(All photos, except where indicated, courtesy of Jim Fetters. Copyright 2012)
In 1962, a Los Angeles-based television channel by the name of KCOP 13 premiered a horror show by the name of ‘Jeepers’ Creepers Theatre’, igniting in 12 year old Jimmy Fetters a love of horror hosts that was the beginning of a life-long addiction.
From 1962 to 1964 he painstakingly filmed each weekly episode the only way available in an era that predated VCRs and DVD recorders: using a reel to reel tape recorder.
But as much as he loved the shows, he-and the general audience-never knew about what went on behind the scenes; what occurred off-screen:live adult stage performances, lawsuits and cutthroat competition. What started off as risqué and sexy by 1954 standards ended as risqué and sexy by 1984 standards. Horror hosts affected 30 years of television history, a phenomenon that isn’t known by many of today’s generation, but is fondly remembered by the “Baby Boomers” such as myself.
Finding the tapes years later in the late 1990s, Jim Fetters was inspired to start a website, which led to contact from directors, script writers, actors, and the creators of the programs he’d enjoyed so much in his youth. With their full cooperation and assistance, he’s written a phenomenal book: “Creatures of the Night That We Loved So Well.”
Finally chronicled for future generations, the history of Southern California’s horror show hosts is lovingly collected in its 365 pages’ worth of interviews with hosts and script writers, over 250 photos (many published for the very first time), ads, actual scripts, little known trivia and more.
In addition, the book marks the first time that any publication has succeeded in revealing the identities of all those hosts: from Vampira to Elvira. It’s a remarkable achievement, to put it mildly.
Jim Fetters has written articles and worked as webmaster for Scary Monsters Magazine. Currently he lives in Boise, Idaho, where he spends his time “writing and dreaming” when he’s not acquiring history from nationally shown TV horror hosts. From his home in Idaho, Jim discussed with The Los Angeles Beat this unique and remarkable period in the history of Southern California television .
Your book is a simply amazing chronicle of the history of Southern California horror hosts. How did you even begin to write it, and what particular task(s)proved to be the most daunting in the writing of it?
Back in 1998, I found the box of reel to reel tapes from my childhood and transferred them to cassette so I could listen again; great memories!! I thought about creating a website and sharing my memories and the shows in Real Audio.
A couple months later, Mitch Waldow (News Director at KCOP) contacted me, and everything grew from there. I got to meet and spend time with Jim Sullivan (co-creator of Jeepers’ Creepers Theatre) and Lietta Harvey, who played ‘Ghoulita’. That turned into a magazine article for Scary Monsters Magazine. Then I started searching out the other hosts that I’d watched, and it bloomed into a 12 year project of research and interviews.
The hardest part was tracking down the hosts’ real names, then finding them in hopes for an interview. I had excellent help from Paul Parla and Eric Huffstutler for tracking down and contacting some very wonderful people.
Of all the revelations you discovered during the making of this book, which for you was the most shocking/surprising?
Television wasn’t the friendly thing I had always thought it was. As a kid, I thought these were TV shows and everyone got along with each other. But to learn of the lawsuits, and for one host that pretty much hated everyone else, and a station taken over by a conglomerate that pretty much abused it’s power over another host. Neither is discussed in my book. But the kindness of all the others made up for all that.
Jim, how old were you when you first began watching and taping (on a reel-to-reel tape recorder!) these now classic television programs?
I was 12 years old. It was 1962, and I had found ‘Jeepers’ Creepers Theatre’ on KCOP 13. Every Saturday night I’d be there in front of the TV with my tape recorder.
For how many years did you tape these programs, and who was the first horror show host that you taped?
I started taping Jeepers’ Creepers Theatre in 1962, and continued taping each Saturday night until 1964. As a kid, I couldn’t afford to but more reels, so I stopped taping them. I do regret that now! I was lucky enough to have a few Jeepers-including his last show that happens to be Ghoulita’s first show. I have a couple of Jeepers’ Keeper shows too.
Sadly, out of all the reels I kept for so many years most had become brittle with age, so only a few shows were rescued from the tapes. But luckily, I wasn’t the only one taping the shows!
What was it about this type of program, this genre, that made it so appealing to you, and continues to make it so all these years later?
They were completely different than any other shows on TV. Sure, there were movie hosts, but they were ‘normal’ people. Horror hosts making it possible to laugh at scary movies, making it possible to stay up late at night, get scared at the movie, then be laughing with the host about it. You really had to be there and experience it. Consider Grimsley: he’d have his promos for “Grimsleyland ( a take-off on Disneyland) where you can bury your friends and have fun!” He showed us it was ok to make fun of and laugh at stuff that would ordinarily scare the hell out of kids.
Of the many hosts over the years, who was your favorite and why?
Impossible to pick one. Jeepers was the first one that created my addiction. Ghoulita, she stole my little black heart so many years ago… and she still won’t tell me where she keeps it! I’d have to list them all. For one reason or another they all are my favorite.
Who was your least favorite, and why?
Nope, that one doesn’t exist.
In the book, you discuss the ‘cutthroat’ rivalry and competition between the various hosts. Was there one particularly nasty rivalry that comes to your mind, and what was the outcome of that?
The first was between Dr. Diablo and The Old Woman airing the same night. Dr.Diablo started a month before The Old Woman, but KTLA (TV Channel 5) placed her show a bit later in the evening and grabbed the “SHOCK!” movie package first. So the combination of classic Universal films and a later time slot-after the kiddies were in bed-allowed for a bigger audience. The article (covered in the book) goes into more detail, along with the announcement of Dr. Diablo’s last airing. Then Mae Clarke’s lawsuit, Vampira’s lawsuit…
I read that you literally stumbled upon the existence of the 1950s host Dr. Diablo. How did you come to find out about him, and does that indicate that perhaps there are more currently forgotten hosts out there waiting to be rediscovered?
While researching the Old Woman, I found an article covering the rivalry between her and Dr. Diablo. That sent me on another search quest! Who was ‘Dr. Diablo’ and how long did he air? With more research, I found out he was Dan Riss:a prominent movie actor and local KCOP 13 weekend news host.
After “Creatures of the Night…” was published, I received a very nice email from Dan Riss’ son, who was very happy to find his Dad remembered as Dr. Diablo and, in fact, shared 9 full scripts of ‘TERROR!’ (Diablo’s show) with me.
Yes, a new host has been found since publication: ‘Arachnid’ on KCHU TV Channel 18, which was a UHF station from very early 1960’s, remembered by Don Whittaker. There is more searching to be done!
I remember my sister being a fan of the 1950s horror host ‘The Old Woman'; talking about the ‘poignant’ quality she had and how she would envision herself as part of the films she showed each week. I read that she and KTLA became involved in a lawsuit against them, filed by none other than the actress Mae Clarke! Can you tell our readers more about that?
You are correct. The lawsuit brought national attention. The Old Woman, Ottola Nesmith, did envision herself as the heroine of each movie she presented on the show.
For her show’s premiere airing of ‘Frankernstein’, she told the audience that she was Mae Clarke:”a washed up has-been.” Yep that brought the lawsuit which Mae Clarke lost, and The Old Woman continued envisioning herself as the female lead in each movie shown, which included the ones she really had appeared in like “The Wolfman” and a couple of others.
As we’d discussed earlier, I have a real ‘soft spot’ for one horror host in particular: Ghoulita. I was all of seven years old when I first watched her on Jeepers’ Creepers Theatre in 1963. Recently, you shared on Youtube the amazing tape of the audition for that role, and I was awestruck at her transformation. The actress (Lietta Harvey)became increasingly more ‘ghoulish’ until she fully transformed into the Ghoulita we all loved. I honestly didn’t believe at first that the woman in the audition tape was the same woman!
The ever lovely Ghoulita! Yes, in the book are several photos of Ghoulita’s original look. On the back of one was scribed “She’s too attractive – UGLYFY her!”
Ghoulita was and is one of a kind! Back then she was “The Mae West of the graveyard” and as she puts it today “The Meryl Streep of the streets.” She is such a sweet lady and dear friend! In the epilogue of the book you’ll read about our meeting and how she held my hand because I was so star struck with her!
Another of the horror hosts that really stands out in my childhood memories was ‘Moona Lisa’, whom I swear Elvira must have patterned herself after to the point that I’m surprised that didn’t result in a lawsuit, lol! I understand that host had an amazingly long run on television, and I remember the hoopla back in the 1970s when she filled in for Larry Vincent (Sinister Seymour) on KHJ TV Channel 9’s “Fright Night”, when Larry was quite ill battling his stomach cancer.
Actually, Elvira did have a lawsuit brought against her, but by Maila Nurmi (Vampira). Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) had a lot of similarities to Vampira: her couch and the film set, her look and mannerisms. Elvira and KHJ won the suit.
Moona Lisa is a very kind lady that was too friendly to be offended or worry about being copied. She’d take that as a compliment.
If there was one horror host that everyone in my family could agree on loving it was the one and only ‘Sinister Seymour’ (the late Larry Vincent)! Of all the various horror hosts, he seems to have had one of the greatest impacts, yet only one piece of film footage (a brief outtake)is known to have survived all these years later.
Everyone loves Seymour! I’ve been fortunate in that Douglas McEwan and I have been friends for many years. Douglas was a very close friend to Larry, and was his script writer for Larry’s last run on KHJ and his last Knott’s Berry Farm show. Douglas was kind enough to write the foreword for the book, and shared a lot of his memories and personal photos for Seymour’s chapter too. Larry was one of a kind; a very nice human being! And he is sorely missed by those of us that loved him. And as Seymour would say ” I’d like to thank you for remembering me… I’d like to, but it’s not my style!”
Many years ago, I spoke to a former programmer for KHJ TV Channel 9:the station that aired Fright Night which featured ‘Sinister Seymour’ (followed a few years later by ‘Grimsley’ in Grimsley’s Mortuary). The former programmer told me that the station, in an effort to save money, had ‘recycled’ Seymour’s episodes, taping over them! Since today there is no known copy in existence-other than a brief outtake-do you think that one might be found someday, and if so, how?
All the stations re-used the kinescopes. Very large, heavy and very expensive tape used for the shows. The one short clip of Seymour was a blooper that someone at the station saved, unknown to the station.
The only kinescopes that I’ve seen from back then are Ghoulita’s audition tape that she saved all those years. When I contacted her back in 1998, she was kind enough to send it to me and we both donated it to the Los Angeles Television Museum at UCLA. And Bob Burns saved the one with his appearance on Jeepers’ Creepers Theatre with the original host Jeepers. Unless someone else has saved a tape and it’s hiding in a box lost in a garage or attic, someday another show may turn up.
Television horror hosts have been popular throughout various parts of the United States for many years. What was it about the hosts that hailed from Southern California that really made them stand out from the rest; gave them their unique and lasting appeal?
All regions have their favorite hosts, and each stands out in their own way. But Southern California had the very first horror host:Vampira in 1954. Plus Southern California had the advantage of having so many stations available to us, and they had imagination back then. The stations aired what the fans wanted to see, and we did want those crazy and lovable hosts that made us laugh. None of us watched for the movie; we watched for the host.
After a 50 year reign on American television in So. California, this genre finally came to an end. Why do you think that happened?
Sadly, big business taking over ‘local’ tv stations. Think back to all the ‘local’ shows you used to watch throughout the day and night; they don’t exist anymore. Local news and the rest is now network and infomercials, and the tv viewer isn’t a consideration any longer. It’s a very sad thing when they look at money instead of the wants of local viewers. Look at LA tv stations:how many are owned by the same conglomerate? Look at KCOP, KTLA and others websites. Very sad that there is no individuality anymore. Bet you’re sorry you got me started on that!
I understand that you have a new book coming out. Can you tell our readers about that?
A few are in the works right now. One is a collection of Lon Chaney Sr. Newspaper articles and film ads from across the country, covering from 1909 thru his death in 1930. Another covers horror hosts across the country including some that are still active like Dr. Gangrene, Count Gore de Vol and Halloween Jack. There are a lot of hosts still airing their creepy selves.
Jim, it’s been such a pleasure talking with you today about one of my favorite subjects. Thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to share with our readers these fascinating insights into a period of Southern California television history that many of us consider one of its best. Please stop by again soon!
I’d like to thank you so very much for your kind words and this opportunity to talk with you. “Creatures of the Night…” has been a labor of love for me. I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the kindest, most generous people: the hosts themselves. They not only shared their time and memories with me, they also shared rare photos and scripts. My thanks to them for making a childhood dream come true.