MICHAEL H. PRICE: Shock! Theatre, 50 years later
The 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in North America occurred in 2004. So what else is new? That occasion could hardly be treated as commonplace nostalgia, so urgent has the influence remained. Witness Julie Taymor’s newly opened film, Across the Universe. Nor can mere nostalgia account for the significance of the 50th anniversary of a similarly intense cultural phenomenon known as Shock! Theater.
The likening of Shock! to the Beatles’ impact, and to rock music as a class, will become more evident, so bear with me.
Depending upon one’s hometown locale, some folks might remember Shock! Theater under some other proxy local-teevee title. My immediate North Texas readership recollects the syndicated-television breakthrough of Shock! Theater under the localized name of Nightmare. That Fort Worth version premiered in September of 1957 over a scrappy and innovative independent channel – a distinctive presentation of a nationwide syndie-teevee blitz.
In reviving a wealth of Depression-into-WWII movie chillers from Universal Pictures Corp., Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems syndicate left the style of presentation up to the individual stations. A channel typically would assign a local-market announcer to pose as a creepy personality (such as John “the Cool Ghoul” Zacherle, in Philadelphia and New York) who would introduce the various Frankensteins, Draculas and so forth and then intrude at intervals to present blackout gags.
At Fort Worth’s Channel 11, chief writer and announcer Bill Camfield took a grimly earnest approach. He portrayed a severe character named Gorgon, who took the movies seriously enough to reflect their no-joke nature in his preambles and interludes.
“I had majored in English literature at Texas Christian University,” Camfield (1929-1991) told me in 1984, “and I had developed a keen appreciation for the Gothic origins of The Wolf Man and Dracula and Frankenstein and suchlike.
“Most of the other horror-show hosts around the country were playing it tongue-in-cheek with the Shock! Theater package – but I wanted to play my version for all the menacing mood I could muster,” added Camfield, relishing the alliterative wordplay.
I was a grammar-schooler in Amarillo, Texas, when Shock! Theater arrived in 1957. My classmates and I sensed a connection between these ferocious movies and the emerging phenomenon of rock ’n’ roll music, if only because our parents and teachers seemed distrustful of both influences. (Horror movies and rock ’n’ roll records appeared routinely on the Roman Catholic Church’s official roster of Bad Influences Guaranteed to Send the Viewer and/or Listener Directly to Hades. And never mind the pious arguments for Judaeo-Christian Normalcy that figure implicitly in the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula.) The kinship was cinched when John Zacherle released a chart-climbing recording called “Dinner with Drac,” competing for airplay with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
My town’s local Shock! host, an Amarillo Little Theater hambone and TV announcer named Fred Salmon, billed himself Mr. Shock and played his Friday-night Shock! segments for grotesque slapstick effect. I found the character a distraction from the movies but kept watching, anyhow. Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster, Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula and Claude Rains’ tormented Invisible Man were too good to miss. To the target-audience that my schoolboy contingent represented, the movies seemed as new – indeed, Shock! Theater marked their TV debuts – as those fresh-from-Hollywood big-screen sensations I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and the ostensibly futuristic Frankenstein 1970 (1958).
A movie-biz and ComicMix colleague, Robert Tinnell, writes in a recent memo: “While the fallout from the release of the Shock! Theater package cannot compare to, say, the Beatles, in scope, it absolutely can in terms of intensity. The reverberations of the showering of kids with those films is still being felt today – in everything from breakfast cereals [an allusion to General Mills’ Count Chocula and Frankenberry, no doubt] to big-budget films like [2004’s] Van Helsing.” (The influence is particularly evident in Kerry Gammill’s heavy-traffic Web site, www.monsterkid.com, and its affiliated Classic Horror Film Boards.)
“What’s more,” adds Bob Tinnell, “I think it’s undeniable that a significant portion of fandom was born of the [Shock!] experience … I still feel very connected to the phenomenon. I’m just grateful I grew up with a horror host like Chilly Billy Cardille out of Pittsburgh – he took the job of warping my impressionable mind seriously, thank God!”
Such warpage in my experience included the Shock!-ing spectacle of watching my hometown’s horror-picture host nearly electrocute himself on live television with an unshielded microphone cable, while staging a remote broadcast alongside the duck pond of a cemetery. Hence the name Shock! Theater, one supposes.
The popular bearing of such programs was as widespread as the then-48 United States and colonies thereof. Such Shock! hosts as Los Angeles’ Jeepers Creepers and New Orleans’ Morgus the Magnificent followed John Zacherle’s example of taking a stab at the hit-record market. (The Jeepers recordings feature the work of a young Frank Zappa. A Morgus record showcases New Orleans rockers Frankie “Sea Cruise” Ford and Malcolm “Dr. John” Rebennack.)
“I had thought about maybe making a Gorgon record, back then,” Fort Worth’s Bill Camfield recalled, “what with our fine local community of rock ’n’ roll talent, like Delbert McClinton and his band, available to back me up. Never quite got around to that. TV was plenty – and I had some other specialty-show characters that kept me busy, as well.”
Camfield’s Gorgon held forth on Shock! Theater into the 1960s, then staged periodic revival appearances during the 1970s. Those “other specialty-show characters” that Camfield mentioned included a resolute goofus known as Icky Twerp, of Fort Worth/Channel 11’s Slam Bang Theater.
Camfield-as-Twerp helped to spearhead a revival of interest in the Three Stooges during the 1950s and ’60s. Lured out of retirement by the newfound popularity of their short-subject theatrical laff-riots, surviving Stooges Moe Howard and Larry Fine thanked Camfield and a bunch of other TV kid-show hosts by casting them in a valedictory movie called The Outlaws Is Coming! (1965). Various Slam Bang Theater revivals during the 1980s found Camfield – in civilian life, a serious writer and level-headed suit-and-tie businessman – as generous as ever with the unbridled silliness.
Camfield could be just as generous with the low-key ominous presence, although he preferred to retire Gorgon rather than to venture beyond Old Hollywood’s acknowledged classics. “Without the Frankensteins, the Draculas, the Mummy pictures, etc.,” as Camfield told Elena M. Watson, author of a 1991 book called Television Horror Movie Hosts, “you would have a mishmash of cheap sci-fi, splatter pictures and some mysteries.”
During his last years, Camfield became a newspaper columnist and cable-television developer, and a reliable source for my own efforts to write persuasively about the business end of the broadcasting industry.
Yes, and no strictly-biznis luncheon conversation with Camfield was complete without his occasional split-second lapse into character as Icky Twerp or the hollow-voiced Gorgon. Camfield would begin to address a dead-earnest state-of-the-industry question by saying, “Now, here’s how I look at it…” And then he’d cross his eyes and crane his neck at an awkward angle: “Yeah, here’s how I look at it!” (The gag was as old as Vaudeville – but it seemed to become fresher every time Camfield pulled it.)
Camfield’s fleeting transformations invariably were greeted with amused delight and, sometimes, befuddled stares from our fellow diners seated within gawking range. Bless the man. You can see him elsewhere on the Web: www.ickytwerp.net
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books is available from Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.