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Monday, February 13, 2006

Kiddie Shows and Horror Hosts

Dick Bennick was one of those jack-of-all-trades TV station guys that worked for a number of years at WGHP in High Point, NC. The station had signed on, as an ABC affiliate, in 1963 (I was watching when they did --- the opening broadcast was a Woody Woodpecker Show). It seemed Dick was doing every local hosting gig in the building --- from weather reporting to kid-show barking, local ads for car dealerships, the whole enchilada --- then he stumbled into the late-night horror movie spot, and that’s where he achieved immortality. His first step was tentative, replacing a guy who’d been suiting up every Friday night as "Count Shockula" and wearing a rather inexpressive mask that disguised both the face and personality. Dick endured this for a while, even parlayed it into an occasional spook show job at one of the local theatres (see the "Mess America" ad), but Dick knew Count Shockula was a dead end. His more genial alter ego served as master-of-ceremonies for the Saturday morning kiddie shows at the Carolina Theatre in Winston-Salem, NC. When I recently spoke to the then-manager, now in his hale-and-hearty nineties, he recalled that Dick got no pay for those appearances, but was permitted to tie-in as many merchants as he could, and keep whatever coin he could generate (the products would be displayed on stage during Dick’s M.C. spots). Everybody made out like bandits. Film rentals were dirt-cheap, as they never spent more than $25 for a feature film booking. Dick would whip kids into a frenzy with a live rock combo, plus prize giveaways with the Bingo games. Girls would come up and dance with the band, much as they'd seen it performed on TV's Shindig and Hullabaloo. I got to know one of those "Go-Go Girls" years later --- she recalled gyrating on the stage for a half-hour or so, then settling back to watch a Hammer film, or an AIP Poe thriller, plus a serial chapter, every week at the Carolina. I used to look at newspaper ads each Saturday and dream of attending those things. What nirvana that must have been.

Anyway, back to Dick Bennick. He came up with a new character to host Shock Theatre on Friday nights. Dr. Paul Bearer was the name (get it?), and Dick wrote material every week for his new creation. The passing of the torch was solemnized when Paul invaded Count Shockula’s lair one night and drove a stake through his heart during the broadcast (they must have used a stand-in for Shockula that night, since Dick had played both). From that moment, his success was assured. The movies Channel 8 used for the show were a mixed bag, but there were the
Val Lewton
RKO’s, as well as rarities along the lines of Doctor X and The Walking Dead. After a few more years with Channel 8, Dick beat it for another station in Florida and became a local sensation with his Paul Bearer act. He died in 1995. That’s Paul (Dick) in the still, of course, and the two ads are representative of terrific shows he hosted each week at the Carolina. I deliberately left Elvis and Spinout for the sake of context. That's Thanksgiving weekend of 1966, by the way. The Nonagenarian manager who so kindly recalled those halcyon days told me that his "First Annual" Mess America Pageant was also the last. I guess when you’ve seen one of those pageants, you’ve seen them all, but what a thrill it would have been to catch all that action on stage, plus The Skull on screen, and all for only a dollar!


Anonymous Mike In Ohio said...

Wow! Dick Bennick. When I moved to St Petersburg Florida in the early 70's Dick was a local sensation as the Horror Host for "Creature Feature" OF, I think, channel 44 WTOG. He was BIG. The Tampa Bay Metro area had over a million people at that time and he was probably making more than the station manager. Everyone knew who he was, He got a lot of writeups in the local papers and made tons personal appearances with his custom Cadilac hearse and coffin which he no doubt brought down from the Carolinas. Whenever magazines do profiles on Horror Hosts like "Goulardi" or "Zacherly" Dick is rarely mentioned. I wonder if there is much info out there on him. Thanks John for the nice profile!!

6:34 AM  

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