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.
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. The fifth anniversary of his death prompted local filmmaker Mike McCarthy and Commercial Appeal film critic John Beifuss to join forces to create "The Sivads of March," a four-day festival celebrating Davis' life, with film screenings, panels, art openings, and a concert by the Reigning Sound (whose most recent CD, Love & Curses, was named for the phrase printed on Sivad's promotional photographs).
The idea for the festival came to life last Halloween, when McCarthy hosted an event at the Levitt Shell dressed in Sivad's trademark top hat and cape. It reminded Beifuss that the anniversary of Davis' death was coming up, and when McCarthy blurted out the Sivads of March — a play on the Ides of March — they knew they were destined to produce the event.
"Lately I've been into preservation," says McCarthy, who was a founding member of Save Libertyland, the organization that worked to save Memphis' Zippin Pippin roller coaster. Sivad was once so popular he could attract 30,000 people to the Mid-South Fair, and he's still well-remembered by those who were old enough to watch his show during its heydey, but McCarthy fears Sivad could fall into obscurity. "It only takes one generation," he says. According to McCarthy, the cool ghoul whose terrifying visage was rivaled only by his endless stockpile of corny jokes, is a "personality worth preserving."
The task is more difficult considering that recording television programs was an expensive proposition in the '60s and '70s and WHBQ erased the tape after every episode in order to use it again. All that remains of the celluloid Sivad is the opening sequence, a few old jokes, and a curious marketing reel where the old ghoul tells advertisers about the value of buying time on local programming like Fantastic Features and George Klein's Talent Party.
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 imortalized 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.
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."
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.
Origins of a Vampire
"You've got to understand, things were very different back then," says 81-year-old Elton Holland, describing the movie theater business in the years following WWII. "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. We made it comfortable, with an usher working every aisle."
Holland managed the Malco movie theater at Beale and Main, which became the Orpheum in 1984. He describes moviegoing as a "very fragile" habit. "When people thought of going to the movies, we wanted them to think about Malco," he says, laying out the fundamentals of movie marketing in the days before television. Holland, Davis, and Malco vice president Dick Lightman became masters of promotion and ballyhoo.
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. "Watson took me under his cape, and he treated me like a son," Holland says.
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 says. "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.
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. "We went to Memphis State's drama department and to the Little Theatre [now Theatre Memphis], and we got show people to work with us," Holland says. "We put on a monster show in front of the Malco on a flatbed truck."
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.
"We advertised the free show for a couple of weeks, and on the night when we performed our 40-minute play, we stopped traffic," Holland says. "Channel 13 news came out and filmed the mob scenes. Watson looked at everything that was going on and said, 'This is the way to go.'"
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. "We got it for something like $500," Lightman wrote in an essay produced for the book that's being made available as part of the Sivads of March celebration. "I'm sure it would have been worth thousands of dollars in a museum, because it had all the carvings on it and beveled glass. It was a wonderful-looking hearse."
That hearse, which also appears in the Fantastic Features title sequence, was the star of Malco's second monster skit and was regularly parked in front of Malco theaters to promote horror movies. "The film companies said that when we would get a picture like Dinosaurus, we did better business on it than anybody around the country."
"One time we had this actor made up like a wild man," Holland says, recalling a skit that was just a little bit 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 started choking him. "We had to pull him off," Holland says.
The proliferation of television eventually killed ballyhoo promotions and all the wild antics used to promote movies. "When TV first came along, it was competition," Holland says. "Then we decided to use TV for exploitation, because one TV spot can reach more people in 30 seconds than we could in a month."
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.
"[WHBQ executives] said, 'Scare the wits out of people,' but when I saw Sivad, all I did was laugh," says Durrelle Durham, the original director for Fantastic Features. He writes in the Sivads of March commemorative booklet: "So I did a few bits with him, and they were funny and all the powers-that-be shouted, 'Yeah, funny is better.'"
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.
In a 2005 homage to Davis and his ghoulish alter ego, John Beifuss penned a column for The Commercial Appeal that began by asking if it was extreme to place Sivad in the Memphis pantheon alongside Sam Phillips, Dewey Phillips, Rufus Thomas, Sputnik Monroe, B.B. King, Larry Finch, and Elvis.
John Hudgens doesn't think it's that far-fetched. While filming American Scary, he was repeatedly told that the host you grew up watching will always be the greatest, even if there are better ones out there. "Because that was your host, and he was local to you."
Sivad finally gets his due beginning on Thursday, March 25th, with the official proclamation of Sivad Day.
Thursday, March 25th
Brooks Museum of Art, 7 p.m.:
Monster Martini Meet & Greet
Awards and Proclamation of Sivad Day
• Special guests of honor: the Watson Davis family
• Meet Jackson, Tennessee's horror host, Count Basil
• Live entertainment with the lovely Brides of Sivad
• Rare television footage of Sivad
• Original Sivad relics on display
Brooks Museum of Art presents Fantastic Feature:
8 p.m. • Night of the Demon
Friday, March 26th
Brooks Museum of Art presents Fantastic Feature:
3 p.m. • Bucket of Blood
Adam Shaw Studio
7:30 p.m. • "Love & Curses" art show
Saturday, March 27th
Brooks Museum of Art presents Fantastic Double Feature:
12:30 p.m. • I Was a Teenage Werewolf
2 p.m. • Li'l Film Fest (livefrommemphis.com)
1588 Madison • 10 p.m.
The Reigning Sound • The Nihilistics
Sunday, March 28th
1 p.m. • The Brooks Museum presents a Q&A with a panel of Sivad experts.
Brooks Museum of Art presents Fantastic Double Feature:
2 p.m. • The Giant Claw
3:30 p.m. • From Hell It Came