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 ritual 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 10 or 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, in the neighborhood of 1982 to 1985.
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 in late 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 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.) He was a happy jokester in Halloween regalia, 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 plaid 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, host of WKEF’s Shock Theater. 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.
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 WXIX never had tapes of those episodes. Further, 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, which brought an end to the hometown horror host. I found a long historical list of them once, and it seemed like at one point in time just about every television market must have 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.