Sammy and Me

When I saw that the Classic TV Blog Association was having a blogathon about horror movie hosts, I knew I would have to get involved.  The whole reason this blog exists is because of a horror movie host.

Let me transport you to a long-ago time in the early 1970s.  TV stations stopped broadcasting at 2 or 3 in the morning.  Cable TV was almost unheard of.  Infomercials did not exist.  In a big market, there were maybe 5 or 6 stations that you could watch.  In the evening, after the news, you could either watch Johnny Carson or an old movie.  That’s about all there was.

In those days, we didn’t have the cultural illiteracy about old films that we have today.  Films were literally suffused into the air.  We saw them all the time.  It was nothing to see a film 30 or 40 years old, even in prime time.  Black and white?  No problem.  We knew the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Boris Karloff.

Since films were so commonplace, there was some need for brand recognition.  In the 50s, when Screen Gems released the first package of Shock Theater to television stations, someone hit on the bright idea of having a horror film host.  I don’t know who it was.  Someone will tell you it was Vampira, others will say it was someone else.  It doesn’t really matter.

By the 1960s, almost every market had one.  In Indianapolis, my home town, it was Sammy Terry.  (You get the joke?  It’s a pun on “cemetery.”  OK, subtle it isn’t.)  By the mid-70s, most of these had died out, but a few survived.  Elvira and Svengoolie are two of the more known ones that have made it all these years.

Sammy Terry worked for WTTV, our local independent station.  WTTV was something of an anomaly.  It was technically a Bloomington station (about an hour south of Indianapolis), but they sneaked the transmitter northward to hit Indy.  That could be the subject of a blog entry in itself.  WTTV’s transmitter never worked quite right.  There was always snow in the picture, in a predictable pattern.  As a kid, I always suspected that it was my dad’s makeshift antenna that didn’t work, but when we got cable, I noticed that WTTV still didn’t come in quite right!

In those days, a TV section came every week in the local newspaper.  It was important.  TV wasn’t endlessly repeated, and there was no way to record it to watch later.  If a movie or a show came on that you wanted to see, you’d have to schedule your life around it.  WTTV, lacking both ratings and network affiliation, was like a window into the past, using outdated equipment and techniques well after the other stations had moved on.

One day, I was scanning that section and I saw that Sammy Terry was running the 1931 Frankenstein with Colin Clive and Boris Karloff.  Now, in those days they marked all the black and white shows with a B/W sign.  Just why they did it, I didn’t know, but at least you knew if a movie was black and white or color.

I noticed that Frankenstein was not listed as a black and white program!  Could it be?  Did they even have color film in 1931?  I had no idea.  The whole concept fascinated me.  Luckily, I had someone to ask.

My grandmother was staying with us at the time.  She was profoundly overweight, in ill health, and she had cataracts that needed surgery.  In those days, cataract surgery was a big deal.  You had the surgery and it took 6 weeks to recover, and there were all sorts of problems with it.  Today you’re in and out and stapled in half an hour.

Grandma was not able to live by herself (which she normally did) during the recovery period.  I knew if anyone would know about color films of the time, she would.  She and I were really the only people in the family interested in the arts and movies.   Grandma loved the movies.

She’d seen Frankenstein, but she couldn’t remember if it was in color.  I asked her if it could have been in color.  She said it was possible, because there were some early color processes at the time, but she didn’t remember.

Well, that was all I needed.  I went to ask my mom if I could stay up and watch Frankenstein that weekend.

Well, mom was harried.  She was under a lot of stress taking care of grandma, and she did one of her typical stall tactics.  “Well see,” she said.  “If you behave.”

This is code for NO.

In all honesty, I can understand where she was coming from.  It was on late, and she didn’t want to deal with all that hassle, and worse yet, I was a sensitive kid who scared easily.  The idea of me staying up late was ridiculous.  She knew I’d have a fit if she outright said no, so she tried to stall me.

It didn’t work.

I behaved myself admirably all week.  I wasn’t going to give her an out.  I was planning to shove it back in her face on Friday night.  And that didn’t work either.

“Eric, you have to go to bed.  It’s late, and I don’t want you staying up that late.  You’ve never done it before.”

“You said I could if I behave, and I did.”

I knew the battle was lost, but intervention was around the corner in the form of my grandmother.

“Sister,” she said (she often called mom “sister” because she is part of a set of twins.) “I heard you tell Eric if he behaved that he’d get to stay up.  He’s been talking about this all week.  You should let him see it.”

“Mother,” countered my own mother, “I need to get to bed.  I can’t stay up with him and watch it.”

“That’s fine,” Grandma said.  “I’ll stay up with him.”

Remember, I said that grandma was the only other person in the family who really “got” movies.  That was great.

Mom reluctantly agreed, laid a lot of ground rules, but the hour was late and she was tired.  She didn’t have the energy to fight.  HAHA!  It was going to work.

Grandma sat on our green couch and cautioned me that if I got overly upset about this then she’d send me off to bed and that would be it.  She folded her hands over her giant belly and waited for the movie to start.

I think I had seen parts of the Sammy Terry intro before, because it looked a little familiar.  Sammy wore a cowl and was made up with greasepaint, looking a bit like Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  Played by local performer Bob Carter, there was always something avuncular and silly about Sammy, and he didn’t scare me at all.

I still remember this after all these years.  I’d worked myself into a tizzy about seeing this, wondering if it could actually be color.  I knew the time was nigh.  Sammy (or someone) had fashioned a poster for Frankenstein, done very cheesily in a hand-drawn way.  At the bottom someone had penciled in this tag line: “In Horro-Color!”

WOW!  Could it be?

It was my first Sammy Terry intro and I just wished he’d shut up and run the movie.  I don’t think my grandmother even lasted through the first 10 minutes of the show.  By the time the film started, she was gently snoring, with her hands still folded in front of her.

Well, as you probably know, the film was in black and white after all. (Of course, this sparked a lasting level of curiosity in me, because I have a long demonstration about the history of color in the movies that’s one of my most popular shows.)  I eagerly sat through the movie, color or not.  I was delighted.  The film had a weird rustic feel that I found to be really cool.  I sat quietly through the end of the picture, woke grandma up, and we both went to bed.

She created a monster.

I was hooked.  I wanted to keep watching Sammy Terry and see more of those films.  I had to.  Grandma gamely stayed with me on most of them, still usually falling asleep.  She had one eye done, 6 weeks recovery, and another eye, 6 more weeks recovery.  By that time, I was a hopeless addict.  She went home, but I kept watching Sammy.

I discovered that my parents didn’t care too much as long as I didn’t make a lot of noise to wake them up.

I discovered that the local bookstore had a new book by film historian Denis Gifford that gave a great history of these movies.  Mom had picked it out, and she had it wrapped “From Grandma” for Christmas that year.  I recently found the 8mm home movie of that Christmas, showing me unwrapping the present.  I still have the book.

That’s me (on the left) with my grandmother and sister, Christmas 1973

I seldom missed Sammy Terry, and I went on to catch the Saturday night offering on WTTV, which was called Science Fiction Theater.  In the summertime, WTTV had another film host showing Summer Film Festival which consisted of more mainstream films.  I loved it too.  WISH Channel 8 had host Dave Smith with another show called When Movies Were Movies.  I loved it too.

It got so that in the summer I was up until 3am most every night.

Sammy was still a special favorite.  I loved his silly jokes and weird introductions, his hairy spider (named George) who interrupted the proceedings periodically.  I even loved the stupid gaffes that we’d never see today.  The Sunday paper listed one film as Sammy’s show for the week, but the Friday paper listed another film.  That night, Sammy’s intros were for the film in the Sunday paper, but they ran the film listed in the Friday paper!  OOPS.

My grandmother died in 1975.  She was a special woman and I miss her to this very day.

WTTV canceled Sammy Terry in about 1976.  I was outraged.  I started a petition to put him back on the air.  But the times had changed and they didn’t want to go back.

They finally relented and brought him back in the early 80s.  The film package wasn’t as good as it had been, but it was still fun to see Sammy back again.  There were fewer Karloff and Lugosi pictures and more gut-laden Hammer films.

Then, in the mid-80s the world changed again.  When cable became widespread, the studios discovered that they could make more money from a cable film showing than from the local stations, so they pulled all the old films.  As historian Jim Neibaur has said, it was like they decided to make one station the repository for all the old films and they filled the rest with infomercials.

Sammy Terry was gone.  Bob Carter continued to play the character at live shows and in the occasional special.  I met him a few times.  He ran a music store close to where I lived.  Seemed like a nice guy, but it was never more than a passing encounter.

Mr. Carter has been in ill health for the past few years, so he has not been so active.  His son is carrying on the Sammy Terry tradition.  I haven’t seen him yet, but I wish him well.

Of course, I started to miss that late-night experience I had so loved.  I collected videotapes of my favorite movies.  Then 16mm film.  Then 35mm film.

I’m not on TV (not yet, at least), but I carry film projectors to run film shows wherever I’m wanted.   I got to run a movie with WTTV’s cartoon show host, Cowboy Bob, and WFBM’s Three Stooges host, Harlow Hickenlooper.  It was freezing cold, and with the two of them there, including me and an assistant, I think we had 6 people in the audience.  Oh, well.  I had fun anyway.

And that still doesn’t bring the story to a close.

One of the things that dogs me about new technology is how we throw out the whole of the old to embrace the new.  We often don’t fully appreciate the magic of what we had until it’s gone.

The old horror hosts and the movie hosts in general helped us appreciate films made before we were born.  It was just part of who we were.  Now, all you have to do is channel hop over Turner Classic Movies and you’ll never see them at all.

It’s no disrespect to Robert Osborne or Leonard Maltin to say that they’re not the same as the guys from the old days.  They are preaching to the converted.  You don’t watch them unless you specifically want to see an old film.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes we look at old films as either obsolete relics or unapproachable HIGH ART.

There is little appreciation for film as an art form today.  That’s why I created Dr. Film.  It’s a deliberate throwback to the old hosted-film format.  Dr. Film isn’t specifically for horror films, although we will show them. It’s got the poverty-induced sets and goofy jokes that all the hosted-film shows had.

What’s different about Dr. Film is that its purpose is to subtly educate (and I hope it is very subtle).  I hope it’s just strange enough to catch an errant viewer asking, “What the heck is THIS?” before he flips the remote one more time.

No, this doesn’t mean I regard the new Sammy Terry as competition, because he’s not doing the same thing.  Nor do I regard Svengoolie or Elvira as competition.  I embrace them all (I’d particularly like to embrace Elvira in that tight dress, but I digress.)

I always think that a rising tide floats all boats.  And I think that the movie host is something we’ve lost and that needs to return.  I think we all miss them, even if we don’t know it.

Dr. Film isn’t really competition for anyone, because the show hasn’t made it to the airwaves.  In all honesty, it probably never will.  But I’m still in there trying, because I’m trying to save a part of our past that I miss.

Instead of tilting at windmills, I’m saving film.  I might just as well be trying to save Fizzies, Burger Chef, and handmade chocolate sodas.  Hey, maybe it’s a lost cause, but someone has to do it.

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13 Responses to Sammy and Me

  1. Eric Scheirer Stott says:

    Thanks for the nostalgia dose. In my area the prime host was from Syracuse- Dr. E. Nick Witty, of Monster Movie Matinee. Dr Witty was to horrifying to be seen, and was represented by a greenish taloned hand gesturing over the keyboard of an organ with offscreen narration in a lugost-esque manner. We DID get to see his assistant Epowl, who was something like Igor, with touches of Frankenstein. In the grand tradition of local broadcasting he was played by the station sportscaster, who was also Barker Bob, the host of Cartoon Midway.

    • drfilm says:

      So was his set the den of E. Nick Witty? I have to know.

      • Glory-June Greiff says:

        (groan) Anyway, I grew up with old movies flooding the airwaves–lucky me! In my homeplace in northern Indiana, we got all the South Bend stations AND Chicago as well! Our household preferred Chicago; there were movies on in the afternoon when I got home from school, so I got acquainted with Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford, Tyrone Power, and my mother’s favorite, Jean Harlow. We watched together, and Mom would tell me the character actors or reminisce about where she was when she saw this film the first time. At night after the late news (about 10:15–we were on Central Time) there were the adventure movies my dad often stayed up for, despite his need for early departure the next morning. WGN had movies at all hours, it seemed, especially on the weekends. We all loved the Errol Flynn swashbucklers. My parents would not allow me to stay up to watch the Saturday night horror films; it was not until I was a teenager that I shared those viewings with my dad, who loved them. When I worked in Chicago in the 70s, however, I got to know Svengoolie–the original Svengoolie, Jerry G. Bishop. Silly insanity. (The current guy interrupts the films too much, in my opinion.)
        Yeah, most old films are relegated to TCM now, and I don’t have cable. But I became one of the “converted” to the joy of old movies when I was a child and they were everywhere. That’s the point.

  2. Brooks Rowlett says:

    I know it was a throw-away note at the end – but Fizzies are experiencing a slight reincarnation. Root Beer Fizzies are being carried by Cracker Barrel, though sometimes the supply is limited and shipments are sparse – and they are sugar-free. Supposedly some additional flavors will return as well.

    • drfilm says:

      Yes, I’ve seen Fizzies make a slight resurgence lately. Actually, Burger Chef has in a small way, as well. You can now by a reconstituted Super Shef burger at Hardees.

      • Glory-June Greiff says:

        Definitely not the same! By the same token, there are a few holdouts that still make real chocolate ice cream sodas, but most of those behind a fountain counter these days (first find one of those!) look blankly at me when I ask for one, or else make it all wrong! I have to go to mid-north Michigan to enjoy a really good one at an old pharmacy with a 1948 soda fountain.

  3. I used to check out “Horror Movies” from the library all the time as a kid. I found a copy in a used book store maybe 10 years ago. I still look at it every now and then!

  4. Rick says:

    I really enjoyed your fond memories of watching Sammy Terry (I was an IU student in the last 1970s and watched Sammy back then). By the way, I have the same Denis Gifford book on horror movies!

  5. Brian Swift says:

    I’ll always cherish fond memories of the night Sammy aired CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE. Evidently no one bothered to actually screen the flick, & didn’t guess there’d be a very graphic bathtub scene. But it was 3 in the morning, and they probably NEVER knew a lady was disrobing on their airwaves. I was half asleep, woke up real fast, looked around at my grade-school buddies who were over for a Friday night sleep-over … they were all unconscious. To this day I think I’m the only one in the city who caught the gaffe. And who says a 6th grader can’t learn from late-night Fright Flicks?

    • drfilm says:

      Ha! I didn’t see it that night. What I did see what during a Science Fiction Theater showing of Beyond the Time Barrier. There was a big storm that night and some IU students were on the radio learning how to do announcing on the weather station. WTTV broke in and played the radio for about a minute, at which point the student announcer said, “Oh, what the hell, no one is listening to this anyway…” At this point the screen went black, followed by the Science Fiction Theater logo, for about 2 minutes, then the movie. When the movie was interrupted again a bit later, it was a different student.

  6. Aurora says:

    First off, I love how you recant the early 1970s media/television. It’s so true that ours is a generation with a “gifted” era in media. We’ve been able to reap the joys and comforts of technology, we were brought up with classics at our disposal at every turn. I love that it didn’t matter to us what was black and white vs. color. What was entertaining was so – from camp to to award-winning fare. Lucky is what we are!

    I really enjoyed reading your memories, nostalgia and all about Sammy Terry, which for the record I would have never equated to “cemetery.” Fun times! Thank you for sharing.

    Aurora

  7. Michael Karp says:

    Great reminiscence about the last golden-age in local television broadcastng and a well-deserved memory of my long-ago colleague, Sammy.
    The WTTV-Channel 4 story–the clever attempt by the owner, Sarkis Tarzian to get a license for a station in South Central Indiana and still pull in all the revenue from the lucrative Indianapolis market–is a fascinating one… The sale of the station to an outfit called “Telco of Indiana” based in Detroit was blocked by a challenge and petition to the FCC and consequently led to several shows being broadcast from the tiny Bloomington facility that had rarely been used.
    Did you ever happen to catch WTTV’s attempt to supplant Sammy with a show hosted by one “Baron von Wolfenstein”??? The host was a young guy named Tim (memory fails me in recalling his last name) who was a genius at make-up…The costume and presence of the Baron was far-and-away-superior to that of almost any horror-host before or since…Every taping session, he’d get up into full regalia–it took hours. Sadly, his material was not as deft and the show didn’t last very long…
    I was a little luckier in the Indianapolis market… From 78-79, I hosted a late night weekend-show on Channel 4, “The All Night Movies With Mike” which was done live from midnight to 6 a.m. Unlike most late-night hosts of the period, I did the entire show–intros, commercials, little news and sports bits between the reels–live in the studio.
    The films I showed were not horror films–although some were real horrors–so I did them as just a normal human being. I’d start the show in a jacket and tie; as the show progressed, I’d get more and more informal, until, by 6 a.m. I’d be speaking to the audience while lying on a couch covered by a blanket (fully clothed mind you; this wasn’t “Midnight Blue!”)…
    I was as clever with the live material as I could be, but the station management wanted a middle-of-the-road, “normal” guy, a character I played as best I could, even though eccentricity is much more my nature than clean-cut straight-arrow…
    It was a great show to do, and I received 1,000s of letters from fans in four states (WTTV was an early “miniature super-station” which broadcast over cable to Ohio, Illinois, northern Kentucky and one city, Huntington, in West Virginia.
    As you can see, your piece on Sammy has brought back great memories… Please say hello to Bob–although I doubt he’ll remember me, since I broadcast from Bloomington and he from Indy–and do give him my best wishes for the best and his continued health…

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