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The Monsters of Midnight

The Monsters of Midnight

Photography: Casey Rearick

The special effects may be anything but special. The cast can be wooden with a budget nonexistent. Odds are, there’s better writing found on the walls of bathroom stalls.

Owing to a dynasty of midnight movie hosts that Cleveland has enjoyed over the years, these celluloid abominations prove to be some of our most enjoyable film watching experiences. Where this passion may have once found exposure on public access and local antenna channels, advances in technology and access to audiences through streaming sites and social media have led to a change of venue for which not all hosts are on board.

In the beginning, there was Ghoulardi.

When WJW Channel 8 created a late-night movie series in 1963, it tapped the station’s in-house announcer, Ernie Anderson, as host. Helming the program under the guise of his wigged and spectacled alter-ego, Ghoulardi, Anderson brought a singular beatnik anarchy to the role that would come to define the genre to this day.

Where other hosts rooted themselves to the past by portraying characters pinned to the tropes of their genre, Anderson delivered improvised non-sequiturs as self-aware as they were self-deprecating. He was not only considered a contemporary to his young audience, in many ways, his comedic sensibilities were far ahead of his time. So intrinsic was he that the Cleveland Police Department reported a 35 percent drop in crime throughout the city during his broadcasts, a fact that the aloof Anderson once dismissed saying, “Nobody likes to steal the car in a blizzard.”

After Anderson left for the West Coast in 1966 to pursue acting, two separate dynasties diverged. In one line, Anderson’s on-screen partner, “Big” Chuck Schodowski, was matched with local photogenic weatherman, Bob “Hoolihan” Wells, to produce Hoolihan and “Big” Chuck, which continued on Channel 8 as their predecessor had. The two delivered a blend of questionable horror films and endearing no-budget comedy sketches for 13 years until Wells retired from the role in 1979. “Big” Chuck then forged the perfect partnership with “Lil” John Rinaldi, with the duo’s Big Chuck and Lil’ John serving as Cleveland’s gold standard in the genre until the pair finally took a bow in 2007.

Rinaldi, a jeweler by trade, laughs when he thinks back on his first encounter with his taller half. “It was a Saturday night on the West Side at Bonnie’s Lounge on West 222 in Fairview Park. Me being from the East Side, that was like going to another country,” he says. “They told me to bring combat boots and a girl’s dress. When I knocked on the door no one answered. I thought it was a prank, but then the door opened. He said, ‘I’m “Big” Chuck, come on in.’ Then, we did the skit ‘Bridget the Midget’ and that’s how it all started.”

A second concurrent line of hosts emerged from Ghoulardi’s shadow and played upon loose family ties. Ron Sweed’s portrayal of the eponymous Ghoul, which aired from 1971 to 1975, became the de facto heir after gaining Anderson’s personal blessing. The mantle was next passed to Keven Scarpino after he won a Ghoul hosted look-a-like contest in 1982. The top-hatted and faux -bearded Scarpino maintains a Luddite’s aesthetic to the show he’s helmed across multiple stations for 32 years and counting. “I do everything old school,” he explains. “That’s just the way I am.” It’s a discipline he’s maintained since its inception, and it’s one that bristles against a new crop of online hosts that challenge the genre’s format.

“A lot of these hosts you see on the internet, these people have absolutely no television experience,” Scarpino says. “They just woke up one morning and said, ‘You know, I think today I will become a horror host.’ There’s just so many of them. They’ve kind of taken the pizzazz out of it. Everything I’ve seen has just been lousy. I just don’t get it. I don’t know how they survive or how they can even gather an audience.”

His skepticism over their ability to hold an audience stems from doubts that there may even be audiences any longer. “My audience is baby boomers,” he says. “The younger generation, they just don’t really care about this kind of stuff. If it’s not happening on their phones, then they don’t know about it.”

Rinaldi echoes a similar disconnect, but frames it as an opportunity to pass the torch to the next generation of fans and hosts. “Hosts like us are passé,” he admits. “People want things faster. They don’t want to drag out skits, they want to see the movie. They want it faster and faster. Maybe younger people do this kind of thing, but I don’t know where they would find the airwaves.”

For all their experience and well-earned opinions on the matter, there are more than a few modern “schlock jocks” primed to prove the old guard of Rinaldi and Scarpino wrong. Janet Decay, a self-described “perky goth mummy” continued the estranged ancestry of Cleveland late night hosts when she took on the mantle of Daughter of the Ghoul for the eponymous late night program in 2012. It was there that Decay met with Grimm Gorri, a man/ape hybrid greaser who also worked on the show. Once her time on Daughter of the Ghoul came to an end, the two joined forces to create their own addition to the late night pantheon, The Mummy and The Monkey’s Hairy Scary Hangout.

“The one question we gets asked more than anything is what channel we’re on,” Gorri says, underscoring the divide on the new format. “A lot of horror hosts, and you’ll get this when you talk with [Scarpino], believe that if you’re not on a television station, then you’re not a true horror host.”

“You’re considered a wannabe by some,” Decay adds.

Airing initially on public access cable, it was not long before the pair shifted to YouTube in order to reach a wider audience and to allow for feedback that the limited format of public access did not provide. While it offered a much more expansive platform, YouTube was not without its own obstacles. “The way YouTube is, if you upload public domain, or even stuff that is your own content, someone can still go in and say ‘hey, I own that,’” Decay explains. “If they create enough of a fuss or they can try to monetize on your own videos. We had a lot of issues with that.”

Stemming from the repeated headaches of dealing with YouTube claims, the duo migrated to Facebook live, where they currently host their Friday night show in real time and enjoy an added dimension of audience participation that former venues could not offer.

It’s a welcome aspect that Gorri encourages. “It’s like reverse-Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” he says. “That entertains us during the breaks. [The audience] eviscerates these movies. It’s an interesting new dynamic. This is a be-in kind of event if you want to hang out with us and each other. We want to keep alive the whole experience of the midnight movie show, but bring it to the present.”

It is this bridge to the past that sees Decay and Gorri incorporating subtle nods to former Cleveland hosts in their production, including “that certain ethnic” sketch comedy that Hoolihan and “Big” Chuck perfected. “The one [opaque] contact lens is in homage to Ghoulardi because he would wear the glasses with the one lens missing and the Ghoul sports that as well,” Decay notes. “I didn’t want to copy their looks, but I thought this was a tip of the hat to the legends.”

Gorri and Decay have struck a nuanced balance between what came before while maintaining their own unique identities. With so many hosts maintaining their own private fiefdoms across the country, the line between reverence and ripoff is always contentious. “It was a Fourth of July episode, so I rented an Uncle Sam uniform,” Scarpino recalls. “I got this nasty letter in the mail saying that I was copying Chicago’s Svengoolie, because he wore striped pants. I had no idea the guy existed. I didn’t realize that every city has their own hosts.”

While every city may have their own variation on a theme, few boast the embarrassment of riches that Cleveland can. Despite the differences of opinion regarding the ever-shifting formats they haunt, hosts from every era have played pivotal roles in keeping these cherished reels running for the next generation to stay up late. The storied legacy of midnight movies has known many memorable hosts across the years, but the one constant remains: an unmistakable passion for the craft.

The Thrift Crypt

The Mummy and the Monkey’s enterprises are not limited to Friday nights on Facebook. The two can also be found at their eclectic second-hand and consignment shop, The Thrift Crypt, located at 13349 Madison Ave. in Lakewood. An extension of their midnight movie personas, the shop buys, sells, and trades all sorts of macabre kitsch and curios perfect for the ghoul in every family.

When you stop in, be sure to check out Janet Decay’s own signature fragrance, Kiss of the Mummy.  Recently bottled in partnership with Opus Oils, the undead eau du toilette is said to be “fabulously spooky and surprisingly sweet.”

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