snickers (oh, Snickers, you truly are the best) — in a one for you, one for me, one for you, two for me fashion. I got the benefit of the holiday without the hard work. I know, I was a pathetic child. But a pathetic child who got to eat plenty of Snickers.

I did, however, enjoy the trappings of Halloween. Pumpkins, fake cobwebs, bad puns, all of it. And maybe that was because I also loved watching horror movies on TV, or, more specifically, the local horror hosts on TV. You wouldn’t know it if you’re younger than, say, 30 (I’d say 40, but I’m trying not to go down that old-guy path right now, if that’s okay with you), but back in the day, there used to be local kiddie shows and local horror movie hosts in every market in America. It would be some local actor or comedian or disc jockey, or even someone from the technical staff enlisted one day because the regular host didn’t show up, but in the case of the horror host, they’d give him or her a punning name and slap on some ghostly pale makeup and undertaker’s suit and shove him or her in front of the camera to make goofy jokes and riff on the movie. You ever see Count Floyd on SCTV, or Roddy McDowall in the original Fright Night? Like that. Some — Cleveland’s Ghoulardi, L.A.’s Vampira and, much later, Elvira — gained fame beyond their local markets, but most were local heroes.

One of the best of the horror hosts was John Zacherle, also billed simply as “Zacherley” (with the Y). He was on channel 7 and, later, channels 9. 11, and 47 in New York (and, before that, using the name “Roland” (pronounce that row-LAND), on channel 10 in Philadelphia), and he was known as “The Cool Ghoul,” a cadaverous-looking chap with an instantly recognizable voice. He was funny and creepy and corny and sarcastic and kids couldn’t get enough. Later, he did radio in New York, on WNEW and WPLJ, with that distinctive voice and delivery. (I can remember the tail end of his TV hosting days, including a really bizarre stretch when he hosted a teen dance show on a UHF channel, doing his horror host routine in full costume in a studio full of teens dancing to top 40 records in Newark, and I listened to him on the radio. That voice WAS Halloween)

In 1958, he recorded the single in the video up top, “Dinner with Drac (Part 1)” (Part 2 is close to the same thing), for Cameo Records. It was a hit. It’s interesting that “Monster Mash” became such a standard but this one didn’t reach that level. Zach basically speaks the lyrics (he doesn’t come within shouting distance of singing, and you wouldn’t want him to try), which are little ghoulish limericks, over a 1950s rock music bed, replete with wailing sax. “Goodnight, whatever you are!”

A VHS tape of his old kinescopes came out a long while back, and someone’s posted it on YouTube (nice of them to leave the FBI warning on it); in it, Zach also explains the genesis of the horror hosts and shows the tapes with characteristically slapdash interstitials (he hacks up a popcorn kernel and leaves the flub in). If you can overlook the quality of the video — black-and-white, shot with a 16mm camera pointing at a TV set — it’s a good representation of what it was like to watch the classic local horror hosts:

On October 30, 1960, Zacherle went on What’s My Line? as a semi-mystery guest (“Mr. X”), and it’s a measure of Zach’s fame at the time that half of the panel disqualified itself because they knew him, without makeup, on sight:

In 1975, here’s Zach on the Mike Douglas show:

And, same era, with Tom Snyder on Tomorrow:

 

And Zach lives! He’s 94 now and here’s his website, and he’s appearing at the Chiller Theatre Toy, Model and Film Expo in Parsippany, NJ this weekend. To folks old enough to have seen him on TV or listened to him on the radio, he’s still The Cool Ghoul, and he’s still a part of our Halloween memories.

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