King of the Cardboard Castle

Horror hosts were nothing new to the television airwaves of the 1970s. Since the early 1950s, with the likes of Vampira and Zacherley, and into the 1960s, with Sir Graves Ghastly and Ghoulardi, they provided late-night creature comforts for horror fans both young and old. But while most of their shows have come and gone, one show, Creature Feature, which debuted on WDCA out of Washington, DC in 1973, continues today. Its host, Count Gore de Vol, played by Dick Dyszel, finally gets his due in Brink DVD’s recently released documentary, Every Other Day Is Halloween.

The Transylvanian-accented Count — whose name is a play on satirical author and political essayist Gore Vidal — is an amalgam of various pathos-driven characters derived from Dyszel’s childhood: Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton and the great clown, Emmett Kelly.

“Gore is the king of vampire with great ideas who never succeeds,” jokes Dyszel, 63, speaking to Rue Morgue from his home in Washington, DC. “We just finished editing a movie that’s going up on Saturday, and once again, the tables turn on him. He’s the Homer Simpson of vampires.”

Before Gore, Dyszel experimented with a prototype, M.T. Graves, at WDXR-TV in Paducah, Kentucky. Then, when he took a gig at WDCA, he started with a character named Captain 20, a Spock-eared, jumpsuit-wearing sprite who hosted an afternoon show of cartoons and serials. Dyszel also played Bozo the Clown, and turned the venerable kids’ variety program into a game show. Soon, like scores of other entertainers at local stations across the US before him, he was given his own horror host gig with Creature Feature. The Count was born to introduce a variety of goofy genre movies each week. It was here that kids, such as Every Other Day Is Halloween director C.W. Prather, discovered him.

“I watched Bozo in the morning, Captain 20 in the afternoon, and when I was about nine or ten I began staying up late to watch Count Gore De Vol,” reminisces Prather. “Even though he is kind of the iconic ‘vampire’ character, the fun he was having resonated and was contagious. He allowed himself to be the butt of a joke and underneath it all, you can tell he gets it and keeps moving forward. If there’s a mistake during the show, he’s likely to stop and point it out.”

Footage of these early shenanigans is quite rare because a station with a limited budget would reuse the tapes, worth $300 at the time, until they eventually fall apart. (“The fact that anything survived is amazing,” Dyszel says.” “It’s like The Tonight Show — they don’t have anything from the first episodes.”) Luckily, he possessed the foresight to preserve some of the tapes. A portion of that salvaged footage — which Dyszel has donated to the US National Archives — appears in Every Other Day is Halloween.

Dyszel says he loved the looseness and freedom that the show offered but had no direct input into the selection of the films themselves (until the 1980s). Yet it’s fitting that some of the first ones broadcast were science-fiction flicks from the 1950s, such as Them! and Tarantula — the very films he adored as a kid growing up in Chicago.

Although Creature Feature was the first horror host to air Night of the Living Dead uncut, often the movies were of the more typical schlocky variety, including Attack of the Giant Leeches and Wrestling Women vs. The Aztec Mummy. No matter how bad some of the films were, though, the show was respectful and rarely stepped into the frame while the film was broadcast to interact with them, a horror host staple that went as far back as Zacherley in the 1950s.

“I did not want to interrupt the movies,” says Dyszel. “The few times we did it was like in Phantasm,” when Gore would walk down the hall of the mausoleum [in the movie]; he was never actually interplaying with the film.”

Setting Creature Feature above other horror shows of the mid-1970s — many of which were disappearing due to Saturday Night Live’s takeover of the late-night market — was its old-time burlesque feel, meshed with sexual innuendo and the politics of the era. Kids could talk about it in the schoolyard on Monday morning, while adults guffawed over Gore’s failed attempts to score with the Penthouse Pet of the Year.

“Sometimes I’d ignore the concept of the film and just do something else entirely,” recalls Dyszel. “Burt Reynolds does a fold-out for Playgirl and I could not let him get away with that. I could not let him be America’s sex symbol. So we parodied it by having Gore pose for a centrefold, and when it came time to reveal the outer fold, the rest of me was skeleton!”

Despite the wide appeal of the humour (apparently the Count’s political-themed material made him a favourite of the area’s politicians, who would watch him on Saturday nights at the local pub), Creature Feature also eventually fell to the success of late-night comedy and was cancelled in 1979. Dyszel fought to revive it, and after a five-year hiatus, it returned to the airwaves, featuring a guest appearance from Forrest J. Ackerman.

But by 1987 Dyszel saw the writing on the wall; the station’s new owners no longer saw any viability with in-house production and the show was cancelled again. “They fired the production staff, but kept me around, hoping I’d quite so that they wouldn’t have to pay my pension,” he claims.

At first Dyszel became a DJ in the DC area, but the possibilities of the internet in the ‘90s soon exhumed the Count once more. Although the technology was still very limited in 1998, Creature Feature was re-launched as the world’s first online horror host show at countgore.com and has continued ever since, offering new weekly episodes. The rebuilt set even looks identical to what he used at WDCA, right down to the Vampirella poster inside the lid of the Count’s coffin.

Upon Creature Feature’s digital revival, Dyszel discovered a network of other horror hosts, sharing tricks of the trade via mailing lists and message boards.

“We should have been supporting each other like this all along, but never spoke to each other back in the day,” he says. “We were very protective of our markets. Now we make guest appearances on each others’ shows!”

Prather says that Dyszel’s ability to adapt and evolve is key. “The fact that he’s still doing it and is so encouraging of others who are also doing it, sets him apart.”

While many of those interviewed in Every Other Day is Halloween — including a younger generation of horror hosts inspired by Gore, such as Dr. Sarcofiguy (The Spooky Movie) Karlos Borloff (Monster Madhouse Live) and Penny Dreadful (Shilling Shockers) — remark that while the internet is great, its push-button, instantaneously accessible nature can’t replace the anticipation of waiting for your local TV broadcast.

Dyszel disagrees. Often asked when he’ll return to the airwaves, he says “Why should I? I’m as free as I’ve ever been. I keep telling my producer I’ll retire in 2013, then I’ll have been on the internet longer than I was on television.”

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