Saturday, October 29, 2016

HURY BURY BABY - and now ZACHERLEY the cool ghoul

It’s a sad Halloween for those of us who loved “The Cool Ghoul.” Dick Clark, a broadcasting colleague of John Zacherle’s in Philadelphia, gave him that nickname.  

Just how to describe or explain Zacherley (as he came to be known) is almost as futile as explaining, for example, “The Goon Show.” Listening to a sample could be very bewildering for a newcomer. It’s as much about attitude and character as it is the jokes. In fact, on most of his novelty singles, Zach was probably laughing a lot more than any of the listeners. Ah ha!

I should go find my interview with Zacherle, but it’s on one of hundreds of cassettes of interviews yet to be digitized. I do remember him saying that his early stuff benefitted by his association with Cameo-Parkway records. His label practically handed him the masters of their best hits, with the vocals wiped. He was allowed to simply ad-lib horror jokes (and his own laughter).

In 1958, he had his Top 10 hit, well before “Monster Mash,” with “Dinner with Drac.” The B-side below is “Hury Bury Baby,” a ghoulish variant on the Hully Gully. He was an unlikely star among teens, at age 40. 

The horror-novelty king was born in Pennsylvania in 1918, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. After World War 2 service, he joined a theater group, performed in local TV commercials, and in 1953 was hired by local WCAU to appear in a budget western-serial called “Action in the Afternoon.” A character he played, local understaker Grimy James, was soon spun off into hosting duties when WCAU bought 52 old horror movies. They needed someone to even-out the timing of these ragged 78 minute or 65 minute B-movies, and Zach proved to be an inspired choice.  

He didn’t merely introduce the films, he CUT into them. Like Ernie Kovacs (another local TV personality who would become national), Zach let his imagination run wild because there was no budget to hire writers. He "broke the fourth wall" as they say, and loved to irreverently stop a movie to offer a wisecrack or make fun of the bad acting. 

Zacherley ad-libbed gags, performed mini-skits, and made the weekly “Shock Theater” show a joy for the locals. He moved on to New York. Though still local on the East Coast he had enough of a following to interest a local record label. Though perhaps most of the sales were coming from his home base of Philadelphia, “Dinner with Drac” was a hit in 1958. New York’s Warren Publishing put him on the cover of their struggling “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine in 1960. Soon the “Monster Craze” was in full bloom, and Zacherley paperbacks appeared, along with new Zacherley albums. 

Aurora model kits let brats paint up replicas of Dracula and Frankenstein, and the toy store was loaded with monster cards and games. "The Addams Family" and "The Munsters" were part of the cash-in, and "Famous Monsters" magazine, its spin-off "Monster World," and "Castle of Frankenstein" had revered places on the magazine rack, sometimes even edging off Nugget, Sir, Rogue and Gent. 

 “Monster Mash” was a huge hit, and old-time horror actors like Karloff, Lorre and Price were in demand for new movies.  Zacherley sometimes adopted a slightly Karloffian vocal for his novelty tunes (he did cover "Monster Mash" and was a bit of a Boris on "The Ghoul from Wolverton Mountain" among other parodies). Still, his make-up and his humor was uniquely his own, along with his somewhat Bostonian demeanor and that cheerful, barking laugh. 

The late 50's and 60's was a great time to be a kid, and kids adored Zacherley, who was the superstar in his field. His only competition was clear across the country: Vampira on local TV in Los Angeles. For Zach fans, “The Cool Ghoul” grew like a fungus, aging right along with them. While many tweens never lost their fondness for monster movies as they became teens, their interests expanded into rock music and, gosh, finding an Evelyn Ankers or Elsa Lanchester of their very own. Zacherley turned up as host of “Disc-O-Teen,” an East Coast TV show that offered the latest pop hits and finger-snapping pimple-popping teens dancing with each other. 

The mid and late 60's TV show did well, and Zach became a rock radio host. The fans that blew bubble gum while listening to "Dinner with Drac" were now blowing their minds, exploring drugs and FM-progressive rock. Zach was with them, first on WNEW and then WPLJ. When groups such as Boko Harum (or whatever they were called) and Foghat and the Alex Harvey Band were booked for ABC’s “Wide World of Entertainment,” the shows were simulcast in stereo on WPLJ, introduced by Zacherley. 

Zach’s cultured voice was part of FM radio for a decade. By then, Zach fans were grown up and ready to pay tribute. This included roles in “Brain Damage” and “Frankenhooker,” and regular appearances at East Coast memorabilia shows. He was sort of the mascot of the “Chiller” conventions, were corpulent Huelbigs would grin through their baby-like teeth and pay $20 to have him pose with them. There were some new Zach CDs as well as other collectibles, and he incredibly continued to be an age-defying ghoul into his 90’s. I think he was even in attendance last year, albeit briefly. 

Zacherley had unique style and flair, a sense of fun very much in keeping with the light-hearted international stars like Vinnie Price. He appreciated his genre and his fans, and tried to keep the quality up, and his dignity intact. Unlike so many on the memorabilia circuit, he didn’t seem like he HAD to be there, or that he WANTED to be there, but that he was doing everyone a good-natured favor because he LIKED what he was doing.

I remember Elvira confiding to me that Vampira was grumbling about filing a lawsuit. The grump old lady had insisted that Elvira had somehow "stolen" her act. This was quite an irony, since as Elvira and everyone else knows, Vampira "stole" her persona off the Morticia character in Chas Addams cartoons: the white skin, jet black long hair and costume. I remember Elvira saying, "She thinks she can do what I'm doing? She doesn't have a tooth in her head!" I mention this just to point out a contrast between Vampira and Zacherley. Zach was a mellow monster. He didn't compete with anyone. At "Chiller" shows, he was indeed the cool ghoul, willing to participate if a Bobby "Boris" Pickett wanted a photo op or a duet, but just as easily willing to let another vintage horror star have the spotlight if that was what was desired.  

Yes, I liked Zacherley, and collected the singles and albums, and had the books, and was glad to fulfill a childhood wish and get a chance to meet him, and not as a pay-to-play geek at a convention, but via a radio interview with good exposure. At this moment, the “Chiller” convention is going on in New Jersey, and sweaty, overweight, repulsive zombies are too busy pestering Meatloaf for autographs and photo ops to give more than a passing, “Er, RIP Zach” to the guy who was a regular at all those shows over all these years.

With the demise of Christopher Lee, Bobby “Boris” Pickett and a few others, Zacherley was one of the few “legends” left from the 50’s. Now he’s just remains, but, ha-ha, he remains legend. Hury Bury Baby, my dears…  

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