From the Morgue

Friday, October 28, 2016

Start Halloween Weekend Right With a Tribute to Sivad and Fantastic Features

Posted By on Fri, Oct 28, 2016 at 6:14 PM

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Every now and then Fly on the Wall likes to publish something "From the Morgue," which, in newspaper jargon, means an article we published some time in the past that's been filed away. But in this case the expression's especially fitting. It's late October — time to remember Memphis' original horror host Sivad. All links have been updated, so readers should be able to sample some of the movies that made Fantastic Features so fantastic. 

The horror first took control of Memphis television sets at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 29, 1962. It began with a grainy clip of black-and-white film showing an ornate horse-drawn hearse moving silently through a misty stretch of Overton Park. Weird music screeched and swelled, helping to set the scene. A fanged man in a top hat and cape dismounted. His skin was creased, corpse-like. He looked over his shoulder once, then dragged a crude, wooden coffin from the back of the hearse. His white-gloved hand opened the lid, releasing a plume of thick fog and revealing the bloody logo of Fantastic Features.

"Ah. Goooood eeeevening. I am Sivad, your monster of ceremonies," the caped figure drawled, in an accent that existed nowhere else on planet Earth. Think: redneck Romanian.

"Please try and pay attention," he continued, "as we present for your enjoyment and edification, a lively one from our monumental morgue of monstrous motion pictures."


In that moment, a Mid-South television legend was born. For the next decade, Sivad, the ghoulish character created by Watson Davis, made bad puns, told painfully bad jokes, and introduced Memphians to films like Gorgo...


The Brain That Wouldn't Die
...


and Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent.


Watson Davis' wisecracking monster wasn't unique. He was one of many comically inclined horror hosts who became popular regional TV personalities from the '50s through the '70s. According to John Hudgens, who directed American Scary, a documentary about the horror-host phenomenon, it all began with "Vampira," a pale-skinned gorgon immortalized by Ed Wood in his infamously incompetent film Plan 9 From Outer Space.


Although a Chicago-area host calling himself "The Swami" may have been the first costumed character regularly introducing scary movies on television, the big bang of horror hosting happened in 1954, when the wasp-wasted actress Maila Nurmi introduced her campy, Morticia Adams-inspired character on The Vampira Show, which aired in Los Angeles.

via GIPHY

In 1957, Screen Gems released a package of 52 classic horror films from Universal studios. The "Shock Theater" package, as it was called, created an opportunity for every market to have its own horror host. "Part of that package encouraged stations to use some kind of ghoulish host," Hudgens explains. "Local television was pretty much live or had some kind of host on everything back then."

Overnight, horror hosts such as New York's "Zacherly" and Cleveland's "Ghoulardi" developed huge cult followings. "TV was different in those days," Hudgens says. "There weren't a lot of channels to choose from, and the hosts could reach a lot more people quickly. Ghoulardi was so popular that the Cleveland police actually maintained that the crime rate went down when his show was on the air, and they asked him to do more shows."
Dr. Lucifer
  • Dr. Lucifer

Tennessee's first horror host was "Dr. Lucifer," a dapper, eyepatch-wearing man of mystery who hit the Nashville airwaves in 1957. Since Fantastic Features didn't air until the fall of 1962, Sivad was something of a latecomer to the creep-show party. But unlike most other horror hosts, Davis didn't have a background in broadcasting. He'd been a movie promoter, working for Memphis-based Malco theaters. His Sivad character existed before he appeared on television. At live events, he combined elements of the classic spook show with an over-the-top style of event-oriented marketing called ballyhoo. So Davis' vampire, while still nameless, was already well known to local audiences before Fantastic Features premiered.

"You've got to understand, things were very different back then," Elton Holland told the Memphis Flyer in a 2010 interview. "Downtown Memphis was a hub for shopping, and going out to the movies was an event. And back then, Malco was in competition with the other downtown theaters, so when you came to see a movie, we made it special.”

To make things special Holland, Davis, and Malco vice president Dick Lightman became masters of promotion and special events. Davis and Holland were neighbors who lived in Arkansas and car-pooled into Memphis every day. During those drives, Davis would float ideas for how to promote the films coming to town.

The studios only provided movie theaters with limited marketing materials. Theater businesses had in-house art departments that created everything else. What the art department couldn't make, Davis built himself in the theater's basement. When 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea came to town, he built a giant squid so large it had to be cut in half to get it up the stairs. He constructed a huge King Kong puppet that towered over the lower seats. For the film Dinosaurus, he built a Tyrannosaurus rex that was 20 feet tall and 45 feet long. It sat in the lobby, roaring and moving its tail.


"All movies were sold through exploitation," Holland explained. "And horror movies were the best ones to exploit. ... I remember when Watson first told me he wanted to be a monster. He was thinking vaudeville. He wanted to put on a show."

Davis' plan to create a scary show wasn't original. The "spook show" was a sideshow con dating back to when 19th-century snake-oil vendors traveled the country hawking their wares. Slick-talking performers would hop from town to town promising entertainment-deprived audiences the chance to see a giant, man-eating monster, so terrible it had to be experienced to be believed. Once the tickets were sold, it was loudly announced that the monster had broken free and was on a bloody rampage. The idea was to cause panic and create a confusing cover for the performers to make off with the loot.
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In the early 20th century, the spook show evolved, and traveling magicians exploited the public's growing fascination with spiritualism by conjuring ghosts and spirits. By mid-century, they developed into semi-comical "monster shows" that were almost always held in theaters. Today's "hell houses" and haunted mansions are recent permutations of the spook show.

When England's Hammer Films started producing horror movies that were, as Holland says, "a cut above," he, Davis, and Lightman took the old spook-show concept and adapted it sell movie tickets. They went to Memphis State's drama department and to the Little Theatre [now Theatre Memphis] looking for actors so they could put a monster on a flatbed truck in front of the Malco.

Davis dressed as Dracula, Holland was the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and another Malco exec played Frankenstein. The company also included a wolfman and a mad doctor.

Davis sometimes joined Lightman on inspection tours of other Malco properties. On one of those tours, the men saw an antique horse-drawn hearse for sale on the side of the road. They bought the hearse that appears in the Fantastic Features title sequence for $500. It also appeared in various monster skits and was regularly parked in front of Malco theaters to promote horror movies.

"One time we had this actor made up like a wild man," Holland said, recalling a skit that was just a little too effective. "While Watson did his spiel about the horror that was going to happen, the chained wild man broke loose and pretended like he was attacking this girl. He was going to jerk her blouse and dress off, and she had on a swimsuit underneath." One 6'-3", 300-pound, ex-military Malco employee wasn't in on the joke and thought the actor had actually gone wild. He took the chain away, wrapped it around the wild man's neck, and choked him until the two were pulled apart.

Music to Sivad to...
  • Music to Sivad to...

The proliferation of television eventually killed ballyhoo promotions and all the wild antics used to promote movies. At about that time, the studios started "going wide" with film distribution, opening the same film in many theaters at one time instead of just one theater in every region. This practice made location-specific promotions obsolete. By then, the Shock Theater package had made regional stars out of horror hosts all across the country. WHBQ approached Davis and offered him the job of "monster of ceremonies" on its Fantastic Features show. The show found an audience instantly and became so popular that a second weekly show was eventually added. Memphis viewers apparently couldn't get enough of films like Teenage Caveman...


and Mutiny in Outer Space...


Joe Bob Briggs, cable TV's schlock theater aficionado who hosted TNT's Monster Vision from 1996 to 2000, says that "corny" humor was the key to any horror host's success or failure. "Comedy and horror have only rarely been successfully mixed in film — although we have great examples like Return of the Living Dead, Briggs says. "But comedy surrounding horror on television was a winning formula from day one. In fact, it's essential. If you try to do straight hosting on horror films, the audiences will hate you."

In 1958, Dick Clark invited New York horror host Zacherly to appear on American Bandstand. "This wasn't the year for the comedians, this was the year for the spooks and the goblins and the ghosts," Clark said, introducing "Dinner With Drac," the first hit novelty song about monsters. Four years later, Bobby "Boris" Puckett took "Monster Mash" to the top of the charts. In the summer of 1963, Memphis' favorite horror host hopped on the pop-song monster bandwagon by recording the "Sivad Buries Rock and Roll/Dicky Drackeller" single.

Novelty songs such as "What Made Wyatt Earp" became a staple on Fantastic Features, and Sivad began to book shows with the King Lears, a popular Memphis garage band that influenced contemporary musicians like Greg Cartwright, who played in the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers before forming the Reigning Sound. Although "Sivad Buries Rock and Roll" never charted, Goldsmith's department store hosted a promotional record-signing event, and 2,000 fans showed up to buy a copy.

In 1972, Fantastic Features was canceled. And though Davis was frequently asked to bring the character back, he never did. Horror movies were changing, becoming bloodier and more sexually explicit in a way that made them a poor fit for Sivad's family-friendly fright-fest. In 1978, Commercial Appeal reporter Joseph Shapiro unsuccessfully tried to interview Davis. He received a letter containing what he called a cryptic message: "Sivad is gone forever" is all it said.

Davis, who borrowed his name-reversing trick from Dracula, Bram Stoker's blood-sucking fiend who introduced himself as Count Alucard, died of cancer in March 2005. He was 92 years old.
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* A version of this article appeared in the Memphis Flyer in 2010 —- but with out all the nifty links and embeds. 


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Former Memphian David Gest is Dead at 62

Posted By on Tue, Apr 12, 2016 at 12:42 PM

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David Gest is dead. The American producer, and the former Mr. Liza Minnelli who became a British reality TV star, was found dead Tuesday morning in his room at the Four Seasons hotel in Canary Wharf, London. He was 62.

Gest is one of those special people who is primarily famous for being famous. He had been friends with Michael Jackson, and was still technically married to Liza when he took up residence not a stone's throw from the Flyer's Tennessee St. offices. Before jumping across the pond to try his hand at shows like "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!" Guest lived in Memphis' South Bluffs community, and was often seen puttering about Downtown, or chowing down on fried chicken at Gus's. He could also be seen in Midtown, East Memphis, and other parts of the city where, in spite of a professed desire for anonymity, his face was blown up larger than life, and split into two halves on billboards promoting the man and his various initiatives.  

On November 20, 2006, the Flyer received a transcontinental phone call from the London Sun, a daily Rupert-Murdoch-owned tabloid that was looking to hire a fearless reporter who could get to the bottom of a hot story that was taking Europe by storm. Longtime Flyer columnist and reporter John Branston took the call but not the job. According to a blog post Branston wrote later that same morning, the Sun wanted someone to visit Gest's house to confirm a story he'd shared with the British media about a maid he kept on staff in Memphis named "Vagina Semen" — a name that was later revised to the slightly less graphic "Vaginika Semen." The Sun needed confirmation.

When reality TV gets real.
  • When reality TV gets real.
"We are so NOT making this up," Branston wrote. "Stay tuned."

Memphis has known its share of eccentrics, but few have been more wondered about than Gest, who upon growing weary of his life in big cities (and the tabloids), tried to escape all the notoriety by moving to our sleepy little river town where he fancied buying, "a very small, intimate luxury hotel with a ballroom on the top of it," but never did. 

In 2004, after weeks of trying to score an interview for an article about him and a charitable event he was planning, Gest told me to meet him at the Peabody Hotel. He kept me waiting for an uncomfortably long time, but he did show up eventually, and we chatted over a plate of batter-fried veggies and cheese.

Here's the original Q&A from Dec. 3, 2004.

The Two Faces of David Gest

"There's another David Gest, and I'd really like to meet him. The one you read about is fascinating, wild, weird, and wonderful, and I don't really think of myself in any of those ways. I never intended to be a personality. I went for years [behind the scenes] as a producer. Then [I produced] Michael Jackson's 30th Anniversary] special. That's when I fell in love and everything changed. Things changed after my wedding and after my life with Liza."

— David Gest, at The Peabody, November 29, 2004

He's on a diet and he's had cosmetic surgery. He's good friends with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson (who has had cosmetic surgery, is probably not on a diet, but has other troubles with which to contend). He's married to Liza Minnelli (whose diets, surgeries, and other troubles are well-known), but they are separated and suing one another. He says she got raging drunk and beat him to the point of disability. She says he swindled her knock-kneed.

These are the things you already know about music producer David Gest, if you know anything about him at all. And since these stories have been blown out in the supermarket rags and on tabloid TV, there's really no point in repeating any of it, now is there?

Gest lives in Memphis now, on the south side of downtown near the river. And he wants to make sure that every Memphian who is hungry, cold, old, infirm, lonely, or down on his luck has a nice dinner waiting for them at various Memphis restaurants on Christmas Day. He's promised participating restaurants money up front and is willing to fund it out of his own pockets. But he'd prefer to pay for the whole shebang by way of a star-studded shindig at the Cannon Center: David Gest's All-Star Holiday Extravaganza.

"So I'm only bringing 40 or 50 artists to town," Gest says, countering criticisms that many of the celebrities he's used to promote the event won't be attending. "Who else is bringing four?"

And who else is offering a free Christmas dinner to anybody who shows up and says "I'm David's Gest" at Corky's, Gus', Willie Moore's, the High Point Café, Westy's, Precious Cargo, Neely's, or Ray's? Whether you love to hate him or hate to love him, David Gest is in the house. He's roaming downtown Memphis, performing random acts of kindness, offering up the moon and determined to deliver some stars.

Flyer: Where were you and what were you doing when it occurred to you that you would be moving to Memphis?

David Gest: I was living in Hawaii and suffering from a brain concussion, and somehow I just dreamed about living on the Mississippi River. I always had an affinity for Memphis. It was something that I felt like I needed at this time in my life — to be away from the paparazzi and not to be someone who's always in the tabloids. I wanted to buy a home that was facing the river, and I did. In my life I've learned you've got to go with your gut. I wanted to live in the South. I felt that I could go to Memphis and make records and do things. I can always fly to L.A. or to New York. And I like living in a small town. It agrees with me.

But what was the specific allure of Memphis?

I was — I think — 17 and I was a journalist when I first came here. It was 1971, and I came to Memphis for a rock-and-roll writers' convention. Everybody got to go to Stax and to Hi Studios. There was a big reception at the Holiday Inn Rivermont, which was the hotel back then. You'd see Rufus Thomas walking around in hot-pants promoting "The Funky Chicken." You'd see all the great Memphis artists there. And all of this had a really strong effect on me, so I kept coming back. About two years later, I was offered the job of national public relations director for London Records. I was supposed to be 21, but I'd just turned 19. I lied about my age. I had a thick, thick Afro that went down to my butt and a moustache and a beard, so I looked older. You know when you're a kid you always want to look older. Then you get old and you want to look much younger. When you get to my age — which is 51 — you start to go, Unh-unh.

That was when you started doing PR for Al Green.

Yes, I did public relations and career guidance for Al Green. [He] was the biggest thing at the time. I did the publicity campaign for [Ann Peebles' hit] "I Can't Stand the Rain." You know, I was the one who had John Lennon come to the Troubadour [an L.A. club where Peebles was performing] on the night he wore the Kotex on his forehead. He was really drunk, and he was screaming, "Annie, baby, I love you! Annie, baby, I wanna, I wanna " And then he asked the waitress, "Do you know who I am?" And she said, "You're an asshole with a Kotex on your forehead." They kicked him out of the Troubadour that night. But he loved "I Can't Stand the Rain." It was his favorite record.

How often were you in Memphis back then?

I'd be here every three to four months. I'd fly in and work with Quiet Elegance, or maybe Ace Cannon, and others. I gave a party in 1977. It was called "Moonlight on the Mississippi in Memphis." It was a party on a riverboat for the Doobie Brothers. Jerry Lee Lewis was there and Rufus Thomas, Ann Peebles, Carla Thomas, the Memphis Horns. It seemed like everybody was on that boat, and it was a jam all night.

Is it true that you recently gave an elderly woman who was shopping at the MIFA thrift store $100 to buy a coat?


Yes. I loved this lady's face. She was 70 or 80. The sweetest little woman you've ever seen. She came up to me and she said, "I love you." And I said, "Well, I love you." She'd seen me on Larry King a few times, and she said, "I think it's wonderful what you're doing for the community." And so I asked her what she was doing, and she said, "I'm buying a coat." I said, "Let me buy you a coat." I went in with her to shop, but she couldn't find the right coat, so I said, "Here's a hundred dollars. Go buy yourself something." She was sweet. I have no idea what her name was.

When you moved to Memphis did you know that you would be producing a celebrity gala and trying to provide Christmas dinner for 100,000 disadvantaged people?

No. In fact, when I moved here, I'd decided that I really wasn't well enough to start working again. Then one day I saw this man on the street and he said he had no food and he needed $7 for shelter. He said, "I've got no place to go not even for Christmas." I asked, "What do you do on Christmas?" and he said, "I beg for food."

I thought, I'm going to put on a show. I'll call my friends and put together a concert so that on that one day a year people can eat for free. [Even with the benefit concert] it's probably going to cost me money to feed all of these people. I'll underwrite it. What's important is seeing results.

Is Memphis now your home or is it just a pit-stop?

Home. I'm going to buy a hotel. I'm in the process of buying a property and building a very small, intimate luxury hotel with a ballroom on the top of it. It's something I want to do with some of my friends. With all these artists coming in because of the FedExForum, there's a need for something like that here.

Have Memphians encouraged your plans to feed 100,000 people on Christmas, or have they been cynical?

A little bit of both. Some people are jealous. Some people would like to see me not succeed. But I will succeed regardless of any obstacles. I will thrive. People can say what they want, but the doubters are going to see this happen in Memphis.

There was recently news that many of the artists scheduled to perform at the benefit concert wouldn't actually attend. How many have confirmed?

Tons have confirmed. It's going to be phenomenal. We're going to have the full band from Michael Jackson's 30th Anniversary special. And to give you some idea [of what's in store], Kim Weston, who had a hit with "Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)" in the '60s is going to sing that song with the Doobie Brothers who also had a hit with it in the '70s. They are going to be accompanied by a 200-member gospel choir. It's really going to be phenomenal."
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Friday, July 19, 2013

Don Sundquist Pets a Bunny: An adorable picture from the "Memphis Flyer" archives

Posted By on Fri, Jul 19, 2013 at 9:07 AM

Former Governor Don Sundquist and a Bunny
  • Former Governor Don Sundquist and a Bunny
Once in a while Fly on the Wall likes to dig back into the Memphis Flyer archives in order to, you know, fill some space when we've got not much else to show for ourselves. Like this week, for example, while I'm on vacation.

In this first installment of "From the Morgue," I'd like to share this photo of former Governor Don Sundquist holding a bunny, and a true story from the Memphis Flyer newsroom.

There was a time during Sundquist's Governorship when Flyer writers and editors used this photograph so often that the art director, believing we should back off the bunny stuff and mix things up a little more, either hid or destroyed the original. Thankfully Governor Don and his furry little buddy made it onto the internet just in time to stave off oblivion.

There's no real point in showing you this photo of former Governor Don Sunquist with a bunny. But you've got to admit, as "former governor photos" go, it's pretty awesome.

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