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50 Years Later, TV's Ghoulardi Lives — In Punk Rock

Dec 28, 2013
Originally published on December 28, 2013 12:46 pm

Before the Sex Pistols formed in London, before CBGB opened in New York, Cleveland had the Electric Eels.

"Someone asked me what my influences were," says guitarist and founder John Morton, "and I said, 'Among other things, Sun Ra, Ghoulardi and Albert Ayler.'"

Morton's not alone among the proto-punk and New Wave musicians in northeast Ohio who cite Cleveland avant-garde jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler as an influence. They also mention Detroit's MC5 or New York's Velvet Underground. But, invariably, the common thread is Ghoulardi.

"He was really an iconoclast in the true sense of the word, you know, in breaking established things," Morton says. "You know it was great for kids, this kind of defiance that you have. He was a great influence."

Ghoulardi hosted horror movies on Friday nights at 11:30. His real name was Ernie Anderson and he was a booth announcer for WJW TV in Cleveland. For Ghoulardi's Shock Theater, he copped a Transylvanian accent, wore a fake goatee and white lab coat covered with political buttons, and adopted the attitude of a 1950s beatnik. He wasn't afraid to answer his critics on the air, asking his cameraman to zoom in on their letters.

"He was the cool guy, the guy who was cooler than your parents," says Gene O'Connor, who watched Shock Theater as a kid.

O'Connor would later go by the name Cheetah Chrome, write some classic punk songs and play guitar for the band The Dead Boys. Even after they became famous, the band members continued to talk about Ghoulardi.

"He followed us through our lives," O'Connor says. "He got us when we were young and we followed him right through to the end. We're all die-hard fans of Ghoulardi. "

That's because Ghoulardi was everything the rest of TV was not. He made fun of news anchors on other stations, panned the movies he was showing and told kids to skip them and go to bed.

"TV hosts were, at the time, neighborly. They were authoritative; they were responsible," says Tom Feran, co-author of the book Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV's Wildest Ride. "The grown-ups were on TV. Ghoulardi was a grown-up who didn't play by those rules, and that was really refreshing."

The show dominated its time slot, beating Johnny Carson and capturing as much 70 percent of the viewing audience on Friday nights.

David Thomas, who would go on to lead the groundbreaking bands Pere Ubu and Rocket from the Tombs, was also among those watching.

Thomas, who has lectured on Ghoulardi, says the late-night host was subverting authority figures before that became a popular pastime.

"He exposed them all as the same kind of idiot that you are — that they weren't any smarter or more in touch with anything than you potentially were, even as a kid," Thomas says.

He calls that generation of Ohio youngsters "Ghoulardi's Kids."

"We thought he was cool; he made us laugh," says Jerry Casale, one of the founders of the band Devo. "And he blew things up on television. He destroyed property."

"He superimposed himself into the movies, like Attack of the Crab Monsters: 'Oh! Look at that giant crab!'" adds Jamie Klimek of the Cleveland band Mirrors. "He was anarchic. He didn't care."

And this was a quarter-century before the debut of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But it wasn't just Ghoulardi's irreverent attitude that made an impression. Off screen, Anderson was a jazz fan, but his sound engineer Chuck Schodowski played blues, surf music, R&B, and a lot of off-beat material on the late-night show.

Shock Theater might not have been punk when it came out, but it was incorporated into the style later, says David Giffels, co-author of the book We are Devo.

"You know, in a literal sense, The Cramps, most of whom came from Akron or Cleveland, directly took on this B-movie, horror movie aesthetic that came straight from Ghoulardi," Giffels says.

Anderson died in 1997, but his legacy lives on in thousands of small ways. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who grew up near Akron cites him as an influence. The Cramps' horror-meets-rockabilly persona is alive today in goth fashion. And you can even see the influence in the work of Anderson's son, director Paul Thomas Anderson, who named his company Ghoulardi Films.

Copyright 2018 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a short-lived Cleveland TV show that's still being talked about today by musicians. It was called "Ghoulardi's Shock Theater," and its anarchic host could be called the Godfather of Punk.

Mark Urycki, of member station WKSU, has the story of a behind-the-scenes TV announcer who stepped onto the screen and influenced a generation of Ohio kids.

MARK URYCKI, BYLINE: Before the Sex Pistols formed in London, before CBGB opened in New York, Cleveland had the Electric Eels.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGITATED")

JOE MORTON: Somebody asked me what my influences were. And I said, you know, among other things, Sun Ra, Ghoulardi and Albert Ayler.

URYCKI: That's John Morton, guitarist and founder of the group. He's not alone among the proto-punk and New Wave musicians in Northeast Ohio who cite Cleveland avant-garde jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler as an influence. They also mention Detroit's MC 5 or New York's Velvet Underground. But invariably the common thread is Ghoulardi.

MORTON: He was really an iconoclast in the true sense of the word, of breaking established things. You know, it's great for kids, this kind of defiance that you have. He was a great influence. I mean, you know, in every Cleveland band I've read about has mentioned Ghoulardi as an influence.

URYCKI: Ghoulardi hosted horror movies on Friday nights at 11:30. His real name was Ernie Anderson and he was a booth announcer for WJW TV in Cleveland. For "Ghoulardi's Shock Theater," he copped a Transylvanian accent and occasionally read letters from viewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GHOULARDI'S SHOCK THEATER")

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GHOULARDI'S SHOCK THEATER")

URYCKI: Gene O'Connor was watching.

GENE O'CONNOR: He was the cool guy. You know, he was the guy who was cooler than your parents.

URYCKI: O'Conner would later go by the name Cheetah Chrome, write some classic punk songs and play guitar for the band the Dead Boys. Even after they became famous, the band members continued to talk about Ghoulardi.

O'CONNOR: He followed us through our lives. You know, he got us when we were young and we followed him right through to the end. We're all die-hard fans of Ghoulardi.

URYCKI: That's because Ghoulardi was everything the rest of TV was not. He made fun of news anchors on other stations, panned the movies he was showing and told kids to skip them and go to bed. Tom Feran is co-author of a book on Ghoulardi.

TOM FERAN: TV hosts were at the time neighborly, you know, or authoritative; they were responsible.

(LAUGHTER)

FERAN: You know, the grown-ups were on TV. Ghoulardi was a grown-up who didn't play by those rules. And that was really refreshing.

URYCKI: The show dominated its timeslot, beating Johnny Carson and capturing as much 70 percent of the viewing audience on Friday nights. Even at a young age, David Thomas knew something was out of whack.

DAVID THOMAS: Nine or 10 you recognize normal. It's not hard.

URYCKI: Thomas went on to lead the groundbreaking bands Pere Ubu and Rocket From the Tombs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEARCH AND DESTROY")

URYCKI: Thomas has lectured on Ghoulardi and says the late night host was subverting authority figures before that became a popular pastime.

THOMAS: Because he exposed them all as the same kind of idiot that you are. You know, that they weren't any smarter or more in touch with anything than you potentially were, you know, even as a kid.

URYCKI: David Thomas calls that generation of Ohio youngsters "Ghoulardi's Kids." They included Jerry Casale, one of the founders of the band Devo.

JERRY CASALE: We thought he was cool; he made us laugh. And he blew things up on television. He destroyed property.

PAUL MAROTTA: Well, I sent my model cars to Ghoulardi; he blew one up on camera.

URYCKI: Paul Marotta, of the band, the Styrenes.

(LAUGHTER)

MAROTTA: I was very happy. I got 10 points at school for that one.

(LAUGHTER)

JAMES KLIMEK: Oh, extra credit. All right.

(LAUGHTER)

URYCKI: That's Jamie Klimek, of the Cleveland band Mirrors.

KLIMEK: He superimposed himself into the movies like "Attack of the Crab Monsters." Oh, look at that giant crab.

(LAUGHTER)

KLIMEK: And he was anarchic. OK. He didn't care.

URYCKI: And this was a quarter century before the debut of "Mystery Science Theater."

But it wasn't just Ghoulardi's irreverent attitude. Off-screen, Ernie Anderson was a jazz fan but his sound engineer Chuck Schodowski played blues, surf music, R&B, and a lot of off-beat material on the late night show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SURFIN BIRD")

URYCKI: Ralph Carney remembers that music.

RALPH CARNEY: Yeah. Yeah. That's like Midwestern proto-punk.

URYCKI: He later became a horn player for Tin Huey, the B52's and Tom Waits.

CARNEY: Usually in surf rock kind a stuff, and they played Duane Eddy. "Desert Rat."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESERT RAT")

URYCKI: It might not have been punk when it came out, but it was incorporated later, says David Giffels, co-author of the book "We are Devo."

DAVID GIFFELS: You know, in a literal sense The Cramps, most of whom came from Akron and Cleveland, directly took on this B-movie, horror movie aesthetic that came straight from Ghoulardi. And they have songs that reference Ghoulardi, and references, you know, stay sick, turn blue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUMAN FLY")

URYCKI: Despite his lasting influence, "Ghoulardi's show ran for only three years. Ernie Anderson retired the character and moved to Hollywood where he became the voice of ABC Television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LOVE BOAT")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

URYCKI: Ernie Anderson died in 1997, but his legacy lives on in thousands of small ways. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch who grew up near Akron cites him as an influence. The Cramps' horror-meets-rockabilly persona led to a style of dress that's since become known as Goth fashion. And you can even see the influence in the work of Anderson's son, director Paul Thomas Anderson, who named his company Ghoulardi Films.

For NPR News, I'm Mark Urycki in Akron.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUMAN FLY")

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.