The Cool Ghoul

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Zacherley Early Promo Photo

Zacherley promo photo (WABC-TV)

If you didn’t grow up in the Northeast, you may not be familiar with Zacherley—better known to a legion of fans as The Cool Ghoul. Zach, as he’s affectionately known, became a cult TV icon in the 1950s as one of the first horror hosts, beginning his career in Philadelphia on Shock Theater, and later moving to New York City.

I could spend the next twenty paragraphs giving you an overview of his career, which includes being a popular radio disc jockey; doing motion picture voiceover work; paving the way for other horror hosts like Svengoolie and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark… even recording a top ten single, “Dinner With Drac” in 1958. Trust me when I tell you, that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a career that spans seven decades—in which he’s been busy in all of them.

I remember first seeing Zach on TV as a child (a really, really young child), totally by accident. My Dad had come upstairs to catch the last few innings of a Mets game, which must’ve gone pretty late, because he forgot to turn off the set. The sound was off, since Dad knew all the ballplayers by sight and he didn’t want to wake me up. So, yours truly, who was maybe 6 at the time (or somewhere around there), hears Dad sneak out, sees the TV is on, and, well… I did what any kid would do. I started channel surfing.

Now, we’re talking the early ’70s. A 13″ black and white set with a single antenna you pulled up like a radio, and that weird, ring antenna that was screwed into the back of the set. 13 channels, of which five weren’t designated for broadcast, and then the UHF channels. In short—not a whole lot to choose from.

John Zacherle as Roland

John Zacherle as Roland (WCAU-TV)

Until…

I came across this rather creepy looking fellow, wearing an undertaker’s topcoat, introducing… heck, I don’t have a clue what flick he was introducing, but it was your typical creature feature, and it looked so cool I risked turning up the volume to figure out what I was watching.

That rerun was my introduction to Zacherley, who joked about the movie, did a skit or two between commercial breaks, and basically gave folks up at that hour a reason to watch some pretty awful old horror films—decades before MST3K borrowed the format.

Flash forward about a decade. I’m working an off-the-books job tearing out the walls and carpet of a burnt-out storefront for one of my Dad’s friends. I’m fifteen, and on the third day in, I see a sign across the street announcing a store appearance at a small photo developing shop. Who’s the guest? Yep, you got it. Zacherley.

I didn’t sneak over to go meet him. Partly because I would’ve felt guilty about skipping out on the job for that long, and partly because I was afraid of feeling like a geek. So, I waited for the posted hours to wrap up, and went outside, where I was lucky enough to catch The Cool Ghoul leaving, waving to folks who’d been hanging around. It was awesome. Zach was wearing the undertaker’s coat from TV. I could see his pronounced cheekbones from across four lanes of traffic, thanks to his gaunt face and the makeup. He shook hands, waved at people, and let out a laugh just like the one he delivered on TV.

Zacherley's Midnite Terrors #1

Zacherley’s Midnite Terrors #1 with cover by Basil Gogos

Fast forward a second time. It’s 1990 or so. I’m in college, working two jobs, and my then-business-partner and I are publishing a popular cult comic book. We get invited to be guests at a horror convention in New Jersey called the Chiller Theatre Expo. Who’s their featured celebrity guest?

Bingo. No way am I going to make the same mistake twice. So, I keep getting up from our table, checking the line, waiting to see if I can get a chance to meet the guy. No such luck. He’s swamped all morning. At around two, nature calls, so I go run to the bathroom, hoping the lines there aren’t as bad as they are to get something signed by the better-known celebs. I’m at a urinal, when you-know-who walks up and stands right next to me.

Okay, not exactly an auspicious beginning. I’m not about to risk being a geek in that situation. And, I’m certainly not going to offer to shake Zacherley’s hand. But, for those who’ve never shared quality time standing in a crowded men’s room, we did what guys do. We talked.

“Good show?” Zach asks.

“Absolutely. I see you’ve been chained to your table all morning.”

Zach laughs. Confesses that this has been his first chance to get away from the table. Says he needs to use the ‘little boy’s room’ excuse more often.

We wrap up. Wash our hands and step out. The convention center is wall to wall people. Zach turns to me, says, “Good luck, have a great show!”, and shakes my hand.  Then off he goes, people catching him en route to his table, holding out programs, glossy 8×10 photos, you name it.

And, as he walked back from the can, he didn’t refuse a single request. He took Sharpies and signed whatever anyone handed him, shook hands, unleashed his comic/creepy laugh for little kids, and made everybody happy.

Zacherley's Midnite Terrors #3

Zacherley’s Midnite Terrors #3 with cover by KISS cover artist Ken Kelly

Years later, I went blind. I’d done the Chiller Expo religiously for a decade, but wind up missing a few before returning to comic book publishing and traveling to Jersey as a guest. Zach makes it a point to stop at my table, ask how I’ve been, and wants to do lunch. He has a relative who lost their sight, similar condition to mine. He’s the figurehead for the whole show, refuses to let me pay. Puts the bill on his tab and we talk horror for almost two hours.

I mentioned that I was in comic book publishing. At that lunch, I asked Zach why he’d never done a comic book. I was shocked when he told me, “No one’s ever asked.” Wow. This guy’s been around, quite literally, forever. He’s been a success in every possible creative medium. Singer. DJ. Actor. TV horror host. Videos. Guest speaker. Book editor. But…no comics? No, that wouldn’t do.

I ran the idea of surprising Zach with his very own comic book at the following October convention with everyone who was close to him. Chiller founder Kevin Clement. Writer John Scareshock. Artist Frank Dietz. Chiller regular Bernie Wrightson. The list goes on. We got a really talented group of guys together, and sprung the comic, Zacherley’s Midnite Terrors, on him as planned, at his birthday celebration at the October show. He was thrilled. Couldn’t get over the fact that so many people he’d come to know—and become friends with—had pitched in to make it happen. We gave him a bunch of cases of the book to sell at the show. Only he could sell it that time around, so none of us would compete with him. We considered it a small thing to do in order to give a little back to the guy who’d given all of us so much for so long.

Zach’s birthday was a couple weeks ago. He just turned 95, and he hasn’t slowed down. He was at the Halloween Chiller Expo, as usual, where he’d often get on stage with the house band and do one of the best renditions of “Monster Mash” you’ve ever heard.

95, and still going strong. When we brought that first box of comics over to his table and I busted it open, then took out that very first copy and handed it to him, I mentioned that we thought it’d be a great way to commemorate his first 50 years in horror. He laughed at that, and cracked, “First 50, eh? I take it you’re expecting another?”

I am. I mean, he is the Cool Ghoul, after all. There’s no telling how many centuries a guy that familiar with the creepy crawlies can keep it going, right?

 

Dinner w/Drac video:

 

 

Monster Mash:

 

 

Live w/Bobby Boris Pickett at Chiller Theatre:

 

 

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Last updated: Oct 31, 2013
Filed under: Retro Memories Tagged with: halloween, retro television, TV hosts