Monday, October 12, 2009
Monday Memories - Creature Features in Central Wisconsin
In the pre-cable, pre-vhs days of the 60s and the 70s, one of the few ways that fans of cinematic horror could scratch their spook itch for classic fright flicks was courtesy of the Creature Feature - syndication packages of horror and sci-fi movies that affiliates could telecast to fill up their available hours of local programming. In the major markets, they became fixtures of late night or mid-day schedules, often presented by hosts (Vampira, Ghoulardi, Svengoolie) who became as popular as the films they introduced. While Central Wisconsin never attempted so theatrical a presentation of these classics, there were still opportunities for fans to enjoy the fears and fantasies of the past. After exhaustively searching the web for signs of any documentation of what was offered by Wausau WI area stations, I've found nothing, so what you're about to read is the first draft at the history of these telecasts, with hopefully more to follow in the months to come. Seeing as they were my first exposure to movies that have remained with me to this day, I feel like I owe them a modicum of immortality on the Interweb.
When I was a young 'un, the primary television station in Central Wisconsin was CBS affiliate WSAU (changing its call letters to WSAW in 1981 with a change in ownership). From its sign-on in October of 1954 until 1971, the station broadcast out of Wausau's historic Plumer Mansion, an imposing edifice that quickly gained the nickname "The Castle." This wound up infusing the station's public identity, and the mascot that appeared in all promotional material was Sir Seven, a knight in shining armor. Visitors to the Castle would be greeted by a full suit of armor standing in the foyer; when the station moved to more contemporary digs on Grand Avenue, the mansion was tragically razed, but the suit of armor went to the new locale. I recall a number of classmates saying that they were scared by Sir Seven; he was featured in title cards doing a number of knightly duties, including slaying a dragon. This may be why eventually these station identifiers gave way to scenes depicting the knight in friendlier activities with Wisconsin themes - skiing, snow-mobiling, playing hockey. Sir Seven remained as mascot until the mid 90s, when he was retired for a more contemporary "7" logo.
So when your station has a public image that is medieval, even Gothic, it makes sense to offer a late-night horror movie presentation, right? No, by the late 60s, when the channel began such offerings, their package was designed to appeal to a public still flushed with excitement from man's first steps on the moon. Saturday afternoons became the time for THEATER X, and while no footage remains of the opening (perhaps someone will read this and prove me wrong), I well remember its title card; a lunar landscape - complete with stalagmite-like rock structures - with a comet blazing overhead, "Theater X" superimposed on the comet's body. Eerie electronic noises filled the soundtrack, and a voice began an ominous litany of scientific buzzwords of the time -
"Fall-out...voices from space...laser beams...genetic mutations...extra-sensory perception..."
Another voice entered and announced the presentation for the day...and we were off! The foundation for Theater X was a syndication package offered by Screen Gems entitled (appropriately enough) "X," fifteen movies that were available for purchase in 1963. The initial collection was Battle in Outer Space, Curse of the Demon, The H-Man, The Electronic Monster, The Giant Claw, Mein Kampf (!?!), Mothra, The Silent World, The Stranglers of Bombay, 12 to the Moon, The 27th Day, We'll Bury You!, The Woman Eater and The Zombies of Mora-Tau.
As you can see by the listing, not all movies were Sci-Fi; clearly Theater X had a "big tent" policy. (Hopefully not so big as to include Mein Kampf. Yes, there are such horrors in the world, but for a Saturday afternoon Creature Feature? Nein, nein.) I first saw the series when I was six or seven years old, and it had been airing prior to my discovery. I recall seeing eight of the above movies - Mothra was my first - and since Screen Gems was the only way to acquire these pictures at the time, I am assuming that WSAU had purchased the package rights. However, they were augmented with a number of other films as well, many of them Universal titles from the 50s. Until I can get to Wausau some day and ask to see station records (assuming they still exist), I recall these movies as well: The Blob, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Cult of the Cobra, Little Shop of Horrors, The Projected Man, Revenge of the Creature, The Wasp Woman. (They never dipped into Universal's classic horrors from the 30s and 40s.) In all the time I was watching it, the station did not repeat a movie in this timeslot. There was never any teaser for the next week's show. I became used to waiting for the new TV Guide to arrive to find out what wonders and amazements the next Saturday afternoon would hold. The haiku of the fingernail plot summary was enough to set my heart racing. I was going to see The Zombies of Mora-Tau!
For a number of months, it seemed that WSAU was able to maintain that Saturday afternoon slot for movies, but eventually Theater X became pre-empted for a variety of sports and special events. Eventually the show just disappeared from the line-up. Truth be told, Theater X may not have been on the air for any longer than a year or so, but for a time, Saturday afternoons became sacrosanct, and my parents knew that, no matter where we may have gone in the morning, I had to be in front of the TV by 1:00 PM.
WSAU did not give up on the format; they merely moved it to a time more suitable for the shocking and horrifying. Sometime during the 70s horror explosion, following the success of The Exorcist, the channel premiered 7 Cemetery Road, after CBS had aired repeats of NBC's "Mystery Movies" with Columbo, McMillan and Wife and others. Unfortunately, this one snuck up on me. The channel did absolutely no promotion in advance, and I found out from friends what was happening late night Fridays. Even the reliable TV Guide was no help; frequently the listing said nothing more than "Movie." Not being much of a ten year old night owl at the time, a start time of 12:30 AM or later was usually more than my little constitution could take, but I did manage to take in a few of them over the years, including The Monolith Monsters. Amazingly, the intro to the series survives on YouTube...
At some point in its history, the series changed its name to 7 Scream Theater.
The other local affiliate, WAOW (ABC) never entered the Creature Feature sweepstakes, save for one experiment during the summer of 1974. It was Ghoularama, airing Fridays at 10:30 PM. Again, nothing exists about this series on the Interweb, but I recall its opening; stock horror music punctuated by one very anemic scream, accompanying solarized footage of an ant, magnified hundreds of times, twitching its mandibles and cleaning its face. Are you frightened yet, kids? These movies were much more recent in vintage, including such Paul Naschy features as Frankenstein's Bloody Terror and Assignment Terror, as well as The Astro Zombies, Frogs, Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (yes, the Al Adamson abomination) and Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster. I also remember that there weren't many films in this package, as each one got replayed at least once during that summer.
So there you have it, phriends; not exactly New York's Chiller or Chicago's Shock Theater, but it's what I had. It impresses upon me the importance of remembering that you only have to see a movie once for it to have an impact. All Channel 7 had to do was give me a crack at The Tingler or The Blob, and my febrile little imagination took over after that. To this day, these remain some of the most treasured of my movie memories, and were it not for WSAU's efforts, I often wonder when I would have been able to see them. And so I intend to keep digging for more information on these series, and rest assured, gentle reader, you'll be the first recipient if and when I find it!