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Ghoulardi: Cleveland, Ohio T.V. Legend
Being someone who grew-up in Northeastern Ohio in the formative years of locally owned television, I had a chance to witness many great characters and personalities come to life, as I basked in the warm flickering glow of the family's Zenith T.V. There is one Cleveland legend that to this very day, continues to capture the hearts and minds of Cleveland's first TV generation. Though his TV show was only on the air from 1963 to 1966, Ghoulardi still rides the wave of Cleveland broadcast nostalgia. Even though I was born the same year that he chose to leave the Cleveland airwaves the legend, and the stories of Ernie "Ghoulardi" Anderson live on.
For most of the American populace 1963 would be remembered as the year the Beatles invaded America. For a true Clevelander, early 1963 would go down in history as the year Ernie Anderson would hand the world his alter-ego, a counter-culture beatnik and host of the show Shock Theater named Ghoulardi.This whacked-out late-night movie show, with its outspoken host was so popular, that locally it had ratings higher than the Tonight Show. The Cleveland police department reported a significant decrease in crime during its broadcast. The rumor is that police claimed a 35% drop in juvenile offenses alone.
When Ernie Anderson put on a goofy wig, fake Van Dyk beard (that always seemed to be on the edge of falling off), glasses, and white lab coat; a tranformation happened. Before the show, Ernie's voice would change and the persona of Ghoulardi would take him over. Ghoulardi, the chain-smoking, one part mad scientist, one part beatnik, laced with a pinch of Bela Lugosi merry prankster of the television airways. Ghoulardi would address the camera live, durning breaks from the movie, using a unique dialogue sprinkled with sayings like: "Hey, group!," "Stay sick, knif" (which was fink backwards), "Cool it," "Turn blue" "You wouldn't believe," "A knock on the phone," and "Ova deh." Ernie did most live breaks improvised because of his difficulty memorizing lines. Shock Theater's first episode aired on January 18, 1963 with Ghoulardi's unique presentation of "The House on Haunted Hill." Soon, Shock Theater and especially it's host became unprecedented regional stars. At times, Ghoulardi had hundreds of thousands of viewers watching the off-beat show. Most of Shock Theater's popularity was due almost exclusively to Ghoulardi's onscreen antics. He mocked the horror movies, by calling them "bombs." He would say things about the poor quality films he was hosting. Things like: "If you want to watch a movie, don't watch this one," or "This movie is so bad, you should just go to bed." He would have his crew insert stock film clips or things like him running from monsters or interacting with Flash Gordon, just so he could be part of the film. Bad movies weren't the only thing Ghoulardi mocked, no one was sacred or off-limits, he would make fun of local TV personalities and politicians; whether they deserved it or not.
This madcap beatnik with a mustache and goatee hell bent of mayhem used his friends and crew members as his supporting cast: cameraman "Big Chuck" Schodowski(who became a huge local star in his own right), film editor Bob Soinski and writer Tom (now known asTim) Conway (famous of course, for McHale's Navy, The Apple Dumpling Gang, The Carol Burnett Show and "Dorf" fame). As He often would interrupt the movies with gags and skits; the show was more about having fun than about watching a movie. One ongoing skit was "Parma Place" a spoof on TV's "Peyton Place", which made fun of the Polish community in Parma, a Cleveland suburb.
The Television Station management lived in daily fear, for what he might say or do on the air, because the show was performed live. Despite Anderson's solid ratings and profitablilty, the T.V. brass worried that Ghoulardi was testing too many television boundaries too quickly, and like any true management decision makers, they tried to rein in the character. But Ghoulardi acted out in his own way. He did things like, detonating plastic action figures and plastic model cars with firecrackers, or small explosives sent to him by viewers (can you imagine shipping explosives, today?). On air, Ghoulardi, once nearly set the studio on fire with an explosive sent in by a viewer. Which afterwards Ghoulardi declared, "Cool it with the boom-booms." as the studio certains lay ablaze in the background.
Frequent targets for Ghoulardi's rant attacks of credibility, were news anchors such as Walter Cronkite and local nightly news commentator Dorothy Fuldheim. Dorothy was a frumpish intellectual Grande Dame of the media elite. Ghoulardi made fun of the elderly Fuldheim and her somewhat gaudy appearance. Ghoulardi understood the medium of television, far better than his targets. He would drop Dorothy's photograph into skits and movie scenes where actors were reacting with horror or shock to something. Ghoulardi's accompanying cry of the three syllable question "Dor-o-thy?!" and then the intro to the famous polka song "Who Stole The Kishka?" The taunt of "Dor-o-thy?!" became mimicked by his fans, much like fans reacting to some of Howard Stern's catch phrases today.
Those who were the butt of the Ghoulardi "freight train of mayhem" were eagerly trying to drop the hammer on him, and wanted to see the show gone. At times, Ghoulardi would even take pot-shots at the executives who were incharge at his own station. Finally, Ernie had enough. Between increasingly hostile relationship with station's managers, the trying to keep Ghoulardi under thumb and facing sagging ratings, Ernie Anderson quit while still on the top of Cleveland TV as Ghoulardi on November 14, 1966.
There has never been another horror host with the cultural influence of Ghoulardi. Ernie Anderson's rebel with no cause, manic hipster creation exploded on Cleveland television in the winter of 1963, and proceeded to excite and warp the minds of his disciples until late1966. At his peak, Ghoulardi hosted the Friday night 'Shock Theater', Saturday afternoon's 'Masterpiece Theater' and the Monday through Friday kid's show, 'Laurel, Ghoulardi and Hardy'. Public appearances during this period could draw up to nearly 10,000 spectators and require street closures.
Ghoulardi was a strong influence on many Cleveland artists such as Drew Carey, Akron born Lux Interior of The Cramps, famed Cleveland band Pere Ubu , and many fringe underground local artists. There have been bands, on both, the East Coast and West Coast of America, that have used the name the Purple Knifs. Ernie Anderson's Ghouldardi still radiates influences, that can still be found in today's media.
"You Wouldn't Believe!" Ghoulardi Brand Mayhem
You really had to experience the Ghoulardi band of mayhem to appreciate how powerful it all was. I have added a few videos on here, to share with you a sampling of the what all this is about. Even now everyone who saw the original broadcasts or live appeareces of Ghoulardi will tell you there favorite story.
For instantance, that night he set off the home-made explosive device sent into him by a fan. As I written brief about before, Ghoulardi was always setting off fireworks and blowing stuff up in the studio on live TV. This time it was clear that the off-camera crew was telling Ghoulardi not to ignite the bomb. You could hear voices off camera and see people running across the studio. Cameras were abandoned, left in every possible direction, even pointing at the floor. Then you heard it, and saw it flash... the entire room was stunned senseless for some minutes... live... smoke filed the studio, curtains on fire, people stumbling around... Rumor has it the Ghoulardi had even temporarily lost his hearing in the explosion.
On other night Ghoulardi repeated Alfred E. Newman's "What, me worry" phrase for 10 minutes using a range of different inflections and dramatizations.
In a parody of Gunsmoke, a long-running Western TV series, he and supporting characters sat round a table not saying anything, not moving, and stone cold faces with absolutely nothing for a full minute.
"Let me think," he once had said and then he sat there for 60 seconds.No sound, no movement, nothing...on live TV. He believe by doing nothing, the stillness would create mayhem. Of course a minute of silence, and stillness on TV seems like an eternity to a viewer.
One thing Ghoulardi's show had was vast amounts of audio, stock film footage and blue screens. He and his crew learned they could skillfully cut-in, and disrupt any moment of the movie. Some of the staple film drop-ins included clips of an English gurning competitor, two trains colliding, an improbable winged aircraft collapsing inward, and a fat lady dancing like a ballerina. Audio drop-ins were likely to be bits of polkas, Rivingtons and Trashmen riffs or Scream Jay Hawkins.
The some of the most classic Ghoulardi film add-ins were the real time blue screen improvs. Masterfully timed down to the second and cued by an engineer looking at a stopwatch. The technique, developed by producer and engineer "Big" Chuck Schodowski, were almost seamless. For example, Ghoulardi appears in a hallway of a haunted house with the warning, "Don't open that door!" or In "One Million Years B.C."...Ghoulardi is next to a caveman, who's gnawing on a bone and Ghoulardi says, "Cool it. Don't eat that stuff. I'll take you around the corner and get you a good pizza." Then there is the memorable scene from Dr Cyclops, where Ghoulardi appears in a cave scene with a bunch of nervous characters, who are surrounded by giant man-eating, talking crab monsters. Ghoulardi is seen running from side to side flailing his arms and jumping up and down. These schlocky movies were Ghoulardi's canvas.
Many things sent Ghoulardi apart from other monster movie hosts of his time. He didn't use the cliché gothic make-up, or the bad Bela Lugosi impersonation. Even his name was a poke that the B-movie host genre, which is pronounced in the same way as Chef Boyardee, the canned spaghetti, Ghoul-ar-dee! add in a fright wig or his real hair with the sides made up like devil horns, a fake mustache and goatee that looks like it might peel off. a Lab coat, sunglasses with missing lens, Nixon-Lodge button. The "LBJ for the USA" button. The "I've Had Enough, I'm Voting Republican" button, and the Ghoulardi for Prez button
Ghoulardi hated pop music. He was a beatnik, and an avid jazz fan. He used mainly instrumental music for his soundtrack to mayhem...The Ventures, Booker T, Tom King and the Starfires, Oscar Peterson, Jimmy McGriff (who wrote "Turn Blue" for Ghoulardi). He weaved in polkas; Duane Eddy's "The Desert Rat" was his show theme song. Frankie Yankovic's "Who Stole the Kishka?" was used heavily in the show. Songs you could almost guarantee in the show were the Rivington's "PAPA-ooM-Mow-Mow" and "The Bird's The Word," and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "Constipation Blues" or "I Put a Spell on You."
Ghoulardi played prop human skulls like bongos, show ads that said, "Drink Ghoulaid," and he would read acts from "The Tragedy of Ghoulius Caesar." He would say in college, he graduated magna ghoul laude.
He once said "All the world is a purple knif." then began offering promotional "Knif" buttons, he got thousands of requests. High school football coaches would divide the team up for practice scrimmages calling the teams Knifs and Ghoulardis.
Anderson thought the name Oxnard, as in Oxnard, Calif., was hilarious.So he named a crow Oxnard. Suddenly kids all over the Cleveland area are calling each other Oxnard.
There was another side to Ghoulardi, not just a guy with a football helmet that had faucets sticking out of it. He also had the "Ghoulardi All-Stars," which were made up of his cast and crew, so they could play in charity sports events.
Welcome to "Parma Place"
One more chapter of the Ghoulardi story needs to be told. This relates kind of to the start of his downfall. It concerns "Parma Place," a mini-soap opera incorporated into his show. Parma was a western suburb of predominantly Polish extraction. The honed media sauvvy of Ernie Anderson came into play in much the same way it did with the infamous "Dor-o-thy?!" This time he used it to taunt an entire city ..."Par-ma?!" It was so effective that even still to this day when anyone mentions Parma, Ohio thoughts of Bowling Shirts, White Socks, Pink Lawn Flamingos, Reflective Mirrored Lawn Balls, Polka Music, Generally Moronic Beahavior, and pretty much made being Polish a joke.
Parma City Officals raised such hell with the TV station excutives, that Ghoulardi to get around it all would talk about the city of "Amrap," which was kind of a finger to the city, and in essence saying you are not smart enough to know I'm talking about your city...because I'm saying it backwards. The Parma City Council would spend still a lot of effort countering the mischaracterization of their town.
The skit Parma Place featured three "certain ethnic characters", as they were described, played by Anderson, Schodowski and the wife of a well-known local DJ. They were usually seen sitting on a couch watching TV and talking about what they had been doing or might do ...if they only could stop watching the TV. The whole skit was one big inside joke.
One night at Severance Performing Arts Hall, home of George Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra, then at the very peak of its internationally-acclaimed powers. The Cleveland Orchastra was acclaimed as the most disciplined and talented symphony orchestra in the world. Anyway the Maestro Szell introduced a violinist, and noted that he had grown up in Parma. From all accounts of the night, there in the very bastian of the High Culture, "the epitome of All That Is Worthy," a shockingly large proportion of the audience spontaneously erupted with the "Par-ma?!" question.
Flew the Coop
Ernie Anderson left Cleveland, with his comedy partner Tim Conway, after 1966 and moved to Los Angeles where he, eventually, became the voice of the American Broadcasting Corporation, Monday Night Football, Ford Motors, and most memorably the announcer for the hit TV series "The Love Boat." Imitators who traded in his persona rose and fell and rose again in the Cleveland and Detroit markets over the decades, most notable were Ron Sweed aka "The Ghoul" and Keven Scarpino aka "Son of Ghoul"
Ernie Anderson died of cancer at his home in Studio City, California, and is buried at ForestLawnMemorial Park in Hollywood Hills.
He will forever be in the hearts and minds of Northeastern Ohioans...Their beloved Ghoulardi.