Once upon a time, pretty much every city had their own “horror movie hosts” — those hammy guys who’d introduce the schlocky, public-domain flicks at midnight for the local station.
I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada — imagine a cross between the Jersey Shore and 1960s Pittsburgh — and we were too pathetic to even have one of those dudes, at least, not until I started high school, when a Toronto cult hit that only ran one season changed all that; I’ve been offered hundreds of bucks for my now tissue-thin All-Night Show t-shirt. (A rival network good-naturedly plays along with the gag, above.)
The thing is: We had something better.
The Hilarious House of Frightenstein was produced by our one and only TV station, CHCH. This hour-long kids’ show combined the then-hip look and sound of psychedelia (retina-searing, kaleidoscopic “special effects” plus current Top 40 hits) with the mid-century sensibility of Famous Monsters of Filmland.
The show’s “plot” concerned a banished count’s attempts to revive his comatose monster, but that was just a flimsy construction on which to mount a fast-paced series of corny sketches, semi-serious “educational” segments about grammar, physics, and chemistry, and — years before The Simpsons and Pixar — the occasional “over the kids’ heads” joke aimed at any adult who might find themselves awake at dawn — or earlier:
Another memory is the creation of the psychedelic background keyed behind Fishka and Billy. Two of us in the videotape department confused the hell out of the gear and created a synchronous feedback to go with the music. The other operator, Doug Bonar, is now Vice President of Global Television. I am a Professor of Television Broadcasting at Mohawk College in Hamilton. … Rif gave each of us the princely sum of five dollars for creating the effect. In hindsight, I should never have cashed the cheque. … Rif is famous now! That was his motivation for crew ingenuity. We had a ball with the show and felt a sense of ownership in making it great. You may not be aware that when it was syndicated in the states in the early 70’s it aired around 4:30 in half hour format. The story we heard was that it practically cleared the streets of New York of soft drug users so that they could freak out on the Wolfman segments!
Comedian Billy Van played most of the monsters. He was joined by a three-foot midget who struggled with his cue cards, a real live science professor who seemed to think he was on a serious program, an ever-changing assortment of reluctant zoo animals, and fan favorite Fishka Rais — actually an accomplished jazz singer back in his native South Africa — as green skinned, gentle giant Igor (what else?).
Frightenstein’s only real star was Vincent Price, who appears at the beginning and end of each episode, and reads mock-macabre poems and other interstitials.
What the heck was he doing there?