The Acri Creature Feature and Dr. San Guinary
Creature Features have gone the way of the drive-in theater. Not dead, but not as prevalent they once were. These paeans to classic, not-so classic, campy, so-bad-it’s-good, and just plain trashy monster movies were often locally produced and broadcast on Friday or Saturday nights starting in the late Fifties, and featured a variety of creepy though often comedic hosts, many of who live on in the hearts of their viewers to this day.
I’m hardly the first person to point this out, but before there were Netflix, downloads, BlueRay, DVDs, or even VHS, Creature Features were the most accessible way monster movie fans had of seeing these films, and, in exchange for these favors, we bundled our adoration for monster movies with these programs. Many of us cannot remember watching The Vampire Bat or The Mole People without thinking of hosts like of Zacherley (The Cool Ghoul), Ghoulardi (Mr. Ernie Anderson before “The Loooove Boat!”), or Bob Wilkins (“Watch Horror Films … Keep America Strong”).
Growing up, I was blessed to be able to watch two terrific Creature Features.
My parents frequently took me and my brothers back to my hometown Lincoln, Nebraska, when we were boys for weekend trips to visit family, giving me ample opportunities to watch Creature Feature with Dr. San Guinary on KMTV-Channel 3 in nearby Omaha. Guinary (“Don’t call me Canary”) was a traditional horror host played by the late John Jones (no relation), a mad doctor who kept a monster named Igor in a cage (and mostly off camera) and had a penchant for humor, which is evident at the end of this outtake for a commercial for the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon featuring Jones, Omaha anchorman Jeff Jordan, and Lewis. Creature Feature left the air in 1983, and Jones passed away in 1988, but the program and Guinary have been resurrected and can be seen again on Omaha’s Fox channel 42.
As much as I love Guinary, the Creature Feature for me will always be The Acri Creature Feature which ran in my town on KCRG-Channel 9 as well as other surrounding areas when I was a ‘tween and early teen. According to the Wikipedia entry on “Creature Features,” the ACF “may have had the widest distribution of a local, hosted TV horror program in the U.S.” Several years ago I was honored to be asked to contribute a reminiscent about the ACF to the House of Jitters website, where it has remained ever since, but with Halloween decorations showing up in the big box stores as well as Hobby Lobby and Michael’s, I got the urge to dust off the piece and share it on my own website.
And so, without further ado …
“The Acri Creature Feature debuted one Friday night without warning on KCRG-TV 9 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“I don’t remember the exact date, although I’m confident it was during October 1972, which would have made me twelve years old at the time. I am also sure the first film played on the ACF was the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi, because seeing that movie was a huge deal to me. Although I was a lifelong fan of Count Dracula, I had never seen the Lugosi film, so when I read in TV Guide that KCRG was playing it, I circled my calendar and began counting the days. My older brother Tom decided to watch Dracula with me, so we were both surprised that night when “Windmills of Your Mind” started playing and a guy named Chuck Acri, who looked and acted a little like our Dad, walked down some steps into his basement dungeon and welcomed us to The Acri Creature Feature.
“I don’t think I’ll surprise you if I admit that I was an instant fan.
“I don’t remember exactly when, but I eventually began taping the ACF on audio cassettes to listen to them later. Which I did, over and over. (More on that in a sec.) I do know I must have started after Chuck’s on-set sidekick, Bernie the Skull, joined the cast, because I don’t remember ever listening to Bernie’s debut, although I will never forget watching it. It was classic!
“You see, one Friday night, Chuck came down to the dungeon to find a box the size of a bowling ball on his table. (How did the box get there? I don’t know. Nobody ever said.) Something inside began talking to Chuck in a weird echo-y voice, and it wanted Chuck to open the two doors on the front of the box. Chuck refused, which proved he was smarter than a lot of the characters in the movies he showed, but he did eventually to open the box the following Friday night.
“I have to congratulate the ACF for taking the risk of making its fans wait seven days to see what was inside, because it could have backfired. This teaser was a variation on the classic ‘monster behind the door’ gimmick, which, as any monster movie fan knows, can be a double-edged sword. Getting the viewer wondering what shambling nightmare is scratching behind a door never fails to induce goosebumps, but, when the door is opened, anticipation usually leads to disappointment because the monster is rarely as frightening as the ambiguous terror our imaginations has been conjuring. But what did the ACF give us fans after that week’s wait? A talking skull! One with a sense of humor! Super-fan-tabulistic!
“Anyway, about those audiocassettes…
“I don’t know what inspired me to start taping the ACF. I didn’t even own a cassette recorder. I had to borrow … okay, confiscate … Tom’s recorder every Friday night. (He complained for a while, but I eventually wore him down and he ended up giving me the darn thing.) To tape the show I had to … uh … tape the microphone to our color television’s speaker. The reproduction quality was not half bad, and after a few weeks I had a nice little collection of programs that I eventually started binge-listening to while I banged out stories and stage plays on my electric typewriter in my bedroom.
“Yes, I estimate Chuck and the gang on the ACF kept me company for approximately one zillion hours during those formative years.
“Okay, maybe I’m overestimating, but becoming a writer means putting lots of lonely hours writing. I spent a lot of that prep time listening to those tapes, and I am grateful to everyone at the ACF for their company.
“I am also grateful to the ACF for showing so many wonderful horror films I might not have seen otherwise as a kid. Horror films, particularly the Universal classic horror films, are one of my biggest writing influences. As a boy, I owned the entire Aurora monster model line. Even The Prisoner of Castle Mare! I also collected and read horror comics and Famous Monsters of Filmland. I wallpapered my bedroom with scary posters (and worried my mom half to death), and, while other boys were pouring over Playboy, I was reading Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Edgar Allan Poe (which, I suppose, might have also worried my mom). Today I own nearly every Universal horror film that was released on VHS or DVD, but as a kid in the early Seventies the only place I could watch these and other monster movies was on the ACF.
“Besides showing monster movies, the ACF was a fun show. The only thing it seemed to take seriously was entertaining its viewers so Chuck could pitch his home siding.
“And it worked.
“Like thousands of kids in the KCRG viewing area, I knew all about Acri’s exclusive Thermo-Insulation Board®, genuine redwood siding, and how anyone buying siding between Memorial Day and Labor Day received a free trip for four to the Lake of the Ozarks.
“By Grabthar’s Hammer, what a deal!
“Perhaps more than anything, the ACF is important to me because it gave me an invaluable boost of encouragement. Fellow ACF fans will remember The Creep of the Week Award, a weekly contest where fans mailed in anything they created, so long as it was spooky, and the best entry won one of two Creep of the Week awards, one for kids eleven and younger, another for kids twelve and older. In May 1974, I submitted a play and won. Two weeks later, I submitted another play and a poem. I won again and Chuck read my poem on the air. By October of that year, I had won five Creep of the Week awards, which made me a minor celebrity with my peers (i.e., other geeky eighth-graders.) Winning also let me know, ‘Hey, kid, you can write!’
“How do you say thank you for something like that?
“But nothing lasts forever, and one Friday night in November 1974 the ACF vanished the same way it debuted. Without warning. I tuned in as usual, but there was no Chuck, no Bernie, no ACF.
“I wrote the Acri Company to ask what had happened, and a very nice lady whose name escapes me wrote back to explain producing the show had become too expensive, but maybe someday it would return.
“Which it did, very briefly, in 2005, although not in the KCRG area. The new ACF was broadcast in the Quad Cities, which is the home base for The Acri Company. Nevertheless, somehow one of the ‘monsters’ on the new program heard about me, the young fan who grew up to become a real writer, and asked if I’d be a guest on a future show. I’m sure you can imagine my excitement, as well as my disappointment when the show was cancelled again before my appearance could be scheduled. And this time, like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price and Lon Chaney, Jr., the ACF was gone and never coming back.
“I have other memories about the ACF. Like how I took my Acri tapes and made a Best Of compilation that included Bernie the Skull’s incredible mile-a-minute carnival barker’s siding pitch. Or how two friends and I took photos of ourselves as a band called “The Creeps of the Week” and mailed them to the show, hoping Chuck would invite us on to perform. (He didn’t.) But enough already.
“But that was then.
“This is now.
“Monsters and horror are still a big part of what I love and what I write. Among the over seventy comic books I have written are adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the films Invaders from Mars and Re-Animator, and nine H. P. Lovecraft weird stories. In Invaders from Mars, I renamed the main character Josh Acri. I also created the original horror-adventure series Nightlinger, about a mysterious masked man who protects people against supernatural threats, and the second issue of Nightlinger is about a Creature Feature host being stalked by monsters from the movies he shows. I dedicated that issue to the whole ACF gang.
“Yes, The Acri Creature Feature means a lot to me, for all these reasons and more. So if Chuck or anyone who ever participated in the program happens to read this, please accept it as a ‘Thank you’ and a ‘God bless you all’ from a grateful fan.”