Thursday, April 27, 2017

The One, the Only: Remembering Ghoulardi and his Fright Night Monster Movie Mash-Ups

This past week I received the most delightful and unexpected gift, a detour back in time to some precious childhood memories from my early years in Cleveland. There's really nothing quite like those unfiltered early experiences, especially when we've spent a lifetime away from that pristine time. So it was that Citizen Kane's last words pertained to early memories of his sled Rosebud.

My early feel-good recollections might include a white rubber football, playing Geography (the game) with my parents, and catching snakes in the woods. But there was little to compare with staying up late on Friday nights to watch B-grade monster movies on a television show hosted by none other than the incomparable Ernie Anderson, a.k.a. Ghoulardi.

What a treat then when I opened the package and found this book by Tom Feran and R.D. Heldenfels about the one and only, subtitled Inside Cleveland TV's Wildest Ride.

Indeed, the Ghoulardi show really was one wild ride.

These were the early days of television in which every major city had its local programming. We didn't know then that what we experienced was extremely regional. When I was on the Barnaby Show as a child, I had no idea that in the Twin Cities those kids were watching Toby's Playhouse. (Actually, when I was a five-year-old I didn't really know there was a Twin Cities or pretty much anything else beyond my neighborhood and the shows on out television set.)

It's hard to imagine now, but at one time Cleveland was the fifth largest population center in the U.S. By 2015 Cleveland sat 51st... a dramatic descent due chiefly to the collapse of America's Rust Belt economy.

When I was a kid, Cleveland was the world. The Cleveland Indians, the Cleveland Browns, and Cleveland television. In writing about Ghoulardi, Feran & Heldenfels put Cleveland television in perspective because Ghoulardi's schtick included making fun of Clevelnad television and its personalities. I'd forgotten about Captain Penny, Woodrow the Woodsman and Barnaby the elf's pointy ears. In those days, local TV stations assumed responsibility for generating much of their content.

What made Ghoulardi so unique? Perhaps it was the context that brought out the best (or worst) in Ernie Anderson. It was Friday night Fright Night and the late 50's monster film phenomenon was in full swing. Ghoulardi, however, took it to another level.

I remember watching The Creeper at my cousin's house in Cincinnati, and House on Haunted Hill when we moved to New Jersey in 1964, but these were nothing like the Ghoulardi show. What Ernie Anderson did was make fun of the flicks because they were so comically poor in their production values and story lines. This was not Masterpiece Theater where the host sits in an elegant room describing the high art quality of significant literature interpreted in film by masters of the craft. Instead, Ghoulardi would introduce a film by saying, "This film is so bad you should just go to bed."

True!

Ghoulardi was half beatnik, half mad scientist, all a put-on by the eccentric Anderson who only got away with his antics because the fan mail was simply so excessive. He developed his own vocabulary, reversing the word Fink to become Knif. "You're a K-nif" he would say. Another saying was "Turn Blue" which I think must have been a twist on the phrase Drop Dead. I doubt it meant, "become the color of sky" or, "get depressed."

The most memorable feature of his shows was that he would splice comic interruptions into the films we were watching. Here's a memorable example. One of the films was about a giant brontosaurus attacking a city (a low-budget Japanese horrorshow) and just as the monster turns the corner to step on a crowd of people, our show host is spliced in, catching the monster's foot, struggling to keep it from crushing him. After catching a whiff of the beast's smelly feet Ghoulardi looks atthe camera and pinches his nose. "Phew." The monster needs to wash his feet.

In other words, when the tension mounted, Ghoulardi intervened, providing comic relief. Another way to put it, he saw the films themselves as a joke -- Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, The Cyclops -- so why not join the fun.

Here's a clip that Ghoulardi routinely had his team splice into the middle of our favorite monster movie scenes. Naturally we would crack up.


Another thing Ghoulardi liked to do on the air was blow things up. That is, he would take firecrackers and light them underneath plastic models and other kinds of inanimate things. He called them "boom-booms." His fans would send boom-booms to the show and he would set them off, creating quite the sitr... until on one occasion he blasted such a forceful boom-boom that he set the studio on fire.

Essentially, he was all about pushing boundaries. And being entertaining. The films were fun, but he made them even moreso.

Not everyone loved him, though. The TV station had to deal with angry parents who thought he was a bad influence. Or too unkind. By the latter I mean he would poke fun of some of the other local personalities who were featured on Cleveland television, including Captain Penny, or the fledgling Mike Douglas. As a result of his popularity he got away with most of it.

One part of the book lists many of the films we watched on Ghoulardi's show. I remember observing my brother Ron's expressions of terror as we watched the film Caltiki: The Immortal Monster, a film similar to The Blob, only better. That is, from the perspective of a ten-year-old. As I read through the list I'm surprised at how many of these monsters were "created" as a bi-product of nuclear radiation. How many of us remember Attack of the Crab Monsters, or The Giant Behemoth?

Many of these films were written about in the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, a rag designed to whet our appetites for more B-films of the horror genre.

The book contains a lot more than what's encapsulated here. Ernie Anderson's relationship with Tim Conway, for example, is worth a blog post of its own, which may or may not ever happen.

The bottom line is that in show business, or any business for that matter, when something is good cherish it. On this side of eternity nothing good really lasts for ever.

Just cool it with the boom-booms. 

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