Halloween memories: Son of Svengoolie’s Draculathon

Halloween memories: Son of Svengoolie’s Draculathon

The technological revolution of the last 25 years or so has radically changed, and continues to change, countless aspects of daily life. Almost everyone now carries a powerful, pocket-sized computer we call a “phone”; 3D printing will change the manufacturing of virtually everything, from buildings to food products; and no less an authority than Stephen Hawking has suggested evolving artificial intelligence could literally mean the demise of mankind.

But to heck with all that…let’s talk about monster movies.

Like so much of this “fourth industrial revolution,” how we watch movies—monster-related or otherwise—has changed so dramatically, you probably have to be over 40 to really feel the magnitude of the shift. I think for millennials, anecdotes of an era when TV viewing options were in the single digits and when new movies could only be seen in theaters and it could be years before they popped up on a small screen…these must sound like tales of covered wagon travel and the Pony Express.

But yes, it wasn’t so long ago when a universe of film wasn’t available at the click of a mouse or a remote and when your home viewing habits were dictated by broadcast schedules (before VCRs were in wide use and DVRs would have sounded like sci-fi).

I don’t want to romanticize the pre-digital era, especially when it comes to watching movies. I wish I had grown up in the era of movie palaces downtown and dozens of neighborhood theaters all showing different films—a double-feature, cartoon and a newsreel for a quarter—that kind of thing. But growing up in the suburbs, at a time when multiplexes were taking over, my movie love was largely cultivated via TV: commercial television, no less, with its cropped images and censored content. As I wrote in a piece about WLS-TV channel 7’s 3:30 Movie for Chicagoist last year, it wasn’t even close to how you should watch movies…but it’s what we had available.

For all the immeasurable improvements in home viewing options—both in terms of variety and quality—there is a downside: when you have endless choices available, you take it for granted. Nothing seems all that special.

Growing up in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, there were simply not many chances to see a lot of older movies, so when one you loved (or had heard much about but had yet to see) popped up on the tube, it was an event. Remember, this was a time when it seemed like the whole country tuned in for the annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. When Gone with the Wind had its network TV premiere in 1976, the ratings were higher than most Super Bowls.

Around the age of 10, horror movies began to compete with superhero comics as my childhood obsession, but the gateway to horror had opened up a couple of years earlier. Surely more worried about what my older and more socially active siblings were up to, my parents largely left me—a quiet and solitary little kid—in charge of my own viewing habits at a very young age. As pretty much everything was censored for broadcast in those days, this wasn’t as dicey as it might seem today.

I discovered WGN’s Creature Features in its waning years. The show’s famous opening montage (set to Henry Mancini’s theme from Experiment in Terror) was scarier to me than most of the movies shown, but I was introduced to several of the Universal classics via the show, becoming a fan for life.

Creature Features was gone almost as soon as I had discovered it, but there were other places to indulge my growing taste for the dark side of cinema, particularly on the UHF side of the dial. Channel 32’s Monstrous Movie and channel 44’s Monster Rally became must-see TV for me.

But all those fright cinema showcases became also-rans for my affections at age 11. In June of 1979, Son of Svengoolie premiered on channel 32 and it became the highlight of my week. I had been too young to see the original Svengoolie, radio personality Jerry G. Bishop, whose late-night antics aimed at a slightly older crowd ran from 1970-73. The whole concept of a horror host was new to me, so when Rich Koz (who had contributed to Bishop’s show while still in college) popped out of the cartoonish coffin, TV suddenly felt much more personal, with a comically ghoulish pal along for the ride.

I loved the cornball jokes and general levity that now co-existed with my spooky movies. And while Son of Svengoolie launched with a dog of a film (In the Year 2889), soon the Universal cannon was back in rotation. The show also provided my first glimpses of what would become lifelong favorites from Hammer Films and the Vincent Prince/Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe cycle.

My original, thumbtack-damaged "Son of Svengoolie" postcard from 1979.

My original, thumbtack-damaged “Son of Svengoolie” postcard from 1979.

An instant fan, I wrote and requested the autographed, orange-and-black photo postcard of Son of Svengoolie as soon as it was offered. I still have it, too carelessly pinned to a bulletin board, with several thumbtack holes through it. The card was addressed, as I had requested, to Joel “Dracula” Wicklund. (Yes indeed, a geeky child I was, and in that era, “geek” wasn’t considered a good thing.)

scan-copy

As if all this wasn’t enough for a “monster kid,” the weekend before Halloween, the Son of Svengoolie gave his new army of fans an amazing treat: the Draculathon. Again, seeing any of these older horror films felt special back then, so you can’t imagine the thrill of seeing three Universal classics in a row. It was my first movie marathon and, armed with too many Cokes and salty snacks, I sat there enraptured by it all.

The original Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) was first, followed by Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and House of Dracula (1945). I’m not sure why the latter was picked over Son of Dracula (1943), which is a better movie in spite of Lon Chaney Jr.’s woeful miscasting in the title role, but I suspect it’s because it is 13 minutes shorter and allowed more commercials to be squeezed in.

The Draculathon ran from 7:00 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., allowing time for not only plenty of commercials (all three movies total less than a combined four hours), but plenty of Svengoolie. It was awesome…it was glorious…and it never happened again.

The next October, I anxiously waited to see what the next Son of Svengoolie Halloween marathon would bring. Instead, it was just one movie (though a good one, Son of Frankenstein), as per standard programming. I remained a loyal fan in spite of this major injustice.

At that age and in that era of technology, watching three horror movies in a row seemed as rare as seeing a total solar eclipse. Today, I have all these movies and many more on DVD. I can have a Universal monster movie marathon any time I choose. But there’s no way it would have the same charge as it did as an 11-year-old who thought of this as some kind of minor miracle. The era of unlimited content comes at a cost.

I don’t want to be overly nostalgic, though. I appreciate that so many older films, including some that were long nearly impossible to see, are available to me now and that movie lovers are no longer at the mercy of broadcast TV standards and the often random editing of films that goes along with it.

Still, while change can be good, I’m glad some things stay the same. After multiple time slot changes and Fox’s purchase of channel 32 in 1986, Son of Svengoolie was cancelled. My interests and social circle had grown during those seven years, but I still caught the show fairly often, and seeing it go was a real bummer.

So when Koz hit the airwaves again (now simply as Svengoolie) on Weigel Broadcasting’s WCIU channel 26 in 1995, it was like regaining a piece of my childhood. I assumed it wouldn’t last long: TV had changed so much and the low-rent sets and groan-worthy gags of the Sven show didn’t seem like a good fit for a slicker, faster-paced television landscape.

I am so glad to have been proven wrong. The second incarnation of Koz’s Svengoolie has now been on the air for over 20 years, and through the expansion of Weigel’s MeTV network of independent stations, it enjoys a large, national audience. I don’t watch it as religiously as I did when I was 11, but the fact that I still tune in with some regularity at age 48 makes it my ultimate TV comfort food.

I know it won’t last forever. All things change and while Koz is only in his 60s (having started in the biz quite young), I’m sure at some point he will choose to hang up the top hat and fright wig…if the competitive world of TV ratings doesn’t make that choice for him. But it’s great to have had the show as a constant when so much else is changing so quickly and, per Stephen Hawking’s musings, perhaps existentially.

So keep it up, Svengoolie. Keep serving the monster kids past, present and future, as you dodge those rubber chickens. Just one request from a longtime fan: before you close the casket for good, how about one more Draculathon? Or a Frankenstein-a-thon? Wolfman-a-thon? You name it, pal, and I shall be there, with chips and cola at the ready.

Thanks to all the YouTube posters who made these clips available.

Leave a comment

  • Advertisement:
  • Advertisement:
  • ChicagoNow is full of win

    Welcome to ChicagoNow.

    Meet our bloggers,
    post comments, or
    pitch your blog idea.

  • Meet The Blogger

    Joel Wicklund

    Joel Wicklund has been writing about movies for over two decades now and, shockingly, he is still allowed to do so. He was a film critic for Chicagoist before its demise, among other outlets. He insists on claiming more online space here in the hope of indoctrinating more lost souls in his personal cult of cinephilia. Reviews, rants, interviews, features…you get the drift.

  • Recent posts

  • Tags

  • Categories

  • Latest on ChicagoNow

  • Advertisement: