Jeepers Creepers! New Documentary Recalls Local TV “Horror Hosts”

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"Jonathan" of "Nightmare Theater"- aired on WSLS.
"Jonathan" of "Nightmare Theater"- aired on WSLS.

Sean Kotz’s introduction to television horror hosting came in 1975 when he was a ten-year-old living on the eastern side of Virginia, where TV “horror hosting” was far more common.  Katz discovered “The Bowman Body” out of Petersburg and “Dr. Madblood” out of Norfolk.  “Pretty early on, I found myself fascinated with the bits between the films as much or more than the actual movies,” he explains.  “Years later, I was asked to moderate a panel of horror hosts at Chesapeake’s Monster Fest that brought many of the Virginia hosts together and the idea started germinating there.”

The idea forming in Kotz’s mind has resulted in “Virginia Creepers: The Horror Host Tradition of the Old Dominion,” a documentary produced by Kotz’s Blacksburg-based Horse Archer Productions. It recounts the story of local television horror hosts in Virginia who introduced classic horror and science fiction films on late-night horror shows.  The film is slated for DVD release this Halloween.

Though horror hosting was more of an eastern Virginia institution, Roanoke’s own WSLS TV-10 introduced the phenomenon to the Old Dominion when it debuted “Nightmare Theater” on February 6, 1958, featuring “Dracula” as its initial offering.  The program featured both the traditional horror films and suspense tales, and aired on Saturday and Sunday evenings at 11:05 after the five-minute newscast.

WSLS (now a Star-Sentinel media partner) broadcast the show both nights because, as Kotz notes, “Even in the late 1950’s, there was very little national programming.  Much (and on weekends, most) of the programming was generated in-house, so movies were a great way to fill time and hold an audience for hours.  The package was there and Roanoke was a town with a lot of shift workers who appreciated anything on that late on a weekend.”

For its Saturday airings, Nightmare Theater was hosted by “Jonathan,” the on-air persona of John Willett.  (The Sunday evening installment aired without a host).  The character “was created in conjunction with the set, which borrowed heavily from the ‘Addams Family’ cartoons that appeared in the New Yorker magazine.  He was rather straight laced and held himself with a little overextended dignity, but in the end it was a little self mocking as well.”  Airing for approximately one year, the show left the air in February 1958, with westerns taking its place.

WSLS returned to the horror-hosting fray a few years later with Saturday Theater.  Originally called Family Theater, the show switched names in February 1963, possibly due to the films it showed.  Saturday Theater featured more recent horror fare such as the Vincent Price film “The Bat,” and 1950’s science fiction films.  The show’s host, C.J. “Tiny” Thompson, carried out his hosting duties atop a stool in a dark studio with a single light shining on him and his co-host, a Mynah bird named “Midnight.”

The latter, originally appearing on another WSLS presentation, Klub Kwiz with Hayden Huddleston, was eliminated from that show Kotz says, “after repeating on air some rather colorful phrasing he heard backstage on a regular basis.”  Mynah birds “were often on local TV shows because they would occasionally contribute comments out of the blue.  It broke the monotony, for back in those days, live, unscripted interaction was seen as normal.”

Another locally-produced horror show, House of Horrors, aired briefly on WRLU (Channel 27) from October 19, 1974 to February 8, 1975, before fading to black, along with the station, when the latter was unable to pay its electric bills.

Kotz believes a local horror host program could make a comeback in the Roanoke area.  “With the expansion of digital television, each station has several bands they could use if they had the programming.  In our area, channel 7-2 runs purchased programming from My Network TV and 10-2 runs weather and news updates, but they have other bands and they could be running local programs.” Kotz’s company is exploring this possibility and “would love to see local programming of all sorts make a comeback, from music and arts, to fishing and cooking shows and, of course, hosted movies.  “I honestly think people are hungry for that again.”

Further information about Virginia Creepers and purchasing advance DVD copies of the film can be found at www.virginiacreepersmovie.com.

By Melvin E. Matthews, Jr.
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