Local television shows

I’m old enough to remember the days when there were independent television stations. Not like the CW or the WB, but honest-to-goodness television stations that played whatever the heck they wanted (or could afford) and which actually produced their own shows. Usually in the UHF end of the spectrum that was filled with static and local programming. “Weird Al” Yankovic would go on to make a movie (and music video) about just that era of television.

My friend Doctor Theda recently brought to mind Zacherly, who was a horror movie host in New York City and Philadelphia in the 1950’s and 60’s. He is one of the best-known of the horror hosts, although there were a gazillion of them, as every independent station from Cleveland to Dubuque had someone dressed up as a ghoul or vampire with a cheesy accent doing humorous intro segments for monster movies; Doctor Shock in Philadelphia, Baron von Crypt in St. Louis, Sir Cecil Creape in Nashville, and a zillion others.

Sometimes there wasn’t a host per se, but the station turned the Saturday afternoon horror/sci-fi movie into an event. Witness Chiller Theater from Channel 11 in New York in the 1970s:

Some of you might remember Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, who got her start as just such a horror hostess (with the most-ess) in Los Angeles, and who parleyed her natural… ahem… attributes and genuinely funny “Valley Girl Vampire” persona into relative stardom (including a feature film). Her show was syndicated in Boston in the 1980’s on channel 38 when I was in college, and was sort of a “last gasp” of that sort of programming.

By the 1990’s several new networks sprang up and the end of the truly independent television station was nigh.

For those of you who are fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (as I am – I remember a chain of us “circulating the tapes” back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s), they got their start in exactly this sort of environment. A local television station in the ass-end of nowhere, willing to put a cheap and hopefully humorous show on the air to fill up time. There were no hour-long infomercials to generate revenue back then.

It wasn’t all horror and scifi shows, though. The 1950’s through the 1970’s also saw the same phenomenon applied to children’s shows. This is actually what Krusty the Klown on The Simpsons is supposed to be parodying (although the fact that the vast majority of the viewers of The Simpsons realize what he is supposed to be, is somewhat interesting in and of itself). Whether it was on Saturday mornings or after school on weekdays, there were hosts for cartoons and kids’ shows as well, like this puppet-show one I remember watching from Philadelphia in the 70’s:

And there was the Magic Garden on channel 11 from New York:

I had such a crush on Carole when I was ten years old. And they’re still around, doing live shows in the New York area!

All in all, a lost era of television. Was most of it cheesy crap? Absolutely. But it had a certain naivete and earnestness that I find missing in today’s ultra-corporatized and homogenized media environment. When you had a budget of $150 a show and a guitar, you learned to put more of yourself into the show, and I think it showed through.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

13 thoughts on “Local television shows

  1. Man I loved Channel 11. I grew up in north Jersey. I remember Phil Rizzuto for the money store, Crazy Eddy where the prices were insane and the great movies they would play like kung fu and horror. Didn't they play Yankee games, too?

  2. There was Boo Theater in Houston on KDOG, hosted by Dr. Boo. He was accompanied by a mummy that liked to wear a cowboy hot and holster with six shooters.

  3. Greetings from the Cleveland, the home of Ghoulardi. The man I still thinkshould be credited by MST, as rather than the horror movie host routine, he spent his time interrupting the movie, making fart noises, and then inserting odd soundtracks.

    Everyone had a local guy who'd show cartoons and seemed to have puppets, but I can remember a very odd disconnect when I found out that bozo wasn't always bozo, but a franchise. A revelation which sparked more than one argument about who was the "real" bozo.

    I think SCTV caught the localness of television the best. A time where every market had tv stars beyond the local news hosts.

    Then again, radio shows were local them too.

  4. We had "Sammy Terry" out of Indianapolis, I loved it! The rediculous skits where he'd talk to the rubber bat and all. The guy who did the morning kids show, Cowboy Bob, also did stuff like run the fog machine for Sammy Terry's show.

  5. For the record, I'm pretty sure in another life my calling was to be a TV horror hostess.

    Also, it might interest you to know that Son of Svengoolie is still at it every week on MeTV, which a lot of markets syndicate now. Elvira was back too around 2009-2012, but I think she stopped after that

  6. That's how i first saw cheesy kung fu movies, monster movies, sci-fi B movies, etc. Whatever was cheap and filled airtime. now it's all infomercials: why pay for content when the content can pay you? Sad.

  7. Youtube is the domain of that kind of stuff now and it applied to all kinds of stuff.

    My youngest literally built a channel where he collects and watches stuff based around reviews of legos, minecraft, and hero factory.

    And lot of it has a similar cheesy host set setup

  8. One of the things I always loved about our local stations (affiliates, but still locally controlled) was the "movie weeks." Usually in the summer, they'd do a Godzilla movie week, a western movie week, planet of the apes, etc. These came on at 2pm… so awesome. They don't really play movies on the regular channels anymore…

  9. Over here in Seattle, our local personality of this sort was J.P. Patches the clown, who hosted a cartoon show of the sort you describe. He and Gertrude (a cross-dressing clown) went for years before finally leaving the air. Still, up nearly to the day he died, Patches (real name Chris Wedes) continued to do community work and entertain.

  10. Gigglesnort Hotel was syndicated to a lot of markets, but it originated in Chicago, as did its predecesor, B.J. and Dirty Dragon. I still remember getting B.J.'s autograph in the very early 70s.

  11. We had Dr. Creep and Shock Theater in my area. He was fantastic. He just passed away a couple years ago.

    I discovered so many awesome old movies thanks to Dr. Creep.

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