Monthly Archives: October 2015

Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS Series: 1939’s The Human Monster (1988)

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Happy Halloween!

I can’t believe Halloween 2015 is here! The year zipped by like nothing, and this last month in particular has been a whirlwind. I love Halloween, but there’s always a sad feeling when the big day finally arrives; the whole month is a build-up to October 31st, and then Halloween itself comes and goes in a quick 24 hours. And just like that, full attention is then directed to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Halloween just ain’t long enough, man.

Some readers may remember last year when my Halloween-appropriate output during the season was decidedly lacking. Real life and all that jazz. I have rectified that error somewhat this year; last week we saw Gene Shalit’s visage pitch 1941’s The Wolf Man on VHS, and for this Halloween day post, I’m going above and beyond. Gene Shalit and Lon Chaney Jr. are a tough act to follow, but I do believe I have accomplished just that, with this: Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS series, starring none other than Al “Grampa Munster” Lewis! And he’s hosting Bela Lugosi’s The Human Monster! Cool winnins!

There were a bunch of these Grampa Presents videos for Amvest, though the overall distribution was so limited that no one is quite sure just how many were actually released and how many were merely proposed releases. A good number of titles did make it out of the door in some amount, but none of them are easily found nowadays. Indeed, these releases range from highly obscure to impossibly rare. Heck, even non-Grampa-branded Amvest titles are often tough to come by. Some of these tapes are worth more than others, mostly depending on rarity and/or how cool/popular/whatever the movie featured is. But for those so inclined, enough diligent internet searching should turn up at least some fairly affordable prospects. I mean, these are rare, but not that rare. They ain’t the Honus Wagner of VHS tapes, man.

So, when I was able to nab this tape for a price that didn’t cause my arms to flail about in utter dismay, I jumped at the chance. A bit over $20? A little pricey for an ancient budget VHS, but I can live with it. Don’t underestimate just how gratifying it is to finally have one of these tapes in my collection. I’ve been aware of the series for some time now, but the pricing/availability/whatever just never worked out for me. But, I was able to make it happen in time for this Halloween post, and that’s something I really hoped to accomplish.

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Much of my fascination with the Amvest Grampa videos stems from two factors:

1) The apparent limited distribution and uncertainty regarding which titles in this series did and didn’t actually hit store shelves, plus the murky aura that often tends to surround these cheapie, dime store video releases in general. It sort of lends an air of mystery to these tapes, and I find that endlessly intriguing.

2) I’m an Al “Grampa” Lewis fan, period. He was such a cool guy, and he never resented the Grampa character typecasting that stuck with him following The Munsters. On the contrary, he took it and ran with it. Besides these videos, there were the personal appearances, television commercials, his own restaurant, even an Atari 7800 game. So yeah, if he’s going to have his own line of VHS tapes in which he hosts public domain horror movies, I’m all over that.

And just look at that cover art! If that isn’t budget tape greatness, I don’t know what is. Caricatures of Bela Lugosi and Wilfred Walters (not Hugh Williams as the cover implies), drawn in the proud public domain tape tradition (on cardboard so flimsy I’m actually a little surprised the sleeve has survived to the present day as well as it has), with an illustration of Al “Grampa” Lewis overlooking it all. When it comes to the realm of mega-cheap 1980s budget VHS tapes, it just does not get cooler than that.

The artwork used for the tapes in the series ranged from “pretty darn decent” (usually the ones that used real photographs or original movie poster art as their basis) to “hilariously amateurish” (many, but not all, of the entries with hand-drawn original artwork), though I’m thinking the illustration for The Human Monster falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. You wouldn’t have seen CBS/FOX releasing something like this, but for what it is, a budget video featuring a public domain movie, it’s perfectly serviceable, maybe even above-average.

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The back cover, naturally. The description is perfunctory, as is par for the course with tapes of this nature (click on it for a super-sized view and judge fo’ yo’ self).

What takes this aspect of the release from “meh” territory to “greatest achievement of mankind” territory is the “Grampa’s Ratings” feature at the bottom. Apparently, Grampa gives the film two bats and a description of “Horrible Horror,” which probably isn’t the best way to pitch a prospective customer on your video until you realize you’re supposed to think this was Al Lewis himself giving his seal of approval, in which case how good or bad the movie is is almost secondary to the mental picture of Grampa sitting down and critically analyzing it.

I wonder if Amvest actually did solicit Lewis’ opinion and those are his own real words on the back? I can easily see it being a gimmick the marketing department (?) cooked up to add some extra allure to the tape, but I can just as easily see Lewis matter-of-factly stating his opinion. “It’s hohrrable horrah, Hoyman!” That was my attempt at an Al Lewis-style New York accent, though it probably doesn’t work in print as well as I hoped. Just play along here, okay?

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The tape itself, featuring the plainest label and cheapest film reels in the universe, as well as approximately 3 feet of actual video tape used total (make note of this fact; it will come back to haunt me later).

Okay, preliminaries out of the way, we now come to the real reason anyone bought the tape back then or cares about the tape today…

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Al “Grampa Munster” Lewis! Look at him up there. What a badass.

Like I said before, I’m a huge Al Lewis fan, and seeing him doing his Grampa shtick in any format is a pleasure. But, when that shtick entails horror hosting, man, that’s directly up my alley. On that front, these Amvest videos not only feature Lewis hosting a movie, they were also released in 1988, which was smack in the middle of Lewis’ run on TBS as host of Super Scary Saturday, a weekend showcase in which he hosted horror and sci-fi films as his Grampa persona. Back in June, I looked at one such broadcast.

By ’88, home video was a genuine fact of life, and by then it had progressed to the point where it was actually feasible to have budget tapes. Considering Lewis wasn’t shy about lending his Grampa-persona to anyone willing to pony up the bucks, his TBS show was doing well with the kids, and Thriller Video had some success with Elvira hosting movies-for-video, it makes total sense to try to get in on some o’ dat. Heck, this sorta feels like an attempt at aping Thriller’s Elvira videos, only more cut-rate and kid-friendly.

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Those used to his Super Scary Saturday set and its expansive “mad scientist lab” set-up are in for a bit of a shock here. A ‘real’ lab set is nowhere to be found; instead, a green screen featuring a stock shot (I guess) of a lab, with added tinting and neon-squiggle accents (hey, it was 1988), is used for this endeavor. It looks, well, it looks kinda rinky dink, but Amvest was a budget outfit, and after shelling out the Grampa-bucks, you do what you can afford.

The setting may be a low budget affair, but his dialog is classic Grampa. Really, I can’t see how anyone couldn’t love the guy. He opens with a joke about viewers mistaking him for Paul Newman (note: he’s not), and then makes specific mention of personally watching a movie from Amvest’s film library with you, the viewer. Since these tapes were almost certainly aimed at kids (for the most part; there’s a couple more-intense films sprinkled throughout), his patter fits perfectly, and he (obviously) had his act down to a science by that point. So even though it isn’t/wasn’t a high-end setting, it all still works wonderfully, and it’s all to Lewis’ performance.

And really, while my feelings may be slightly skewed because this is Halloween day, this all just feels like the kind of tape parents would put on for kids that were too young to fully partake in Halloween activities but still wanted to give them something ostensibly spooky to stare at. I love it.

By the way, there was an opening sequence to all of this wackiness, but as was the case with so many budget videos, there was no customary blank black screen or copyright notices prior to the start of the show/movie/etc. The program itself started at the very beginning of the tape. Problem with that set-up is that when it comes to tapes of this nature, that’s when tracking and whatnot is still getting situated, and as far as this tape goes, by the time things settle down to a coherent viewing-point, Grampa is already into his pitch. This irritates me.

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Rumor has it that these intros and outros were the exact same for every Amvest Grampa Presents release, with only a voiceover changed to reflect the different films featured. That is, Grampa would ask the unseen Igor what the feature film was for that video, and then look on expectantly as the title was announced via the aforementioned voiceover.

Methinks the quality control at Amvest was a little lax, because for this release, they forgot the voiceover! What this means is you get to watch Grampa listening in anticipation to absolute silence and then excitedly proclaiming “That’s the one!” Even for a budget video company, I can’t believe they let something like that slip through the cracks. It’s unintentionally hilarious until I remember I paid over $20 for this damn tape.

(Amvest’s apparent laxness manifests itself in more dire form later, but we’ll get to that in due time.)

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Being wildly public domain, this isn’t a hard movie to track down in the slightest, but oddly enough, until I got this tape I only ever saw the film under the original British title of Dark Eyes Of London.

As stoked as I am to have this video, I’m the first to admit this flick has never been a favorite of mine. In fact, I find it fairly dull. I first recorded it (under that Dark Eyes Of London title) off of WAOH TV-29/WAX TV-35 waaay back in, I’m pretty sure, 1997. At the time, I was into any and all old horror and sci-fi films, and being from the 1930s/1940s sweet-spot (which I still have a strong affinity for to this day), Dark Eyes should have instantly found a place in my heart

But, it didn’t. Even this latest viewing did little to change my opinion that it’s a slow-moving, dry, overtly British film. Not that I mean to knock British films, there’s a ton of great ones even from just the same time period as this, but British horror and sci-fi has just never appealed to me the way similar U.S. products in the genre(s) have. It may be anathema to admit this, but even the Hammer films have never really tripped my trigger. And Gorgo? A less fun (and overrated, in my opinion) Godzilla knock-off. In fact, Vincent Price’s Theatre Of Blood has been the only British film in this genre to genuinely, raptly hold my attention.

So, hey, I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but I’m being honest: I find The Human Monster infinitely less fun than Bela’s The Ape Man, Invisible Ghost, or what have you. And, I know I’m probably in the minority there; a lot of people love this movie. That’s fine, I don’t want to stomp around babbling about how bad it is or anything like that, but frankly, it just doesn’t do much for me.

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You know, I realized that as of late this might as well be the “Bela Blog.” Over the past year, he’s popped up here via Superhost’s Dracula broadcast, Son Of Ghoul’s Plan 9 broadcast, my SPN Network post, even that recent Mill Creek movie set review and just last week in the previously-linked Gene Shalit Wolf Man VHS post. Even a few stray times beyond all that, too. Bela definitely has a presence here.

This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, though. I can only write about what I’m sufficiently fired up over, and it was sheer coincidence that Bela Lugosi figured into so much of it. Not that I’m complaining; I’m the first to admit I’m a big fan of his. Bela, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price – if a movie features them, it doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, their involvement is enough to garner at least some interest on my part (The Human Monster included). Such is my admiration for them both as actors and as a horror/sci-fi junkie.

In this one, Bela plays one Dr. Orloff, an insurance salesman that kills clients for their policies and then collects the big money. Probably not exactly a foolproof plan, but no one ever said evil guys are always rational. Orloff also masquerades as a fella named Dearborn, who runs a home for the blind, a locale that figures prominently into the plot.

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I think a large part of my lukewarm feelings towards this movie stem from the fact that it just isn’t very “horrific” in a typical-of-the-genre sense. Bela doesn’t create any creatures, there’s nothing supernatural about it (it’s The Human Monster, after all), and again, I find the proceedings verrry dry. I’ll take Bela turnin’ himself into an ape guy any day.

Bela Lugosi’s performance aside (I may not be a fan of the film itself, but he does play his role well), the sole aspect of the movie I find genuinely interesting is Wilfred Walter’s monstrous, blind baddie, Jake, who you’re helpfully seeing above. Jake is a resident of Dearborn’s home for the blind, and does the killing for Dr. Orloff. He certainly does look scary, and to the credit of the filmmakers, there are some terrific shots of him. He doesn’t really save the film for me, but he certainly makes it more bearable.

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Look at that, Amvest felt the need to watermark the movie at one point, as if someone was interested in stealing their silly lil’ flick.

Given that this is a budget video release of a public domain movie, no one should ever expect a pristine film print, and the condition of this The Human Monster certainly lives up (down?) to those expectations. It’s dusty, dirty, scratchy, but yet, thanks to the LP recording speed, relatively sharp and clear. It could have looked so much worse, so that aspect was a pleasant surprise.

A decidedly less-pleasant surprise was in store for me though, and it was this surprise that concluded the tape. According to this thread over at the Our Favorite Horror Hosts forum, there was no set recording-mode that these Grampa Presents tapes would be produced in. Could be EP/SLP, could LP (such as this one), could be SP. I have seen pictures of Grampa tapes with an SP sticker affixed to the back (this one here), so SP and LP tapes are definitely out there, and I assume EP/SLP ones were released as well.

And that brings us to that eyebrow-raising conclusion: it appears that despite the LP-recording speed used for this copy, there was only enough tape for an EP/SLP recording. You know what that means, don’t you? The tape ran out and ended before the actual movie did!

That’s right, no stunning conclusion to The Human Monster, and more distressingly, no Grampa outro. My reaction to this revelation was something akin to “AW C’MON!” though I don’t recall my exact words. I wasn’t real happy, though.

Don’t let that dissuade you from picking up a copy of this video or any other in the series, though (unless I’m going after it too, in which case kindly back off pal). I doubt this is representative of the Grampa Presents tapes in general; my guess is it’s merely what many would term a “defective video.” Like I said earlier, I’m guessing Amvest’s quality control was a bit lax. I don’t mind discovering this, but I do kinda mind spending $20+ to find out.

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And yet, in the overall picture, the incomplete recording doesn’t really bother me that much. I mean, yes, of course I’d prefer the whole thing (duh!), but the rarity of the tape coupled with that perfect slice of late-1980s cheapie VHS essence, that recording snafu is almost overruled by all of that. In fact, it actually kinda adds to that late-1980s cheapie VHS essence! It’s not an ideal situation, obviously, but I try to look at things like this as glass-half-full.

I contacted my friend Jesse (one of the most knowledgeable guys I know and a genuine good egg to boot) to see if he remembered these Grampa Presents tapes from back in the day. He did indeed; if anyone would, Jesse would. He recalled that they were briefly (about a year) sold at Rolling Acres Mall (possibly at Camelot) for under $10. In the years since, he’s come across used copies only once or twice, and given the horrid artwork, he didn’t feel compelled to pick them up. That all fits perfectly with what I know about these tapes (which admittedly isn’t much). Jesse gets around much more than I do, so if he’s only come across copies a handful of times at most, their distribution had to be painfully limited.

Honestly, even though I personally didn’t have any entries in this video series until this one, it still serves as a nostalgia piece for me. It absolutely reminds me of the budget tapes I had growing up, warts and all. Heck, this just feels like something I would have (should have?) found at D&K in the old State Road shopping center. I never did, of course, but I’d like to think I would have snapped it up with a fervor comparable to what I feel going after these nowadays. Maybe even more fervor back then, because this was all so new to me at the time.

I’ve got a lot of tapes. Thousands and thousands, to be frank. When it comes to just the prerecorded stuff, I’ve got so much and have crossed so many personal “wants” off my list over the years that it’s hard to get really, genuinely stoked over a tape. It happens from time to time though, and in the case of not only this tape but all of the Grampa Presents tapes, well, I got the hunger. I don’t care if the intros and outros are essentially the same for each one, I don’t care if the quality is lacking, I don’t even care that this tape doesn’t even play all the way through. The bottom line is it’s Al “Grampa” Lewis, it’s horror hosting, it’s obscure, and it’s just plain cool. I want more, and I’m determined to get more!

And with that, this Halloween post comes to a close. Have a fantastic, fun and safe Halloween, everybody! See y’all after Ghoulardifest 2015!

Gene Shalit’s Critic’s Choice VHS Series: 1941’s The Wolf Man (1987)

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You know, I had an entirely different, non-seasonally-themed post in mind for this week, until I realized that next week is Halloween. Next week! October is flying by, a realization that is bittersweet for me; I love this month and this time of year, and I hate to see it all zoom by so quickly. But on the other hand, the big day is at the very end of it all, and at least in my situation, you gotta make it through most of October to get to Ghoulardifest. And then there’s Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, and on and on it all goes. I love this time of year!

Anyway, with the season being in the full swing of things, I figured I may as well stick with a horror theme until the end of month (not so hard to do; barring the Tarzan post and Big Chuck & Lil’ John pre-game one, all of my recent posts are more or less seasonally-appropriate. I didn’t plan things that way, it’s just how it all worked out).

On that front, nothing screams “spirit o’ da season!” quite like Gene Shalit’s mustachioed visage plastered all over a VHS release of The Wolf Man. Behold: from 1987, it’s MCA Home Video’s release of 1941’s The Wolf Man, as part of their Gene Shalit’s Critic’s Choice series! It’s not a particularly rare video, it can be had on eBay for a few mere dollars, but any time Gene Shalit himself shows up out of nowhere to tell me to watch a movie, well, that’s worthy of a post. Plus, The Wolf Man, Halloween, it just fits.

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The movie is a classic for sure, but for this particular post, it’s really all about the cover art this time around. Yeah, we’ll take a brief look at the film itself, but seriously, the cover art makes this one.

First off, you’ve got that great image regarding the movie itself: Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular character, gripping Evelyn Ankers, surrounded by fog, foreboding trees, it’s all just great. Really, you don’t need much more to sell The Wolf Man in my opinion. Later VHS releases, including one that’s an illustrated close-up of Wolfie’s face and one that used the original gol’derned poster art as a template, failed to improve upon the spooky vibes emanating from the cover art of this 1987 release.

Annnnnd then, in waltzes Gene Shalit. And make no mistake, it’s all about the Shalit here. Now granted, there was a whole line of these Critic’s Choice tapes for MCA featuring him, some more befitting his image than others, but in the case of this particular entry, it’s just such an odd combination. You’ve got Gene Shalit, longtime Today Show movie critic, with his big giant mustache and even bigger bow tie, busy mugging for the camera while Lon Chaney Jr. is busy committing wolficide mere inches away. You can almost hear him making a pun. “Now that’s what I call a hairy situation!” That’s the kind of pun he used to make, right?

And I love the film strip at the bottom of the cover, showing what I like to call “The Four Stages Of Gene.” From left to right, you’ve got apprehensive Gene, jokey Gene, spooked Gene, and knowledgeable Gene. It’s any kind of Gene for any kind of movie!

Keep in mind, I’m not criticizing any of this, either. I’ve got nothing but respect for Gene Shalit, I think he’s a cool guy, and he was (and is) such a well-known personality that it makes perfect sense to have him pitch what are, ostensibly, his top-home video picks. But like I said before, when it comes to this particular movie, it’s just such a jarring combination. Heck, when I first stumbled upon this video, that’s precisely what attracted me to it. It’s the kind of tape that really could have only come out in the 1980s, and again, that’s not a criticism.

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I give ’em props for Shalit-izing the back cover, too; supposedly he himself write the synopsis, and even if he didn’t, it gives a pretty good idea of his style. Go ahead and click on the picture for a supersized version. Read that description and then tell me it’s not the greatest synopsis The Wolf Man has ever had or will have.

First off: puns! Gene Shalit loved him some puns, and he gets off some good ones here. He totally makes a “hairy” gag (having only glanced at the description beforehand, I promise you my joke earlier was entirely coincidental or subconscious or some crap like that). And “…all howl breaks loose” alone is almost certainly the greatest thing ever written on the back of a Wolf Man release. This is a statement I comfortably make, despite having not read the descriptive synopsis on the back of each and every one of them.

Beyond the patented Shalit style, however, is the fact that it’s just a really great description: there’s enough humor to keep it from being dry, and just enough information to make it sound interesting without giving too much away. Remember, this tape came out when rental stores were the places to go for movies; while it’s hard to imagine anyone not having some idea of what The Wolf Man was about, the truth is that the description on the back of a box could and often did make the difference between what wound up being a weekend rental and what continued to languish on the shelf. The cover art (which, as I said, this release also has nailed) got the people to pick the tape up, but the description could be the swaying factor in a real, honest-to-goodness rental.

Or maybe I’m just totally full of it, who knows.

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Why’d you write your name all over my collectible VHS tape, Lisa M.?!

The absence of Gene Shalit’s name anywhere on the tape itself leads me to believe there was a ‘regular’ VHS release of this movie, and the same tapes were used both for that and this Gene Shalit-branded-sleeve version. (Come to think of it, I wonder if there’s a ranch anywhere that brands their cattle with Gene Shalit’s face. If there’s not, there should be.) But then, looking at online auctions, most of the ‘early’ releases tend to be this exact one; I’m not seeing any non-Shalit version from the time period. Maybe more people bought this one for the exact same reasons that I’m so enamored with it. Or maybe I’m just totally full of it, who knows.

By the way, do you like the way I snapped the picture with Shalit overlooking the proceedings? Totally intentional, yo. I like to imagine those are the stages of his reaction to Lisa M. writing her name on the label. He starts off irritated and then learns to live with it. Seems plausible.

(If you’re reading this Lisa M., I’m just kidding.)

Okay, Gene Shalit may not be on the tape itself, but he is all over the sleeve; dare I dream that he hosts the actual movie as well? Oh I dare. Hey, if Elvira can host movies for home video, why not Gene Shalit too? (He asked as if there’s any real comparison between Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark and Gene freakin’ Shalit.)

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Aw shucks. Bitter sadness: Gene Shalit appears on the VHS sleeve only. Apparently he said all he had to say about the movie on the back cover.

Of course I kid. I didn’t really expect Gene Shalit to pop up on-screen and intro the movie, although the idea of his providing running commentary not unlike Mystery Science Theater 3000 just popped into my head and bizarrely amuses me.

But then, The Wolf Man is a movie that doesn’t need anything extra. This is a genuine Universal horror classic! It’s a terrific, engrossing film, and coming from me, that’s a telling statement.

Why’s that? Well, It may be anathema to admit this, but I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m not a big werewolf guy. Werewolf movies in general I’ve never much cared for (you probably won’t see Gene Shalit lending his mug to Fury Of The Wolfman anytime soon!), and as far as the Universal classics go, for me personally The Wolf Man generally finds a lukewarm place somewhere in the middle. While I always liked The Wolf Man more than The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Phantom, he’s still markedly below my favorites of Frankenstein, The Gill Man, and Dracula (in that order). Luckily, many of those other monsters that I am more fond of appeared in the sequels to this movie.

That’s the title screen up above, by the way.

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This original 1941 The Wolf Man is really the exception to all that, though. While I’m not as enamored with the character as others are, this movie is fantastic. Unlike the sequels, in which Universal apparently felt Wolfie couldn’t stand on his own, it all works wonderfully here. It’s not a movie I watch terribly often, but when I do, I enjoy it.

The plot as it is may not sound too revolutionary; this sort of thing has been done over and over so many times throughout the years that some of the bite (see, I can pun too HAW HAW HAW) has been taken out of this original film, but if you can overlook that and just watch this one on its own, it’s great.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot, who is returning to his family home in Wales. His brother has died and he wants to make amends with his father (Claude “I is the invisible mang” Rains). One night he tangles with a wolf, which turns out to be Bela Lugosi (who somehow I totally forgot was in this movie) in the form of a wolf. Talbot is bitten, and, well, you can see where this is going. Larry is now unwittingly a werewolf (whom you can see above in the handy screencap).

Look, if you haven’t seen it, just go watch it, okay? It’s a great flick.

You know, I spend so much time looking at home recorded tapes or ancient budget videos that I forget how clean some movies can look on VHS, and The Wolf Man is one of them. Sure, it’s an old videotape, it’s a little grainy, but it’s an officially licensed MCA/Universal tape. That is, it’s a clean, nice looking print of the movie, recorded in SP mode. It’s not a remastered DVD, I know, but compared to most of the crap I look at, it might as well be. Plus, you know, Gene Shalit on the cover and everything.

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I was actually pretty happy to add this one to my collection. Sure, I usually prefer my Universal monsters horror hosted (see: here and here), but there’s something to be said for (relatively) quirky older releases such as this. By 1987, home video, VHS in particular, was pretty well entrenched in the public consciousness, and tapes like this were what the people wanted; clean, uncut, commercial-free classic movies they could watch any time they darn well pleased. Nowadays we have the film on DVD and Blu-ray, but for a cool late-1980s/early-1990s throwback, it may not be a bad idea to bust out the ol’ VCR and fire this (or any horror flick of your choice really) up this Halloween. Something about it just seems so right. To me, anyway.

Plus, Gene Shalit. I strongly feel Gene Shalit plastered all over movie covers should totally be an ongoing thing. Heck, why’d they stop at VHS? DVD, Blu-ray, digital downloads (somehow), there’s no format not worthy of the Shalit bow tie guarantee of greatness!

WJW TV-8 – The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special (October 10, 2015)

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I usually don’t look at ‘modern’ television broadcasts, especially broadcasts as recent as this past weekend, but this was so unabashedly cool that I can’t resist. Besides, it may be a new broadcast, but it’s a new broadcast of older material which in turn featured even older material. There, wrap your mind around that!

‘Course, the fall-back here is that this is my blog and I’ll write about what I want. I could go in the backyard and describe all the neat-lookin’ rocks I find if I so desire. You keep pushing me and I just might, too.

I was made aware of this special just the night before it aired: on Saturday, October 10, 2015 at 3:30 PM, WJW TV-8 would be airing the 30 minute Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special. I’m glad I only had to wait less than a day for this, because man, I was stoked. A Big Chuck & Lil’ John special, airing (roughly) in their old Couch Potato Theater time slot, and focusing solely on Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson, the man who set this whole thing in motion waaay back in 1963? I was so there.

This is what I love so much about Northeast Ohio TV: for all of the changes it has gone through over the years, the steady erosion of locally-grown programming in favor of syndicated content and whatnot, there’s still a sense of history here; there’s a reason Big Chuck & Lil’ John have been forever in the public eye, Son of Ghoul is still plugging away, and no one bats an eye when a special regarding a character that hasn’t been on Cleveland airwaves since 1966 is allotted a 30 minute time slot. Doesn’t hurt that Ghoulardi had (and continues to have) an incalculable impact on so much of the populace, either.

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The announcement I saw didn’t elaborate, and I automatically assumed this was going to be a half hour edition of their regular skits-only show, tailored solely to Ghoulardi material. As it turned out, this wasn’t actually a new special; as the above screencap attests, this was instead a re-broadcast of Big Chuck & Lil’ John’s tribute to Ernie Anderson following his 1997 death. It’s actually not too far off from what I envisioned, just 18 years older. I guess it makes sense to simply re-run the earlier special; a new version would just cover the same ground and take time to film.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Anything that gives Big Chuck & Lil’ John and Ghoulardi airtime is absolutely fine with me. Always. Besides, seeing Chuck & John on that old set with the studio audience gets the nostalgia fired up somethin’ fierce.

(By the way: why the slightly fuzzy reception in this day and age of ultra-clear digital everything? Meh, for old times’ sake I recorded this onto DVD on my downstairs CRT TV, which apparently doesn’t play by the same rules as my cute HDTV upstairs does. I also DVR’d the special upstairs, but what the heck, this DVD is already made and handy for screencaps, so here we are.)

Before I go any further, yes you can get an official DVD release of the original 1997 special, straight from the official Big Chuck & Lil’ John website, right here. It’s near the bottom of the order form, the DVD titled 44 Years of Cleveland Comic Champions. There’s a lot of great stuff available in that store too, so hey buddy check it out!

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Being a tribute to Ernie Anderson, in addition to actual Ghoulardi footage there’s also a lot of reminiscing, as you would expect. In addition to a short bio of Anderson and how he wound up as Ghoulardi, among other stories Chuck recounts the famous tale of his stealing a Ghoulardi poster off a bus while Anderson kept the driver distracted. Funny stuff!

Keep in mind, this originally aired some time before the phenomenal Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride book was released, and waaaay before Big Chuck’s terrific autobiography (head on back to that BC & LJ store link for that one), so a lot of the information here hadn’t been widely recounted and available to the masses yet.

(For the record, both of those books are absolutely essential reads, not only for Northeast Ohioans or fans of Horror Hosts, but for television lovers in general; both offer an indelible snapshot of TV history, an era that won’t be repeated, and are ridiculously entertaining to boot.)

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Much of the tribute also consists of Chuck’s one-on-one interview with Anderson himself, obviously conducted some years prior. As I recall it, this interview provided the basis for a previous BC & LJ special show, though integrating the segments into this tribute show makes all the sense in the world, given the circumstances.

After giving up Ghoulardi in 1966, Anderson went to Hollywood and made the mighty dollars doing voiceover work. I have countless commercials/promos featuring his voice, and on a nationwide scale that’s what he’s really known for. At one point during this show, Chuck mentions that when Ernie went to Hollywood and became a millionaire, it didn’t change him a bit; he was still the same guy he was back in Cleveland. You get a real sense of that during these interview segments. There’s no showing off, no posturing or anything like that. It’s just two friends talking about the old times.

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As far as actual Ghoulardi material goes, with only 30 minutes and so much ground to cover, well, you’re only going to see so much. However, the official Ghoulardifest website sells a phenomenal DVD of much (all?) of the remaining footage from Ghoulardi’s show, the only official place to get this stuff. I have it in my collection, and you should have it in yours too.

As for this special though, I personally would have liked to see a few more bits with Ghoulardi on his set doing his thing. As it stands, there are two brief clips, and the skit you’re seeing above, The Pitching Coach.

Y’see, Chuck got his behind-the-camera and, as in this case, his in-front-of-the-camera start on the show, performing in skits and even providing the basis for running gags such as the whole “PARMA?!” thing. In this skit, he plays the new pitching coach for the Cleveland Indians, who proves to be fairly incompetent. My favorite moment comes when Ghoulardi tosses a ball back to him, and it lightly hits Chuck’s arm; Chuck holds his arm in pain and pouts in the corner while Ghoulardi tries to apologize!

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More Chuck, this time in one of the legendary skits from Ghoulardi’s show: Parma Place.

Parma Place was a take-off on the soap opera Peyton Place, and the line of skits basically existed to poke fun at the Cleveland suburb of Parma. The loose idea was that Chuck’s character was always trying to make time with Anderson’s wife behind his back (and often right in front of him), but the more notable aspect of the skits were the stereotypes of Parma they perpetuated: white socks, polka music, and so on.

And this was all in addition to the jokes Anderson would make about the suburb when in character as Ghoulardi. Naturally, some residents of Parma didn’t take too kindly to all this, but it’s all still funny, and the genesis of a running joke that continued (and continues) on through The Ghoul and Hoolihan & Big Chuck (& Lil’ John).

A few different Parma Place entries are spotlighted during the special, and this screencap comes from a moment when Chuck’s character “Jerry” gifts Anderson with a pair of white socks, to which he and his wife marvel at endlessly.

Also, you have no idea how funny I find Chuck’s PARMA shirt.

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A fun bit where Ernie Anderson interviews, well, himself. Using a split screen and some handy pre-filming, Ernie Anderson as Ernie Anderson interviews Ernie Anderson as Ghoulardi (who insists he be called “King”). It actually works pretty well; in fact, for the time period it’s fairly seamless.

My favorite line: “I first got my start as Ghoulardi when they fired me from channel 3 and 5 wouldn’t hire me!

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The whole open-wounds-shock of Anderson’s passing may not be as hard to take today as it was in ’97, which is understandable; it has been nearly 20 years, after all (20 years? I refuse to believe this all happened that long ago!). That’s not to say it isn’t still sad, because of course it is. I don’t mean to downplay anything here, it’s just that after 18 years, (most?) Northeast Ohioans have learned to live with Ghoulardi being gone, really gone.

All that said, there is a moment that still packs an emotional wallop in this tribute: the final scene returns to Chuck interviewing Anderson, and Anderson recounts that he met a lot of great people in Cleveland, and then jokingly says to Chuck “You’re not one of them,” to which they both crack up. After they calm down a bit, he then adds “You are, you’re great,” and then the scene freezes as the copyright info pops up. It stays there a bit before fading out, and in that little moment, the deeper meaning of all this is hammered home: it’s not just about what Anderson accomplished as Ghoulardi and what he meant (means) to Clevelanders, it’s also about the genuine friendship between him and Chuck that was there up until the very end of Ernie’s life. It’s a terrific, honest scene, and an absolute perfect way to end the special.

You know, maybe it’s for the best that they didn’t film an all-new Ghoulardi tribute episode; it would be nearly impossible to improve upon this one. From the recollections to the clips, it’s as concise a definition of the character and what he represented to Clevelanders as you’re likely to get in half an hour.

But wait! In a for-modern-day rarity of rarities (for me), there were some great commercials during this broadcast. ‘Course, they all had to with Ghoulardi and/or Big Chuck & Lil’ John, but frankly, that’s how I prefer things. Behold:

Big Chuck For Empire Windows

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Chuck has been pitching Empire Windows for quite awhile now, often in print ads that come nearly every week in one of those circulars. I haven’t seen a whole lot of TV advertising with him for the company, so I was glad to see this and add it to my collection (y’see, through my massive collection of old videotapes, I have amassed a large “archive” of commercials, promos and whatnot featuring horror hosts, and not just our horror hosts, either; it spans the entire nation).

Chuck gives really a pretty standard pitch, though the commercial is so short (15 seconds) there isn’t a whole lot of time for much else. Chuck says he’s been plugging the company for 29 years at this point; that’s as long as I’ve been alive!

If I ever need new windows, I’ll go to Empire. Why? Big Chuck told me to. (He also told me who to go to for waterproofing, should I need it.)

Empire Windows’ official website is here.

WJW TV-8 Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special Promo

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A mega-quick (5 seconds!) promo for the special itself, which aired less than a minute before the show began. I was really, really happy to capture this one; not only does it give me fond memories of this, but also because I just wasn’t sure if there even was a promo for this special. I don’t care how short it is, either; it’s another one for the collection!

The voiceover: “The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special, today at 3:30!” Yeah, yeah, basically the same info that’s printed on-screen.

Ghoulardifest 2015 Commercial

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I’m thinking Ghoulardifest is the reason this special was run in the first place; what better promotion could there be? In prior years, the convention was sponsored by WBNX TV-55, but this year it’s WJW, which means they’ve got carte blanche as far as Ghoulardi footage and whatnot goes. It’s a more involved commercial than what has aired in recent years, which more or less usually amounted to basically Chuck & John standing in front of a green screen and giving their pitch. In this spot, however, lotsa Ghoulardi clips are interspersed with the pertinent information, though perhaps oddly, Chuck & John are nowhere to be seen.

WJW was pushing Ghoulardifest pretty hard during the special (as you’d expect). A full 30 second spot aired twice during the show, and a 15 second version right after it.

Needless to say, I am now even more jazzed for Ghoulardifest, which is saying something since I’m always jonesing for the convention. Yes, I will be attending again this year, and yes, there will be another write-up. In the mean time, check out my 2013 and 2014 reviews! And if you can attend, please do so! It’s always a blast!

The Ghoulardifest website with all the info y’all need is here.

The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Show Promos

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And finally, promos for Big Chuck & Lil’ John’s current 30 minute Sunday night show proper were, for obvious reasons, ran twice during the special. On the left, a spot featuring a brief clip from their Nukey Shoes skit. On the right, the bit where, as part of the opening fanfare for a movie, John gears up to hit a gong but instead accidentally nails Chuck in his, erm, manhood. Yikes!

Big Chuck & Lil’ John’s official website is here.


 

I love the fact that a special so undeniably Cleveland in every facet can still air on local TV here in 2015. The sad fact of the matter is that there’s not always a place for this kind of thing on modern airwaves. Like I said at the start of this post, there’s a very real sense of history in Northeast Ohio television, one that seemingly won’t let people forget the accomplishments of its past.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.