When you think of Svengoolie these days, you think of Rich Koz, the personality behind the character.
But to a generation of Chicago TV viewers back in the 1970’s, Svengoolie went by the person who originally created and played the character for Screaming Yellow Theater: Jerry G. Bishop.
Bishop, whose real name was Jerry Ghan, died Sunday in San Diego at the age of 77.
A staple of television since the 1950’s, Bishop offered a contemporary take (for the 1970’s, at least) on the horror-movie host. You can say Screaming Yellow Theater was a pioneer in “movie-mocking”, before Mystery Science Theater 3000 made it popular. In fact, Yellow Theater and Svengoolie helped spawn fare such as MST3K (though indirectly.)
Ghan was born in Chicago in 1936, and landed his first job in broadcasting was at WNMP in north suburban Evanston. Ghan lated surfaced at WCVS in Springfield, IL and WPGC in Washington D.C., before being hired in 1963 at KYW-AM (later WKYC, now WTAM) in Cleveland by PD Ken Draper. Bishop was among a handful of journalists (along with WCFL’s Jimmy P. Stagg) to travel with the Beatles during their 1965 U.S. tour.
When Draper arrived at WCFL in 1966, he brought Bishop back to Chicago, and became a successful morning drive host. But in January 1969, Bishop was replaced by Howard Miller, who lost his long-time morning slot at WIND a year earlier due to controversial comments made after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Miller was a poor fit for WCFL’s younger audience, and was replaced later in the year by Clark Weber.)
Bishop was hired by Field’s (now Fox-owned) WFLD-TV in 1970 as a staff announcer, and hosted afternoon movie showcase Dialing For Dollars. He became an off-camera announcer for new B-movie horror Friday night flick show Screaming Yellow Theater, which debuted on September 18, 1970, and became an on-camera host in mid-1971, referring himself as “Svengoolie” (a play on the word Svengali) – a green-haired hippie vampire who rose from his coffin, wearing a headband, sunglasses, and bell-bottomed pants (remember folks, this is the ’70’s.)
Yellow Theater incorporated numerous pre-recorded audio bits into the show, including reactions to Svengoolie’s usually bad jokes (which would often include a visual gag, in the form of a flying chicken), and featured comedy sketches in between intermission segments, which parodied commercials, TV shows, and songs (similar to what MST3K later did), with Bishop writing much of the material himself. He hired Koz as a writer after he submitted spec scripts to the show.
Numerous celebrities – local and national – appeared on Yellow Theater, including Larry Lujack, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Morey Amsterdam, and Gabe Kaplan, among others.
Screaming Yellow Theater was unexpectedly canceled in September 1973 shortly after new owners took over WFLD. In Bishop’s place was an import from Cleveland called The Ghoul (played by Ron Sweed), which also aired in several markets. Ratings plunged, and the series ended in early 1974.
After Bishop was forced out at WFLD, he returned to morning radio, this time hosting morning drive at WMAQ-AM. In 1978, he moved to San Diego, where he hosted a morning talk show strip titled Sun Up San Diego over CBS affiliate KFMB-TV until the series’ cancellation in 1990. During his twelve-year stint, he won three local Emmy awards. Bishop returned to radio again in 1991 at Oldies stationKPOP-AM in San Diego and returned to Chicago radio in 2003 as a voice-tracker for Clear Channel’s Oldies station WRLL-AM (now Midway’s WVON-AM.) Bishop’s character was inducted into the Horror Hall Of Fame in 2011.
Outside of media, Bishop and his family owned two popular restaurants in the Seaport Village section of San Diego, including a deep dish Chicago pizza and pasta point.
Rich Koz took over the role of Svengoolie in two revival efforts: Son of Svengoolie, which ran on WFLD from 1979-86, and Svengoolie, which has aired on WCIU since 1994 and went national through MeTV on December 17, 2010.
And yes, the rubber chickens are still there and the mocking of Berwyn continues.