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“Ah, there you are, ghoulies!” Dale Wamboldt, aka Dr. Destruction, exclaims to the camera pointed at him. He’s wearing a top hat, skeleton gloves and white face paint that gives him a skeleton’s complexion. He gestures to the woman sitting next to him, smiling eerily and sporting a vampire cape.
“Moriella joins us once again on ‘Crimson Theatre,’ and we’re going to dive deep into the Edward Wood Jr. films,” Wamboldt says, referring to the 1950s B-movie director whose so-bad-they’re-good films have become cult classics.
The “Crimson Theatre” filming set on a Kenosha pumpkin farm is in flux, so this week Wamboldt, his co-host Meagan Bloxdorf (“Moriella”), as well as producer/director Christopher House and his wife, Heather, are filming on the creaky second floor of Shaker’s Cigar Bar in Walker’s Point. They’re shooting back-to-back episodes which will tie into Wood’s films Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space. That’s apropos, as one of the stars of the latter movie – sometimes labeled the worst ever made – also played Vampira, the first person to hold Dr. Destruction’s unique occupation: horror host.
A horror host is someone, usually a zany character, who has a show screening films, usually classics or independent low-budget monster movies. Their popularity has ebbed and flowed over the decades. Milwaukee currently doesn’t have one, but the Kenosha-Racine area has become a hotspot, with no less than four productions competing for horror fans’ eyeballs – a virtual clearinghouse of rubber bats, macabre one-liners, capes, low-cut goth dresses, plastic fangs and black-and-white horror classics.
It all started in 1954, when KABC-TV in Los Angeles came up with a novel concept to fill airtime Saturday nights. It hired actress Maila Nurmi to play the title character in “The Vampira Show,” in which she introduced old B-horror movies and, in bumper segments at the commercial breaks, made creepy or corny jokes, usually at the film’s expense.
“The Vampira Show” launched a concept that has been copied ever since. Vampira begat Elvira and Chicago’s Svengoolie, a top hat-sporting character with a penchant for rubber chicken gags whose show has run for more than 50 years, currently on the MeTV network.
Milwaukee’s own “Nightmare Theatre” ran from 1964 to 1977 on WITI, starring Jack DuBlon as Dr. Cadaverino and others playing his headless sidekick, Igor. WISN made its own run with “Shock Theater” from 1979-84, hosted by Rick Felski aka Tolouse NoNeck. Wamboldt became heir apparent to these local horror hosts in 2001 when he launched “Crimson Theatre.”
Wamboldt describes himself as a onetime “horror kid,” a fan of all the old classics, including Svengoolie and Dr. Cadaverino. “I was so scared of him and his headless assistant, and then I’d get busted for having the television set on at 12:30 a.m.,” he laughs.
Dr. Destruction reigned as exclusive horror host in southeastern Wisconsin until Racine’s Curtis Meyer, aka vampire host Deadgar Winter, launched “Deadgar’s Dark Coffin Classics” in 2012. Like Wamboldt, Meyer had been a young fan of Dr. Cadaverino and Svengoolie.
“I even told my dad that I wanted to be a horror host when I grew up, and he said, ‘You’re grounded,’” Meyer explains while sitting on his show’s set next to his fiancée and co-host Jennifer Lambert, aka Storm Winter, his vampire bride. Meyer built the set – decorated with creepy dolls, plastic skeletons, a mad scientist lab and other props and creepy art – himself in their basement. The week we chatted, “Dark Coffin Classics” was working on a show revolving around the 1965 Italian horror film Nightmare Castle.
The two MCs of the macabre share a lot in common, including roles in rock bands and the the homemade haunted house aesthetic of their shows. The most notable difference is that Meyer’s show’s tone has evolved into a comedy-horror sitcom, complete with an overbearing mother-in-law who stops by to chastise Deadgar.
In fact, Meyer used to play a character on Wamboldt’s show, but the two had a bitter falling out and no longer talk to each other. Both hosts are reluctant to discuss details, but Wamboldt says the issue was “a business deal with the haunt industry we had. I wish it hadn’t happened.” Their rivalry is now somewhat of a legend, like Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman.
To add to the monster mash, two of Meyer’s former co-hosts, “witch sisters” Celeste and Morgan Parker, developed their own horror host show, “Hexen Arcane.” Dressed in goth style that would make Elvira proud, with bright blue and purple hair, the two sometimes shoot on location at cemeteries and sites of ghost lore. They started on “Dark Coffin Classics” before being unceremoniously fired by Meyer.
“[Meyer] decided he wanted to take the show in a different direction that didn’t include us anymore. It was abrupt, but we understood it, and it prompted us to say, ‘Hey, we’re not done,’” says Shanta Pasika, who plays Celeste.
Kate Holm, who plays Morgan, says they embraced the chance to create their own material instead of playing second fiddle. While initially fangs were bared between them and Deadgar’s crew, Pasika says she’s since made peace with them and has “nothing but good things to say” about Dr. Destruction as well.
As if a rivalry between a ghoul, a vampire and two witches wasn’t enough for the area, there’s also a fourth show hosted by a werewolf. “Nightmare Cinema” was created by one of Dr. Destruction’s former co-hosts, Jerry Ball, known on-air as Uncle Wolfman. All four of these shows cross paths at Kenosha Community Media (KTV, Channel 14), a cable access channel where the shows are wedged between civic events, religious programming, local concerts, sports and talk shows.
Jason Rimkus, media coordinator for the station, is “amazed” by how loyal the show’s viewers are. “About a year ago, we moved our playback location, so the channel went offline, and quite a few viewers called us up asking, ‘Where’s the horror shows?’ So we know there’s an audience for this,” Rimkus says.
Rimkus says it’s hard to estimate just how big that audience is – the channel airs on cable, a separate Roku channel, and streams live on KTV’s website in addition to the horror hosts’ own YouTube channels and other platforms. But we know all of the shows have at least a small cult following in Wisconsin and beyond.
What’s the appeal? “They show these classic cheesy films no one paid attention to, and they do it with their own biting humor,” says House, who directs “Crimson Theatre” and co-founded the horror-themed Twisted Dreams Films Festival. “They are gatekeepers to the horror community. We love them because they love horror movies, and it shows.”