The Cuyahoga River is a river that winds its way around Cleveland, Ohio, and, on June 22, 1969, it caught fire. While undeniably an unusual thing for a river to do, the incident didn’t cause much of a stir on that June day. It wasn’t even the first time it had happened, and, although the fire burned for three straight days, no photographs of it exist, because no one made it out in time to take one. Soon after, the burning river would be taken up by Time magazine and environmentalists as evidence of an industrial pollution crisis and used symbolically as a catalyst for green reform. As fate would have it, the incident had another far-reaching result. The fire on the Cuyahoga also clinched Cleveland’s bad reputation, and provided an indelible, inescapable metaphor for the city that always seemed to end up on the losing side.
But, really, that’s okay with Cleveland. They’re used to laughing at themselves. Their comfortable underdog sensibility breeds a special kind of rebelliousness, a contrarian comedic offense that preempts the opportunity for others to make the joke first. It’s why the Great Lakes Brewing Company, headquartered in Cleveland, produces an ale called, “Burning River.” It’s a quintessentially Cleveland way of dealing with a potential black mark. Maybe it’s just the way people there learn how to think about things. Maybe it’s bred in those who grow up in Northeast Ohio and absorb its unique survival skills. Maybe it’s something in the water. But, whatever it is, it’s a deeply-embedded philosophy that shapes the way people who were raised in it deal with the world at large. It’s also, I have long maintained, what explains the enduring legacy of one of Cleveland’s other beloved and bizarre folk tales: that of the sixties’ television “horror host,” Ghoulardi.
I’m too young to have watched Ghoulardi when he was on the air—he left Cleveland television in 1966, fifteen years before I was born. But I’ve always known who he was. I knew his image: disheveled lab coat, ratty goatee and raised eyebrows. I knew his catchphrases. Most importantly, I knew he was a marshal of the misfits. What I didn’t know is that he was an uniquely Cleveland production, and virtually unheard of outside of Northeast Ohio. His widest moment of recognition was probably on The Drew Carey Show in the late 1990s, where the star often wore a Ghoulardi t-shirt and once dedicated an episode to his memory. I realize now how strange it must have been for everyone else in the country tuning in. Who or what, they could have asked, is that guy called Ghoulardi?
Like the burning river, the answer is mix of fact and myth, significant not necessarily just for what it was but what people made of it. Like all folk tales, the point of the story is less about what it says and more about what you do with it.
The good news is, there’s an awful lot that you—if you happen to be a dedicated misfit—can do with the story of Ghoulardi.
It started with Universal. In the 1950s, the film studio started releasing packages of their older horror movies for television syndication. As television stations began to air the movies, it may have become evident that the movies, often low-quality and sometimes cheesy, could benefit from a little extra audience enticement. So, as was the habit of television in the day, they supplemented the content with hosted segments, and, inadvertently, created the what became known as the “horror host.” History credits the first widely-known horror host as Los Angeles’s Vampira in 1954, but there were others: John Zacherle,1 who portrayed a character called Roland in Philadelphia and one called Zacherley in New York, and the disarmingly dubbed, “Marvin” in Chicago. Later on, many more, in many more cities, would join their ranks: Sir Graves Ghastly, Chilly Billy, Crematia Mordem and Svengoolie. They grew into a de facto tradition for local television: late night scary movies with themed, often goofy, live hosts.
At some point, Cleveland’s WJW-TV determined they would participate in this tradition, and after a flurry of input from a later overlooked makeup artist,2 a sham publicity contest to pick a name (which they had already selected internally) and the promotion of one of the station’s booth announcers as the host himself, they had their own horror host: Ghoulardi.
The man chosen to play Ghoulardi was Ernie Anderson. Ernie was from Boston, and had found his way to Cleveland through a series of announcer and disc jokey jobs—many of which he ended up fired from. He had a nimble mind, a sharp, wicked sense of humor and a healthy (sometimes) irreverence for authority. He agreed to perform as Ghoulardi because, under the costume, he would be unrecognizable and therefore separated from his “serious” career, and because the station paid him an extra $65 a week to do it.
Ghoulardi’s Shock Theater premiered at 11:30pm on January 13, 1963, hosting the Vincent Price movie, House on Haunted Hill. The movie wasn’t the main draw, though. It never would be. Instead, Ernie Anderson, given free reign on live television late at night, turned Shock Theater into his own playground. He wore a lab coat studded with mismatched message badges, a patently fake goatee, a perilously perched fright wig and sometimes a pair of sunglasses missing a lens. He adopted an inconsistent, unplaceable accent peppered with beatnik slang. He created a range of identifiable phrases: “Hey, group!” “Turn blue,” and “Stay sick.” But, most significantly, he displayed a stunning lack of concern for any rules of television propriety whatsoever. He made fun of the movies he hosted, telling viewers they shouldn’t even bother to watch them, on one occasion telling them to look close to see the strings on the flying saucers. He made fun of the station’s most well-known figures, and kept a cardboard cutout of respected newscaster Mike Douglas in the studio to throw darts at. He mocked viewers who wrote letters asking him to “be less obtrusive” during the movies. He popped up transposed in the movies themselves, poking at the flimsy plots and sets. He lit firecrackers, which were (and are) illegal to use in Ohio, on camera, and later delighted fans by blowing up firecrackers and toys they sent in to him.3
He created a range of identifiable phrases: “Hey, group!” “Turn blue,” and “Stay sick.”
The spirit of creative anarchism extended to the rest of the studio, and empowered engineer Chuck Schodowski to experiment with video effects, intercut odd bits of film (such as the infamous “Gurning Man”)4 and to use his favorite blues, progressive rock and, of course, polka music as soundtrack. Several others were implicated along with Anderson as perpetrators of the ongoing skit, “Parma Place,” simultaneously a send-up of the currently popular soapy drama Peyton Place and a good-natured (maybe) ribbing of Cleveland suburb Parma’s Polish-heavy, middle-class population, among which Ernie had once lived and Chuck, at the time, did live. Some residents loved it. Some residents hated it. Everybody recognized it. Tim Conway, a comedian who worked with Ernie before the Ghoulardi days, described this overall as a certain kind of Midwestern humor: “In the Midwest, you make fun of the people next door, the farmers, really down-home life. We were brought up with it, we know what was funny to people. … We would demonstrate to an audience things that an audience had either done or seen, or where they could say to themselves, ‘Gee, I know a person like that.’” Not everybody appreciated the satire, however, and it was eventually dropped. But there was plenty else for Ghoulardi to skewer.
If it wasn’t immediately apparent what this alchemic mix of timing and talent had unleashed on Cleveland, it didn’t take long. By the spring of 1963, about three months after the show started, WJW’s Shock Theater had earned a 56% share of the city’s late-night audience. (By contrast, the Johnny Carson show had 38%.) Fan mail poured in, at one point averaging 4,000 pieces per week, and ended up being stacked so high in the mail room it was declared a fire hazard. The Cleveland Police Department even claimed that juvenile crime in the city that winter dropped by 35%, because all the potential criminals were instead home watching Ghoulardi.5
Ernie Anderson enjoyed Ghoulardi’s success hugely. Not only was it lucrative, it gave him influence. He was suddenly one of the most well-known people in Cleveland. (So much for not being recognized.) The local restaurant chain Manners sold sickly blue-green Ghoulardi milkshakes. The city used Ghouldardi’s image in a campaign against jaywalking (“Don’t jaywalk! Live longer!”). Ernie, a sports fanatic, headed up Ghoulardi All-Stars, a volunteer team that played an exhausting schedule of baseball and football games to raise money for charity. Despite Ernie’s often prickly and unpredictable nature, by all reports he was unfailingly generous to his young fans, staying at events until every autograph was signed and sometimes he was even spotted slipping money to kids. Some of the other perks, like how he claimed he could get out of paying traffic tickets, didn’t hurt, either. In addition to influence, he had freedom. He knew that the station couldn’t get rid of him once he had proved his worth, so he constantly pushed boundaries. The post-Friday-night-antics, Monday morning reprimands from the station became routine. Repeating a stunt that had got him thrown out of other stations, he began riding his motorcycle through the station hallways, eventually leaving tire marks on the wall of the news director’s office and inspiring an unwittingly hilarious official memo: “Please do not ride your motorcycle through the lobby of Norm Wagy’s office anymore.”
Ghoulardi was not universally adored. Like station executives, there were plenty of people who didn’t get it, or who actively disliked it. Most of these people cited reasoning that Ghoulardi was a bad influence on kids. This, frankly, was difficult to argue against. Counter-culture accessories, anti-authoritarian sentiment and explosives did not a good American citizen of the early 1960s make. But, of course, that was the point.
But even juvenile contrariness can’t completely explain the massive amount of popularity Ghoulardi did enjoy. It wasn’t just that Cleveland was so bowled over by the revolutionary concept of someone dressing up in weird clothes, talking funnily and introducing bad horror movies on TV. It wasn’t even the novelty of firecrackers or sly wisecracks. Ernie himself, years later, said: “I think probably it was a sensation because it was the first time in the history of television … that somebody came on and was honest.” He was right. In the parlance of our own time, Ghoulardi simply gave zero fucks. He was hip and weird and funny and invincible. He poked holes in the idyll of mid-century Middle America. He made people in the establishment nervous. He got away with anything he wanted to. He wasn’t cowed by anyone, and he wasn’t silenced by anyone. When asked by Chuck if he ever asked for clearance before a skit or stunt, Ernie said: “I don’t ask for permission because if I did, they’d tell me don’t do it. … If I ever did anything they didn’t appreciate, they’d tell me, ‘Don’t do it again,’ but meanwhile I’ve had it on the air.” In the end, he would win. And in Cleveland, that town used to being downtrodden, overlooked and/or made fun of by others, he was their own folk antihero.
Ghoulardi, as a television host, didn’t last. He might have got too big too quickly. He might have just been destined for a short life. In either case, soon, the risk of Ghoulardi’s antics were outweighing their value, and Ernie Anderson himself was getting bored of the schtick. He also probably felt cramped by Cleveland. By the end of 1963, he had resigned, and was on his way to California, where he would build a successful career as a television announcer.6
But Ghoulardi as an icon was barely getting started. In the years that followed, the seeds he planted in the minds of young Northeast Ohioans would grow, bear fruit and plant seeds of their own. It became first and most clearly apparent in a new kind of music: punk rock. Cleveland bands the Dead Boys, the Electric Eels, the Mirrors and the Styrenes all cited watching Ghoulardi as kids as a seminal influence on their music. Jerry Casale of Devo, founded in Akron, credited one of the movies Ghoulardi hosted, The Island of Lost Souls, as the source of their distinctive line: “Are we not men?” The band the Cramps latched on to the Ghoulardi vibe wholesale, and created an entire repertoire of trashy, campy, B-movie-infused punk, and named their 1990 album Stay Sick! in the host’s honor. Beyond music, independent film director Jim Jarmusch, who hailed originally from the Cleveland suburb of Cuyahoga Falls, also told stories of growing up watching Ghoulardi. “His whole anti-hierarchical appreciation of culture definitely influenced me,” Jarmusch said.7 And, of course, comedian Drew Carey displayed his Ghoulardi appreciation for the whole country to see. More subtly, Ernie Anderson’s son, Paul Thomas Anderson, became an acclaimed film director whose films seemed touched with the legacy of his father’s freewheeling style.8 David Thomas, of the bands Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu, gave a presentation at a conference in 2005 about how Ghoulardi inspired his own merry band of misfits, summing up that they turned to muisc because it seemed “the most readily available masquerade through which to pursue artful mayhem, to practice the narrative extremism of the host mediator, and to leave a mark worthy of Mr. Anderson’s approval.”
"His whole anti-hierarchical appreciation of culture definitely influenced me.”
While the areas of art and creation Ghoulardi’s influence spread through were different and distinct, it was easy to see the common thread: “Ghoulardi’s Kids” ended up all making culture diametrically opposed to some mainstream. They were punk rockers, they were comedians, they were independents and they were freethinkers. They were often underdogs and they rarely asked for permission. They made a world, deliberately or not, very much in Ghoulardi’s image—and they took it beyond Cleveland.
In the years before his death in 1997, Ernie Anderson rarely revisited his Ghoulardi days. He could sometimes deliver harsh judgments on the city he left behind. In 1978, he said: “I’m not too hip, Cleveland’s too square. Cleveland is a dreadful place.” Some of his friends, like Chuck Schodowski, would smooth over these statements by claiming Ernie didn’t really feel that way, but many another person from Northeast Ohio could tell you that harsh judgments on and underlying appreciation for Cleveland do not have to be mutually exclusive. No one can complain about Ohio like a native. Ernie himself later gave a more nuanced opinion in 1988: “I don’t know if I could have succeeded with the Ghoulardi thing any place other than Cleveland…. Cleveland,” he said, “is what you make it.”
After Ghoulardi, a succession of other local talents continued hosting movies and performing sketch comedy at WJW.9 But the decline of local television programming in favor of wide syndication would eventually put that to rest. The phenomenon of the horror host similarly dimmed, although, between Ghoulardi descendants The Ghoul and Son of Ghoul, Cleveland made one of the longest-running stands for the tradition. However, Cleveland remembers Ghoulardi. Paul Thomas Anderson related his experience visiting the city and realizing for the first time the impact his father had truly had: “I saw some of the clips he did, but I didn’t latch onto it until I took a trip back to Cleveland…. Three steps after getting off the plane, he already had people coming up to him. He wasn’t exaggerating—it was madness how many people loved him.” Every year, around Halloween, fans still gather in Cleveland for Ghoulardifest, generally presided over by Chuck Schodowski, and raise a milkshake to their departed hero.
In the interim, Cleveland hasn’t changed that much. Granted, the Cuyahoga hasn’t caught on fire recently, and a steady underground of music and art has continued to grow, and the Indians have even been in a few World Series runs—but the city can’t seem to shake that reputation. Maybe it no longer wants to. At this point, why would it bother? Now, the reputation is part of the fertile soil. The lessons Ghoulardi unknowingly imparted have been internalized, and maybe those of us who have inheirited them recognize that without the unique mix of constraint and disappointment to rebel against, we might not have learned them in the first place. Ghoulardi’s lessons are essential but simple: be honest, think for yourself and stay free. There are, when all is said and done, far worse places to come from.
- 1 At age 97, John Zacherle is graciously amiable about his past as a horror host and still makes appearances at conventions. And, as this New York Times profile from 2012 reveals, he really likes Judge Judy.
- 2 Ralph Gulko came up with the concept of the Ghoulardi character, as a variation of one he had been using for Halloween, and contributed the basic look—but he was not recognized at the time for the idea and had no share of the subsequent credit or revenue.
- 3 This practice stopped after someone sent in a particularly large explosive. Studio engineer Chuck Schodowski recalls telling Ernie that it looked too dangerous to light, which he immediately recognized as the wrong thing to say. Ernie, characteristically, interpreted it as a challenge, and lit it. The studio staff emptied every fire extinguisher in the station to contain the resulting fire. These explosions, and the quieting thereof, also inspired another catchphrase—my favorite one, in fact. I was well into my twenties before I fully comprehended that “Cool it with the boom-booms!” was not a thing that normal people said, or were even aware of. Which is a shame. It’s a great phrase. I still reflexively murmur it to myself when I get needlessly worked up about something.
- 4 “Gurning” is the act of facial distortion, and a film clip of a man doing it at a competition paired with the Rivingtons’ “Papa Oom Mow Mow” would be one of Chuck Schodowski’s most distinctive contributions to the show.
- 5 Ernie himself countered this claim with the logic of Cleveland particularly harsh winter in 1963, saying: “No one wants to steal a car in a blizzard.” While it’s likely the CPD was exaggerating or inaccurate here, others have pointed out that it was also possible there was in fact an overlap between people with a disrespect of law and authority and people who tended to respond positively to Ghoulardi.
- 6 You may not know Ernie Anderson by name, but chances are, if you’re of a certain age, you would know him immediately by voice. In the 1970s and 80s he was the voice of ABC, and also gave the distinctive introduction to The Love Boat. He also announced, from 1989-1995, America’s Funniest Home Videos, which also was the show that harbored more than one writer from the 90s production that most successfully evolved the “horror host” and bad movie concept: Mystery Science Theater 3000.
- 7 While Jim Jarmusch didn’t make music himself, he was influenced by the music played on Ghoulardi’s show, which always came from the fringes. He would later cast one of those musicians, horror/blues legend Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (also from Cleveland) in his film, Mystery Train.
- 8 Ernie Anderson appeared in a small role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature film, Hard Eight, although PTA declared his father a horrible actor. Later, he acknowledged that the fireworks scene in Boogie Nights was likely inspired by his father’s stories of “boom-booms” on the Ghoulardi set. PTA also honored Ernie in choice of production company names, calling his own Ghoulardi Films.
- 9 Including Chuck Schodowski, who went in front of the camera first with Hoolihan and then John Rinaldi. Big Chuck and Lil’ John was on the Cleveland airwaves until 2007.
- Feran, Tom and R.D. Heldenfels. Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride. Cleveland: Gray & Company, Publishers, 1997.
- Greenfield, Matt. “Cleveland’s Horror Host Heritage.” Rust Belt Hammer, October 21, 2015. http://rustbelthammer.com/2015/10/21/clevelands-horror-host-heritage/.
- Heldenfels, Rich. “Ghoulardi Goes On—and Not Just in Old TV Clips.” Akron Beacon Journal, October 16, 2015. http://www.ohio.com/entertainment/ghoulardi-goes-on-and-not-just-in-old-tv-clips-1.634894.
- Hudgens, John E. American Scary. DVD. Cinema Libre Studio, 2006.
- Hoffman, Phil. Turn Blue: The Short Life of Ghoulardi. Western Reserve Public Media, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7TcPI-vCDI.
- Latson, Jennifer. “The Burning River that Sparked a Revolution.” Time, June 22, 2015. http://time.com/3921976/cuyahoga-fire/.
- Petkovic, John, “Cleveland’s Ghoulardi Went on the Air 50 Years Ago and Cast His Spell over the City.” The Plain Dealer, January 13, 2013. http://www.cleveland.com/tv/index.ssf/2013/01/clevelands_ghoulardi_went_on_t.html.
- Rotman, Michael. “Cuyahoga River Fire.” Cleveland Historical, accessed January 12, 2016, http://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/63.
- Thomas, David. “Ghoulardi: Lessons in Mayhem.” Lecture at EMP Pop Conference, 2005. http://www.ubuprojex.com/archives/mayhem.html.
- Urycki, Mark. “50 Years Later, Ghoulardi Lives—in Punk Rock.” National Public Radio, December 28, 2013. http://www.npr.org/2013/12/28/256115656/50-years-later-tvs-ghoulardi-lives-in-punk-rock.
This article’s playlist is a collection of music originally played on the Ghoulardi show—a fun mix of 50s blues and progressive rock— plus music from some of the punk bands influenced by Ghoulardi, and, just to round it out, Randy Newman singing about the burning river. To read with a soundtrack, hit play to start the playlist on Spotify, then go back to the top.