By Karen Zautyk
He’s frail now, a bit unsteady on his feet and sometimes has difficulty hearing. All of which is to be expected in someone who turned 95 a month ago. But to the Baby Boomers who packed American Legion Post 139 on Webster Ave. last Wednesday night, he is still “The Cool Ghoul.”
Zacherley (real name John Zacherle) was welcomed by the standing-room-only crowd who had fond memories of the years when he hosted “Shock Theater,” a late-night, horrormovie TV program, back in the late 1950s.
Those who never saw the show might wonder how someone who has not been on TV in decades could generate such longterm affection. It is because, although he played a creepy character, he still came across as being a genuinely nice guy underneath the scary makeup.
That, and the fact, that he was a pioneer in his brand of bizarre humor. No one would blink an eye at it today, but back then, in a TV industry still taking its baby steps, it was innovative.
Zach did more than just introduce the films; he did hilarious comedy bits in his character’s crypt-like “home,” which he shared with his bride Isabel/”My Dear,” who lived in a coffin and was never seen by the audience. Last week, he explained the reason for this: “They [the producers] wanted characters you didn’t have to pay.” Which also explains why the couple’s son, Gasport, lived in a burlap bag. “Shock Theatre” also introduced clever bits, such as cutting into the featured flick (classics like “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” et al) with live “scenes” featuring Zacherley himself. He noted that all these old films were brand-new to him since, as a child, his parents never let him go to horror movies. Zach’s appearance at the AL Post was sponsored by the Lyndhurst Historical Society as a pre-Halloween treat. He spoke for nearly an hour, answered questions from the audience and graciously posed for photos with and gave autographs to as many fans as requested them.
The talk covered his personal and professional life. Conducting the interview was Brian Haggerty, a former Lyndhurst commissioner, who led Zach on the trip through the past.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Zach earned a degree in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania, where he said he also “majored” in ROTC. And that, he said, “saved my life when I joined the Army in 1944.”
He entered the service as a second lieutenant and was honorably discharged with the rank of major after World War II.
“I volunteered for the infantry, but I never saw the infantry,” he said. Instead, he was assigned to the Quartermaster Corps. Stationed behind the lines and responsible for ensuring the combat forces got the necessary supplies, he “never saw any fighting.”
He recalled being in Naples, visiting the Opera House, “eating good meals,” riding a Jeep on an outing up Mt. Vesuvius, “and 50 to 60 miles away, they were fighting.”
“We weren’t fighting. We were making sure they had clean underwear.”
Lest anyone think he was making light of the war, he was not. He talked about a cousin who was killed at Anzio and another, serving with a tank division, who died in France. “He got the order to ‘Button up,’ which means to close the tank lid, and as he was doing that, he was hit with an artillery shell and died instantly.”
As for himself, he was in an Army hospital once. “I had the flu,” he said, shaking his head. While so many others died in the war, he survived it, and, with a sense of wonderment, he noted, “I have no idea what I’m doing here.”
Regarding his current age, he said, “I had no intention of being 95 years old. It never occurred to me.”
It was during this part of the evening that he was somber, at times almost moved to tears, and repeatedly saying, “terrible, terrible,” as he talked about the casualties of war and the fact that wars are still going on.
After returning to the States, he recalled, he got involved in a little theater group in Philly called Stagecrafters and then landed a very minor role in a weekday TV western, “Action in the Afternoon,” which was broadcast live.
The plots, he noted, were all the same. “Some stranger would come into town on Monday, and by Friday, he’d have been chased out or hanged.”
“My job,” Zach noted, “was to hold a horse and look like I belonged there.” But that led to a speaking role, when one day the makeup lady told the director, “That guy holding the horse looks so forlorn. Give him something to say.” Thus, his career in the stillnascent television industry was launched. So was his wardrobe. He was eventually given a bit part as the town undertaker, clad in a long, black frock coat — which became horror-host Zacherley’s classic costume.
After “Action in the Afternoon” was cancelled, he was approached by Philadelphia station WCAU, which was planning to air the old horror films and John Zacherle became just Zacherley (the “y” added so people wouldn’t mispronounce his name as “Zach-earl”).
He later brought his talents to New York, hosting “Shock Theater” first on WABC and later WOR and then “Chiller Theatre” on WPIX.
His popularity grew tremendously, and he began making live appearances, first at local movie theaters, and then on shows like “American Bandstand,” hosted by an old friend from Philly, Dick Clark. (Zach had also launched a recording career, specializing in spooky tunes.)
In the mid-’60s, he hosted his own “Bandstand”- like show, “Zacherley’s Disc- O-Teen,” which was broadcast from the Mosque Theatre in Newark on a UHF station, Channel 47.
Subsequently, Zach turned to the radio and had a healthy career as an FM disc jockey. Talking music, Zacherley made an observation that was like a blinding light–something that had not crossed my radar screen before. When he first heard groups like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, he said, he couldn’t “remember being that excited about the Big Band music that came before this revolution in instrumentation.”
What had changed? “They had gotten rid of all the brass instruments.”
So THAT was what made the sound so, so different. Thank you, Zach.
Looking back over his long, long career, Zacherley told his audience, “I feel like I never had a job. I just had a lot of fun.”
“It’s been a wonderful life. I can’t imagine what else I would have done with my life. It’s been like a dream.”
And then he serenaded his fans with a –dare I say “haunting” — little ballad, “Come With Me to Transylvania.” Your correspondent was so transfixed, she neglected to jot down the lyrics. Something about “coffins side-by-side,” “100 years to share,” and “cobwebs in your hair.” It was lovely. And romantic.
And so was The Cool Ghoul, gentleman John Zacherle.
And now, a personal confession: When I was a kid and other little girls were swooning over Elvis or Fabian or Frankie Avalon, I had a small crush on Zacherley, ghastly makeup and all. I’d rush home from our grammar school dances to see his show. I told this to a coworker and showed her his old photo, and she said, “You were perverse even then, weren’t you?”
Why, yes. Yes I was.
(Editor’s note: For those who’d like to meet Zach in person, he is scheduled to appear this week, Oct. 25 -27, at the Chiller Theatre Expo, being held at the Sheraton in Parsippany.)