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RETROSPECTIVE: HORROR HOSTS #3: STAY SICK WITH GHOULARDI! (CLEVELAND, 1963-1966)

Sunday, June 16, 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 #3 Ernie Anderson, seen “in character” here as Ghoulardi. If Vampira was the “Queen of Horror Hosts” and Zacherley the “King”, then certainly Ghouardi was “the Court Jester” (and a quick thanks to Michael Monahan – aka Doktor Ghoulfinger – for that concept). An associate of a young Tim Conway on local Cleveland TV, Anderson was an instant hit as the irreverent ethnic hipster Ghoulardi (the name was decided by a write-in contest, although the winner was actually “Ghoulardini”, which they shortened) and was immensely popular. Clevelanders by the thousands came out to see him in parades and at charity exhibition baseball games. Ghoulardi is probably one of the best examples of the importance the “local cachet” of horror hosts. Young residents of Cleveland felt like this fast-talking weirdo was one of them (and their ambassador to straight society) with his constant jokes at the expensive of local politicians and neighborhoods (he was merciless when ragging on local suburb Parma, so much so that the town actually complained). He hosted SHOCK THEATER late on Friday nights and that proved popular enough that the station gave him a second show (the sarcastically titled MASTERPIECE THEATER) on Saturday afternoons. This still didn’t quench demand for the hip ghoul and he got a third slot hosting Laurel & Hardy shorts on weekdays. Jazz organist Jimmy McGriff recorded a track called “Turn Blue” in his honor, and local restaurants had sandwiches and drinks named after him.

“Ghoulardi is the anarchic essence personified.”

Ghoulardi typifies the third major strain of horror hosting styles – the “Juvenile Delinquent“. He doesn’t so much make macabre jokes about the films (like the “Sardonic Creep” type) as flat out calls them crap. He may have some comedy sketches like “The Clown” type, but more often than not he’s entertaining with rapid-fire improved wisecracks, puns, sight-gags, camera tricks and wanton destruction – setting off firecrackers, melting knick-knacks with torches or zapping them with electricity. As the “Juvenile Delinquent”, Ghoulardi is the anarchic essence personified, the wiseacre worldview of MAD MAGAZINE embodied in one bizarre figure, sick-humor and anti-authoritarianism exploding across late-night TV screen to the delight of children and bored teenagers waiting for the sixties to really get started. Indeed, life in that plastic “New Frontier” was a “purple knif” and only Ghoulardi had the guts to tell you that it stank to high heaven! Of course, this level of sarcasm meant that he caught flack from the PTA, as well as local politicians and newspapermen who hated him, so Ernie Anderson’s career as a horror host was rather short-lived. He packed off to Los Angeles, following Tim Conway’s trail, but more on that in a moment…

 Ghoulardi’s look is noteworthy because he’s not really a ghoul or monster – he’s essentially a weirdo beatnik in a bizarre fright wig, with an obviously fake van dyke beard/mustache combo, horn-rimmed sunglasses missing a lens, and a long lab-coat which sports many buttons (“Turn Blue!” “Stay Sick!”) Perhaps, with that lab-coat, he’s meant to be a mad scientist? Not really – Ghoulardi is more of a hipster, pattering a beatnik banter with a pronounced Slavic accent (another local touch – Anderson enjoyed poking fun at the local Slav/Polish immigrant population in the Cleveland area, cueing needle-drops of polka-records when he wasn’t playing surf music, sleazy r&b and garage rock as background music). Although I’ve never read confirmation of this anywhere, I’m convinced that the well-known media antics of the shameless self-promoting surrealist Salvador Dali was another inspiration for Ghoulardi, who did the “inserts himself into the movie” shtick and (since this was live TV and he was mostly improvising) occasionally even getting in a surprisingly off-color quip (“Ghoulardi plays nothing but poker. See what you do in poker is you get a girl… you poke her!” – this in 1963). Legend has it that when the camera cut to the film he would race out the studio door to the elevator, ride down to street level, run around the corner to a bar where he had some shots before racing back up for the next segment! (Ahhh, the wonders of live, local TV!).

Another thing notable about Anderson is his deep, rich voice and his habit of addressing his viewers with “Hey, group!” – this is another little horror host trait I’ve noticed, cementing yourself to the audience with a special appellation (To Elvira we’re “darlings”, to Penny Dreadful we’re “dreary ones”, to Wolfman Mac we’re “the wolfpack”, etc.). I also love the stripped-down, minimalist aura of his first late-night show – he doesn’t have a set, he just has a optically-generated ring of wavering “energy”, some oddly placed stage-lighting, a little echo on his voice, and weird r&b music – that’s it! It’s just him, the camera, his voice, his improv, and a few props! It’s like you just tuned into some strange channel broadcasting late at night from an asylum hidden somewhere in Cleveland!

Some of the only surviving Ghoulardi footage.

Cleveland area native Lux Interior (of seminal punk/psychobilly band The Cramps) was a big fan, as well as Drew Carey (who occasionally sports a Ghoulardi T-shirt in his sitcom) and Dave Thomas of art rock band Pere Ubu, who credits Anderson with cementing the weird subculture of the Cleveland/Akron area (origination point for Devo as well) into one notable figure. Watching clips, you can definitely see why his energy was so intoxicating to the youth culture of the time – he wasn’t just making an occasional razor-edged comment, he was launching barbs and bludgeoning the straights with brickbats of bizarre dada humor while hosting crappy movies. He’s a ramshackle beatnik lunatic let loose in a TV studio, blowing raspberries at everything! Now, here’s a funny, personal detail – as I’m also a big fan of voice-over talent (commercial announcers, cartoon actors, etc.) as it turns out I *was* aware of Ernie Anderson, although not by name – and if you are in your 40s or 50s, most probably you were as well…

Remember “it’s Carol Burnett!”, “Tonight… on the Loooove Boat”, “Welcome to the ABC Movie of the Week” and “Eyewitness News starts NOW!”? – Ernie Anderson never went very far in LA’s comedy scene but his vocal talent was noted and eventually he became *THE* voice of ABC TV, doing bumpers and intros for decades (later, he was the announcer on AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS) – if you watched any TV in the 1970s, you know his voice (online there’s a hilarious blooper audio compilation of Anderson – in studio and blowing takes, swearing a blue streak). He also fathered popular indie film director Paul Thomas Anderson (BOOGIE NIGHTS, etc.) who’s production company has a familiar name. Ghoulardi not only impacted local people but local television itself, as his show was replaced with long-lived Cleveland movie hosts Big Chuck & Little John, while his character also launched or influenced other hosts like The Ghoul, Son Of Ghoul and possibly Svengoolie, many of whom carried on his sarcastic, anarchic, destructive antics. Anderson reprised the Ghoulardi character a final time on Joe Bob Brigg’s JOE BOB’S DRIVE-IN THEATER show in 1991. Sadly, Ernie Anderson died of cancer in 1997.

So here’s to Ghoulardi, long may he caper, jape and crack wise in the ether! As he said in his last appearance “why are you here, watching this lousy movie? You could be out with your friends, enjoying yourself!”

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.