Friday, December 5, 2014

Ernie Anderson

"I don't know if anyone realized at the time that they were about to hand Ernie a $4 million toy."

I realize that I can be fairly esoteric with some of my Friday choices, but this post may be found by readers to be the apex. It draws together so many disparate elements, from TV meteorology to Flash Gordon serials to really, really, bad monster movies to forbidden jazz music to exploding model cars to crime statistics to Peyton Place to Great Lakes pollution..., really I think I just shorted my brain.

So, where to begin?  For those younger than I there was a time, over fifty years ago, when local television was still wonderfully amateurish with the late evenings dominated by re-runs of rarely seen movies.  Sometimes these movies would have a host who would play some lottery-type game during the commercial breaks or offer a brief news or farm report.  At the end of the broadcast day, there would be a prayer offered by a local clergyman and then a patriotic short featuring a stirring rendition of the National Anthem with scenes of fighter jets and warships at full cry.

[Two or three times in the mid-'80's I offered the "sign-off" prayer on a TV station in Erie, Pennsylvania.  While it was recorded on Thursday afternoons, it would appear at 3 or 4 in the morning when the station had exhausted its supply of ancient films.  While no longer done, it is one of my fond memories from my early years of ordained ministry.]

One of the most charming ideas developed during these days was the notion of a late-night horror movie host.  Well, actually hostess, as in 1954 KABC-TV in Los Angeles experimented with having a rather attractive young actress, billed as "Vampira" and dolled up in appropriate make-up, host the Saturday evening viewing of a monster/horror/science-fiction movie of the week.  During commercial breaks, she would engage in light banter, jocular observations of the LA scene, and sardonic commentary on the films.  While novel and innovative, The Vampira Show only lasted one year.

[If this seems familiar, LA television would again try the concept in the early 1980's with a better actress, named "Elvira", who had a more prominently featured decolletage.  She would become the most famous "horror host" in TV history.]

Still, what didn't work in LA turned out to work rather well in Philadelphia ["Zacherley"], Indianapolis ["Selwin"], New Orleans ["Morgus the Magnificent"], and Chicago ["Marvin"].  The trend was admirably aided when Universal Films released for television their considerable vault of horror movies, from the sublime [Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man] to the...well, less-than-sublime [The Mad Ghoul, Weird Woman, The Frozen Ghost, and Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy].  Suddenly, there was a bounty of material and, in response, the "horror host" movement covered the nation from coast-to-coast.

Cleveland, the perpetual underdog in all things athletic, political, and corporate, was not to be outdone. In 1963, WJW-TV, the CBS outlet, hired a jack-of-all-trades to create a persona to host their Friday night Shock Theater.  Ernie Anderson was an announcer, disk jockey, commercial pitchman, weatherman, and failed talk show host.  He would also perform in nightclubs as part of a comedy duo with Tim Conway, who would later find fame as a member of Carol Burnett's television ensemble and in a variety of movie and TV roles.  Anderson and Conway were mostly famous in Cleveland for their wonderfully loopy, ad-libbed commercials for a local bakery.  The ratings for their ads were often higher than those of the shows the bakery helped to fund.

So, since he was under contract to them anyway as an announcer and weatherman, WJW invited Anderson to make a little more income in live Friday night TV.  Thus, Shock Theater was born and, with it, its new host, a sloppy, goofy, fright wig-wearing, beatnik by the name of...Ghoulardi.  We were never the same afterwards.

WJW probably should have done some due diligence with their hire, however,   If so, they would have learned that Anderson was a notorious free thinker, not something really prized in local TV in those days, and a fan of both the edgy TV innovator Ernie Kovacs and the organ driven jazz music of Cleveland's demi-monde.  As quoted above, Anderson's assistant, a young TV director named Chuck Shadowski, who would one day inherit the mantle of movie host, realized before the station management that they now all lived in the world according to Ghoulardi.

So, after the new Shock Theater theme song, the Rivington's "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" [come back at 5pm for that], from a blacked out set, under-lit and smoking a cigarette while using the exaggerated gestures of a genuinely disturbed individual, Ghoulardi made his debut on January 13, 1963.  By the end of his run just three short years later, Ghoulardi [no one called it Shock Theater after the first few episodes] would become the most popular show in the Cleveland market and, according to the police departments in the area, the reason that crime statistics dropped instead of rose every Friday night.  For his younger viewers, such as this writer, the show would be re-run on Saturday afternoons.

A few things one could always count on with Ghoulardi:

1.  The movie would be terrible, although I did have some favorites like The Giant Behemoth and Invasion of the Saucer Men.

2.  The terribleness would be aided vastly by Ghoulardi superimposing himself onto the screen to caper about with the monsters, monster-hunters, or victims.  This also included overdubbing the dialogue with absurd dialect from other sources or with verses from obscure pop or blues songs.

3.  A lovingly crafted model car would be submitted by a young viewer to be displayed on the air and then summarily blown to bits by Ghoulardi using a common firecracker.

4.  The weekly episode of Parma Place [a parody of Peyton Place, a prime-time soap opera of the era; Parma was the part of Cleveland with the highest population of Poles and Polish-Americans] would be offered during the middle portion of the movie, bringing viewers up to date with the life of a Lake Erie muckraker [literally, a guy who raked the muck off the top of the lake water].

5.  So called "black music" [really, just early soul music and Cleveland-style jazz] would be played, the stuff that was not heard on any radio station in the city in those days.  Otherwise, polka music, mostly by Frankie Yankovic and the Yanks, would fill the bumpers between movie and commercials.

6.  Before the movie, an episode from the lost serial Flash Gordon, starring Buster Crabbe, would be shown.  That was always my favorite part.

7.  Ghoulardi would riff on local news and topics, in doing so coining such terms as "Turn Blue", "Cool It with the Boom-Booms", and "You Purple Knif!" [Knif was "fink" spelled backwards, as the latter term was considered too vulgar to be said on TV in those days].  None of them really made sense, of course, which just added to their splendor when sharing them with elementary school classmates.

8.  He would say or do something that would get him in trouble with the censors, station management, or police.

Ghoulardi's popularity grew to the extent that he formed his own basketball team to raise money for charities by playing teachers from local schools [including my dad and his colleagues] and sported a line of milkshakes and sandwich sauces named for him at the local Big Boy restaurants.  It really was a remarkable three years.

All good things must come to an end, unfortunately.  Ernie Anderson came to the attention of the suits at ABC corporate headquarters in Los Angeles and he was lured away to the be the long-time narrator for the network's prime time shows ["Tonight on The Love Boat...."].  We really missed him, although his acolytes, guys named Big Chuck, Hoolihan, Little John, and The Ghoul would attempt to fill his role over the next twenty years with greater or lesser success.

His hold on Clevelanders of my generation is strong; even comedian Drew Carey would often be seen sporting a vintage Ghoulardi t-shirt on his eponymous sitcom.  [This writer owns two such shirts, by the way.]  Also, Ernie's son, Wes Anderson, would extend his father's unusual vision and become the director/writer of such films as The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Looking back, I miss how much fun unscripted television was and how entertaining a nimble, lively, and eclectic mind could be when matched with "the cool medium".  Also, it was because of Anderson that I first heard and learned to love the Cleveland jazz sound, not to mention the mad, square funkiness of...yes, polka music.

Anderson had a long career with ABC corporate and became a fixture among the B-listers of Hollywood.  He would die of lung cancer at the age of 73 in 1997.  A book about his three years dominating Cleveland television, Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV's Wildest Ride, is still in print and popular; and each year Ohio's Ghoulardifest claims new fans during its weekend devoted to bad horror movies and just plain, American silliness.

Below are, in order, "Who Stole the Keeshka?*" by the Yanks, which was the theme song of Parma Place, and a selection of some smooth, Hammond B3 jazz in the Cleveland style.  The opening cadences of "Keeshka" still cause me to involuntarily smile.



*Keeshka is a type of Polish sausage.