In the 1950s, the new medium of television was hungry for inexpensive, plentiful content. So local stations turned to classic movies, particularly those of the spooky variety.
Fright films from studios like Universal became an early TV staple, launching a revival of interest in the genre and giving careers to local personalities who became hosts of horror movie broadcasts. These larger-than-life characters introduced films in-costume during late night airings and turned a new generation of viewers into “Monster Kids.” And the greatest of these horror hosts, at least for those who grew up in New York and Philadelphia, was John Zacherle.
Zacherle was a Philly native, graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and World War II veteran. In 1954 he was hired by local Philadelphia station WCAU to appear in Action in the Afternoon, a live Western serial broadcast daily on CBS affiliates. Station execs liked his performance as an undertaker and gave him his first job as a horror host: as “Roland” on the station’s Shock Theater in 1957. His darkly comic wrap-arounds, shot on inexpensive yet inventive sets, were a welcome alternative to the straightforward salesmanship of early TV.
In 1958, Zacherle wrote and performed the novelty single “Dinner with Drac,” released by Philadelphia-based label Cameo-Parkway Records and backed by Dave Appell and The Applejacks. At the request of Dick Clark, Zacherle also recorded a second, less-graphic version of the song which Clark played on his Philly-based teen dance series American Bandstand. It was the eternally boyish host who dubbed Zacherle “The Cool Ghoul,” a nickname that would follow him for the rest of his life.
In 1958, Zacherle left WCAU for WABC in New York. Airing pre-1948 Universal horror films from the same syndication package, WABC’s Shock Theater was essentially the same as Philadelphia’s. But with the star’s popularity growing, the show soon was rechristened Zacherley at Large (with the “y” added to his name to help with pronunciation.) He switched to WOR in 1960, launching his new series with a highly publicized campaign for president in the election between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. As part of his platform, “Transylvania’s favorite son” released a pun-filled record called “Spook Along with Zacherley” (1960) that was popular with young listeners (and collectors today).
Zacherle moved to WPIX in 1963, hosting broadcasts of cartoons and Three Stooges shorts during the day and the legendary Chiller Theatre movie series on Saturday nights. In 1964 he launched the dance show Disc-O-Teen for WNJU in Newark, which he hosted (in his Zacherley costume) for three seasons. In a 2012 profile, The New York Times described the show as “American Bandstand, Transylvania-style” and Zacherle recalled a particularly famous guest.
“Jim Morrison looked at our weird set and mumbled, ‘This is the damnedest TV show I’ve ever seen,’” he remembered.
After leaving Chiller in 1965, Zacherle went on a long career as radio disc jockey in the New York City market with stints on WNEW, WPLJ, WXRK, and WCBS. He also acted, appearing in horror films like Brain Damage (1988) and Frankenhooker (1990). Zacherle edited anthologies of short horror stories and revived his horror host character periodically, including for heavily promoted 3-D broadcasts of classic horror films on New York TV in the early 1980s. Glasses were distributed at local convenience stores and the results were inconsistent, but lots of fun.
In 2008, the classic Zacherley character made a triumphant return to WPIX for a one-night revival of Chiller Theatre that delighted fans of all ages. The movie that night was Tarantula (1956) and John Zacherle brought the same macabre wit to the broadcast that had captivated viewers half a century earlier.
In recent years, Zacherle made frequent appearances at horror movie conventions like the Chiller Theatre Expo in New Jersey, greeting fans young and old. I met him at one of these on Halloween Day in 2009.
“With that haircut you look like a ghoul yourself!” the legend said to me.
John Zacherle died yesterday at age 98. He’ll be remembered fondly by Monster Kids this Halloween weekend and for the rest of our lives.
Update 11/1/16 – I’m a guest on the Horrible Imaginings podcast this week discussing Zacherle’s career and the history of horror hosts. Listen here or with the player below