John Zacherle, one of the earliest and best known in the wave of horror-show hosts who haunted local TV markets in the 1950s and ’60s, died Thursday at his home in New York City. He was 98.
Known primarily as the Cool Ghoul, Zacherle, who sometimes spelled his name Zacherley, debuted his popular, crypt-dwelling undertaker character in Philadelphia before moving to New York City in 1958.
As classic Universal horror pictures were re-aired countless times on local TV stations as part of the studio’s “Shock Theater” package of films, local hosts like Zacherle became zombie-faced favorites within their home markets. Zacherle, whose ghoul character was named Roland, was among the few who achieved more widespread fame. In ’58, he had a hit record with “Dinner With Drac,” four years before Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash.”
Cassandra Peterson, whose Elvira character followed in Zacherle’s bloody footprints, tweeted her condolences today:
Zacherle was born in Philadelphia in 1918. After a military stint during World War II, he returned to his hometown, got involved in local theater and in 1954 began appearing as various characters on Philly’s WCAU-TV’s Western-themed afternoon programming. Soon he was hosting the channel’s Shock Theater airings of horror films, donning an undertaker’s coat and staging comedic bits to introduce the films and at station breaks. The format would catch on nationwide, becoming a late-night local weekend staple well into the 1970s.
Zacherle also did voice-over work and disc jockeyed at various radio stations, among other gigs. In the New York area, his Cool Ghoul character was based, at various times, at WABC, WOR and WPIX. In addition to appearing on various horror-themed albums and lending his name to books and comic books, he cameoed in the film comedies Brain Damage and Frankenhooker. Among his survivors is niece Bonnie Zacherle, who created the My Little Pony toy line.
Zacherle was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame in 2010.