many years ago in the dear, dim past, a small army of horror hosts dotted the landscape of local television markets and they were one of the greatest things that ever happened to kids like me.
king kong (1933) aired on television for the first time in 1956 and was a ratings bonanza. as a result, in 1957 universal pictures licensed a set of fifty-two films for broadcast which were pushed to local markets in a package they called shock theater. included in the package were the signature universal monsters and a number of other treats, some better than others. stations were encouraged to put together a presentation for these films and weathermen, announcers, station salespeople and anyone else they could impress into service became some of the most influential people in the lives of kids nationwide. it's hard for kids to imagine these days since so much media is at their fingertips in an instant, but this was the first chance an entire generation had to see these films, as their theatrical runs were the only previous option. this caused an explosion of interest in horror movies that probably has never been equaled. and thanks to these denizens of shabby sets with their dimestore costumes and bad makeup we had a friend and a guide to lead us through the netherworld of B-movies. vampira was one of the first and best. in her hourglass-shaped wake came various local legends like zacherley, ghoulardi and svengoolie who later gave way to subculture icons like elvira and joe bob briggs. at every level, it was all great fun but no one was better than your host. your host talked about your town and read your letters on the air.
you shared this experience completely with them. they were in on it with you when you were staying up later than you should have. sometimes the movie stunk and they said so. this time of year, you could see them in person at haunted houses and supermarket grand openings. that was bananas! for them, every saturday night was halloween. i couldn't imagine anything being cooler than that when i was eight. sometimes i still can't.
twenty years after the initial horror host boom, i came along and from this midnight television graveyard crawled the only two guys in my life that were almost as influential as my dad on the late night cinematic excursions of my childhood. the first was doctor digby.
doctor digby was on KSWO-TV, channel 7, out of lawton, oklahoma. it's a small station that serves southwest oklahoma and north texas. it's always been remarkable to me that this station survives at all. it's nowhere near a major metropolitan area and its regional appeal is extremely limited. even with that, it has managed to not only survive, but it has kept the same call letters, channel number and network affiliation through its entire history, one of a handful of stations in the country that has managed that feat. most importantly for our discussion, they allocated some of their meager resources for their own shock theater. doctor digby, and his assistant igor, came to us from a dungeon/laboratory/sixth grade classroom? that looked like it cost all of seven dollars to outfit. if i remember correctly, his schtick was that of the friendly neighborhood undertaker, which would explain the snazzy velvet tuxedo in the picture above. it was the mid-seventies which would explain the lapels. this photo was was taken at an event at the local shakey's pizza parlor on an evening that you know was rocking for all the kids in attendance. i can just imagine the conversations that took place all over southwest oklahoma playgrounds the next morning - "i shook his hand and it was ice cold!". a sleepover wasn't a sleepover without doctor digby.
hey! go turn the antenna! it's time for that other maven of the midnight matinee i mentioned, none other than the king of oklahoma horror hosts - count gregore!
count gregore is one of the very first, and longest running, horror hosts to ever grace a studio. he began with that initial shock theater package on WKY-TV in oklahoma city in 1958 and has been going ever since. for over fifty years he has moved from station to station in the market, hosting various incarnations of his program from a rotating backdrop of cobweb-strewn, fog-enshrouded sets. i caught up with him when it was called count gregore presents on KOKH-TV 25 and the influence of that show upon me was profound. i was just beginning to learn how to track these things down for myself. it was pre-internet, obviously, so it wasn't as easy in those days. it was so much more satisfying, though, to come across that thing that you had only read about in a hard-won copy of famous monsters of filmland. count gregore could take you to that place, he brought it right into your living room and was with you every step of the way in case things got too scary. that wink-and-nod, conspiratorial air that made these shows so much fun to start with began to subtly shift as i got a little older and take on an air of ritual as every saturday night i would take my place in front of the television and receive arcane knowledge. and the count was such an affable guy, a vampire you could trust. who better to instruct me in the lore of some of the best/worst films ever made? it was such a great time in my life. yes, it was kids' stuff and yes, it was a whole raft of bad B programmers but the experience was about so much more than the quality of the film. they were delivered with a sly wink that didn't override the obvious fondness that everyone involved, viewers and vampire, had for the material and for the sense of community that went with the experience. when i think back about these i feel so sorry for children today because there is a charm to these programs that just can't be duplicated. they were rough-hewn, homegrown and, most importantly, for the kids. they may have been a way to sell advertising at the beginning but the good ones, the ones with longevity, became a true labor of love. and without them, i would have missed out on a lot of the best times i have ever had. thank you, gentlemen. my gratitude is as eternal as the grave.