WELCOME to a world of terror . . . and a world of comedy . . . welcome to a world of entertainment, with emphasis on a world filled with movies of every kind, but with an emphasis on horror, science fiction and fantasy.
For my world is all of these things, emphasis on things from other worlds or things found in crypts and graves. It’s that “thing” that I do best. Some have said I am nothing to laugh at, but don’t be too sure. You need to seek out volume 1 and volume 2 of THE FUNNIEST COMEDY ICONS OF THE 20TH CENTURY on this website, and you will, perhaps, end up laughing your head off. Literally, perhaps. But if you prefer glimpses into horrible imagery be sure to visit THE SCARIEST: SIGHTS TO SOCK, ROCK AND SHOCK YOU, where you will see the creepiest side of mankind as it lives out its span on This Island Earth.
Okay, so I’m spoofing you a little bit. But not much. I’m John Stanley, one-time host of a series called Creature Features. That program was broadcast for 14 years on Channel 2, KTVU, at that time an independent TV station located in Jack London Square, Oakland, CA. For many years KTVU was famous for its in-house production of news programs, children’s shows, movie showings with special hosts (Dialing for Dollars, for example) and that horror thing I just described.
It was an incredibly popular show that premiered in January, 1971, with BOB WILKINS the initial host, who came to symbolize his job through a yellow rocking chair and a skull with a candle thrust into a hole in its top. The one thing different about Bob: he did not portray a ghoulish character in costume, or bear a name like Ghoulardi or Professor Gruesome or Dr. Bloodletter.
Quite the contrary, he was usually clad in suit and tie, and clutched a cigar in one hand. (Secretly, Bob was nervous about being on TV and needed that cigar and rocking chair to calm his inner fears.)
Another trait about Bob: Often he did not praise the film he was about to show, he usually knocked it to pieces. Told you what was playing on a rival station at the same time of night. That became his trademark and placed him in a category all his own among so-called TV horror hosts, which were the rage from the late 1950s through the coming of cable television in the 1980s, when syndicating movie packages were no longer the trend.
A horror host needed a large package in order to survive month after month, year after year. One more visually appealing thing about Bob: He created the motto “Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong,” and had a sign on his set bearing those same words.
Where Bob Wilkins had come from prior to Creature Features reveals how it all started, at least for him. Working as an advertising executive at KCRA-TV in Sacramento, CA., an NBC affiliate station, he was often asked to host studio parties and special events. His bosses discovered he had a self-effacing sense of humor and got laughs. Because the station had a large supply of syndicated horror and sci-fi movies, one of Bob’s bosses proposed he present those movies. So, on the night of September 15, 1964, he premiered with the Japanese horror feature The Attack of the Mushroom People, for no other reason than he liked the title.
In his introduction he read from a copy of TV Guide so watchers would know what was playing on rival channels. On Monday morning Bob’s advertisers (car dealerships in nearby Roseville) called the station to express their anger about what Bob had done to knock his own movie. Like blowing out all four tires on a brand new Lexus. But, when the advertiser learned that Bob’s show had scored the highest in the ratings for his time slot, he asked if Bob was available to have lunch with the car dealers as quickly as possible. Thus did Seven Arts Theater begin and flourish for the next few years, until Bob made the transition to Channel 2 in Oakland. (This happened primarily because of Tom Breen. In the beginning Tom had worked at KCRA as an executive until he was hired by KTVU to be its program director. Once at Channel 2, Tom came up with the idea to lure Bob away from Sacramento to the Bay Area, hosting Creature Features every Saturday night. Not in a late-night time slot, but at 9 p.m., meaning Bob was competing with the three major networks of that period. It was gutsy but it worked. His ratings thrived upward through the decade.
Bob Wilkins kept the series alive for eight years. During that time, on a late afternoon daily show, he also portrayed a costumed character named CAPTAIN COSMIC, who specialized in showing old serials and Japanese sci-fi TV series. His wife Sally once remarked that he better not wear that costume if they were out together in public. Bob also had his own advertising agency (Chucky Cheese Pizza restaurants became his most lucrative client), plus he did a show similar to Creature Features for another station in Sacramento.
By late 1978, he felt he was burned out and announced his resignation. At that time I was an entertainment writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, doing exclusive, one-on-one interviews with celebrities from the sciences of theater, night clubs, movies and television. (And out of which would emerge my two-volume collection of interviews with famed comedians and comediennes, THE FUNNIEST COMEDY ICONS OF THE 20 CENTURY).
I was at my office one evening when I received a call from Judith Morgan Jennings, KTVU’s main publicist. She told me Bob would be leaving the station soon. Because I had been the first Bay Area reporter to interview Bob about the coming of Creature Features in January of 1971
I thought this news would make a good story for the Chronicle. So I called Bob at his home in Oakland, CA. During our conversation, Bob proposed that I try out for his soon-to-be-empty job slot. I told him I was strictly a writer and had no experience as a TV personality. He pushed that aside quickly and told me I was very knowledgeable about sci-fi and horror literature and film, the reason he had often invited me to be a guest on his show. And that I should try for the job of horror host. He would immediately recommend me to executives at Channel 2.
Thinking I would hear no more about replacing Bob, I was shocked to receive a call a week later from Ray Jacobs, one of Bob’s bosses, who said he wanted to meet me for lunch. The lunch with Jacobs and program boss Tom Breen led to me doing a “screen test” one Saturday afternoon at the station.
Afterward, feeling that I didn’t have a chance in hell of getting the job, I told my wife Erica I had blown it. “Let’s get the hell out of here and go home so I can get drunk.” Christmas Eve came soon after with a phone call from Ms Jennings, the KTVU publicist. During a Christmas party at the station, she told me, she had overheard two executives talking about how they had “selected John Stanley” to replace Bob Wilkins.
And so it came to pass that I took over Bob’s role in the early weeks of 1979, and would continue to host the show Saturday nights through the ultimate cancellation on Sept. 1, 1984. It was a delightful time for me. I soon realized there was no way I could replace Bob Wilkins; all I could do was be myself and prepare guest segments and movie descriptions as well as I could.
Because of my connections with movie studios and TV networks in Los Angeles, I was able to invite major stars to be my guests, usually connected to sci-fi or horror films, but not always. Just having a name sitting next to me kept the ratings alive.
For example, I landed Charlton Heston about a film he made with his son Fraser Clark Heston, Mother Lode, and it was a fantastic moment. So were my interviews with Ray Bradbury, Robert (Psycho) Bloch, Jim Henson of The Muppets team, director Richard Franklin, British Hammer star Christopher Lee, Roger Corman, Arnold Schwarzenegger (we met twice for on-camera interviews), Anthony Perkins, Karl Malden, Chuck Norris, and even Whoopi Goldberg, on the eve of her moving to Hollywood to become a film star.
One of the most memorable moments was in 1982 when I ventured to Paramount Studios in Hollywood for the premiere of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I came back with exclusive interviews with Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Ricardo Montalban and other series regulars: DeForest Kelley, James Doohan and George Takei. (These moments, and many more, live on through my DVD collection, which you can check out on this website.)
One of the neatest arrangements was with Walt Disney Studios. Their Bay Area publicists would arrange to have the star of Disney’s newest film release in San Francisco on Friday, knowing that was my day of taping. Then that evening I would don my journalist’s cap and meet that same star at Ernie’s Restaurant in North Beach. Double moments of excitement and glory.
And I loved it as long as it lasted.
But it is still Bob who is best remembered by his legions of fans who came out to see him again from 2000 through 2007 when he and I began attending Wondercon conventions and other specialty shows around the Bay Area. That would include the Parkside Theater in Oakland where Will “The Thrill” Viharro would put on special programs showcasing Bob and myself.
All this new activity started in 1999 when I was approached by a long-time Creature Features fan, TOM WYRSCH, who soon after brought out two delightful books: The Bob Wilkins Scrapbook and The John Stanley Scrapbook. During that time numerous DVDs featuring highlights from our old shows became popular with the fans as did those scrapbooks by Tom Wyrsch.
What a guy. He really shook Bob and me awake and brought us back into the public eye. I also wrote and published I Was a TV Horror Host in 2007 through my own publishing company, Creatures at Large Press. One year later Wyrsch produced a very popular documentary about our series, Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong, which is still selling along with many other DVD sets featuring Bob Wilkins.
Bob passed away in January, 2009, but is still beloved by those legions of fans. In fact, even today some fans mistake me for Bob, making reference to his cigar smoking or his yellow rocking chair or the skull at his side with a candle wedged into its brain – three of the symbols that supported that sign on the wall reading:
“Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong”
During those years of Creature Features‘ popularity I continued as an entertainment writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and was able to cover many of the horror and science-fiction icons of the era, such as Vincent Price, William Shatner, Gene Roddenberry, Christopher Lee and countless others. Over the years I also produced six editions in THE CREATURE FEATURES MOVIE GUIDE series, which reviewed in alphabetical order literally thousands of genre films and TV movies. At one time I was seeing and reviewing as many as six movies per week. The fourth edition is the only one still available, and it can be ordered on this website. So can many DVDs containing original Creature Features material.
WHY A NEW WEBSITE?
I wanted to create a new setting in which I could bring you material about my many years as TV host and entertainment writer. I have a large collection of photographs I hope to share with you, highlighting some of the most horrid visuals presented in films. I also have a large collection of photos autographed by famous personalities from all walks of show business. And literally, I have hundreds of personal, one-on-one interviews with celebrities I want to bring to life again. There are scores of motion pictures I reviewed for the Chronicle and I hope to bring those back to life as well. Many of these films are probably now lost and/or forgotten, and they might give this website a greater life. God willing, I hope to bring you new material on a monthly basis, so be sure to check out this website now and again.
Hang in there, fans. The best is yet to come. – JOHN STANLEY