October 8th, 1977 was a pivotal day in the development of my psyche. It was a Saturday night and I was a fifteen year old tenth grader living in a suburb east of Cleveland Ohio. In fact, even with all the travelling and moving about I’ve done I am still just six miles away from that house.
Like most adolescent males I was a bit of a night owl and I had a habit of staying up late on the weekends watching whatever was on the idiot box until the American flag streamed across the cathode tube around two thirty am or so and the television signed off for the night. You old enough to remember that? The TV used to sign off every night to the strains of some military band playing the Star Spangled banner.
Of course this was decades before a hopped up soap pushing Billy Mays ruled the wee hours of the day. Heck, good portions of the shows I would watch were in black and white. The hosts who commanded the late night roost were local folks like Big Chuck and Hoolihan and my personal favorite The Ghoul. (I missed the infamous Ghoulardi by a couple years) Big Chuck was a producer of the earlier Ghoulardi show and Hoolihan was an AWOL weatherman – the pair took over the late night slot when Ghoulardi (Ernie Anderson) left the Cleveland market for greener fields and network TV in LA.
These cats would play whatever cheap horror flick they could get their hands on and sprinkle comedy skits in during intermissions. The Ghoul, Ron Sweed – who coincidentally was also a production assistant on the Ghoulardi show – a gig he landed by showing up at one of Anderson’s appearances dressed in a gorilla suit subsequently received permission from Anderson to resurrect the character) was an aficionado of blowing things up on set with fireworks and inserting sound effects into the terrible movies that he showed.
I remember one occasion when a viewer had sent in a homemade volcano with a fuse at the top with the instructions to only light the IED outside in an open space. The Ghoul debated with the camera – should I light it or not? I was yelling at the screen “Light it Light it!” And I’m sure due to my prodding; he fired the homemade Vesuvius up. The thing filled the studio with smoke and sparks and Sweed, choking gagging and laughing, had to cut to commercial – truly great television.
Now after The Ghoul’s show was over the station would play one more horror flick – this time no sound effects or gags at intermission. Actually there were very few intermissions – ad time between one and three in the morning must have been a hard sell in Cleveland Ohio during the seventies. Most times these movies weren’t too scary; the choppy editing making the plot almost impossible to follow sometimes the movies just stopped – no credits nothing and up popped the flag. But every now and then a gem would flicker by. I saw the original Little Shop of Horrors, the Omega man, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in The Pit and the Pendulum and Burn Witch Burn.
Burn Witch Burn – I have absolutely no memory of what the movie was about and it doesn’t matter. I could look it up on the IMDB but I would probably be disappointed because all I know is that as far as I was concerned it was the scariest thing I had ever seen. The movie ends, the star spangled banner plays, an announcer informs me that “we now end our broadcast day” and I watch the screen revert to a test pattern accompanied by a 400 hertz sine wave tone. I’m sitting in a chair – my knees pulled up to my chest two feet or so away from the screen. Eventually the test pattern and tone disappear too leaving only a static and snowy image the sound reverted to a rasping fuzz.
“mom,” I whimper. Then again a little louder, “Mom.” This continues each vocalization getting a bit louder – Mom, MOM, MOOOM!! My mother finally appears in my doorway. “What the hell is wrong with you watching that garbage so late? Go to bed!” So I did.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about – this little event above happened a few years before October 8th 1977. See on the date in question I was watching Saturday Night Live and the musical guest was a 23 year old British singer songwriter named Elvis Costello. I’d never seen anything like it before – he sang “Watching the Detectives”. Well he didn’t really sing it – he snarled it like he hated the camera. He jerked around, knock kneed ducking and diving as if he were trying to escape from the screen, baring his crooked and gapped teeth, giant Buddy Holly type glasses – anti fashionable on purpose – his image evoking lyrics “She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake…” and I distinctly remember thinking that this was important – that this was something new and I liked it. Elvis Costello turned me into a punk that night.
So yesterday – I’m in the grocery store picking up some organic chicken breasts and what do I hear coming over the Muzak? Watching the Detectives - barely audible, I stopped my cart to be sure and there it was. Not a sanitized string version either – it was the single, Costello’s singing backed by the Attractions. Thirty two years from life altering moment to background music for shopping. You know, I wonder if Burn Witch Burn is available on Netflix, maybe I do want to see it again.