Dinner With Drac
Happy Halloween...52 weeks a year! For a time in the 1950s (and again in the '80s), Americans didn't have to wait until October to experience the joyfully spine-chilling autumn holiday; in many cities, they could regularly follow the antics of a frightful TV host broadcasting close to home and catch a vintage monster flick as part of the ritual. In April 1954, aspiring actress Maila Nurmi debuted on KABC, channel 7 in Los Angeles, in the guise of Vampira, combining horror, humor and sex appeal while presenting celluloid screamers of varying quality on a weekly basis, kickstarting a hot trend in the relatively young medium of black-and-white television. She was an instant hit, appearing less than two months later on The Red Skelton Hour doing a comedy routine with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. In the fall of 1957, Universal Pictures, owners of the best of the monster features that starred Bela, Lon and Boris Karloff, offered dozens of its '30s and '40s classics in a "Shock Theater" package for TV stations, in the process jimmying the lock on a Pandora's Box of shows with eerie emcees, usually presented late at night in cities across the nation. Maila had been relieved of her KABC hosting duties by that time, though she had a handful of small film roles, the best-known a facsimile of her Vampira character in Ed Wood's so-bad-it's-good sub-classic from 1959, Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Philadelphia's channel 10, WCAU, premiered a program titled Shock Theater in the fall of 1957. Its host, Roland, was played by character actor John Zacherle, reciting horror-themed limericks from a mad doctor's lab, interacting with a postman-eating assistant, Igor, and an unseen, freakish family, Isobel and Gasport. A Philadelphia native, Zacherle served in World War II and began acting in the late 1940s with limited stage work, in addition to some radio announcing jobs, before launching his career on the tube. He played an undertaker on a daily Philly-based western show, Action in the Afternoon, and took an item of clothing he'd worn when he left the series: a long, black coat that later came in handy when he landed the hosting role that ultimately defined his career.
Cameo Records head Bernie Lowe became interested in the creepy-movie moderator (Bernie's teenage daughter was a fan) and contacted him about making a record. "Dinner With Drac," with Dave Appell's monstrously good lead guitar work, utilized Zach's sick limericks ('A dinner was served for three...at Dracula's house by the sea...the hors d'oeuvres were fine...but I choked on my wine...when I learned that the main course was me!'), each a little more graphic than the last ('The waitress, a vampire named Perkins...was so very fond of small gherkins...while she served the tea...she ate forty-three...which pickled her internal workins!'). The single hit the charts in March 1958, wolfishly devouring the competition as it reached the top ten within a couple of weeks.
The March 29, 1958 issue of TV Guide featured an article on horror show emcees, giving "long-haired, sharp-nailed" Vampira credit as the originator (calling her a "Ghoul of the Golden West") and crediting (or blaming) the "Shock Theater" package with popularizing the infestation of horror hosts, pointing out that these personalities "...have now become the tail that wags the dog, attracting more of a following than the films themselves." Roland was pictured and a sidebar pointed out the awkwardness of 13 thousand fans storming the WCAU studio during a reception that had anticipated one-tenth that many. 'For dessert, there was bat-wing confetti...and the veins of a mummy named Betty...I first frowned upon it...but with ketchup on it...it tasted very much like spaghetti!'
Turns out the TV Guide feature had been well-timed to aid in the record's promotion. Other "Monsters of Ceremonies" pictured and profiled in the article include Tarantula Ghoul (real name: Suzanne Waldron), a Vampira-esque personality (with a live boa constrictor named "Baby") on Portland, Oregon's channel 27, KPTV, and Terry Bennett ("Off with her fingernails!") of Chicago's channel 7, WBKB, who got his kicks serving "shocktails" made of embalming fluid; there were mentions of others from haunted castle communities like San Francisco, Denver, Miami, Baltimore, Fort Worth, Peoria and Youngstown. Some followed in Zacherle's bloody, muddy footsteps with their own rockin' records; "Taranch" did "Graveyard Rock" under the band name Tarantula Ghoul and her Gravediggers. In 1959, Frankie Ford, Jerry Byrne and Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack waxed "Morgus the Magnificent" as Morgus and the 3 Ghouls, an endorsement of Sid Noel's character on House of Shock, New Orleans' entry in the spook-show sweepstakes on channel 4, WWL.
Zacherle had a small part as a police lieutenant in Key to Murder, a low-budget crime film playing in theaters when "Dinner With Drac" was riding high on the charts. He continued making records (Dick Clark called him "The Cool Ghoul," a nickname that ended up on some pressings of his hit single), though none came anywhere near the calculated success of that initial offering. "Eighty-Two Tombstones" (a not-so-inviting graveyard romance scenario), "Dummy Doll" (a frantic "Dem Bones" takeoff) and "I Was a Teen-Age Caveman" (a tenuous tie-in to Teenage Caveman, a Z-grade Roger Corman movie making the rounds at the time) eschewed the limericks and left Zach's music career at an impasse. After a year at WCAU he switched to WABC, at 7 on the dial in New York, dropping Roland in favor of his own recognizable last name, respelled Zacherley (and occasionally Zacherly) for easier pronunciation. He made the most of the Big Apple exposure, appearing in character on Dave Garroway's Today Show and spreading talk show terror on The Steve Allen Show and The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, among others. Just before Halloween 1959, he and his creepy cast of characters moved to N.Y.'s channel 9, WOR.
Elektra Records took a stab in 1960, foisting an entire album of twisted tunes, Spook Along With Zacherley, upon a suspecting public. "Coolest Little Monster" has him singing and making stomach-turning gift suggestions ('A small box of smallpox...your own noose for home use...lipstick of arsenic...eight pails of hangnails...) for your "horrid, ghastly" love mate. A pair of paperbacks were published by Ballantine Books; Zacherley's Midnight Snacks and Zacherley's Vulture Stew featured short stories by various authors, garnished with Zach's "special cheering notes." An October appearance on What's My Line? found the horror-meister without makeup and a December appearance on the syndicated Play of the Week further sharpened his dull dramatic skills.
Returning to the Cameo fold, he made a few records for the Parkway label in '62 and '63 (Lowe and company stayed with the original John Zacherle moniker), rushing out a Monster Mash album to siphon a few dollars in sales from Bobby (Boris) Pickett's mega-smash and cultural coup. "Hurry Bury Baby" (morbid lyrics set to the tune of The Dovells' "Hully Gully Baby"), "Clementine" (another revolting rewrite) and borderline-dance tune "Monster Monkey" quickly came and went. 1963 marked his return to New York's home screen with a Hercules cartoon show on channel 11, WPIX, followed several months later by a more logical stint on Chiller Theatre, humorously hosting the same horror flicks and many newer, schlockier low-budget ones as only he could.
On Colpix in '64, Zacherley skewered Broadway's (and chart-topper Louis Armstrong's) "Hello Dolly" for one final vinyl affront. From '65 to '67 he spent his afternoons hosting Disc-O-Teen (sort of a "Transylvanian Bandstand," as he called it) on channel 47, WNJU, in Newark, New Jersey, appearing in full getup reminiscent of the not-entirely-retired Roland. Work as a radio personality came next, his talents finding temporary homes on FM outlets WNEW and WPLJ. He remained a regular fixture on New York TV and radio for decades, even during the 1980s when Elvira (eye-poppingly brought to life by actress Cassandra Peterson) revived the format with Movie Macabre, paying homage to Vampira and the many abhorrent hosts from television's early years, including the durable John Zacherle. 'Goodnight...WHATEVER you are!'