John Zacherle, a.k.a. the "Cool Ghoul” and “Roland,” one of Philadelphia’s most beloved television and radio personalities, died on October 27, 2016 at the age of 98.
Hometown boy makes ghoul
A native of Germantown and a University of Pennsylvania graduate, Zacherle broke through in this market in 1957. After a couple of stints as a radio and television actor on WCAU TV, he was named as the host “Roland,” of late night TV’s Shock Theater.
Unique for its time, the focus of the program was to have Roland interrupt screenings of grade Z horror pictures with various skits, often involving coffins, severed heads, tombstones and hip asides, all punctuated by his trademark maniacal laugh. And all of it, by the way, was unscripted. The bottom line was that Zacherle was hip. Jazz musicians loved him and often tuned him in after their gigs.
Though Shock Theater only ran in Philadelphia for 92 broadcasts through 1958, the host was so popular that his local personal appearances here, often in tandem with American Bandstand’s Dick Clark, drew tens of thousands. And yes, his recording of Cameo Parkway’s “Dinner with Drac,” was said to be bankrolled by Clark and colorful area clothier Ben Krass. A pre- “Monster Mash” Top 10 hit, the novelty tune had lyrics such as, “A dinner was served for three/At Dracula's house by the sea/The Hors d'Oeuvres were fine, but I choked on my wine/When I learned that the main course was me!”
Inspiration and innovator
He was able to parlay this fame to move Shock Theater to a bigger market, New York City’s WABC, in 1958. His other gigs there throughout the years included hosting a children’s cartoon show, a teenage dance program, stints as a morning radio host, and, believe it or not, master of ceremonies at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. One can hear his voice introducing the Grateful Dead on the album Dick’s Picks, Volume 4.
He continued making regular radio, television, and B-movie appearances, and was a major attraction at horror movie conventions, until shortly before his death. He was inducted into Philadelphia’s Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2010.
As for his influence, Zacherle was the inspiration for other television horror movie hosts like Elvira — who actually copied the mid-1950s television horror movie hostess Vampira — and Philadelphia TV station WPHL’s low-rent Dr. Shock, who attempted to copy Zacherle’s makeup and schtick, but without his hipness, intelligence, or class.
Zacherle never claimed to be an innovator, but the fact is he was among the first television and radio performers to break down the sacred “fourth wall,” make fun of whatever medium he worked in, and generally not take television, radio, or himself seriously. Like David Letterman decades later, Zacherle knew he was on television and made sure the viewer knew he knew it as well.
Further, he was one of the first television performers to demonstrate the power of local television. Sure, there were others before him in our region — think “Pete” Boyle, father of actor Peter Boyle and host of Chuck Wagon Pete and Uncle Pete Presents the Little Rascals — but only Dick Clark’s popularity and transition into a national name rivaled Zacherle’s.