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HORROR HOST #6: KEEP AMERICA STRONG WITH BOB WILKINS’ CREATURE FEATURES (San Francisco, 1971-1979)

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 | Retrospective

The horror host has had a long and storied history in radio, comic books and local television. I thought I might compose a series of essays about this latter manifestation, examining certain key figures as a framework with which I could muse on some of my thoughts regarding this fascinating relic of live television, a vaudevillian mash-up of the macabre and the humorous (two topics which entertain me greatly), ephemeral (and yet remembered with profound love by all who experienced it as children) and one of the first DIY type entertainment styles brought to TV.

And #6 is Bob Wilkins, in character as… Bob Wilkins! I’ve hit 3 of the 4 basic Horror Host archetypes in my previous posts (The Sardonic Creep, The Clown, The Juvenile Delinquent) so here’s Mr. Wilkins to round out the set with the type I call The Expert (more on that in a moment). Bob Wilkins was born in Hammond, Indiana (also the birthplace of radio raconteur – and A CHRISTMAS STORY fame – Jean Shepherd, although Bob was probably of the generation that immediately followed Shep). He started as a writer/producer/occasional on-air personality for local TV in Sacramento, California in 1963 and moved around to a number of stations before launching CREATURE FEATURES in the San Francisco Bay area in 1971. Wilkins was an immediate hit and hosted a second show on a Sacramento station KTXL, commuting the distance. He also made dozens of public appearances at the height of his popularity. CREATURE FEATURES expanded to a double feature format, and during its height of popularity a single-feature show on Friday nights was also run. The show would often beat network programming like SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in ratings.

Reversing a classic career trajectory of local TV Horror Host personalities, in 1977 Wilkins also hosted the afternoon children’s programming block (cartoons like STAR BLAZERS, SPEED RACER, etc) as “Captain Cosmic“, decked out in a spangled superhero outfit and reflective helmet (to hide his secret identity!). The Bay Area location and atypical approach to movie hosting that Wilkins used meant that many Hollywood movie stars and personalities would appear on CREATURE FEATURES over the years to be interviewed and flog their current projects (the casts of STAR TREK and STAR WARS were frequent guests) and many future entertainers (like George Lucas and Whoopi Goldberg) grew up watching his show.

” Wilkins comes across as very genial and good-natured, soft-spoken and affable…”

Of course, Wilkins’ most distinctive feature as a Horror Host is that he’s not a monster or in-character, he’s just himself – no costume, no shtick. His set is something like a creaky old house (with skulls and other horror paraphernalia) but Wilkins is just an average Joe, sitting in his trademark bright yellow rocking chair, wearing a leisure suit and smoking a big stogie as he calmly discusses tonight’s movie with you in his pleasant, low-key, mid-western drawl. His set inevitably also feature a big, folksy, hand-sewn sampler with the CREATURE FEATURES motto: “Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong!” (truer words were never said!).

What’s interesting about Wilkins is that the Expert host type he pioneered (possibly – the history of local TV hosts is so unrecorded that it’s hard to ascribe “firsts” to many of them) eschews the costumed humor aspect and instead you get a normal guy who spends more time talking about the film and the actors and directors than he does cracking wise about the bad effects or cutting up with zany skits. In Wilkins’ case, this latter aspect arose out of necessity – he was trained as an MC but involved the audience in the showings because he knew next to nothing about the movies and so would invite comments from viewers. Wilkins comes across as very genial and good natured, soft-spoken and affable (so, as might be expected, there’s no “Bob Wilkins Sings The Monster Mash” novelty cash-in album in his repertoire, unlike most Horror Hosts). There is humor, of course, but it’s always of the droll or very dry variety as he guides you into, say, ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE. Watching the show at the time (especially as a kid) must have been like having a favorite uncle who happened to have the best job in the world and shared it with you every week.

Another notable aspect of CREATURE FEATURES was that it was the first local TV stations to show NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD uncut on TV, sometime in the early 70s (a formative experience of my own youth, on our own local cable access in the late 1970s) and it would also use the late night berth to get away with broadcasting occasional nudity and profanity in the movies. Below is the show’s opening, funky theme, featuring some choice movie clips!

Wilkins was another host that I only knew by name and really only caught up with after watching the documentary about him (see below) – I like how he typifies a wholly different approach to hosting. Many hosts incorporated this “average guy” approach to character, or spent some time actual delving into the details of the movie (some examples are hosts like Chilly Billy Cardille, Joe Bob Briggs, Fritz The Nite Owl, Butch R. Cleaver, Uncle Don and Sal U. Lloyd, not to mention the three beatniks of OFF-BEAT CINEMA) but few did both things at the same time. I also like how Wilkins gave a singular, “button-down hip” identity to San Francisco in his chosen approach to hosting (SF did have more traditional horror hosts, Asmodeus for one).

Bob Wilkins eventually moved on to a career in advertising (Chuck E. Cheeses was a notable account), turning over the hosting duties for CREATURE FEATURE in 1979 over to similar-but-slightly-different host John Stanley, a local newspaper writer, while continuing his own parallel show on KTXL, THE BOB WILKINS DOUBLE HORROR SHOW until early in 1981. For years afterwards he would appear at local Bay Area and Sacramento conventions. He later moved to Reno, Nevada and passed away due to Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 76 in 2009. There is a nice documentary about CREATURE FEATURES called WATCH HORROR FILMS, KEEP AMERICA STRONG, which you can probably still order directly from John Stanley.

So remember – WATCH HORROR FILMS, KEEP AMERICA STRONG!

Shawn Garrett
Shawn M. Garrett is the co-editor of PSEUDOPOD, the premiere horror fiction podcast, and is either the dumbest smart man or the smartest dumb man you ever met. Thanks to a youth spent in the company of Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Carl Kolchak & Jupiter Jones, he has pursued a life-long interest in the thrilling, the horrific and the mysterious – be it in print, film, art or audio. He has worked as a sewerage groundskeeper, audio transcription editor, pornography enabler, insurance letter writer – he was once paid by Marvel Comics to pastiche the voice of Stan Lee in promotional materials and he spends his days converting old pulp fiction into digital form for minimal pay. He now lives near the ocean in a small metal box and he hopes that becoming a Yuggothian brain-in-a-jar is a viable future, as there is NO WAY he will ever read all the books he has on his lists, or listen to all the music he wants to hear. Everything that he is he owes to his late sister Susan, a shining star in the pre-internet world of fan-fiction, who left this world unexpectedly in 2010. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading, writing and watching movies.