Cleveland TV changed forever on Jan. 13, 1963.
The medium was barely 15 years old, and most homes had one black and white set for the whole family. TV still wasn’t in 100 percent of the homes and had few options in a broadcast day that started and ended with the national anthem. KYW at Channel 3, WEWS at Channel 5 and WJW at Channel 8 — that’s it.
Then Ghoulardi was born.
The Ghoulardi Story
The tale of Cleveland’s most popular local TV celebrity started inauspiciously. Ernie Anderson and his buddy from Willoughby, Tom Conway, left Channel 3, couldn’t get a job at Channel 5 and ended up at Channel 8.
Anderson did booth announcing and hosted a midday movie show called “Ernie’s Place.” Conway directed the show and the improvised skits between segments. The actress Rose Marie (of “The Dick Van Dyke Show”) saw the two when she was on a promotional tour, and showed a film clip of them to Steve Allen.
Allen said he didn’t need the straight man (Anderson) but hired Conway, who changed his name to Tim so he wouldn’t be confused with another actor who shared his name.
So Long Tim Conway
With his partner gone, Anderson was offered the job of hosting the station’s late-night Friday horror films. While he needed the extra cash, Anderson didn’t want the gig to affect his up-and-coming career as a voiceover artist. To protect his image, Anderson pasted on a phony beard and mustache, put on a fright wig and lab coat, and named himself Ghoulardi.
Anderson didn’t take instruction very well from management. He blew stuff up on screen, walked into movies while they were playing, used sound effects and polkas to mock the film, and targeted (in a friendly way) almost every other TV personality in town — especially the esteemed broadcaster and icon Dorothy Fuldheim.
Word got around — fast. It wasn’t long before the crime rate dropped on Friday nights because Ghoulardi was getting more than 50 percent of the audience.
Those were the halcyon days of horror hosts. Vampira started it all in Los Angeles. Pete “Mad Daddy” Myers had a show for a month on Channel 8 in the 1950s. There was Fritz the Nite Owl in Columbus, Zacherle in New York, Chilly Billy Cardille in Pittsburgh and others who took their places when they retired. Even little Mansfield had Roger Price as “The Baron.” But no one had the following of Ghoulardi, who at one time was on six days a week.
By late 1966, Anderson thought Ghoulardi had run its course. He relocated to Los Angeles the following year.
“Big Chuck” Schodowski joined up with Bob “Hoolihan” Wells and later “Lil’ John” Rinaldi to keep the late-night tradition alive, but their humor was considered safe by Ghoulardi standards.
Ghoulardi and his reputation were bigger than life, and his relatively short run helped add to the legend. His youngest fans are in their late 50s today.
Rock ’n’ Roll and the Horror Host
Improbably, Ghoulardi had an impact on rock ’n’ roll. Anderson was a jazz fan and turned down a chance to meet The Beatles. But bands like The Cramps and the Dead Boys saw Ghoulardi introduce anarchy as entertainment. As a result, punk got an early foothold in Northeast Ohio.
Though they weren’t born when Ghoulardi was on TV, Akron’s own The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney named one of their albums “Turn Blue,” a nod to Anderson’s “turn blue” catchphrase and their dads’ TV hero.
A book about Ghoulardi lit a fire for nostalgia fans in the late 1990s after Anderson died in L.A., and helped a younger generation understand his TV revolution. The last traces of those glory days are the folks trying to keep the horror genre alive. Big Chuck, Hoolihan and Lil’ John are still in reruns. Keven Scarpino, the “Son of Ghoul,” is still on TV heading toward 35 years and setting a record for the longest-running costumed movie host in the country.
In the fall, along with haunted houses and Halloween parties, are the horror conventions. Most are family-friendly, and I’ve included a list of the better-known shows. Even so, Ghoulardi’s influence on Northeast Ohio’s culture and the horror genre can be tough to explain.
I teach several college courses. Recently, I showed Ghoulardi clips in a TV class to students who were born after Anderson’s death. I stressed the importance of Anderson in local TV history, and there wasn’t much reaction. Then a kid raised his hand and said, “You watched this?” I didn’t miss a beat: “Yeah — and you missed out.”
If you want to learn more about Ghoulardi, read the definitive book about that era, “Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride,” by Tom Feran and R.D. Heldenfels (Gray & Company Publishers).
Mike Olszewski grew up in the generation that saw Ghoulardi as a guiding force. He also did the last interview with Ernie Anderson just weeks before Anderson’s passing.
Hang Out at These Horror Shows
Ghoulardifest: Oct.12-14, Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds, 19201 East Bagley Road, Middleburg Heights. Big Chuck, Hoolihan, Lil’ John and the Son of Ghoul hold court. You also have to make your way past trade show type vendors (roofing, gutters, satellite dish TV, cosmetics, etc.) to get to the folks with cool stuff. The event features polkas, ’50s music and a pizza eating contest. theghoulardifest.com
DeBord’s Halloween Festival: Oct. 13, Derby Downs, 789 Derby Downs Drive, Akron. Free admission with hundreds of vendor tables, hay rides, psychics, jugglers, musicians and other entertainment. If you don’t want to pay admission to see Big Chuck, Lil’ John and Son of Ghoul, they’ll be at DeBord’s that evening. The big if? The weather: It’s an outdoor show. debordhalloweenfestival.com
Monster Bash: Oct. 19-21, DoubleTree, 910 Sheraton Drive, Mars, Pennsylvania. Lots of vendors and films stars are at this major show, and a very special guest this year is Patrick Wayne, son of the famed John Wayne, and star of the sci-fi classic “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.” The event is nonstop every day from morning to late at night. Be warned: Beer, gasoline and turnpike fees cost more in Pennsylvania. monsterbashnews.com
Chiller Theatre Expo: Oct. 26-28, Hilton, 1 Hilton Court, Parsippany, New Jersey. A-list guest stars will be at this show — dozens of them — but in addition to travel, food, admission and lodging, you’re paying top dollar for autographs. Lots of vendors, too, but they’re not cheap, either. chillertheatre.com
The Akron Comicon: Nov. 3-4, Goodyear Hall, 1201 E. Market St., Akron. The promoters are the same folks who put on Monster Fest Mania two years ago, which was a major success. Even so, they wanted it bigger. So as a preview for the next MFM show, there will be a special Monster Fest Mania section at this long-standing con. Get there early because it draws huge crowds. akroncomicon.com