Friday, October 29, 2010

On the hardest-working lycanthrope in show business

Just about every city had a horror host at some time in its history. New York had the legendary John Zacherle, the Bay Area had the decidedly not horrific Bob Wilkins, and before he became the voice of ABC television and Parkay margarine (not to mention the father of director Paul Thomas), Ernie Anderson was world famous in Cleveland as Ghoulardi. Even Boston comedian Lenny Clarke had a movie show on WSBK called (creatively) the Lenny Clarke Late Show, featuring Denis Leary and Martin Olson. Back in the day, the horror host was often a second job for someone at the station, like how the weatherman also used to host the kiddie show. This was remembered fondly on SCTV, where Horror/kiddie show host Count Floyd was "actually" the news anchorman Floyd Robertson (both of course played by Joe Flaherty). Kids' shows and horror shows were often the most creative places in television; neither were paid much attention to by the brass, they often shared cast and crew (usually heard laughing from behind the camera), and there was a feeling that they could do anything they wanted. And slowly but surely that creativity was rewarded. More teens and adults started watching, and the shows took on a pop-charm. In most cases, kids show hosts are a beloved as the horror hosts. Sandy Becker, Soupy Sales, Chuck McCann, Bob McAlister...and that's just New York City.

That freewheeling atmosphere is largely gone now. Shows, especially kids' shows, are carefully pored over for anything offensive, valuable lessons are shoehorned in, and gone, gone are the days where violence and slapstick could be seen in its unedited form. So when I hear of a show that throws back to the good old days, all or nothing days, the Kukla Fran and Ollie days, I'm happy to hear about it.

Which is why for the last couple of days, I've been getting emails from a wolfman, apologizing for not catching up with me.

Wolfman Mac and his enhancement talent,
Boney Bob
Mac Kelly is the creator, star and damn near everything else of Wolfman Mac's Chiller Drive-In. He produces the show in Pontiac, Michigan and syndicates it on a number of regional TV channels, and nationally via the Retro TV cable channel network. Of the dozens of local horror show hosts across America, his show has the biggest distribution, in a head-to-head race with Elvira's recently-revived program. But at its core it's an old school low budget local horror show - volunteers running the lights, people bringing extension cords from home, the lot. Everyone pitching in for their love of the medium, like a Hammer horror film made by the Little Rascals. And that is the sum of its charm.

He was happy to agree to an interview, but has been so busy with appointments, appearances, and business meetings that went late into the night we only got to meet up today. The show started as Nightmare Sinema on cable access, got a spot on a local station in Detroit, and just got a national syndication through Retro TV last November, a deal that came just in time.

"It was last October that we got our national syndication," recalls Mac. "I had been contacting RetroTV and a couple other networks for months and months. And I was at one of my advertisers, and it was one of those days where there was NO money coming in. Halloween was coming up, we had no merchandise, we had nothing. And I remember saying, 'I think I've brought this about as far as I can bring it.' And no lie, twenty minutes later I get the call from Retro TV saying 'All right, I'm gonna put your show into 80 million homes, get me some programming immediately. Bye!' Alright, well I guess we're gonna keep this going!'

Getting that national deal wasn't exactly the road to fame and fortune, however. His income comes solely through the ad dollars he can sell for the show. So while he was hustling the show himself when it was local, now he's doing the same thing on a larger scale.

"It's definitely been a labor of love. There was a point over last winter where I was wrapping my tennis shoes in duct tape to keep the snow out. I had to sleep in my studio, because it's carpeted, and it's the only area that's closed in. The building doesn't have any heat, and I had a couple of space heaters, and I slept on couch cushions for months until we had some advertising sold, get back out and get my own place. There was a time, not too long ago that I was homeless, doing this, past the point where a lot of people would say "Give up". I went days, days not eating. And my people would show up at the studio and there would be no sign that I was living there. They'd get there and I'd throw open the doors, "Hey c'mon in, NOTHING's going on!" This has definitely been a struggle, by all means, but we're so close. We're about five, six months away before we're at a position where I can finally compensate myself properly, my cast and crew... But right now, I manage, two times a week, for about sixty episodes, round up thirty to forty volunteers to come in and do a TV show."

He's been offered work on radio, which is where his career started, but he's dedicated to making the show a hit. "First, I just wanted to see if I could do it, and once I proved to myself that I could, I wanted to become a household name, because I loved the horror movies. And now, now that at times this production has brought me literally and physically to my knees, it's a mission. I want to show we've done something new, no one's done this kind of format before, we created it out of thin air. I want to prove we can make a success of this."

He's made a few enemies in the mean time...people he's never even met. "There are people who hate what I'm doing, who want to keep the show off the air, JUST because I keep the show family-friendly. Those people speak out against me, do YouTube videos about me, say that I've got a kiddie show. They don't like that I'm this kind of horror host.

"One of the very few successful horror hosts out there is Elvira. I talked to Cassie (Cassandra Petersen back in April, and she told me there were some plans to be bringing her back. And that's fine. We have a very different show, we have a situation comedy; Seinfeld meets the Munsters. I just went to a convention a few months ago. There's 150 horror hosts in this country. And the only ones doing what we're doing are Elvira and me. The only difference is she has the million-dollar sponsors. When the camera goes off, she gets to be Cassie Peterson again; I gotta get on the phone and sell advertising."

If you watch the show, you'll see the grinning visage of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, High epopt of the Church of the Sub-Genius. But while Mac loves the organization, he defines himself as "spiritual but not religious". He is an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, however, and is legally able to officiate at weddings, something he's done for a couple of years now. He'll be performing a mass ceremony this Halloween, his second annual. But it's a more personal philosophy that's kept him going in this quest to make his dream a reality.

"Before The Secret and laws of Attraction became the chic thing to do, the hot book to read, these were principles I knew as a kid and a teenager, bringing things into my life that I'd work on and focus towards. It's very much how the television came to be. And while there's not any money on the table right now, and I drive a $200 cargo van, I believe with all my heart that this show is about to become successful.

"A lot of people talk about 'When I lose the weight...when the kids get to that age...when the house is paid off' Those times never come, and there's never a good time to do it. And that's been my whole thing this whole time. Even lying in the dark, shivering, knowing that I'm doing something good. And I get cards from kids, drawing pictures of me, and we just keep going. And I know it's gonna pay off, I know it's gonna happen. All the hard work is there."

It is indeed.

Wolfman Mac's Chiller Drive-In runs Saturday nights at 10PM on the Retro TV digital television network. Check their website to see if there's a local station in your area, and check with your local cable channel to get them to pick it up.

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