Entertainment/ Pop Culture Contributor
On behalf of Golf Center of Arlington
Every Saturday night at 9 PM CST for the past 4 years MeTV, which stands for Memorable Entertainment Television, has brought a colorful, ghoulish comedic character named Svengoolie into the homes of millions of viewers across the country. Ever since the show became a regular Saturday night feature on the MeTV network nationwide fans have made the show one of the most popular programs on their schedule. The late night horror host Svengoolie is brilliantly portrayed by Chicago native Rich Koz. The format of the show each week hosted by Koz is to show classic Universal horror films and sci-fi movies.
To get into the character of Svengoolie, Koz wears thick makeup around his eyes, a mustache and goatee, a fright wig, all black clothing and a black top hat, along with a tuxedo jacket over a bright red open-collared button-down shirt. Before and after commercial breaks, Svengoolie presents sketches, tells corny jokes and performs song parody spoofs of the film being aired and people absolutely love it. Since MeTV has begun airing Svengoolie, fans around the country have gotten to know the show and come to embrace Rich Koz in the role, but ask anybody growing up in the Chicago area over the past 4 decades and they’ll let you know he’s a Chicago icon. His shows have impacted generations of people from the windy city who claim Svengoolie as their own.
The original Svengoolie show began in Chicago on WFLD TV with Jerry G. Bishop playing the title role from 1970 to 1973. The show’s original title was “Screaming Yellow Theater” with host Svengoolie. I asked Rich if it was true that while he was going to college at Northwestern he submitted material to Bishop for the show.
“Yes, I was just a fan of his radio and TV work,” recalled Koz. “He was a longtime DJ and he was doing voiceovers at the TV station and just happened to be the announcer on duty during the Friday night horror movies. He ended up at first just doing the voiceovers for characters and doing shtick and stuff and he encouraged people to send in jokes so I started sending him stuff. As the show progressed and it became an actual on tape video program he realized that I was a broadcast student and asked me if I could write a parody of this or that certain local commercial. He liked what I was doing and he came in and was a guest on my college radio station show. He was impressed enough that he had me come in and work with him on his original Svengoolie show which was his idea.”
Koz told me during our conversion that while at Northwestern he studied radio and television, but never graduated because he ran out of money.
“The school told me, ‘We are sorry you have to go, but please keep in touch every month with a check.’ I was fortunate at that time that I was able to hook up with Jerry G. Bishop and he brought me in to work on his shows and when his original Svengoolie show was cancelled he brought me with him to work on radio. I was kind of like an unnamed sidekick. I played all types of characters he would interview and I continued to write for him. Later on it was his idea that I become ‘Son of Svengoolie’ which aired locally in Chicago starting in 1979. Jerry G. Bishop was my mentor. He was the guy that got me into the business.”
I asked Koz if a lot of cities throughout the country had TV horror hosts back then.
“It was a trend that started in the 1950s,” stated Koz. “Back then Universal released a package of horror movies for television. They titled it ‘Shock Theater’. In a lot of the towns that was the name they used for the program. After Vampira (Maila Nurmi) started in California that really caught on. Then you had Zacherley out east and in Chicago Terry Bennett played Marvin, a sort of a beatnik-type ghoul. It comes and goes in cycles. When Jerry (Bishop) started in the early ‘70s he brought it back and by the time I started doing it that was when Elvira came around. In the Cleveland area there has always been a ton of TV horror hosts.”
When did MeTV pick up your show?
“It was in 2012.”
“What were the circumstances that lead to your show being part of the programming for MeTV?”
“In 1995, I started on our sister station WCIU,” answered Koz. “They had this UHF station and for many years they ran Univision programming on it. Univision wanted to buy their own station and they inquired about buying this station, WCIU, which was Chicago’s original UHF station. The folks that owned it didn’t really want to sell it. So Univision said, ‘Fine, we’ll buy a different station and pull our programming off.’ My boss, Neal Sabin, who at the time was the programming director at another local station, came to them and said, ‘Here’s what I would like to do. I would like to make your station like all the old classic independent stations’ because there really wasn’t one of those around Chicago anymore. He talked them into it and created WCIU as the ‘U’ and they owned various other smaller stations and one of them he started MeTV on. That took off quite well and that eventually turned into the national MeTV network. He decided that we’ve been doing well in Chicago so let’s give it a shot and put my show on nationally and it’s been very successful thankfully.”
Koz isn’t kidding when he talks about the impact MeTV has had. These days MeTV is America’s number one all classic television network. Since 2005, MeTV has been providing viewers the very best in timeless and memorable television favorites, iconic programs that rank among the most revered and beloved TV shows of all time. When MeTV began broadcasting back in 2005, it was only seen locally in Chicago. By 2008 their viewership extended to Milwaukee as well, and by 2010 MeTV was launched nationally by the Weigel Broadcasting Co. Today people throughout the country tune in to MeTV via their 177 + affiliates covering over 96% of the country.
“MeTV is the most successful of what they call the diginets (digital networks),” added Koz. “We’re pretty widespread across the country and that’s fantastic.”
“You’re famous as a TV horror show host, but I’m curious if as a kid growing up in the Chicago suburbs did you watch those late night horror shows?’
Koz laughed saying, “Some of them I did, but I was pretty small when ‘Shock Theater’ was on. The funny thing is that the only time I would see the show was when we were visiting some relatives and they had it on TV and we were staying pretty late at whoever’s house that it was. Quite honestly as a kid I was scared of everything. I would watch one of these movies and I would have terrible nightmares for days afterwards. It’s funny now that here I was afraid of everything and now it’s my job.”
“What is a typical work week for you as your prepare for your show?”
“I get the movie first and I’m the one that screens it and breaks it down into segments and I take real copious notes through the whole process,” said Koz. “If the film is longer than our time slot will allow I’ll decide what’s going to be cut and how to put it into 9 segments. Then I start writing and do research on the cast in that particular film and any other interesting subplots about the movie. I put it all together and write the bits and then we go into the studio with it to film it.
“It’s so funny because my mom always tells me, ‘I talk to people and they say oh, your son is so lucky because all he works is two hours a week.’ They don’t realize that I work almost six days a week most of the time trying to make everything work. We’re doing post-production on stuff while we are doing pre-production on new shows and then you add in all the appearances I do around the Chicago area especially around this time of the year. It’s a full time job because I work out of my home as well as my office so it’s not like I’m just working two hours a week.”
“Growing up, did you aspire to be in the entertainment industry?”
Koz paused momentarily saying, “Yeah, but it kind of changed. At first I thought I was going to be a cartoonist. When I went to high school they had an FM station there. Since I enjoyed people on the radio and I’m kind of a ham myself I decided that maybe I should give this a try. So I went on the air and I really enjoyed it and I finally realized that, ‘Hey this is something you can do for a living.’ So originally I was aiming more towards radio instead of TV.”
“You have wonderful comedic timing in your shows. Who were your comedy influences?”
“I remember really early on as a kid liking the Jack Benny show and at the time I didn’t know why,” reflected Koz. “Later on I realized it was the writing and the characters that made it work. I was a big fan of Groucho Marks and his quick wit. I always thought I would like to be like him. You could come back really quick with that stuff and be so damn funny. On the radio, people like Jerry G. Bishop, my mentor. When I first heard him I was in high school and I really admired him. Also, Dick Orkin who did the ‘Chicken Man’ radio series. He also had a commercial production house who was a very funny guy that was a great influence on me that I eventually got to work with while he was still working out of Chicago. I got to write things for him and do voices for his commercials. Those people were real influences on me. People like Soupy Sales obviously and some of his influences are visible in things that I do on my show. I’m always perfectly willing to say that I borrowed that from him. Bob Hope was another. In his movies his quick responses were so funny and when he would do his TV specials I always enjoyed those.”
“What kind of feedback do you get from transplanted Chicagoans who have moved away and live all over the country and now have the opportunity to see your show again because of MeTV?”
“I’m so pleased to hear from all these people,” replied Koz. “I get a lot of people writing that they used to watch me when they lived in Chicago and they were sad because they thought they wouldn’t ever be able to see me again. They write, ‘When MeTV came into our area and I found your show it was so cool.’ It’s so great to hear that from people. I’ll tell you one thing I hear the most is, ‘I used to watch you when I was a kid and now I watch you with my kids.’” I take that as a really big compliment.”
“Because your show has a national audience have you had to tailor your program with less Chicago references?”
“Oh yeah,” said Koz. “I have cut back on a lot of the Chicago references, but if you think about it when people watched David Lettermen he certainly was doing a lot of New York jokes. I still leave some of it in because it represents the whole history of our show and what made it work.”
“Your TV show is taped, but I can only imagine over the decades you must have had some funny off camera things that happened.”
“Oh sure,” chuckled Koz. “No matter what you’re doing whether it’s stuff in the studio or if you’re going out doing appearances, there all sorts of odd things that happen along the way, some of which you can’t mention.”
“Have you ever thought about writing a book?”
“People have always been talking to me about it,” he said. “The thing is, right now I just don’t have the time. I keep thinking I should at least be writing stuff down because I know I’m not going to remember it all. When I have time down the road I would love to do it.”
“Speaking of appearances, I know you do a number of appearances in the Chicago area. Do you do them anywhere else?”
“At this point we’ve been on the air about four years all around the country and we’re starting to get a lot of requests to come to different conventions. The furthest we’ve ever gone is into Indiana and Wisconsin a little bit. It’s becoming very evident that we should start considering doing these other conventions in other cities. The problem really is the work schedule. We’ve got so much that has to be done here for the show and still figure out how to make it work for appearances outside the Chicago area.”
“I understand that the younger millennial audiences enjoy watching your show?”
“Yeah they do,” replied Koz. “They’ve never seen anything like this. I’m always impressed by the wide range of our audiences. We got lots of kids who watch and people in their late 30s all the way up to my age and beyond. When I do appearances we’ve got a wide range of ages showing up which is pretty amazing to me and I’m glad that it appeals to so many people. The fact that we’ve been successful nationally has kind of started a new wave of this. I know in a number of cities as far as local broadcasts that a number of stations are trying to do their own horror host thing. It’s almost started the cycle back again.”
“What’s next as you go forward in your career?”
“You know what I do is just so cool,” answered Koz. “The fact that we are successful nationally doing this is something I never thought would happen. I’m happy to ride along with what we are doing now. I think down the road I wouldn’t mind doing radio again because I always enjoyed doing radio and you need less makeup for that. If my show continues for a few more years I’ll be perfectly happy. I wouldn’t mind to not work as hard as I do. One of the things I always say is it’s great that we are so successful now, but I wish it would have happened when I was younger and healthier and I had a little more energy.”
Speaking of health, in 2012 Koz had a real scare as he suffered a massive heart attack. I asked him about his health and how he’s feeling now.
“These days I’m doing pretty well,” stated Koz. “My first heart attack happened ten years before that. On that one I had some blocked arteries and they did an angioplasty. Ten years later I’m sitting at home watching TV and I had a cardiac arrest. It was pretty serious as they had to use the paddles on me twice along the way to the ER. I was unconscious for several days and they had to lower my body temperature just to protect everything. I’m fortunate as they did a double bypass after that and put in a defibrillator and a pacemaker. It happened after Halloween and I don’t remember anything from about Halloween day to about 5 days afterwards. I think that’s good that I don’t want to remember because every time my wife tells me a little bit about some of the things that were going on it is absolutely frightening. She was sitting right next to me and thanks to her quickly calling for help that’s the only reason I’m still around.”
Before ending our conversation I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about all the hoopla going on in Chicago now that the Cubs are in the World Series for the first time since 1945 and haven’t won a World Series title since 1908. They’re playing the Cleveland Indians who haven’t won the championship since 1948. I asked Koz to describe to me the atmosphere in Chicago with the Cubs.”
“It’s pretty unbelievable after such a long drought,” replied Koz. “People are just going nuts here.”
I told Rich about a great book one of my friends from Chicago sent me a while back called “Shock Theater to Svengoolie”. I asked him what he thought about the book that chronicles the history of TV Horror hosts in Chicago starting from the late 1950s to today.
“They did such a terrific job on that book,” said Koz. “That is probably the best and most accurate history of both Jerry G. Bishop and myself. It’s a shame that they just reprinted it, but they didn’t let them update it to mention the MeTV show that we are doing now. Ted Okuda whose one of the authors told me he wishes the publishers would have let them add that in.”
To sum up what Rich Koz has accomplished on Chicago television and radio over the decades having won numerous regional Emmy awards and other accolades along the way would be a daunting task. That would take up more space than my column allows. That’s why I reached out to another icon TV figure from Chicago’s past to put Koz’s career in perspective. I asked the legendary TV kids host Bill Jackson (B.J & Dirty Dragon and Gigglesnort Hotel) who has known Koz for decades to comment on his longtime friend.
“I consider Rich Koz to be the last man standing in creative Chicago television,” said Jackson. “It is no small task to interestingly entertain an audience show after show, and Rich has done just that, and not just week after week, but year after year for what has to be record-breaking decades. A great tribute to his talent is that his indelible Svengoolie, through syndication, is now seen on television stations across the nation. It pleases me all the more that Rich is such a warm, kind, thoughtful human being. I’m delighted to be his friend.”
To learn more about the amazing career of the multi-talented Rich Koz and his show Svengoolie check out www.svengoolie.com. His store is chock full of videos, photos and cool items you can purchase. With Halloween just around the corner make sure to catch Svengoolie Saturday night on MeTV.
Tom Ward can be contacted at www.teetimewithtom.com