Halloween just got a little less spooky, as Philly Voice reports that John Zacherle, who paved the way for horror hosts from Svengoolie to Elvira with his pioneering character “Zacharley The Cool Ghoul,” has died. He died yesterday at home in Manhattan. He was 98.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Zacherlle attended the University of Pennsylvania before enlisting in the Army during World War II. After returning from duty in Europe and North Africa, he started working in local TV, eventually landing a job as host of Philadelphia’s WCAU’s Shock Theater in 1957. There, he created the character of Roland, an undertaker in a long black coat who introduced—and occasionally interrupted— campy low-budget horror movies in equally campy monologues and skits with his “assistant” Igor, a model that later influenced the creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In 1959, Zacherle moved his act to New York’s WBAC, where he changed the name of his character to Zacherly and officially adopted the nickname “the cool ghoul,” which had been bestowed on him by his friend and colleague Dick Clark back in Philadelphia. He would continue to refine the character throughout the ’60s and ’70s on shows like Chiller Theater, even briefly hosting a hybrid horror/music show called Disc-O-Teen that featured acts like Lovin’ Spoonful, The Young Rascals, and The Doors. In a 2012 interview with The New York Times, Zacherle recalled, “Jim Morrison looked at our weird set and mumbled, ‘This is the damnedest TV show I’ve ever seen.’”
Zacherle’s status as a rock ‘n’ roll tastemaker—he was reportedly a regular at the Fillmore East in the late ’60s—was confirmed by his occasional guest-hosting stints on American Bandstand, a notoriety that led to a career as a rock radio DJ in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He also released a handful of horror=themed novelty songs, the most successful of which, “Dinner With Drac,” was a Top 10 hit in 1958. He also acted in a handful of horror movies, including an uncredited role as the evil, disembodied brain Aylmer in Frank Henenlotter’s 1988 film Brain Damage.
Zacherle never married, and lived alone in his rent-controlled Manhattan apartment until his death. He continued to surround himself with friends and admirers, though, and appeared regularly on the convention circuit well into his 90s. He was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Hall of Fame in 2010.