I was 3000 miles away in my cradle when Vampira broke big hosting movies on Los Angeles television. For one who’d achieve such mythic status, she had a mighty short run on the airwaves. I’ve scoured obits for possible reasons why in the wake of Maila Nurmi’s death last week at 86. Nurmi said she and her alter ego were blacklisted. The squawk was over KABC’s desire to own Vampira outright. It was less Nurmi they wanted than her patent on the character. She had roamed graveyards in a lavish 40’s spook show Michael Todd staged (just once) in New York. Howard Hawks (him again!) got wind of that and signed her to be his next Lauren Bacall (women in receipt of that pitch would undoubtedly fill a phone book). Nurmi broke out on her promised-but-not-delivered big break and married Dean Reisner, former child actor for Charlie Chaplin (in The Pilgrim) and son of director Charles Reisner, who’d done Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. and helmed several Dane and Arthur (them again!) comedies. The KABC producer spotting Nurmi at a Hollywood party in her Morticia Addams get-up was pedigreed Hunt Stromberg, Jr., whose father oversaw many Blue Ribbon Metro features. Was Vampira the first horror host (ess) then? Maybe some obscure station out of Nowheresville used on-camera emcees for chillers prior to 1954, but there’s no record of them, and likely if there were, none would approach sexed-up shenanigans wasp-waisted Vampira delivered weekly. The only thing she lacked were movies engaging enough to sustain viewers between live routines. All were indie/cheapies sold to KABC despite establishment industry edicts withholding filmland product from TV. Bela Lugosi-philes say he watched White Zombie on KABC and dug Vampira's act. To-be classic noirs played as well, but audiences were decades away from embracing the likes of Detour and Decoy, and besides, what were these doing on a late night spook show? Nurmi’s exit (in less than a season) was abrupt and permanent. Why would an on-air personality featured in LIFE and Newsweek fade off the tube at her seeming summit? I’m guessing the station would have maintained Vampira minus Nurmi, for reasons lost to time. Was she too difficult in negotiations? Anyway, she withstood what must have been high pressure from the station to buy her character. In the end, neither profited. I don’t doubt the blacklist theory. Some phone calls among program managers probably settled future job prospects. Nurmi could be Vampira all day (and night), but what’s the point when cameras aren’t looking? There’d be numerous photo sittings. Ones shown here were out of agency files and suggest Nurmi was spreading her image where she could to score another midnight berth, but programmers weren’t buying. She sat out wee hours in the garb with assorted Hollyweirds in places like Googie’s Coffee Shop, where dame fortune smiled and introduced her to iconoclast of the moment James Dean. She said they hit it off, but he was less ready to scratch the town’s underbelly, telling Hedda Hopper not so gallantly that witches weren’t his thing and neither were dates with cartoons. Vampira retaliated with a publicly cast hex upon him, and sure enough, Dean exited out shortly after. Nurmi caught hell from creeps and sickies nationwide who figured she’d put the death mark on their idol, though better judgment might have silenced her during interviews where she claimed to have received spectral communications from Dean via her bedside radio.
Desperation’s last straw found Vampira pulling two hundred-dollars for a single workday on Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, a then unimaginable ticket to immortality that became Nurmi’s own equivalent of the Dean curse. No wonder she shunned latter-day interviews! Going through life with Wood cults in single-minded pursuit would consign anyone to retreat behind locked doors. Varied Vampiras were poaching Nurmi’s act by the time horror hosting really took off in the late fifties (one of them here with on-air m.c. John Zacherle at a record promotion). Vampira herself became less a graveyard smash than just another shill for producers peddling horror pictures such as Blood Of The Vampire, which received Vampira’s Good Ghoul-keeping Stamp of Approval in 1958. Horror hosts were meanwhile thicker than bees in a honey tree. American-International established its own Fraternal Registry Of International Ghoulish Horror Telecasters (FRIGHT for short) "in recognition of your gruesome talent and nerve-wracking ability to scare people out of their wits night after night." Incidental to such honorariums was AIP’s campaign on behalf of 1959’s Horrors Of The Black Museum, possibly the first occasion in which a studio made extensive use of horror hosts in selling a theatrical feature. Competition was such as to finally get Maila Nurmi out of costume and into chic attire for a personal appearance at the January 19, 1965 Tomb Of Ligeia premiere. Here she posed with the film’s star Vincent Price and former Bride Of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester, as well as successor horror host Jeepers Keeper (Fred Stutman). The leopard caped countenance at left was in fact the genuine article among screen vampiresses, and predated Nurmi and her pretenders by twenty years at least. Carroll Borland had played opposite Bela Lugosi in 1934’s Mark Of the Vampire, and hers was the template others, including Vampira, would copy from then on. Relations that night between the two must have been chilly. For all of Nurmi’s dogged courtroom pursuit of fake Vampiras (the last of which would be hapless Elvira), here was the High Priestess of them all coming to call at age fifty in shrouds she wore when the model was invented three decades before. Must have been for Maila like someone walking over her grave.
I was of that earnest mindset deploring horror hosts and their cheeky deconstruction of classic monsters. Cookie-cut routines airing weekly seem to have all come out of the same how-to manual for clueless stations with chiller packages and late-night slots to fill. Kids at school littler than me were making sport of Frankenstein and Dracula. I faithfully watched Dr. Evil out of Charlotte and Count Shockula from High Point but cringed over their mockery of horrors played straight in thirties and forties classics. Pure snobbery deprived me of laughs I might have enjoyed at age 12, but someone had to defend the integrity of The Black Cat and Werewolf Of London. Our sixth grade class presented a so-called "chapel program" for the school in 1966. It was a talent show of sorts and everyone had a turn. I would appear as Count Dracula and deliver a humorous monologue penned by another boy in the cast (Hey, Ro --- you still living in Texas?). The much-rehearsed Lugosi impression was down pat, and my mother furnished a resplendent cape with crimson lining. Our audience guffawed when I spoke longingly of the Transylvanian Twist and visits to the local blood bank, but few detected the stake this lousy skit was driving through my adolescent heart. Forgive me, Bela might well have served as my silent coda, yet hadn’t Lugosi himself burlesqued the image on countless stages during hardship bookings in the late forties and fifties? Maybe it was knowledge of these that made me protective of his image now, or possibly (and more likely) I just took such things too seriously. Letters to Channels 3 and 8 offered detailed instruction as to how they might properly present monster movies. Collective groans must have sounded whenever one of these arrived in the post. I chastised Count Shockula for insipid gagging, an inexpressive mask, and too many showings of The Flying Serpent. Station manager Dick Bennick replied. Turns out he was Count Shockula, master of ceremonies for the Mess America Pageants held at tri-city hardtops in addition to his Shock Theatre hosting duties and actually featured in Issue 45 of Famous Monsters (as shown here). Dr. Evil was magician and spook show favorite Philip Morris, who seemed to have brought his live act to every stage except the Liberty’s. Between begging for that and the Curse Of Frankenstein/Horror Of Dracula combo, I was truly Colonel Forehand’s worst nightmare in those days. Horror Theatre became Dr. Evil’s Friday night TV address. Channel 3 reached more viewers than any station in North Carolina. New Years Eve 1965 found the good doctor taunting a (he thought) captive gorilla during a broadcast of Teenagers From Outer Space. Upon the feature’s (more than welcome) conclusion, the roused ape broke free of its bonds and gave Dr. Evil merry chase through the studio. Even I was moved to relax vigilance on behalf of horror film dignity upon seeing this. Too bad not an inch of tape survives from these shows, as WBTV erased over them all for Saturday wrestling.
Having on previous occasion confessed of my 1969 disruption of Channel 4-Greenville’s broadcast day, I now relate a bittersweet account of another effort that year to bring better television to our benighted NC airwaves. Being supreme authority regarding such matters, I’d shared expertise with stations since the late fifties. A fifth birthday gift of a TV GUIDE subscription was what first inspired me to take childish scrawl to paper and draft revised schedules for nearby channels to implement. Not as experienced during pre-school days in matters of posting same, I must assume my parents deposited them in Amy’s magic mailbox, or some equivalent other than actual dispatch. In any case, my letters brought no replies until the mid-sixties when unfortunates at Channel 12 in Winston-Salem began apprising me of Universal horror films being shown as Saturday fillers. Their lease on these eventually played out, and it seemed to me they’d never been properly exploited. Perhaps if I showed up at their offices one day (unannounced), portfolio in hand, things could be put right. On said occasion in August 1969, my "cold call" to Channel 12 resulted in an hour’s sit-down with two of the vice-presidents, both of whom remembered letters I’d written over the past several years. My mission, if they chose to accept it, was nothing less than repurchase of the entire "Shock!" package and a classy format in which to present them. John Comas was program director. He listened patiently and promised to take my suggestions under advisement. Within a week of the meeting, I received the letter shown below. Success (if partial) at last! The referred-to Halloween special that began in prime time and lasted through the night of October 31 tempered my transport of joy. NBC’s schedule was pre-empted in favor of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and Son Of Frankenstein. There were three horror hosts, none of them practiced in that art, and each determined to one-up the other with tomfoolery resulting in large chunks being cut from the features. Frankenstein began with Fritz dropping the normal brain; Dracula opened as Renfield entered the castle door. All four features were sans credits. Alas, this was television in those days. You took what you could get and made the best of it. A much updated postscript to my 1969 adventure might justify my relating it, for only today I sought out and spoke with John Comas, signator to this and many letters I received from Channel 12 and a vigorous retiree at age 87. We had a great talk about his days in television and the interesting deal he made with Screen Gems to get the ten titles listed in his August 1969 reply. Turns out he received special low terms on the cherry-picked horrors due to Channel 12’s community outreach to schools and local police for the Halloween special. Everyone’s idea was to give kids and teens something they could watch on TV that night in lieu of going out and possibly making mischief on Winston-Salem streets. Mr. Comas pointed out the fact that distributors seldom waived requirements that stations purchase larger packages in order to get movies they wanted. In the case of Screen Gems and the Shock! offerings, there were fifty-two features in one group and twenty in the other. It was highly unusual at the time for local broadcasters to select the best out of both and leave the rest alone. The fact that Channel 12’s Halloween Spooktacular was designed (at least partly) as a public service project was what secured Screen Gems' cooperation, along with generous terms that came with it. Fascinating insight into ways and means these Universal classics were sold to stations, and I thank John Comas for supplying it.
Horror hosts enjoyed but regional glory. Few were syndicated. None to my knowledge cavorted on major networks. There was celebrity to be had in theatres, super markets, and used car lots, but only within reach of your host station’s broadcast signal. A collector I dealt with some twenty years ago turned out to have been one of Tennessee’s legendary monsters of ceremony, but I never realized such until long after he’d died in 1994. Russ McCown started with WSM in Nashville as film director. Chance substitution for a stage frightened studio performer found him in costume as one Sir Cecil Creape, host of Creature Features and immediate airwave sensation (that’s Russ/Sir Cecil in the color image). McCown brought real imagination to his horror hosting. There were contests, local celebrity guests, and much ad-libbing. Eventually, the act moved over to The Nashville Network, which widened his audience considerably, though execs ultimately let Sir Cecil go because he wasn’t country enough. I met Russ sometime after that. He’d show up at the Charlotte Western Film Fair with 16mm prints junked out of stations in Tennessee. There was nothing about his demeanor to suggest this was one of horror hosting’s leading lights. Russ was friendly, unassuming, and a font of information about inner workings in television. He also brought dynamite stuff in the trunk of his car. At a time when original prints of Sherlock Holmes, pre-48 Warners, and John Wayne Republics were exceedingly hard to come by, Russ had them all. Never once did he mention having been Sir Cecil Creape, let alone his past life signing autographs for hundreds of fans back home clamoring to meet him. This man had played through every syndicated package there was over years in broadcasting, and remembered much detail about programming movies in stations where he’d worked. Just for instance, that pre-48 Warner group was one that had fallen out of demand after moves to color programming and the availability of more recent features made them seem archaic by comparison. Prices were consequently way down by the early eighties. Russ said his station had paid just $125 per title for five runs of films like Passage To Marseille, Jezebel, and Captains Of The Clouds. That’s twenty-five dollars per run. It’s a good thing home video came along to rescue these shows and put them on a (hopefully) better revenue-generating basis. I do wonder what sort of coin vintage titles gather in today’s marketplace (such as --- just how much is Cinemax paying Paramount for tomorrow’s telecast of A Place In The Sun?), but these remain closely guarded secrets within the industry. Knowing people like Russ gave me occasional insight into them. I only wish I’d been aware of his alter ego and greater fame as Sir Cecil Creape. That would have made for even more enthralling conversation.