Zacherle in the 1960s
|Died||October 27, 2016 (aged 98)|
|Alma mater||University of Pennsylvania (B.A., English Literature, 1940) |
|Show||Shock Theater (1957–58)|
Zacherley at Large (1959–60)
John Zacherle (// ZAK-ər-lee; sometimes credited as John Zacherley; September 26, 1918 – October 27, 2016) was an American television host, radio personality, singer, and voice actor. He was best known for his long career as a television horror host, often broadcasting horror movies in Philadelphia and New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. Best known for his character of "Roland/Zacherley," he also did voice work for movies, and recorded the top ten novelty rock and roll song "Dinner With Drac" in 1958. He also edited two collections of horror stories, Zacherley's Vulture Stew and Zacherley's Midnight Snacks.
Zacherle was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, the youngest of four children of a bank clerk and his wife. He grew up in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood, where he went to high school. He received a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania. In World War II he enlisted in the United States Army and served in North Africa and Europe. After the war, he returned to Philadelphia and joined a local repertory theatre company.
In 1954 he gained his first television role at WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, where he was hired as an actor playing several roles (one was an undertaker) in Action in the Afternoon, a Western produced by the station and aired in the New York City market. Three years later, he was hired as the host of WCAU's Shock Theater, which debuted on October 7, 1957. As the host, Zacherle appeared wearing a long black undertaker's coat as the character "Roland," pronounced "Ro-land", who lived in a crypt with his wife "My Dear" (unseen, lying in her coffin) and his lab assistant, Igor. The hosting of the black-and-white show involved interrupting the film to do numerous stylized horror-comedy gags parodying the film, an influential change which pioneered a now-standard television genre. In the opening sequence, Zacherle as Roland would descend a long round staircase to the crypt. The producers erred on the side of goriness, showing fake severed heads with blood simulated with Hershey's chocolate syrup. During the comedy "cut-ins" during the movie, the soundtrack continued to play on the air, while the visual feed switched briefly to a shot of Zacherle as Roland in the middle of a related humorous stunt, such as riding a tombstone, or singing "My Funny Valentine" to his wife in her coffin. The show ran for 92 broadcasts through 1958.
He was a close colleague of Philadelphia broadcaster Dick Clark, and sometimes filled in for Clark on road touring shows of Clark's American Bandstand in the 1960s. Clark reportedly gave Zacherle his nickname of "The Cool Ghoul." In 1958, partly with the assistance and backing of Clark, Zacherle cut "Dinner with Drac" for Cameo Records, backed by Dave Appell. At first, Clark thought the recording – in which Zacherle recites humorously grisly limericks to rock and roll accompaniment – was too gory to play on Bandstand, and made Zacherle return to the studio to cut a second tamer version. Eventually both versions were released simultaneously as backsides on the same 45, and the record broke the top ten nationally. Zacherle later released several LPs mixing horror sound effects with novelty songs.
Move to New York
The purchase of WCAU by CBS in 1958 prompted Zacherle to leave Philadelphia for WABC-TV in New York, where the station added a "y" to the end of his name in the credits. He continued the format of the Shock Theater, after March 1959 titled Zacherley at Large, with "Roland" becoming "Zacherley" and his wife "My Dear" becoming "Isobel." He also began appearing in motion pictures, including Key to Murder alongside several of his former Action in the Afternoon colleagues. A regular feature of his shows continued to be his parodic interjection of himself into old horror films. He would run the movie and have "conversations" with the monster characters. He kept his "wife" in a coffin on stage. His co-star was in a burlap sack hanging from a rope. The on-air conversation consisted of Zacherle repeating the words he heard from the sack.
In a 1960 promotional stunt for his move to WOR-TV, Zacherley—by then, a Baby Boomer idol—staged a presidential campaign. His "platform" recording can be found on the album Spook Along with Zacherley, which originally included a Zacherley for President book and poster set which is highly collectible today. Also, in 1960, he was a guest on CBS-TV's What's My Line, on the October 30 broadcast, as the final guest. (Two of the panelists had to disqualify themselves, as they knew his identity.)
In December 1968, Zacherle moved to radio as the morning host for progressive rock WNEW-FM. In the summer of 1969, he became the station night broadcaster (10 PM–2 AM); in June 1971, he switched his show to WPLJ-FM, where he stayed for ten years.
1980s and beyond
In the early 1980s, he played a wizard on Captain Kangaroo, appearing without his Roland/Zacherley costume and make-up. He continued to perform in character at Halloween broadcasts in New York and Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s, once narrating Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven while backed up by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
In 1988, he struck up a friendship with B-movie horror director Frank Henenlotter, voicing the puppet "Aylmer," a slug-like drug-dealing and brain-eating parasite, one of the lead characters in Henenlotter's 1988 horror-comedy film Brain Damage, and cameos in his 1990 comedy Frankenhooker, appropriately playing a TV weatherman who specializes in forecasts for mad scientists.
In late 1992, Zacherle joined the staff of "K-Rock," WXRK, at a time when the roster included other free-form radio luminaries such as Pete Fornatale, Jimmy Fink, Vin Scelsa (with whom he'd worked at WPLJ) and Meg Griffin. For the next four years he hosted a Saturday morning show called "Spirit Of The Sixties." He departed in January 1996 when the station switched to an alternative rock format and hired all new jocks.
In 2010, Zacherly starred in the documentary, The Aurora Monsters: The Model Craze That Gripped the World. The film was written and produced by Dennis Vincent and Cortlandt Hull, owner of the Witch's Dungeon Classic Movie Museum in Bristol, Connecticut. The documentary includes a number of short pieces featuring Zacherly and his puppet co-host Gorgo, of Bill Diamond Productions. The film went on to win a Rondo award.
Zacherle continued to make appearances at conventions through 2015, and his collectibles, including model kits, T-shirts, and posters, continue to sell. The book Goodnight, Whatever You Are by Richard Scrivani, chronicling the life and times of The Cool Ghoul, debuted at the Chiller Theatre Expo in Secaucus, New Jersey, in October 2006. Scrivani and Tom Weaver followed it up with the scrapbook-style "The Z Files: Treasures from Zacherley's Archives" in 2012.
The comic book anthology, Zacherley's Midnite Terrors (created by Joseph M. Monks, and featuring top artists like Basil Gogos, Ken Kelly, William Stout and Mike Koneful), was created solely as a tribute to "Zach". Three issues were published, and Zacherley acted in a commercial to promote them.
Zacherley continued to make occasional on-air appearances, usually around Halloween, including a two-hour show at WCBS-FM with Ron Parker on October 31, 2007. (By this point, the 89-year-old was one of the very few people left in radio that was older than the medium itself.) Zacherley and Chiller Theatre returned to the WPIX airwaves on October 25, 2008 for a special showing of the 1955 Universal Pictures science fiction classic Tarantula!.
The Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia inducted Zacherle into their Hall of Fame in 2010.
Partial Zacherley at Large episode guide
Channel 9's resident film historian Chris Steinbrunner compiled a listing of all Zacherley's shows from their start to New Year's 1960:
|Featured film||Original airdate|
|"Zombies on Broadway (1945, B&W, RKO, USA)"||October 9, 1959|
Segments: Zacherley stumbled down into the crypt under Times Square and decides to make his home at Channel 9.The film: Two comics head for the tropics to find a real zombie for their night club act.
|"Before Dawn"||October 16, 1959|
Zacherley anxiously awaits the arrival of his wife Isobel, mailed in a packing-case from his old channel.The Film: Warner Oland, Dorothy Wilson, Stu Erwin. A girl with strange psychotic powers senses murder and a hidden treasure in an old house. (RKO)
|"You'll Find Out"||October 23, 1959|
Using Isabel as a trance medium, Zacherley communicates with the beyond...and some very active ectoplasm.The Film: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Dennis O'Keefe, Kay Kyser, Ginny Simms - A trio of phony spiritualists try to murder a rich old woman and her niece during a seance. (RKO)
|"Return Of The Vampire"||October 30, 1959|
Zacherley celebrates that holiday of holidays, All Hallows Eve, with a special radio address by Count Dracula in Transylvania. A pumpkin explodes.The Film: Bela Lugosi, Nina Foch, Frieda Inescort - A vampire comes back from the dead to revenge himself upon an aristocratic family. (Col.)
|"Murder On A Honeymoon"||November 6, 1959|
Zacherley decides to put together a brain for the Cardiff Giant, but over-activates the parts.The Film: Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Lola Lane - A spinster decides to solve the murder that interrupts her vacation. (RKO)
|"Red Morning"||November 13, 1959|
Zacherley experiments with a new head-shrinking formula on four volunteer apes; it backfires and an ever-expanding mass of hair threatens to fill the crypt.The Film: Steffi Duna, Regis Toomey - A girl finds adventure, romance and headhunters in the South Seas. (RKO)
|"Cry Of The Werewolf"||November 20, 1959|
Zacherley campaigns to be chosen leader of the Transylvania gypsies, and is miffed when Isobel is selected Queen of the tribe instead.The Film: Nina Foch, Stephen Crane, Osa Massan. A beautiful gypsy girl turns into a wolf and kills to protect her mother's secret. (Col.)
|"Bluebeard"||November 27, 1959|
Zacherley tries to force Isobel to abdicate from gypsy royalty by means of a love potion. When that fails, explosions follow.The Film: John Carradine, Jean Parker, Nils Asther - The police of Paris are baffled by a series of mysterious murders. (C&C)
|"One Body Too Many"||December 4, 1959|
Zacherley builds a telescope just in time to do battle with some spores from outer space.The Film: Jack Haley, Jean Parker, Bela Lugosi - An insurance salesman finds himself trapped in a very eccentric household. (Par)
|"The Mask Of Diijon"||December 11, 1959|
Zacherley puts on a magic show, climaxing it by sawing Isobel in half.The Film: Eric von Stroheim, Jeanne Bates - A once-famous stage magician dabbles in hypnotism and the dark occult. (C&C)
|"The Woman Who Came Back"||December 18, 1959|
Zacherley reminisces about prehistoric times with a pasty-faced Glob that dates far, far back.The Film: John Loder, Nancy Kelly, Otto Kruger - The inhabitants of a New England town persecute a bewildered young woman as a witch. (C&C)
|"Avalanche'"||December 26, 1959|
Zacherley welcomes his always-failing son home from Transylvania University for the Christmas holidays and opens some rather unusual gifts.The Film: Bruce Cabot, Veda Ann Borg, Roscoe Karns - Federal agents investigate murder at a snowbound mountain lodge. (C&C)
These shows were later syndicated to KHJ-TV, the RKO General station in Los Angeles.
Short story collections
Zacherle edited two short story collections for Ballantine Books in 1960. Listed here are their contents.
- Spook Along with Zacherley (Elektra: EKL-190) 1960
- Monster Mash (12 songs) (Parkway LP P-7018) 1962
- Scary Tales (Parkway LP P-7023) 1962
- Monster Mash (10 songs; partial re-issue of Parkway album) (Wyncote LP W-9050) 1964
- "Igor"/"Dinner with Drac" (Cameo 130-1)
- "Dinner with Drac Pt.1"/"Pt.2" (Cameo 130-2)
- "Eighty-Two Tombstones"/"Lunch with Mother Goose" (Cameo 139)
- "Hurry Burry Baby"/"Dinner With Drac" (Parkway 853)
- "I Was a Teenage Cave Man"/"Dummy Doll" (Cameo 145)
- "Surfboard 109"/"Clementine" (Parkway 885)
- "Scary Tales from Mother Goose"/"Monster Monkey" (Parkway 888)
- Twist Collection (OOZ 617) 2001
- Monster Mash/Scary Tales (ACE CDCHD 1294) 2010
- Monster Mash Party (Transylvania 4-5709)
- Dinner With Zach (Transylvania 6-5000)
- Spook Along with Zacherley (Collector's Choice Music)
- "Remembering the Cool Ghoul", The Pennsylvania Gazette, December 21, 2016. Accessed June 28, 2020
- William Grimes (October 28, 2016). "John Zacherle, Host With a Ghoulish Perspective, Dies at 98". The New York Times.
- 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. p. 265. ISBN 0-7864-0940-1. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-08-01.
- Colin Larkin, ed. (2002). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Fifties Music (Third ed.). Virgin Books. p. 515. ISBN 1-85227-937-0.
- Kilgannon, Corey (October 19, 2012). "Once a Ghoul, Always a Ghoul". The New York Times.
- "Hall of Fame". Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia.
- Barnes, Mike (October 28, 2016). "John Zacherle, Delightfully Schlocky TV Host of Horror Movies, Dies at 98". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved October 28, 2016.