Friday, October 20, 2023

Detroit's Shock Theater

In 1957, Universal Pictures syndicated a television package of fifty-two classic horror movies released by Screen Gems called Shock Theatre. The package included the original Dracula, Frankenstein, Mummy, and Wolfman movies. Shock Theatre premiered with Lugosi's Dracula in Detroit on WXYZ channel seven at 11:30 pm on Friday, February 7, 1958.

Each syndicated television market had their own host. Detroit had one of the first horror movie personalities in the country. The show was hosted by Mr. X--Tom "Doc" Dougall--a classically trained actor who taught English at the Detroit Institute of Technology and moonlighted as a vampire on Friday nights. Unlike later horror movie hosts who would spoof their roles or riff on the movies they showed, Dougall was grimly serious and set a solemn tone for what was to follow. What most people don't know about Professor Dougall is that he co-wrote several Lone Ranger and Green Hornet scripts for WXYZ radio.

The opening of the show was memorable, but I was only nine years old when I started staying up every Friday night to see the classic monsters and mad-scientists--The Invisible Man comes to mind. This is how I remember the opening:

The show's marquee card came up with ominous organ music and a crack of thunder in the background. Replete in vampire garb with cape, Mr. X walked slowly on screen holding a huge open book announcing the night's feature in a scary voice. Next, he would say, "Before we release the forces of evil, insulate yourself against them." With a sense of impending doom, Mr. X continued, "Lock your doors, close your windows, and dim your lights. Prepare for Shock." The camera came in for an extreme close-up of Mr. X's face, more lightening and thunder effects, and finally his gaunt face morphed into a skull. Then the film would roll.

There was something positively unholy about the show which made it an instant success with my generation of ghoulish Detroit Baby Boomers. The show's ominous organ music set the mood for the audience. The piece was listed only as #7 on a recording of Video Moods licensed for commercial television and not available to the public.

No video link to Detroit's Shock Theatre's opening has surfaced, but the above newspaper ad for the show gives an idea of the facial dissolve special effect. If anyone knows where I can find a link, Gmail me so I can add it to this post. Thanks.

Detroit's Baby Boomer Kid Show Hosts:

Monday, October 9, 2023

Sir Graves Ghastly's Rise and Fall

Lawson Deming was a graduate of Western Reserve University who studied speech, drama, and math. "Deming began performing professionally when he worked in vaudeville," said Sonny Eliot, Lawson's longtime friend.

A lifelong Cleveland, Ohio resident, Deming landed a radio job at WHK in 1932 where he met his wife Rita, who was a hostess of a women's talk show. "The greatest fun was radio," Deming said in a 1982 Detroit Free Press interview, "because we were creating something in somebody's mind with voices, dialogue, music, and sound effects. We created a whole world."

In 1949, Deming switched over to Cleveland television station WTAM where he met co-worker Bill Kennedy early in their television careers. They became good friends. Deming hosted a movie show called One O'Clock Playhouse. He also worked as a puppeteer on a program entitled Woodrow the Woodsman. Although his face never appeared on-screen, he supplied the voices for characters named Freddy Gezundheit, the alley crock; Tarkington Whom II, the owl; and Voracious, the elephant. His work on Woodrow the Woodman brought Deming to Detroit in 1966 when the show was moved to WJBK for taping.

Soon after arriving at WJBK, Deming was approached by program producer and director Jay Frommert about playing the character Ghoulardi and showing horror movies. But Ghoulardi was already being done in Cleveland by Ernie Anderson. Deming suggested he be allowed to create his own character. On Saturday, January 22, 1967, Sir Graves Ghastly rose from the grave on the premise that "Sir Graves was hanged 400 years ago by Queen Elizabeth, but like a bad vaccination, it didn't take."

The shadow-eyed, hair plastered down, goateed Sir Graves began his show by opening a creaky casket from within which was located on a graveyeard set. For the next two hours, the red-gloved, black-capped, comic vampire cracked bad jokes while riffing on the B-grade horror movies he showed between commercial breaks. To complete his Dracula parody, Sir Graves had an infectious laugh, "Nyeeea aaaa haa haaaaa" and he was prone to "hippyisms" in his speech.

Sir Graves and his alter-ego Lawson Deming

Weekly segments on Sir Graves program were the scrolling of children's names celebrating their birthdays, and the "Art Ghoulery" where kids sent in their drawings of Sir Graves, vampires, and werewolves, hoping Sir Graves would feature them on his show.

Deming created a cast of characters all portrayed by him and edited onto the master tape so Sir Graves could interact with them on camera. The cast included Reel McCoy, a character who digs up old B-movie horror films; Tilly Trollhouse, wildly off-key, blonde singer; the Glob, an extreme closeup of Deming's mouth videoed upside down, lip-syncing songs; Cool Ghoul, an over-the-hill motorcycle freak; and Walter, Sir Grave's prissy alter ego who keeps telling him, "You're sick, sick, sick!"

Unlike earlier WXYZ horror movie host Mr. X on Shock Theater, Sir Graves wasn't meant to scare anybody. Deming worked from a rough outline and adlibbed his way through the show, often spouting bad jokes sent in by viewers. The show was a mixture of cheesy horror movies and corny humor.

Viewers, half of whom were males over eighteen-years-old, were almost afraid to laugh at some of Sir Graves' groaners but couldn't help themselves like: "What did the Frankenstein monster say after he ate a six-cylinder engine?" What? "I could've had a V8."

Deming continued to live in Cleveland and took charter flights to Detroit twice a month on Wednesdays until January 1970. He missed his flight and the plane crashed through the Lake Erie ice killing all aboard. After that, Deming and his wife agreed that taking the three-hour, midnight bus ride was a safer option.

In true vampire fashion, he arrived at WJBK before the break of dawn and read fan mail before preparing for taping from 9 am until 11 am for the Saturday show. Then, he taped nine additional segments to be fitted into two movies between commercial breaks, before he took the 4:00 pm bus back to Cleveland. Deming worked two twelve hour days a month producing four programs.

The high point of Sir Graves' career may have been when he emceed Detroit's American Cancer Society benefit called "Black Cat Caper," a pre-halloween costume ball at Cobo Hall on Friday, October 13, 1972. Sir Graves made a grand entrance at 9:15 pm in a coffin carried by Detroit media pallbearers Bob Allison, J.P. McCarthy, Dick Purtan, Bob Talbert, Jac Le Goff, and John Kelly. Tickets cost $13.13. The grand prize for best costume was an eight-day trip to London for two, with a three-day stay at a 500-year-old, haunted abode in a village named Pluckley.

In April of 1983 after sixteen years of faithful service, Lawson Deming was handed his walking papers by WJBK's general manager Bill Flynn. "I never could figure out why he dumped me. We had the highest-rated Saturday show in our market, and it was a money-maker for them." But it was too late for Sir Graves. By this time, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, had run off with his male audience.

Deming retired in Cleveland and lived for another twenty-four years before he left this vale of tears on April 27, 2007, at the age of ninety-four. His spirit can rest easy knowing the joy he gave to his television audience. Many a Detroit Baby Boomer will shed a tear in memory of Lawson Deming's Sir Graves Ghastly character. David Deming's eulogy at his father's funeral service attributed the longevity of his father's career to "his warm spirit and genuine love of kids."

Sir Graves show intro 

Sir Graves characters 

Shock Theater WXYZ