How Ghoul Was My Valley (My Life as a Horror Fan, Part 4)

It’s funny how some things you did as a kid seemed like inviolable, era-spanning traditions, when in reality you only did them for a few years. The Creature Feature is a good example. When I was little, it felt like a Halloween tradition I had observed for years and years, but in reality it was three at the very most.

The Creature Feature was an annual airing of Creature from the Black Lagoon – in 3D – hosted by the Cool Ghoul, Cincinnati’s erstwhile Saturday night horror host, on WXIX. Or at least my parents called it “the Creature Feature,” and I remember it being Creature from the Black Lagoon every time. The internet offers no record of the Cool Ghoul’s 1980s Halloween specials or what they were called, and the Creature Feature was also the name of a Sunday afternoon movie presentation on WXIX during the Ghoul’s heyday in the 70s.

Anyway, The Ghoul, whose real name was Dick Von Hoene, moved to a station in North Carolina sometime during the mid-1980s, and my parents certainly wouldn’t have let me stay up until 11 o’clock or midnight to watch it when I was a two-year-old. Three years old, maybe. So at most, I took in the annual Creature Feature three times, around 1983 to 1985.

The Cool Ghoul

I don’t remember the show itself as much as the excitement it generated. The Cool Ghoul was beloved throughout the Cincinnati area, even though his weekly show, Scream In, had been off the air since 1972 or so. He still did public appearances all over Cincy and the surrounding communities, and the Creature Feature (or whatever it was called) was hyped during damn near every commercial break on WXIX for the entire month of October.

Every promo reminded you that you could pick up your free 3D glasses at Arby’s. I remember sitting in the backseat of the Skylark at age 3 or 4, pulling through the drive-through with my parents, bursting with excitement to get my 3D specs and jamoca shake. Arby’s association with the Cool Ghoul was just one more reason to love the place, in my book. The one on our side of town had a glass tunnel over a carpeted ramp that led down from the counter and registers to the dining area. I loved to lay on my side and roll down the ramp, popping up at the bottom dusted with crumbs and the occasional smear of horseradish. My Mom was so enthused, let me tell you, she just loved it when I did that. Anyway, I concluded that Arby’s would be a terrific place to take shelter during a tornado because the dining area was sort of underground and they had great fries.

The picture in my mind as I rolled down a carpeted ramp at Arby's.
The picture in my mind as I rolled down a carpeted ramp at Arby’s.

The Cool Ghoul was one part Bela Lugosi, one part Bud Abbott, two parts Uncle Fester, and one part John Fred and his Playboy Band, or maybe Crazy Elephant. (Many thanks to Mom for the master class in 1960s one-hit wonders.) Like a lot of other horror hosts, the Ghoul was a happy jokester in Halloween regalia, but with the added twist that he was kind of a hippie. The word “longhair” certainly applied: The essence of his costume was a shoulder length reddish-orange wig as bright as a highway caution sign. He also wore heavy eye-shadow, a newsboy cap, and what looked like an open red cassock. His signature exclamation, still famous throughout Southwestern Ohio and Northern Kentucky, was, “Bleagh! Bleagh! Bleeeeeeaaaaaagh! Bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl…” A lot people can’t do it. I can. I practiced. The inserts – the hosted segments played during breaks in the movie – featured skits, pantomines, corny jokes, puppets, and movie trivia. Frequently mentioned but unseen until decades later was Gladys Purplelips, the Ghoul’s college sweetheart from Drain University. “That’s Drain U.” Also unseen was the Cool Ghoul’s “friend,” a Karloff-like voice provided by Von Hoene himself.

My relationship with the Ghoul as a kid was not all jokes and grins, however. Sure, he came on TV with concerned warnings about safe trick or treating, but I harbored suspicion that he might have a hidden, sinister side. Once, during a parade in my hometown, he looked right at me and made his “bleagh, bleagh, bleeeeaaaagh!” face as he rounded the corner of Market Street and Second, where my Dad and I stood in the colonnade outside Elder-Beerman. I just stared, unsure what to make of him. He seemed harmless but … there was all that makeup. I was just too young to understand horror host personae are supposed to parody the genre.

Years later I was able to grasp it. I got acquainted with other horror hosts, particularly Joe Bob Briggs and Svengoolie. I even got to interview and write a short newspaper story about the Cool Ghoul’s Dayton-based counterpart, Dr. Creep. Dr. Creep, at the time, was gearing up for a short public access run in the city where I was working. He was a good guy, working as a corrections officer in those days.

Dr. Creep was also reportedly known to cluster all the tornado symbols around Xenia on WKEF's weather map.
Dr. Creep was also reportedly known to cluster all the tornado symbols around Xenia on WKEF’s weather map.

As for the Cool Ghoul, he did one more Halloween comeback show on WXIX in 2002 or 2003. Mr. Von Hoene died in February 2004.

Footage of the Cool Ghoul is hard to come by – a documentary and a short promo congratulating Indianapolis’ Sammy Terry on his run at WTTV are about all the videos I’ve ever found online. Apparently, early Scream In inserts were broadcast live, so obviously there are no tapes of those episodes. As for the rest of Scream In, it was only on the air for two years, during a period when very few people owned VCRs. A bootleg of the Phantasmagorical Funky Fonograf Record, on the other hand, was fairly easy to track down. It was a 10-track 1971 album laden with jokes, puns, and parodies, on which the Ghoul is backed by a group called, I believe, the Crypt Creepers, and visited by his Friend, his father, and an admiring Scream-In fan. I got it from a buddy whose cousin has a vintage copy of the LP.

I miss the Cool Ghoul, which is curious because I don’t remember him very clearly. To be sure, some of that is just longing for things from my childhood. But I also lament the demise of locally created TV programming that brought an end to the hometown horror host. There was a point in time where just about every television market had one. Back in the day Cincinnati also had lots of other homegrown TV content: The Uncle Al Show, which I do remember, and The Skipper Ryle Show, which I don’t, and things for grown-ups too, like Nick Clooney’s midday variety program.

Within a few years of the Cool Ghoul’s departure for the Carolinas, Michael Flannery’s Club 19, an after-school block of cartoons on WXIX, was about the only local non-news programming. Eventually that was gone too. I guess it goes hand in hand with the disappearance of local restaurants and retailers in the face of ever encroaching national chains. RIP, Swallen’s and Hickory Hut. Long live United Dairy Farmers!

Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, “There is no there there.” There’s less and less there anywhere these days.

My Life as a Horror Fan (Part 3): Kiddo’s first drive-in double feature

Maybe it was because my descent into near-panic a few months earlier watching Fantasia, or maybe they just wanted to introduce me to one of Americana’s finest institutions, but sometime during that same Summer of Cujo, 1982, when I was three years old, Mom and Dad decided to take me to a movie I could watch from the safety of our Skylark. It my was first visit to the drive-in movie theater.

Drive-ins were still plentiful around the Midwest in the early 1980s. One town away from where we lived, the Sky-View loomed over a back country crossroads. Not far off, the Colonial sat on a low strip of land between a two-lane state highway and the river. There were many others whose names I no longer recall. We went to the Holiday Auto Theatre, on a hilltop just west of town.

The screen at the Holiday Auto Theatre. outside my hometown.
The Holiday Auto Theatre, outside my hometown.

The first feature that night was The Secret of NIMH, a Don Bluth adaptation of a children’s book. Don Bluth was a name you knew if you were a child during the 1980s. It was repeated in the commercials for a string of successful animated features created by his eponymous studio, including NIMH, An American Tale, and The Land Before Time. Bluth and his crew were also behind the arcade game Dragon’s Lair, which spawned a Saturday morning cartoon from Ruby-Spears. Don Bluth Productions was sort of the DreamWorks Animation of its day, in that it produced quality animated features with big time distribution and competed toe-to-toe with Disney. Of course, Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera were still standing tall in the face of the Mouse and releasing animated features back then too, so it’s not a perfect analogy. But I digress.

The Secret of NIMH is about a family of field mice facing a disaster – the annual springtime tilling of the field where they live in a nest within a cinderblock. One of Mrs. Jonathan Brisby’s children, Timmy, is very ill and too sick for the move, sending her on a quest for help from her animal neighbors, who possess uncanny intellect and are swayed by the memory of her late husband and the unexplained debt they owe him. How did these mice and rats get so smart? What did Jonathan Brisby have to do with them? Can they delay the farmer until Mrs. Brisby can move her family? There’s a scientific (albeit implausable) cause behind the animals’ human-like intelligence, which you can probably guess if you’re old enough to know your government acronyms. It does not, however, explain the working of magic and magical artifacts in the movie.

I remember it being a little bit scary, so of course I sat down to watch it with my kids. Like their dad, they seemed to find it very mildly spooky. I can see why, but I think the swirling fogs and vivid colors were meant to lend mystery rather than chills to the film’s otherworldly, bearded and glow-eyed rat-sage, Nicodemus. The Great Owl, on the other hand, was definitely supposed to be scary. Which is great actually. What could be scarier to a mouse than an owl? A cat, at least, doesn’t fly.

Bluth was a believer in older techniques used during the Golden Age of Animation of the mid-20th century, and the animator’s care and regard for tradition is apparent in how The Secret of NIMH looks. Just as memorable as the animation, however, are the performances of the distinguished actors who lent their voices to the film. Elizabeth Hartman finds a balance between plaintive and persistent as Mrs. Brisby, a timid soul who dares greatly on behalf of her son. The Great Owl and Nicodemus are voiced, respectively, by Shakespeareans John Carradine and Derek Jacobi. Dom Deluise, whose name was synonymous with funny during the late 1970s and early 1980s, is Jeremy the Crow. Wil Weaton and Shannen Doherty have smaller roles as two of the Brisby children.

Dom Deluise, the funniest man in movies for much of the 1970s and 1980s.

The second feature during my first evening at the drive-in was Clash of the Titans, the original one with Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Ursula Andress, which had been released the previous year. I have not seen Clash of the Titans in its entirety since, but I remember being immediately freaked out by its early scenes, in which the infant Perseus and his mother, Danae, are imprisoned in what I thought was a coffin and then thrown into the sea. I remember being fascinated by the enchanted weapons and armor crafted for Perseus by the Olympian Gods. I don’t remember watching his combat with Medussa or the Kraken that night, but I definitely remember Calibos, the vainglorious young prince turned into a hideous satyr by Zeus. I thought Calibos was the Devil, and I was terrified. Looking back, I have to wonder why I had such a well-formed idea at age three of who and what the Devil is. We attended Mass, but I hadn’t yet started CCD. Anyway, maybe Clash of the Titans is a movie I should *not* share with my children anytime soon.

Calibos. I forgot to mention the body hair. It’s like James Caan had a kid with Rondo Hatton.

The Holiday at that time still had speakers you hung on your rolled-down car window. I remember drifting off to sleep under a blanket in the back of the Skylark late that night, looking out the window at the twinkling stars and staying watchful in case Calibos might appear there, trying to quietly open the door and sneak into the car.

The the late 1980s and the decades after were harsh for drive-ins. The Colonial and the Sky-View both closed. The former deteriorated for ages along the riverside, its sign losing letters and very gradually collapsing, until the concrete company that has taken over its grounds finally, only a few years ago, tore down the battered, tilting colossus that had been its screen, removing the last vestige of the theater. The screen at the Sky-View likewise towered over a lot overgrown with weeds for at least twenty years. The Oakley Drive-In, far to the south, operated until the summer of 2005 but did not linger long after; it was quickly demolished to make room for an animal hospital.

The Holiday Auto Theatre endures, however. Taking me to the drive-in that night was a great decision on my parents’ part, and not just because upon our return to indoor theaters that winter my seat folded up while I was fucking sitting in it during the Gary Coleman vehicle Jimmy the Kid, which led me to demand to park my bony ass on someone’s lap at the movies for a year afterward. No, apart from the convenience of being able to sit on a non-folding car seat, I came to love the Holiday for dozens of other reasons: The clear, stary skies overhead, the abundantly stocked concession stand, memories of watching movies with my parents and later my wife, vintage cartoons and intermission reels, and all the other awesome movies I’ve seen there over the years – Labyrinth, An American Tale, North by Northwest, Dial M for MurderGone with the Wind, The Dark Knight, The Exorcist, Halloween, the Shining… I still return at least once a year for Terror at the Drive-In, their annual Halloween quadruple feature.