Hometown Heroes

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For some reason, I’ve been really interested in the cultural impacts of old late-night “horror hosts” recently. Not even those TV-only ones, and not in some no-real-purpse nostalgic attachment, because I’m honestly not slavishly-reminiscent of a particular one (my weird childhood and broad television viewing, plus being a little too young to have really lobbed onto any that would have been around when I was a kid (plus my parents tended to very strictly-control my TV viewing when I was a wee lad).

Rather, it’s more thinking about just how regional and localized they are, how they had impacts on people like me JUST in the areas they were viewable, where those broadcasts reached late at night on odd channels or at odd and irregular hours, limited by material to show and shifting contracts and other information that we easily-find and follow today but had to scramble and hustle to learn then, sometimes simply experimenting and obsessively-clicking through TV channels for hours at night, hoping to re-find it.

As people more and more have used social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter to create personalities and brands to sell themselves in hilarious (like dril) or monotonous (Film Critic Hulk) ways, a lot of times attaching themselves to particular subcultures in doing so, it’s interesting to realize just how much of that is the natural progression of an older model.

Chiller Theater003Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), Bob Wilkins, Svengoolie, and Al Lewis are some of the ones that immediately come to mind, though those characters are also, in a way, the natural TV evolutions of radio personalities like Dr Demento and Art Bell (radio’s another whole thread but similar enough here), who built brands around the personas they played and the material they covered, not to mention how they approached it (Elvira’s basically the precursor to MST3K as far as I’m concerned).

The fundamental thing though, to me, that separates so many of these, is that they were of an era when local fame was a viable thing, when localized boundaries set by the arbitrary but fiercely-fought over and defended by the newly-created cable companies, regular broadcast TV channels, and the FCC (again, we’re tangentially-close to the related but wholly-separate thread here of how local news, however big, could sometimes spend months if not years being isolated from the national stage simply because of who could receive what TV channels and newspapers).

When I was in grad school, I discovered both the attempts at rebroadcasting and rebranding the local old Channel 11 (if you’re from NY/NJ/eastern PA you know what I mean when I say a “Channel 11 movie”) horror movie feature Chiller Theatre, as well as a newer local TV cable thing called Sci Fi Ninja Theater, a bizarre local cable-access show that featured spotlights of local cons of all stripe, clips of music videos interspersed with anime and horror movies. Lots of it is on YouTube if you’re not in NYC and/or don’t have cable (which I no longer do and a lot of others follow suit).

Here’s the thing about this show; The host is very much familiar to me. I don’t mean like I know him or have ever known him. However, seeing him, I recognize the type, and the type is a familiar trope that’s basically unique to the ecosystem of heaven metal and punk shows on the East Coast done in Irish bars that take cuts of the door higher than usual because they don’t like all the kids and weirdos confusing their usual patrons with their loud music and weird outfits.

Anyway.

It’s a familiar aesthetic and brash personality I know, but beyond that, it’s (regardless of how I feel about the show, which I wrote about almost a decade ago and got some…interesting…fan mail) an attempt to continue the tradition of small-time TV personalities utilizing the cheap and almost-universal medium of local late-night cable, which are very regional. I feel like some of this is lost nowadays with so much material going out there that’s reaching for broad coverage in the flattest and simplest means possible, that loss of localization being seen as necessary through the lens of being a YouTube or Twitter personality that is trying to carve a space out for themselves amongst the impossibly-crowded noise-to-signal-heavy world of the larger Internet Space.

So I know that a lot of them still live on in different ways. I know that we now have critical and legitimate appreciations for them, that they live on in spirit in various forms, that YouTube has preserved so many of them (as much as I hate a lot of the Internet and social media, the amateur archiving that goes on sometimes is incredibly impressive and legitimately Good Work). I know that nostalgia for hard-scrabbling days of finding the things that you like isn’t necessarily that good because we live in an age of plenty, of wide-open spaces to find what helps us learn we’re not alone, even if we’re weirdos. It’s interesting to think though about the impact these local TV heroes have had on a huger cultural/national scale all these years later, now-venerated. It’s too late for a lot of them, which sucks, but also as fan culture and con culture at one point turned towards bringing them into spotlights as cult figures seen as cool (legitimately or ironically), letting those still around how much they mattered to someone.

Vinny from SFNT mattered to me, in the same way Bob Wilkins and Elvira mattered to others, and I hope somewhere, someone starts down that same path to matter to another whole wave of weirdo kids down the line. Because there’ll always be kids down the line looking for monster movies on TV late at night when they can’t go to sleep and have the house to themselves. As there should be.

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