Nightmare Theatre!

When I was a kid, just about every metropolitan area in the U.S. had at least one local TV station showing some sort of monster/mystery/sci-fi/horror movie program every week. Many of them ran on Friday nights, after the local evening news ended. A few ran on Saturday evenings, and fewer still on Saturday afternoons. And something that a lot of those shows had in common is that there was a host: a person who usually was dressed up as some sort of monster or other stock character, who would introduce the show, possibly banter with a sidekick, or otherwise provide a bit of color commentary to the proceedings.

Some people operate under the impression that the first horror host was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (no, she didn’t begin hosting until 1981). Slightly more informed people point to Bob Wilkins, who hosted Creature Features on a couple of different Bay Area channels from 1971 to 1984.

Well-informed people aware that all of them were preceded by some years by Vampira (1954-56), who later tried to sue Elvira for stealing her schtick. [Given that the actress who played Vampira had been working with the station in ’81 and was to be an executive producer of the show that became Elvira’s show, and she left in a dispute over the casting of the host, you can understand.]

A few years after Vampira’s show went off the air (it was aired live, and virtually no footage remains), Screen Gems put together a package of 52 horror films and made them available for syndication. Stations all over the country began showing their own weekly horror shows under titles such as Shock Theatre, Nightmare Theatre, Sinister Cinema, Saturday Chiller, and so on. The shows were usually broadcast on either Friday or Saturday night, after the evening news.

One reason that every station that carried the show had its own host was simply technological. In the late 50s (and for some time after), the way non-network syndication worked involved physically shipping cannisters of film (and later videotape) back and forth. It worked a lot like the non-streaming version of Netflix. A station would subscribe to the show, the syndicator would ship movies out to the subscribing stations. After the station showed the film(s), they would ship them back to the syndicator, who would ship them to another station.

My understanding is that they shipped out four or five movies at a time, and that as long as the station paid their subscription fees, they didn’t wait until the last set had been shipped back before sending the next.

In this case, Screen Gems just provided the movies themselves. Some location stations just ran them with, at most, a voice-over announcer. Other stations came up with their own shows, inspired originally by Vampira.

During the years I was old enough to be allowed to stay up and watch such things, we were living in various small towns in Utah and northwestern Colorado, and one of the stations we got was KCPX channel 4 out of Salt Lake City, where each Friday night brought us Nightmare Theatre.

For a few years it went by the name of The 10:20 Double Nightmare, because it was a double feature and it started at 10:20pm as soon as the evening news ended. I remember that phase only because sometimes my parents would let me stay up late enough to watch the first movie, but I wasn’t supposed to watch the second. By the time I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted on Fridays, the local evening news went all the way until 10:30, and the show had reverted by to a single movie.

Nightmare Theatre was hosted, during that period, by Dr. Volapuk. Which is to say that a man wearing a vaguely Dracula-like suit and cape, and a really awful rubber ghoul mask, would come out of the shadows, introduce the movie, and make a lot of bad jokes. He would make more bad jokes at the commercial breaks. Occasionally he would impart a bit of trivia related to the movies. At the end of the show, he would give a preview of the next week’s movie, and then end with his traditional sign-off, “I, Dr. Volapuk, have been happy to be your host tonight. Remember, Volapuk spelled backwards is cup-of-love. So in your nightmares tonight, dream of me…” and then he would laugh maniacally.

No, I have no idea what all that cup-of-love business was supposed to mean.

I didn’t know, at the time, that the actor in the mask was also the guy who dressed up as Fireman Frank every morning to host the cartoon show on the same station.

Nightmare Theatre showed a lot of the old Universal Monster movies (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Son of Dracula, Werewolf of London, The Mummy’s Hand, and so on), but also a lot of the Japanese kaiju genre of moves (Mothra, Godzilla Raids Again, War of the Gargantuas).

A lot of the nerdy interest in such shows got re-focused on newer things when Star Wars came out and kicked off a bunch of higher quality films of the fantastic. Relatively cheap high quality satellite feeds and other cable television technologies replaced the old model of shipping film around, so shows such as Elvira’s Movie Macabre, Mystery Science Theater 3000, or Cinema Insomnia could be produced in one place and seen in the niche of each market. Which has put stake through the heart of most of the local horror hosts.

All those Friday nights that I stayed up to watch those movies is probably why I often still get a hankering on Fridays for some cheesy sci fi or similar films.

Wanna join me?

2 thoughts on “Nightmare Theatre!

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