If you’re a horror fan and you grew up in Chicago, the horror host known as Svengoolie is probably partly responsible for your love of the genre. I know he is for mine. I was born just outside Chicago and have lived here my entire life, and Svengoolie has been a fixture on local television for nearly all of it. He didn’t necessarily introduce me to horror, but over the years he has certainly played a number of roles in my relationship to it: he has been a teacher, a funny friend (albeit one whom I’ve never met), a comforting presence on a Saturday night. As far as being a Monster Kid is concerned, I can think of few figures who have meant more.
The tradition of the horror host – someone who would appear, usually in costume, at the beginning and end of a movie broadcast, often making corny jokes about whatever was being shown that week – dates back nearly to the earliest airings of horror movies on TV. The most famous of them all is still Elvira, but there are dozens of others who were beloved in their own local markets: there was Vampira and Zacherley and Ghoulardi (played by the father of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson) and Count Gore Del Vol and Chilly Billy and on and on. Every city had their horror host. Svengoolie was ours. At a time when most of the other horror hosts have retired or been canceled or even passed away, Svengoolie is still going strong. He’s still our horror host in Chicago, and when his weekly series on MeTV went national back in 2011, he became the country’s horror host, too.
I didn’t grow up on the OG Svengoolie. He was before my time. Jerry Bishop originated the character and played him (with a Transylvanian accent and everything) on TV from its debut in 1970 until 1973, when the show was cancelled for six years until it was revived in 1979, with former staff writer-turned-host Rich Koz taking over as the Son of Svengoolie. This was the version of the show on which I grew up, tuning in every Saturday afternoon in the mid-‘80s to Chicago’s WFLD to watch the Son of Svengoolie hosting movies like Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Revenge of the Creature and War Gods of the Deep and the original Universal classics like Dracula and The Wolf Man. In the days before these movies were readily available on home video – or even before my family owned a VCR on which to play them – Son of Svengoolie introduced me to the films that would help shape me as a horror fan forever.
Son of Svengoolie was pulled off the air in 1986 when WFLD sold to Fox, but Rich Koz remained a fixture of Chicago TV and of my childhood, hosting kids’ shows like The Koz Zone and anchoring the local news for a time. He was always a part of my life in some way. When he put the makeup back on in 1994 and returned to TV as Svengoolie – having finally dropped the “Son of” moniker with the blessing of Jerry Bishop – it was a big deal for me. When I was a kid, watching monster movies on Svengoolie was considered cute by those around me, but by ’94 I was no longer at an age where watching monster movies and horror hosts was thought to be “cute.” That was ok. It left me with a choice: appear cool to my classmates, or continue to watch horror and be happy. It’s the choice that many a fan has faced at some point in his or her life, and the way we choose helps define who we are as a person. Svengoolie helped keep me on the path of being a devoted horror fan. But as the genre continues to dominate TV and clean up at the box office in 2018, loving horror is finally considered cool thanks to sites like this and people like Svengoolie, who has helped carry the torch for nearly 40 years.
The thing about Svengoolie is this: he’s so uncool that he’s cool. His jokes are incredibly corny. His set is sparse, his show cheaply produced in such a way that it’s not too far off from a public access production. There’s nothing edgy or hip about him, but because he has remained true to himself year after year – the show is the show is the show – he has circled back around to being hip again. He exists in a space that is free of irony. He has nothing but affection for these movies and doesn’t present them in a mocking way, even if he does make jokes about them. Plus, the show is hipster proof; they can’t make fun of anything about Svengoolie that the show isn’t already making fun of about themselves first. Svengoolie doesn’t care about being cool. He just wants to entertain us, to make us laugh, and to celebrate monster movies, reminding us lifelong fans why we love this stuff and introducing a new generation of would-be horror nerds to movies they’re discovering, as I did, through his show. I can’t think of anything cooler than that.
Lately I’ve been watching Svengoolie with my own son, and the opportunity to share with him something that meant so much to me when I was his age is one I don’t take for granted. It’s too soon to tell whether or not it’s helping turn him into a horror fan, but at the very least it affords me a chance to share my own love of the genre with him so that even if he never goes crazy for monster movies, at least he’ll know why his dad does. I’m not sure I could convince him to sit down and watch The Blob or 20 Million Miles from Earth with me if I just asked nicely, but when I frame it as “Hey, want to watch Svengoolie?” he gets on board. Maybe he’s just doing it to humor me. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s something about all of the hosting segments and jokes and rubber chicken throwing that makes the movies feel safer for him, so he’s more willing to watch. Whatever the case, Svengoolie is responsible for creating new Monster Kids week after week, year after year. For this reason alone, the show is a gift.
I don’t know how much longer we’re going to have Svengoolie to watch on Saturday nights. Rich Koz is just a few years shy of turning 70. He has been performing as Svengoolie for the better part of the last four decades. Sooner or later, he’s going to retire, and that realization makes me almost impossibly sad. He’s one of the last remaining horror hosts in the country, and currently has no clear successor as far as I know. That means when he goes, the tradition of the horror host and a television institution goes with him. And while Rich Koz deserves to retire whenever he sees fit, I’m not ready to say goodbye. I never will be. He’s been a part of my life for so long, I can’t imagine it without him. To be honest, I really don’t want to.
Please, Svengoolie, please never leave us. Young and old alike, Monster Kids everywhere need you.