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Shock Theater's Zacherle
By Kevin Butler

September 26, 2018 marked the one hundredth birthday of one of TV’s pioneering horror film and cartoons show MC’s John Zacherle(y).

Born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pa., he began his career as an actor with a local theater company. “I started hanging around a local group in Philadelphia. They had a really nice old director there who came up in vaudeville.”

Zacherle explained in an January 3,1993 interview, ”They used to do plays and tour the whole countryside..It (the theater company) kept on going for quiet a while until maybe the early 1930’s when the theater company’s run died out.”

The former stage actor changed his career from performing to directing Zacherle performed with the company in some productions until one of the members of the company who was associated with The Philadelphia Board Of Education invited the young man to appear in a series of pre-recorded productions for classes in the local schools.

It was during his stint as a radio actor that Zacherle met an up & coming radio and tv broadcaster and producer Dick Clark. “One of the people in my company worked for the board of education in Philadelphia,” He explained. ”She hired me a couple of times to do some radio shows. That’s where I first met Dick Clark, he was down there in Philadelphia and we used to do radio shows that were played back in the schools.”

At the time Clark was hosting the WFIL Radio version of “Bandstand” while Bob Horn hosted the TV version of the series. Eventually, Clark replaced Horn as the host/dj and interviewer of the program and He invited The horror show icon to make guest appearances during the Halloween versions of the series.

Along with stage and radio work Zacherle appeared as a model in print ads for medications to aide people with emotional problems.

The actress from the theater company recommended him for a part on the CBS TV western series ”Action In The Afternoon.”

As he recalled, ”Eventually this lady said to me ‘Why don’t you go out and try out for the cowboy show?’ They already picked six or seven people to be regular individuals of this town called “Hubbleville” set in the 1880’s or around that time. They would call actors from New York to come down and the lead each week”.

“It was a five day a week story and by the end of the week that person would be either dead, buried or chased out of town.”

The series was performed live on a western village built behind the WCAU TV studios in Philadelphia. Oftimes bad weather would make it difficult for actors dialogue to be heard (Mikes had to be hidden in props such as buckets)and scenes had to be rearranged during the telecasts of that day’s episode.

Despite these inconveniences the inclement weather helped to create an perfect atmosphere for the show’s setting.

Zacherle joined the program around 1955 or 1956 playing a variety of characters.

One of the episodes of “Action In The Afternoon” was filmed on kinescope and shown to potential sponsors. Actor Jack Valentie was also added to the filmed episode as a singing sheriff but the program was not successful and no future programs were filmed for the network.

Actor Noam Pitnick who would later became one of the directors of ABC TV’s hit sitcom “Barney Miller” made some cameo appearances on the show and actor and singer Howard De Silva played one of the frequent citizens of ”Hubbleville”.

One character that Zacherle played on a number of episodes of “Action In The Afternoon” was an old codger named “Grimey James” but his most popular character on the series was a bizarre undertaker who displayed an interesting combination of horror and hilarity that was quickly embraced by the viewers.

Philly’s TV viewers loved this funny monster character, he also impressed the station execs at WCUA TV in 1958 when the station acquired the rights to Universal’s collection of classic horror films to air on a late night show.

They decided to have the talented veteran of stage & radio to audition for the hosting job.

Zacherle won the hosting stint..but the emphasis on the program was for to perform comedy skits and add some witty comments in-between the screenings of “Frankenstein”, ”Dracula”, ”The Mummy” and the other cinematic creature flicks.

The addition of a large studio and the presentation of special visual effects aided in the atmosphere of”Shock Theater” As Zacherle explained, ”We had a large studio in Philadelphia and we could do all kinds of things (on the show) that took up a lot of room. We could send up a rocket (up) and out of sight”.

zacherle of shock theaterMany of the comedic ideas that were utilized on the Philly version of “Shock Theater” were conceived by Zacherle’s first producer Ed White.

Mr. White saw that the acting in the old horror flicks were limited but by using comedy to offset the serious approach to the scenes in the films could make them enjoyable for the audience. Zacherle and Mr. White would pre-screen the film before the broadcast to know when to add commentary, skits and to add plugs for the sensors.

Some of the skits featured non existing characters like “My Dear” Zacherle’s wife (who was inside of a coffin..but was never seen only her screams were heard coming from inside of the box) and “Ygor” who was heard from offstage and “Gasper” (who was hidden inside of a burlap bag his presence was made known by his making sounds).

Mr. White would also use gun powder to create explosions on the set.

Zacherle’s most famous concept on the program..was his ability to super impose himself into scenes of the movies that he was screening.

 "Because we’d did the show on tape we did it the same way,” He explained. ”In Philadelphia, there was no tape when the film was running when it got to a certain point where I was going to jump in. We had it all written down. The director was waiting for that scene.”

“Instead of a scene where a character would have a conversation with Boris Karloff. They would cut to me having a conversation  with him. Back and forth it could (be) funny or confusing of whatever.  But it had to be very well handled by the director.”

During his stint at WCAU TV in Philadelphia Zacherle’s horror show characterization appeared on the program using the name of “Roland” (pronounced Ro Land) the idea for the creation of the name was  due to one of the show’s creators.

As Zacherle explained, ”There was a comedian in Philadelphia. I can’t remember his name. He was sort of a stand up guy, he was working in a nightclub in Philadelphia and he did a couple of characters. I never saw the characters, (but) he called the character ”Roland.”

“The guy who dreamed up the show, Ed White, he went down to the club and (he had) seen him. He came back and he said that this guy was playing a monster and he decided on  the name Roland.

During the presentation of the concept of ”Shock Theater” to a TV station exec in Boston named Marvin ”he had trouble properly pronouncing the character’s name refering to him as “Roland” (Ro Land).

It was decided to bestow this non deplume to Zacherle.

He also utilized sound effects to create denizens of his comedic underworld that were heard but not seen ”My Dear” Zacherle(y)’s wife(who lived in a coffin), ”Gasport” who lived in a burlap sack and “Ygor” who called from off-camera threw in props but his presence was never seen on camera.

Eventually, the show moved to WABC TV Ch.7 in NYC in 1959 but the studio was smaller which made it difficult for him to perform special effects on the program.

  Hence, he and the crew had to use more cost efficient ways to present sight gags on the show.

He created experiments with brains (using cauliflower) and operating on amebos (which were jello molds filled with pasta wrapped up in cheese cloth) liver was used to simulate the a human heart.

The WABC TV version also featured music that was performed by band that Zacherle called ”The Transylvania Gypsy Band”.

The songs that were presented on the show were well known tunes, no original songs were performed on”Shock Theater.”

Oftimes he would perform with the band his singing became so popular with the viewers that Zacherle recorded his songs for a studio in Philadelphia. ”Parkway Records” singles and LP’s “Spook Along With Zacherley”, ”Zacherley’s Monster Gallery” etc. were being sold to the public.

He also found the time to perform on”American Bandstand” and on “Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beachnut Show” (the latter program was telecast live from The Little Theater on W. 44th Street on NYC’s Times Sq.).

When Zacherle left for NYC however there was some problem concerning the use of his character’s name. “There was some question about who owned the name,” he recalled. ”I don’t even know if they copyrighted the name down there (in Philly) so they (the station execs at Ch.7) felt that the safest thing was to change the name. They eventually decided to use my own name”.

NEXT: PART TWO:
SHOCK THEATER REDUX!

 

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