Ghoulardi was a fictional character invented and portrayed by disc jockey, voice announcer, and actor Ernie Anderson as the horror host of late night Shock Theater at WJW-TV, Channel 8, in Cleveland, Ohio from January 13, 1963 through December 16, 1966.
Shock Theater featured grade-"B" science fiction films and horror films. Shock Theater was aired in a Friday late-night time slot, but at the peak of Ghoulardi's popularity, Anderson also hosted the Saturday afternoon Masterpiece Theater, and the weekday children's program Laurel, Ghoulardi and Hardy.
Late-night TV hosts in other broadcast markets typically portrayed themselves as mad scientists, vampires, or other horror film-themed stock characters. In contrast to this, Anderson's irreverent and influential host character was a hipster. Ghoulardi's costume was a long lab coat covered with "slogan" buttons, horn-rimmed sunglasses with a missing lens, a fake Van Dyke beard and moustache, and various messy, awkwardly-perched wigs. His crew shone a key light on Anderson's face at an unusual angle to create a spooky effect, and they shot his face close up (or extremely close up), which they often broadcast through an undulating oval. Ghoulardi's stage name and certain aspects of the character's appearance were devised by Cleveland restaurateur (and amateur makeup artist) Ralph Gulko, who was making a pun of the word "ghoul," and his own similar last name, suffixed with a generic "ethnic" ending. The station created a "write in" contest for fans after Gulko devised the name, and station management awarded prizes to several contestants who sent in ideas for names similar to the one they had already chosen. In addition to Anderson's salary as a booth announcer, TV-8 paid him an additional $65 a week to perform his improvised program on live television.
Anderson used friends and members of the TV-8 station crew as supporting cast: engineer "Big Chuck" Schodowski, film editor Bob Soinski and writer Tim Conway (later of The Carol Burnett Show and "Dorf" fame). He was later assisted by teenage intern Ron Sweed, who had boarded a bus to try to meet his idol at a live appearance at Euclid Beach, clad in a gorilla suit. Anderson invited Sweed onstage; to the crowd’s delight, Sweed stumbled offstage back into the audience, when Anderson whacked him on the back. This, plus some unannounced gorilla-suited visits to the studio, sealed his place as Anderson’s intern.
During breaks in the movies, Ghoulardi addressed the TV-8 camera in a part-Beat, part-ethnic accented commentary, peppered with catchphrases: "Hey, group!," "Stay sick, knif" ("fink"), "Cool it," "Turn blue" "Would you believe...?" and "ova-dey" (a regional pronunciation of "over there"). Anderson improvised because of his difficulty memorizing lines. He played novelty and offbeat or instrumental rock and roll tunes, plus jazz and rhythm and blues songs under his live performance. He frequently played the Rivingtons' "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" over a clip of a toothless old man gurning.
Shock Theater drew both a black and white cult audience, who loved Ghoulardi's beatnik costume, the music, and his hip talk, which was a nod to black jazz and R&B artists. More mainstream viewers enjoyed his broad, unpretentious ethnic humor.
Ghoulardi spared no unhip targets: from the bedroom communities Parma, Ohio, ("Par-ma?!") which he often called "Amrap" (Parma backwards) and Oxnard, California, ("Remember...Oxnard!"), to ultraconservative bandleader Lawrence Welk and polka music, and local television personalities, ranging from the anodyne singer/local talk show host Mike Douglas, to children's hosts Barnaby and Captain Penny, to venerated news analyst and commentator Dorothy Fuldheim ("Dorothy Baby"), and the unassuming Mayor of Cleveland Ralph Locher. Ghoulardi unmercifully jeered Parma for its conservative, ethnic, working-class "white socks" sensibility, eventually creating a series of taped skits called "Parma Place", a parody of Peyton Place. Douglas, Anderson said, refused to book Anderson as a guest on The Mike Douglas Show after Douglas' talk show was being broadcast nationwide, or to speak to Anderson for years (though Douglas denied any animosity). Ghoulardi briefly kept a raven, which he featured on his show, and called him "Oxnard."
Ghoulardi often mocked the poor quality films he was hosting on TV-8: "If you want to watch a movie, don't watch this one," or "This movie is so bad, you should just go to bed." He had his crew comically insert random stock footage or his own image at climactic moments. In a scene involving a chase, for example, they integrated Ghoulardi into the film as if he was being pursued, or integrating him with other characters. When airing Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Ghoulardi leaned his hand up on the wall of a cave in one scene. Schodowski wrote that Ghoulardi usually adapted well to the changing scenes, as Anderson could only view a monitor with a reversed image of the broadcast and his "drop-ins" were live. One time the scene in the film changed before Anderson noticed, and he reacted with a "Whooo!" and quickly removed his hand when he realized that Ghoulardi was cupping the breast of the giant woman (Allison Hayes) live onscreen.
TV-8, then owned by Storer Broadcasting, capitalized on Ghoulardi's wide audience with a comprehensive merchandising program, giving Anderson a percentage as Storer owned the "Ghoulardi" name. He also negotiated agreements with Manners Restaurants for use of his image, though Anderson refused to eat fast food ("Don't eat that--it's garbage," he advised Sweed). He earned about $65,000.00 a year at the peak of his popularity as Ghoulardi.
Anderson organized the "Ghoulardi All-Stars" softball, football and basketball teams, which played as many as 100 charity contests a year, attracting thousands of fans. Tim Conway recalls that in softball games they "actually filled Cleveland Stadium." They donated all receipts to charity after recouping expenses such as uniforms and coach transportation. Bob Wells estimated that the Ghoulardi All-Stars raised about $250,000. Anderson staffed the teams with TV-8 personalities, crew, their family members and, occasionally, when he only remembered the game he had booked when he saw the team bus parked in front of the station, anyone else he could find. TV-8 sent a cameraman to cover games. Ghoulardi improvised humorous narratives to these highlight films, which saved him show preparation. TV-8's program director interfered by making the excuse that the station could not afford the overtime for the cameraman. Ghoulardi explained that the lack of highlight films was hurting attendance, which disrupted their charitable work. Ghoulardi had a camera shoot a card printed with the program director's home phone number, which he televised, and asked the broadcast audience to complain. He relented after being forced to change his number.
Anderson openly battled TV-8 management. Schodowski was quoted as saying: "[S]tation management lived in daily fear as to what he might say or do on the air, because he was live." In spite of his solid ratings and profitability, they worried that Ghoulardi was testing too many television boundaries too quickly, and tried to rein in the character. Anderson responded by, among other things, detonating plastic action figures and plastic model cars sent in by viewers with firecrackers and small explosives on air, once nearly setting the studio on fire. As Anderson was already under contract with TV-8 as a booth announcer when Ghoulardi first aired Storer Broadcasting had to pay him, so Anderson cared little about who he offended. He agreed from the beginning to wear the Ghoulardi disguise on camera so that the notoriety of the character would not interfere with his conventional outside voiceover work. Anderson was reprimanded for riding his motorcycle through the program director's office, and for staying at a close, late-running Friday night Cleveland Browns game long after his show's 11:30 p.m. start time. Additionally, the mayor and other local politicians in Parma, Ohio were dismayed to learn that the spectators at a Parma vs. Parma Heights high school basketball game had thrown white socks onto the court. Out of embarrassment, they pressured the station to rein in Ghoulardi's Parma-related humor, especially the "Parma Place" skits.
Induced by greater career promise and show business contacts of Tim Conway, who had already successfully left town, Anderson abruptly retired Ghoulardi and stopped performing live in September 1966. Anderson never pinpointed the reason, and his decision to leave was a surprise to close associates such as Schodowski. His biographers attribute Ghoulardi's retirement to Anderson's being weary of portraying the Ghoulardi character into his forties, disruption caused by his ongoing divorce, and clashes with station management. He moved to Los Angeles, California, planning to act in film and television, though his inability to memorize interfered. Periodically he returned to Cleveland to tape additional Ghoulardi shows, the last of which aired that December. Instead, he made a successful career in prestigious voice-over work, most prominently as the main voice for the ABC TV network during the 1970s and 1980s, in hundreds of commercials, and previews for the syndicated program Star Trek: The Next Generation and others.
Anderson died of cancer on February 6, 1997.
At his show's peak, Ghoulardi scored 70 percent of the late-night audience. Fans sent up to 1,000 pieces of mail a day. The Cleveland Police Department attributed a 35 percent decline in juvenile crime to the Friday night show. Anderson quipped: "Nobody likes to steal the car in a blizzard."
Nearly 50 years after Ghoulardi signed off, his legacy endures: Clevelanders still associate polka music, white socks, and pink plastic flamingo and yard globe lawn ornaments with Parma, Ohio. Only about 18 minutes worth of his video clips survive.
In the mid-1960s, Ghoulardi's irreverence overtook the rarefied Severance Hall, where an Italian Cleveland Orchestra guest conductor introduced himself and said that he was from Parma (in northern Italy). According to Tim Conway, misunderstanding members of the audience burst out singing Ghoulardi's polka theme.
As a tribute, jazz organist Jimmy McGriff wrote, recorded and released his song "Turn Blue."
In 1971, Ron Sweed first appeared on WKBF-TV as “The Ghoul,” borrowing the "Ghoulardi" character traits and costume with Anderson’s blessing, but with a name change to keep Storer Broadcasting at bay, as they still owned the "Ghoulardi" name. The Ghoul Show went on to air for many years in Cleveland, Detroit, and limited national syndication.
Channel 8’s Bob Wells (“Hoolihan the Weatherman”) and “Big Chuck” Schodowski took over Ghoulardi’s Friday night movie time slot as “Hoolihan and Big Chuck,” becoming Anderson’s tamer but familiar successors. Schodowski's show continued on WJW, with co-host "Li'l John" Rinaldi from 1979 onward, until July 2007.
Cleveland native Drew Carey has paid tribute to Ghoulardi in his television sitcom The Drew Carey Show, where his character can often be seen wearing a Ghoulardi T-shirt. Episode 17 of season two of the show was dedicated to the memory of Ernie Anderson. In his endorsement of the biography, Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride, Carey is quoted as saying "Absolutely, big time, Ghoulardi was an influence on me."
The self-proclaimed "psychobilly" band, The Cramps, named their 1990 album Stay Sick! and dedicated their 1997 album, Big Beat From Badsville, to Ghoulardi's memory. David Thomas, of art rock band Pere Ubu, said that the Cramps were "so thoroughly co-optive of the Ghoulardi persona that when they first appeared in the 1970s, Clevelanders of the generation were fairly dismissive." Thomas credits Ghoulardi for influencing the "otherness" of the Cleveland/Akron bands of the mid-1970s and early-1980s, including the Electric Eels, and The Mirrors, the Cramps, and Thomas's own groups, Pere Ubu and Rocket From The Tombs, declaring: "We were the Ghoulardi kids."
Anderson's son, film director Paul Thomas Anderson, named his production entity "The Ghoulardi Film Company."
Feran, Tom, and R. D. Heldenfels (1997). Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV's Wildest Ride. Cleveland, OH: Gray & Company Publishers. ISBN 978-1-886228-18-4
Schodowski, Chuck (2008). Big Chuck: My Favorite Stories from 47 Years on Cleveland TV. Cleveland, OH: Gray & Company, Publishers. ISBN 978-1-59851-052-2
- Watson, Elena M. (2000). Television Horror Movie Hosts: 68 Vampires, Mad Scientists and Other Denizens of the Late Night Airwaves Examined and Interviewed. Jefferson, North Carolina, United States: McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-0940-1.
- Feran, Tom; R.D. Heldenfels (1997). Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride. Cleveland: Gray and Company. ISBN 1-886228-18-3.
- Thomas, David (2005). "Ghoulardi: Lessons in Mayhem from the First Age of Punk" (PDF). Working Draft. 2005 Pop Conference, Experience Music Project.
- "The Big Chuck and Li'l John Show," WJW-TV, broadcast ca., 1998, viewable at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e52cXCrmauc (as of 12/19/06).