Thursday, May 22, 2014

Local television shows

I'm old enough to remember the days when there were independent television stations. Not like the CW or the WB, but honest-to-goodness television stations that played whatever the heck they wanted (or could afford) and which actually produced their own shows. Usually in the UHF end of the spectrum that was filled with static and local programming. "Weird Al" Yankovic would go on to make a movie (and music video) about just that era of television.

My friend Doctor Theda recently brought to mind Zacherly, who was a horror movie host in New York City and Philadelphia in the 1950's and 60's. He is one of the best-known of the horror hosts, although there were a gazillion of them, as every independent station from Cleveland to Dubuque had someone dressed up as a ghoul or vampire with a cheesy accent doing humorous intro segments for monster movies; Doctor Shock in Philadelphia, Baron von Crypt in St. Louis, Sir Cecil Creape in Nashville, and a zillion others.

Sometimes there wasn't a host per se, but the station turned the Saturday afternoon horror/sci-fi movie into an event. Witness Chiller Theater from Channel 11 in New York in the 1970s:

Some of you might remember Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, who got her start as just such a horror hostess (with the most-ess) in Los Angeles, and who parleyed her natural... ahem... attributes and genuinely funny "Valley Girl Vampire" persona into relative stardom (including a feature film). Her show was syndicated in Boston in the 1980's on channel 38 when I was in college, and was sort of a "last gasp" of that sort of programming.

By the 1990's several new networks sprang up and the end of the truly independent television station was nigh.

For those of you who are fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (as I am - I remember a chain of us "circulating the tapes" back in the late 1980's and early 1990's), they got their start in exactly this sort of environment. A local television station in the ass-end of nowhere, willing to put a cheap and hopefully humorous show on the air to fill up time. There were no hour-long infomercials to generate revenue back then.

It wasn't all horror and scifi shows, though. The 1950's through the 1970's also saw the same phenomenon applied to children's shows. This is actually what Krusty the Klown on The Simpsons is supposed to be parodying (although the fact that the vast majority of the viewers of The Simpsons realize what he is supposed to be, is somewhat interesting in and of itself). Whether it was on Saturday mornings or after school on weekdays, there were hosts for cartoons and kids' shows as well, like this puppet-show one I remember watching from Philadelphia in the 70's:

And there was the Magic Garden on channel 11 from New York:

I had such a crush on Carole when I was ten years old. And they're still around, doing live shows in the New York area!

All in all, a lost era of television. Was most of it cheesy crap? Absolutely. But it had a certain naivete and earnestness that I find missing in today's ultra-corporatized and homogenized media environment. When you had a budget of $150 a show and a guitar, you learned to put more of yourself into the show, and I think it showed through.

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