Think of TV hosts and hostesses of old-school horror movies and, for most people, the usual suspects turn up. There’s Svengoolie, the Chicago-based franchise which since 1979 has featured a top-hatted Rich Koz donning Groucho Marx greasepaint and wielding a rubber chicken (the weekly broadcasts are now airing Saturday nights on Me-TV via WSYR-Channel 9.2). And there is Elvira, the buxom alter ego of actress Cassandra Peterson, who has hosted two separate syndicated TV series devoted to fright flicks during her 30-year reign.
Syracuse’s TV viewers in the 1960s and 1970s had home-grown alternatives, however. On then-new WNYS-Channel 9 (now WSYR), announcer Mike Price premiered his wacky vampire named Baron Daemon in 1962 as the host for a Saturday-night series devoted to cheapskate scare fare such as American International Pictures’ Attack of the Crab Monsters. Two years later over on then-WSYR-Channel 3 (now WSTM), a rival franchise titled Monster Movie Matinee was launched on a Saturday Halloween afternoon, with co-hosts Dr. Edward Nicholas Witty and his loyal sidekick Epal, played by WSYR-AM 570 radio personalities Alan Milair and Bill Everett, respectively. The latter show is the nostalgic subject of the 74-minute DVD documentary Monster Mansion Memories, a Wind Up Films production from director Andy Wolf, editor Cody Wolf and producer Alex Dunbar.
Price’s Daemon proved so popular from the start that he also hosted a daily afternoon kiddie show, but the character went up in smoke when a 1967 fire consumed Channel 9’s Shoppingtown studios, wiping out the baron’s sets and costumes. Only a few snippets from the old show survived the blaze; every Halloween season Channel 9 airs a precious outtake, which has become the local-TV equivalent of the legendary Ed Ames tomahawk toss on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
So Monster Movie Matinee, which ran from 1964 to 1980, definitely has tenure on its side, and it was on the air long enough to delight several generations of boob-tube baby boomers. Each week the show invited viewers to visit Monster Mansion, the location where Dr. E. Nick Witty (as in “iniquity”) would usually perform medical experiments on his assistant Epal (Lape, Everett’s real surname, was spelled in reverse; Everett’s other TV alter ago was Salty Sam, the nautical chap who hosted a series of Popeye cartoons). Between these diabolical encounters, Dr. Witty would entertain his “dear guests” (the TV watchers) with a “tale of terror,” albeit with the movie’s opening and closing credits chopped off to preserve the narrative illusion. And then there was Witty’s maniacal laugh, as the mellifluous-voiced Milair would launch into a distinctive moo-hoo-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha that local kids (and more than a few adults) would desperately attempt to mimic.
Unlike the low-budget entries that were on Baron Daemon’s slate, Channel 3 had higher-profile movie packages from several studios to flesh out their Saturday-afternoon schedule: the Universal classics (Frankenstein, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon), Columbia potboilers (Creature with the Atom Brain, The Werewolf), 20th Century Fox oddities (Kronos, Horror of Party Beach), a few United Artists flicks (Invisible Invaders) and some classy Paramount pictures (Dr. Cyclops, the still-shocking Murders in the Zoo). If Christmas landed on a weekend, Channel 3 would air something a tad softer, such as Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.
The combination of strong cinema product and amusing co-hosts proved so lucrative as a ratings-grabber that a Saturday-night version of Monster Movie Matinee also ran for a few years in the late 1960s, when Central New York viewers got their first Technicolor taste of superior creepshows from Hammer Films such as The Curse of the Werewolf and The Brides of Dracula. Yet the Saturday-afternoon broadcasts are what people still remember during its 16-year run, which abruptly ended when Channel 3 was sold to the Times Mirror company, which kept the show’s name and the movies–but dropped the on-air co-hosts. (An infamous 1980 Post Standard headline read, “Salty Sam Walks Plank.”) Milair and Everett simply packed up their endearing shticks and headed to local cable’s Newchannels for Chamber 13, a series that doted on public-domain schlock titles such as Dementia 13 and Night of the Living Dead.
Monster Mansion Memories director Andy Wolf and his cohorts spent two years to make this labor of love, and they have unearthed plenty of material regarding Monster Movie Matinee, much of it augmented by an intriguing cast of supporting players. WSYR-Channel 9 producer Tim Fox, dubbed here as a “Syracuse television historian,” recalls his wonder years in Cortland watching the show, although his major contribution to the DVD comes from his foresight in interviewing Everett (born Willard Everett Lape) prior to his September 2004 death at age 74. Lape details his extensive showrunner duties, which beyond the on-air segments also included editing down the movies to suitable length, which sometimes including chopping them to fit an hour-long time slot before the station switched to NBC’s summertime baseball broadcasts.
It turns out that Monster Movie Matinee was also a labor of love for its participants. Wolf also corralled behind-the-scenes talent such as set designer Joe Turrisi, who helped supply the spooky props and the endless amounts of dry ice (Turrisi passed away in October), and Fred Zimmerman, creator of the scale model of the mansion that was used in every opening and closing segment.
Passionate fan Chuck Waltz proudly displays more memorabilia from the show, especially the coffin from which the long-fingernailed hand of Milair’s Witty would wave to viewers. (Milair’s face was never seen during the series, to further preserve his character’s menacing mystique). Milair commented on the coffin in the 1976 edition of The Syracuse New Times Guidebook: “It’s very warm, a little tight in the shoulders, but comfortable. With the lid closed, it’s dark and if I stay in there long enough I fall asleep.”
Wolf also managed to interview Milair prior to his death in April 2012 at age 81. Looking quite dapper in a white beard, Milair dishes out more pertinent information, including the outlandish story arcs that he would conjure up for each episode’s scripted banter. Since these segments were never repeated, that meant 52 continuing storylines each year, which gave the Channel 3 cast and crew many opportunities to devise green-screen special effects and other camera-oriented hocus-pocus. Milair even lets loose with a moo-hoo-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha laugh, proving that the octogenarian still had the right stuff–as the audible off-camera applause from Wolf’s crew will attest.
Monster-movie kids of all ages will enjoy this documentary, which, for a locally produced DVD, boasts some impressive extras, or “spare parts,” as the cover impishly suggests. A commentary track with producers Dunbar and Andy Wolf, as well as Milair’s daughter Shawn Milair Wayson, who also went into television work, adds more factoids about the fondly remembered series. “They were like little kids in that studio,” Shawn recalls about her dad and the crew as they went to work on every episode. Lape, for instance, was responsible for the show’s main theme, an amalgam of spooky organ notes mixed with music cues from the sci-fi flick This Island Earth.
What really seals the DVD deal, however, is nearly an hour of actual footage from the series, including introductions and exits, some in black and white as well as color. Not seen since their first airings nearly 50 years ago, the clips give newbies as well as veteran video watchers a flavor for the show’s macabre yet tongue-in-cheek appeal. In one story arc, Witty is conversing with Epal’s disembodied noggin in a pan, offering an example of Channel 3’s novel special effects as well as an unintended gag regarding talking-heads interviews.
With its initial pressing of 500 copies, Monster Mansion Memories has already moved many DVDs off the store shelves soon after its Halloween-time release. Yet for creature-feature aficionados, it’s also a solid stocking stuffer for the holidays. It’s available for $16.99 at Armory Square’s Sound Garden, 310 W. Jefferson St.; Barnes and Noble bookstore, 3454 Erie Blvd. E., DeWitt; and by sending a $16 check to Andy Wolf at Monster Mansion, P.O. Box 12, Chittenango 13037.
Another project of Dunbar and associates? “Stop the Movie! I Want to Get Out!” – a podcast that makes fun of bad movies – LISTEN HERE