(Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library)
Wikipedia describes Ghoulardi as simply a fictional character created and portrayed by Ernie Anderson, but for those of us in Cleveland that grew up with him, he was so much more.
Ghoulardi's Shock Theater ran from January 13th of 1963 until its abrupt end in December of 1966 on local Cleveland channel 8 (WJW TV). I say abrupt because at the time of his departure, Ghoulardi’s popularity during late-night Friday nights was soaring and at its peak even included hosting Saturday afternoon’s Masterpiece Theater and the weekday children's program Laurel, Ghoulardi and Hardy.
Late-night movie hosts at the time typically portrayed themselves as vampires or mad scientists. Anderson wanted something different, so the idea for a wisecracking “hipster” ahead of his time in a long lab coat, Van Dyke beard, bad wig and glasses was born
He became so popular, that at his peak, Cleveland police attributed a reduction in crime of roughly 35% during his Friday night shows. When informed of this Ghoulardi said simply on the air, ‘No one wants to steal a car in a blizzard."
His show consisted of showing really awful movies, making brutal jokes about said movies and a series of gags and skits during movie breaks. The breaks were also where he created many of his catchphrases like “Hey Group," "Turn Blue," “Ova Dey,” and “Would You Believe." Whenever one of those phrases came out, fans knew something side-splitting was coming.
Anderson’s true genius in creating these moments was in the fact that since he had so much trouble memorizing lines, most of his gags, jabs, roasts and jokes were on-the-fly moments making them that much more priceless.
Anderson typically used Channel 8 colleagues such as Bob “Hoolihan” Wells, “Big Chuck” Schodowski and a name you probably all will recognize, Tim Conway, who went on to a tremendous comedic career that included stops on McHale's Navy and The Carol Burnett Show.
However, not everyone from or around Cleveland was enamored with Ghoulardi’s razor-sharp tongue or wit. He frequently took jabs at Mayor Ralph Locher, bandleader Lawrence Welk, iconic Channel 5 newscaster Dorothy Fuldheim (who he referred to as “Dorothy Baby") and even talk show host and Cleveland native Mike Douglas. It was widely believed that Anderson never appeared on Douglas’s talk show because of Ghoulardi’s jabs at him, but Douglas always denied it when asked about it.
Anderson and Ghoulardi were constantly at odds with station management. Because the show was live, they always feared what he might say or do on the air and were always attempting to drive or direct the show's content. Anderson would typically respond to challenges of his creative control by blowing up plastic models or characters on the air or setting off fireworks, nearly setting the studio on fire at one point.
Despite all the shenanigans, Anderson was very devoted to charitable causes around greater Cleveland and spent countless hours organizing charitable softball and basketball games, even getting the station to begrudgingly at times send along a cameraman to get some highlights for his show.
Having grown weary of constantly battling station management and playing Ghoulardi into his forties, Anderson was lured to bigger things in California by his occasional collaborator Conway. He went on to most successfully be remembered as the voice of ABC TV show promos.
Most astonishing of all, though, is that his legacy remains strong around Cleveland due to the annual Ghoulardifest. His success also blazed the trail for the Hoolihan and Big Chuck Show, which became the Big Chuck and Lil' John Show.
It even spurred on his successor - “The Ghoul," played by Ron Swede. Swede was a huge Ghoulardi fan who as a teenager showed up to a Ghoulardi appearance at Euclid Beach Park in a gorilla suit. Anderson loved it, brought him up on stage, turned it into an impromptu skit, and Swede instantly became part of his crew and eventually Saturday night's late-night host.
Lots of wonderful memories, and if you doubt that, just ask your parents.