Born 27 September 1918, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
John Zacherle had a long, varied career in entertainment and is best remembered as a host of horror television shows in the 1950s and 1960s. As a recording artist, he was a one-hit wonder, who scored a Top 10 hit in 1958 with the two-part single “Dinner With Drac”, still a Halloween classic.
Zacherle grew up in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighbourhood where he went to high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania, served in North Africa and Europe in World War II and then began a struggling career as an actor. By 1957, he hosted a horror TV show on WCAU-TV in Philadelphia called “Shock Theatre”, where he played a character named Roland, who lived in a crypt with his wife “My Dear” (unseen, lying in her coffin) and his lab assistant, Igor. The response was immediate. Ratings soared, Zacherle fan clubs were formed and personal appearances were demanded.
Bernie Lowe, the co-owner of Cameo Records, saw how his daughter loved Roland and got the idea for a record. It was called “Dinner With Drac”, a novelty rocker with limerick lyrics and backing by Dave Appell and his Applejacks. (The wailing sax player is likely to be Buddy Savitt.) However, Dick Clark (who had a financial interest in the Cameo label) thought it was too gory for his American Bandstand show which went on the network just about the same time as Roland first appeared on Philly TV.
“Dinner With Drac” was originally coupled with “Igor”. Cameo quickly took Zacherle back into the studio to re-record a version with tamer lyrics. That was the version that was aired on Bandstand. (Later, Clark also made Lloyd Price re-cut “Stagger Lee” in order to broadcast an “acceptable”, non-violent version.) There was just one problem ; once they heard it, everyone wanted the Bandstand version, while the major radio stations played the original version. Bernie Lowe (who produced the record) came up with a solution : “Igor” was eliminated from the B-side and “Dinner With Drac” was reissued with both versions, one on each side. Label credit went to “John Zacherle, the Cool Ghoul”, a nickname hung on him by Dick Clark. The song was a smash, peaking at # 6 in March 1958. In the UK it was released on London (HLU 8599) and banned by the BBC on grounds of bad taste.
Follow-ups like “82 Tombstones”, “Lunch With Mother Goose” and “I Was A Teenage Caveman” were little more than variations on “Dinner With Drac” and failed to catch on. After a conflict with WCAU in the summer of 1958, John Zacherle left Philadelphia for WABC-TV in New York, where the station added a “y” to his surname for easier pronunciation. He continued to have great success with his horror shows, but WABC ended his programme in June 1959. John found a new home at WOR-TV, where he staged a presidential campaign in 1960, as a publicity stunt. His “platform” recording can be found on the LP “Spook Along With Zacherley” (on Elektra, reissued on CD in 2001, on Collector’s Choice).
In 1962, the enormous success of Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash” (another perennial Halloween favourite) gave a temporary impulse to Zacherle’s musical career. Cameo- Parkway released two albums, “Monster Mash” (reached # 44 on the album charts) and “Scary Tales” (1963, aimed at the children’s market), along with a reissue of the “Dinner With Drac” single (Part 1 only).
Zacherle's success with “Drac” and as a horror movie host was sufficient to maintain a showbiz career for decades, particularly in radio. A new album, “Dead Man’s Ball”, was released in 1995. It included a remake of “Dinner With Drac”, a few new monster songs and several audio clips from his TV shows. Now aged 97, John Zacherle is alive and well and can still be booked for personal appearances.
Official website (with detailed biography) : http://www.zacherley.com
Book : Richard Scrivani, Goodnight, Whatever You Are! : My Journey With John Zacherle, the Cool Ghoul. New York : Dinoship, 2006. 256 pages.
CD : Monster Mash / Scary Tales (Ace CDCHD 1294). 27 tracks. Reissue of the two Parkway albums, with three bonus tracks, including “Dinner With Drac, Part 2”. Released 2010 (US release by Real Gone Music). Liner notes by John Sebastian.
Acknowledgements : The official website, Wayne Jancik, Wikipedia.
Dik, February 2016
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