Deep in a luridly lit dungeon in the heart of Chicago lurks one of the last of a long lineage of local, late-night lunatics.
Only he’s not so local anymore. Rich Koz (pronounced “Koze”), 65, has donned the top hat and punch-in-the-eye face paint of Svengoolie for 40 years, on and off. Generations of Chicago fans stop him on the street to thank him for a weekly break from reality, but he never foresaw the level of exposure he is enjoying now.
Beginning in 2011, the nostalgic rerun network MeTV exploited the digital broadcast sub-channels mandated by the FCC to assemble the largest “diginet” in the United States — over 160 broadcast affiliates reaching 96 percent of US households.
There is no escape from Svengoolie now. When MeTV unleashed Koz onto an unsuspecting nation in, viewers fluttered toward the glowing screen like moths.
The “Svengoolie” set is piled with loving effigies of the host in every medium imaginable, from toddlers’ crayon scrawls to Lego Svengoolies to dolls crocheted by grandmas. Far-flung fans send in pictures of themselves in Svengoolie shirts at the Grand Canyon and the Taj Mahal.
Koz is swamped by requests for personal appearances, especially in the run-up to Halloween. In December, he pops up in comic shops and malls around Chicago, dressed as “Sventa Claus,” because — why not?
There is a limit to his shameless instinct for self-promotion, however.
“People always ask me to do weddings, but I do not do weddings,” he said. “Funerals — I haven’t done any of those, either, because they’re worried their relative will get up out of the coffin.”
National fame has brought Koz some high-profile admirers. He thought it was a prank when “Star Wars” icon Mark Hamill got in touch with him a few years ago.
He emailed Hamill back, asking him to post something on his verified Twitter account so he could be sure it was real.
“I said, ‘I’m a bottom feeder celebrity and people pretend to be me,” Koz said. “If this is really you, I apologize.”
It really was Hamill. “He put up a tweet about how one of the things he discovered that summer that he was so thrilled about was the Svengoolie show,” Koz said.
Halfway through our talk, Koz got a text message from another fan, former WWF wrestler Jerry Lawler.
“I’m just overwhelmed that there are people all over the country who are enjoying what we’re doing,” he said. “It would have been nice if this had happened when I was younger and had more energy and I was healthier, but I’ll still take it.”
From Vampira to The Ghoul In 1954, the dark form of Finnish-American actress Maila Nurmi emerged from a foggy studio hallway and delivered a blood-curdling shriek.
“Screaming relaxes me so,” she sighed. Lounging on a couch in fishnet stockings, garnishing her drink with an eyeball, the sexy beatnik persona of Vampira freaked out parents and other guardians of morality.
Something strange was stirring in the basement of split-level, Eisenhower-era America.
Cellar dwellers like Vampira were calling a recess from the antiseptic, white-toothed prison of network TV.
At the same time, a package of Universal horror films, including “Frankenstein,” “Dracula” and “The Wolf Man,” was made available to local TV stations for the first time, under the rubric “Shock Theater.” Local hosts, many of them little more than disembodied voices, were hired to introduce the films, in the manner of 1940s radio shows such as “Lights Out” and “The Inner Sanctum.”
Nurmi was the first of these hosts to appear on camera. She was quickly followed by a long list of oddballs like the zombie-like Zacherley (New York’s John Zacherle), Count Gore de Vol (Richard Dyszel of Washington D.C.), the Amish-bearded Dr. Creep (Barry Hobart of Dayton, OH), Stella (Karen Scioli) of Philadelphia’s “Saturday Night Dead” and Elvira (Cassandra Peterson of Los Angeles, a campier version of Vampira).
By the time Sir Graves Ghastly, Cleveland-born actor Lawson J. Deming, ran on WJBK, TV2 in Detroit from 1967 to 1982, most of the hosts were sinking into campier material.
The saga of Svengoolie goes back to 1960s Cleveland horror host Ghoulardi, played by Ernie Anderson. (Anderson is the father of film director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose production company is still called Ghoulardi.)
Ghoulardi was a wisecracking beatnik in a goatee and fright wig who disparaged the movies he featured and blew a variety of objects up on camera, including a rat.
Detroit-area fans have fond memories of The Ghoul, Ghoulardi’s successor in Cleveland, played by Ron Sweed, who established a strong presence in the Detroit market on WKBD TV 50 and is still a Michigan legend.
But Sweed’s run-in with the original Svengoolie was a real-life horror show.
Sweed took Ghoulardi’s stream-of-consciousness style to falling-down-stupid extremes, knocking over walls and cameras and shoving random objects into his nose, leaving viewers wondering whether a pestilence hadn’t wiped out the studio, leaving one staggering stoner to run the show.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, polished radio announcer Jerry G. Bishop was slumming as a horror host on “Screaming Yellow Theater,” dressed as a zombie hippie who called himself Svengoolie.
Bishop got the inspiration for the name from Ghoulardi.
In 1973, network execs axed Bishop’s Svengoolie character and replaced him with Sweed’s Ghoul when Kaiser Broadcasting took over Chicago’s WFLD-TV.
Koz, then a college-age Svengoolie fan, was shocked when Bishop was “unceremoniously fired” and he wasn’t alone.
The Ghoul may have been a legend along Lake Erie, but he sealed his fate with Chicago viewers in his first week as a non-resident haunt. “Svengoolie is a no-talent rip-off and we made him leave,” Sweed gloated on the air.
He was off the air in Chicago within a year. The sordid episode could have been curtains for Svengoolie. Bishop, a TV journalist and announcer, wasn’t keen on revisiting the character.
“He thought he might someday run for office in this area,” Koz said. “He didn’t want his opponent holding up a picture of him as Svengoolie saying, ‘this is a man you’re going to vote for?’” But Bishop had a young protégé with no such qualms.
My Darling Frankenstein
As a student at Northwestern, Koz sent jokes to Bishop and was thrilled to see Svengoolie use them on the air. Bishop invited Koz on the set, where the young fan ended up doing off-camera voices and writing full sketches.
“It wasn’t in my mind that I’m trying to get a job with this guy,” Koz said. “It was so cool that he liked what I did.”
In 1979, Bishop tossed the keys to the coffin to Koz and authorized him to become The Son of Svengoolie.
An early audition shows Koz in Bishop’s hippie-zombie headband and flared pants, but the look was clearly passé.
Koz grabbed some costume stuff he had laying around, including a top hat, an Edwardian jacket and a “Charlie’s Angels” style wig from K-Mart. He based his look on a still photo of Lon Chaney, Sr., from a lost film, “London After Midnight.” Koz grew up looking at that image, used to introduce “Creature Feature” on Channel 9 in Chicago.
“There was never anything in my mind saying, ‘Yeah, when it gets to be about 2018, I’ll still be dressing like this,’” Koz said.
There were some stakes in the heart along the way.
After six and a half years, WFLD became part of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network and Koz was given his walking papers.
“The way it was presented to me was, ‘We don’t think your show is suitable to be part of our network offerings,’” Koz said. “Of course, the Joan Rivers show was, and that didn’t last long.”
In 1995, TV executive Neil Sabin, soon to become architect of the MeTV network, pitched a plan to make WCIU-26 in Chicago a throwback to the independent stations he knew in his youth — stations that rolled along on comfort food like “Star Trek” reruns and horror movie hosts.
Sabin was also a Svengoolie fan. He asked Koz, who was freelancing at various shows, to open the coffin one more time.
Though Svengoolie was 13 years dormant, a week hadn’t gone by without a fan asking Koz to bring him back.
“I figured, if it meant that much to people, sure, I’ll do it,” he said.
“Svengoolie” is a staggering amount of work, especially for a man who sleeps standing up in a coffin. He writes all the sketches and does most of the voices, playing many scenes with himself. When I visited the studio in late November, Koz, producer Jim Roche and director Chris Faulkner were bent over a bank of monitors, working on post-production.
Koz screens and researches each film he shows beforehand, often delving into arcane trivia.
In a recent show, he intercut 1960s Folgers Coffee commercials with “The Mummy’s Curse” to show that Virginia Christine, the young and haunted woman resurrected from ancient Egypt, later became the middle-aged coffee pusher Mrs. Olsen.
Snark, sarcasm and shock are no longer in short supply, as they were in the 1950s. Comforting ritual, from the clarion call of “Clear the airwaves” at the opening of the show to the throwing of the rubber chickens at the end, is at the heart of “Svengoolie.”
More often than not, Koz is the butt of his own humor. Far from scaring viewers, he frequently reverts to a beleaguered, deer-inheadlights expression immortalized in lots of heavily merchandised apparel.
Among the show’s most sacred rituals is the film-specific song of the week, with musical director Doug Scharf adding a solo on keyboard and/or trumpet. For “Tarantula,” Koz wove new lyrics into a real Italian tarantella, a dance said to ward off the effects of a tarantula bite. “Bride of Frankenstein” gave him an excuse for a tour de force love ballad, “My Darling Frankenstein.”
Koz is not above tweaking sponsors. Liberty Mutual Insurance, a regular Svengoolie advertiser, was the target of a recent spoof commercial tied to “The Car,” a 1977 film about a killer car. For the 1945 Lon Chaney film “Pillow of Death,” frequently seen ads for MyPillow were spoofed as DiePillow.
Recently, some of the most off-putting ads, most notoriously for medical devices like catheters, have disappeared, but Koz said they weren’t yanked deliberately. (Ow, ow, OW!) “I don’t know how to put this nicely, but more higher-end type sponsors wanted to buy time,” he said.
The jokes are often groaners, but they are tempered by a film historian’s zeal and a compassionate heart. Along with pointing out zippers on monster suits, inadvertent mirror reflections of vampires and wires attached to flying saucers, Koz often calls out racial stereotypes or animal mistreatment in the films he shows.
He took a long break during the 1946 film “House of Horrors” to detail the troubled life of actor Rondo Hatton, whose acromegaly was exploited by Hollywood.
For the history segment of “Godzilla,” he listed members of the all-Japanese cast, including Haruo Nakajima, the man in the rubber suit, and pointed out their other significant roles, just as he would for Bela Lugosi or John Agar.
“You want to show proper respect for people,” Koz said. “People are like, ‘Even in these movies?’ Yeah. Some of these people are excellent actors and this was the break they got.”
Despite the retro feel of the show, the cheap sets used by horror movie hosts of yore wouldn’t fly in the era of digital broadcasting. Svengoolie’s MeTV-era set, by Chicago’s Acme Design, is a gorgeously lit coral reef of steampunk apparatus and monster memorabilia. The classic Universal horror films, now re-mastered, show up splendidly on digital home screens.
“There are people who complain, ‘Oh, it’s in black and white,’” Koz said. “To me, that’s the worst complaint anybody can make. The atmosphere those movies create, with the lighting and the shadows — they’re shot so well.”
The weekly grind isn’t getting any easier for Koz as he gets older, but he considers himself “extremely lucky” to be where he is. A cardiac arrest five years ago was the worst in a series of health problems he’s dealt with in recent years.
“I was dead a couple of times,” he said.
“They had to use the paddles. I was unconscious for several days.”
Shortly before the heart attack, Svengoolie’s old coffin, dating back to the days of Jerry G. Bishop, was retired and enshrined in Chicago’s Museum of Broadcasting, to make way for a spook-tacular, digital-ready new model.
Koz cracked to his cardiologist, “I’m sure that there aren’t many of your patients who have had two coffins.”
“You almost had three,” the doctor replied. “It’s like — woooo,” Koz said, partly in horror-host parody, partly in earnest. “But it was funny.”