You may not believe it, but there was a time when I had ambitions to be something other than a medical pioneer with dreams of bringing the dead back to life and creating new species of animals. Yes, fiends, there was a time when Dr. Mality ached to be a genuine TV STAR. But not just any kind of garden variety talking head on the Boob Tube…I dearly wanted to be a HORROR MOVIE HOST!
Is there anybody here who is not familiar with the phenomena of the local TV horror host? If so, I would be shocked and dismayed. The horror host is the friendly, often irreverent, always annoying creep on your local TV channel who serves as your introduction to the vast array of films featuring monsters, maniacs and spooks of all kinds.
When the huge vaults of old horror movies became available to TV channels trying to fill up air time in the 50’s, many times those channels would create specific weekly time slots to feature them. Often somebody at the station…a weatherman, a sportscaster, even a guy working the cameras…would assume the guise of a creepy host who would provide info about the films and often engage in skits and tasteless jokes. The list of local TV horror hosts (and hostesses) is legion and include such famous names as Vampira, Zacherly, Ghoulardi, Sammy Terry, Sir Graves Ghastly and of course, that bouncing babe of prodigious proportions, Elvira.
But for this here doctor, one name towered above them all and that was SVENGOOLIE!
The original “horror hippie” was the ghoul who ignited my desire to become a horror host myself. And even though my ambition has never been realized, I still pay worship to the man, the myth, the moonbeam rider himself, Svengoolie. Now you humanoids may be familiar with the top-hatted horror host currently using that name who has been a staple on Chicago area TV for more than 30 years. Yes, the success of that Svengoolie is well-deserved, but he’d be the first to tell you that he owes it all to his dear old “Dad”, the first “Svengoolie”.
I write this essay with a tear in my bloodstained eye, because on September 15, 2013, the man behind Sven’s sunglasses, Jerry G. Bishop, passed away. And with him went a great era in television history. So let me now pay tribute to Mr. Bishop and the icon he created…
Bishop’s real name was Jerry Ghan. He was born in Chicago in 1936 and from an early age took a strong interest in broadcasting. After graduating from Columbia College, he changed his name to Jerry G. Bishop and became a rock n’ roll DJ at Evanston station WNMP in 1962. Those were heady days for radio jocks, because they could put a lot of their own personality and humor into what they were doing and also have a say in what music they played. A 180 degree difference from the bland corporate sound-a-likes who proliferate today. Bishop was known as a real wit and a lot of Svengoolie’s wisecracks had their roots in his radio routines. He was so well regarded that he traveled with none other than The Beatles on their ground-breaking tours in 1965 and 1966.
After a popular stint at Chicago station WCFL in 1967, Bishop made the switch to television, joining WFLD Channel 32 in 1969, taking on a ton of voice-over duties for the independent channel. But in 1970, he made the move that would change his life and the lives of horror fans forever.
Channel 32 decided to hop aboard the local horror movie train in 1970. Fellow Chicago Channel 9 WGN had created their own “Creature Features” earlier in the year and WFLD wanted to find a way to show their own library of horror movies. So on September 18, 1970, Screaming Yellow Theater was born. The first movie shown was the infamous Ghosts on the Loose, starring Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids. At this time, “Svengoolie” did not officially exist. Bishop did some voice-overs for the show doing a pretty fair imitation of Lugosi’s trademark voice.
For the next few months, Bishop would continue to do those Lugosi-themed voice-overs for Screaming Yellow Theater as movies such as Attack of the Giant Leeches, The Day The World Ended and Frankenstein’s Daughter played. A funny thing happened, though…the quips got longer and longer, Bishop’s humor became more and more pointed. Many people were starting to get a kick out of the nameless announcer and his dreadful zingers. Bishop himself was not a horror film fanatic by any stretch, but he was a hugely creative guy and his mind was exploding with new possibilities for terrifying tomfoolery.
So it was then that the summer of 1971 saw something new materialize on Screaming Yellow Theater. Creepy images played out across the screen as a Transylvanian-sounding voice intoned this bit of doggerel: “The time has come for scary things/ Like monsters, ghosts and vampire wings/ Like horrible movies, all drippy and drooly/ and horrible jokes, like me, SVENGOOLIE!” With this last line, we saw a cheap coffin painted like a hippy nightmare open up to reveal our very first look at Svengoolie. With long green hair, a headband, sunglasses, a Fu Manchu moustache, a face was finally connected to the wise-cracking voiceovers that had been on the show for the last year. As for the character’s name, it was a clever play on Svengali, a sinister hypnotist who appeared in George du Maurier’s 1895 novel Trilby.
Now Sven was off and running. Like all local horror host shows, Svengoolie’s was dirt cheap, but the cheapness enhanced the craziness that was going on. Not content with just making a few wisecracks during the movies, Sven came up with actual skits and blackouts, introducing other characters such as evil ventriloquist’s dummy Durwood and the floating female skull, Zelda. These two were also voiced by Bishop himself. Zelda had a screeching horrible voice that was modeled after comedian Flip Wilson’s alter ego in drag, Geraldine. Zelda’s tradition of bony buffoonery would continue years later on the Son of Svengoolie show with the second Sven’s sidekick, Mr. Tombstone.
Svengoolie wasn’t the first smart-mouthed horror host to rain putrid puns and wicked witticisms upon his fans, but he was for sure the hippest. It wasn’t long before Bishop had the brilliant idea to use the ominous twang of Link Wray’s “Rumble” as his theme song…a superb choice. Jerry’s own knowledge of the current pop music scene often came in handy and with his “groovy ghoulie” image, he probably brought a smile even to J. Edgar Hoover’s face. Sven’s band of humor was deliriously fast-paced and manic…viewers had to work hard to keep up with all of Sven’s gags!
His use of sound effects and off-screen interjections set a standard for other horror hosts to live up to. Loud and silly voices were constantly responding to whatever Sven said and did. Whenever the host would say something he thought was profound, an off-screen voice would sneer, “AHHH, PTOOEEY!” Whenever he said or did something that could be considered painful, another voice would yell, “Ow! OW! OOWWW!” When Sven unleashed a particularly bad pun or joke, someone off stage would nail him with a flying rubber chicken. Many of these gags would continue on the Son of Svengoolie show when Rich Koz picked up where Jerry Bishop left off.
However, the one gag that seemed to stick in fans mind more than any other was Svengoolie’s constant ridicule at the expense of non-descript Chicago suburb Berwyn. Right now, hundreds of Svengoolie fans old and new are saying “BERRR-WYNNN” either out loud or in their heads. Sven was always poking fun at Berwyn and whenever he said the name, a chorus of off-screen voices would interject “BERR-WYNNN”. This shtick, too, had continued through the decades and is still used today on Rich Koz’s show. Bishop got the idea from the TV show Laugh-In, which poked fun at Burbank, California. The famous Cleveland horror host Ghoulardi was also known to lambaste the Cleveland suburb Parma in the same fashion.
Then there were the skits. Keep in mind, this was the age before Saturday Night Live. For a budget somewhere south of $20.00, old Sven came up with some classic black-outs. For many, the “Madman Sven” skits were top of the line. That cast Sven as a typical used car hack trying to unload an obvious clunker in a phony TV ad. The car would usually be festooned with parking tickets and have graffiti like “Berwyn or Bust” spray-painted on it. Other famous skits included Sven advertising a self-defense school for ghouls or a parody of Sesame Street called “Svengoolie Street” where he would use a hangman’s noose to stand for the letter “O”.
It wasn’t long before the quick-witted fiend attracted a devoted following for Screaming Yellow Theater. People were tuning in to see Sven just as much as the movies he showed, which ranged from grade-Z dreck to true classics like Night of the Living Dead and the Universal horrors. Not only that, but some famous guest stars were dropping by the dungeon to add their own two cents to the proceedings. Sven’s famous coffin would be signed by the guest stars before each episode. And what an eclectic collection of celebrities dropped in to see him! What horror show in history could boast guests like Bette Midler, Morey Amsterdam, Barry Manilow and Mort Sahl?! Surely the strangest guest was Jerry G. Bishop himself. Using split screen photography, Bishop appeared alongside his alter ego, Svengoolie!
With all the attention and fun, you would think Svengoolie would be off to a long and prosperous career. But as usual, the baleful spectre of corporate America…more terrifying than a flesh-eating zombie…arose to put an end to the hijinks. WFLD Channel 32 was owned by Field Communications and they were happy with Sven’s show, but by the end of 1973, the channel had been sold to Kaiser Communications, headquartered in Cleveland. The takeover spelled doom for Sven and any other local Chicago personalities on 32. Kaiser unceremoniously booted them all and imported their own crew from Ohio.
With no fanfare, Screaming Yellow Theater disappeared from the airwaves on September 1973. In its place was a new horror movie showed hosted by a fur-hat wearing one-eyed host called The Ghoul, who was popular in Cleveland. Fans of Svengoolie were outraged almost to the point of violence. The Ghoul didn’t help matters at all when he announced “Svengoolie was a no-talent rip-off and we made him leave.” If the Ghoul had put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, he couldn’t have committed a more flagrant suicide in the Chicago market. While the Ghoul was funny and talented in his own right, Chicagoans rejected him completely. By early 1974, he was gone, but so was Svengoolie.
Jerry Bishop was a super talented guy and he basically considered Sven a kind of fun lark to occupy his time while he looked for a real vehicle for his broadcasting skill. While he was doing Screaming Yellow Theater, he made the acquaintance of a young guy named Rich Koz, who sent joke ideas to him for Svengoolie. Koz’s ideas were so funny that Bishop gave Koz his blessing when Koz wanted to do his own version of the character called Son of Svengoolie on Channel 32. Son of Svengoolie debuted on Channel 32 in 1979 and unbelievably, climbed heights of popularity the original couldn’t dream of. Even now, in 2013, the Svengoolie show has a national slot on ME-TV, and Koz has become an icon. But he would be the first to admit that the Svengoolie concept was conceived entirely by Jerry G. Bishop.
Bishop didn’t languish after leaving Sven behind. He moved to San Diego and became the host of a hugely popular morning show called Sun Up San Diego. In San Diego, it was Jerry Bishop who had the big following, not Svengoolie. Bishop won a total of 3 Emmy awards for his work on that program. After retiring from that show in the early 1990’s, he went on to establish two extremely successful restaurants, Greek Islands Cafe and Asaggio Pizza and Pasta which are still running today.
Jerry’s death came suddenly as a result of a heart attack on September 15, 2013. He was 77 years old.
Svengoolie’s influence, especially in the Chicago area, can’t be overstated. With the character carrying on more than 40 years later in the form of Rich Koz, it can be said that he was the basis for the most popular horror host of all time. I know he was the first horror host to make an impact on me…in fact, a lot of my personality can be traced back to Svengoolie’s original appearances. If you take Sven out of the horror host pantheon, that whole phenomenon is greatly diminished.
All fans of horror, humor and the lost world of local TV should give the horror hippie a 21-chicken salute!!!!
3 thoughts on “R.I.P. Svengoolie: The Baron of Berwyn”
Thanks for this wonderful retrospective. Some of the original SYT clips are starting to appear on YouTube, including Svengoolie trying to sell the 1942 Cosa Nostra convertible.
There’s also a clip with the New Christie Minstrels as guests.
Most of the clips are, of course, Son of Svengoolie clips, but I hope to see more of the original Sven eventually (apparently a trove of old Chicago TV recordings were recently discovered after a retired producer passed away).
Jerry bishop got the Berwyn from my father in law who was installing audio equipment in his home. Jerry asked him where he was from and he told him Berwyn.
I am most appreciative of the history and memories of this tribute. The show was a joyously crazy part of my childhood. And thanks to Steve Wiseman as my trek down memory lane started with a web-search of “why Berwyn?”.
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