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RETROSPECTIVE: HORROR HOSTS #4: LET THERE BE FRIGHT WITH DR. SHOCK (PHILADELPHIA, 1969-1979)

Saturday, July 13, 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 #4 is Joseph Zawislak in character as DR. SHOCK. The good Doctor was *my* horror host, the host of my youth. I caught an episode on our UHF antenna being broadcast from Philadelphia, when I was 10 or 11 years old – and was instantly hooked. There was nothing like this in my Jersey Shore world!

When ROLAND got the offer to move to New York City and become ZACHERLEY, a 20 year old fan and budding magician, one Jospeh Zawislak, was disappointed. 10 years later, in 1969, having the opportunity to become the next horror host on Philadelphia airwaves, he contacted John Zacherle, asked him if his own character could be modeled somewhat on Zach’s, and so was born Dr. Shock! According to the early shows, the Good Doctor was unearthed when construction workers broke ground to expand Channel 17 facilities. He was immediately hired to host horror films for the station (if his 45 single is to be believed, his character is actually intended to be a “doctor” for monsters!). He hosted SCREAM-IN (parodying LAUGH-IN, natch!) on Saturday nights from 1969-1972, then MAD THEATER and HORROR THEATER on Saturday afternoons from 1969-1979, all on WPHL-TV, Channel 17 (which also showed SPEED RACER, SPACE GIANTS, ULTRA-MAN, MARINE BOY and other treasures of my misspent youth).

Dr. Shock was extremely popular in the Philadelphia area, appearing in parades (at the height of his popularity he made about 50 live appearances a year, traveling in a chauffeured hearse), hamming it up for the camera and performing magic tricks. As was usual for local horror hosts, he recorded promotional singles and albums (“Let There Be Fright”/“The Bloody” 45 and, inevitably, THE MONSTER MASH album).

“if his 45 single is to be believed, Shock is actually intended to be a “doctor” for monsters!”

Dr. Shock pretty much falls into the “Clown” style of horror hosting, with maybe just a touch of the “Juvenile Delinquent” type. My memory is that he never tried to be scary and instead performed pleasant, vaudevillian comedy skits and magic tricks, with the occasional rib at the movie (I distinctly remember, when he showed the Mexican vampire film THE VAMPIRE’S COFFIN…he would cough immediately after giving the title).

I remember seeing ROBOT VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY and KING VAMPIRE on HORROR THEATER or MAD THEATER, and I also remember the opening of the latter scared me, because of the Devil painting that slowly dissolved to Doc’s face and then back again.

Zawislak seems to have really enjoyed performing for children and it’s a notable aspect of the show that his young daughter, Doreen (aka “Bubbles”), would often appear on set. As I mentioned in my write up of GHOULARDI (link), the Horror Host’s appellation for his audience is a recurring theme in the show and (again, as will be seen in clips below) Doc would actually come up with a new one every week (“Hello my Saturday celluloid sick slicksters!”). His motto, proclaimed with gusto in his affable, plummy and friendly voice, was “Let There Be Fright!”

DR. SHOCK in Philadelphia area parade (1972)

Doc’s look was, as I said, modeled on John Zacherle’s ROLAND – he has the slick, parted hair, the undertaker’s coat (sometimes with a Dracula cape), the giant ring and golden tie-pin (variant of Roland’s strange medallion), the pale greasepaint and bristling eyebrows. But there’s something gentle about his soft-spoken demeanor and the fact that the “corpse lines” of his vaudeville makeup (intended to make him look gaunt) seem vaguely funny on his full, round face. His set(s) were standard TV horror host lairs – cheap cardboard dungeons and mad doctor laboratories. In many ways Dr. Shock is your standard Horror Host – although his use of magic tricks (while probably not unique) is a shtick not performed by many others. The name “Dr. Shock”, unsurprisingly, was not unique to Zawislak – there was also a “Dr. Shock” in the Tennessee & Alabama tv markets in the early 70s (who had puppet companions) and a crazy, Jerry-Lewis styled “Dr. Shock” in Toledo, Ohio starting in 1989. There was also a “Dr. Shocker” (on the cable Monster’s HD channel) who’s look, IIRC, is inspired by Philly’s Doctor.

Very soon after I discovered Dr. Shock, he disappeared. I was very sad and looked all over the dial for him (antennas were like that to children – you thought perhaps the signal was just hiding out there, lost in the ether, waiting to be tracked down and tuned in) but I couldn’t find him anymore. Years later, I learned why – sadly, Joseph Zawislak – at the tragically young age of only 42 – died of a heart attack in 1979.

So here’s to you, Doc – for me, there will never be another! I only have a few memories of you but they are treasured – you made it safe to watch scary movies when I should have been outside, running around in the sunlight (I mean, it wasn’t like that little spinning cameraman guy who opened THE 4:30 MOVIE was much comfort during “Vincent Price Week”!). You were charming and merry and spooky and great fun and you did a marvelous job! LET THERE BE FRIGHT!

“Let There Be FRIGHT!”

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.