A cool ghoul looks back

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John Zacherle will make a rare appearance this weekend at Chiller Theatre expo in Parsippany, N.J. (ANDREW RENNEISEN / FOR THE DAILY NEWS)

THE OLD GHOUL sat in a wheelchair, an undertaker's long coat a little looser on his bones, and peered into the foggy past of his peculiar life.

John Zacherle, 96, made several stops along his life's timeline on a recent weekday afternoon: how it began on Pulaski Avenue in Germantown and wound up in here in Manhattan, in a studio apartment crammed with the sort of stuff you'd see hanging in an amusement park's haunted house.

"I never really had what you'd call a regular job, let's put it that way," he said.

The decor features paintings and drawings of a younger Zacherle wearing dark makeup, a macabre and mischievous smile, and a familiar, long black coat. The artwork was made by the legion of fans he delighted with tales of the undead on late-night television decades ago, briefly as "Roland" (pronounced Ro-Land, he said, not Roll-and) in Philly and later as "Zacherley" in New York City.

On this day, though, Zacherle was focused on his big break, in the Wild West of City Line Avenue. He was cast in a live Western show that was filmed, real horses and all, behind WCAU's TV station.

When our photographer arrived at Zacherle's apartment near Central Park, a maniacal laugh rose from the actor's memory like a bat from a dusty tomb, a sound that could have made strangers down on W. 96th Street shudder and his fans squeal with delight.

"Ooooohh. Ahhhhhh. Ha ha ha ha," Zacherle boomed, grimacing and smiling at the lens.

Zacherle is scheduled to make a rare public appearance this weekend at the Chiller TheatreToy Model & Film Expo at a Sheraton in Parsippany, N.J. He'll sign autographs and pose for pictures, briefly, and each fan will likely get a personal earful of that wonderful ghoulish laugh to take home with them.

The expo's guest list is a who's who of mostly who-the-hell-is-that, but some of the top names include actress Ann-Margret, the guy who played Potsie on "Happy Days," lots of characters who likely made bad decisions on zombie shows, and Bernie, the original walking dead, from the "Weekend at Bernie's" movies.

The popularity of the other guests pale in comparison to the pale man in black, however, the man whose mug is headlined higher than anyone else's on the Chiller Theatre's website.

"Every time we go, he draws the biggest crowds," said Jeff Samuels, a Camden native who befriended Zacherle decades ago and was present for our interview. "At one convention two years ago, Pee-wee Herman came in and bowed down to him. Now there's a whole new generation of people who know him because of the Internet."

Samuels is right. Google "Zacherley" and there's old images of his leering face, videos from shows filmed in what looked like demented chemistry labs and lots of praise from fans. The New York Times profiled him in 2012, remarking how spry he looked at 94.

"He was funny and creepy and corny and sarcastic and kids couldn't get enough," an author at the website Nerdist.com wrote.

The Zacherley character was one of the originals in what's become a lost-genre: the wacky, late-night host of schlocky movies who did cut-ins, particularly on the bad ones, of his own skits and props. Zacherley had a pet amoeba made of Jell-O and spaghetti and a nagging wife named "My Dear" who lived in a coffin.

He was the predecessor to characters like Dr. Shock in Philly, Elvira, the buxom Mistress of the Dark, and shows like Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

Watch the videos and you'll get the feeling Zacherle was genuinely having a hell of a time.

"I really wasn't trying to scare people. We were kidding around mostly," he said. "They were supposedly scary movies but I usually hadn't seen them until we sat down in the room and took a look at them for the show."

Zacherle's character became so popular that he was often booked to make appearances, hosting teen dance parties and Halloween parades or sitting in on "The Mike Douglas Show" and "What's My Line?" as a special guest. He recorded a hit novelty song called "Dinner with Drac," (as in Dracula) in 1958 with some saxophone solos that could get the dead up and dancing today. It reached number 8 on the Billboard pop chart.

Dick Clark, a friend of his, played it on American Bandstand.

"I can't imagine how it all happened," Zacherle said with another trademark laugh. "I look back on it and say, 'My God, I'm 96 years old, what the hell have I been doing all these years?' "

Zacherle grew up in Germantown with his parents, two brothers and a sister He attended Germantown High School, he said, before going to the University of Pennsylvania for an English degree. His uncle, Robert Eneas Lamberton, was mayor of Philadelphia and died in office in 1941.

"I miss the old neighborhood," Zacherle said. "I miss Fern Hill Park and Happy Hollow Playground."

After graduating from Penn, Zacherle joined the Army, serving in England and North Africa. He came home unscathed, but aimless. He cut lawns, helped his father maintain tombstones in Pennsylvania cemeteries, got into gardening and, by chance, joined a theater group in Chestnut Hill.

That's how he became part of WCAU-TV's live Western show, "Action in the Afternoon," in 1953.

He played a bunch of bit parts, including Grimy James, an undertaker who swept into town after gunfights. Zacherle still marvels at how fun it all was, how much went wrong when Philly doubled as the Wild West.

"They would be taking a picture of someone riding across the countryside on a horse and someone else would be driving by in a brand new Cadillac," he said.

When WCAU got its hands on a bulk collection of horror movies Universal Studio was selling, classics such as "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" and plenty of others that were terrible in the best possible sense, the station sought out a host to present them. Zacherle already had a undertaker's outfit. Sometimes it's just that easy.

"That's really, basically, how they hired him," Samuels said, cracking up. "He had the costume."

The WCAU show, "Shock Theater" and Zacherle's Roland character quickly became a big hit. According to The Monster Show, a book about the "cultural history of horror," when WCAU held an open house for fans to meet Roland, 13,000 people showed up and created a bit of chaos.

According to Zacherle's website, there were 800 fan clubs for him in Philly alone.

Zacherle couldn't recall just what made him move to New York - his Wikipedia entry says it was the sale of the TV station - but he premiered as "Zacherley," a Transylvania native, at WABC in September 1958. He continued from station to station in New York as they bought and repackaged the same horror movies. He transitioned into a popular FM disc jockey in the late 1960s, as his baby boomer fans grew up, and worked in radio until he retired in 1980.

"I went from one station to another in New York, showing the scary movies," he said. "It was very easy, they'd say 'we got a lot of old movies' and I'd say 'let's do it.' It was great and people really enjoyed watching it because there was a lot of comedy in it."

Although he was married to "My Dear" on screen and had a son named "Gasport" who looked like a canvas bag of bones, Zacherle never married or had children. Samuels said Zacherle has had a special "lady friend," for decades, however.

"He really is the sweetest man I've ever met," said Samuels, who lives in North Jersey.

Though he hasn't been back to Philly in years, Zacherle said he stays in touch with his family. His niece, Diane Hanson, visits him in Manhattan with her own children and grandchildren and recalls how wonderful it was, when she was a child, to be related to "Roland."

Mostly, though, he's just Uncle John, and that's even better.

"He was always there for us, whether one of us got sick or had a birthday," Hanson said. "He had a lot of fun in his life."

Most of the footage may be in the can for Zacherle as he nears 100, though he's had a clean bill of health except for some falls and arthritis.

Maybe he's got some secret recipe passed down from his dinner with Dracula.

"It's been a great life," he said.

When the horror movies ended late at night, Zacherle always bellowed out a signature sign-off, bidding farewell to all the terrified viewers eager for more on the other side of the television. Many would repeat the ghoul's words as they turned off the tube and raced the darkness to the safety of their bed sheets.

"Goodnight! Whatever you are."

 


On Twitter: @JasonNark