Monday, October 31, 2016

“Goodnight, whatever you are!”: Deceased Artiste John Zacherle

As I’ve noted before on the blog, Halloween is my favorite holiday, bar none. I’ve tried each year to find a suitable horror/monster/”shock” topic to write about (my detailed portrait of Jinx Dawson and the pioneering shock rock band Coven has been the most popular, hands down). This year I have to combine my Deceased Artiste department with the Halloween entry and present a tribute to the late, great John Zacherle, who died on Thursday (a mere four days before Halloween) at the daunting age of 98.

Zach will forever be best known as one of the all-time great TV horror hosts — he ranks with Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson and Maila “Vampira” Nurmi in terms of his cultural impact and the amount of fanboy/girls who became famous themselves. The many obits that have appeared in the days since his death have charted his TV trajectory, starting from performing on a local daytime Western (!) in Philadelphia (Action in the Afternoon) to creating the horror-movie host “Roland” in the same city on the weekly Shock Theater (1957-58).

As Roland he began playing the chuckling “cool ghoul” character that became his alter ego for the rest of his life. It should be noted that his own, real-life laugh, when he was out of makeup and his elegant mortician outfit, has the same resonant chortle he had perfected as the character.

Here’s a rare single, “Roland Rock,” written for his character, performed by the Flattops (unlike most horror-host 45s, Zach isn’t heard on this tune):

The Flattops recording is very rare, but it pales in comparison with Zach’s 1958 Top 40 “scream,” “Dinner with Drac.” The opening guitar, the killer sax, the “creepy” lyrics — the record stands just behind “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (from 1956) as the beginning of horror/monster themes in rock ‘n’ roll (yes, it preceded “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett by four years!). It was a favorite of many later bands, including, of course, the inimitable and amazing Cramps.

More interesting is the B-side, which was the first version of the song. It was considered too gross (by none other than the anodyne and truly dull Dick Clark), so Zach recut the song in the version that became the A-side. This is “Dinner with Drac, Part 2”:

He left Philly in 1958 (but did return in the Eighties to appear as “Roland” once again as a guest star on the local show Saturday Night Dead). He moved to NYC, where he continued his horror-host duties, this time as “Zacherley.” Shock Theater was renamed Zacherley at Large and was on two NYC stations — Chs. 7 and 9 (WABC and WOR). 
Interestingly enough, especially given what goes on these days with “intellectual property,” Zach played the same character with the same “cohosts” (his dead wife in a casket and a sidekick) on the different NYC versions of the show.

Zach’s “Shock Theater” shows on NYC channels 9 and 11 were wiped, but he owned three kinescopes of the WABC show. The kines were compiled onto a DVD called The Zacherley Archives (along with his segments for a Philadelphia show, introducing the 1931 Lugosi Dracula). Zach sold and signed the disc at his live appearances but, in this “everything should be free” era, the whole thing is now available on YouTube (from three different posters), lacking, of course, the nearly 90 minutes or so of bonus material that Zach shot in his apartment and on a "spooky" set:

It should be noted that Zach was not only incredibly friendly to his fans, he never charged for this autograph. If you bought his CDs, the DVD, or stills to be signed, you were charged a nominal amount for those (10-15), but he did the convention circuit for years — most notably the Chiller Theatre con in N.J.) signing things that fans brought from home for free.

While he was in the Big Apple, the 1960 elections came around, and Zach ran for President (“let’s put a vampire in the White House/just for fun!” as the song went). Here’s an amazing audio recording of a 1960 WOR show in which Zach presents his presidential platform (along with, of course, his wife whom he revealed would be the first bald-headed First Lady — not to mention that she was in a casket):

Zach moved to Ch. 11 (WPIX) in ’63 to Chiller Theater, which he hosted until 1965. I came onto the planet too late, however, to have seen Zach in his glory days on local TV but did see him doing his Zacherley shtick on programs like Clay Cole’s Discotek. There is no footage of him on that program (which, if you look at its Wiki entry, had an amazing array of guests), but we do have two clips on YT from Disc-o-Teen (1964-66), a no-budget teen “dance party” show that aired on WNJU, the very same UHF, Spanish-language station that aired Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest (I wrote about that show here).

He continued to do the Zacherley character for the rest of his life in items like a wonderfully enjoyable Goodtimes Home Video (which has not surfaced on DVD — and is not on YT) called “Horrible Horror,” where he introduced trailers and public domain movie clips while doing his whole Sixties TV shtick (as he also did on the N.J.-based music-video channel U68 for Halloween one year).

His incredibly strong voice remained with him throughout this life (here he is at 94, still blessed with “great pipes”), so it’s no surprise that his steadiest employment was a DJ. He was an jock in NYC who started out in the sublime “free-form” era and he was still around for the sad, sad tightly-playlisted Nineties.

He started at arguably the greatest East Coast free-form station, WNEW-FM, in 1967 and moved to his long-time on-air home WPLJ in 1971. His stay there ended in ’81, but he came back to FM in 1992 on the 92.3 K-Rock. He was dismissed, along with other NYC icons, in ’96 (and the station hasn’t been listenable since).

The invaluable NY Radio Archive site has a great collection of Zach on-air, showing the full range of his work on the radio. He was a truly great presence on the radio thanks to his incredible voice, but also because he had a “history” with the listeners — younger folks found him a friendly voice, while the baby boomers knew him very well (esp. when he laughed) from his “Cool Ghoul” incarnation. The NYRA Zacherle page can be found here.

Was Zach a hippie? (Keep in mind he was in his 40s when psychedelic music took hold.) Well here is he introducing the, as he calls them, “Grateful-goddamned-Dead!” at the Fillmore in 1970:

And here he is doing a Xmas day stint on K-rock in 1989. This is more comedy than he did on the station in his Nineties incarnation (where he mostly played Sixties music).

In it he reveals he had done acid in the Sixties and he really enjoyed revisiting the “Cool Ghoul” character. That was perhaps what came across first and foremost when he did his undead-host shtick — how much fun John Z. himself was having. Especially since it was noted in his obits that in the Thirties when he was a child, his parents NEVER let him check out monster movies!

Some bonus items from the archive of Zach-mania on YT:

First, a bizarre single, him covering “Hello Dolly” doing a Karloff impression (a la Bobby Pickett) while doing his Zacherley laugh — novelty records are the strangest corner of the Top 40 universe (esp. because this has a rock backing similar to “The Wah-Watusi” that Zach had earlier spoofed).

I could not ignore Zach’s “acting” turn in Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (1988) as the voice of a brain-eating parasite (what, did you think he was going to be a voice talent for his niece’s “My Little Pony” franchise?). Zach’s voice was incredible, and he really does a great job here — it’s a shame he didn’t get more cartoon work:

One of the catchiest of Zach’s horror-tunes, “Coolest Little Monster”:

And a “lost” number that more people should hear — a song only found on the 1996 Zach CD “Dead Man’s Ball” that finds the unwary listener descending into Satan’s domain, where the Seventies rule. “Everyone wears leisure suits in Hell/Great big disco collars and those platform shoes as well/They languish and they fester/in eternal polyester/because everyone wears leisure suits in Hell!” (The song doesn’t begin until the 1:19 mark):

And because Zach *meant* Halloween to a lot of us, here is a “telescoped” version of part of a Halloween stint on WCBS-FM on Halloween night, 1987 (given the recent death of “Crazy Eddie” it’s interesting that the segment begins with Zach touting Crazy Eddie t-shirts):

There are SO MANY Xmas songs (I covered that pretty well last year… ), but so few Halloween songs. Here is Zach’s one “carol” for the holiday. Just wonderful:

And the perfect way to close this out is with footage of Zach and Bobby “Boris” doing a duet on “Monster Mash” at the Chiller Theater in the outdoor tent (filled with people who both revered Boris Karloff and loved Bobby “Boris” and, of course, Zach…). The year was October 2005 and Zach was a mere “babe in the woods” of 87.

Farewell to you, Zacherley. You always were a scream.

Thanks to fellow Zach lovers “Shiska Ravelli,” Dave Vitolo, and Robert Nedelkoff. Also, great thanks to George Orlay, who shot the Chiller performance footage.

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