Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bob Wilkins

Several recent events have made me wax nostalgic. Being a fiftysomething when most of my students are twentysomethings has altered my view of what A Long Time Ago means. I recently taught my algebra students about logarithmic scales, and of course in California the best example is the Richter scale. When I brought up the Loma Prieta quake, the majority of the students had only dim recollections of it. A lot of Laney students were born overseas and weren't here in 1989, and more than a few of them weren't even born then.

I don't think of that as A Long Time Ago, but it's coming up on 21 years. At least it's a history landmark that my students know happened, even if they are hazy on the details.

Here's something young people know next to nothing about. Local programming that people actually watched.

Sometimes in droves.

If you didn't grow up in Northern California in the 1970s, the name Bob Wilkins will likely mean nothing to you. In 1971, he moved away from a station in sleepy Sacramento to the big market San Francisco Bay Area to host a late night double feature of monster movies called Creature Features.

As far as I can tell, there wasn't anybody else anything like him anywhere else.

In the world.

Other horror show hosts camped it up, like Elvira in Los Angeles or Ghoulardi in Cleveland. Count Floyd of Monster Chiller Horror Theater on SCTV is a perfect parody of them. Bob Wilkins was from the fine Midwestern tradition of comedy that includes James Thurber, Bob Newhart and Charles Schulz. All these people looked completely normal, like accountants or regional sales managers or vice-presidents of the local Elks Lodge, but for reasons passing understanding, they were about five to fifteen degrees off from level plumb.

Creature Features was definitely a guy thing, but it wasn't just a nerd thing. For guys my age from the Bay Area, it doesn't matter if you were a nerd or a jock or a stoner, you watched Creature Features. According to the Bob Wilkins page on Wikipedia, there were weekends when more people watched Creature Features than watched Saturday Night Live in its absolute heyday. The thing that was interesting was his comments during the breaks. He actually watched the movies before airing them, and even alone in your house on a Saturday night, you felt like part of a community of people watching these cheesy movies together.

(Note: According to comments here on the blog and on my Facebook link to it, it wasn't just a guy thing. My apologies for my sexist assumption.)

Wilkins passed away last year. All the tributes to him recall a line he said often. "Don't stay up, it's not worth it." This was his way to tell you that the second movie was a turkey, but his fans absolutely didn't care. You might miss something Bob said in the second movie, and you knew your friends at school would know about it and you wouldn't. That was not an option, and since VCRs were still a few years off, you watched the cheesy movie anyway, even against Bob's usually accurate advice.

Between the two movies, he'd have special guests. Before Star Trek conventions were the Big Damn Deal they later became, he would have some actor or actress that played a role on just a couple episodes talk about the Good Old Days. He also interviewed actors and directors from the movies he showed, or people who were serious horror fans. Some of the people were kind of silly, but he interviewed them straight. It was riveting television.

It's hard for me to remember his best lines. These shows weren't repeated over and over, so much of his best material is stuck in the somewhat fading memories of his fans. You can see some clips on The You Tubes. I do recall he would tell you the movies that would be on next week. One introduction sticks in my head to this day. "Next week we will be showing Attack of the Crab Monsters, not to be confused with the Army training film of the same name."

I also remember how his crew would laugh at his best lines. There was no live studio audience, but every once in a while, he'd let go with a perfect gag and the cameramen and sound guys would be laughing their heads off. I remember that with Lon Simmons when he broadcast the Giants games on the radio back in the day as well.

Watchable local TV programming. Must see local programming, in fact! There's no explaining that to young people today. If you weren't there, it's hard to believe it ever existed.

Best wishes to the friends and family of Bob Wilkins, from a fan.


Abu Scooter said...

A local program beating Saturday Night Live? That's amazing.

I can think of only one locally produced program that succeeded as anything other than a horror-movie presentation -- Chicago's Bozo the Clown. (Of course, Bozo went national, but his show started on WGN in the days before cable.)

namastenancy said...

Oh my, the memories. I would take a nap so that I could stay up and watch his Creature Features - otherwise, I'd conk out and miss his remarks. I think that it wasn't just his remarks but his presentation as well. Good times, good memories.

Padre Mickey said...

I didn't watch the show often, but it seemed that every time I DID watch it they were showing Godzilla vs The Smog Monster.

Tengrain said...

I watched it, whenever I was allowed to stay up late, which usually meant I had a sitter, or I was sleeping over at someone else's house.

The thing I remember the most was that he smoked cigars on the air. So... me and my posse, we stole cigars from some adult (I think my grandpa might have been involved) and we tried to smoke them and look all erudite out behind the greenhouse in my friend Jon's backyard. You've never seen such sophisticated kids barfing in your life. I remember Charlie caught his hair on fire somehow, too. Good times.



Anonymous said...

I grew up in Atlanta, and like most cities with burgeoning populations and TV markets across America back in the 60's, we had a local horror movie host as well. Our local host of Friday night's "Big Movie Shocker" was a character who went by the name of 'Bestoink Dooley', and was played with a great deal of prententious flair by a local theatre actor named George Ellis. He was best know for his critical evaluations of the films that he was hosting, often times offering literary allusions to the classics as he tried to explain the underlying allegorical meaning of the pathetic plotlines he was forcing the audience to endure. I can recall on one occasion that the featured film was the SF/Atomic Horror classic "Them!" with James Whitmore (and a few dozen giant ants). Bestoink's lengthy monologue before the movie began was a painfully constructed criticism of the fact that the film's title was grammatically inappropriate, due to the incorrect use of the objective case for the single word title. He carefully explained why the film's title would have been more acceptable if the producer's had chosen "They" or perhaps "Those", but ultimately accepted the fact that such titles might not have met with as much financial success in the marketplace of B grade filmgoing audiences... even if the exclamation point was added for interjection purposes.

- Alan the Librarian

Matty Boy said...

Thanks for the memory, Mr. Librarian. Bestoink Dooley was obviously another interesting and unique take on the role of horror movie host.