With the tragic passing of Zacherley, while those of us who love horror will mourn this legend, there are also some of us from a certain place and certain time who are also mourning the long ago loss of someone just as special, Dr. Shock.
The horror host has been an iconic part of the television world since the dawn of the industry. John Zacherle started doing it in Philadelphia in 1957 doing bits during commercial breaks of horror films. He was first known as Roland, as the Cool Ghoul, and later just as Zacherley as his fame expanded. He managed to guest-host American Bandstand more than a few times and even got a record on the charts, “Dinner with Drac,” years before Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash.”
Zacherle was the king, expanding to New York and to radio, and an inspiration to all the others out there. Whether we’re talking Elvira, Joe Bob Briggs, Vampira, Morgus the Magnificent, Svengoolie, or Stella, the Maneater from Manayunk, they owe a debt to Zacherle, and we have lost a legend. Stella, who we might think owes more to Elvira, actually came to us in the Delaware Valley from Zacherle also, by way of Dr. Shock, with her Philadelphia-based Saturday Night Dead.
When Stella showed up we Philadelphians were hungry for a new horror host because we so missed Dr. Shock, a beloved local horror host who had been taken from us so young at the age of 42, her inspiration. Joe Zawislak, a master magician, with Zacherle’s personal permission to use his make-up and look, took to the airwaves on channel 17, WPHL-TV, as Dr. Shock from 1970 until his premature death in late 1979. For the audiences of the seventies, Dr. Shock was horror, and he made it fun.
In Roland make-up, and undertaker’s suit, and a cape, Dr. Shock would make jokes and do magic tricks in the commercial breaks of the horror movies that channel 17 dug up. Whether it was the Saturday night Scream-In or the Saturday afternoon double feature Mad Theater and Horror Theater, Shocky Doc was a hoot. He did live appearances in a chauffeured hearse and was beloved in the Philly area as much as folks like Captain Noah and Sally Starr.
Some of that love came early on when channel 17 canceled Scream-In in 1970. The outcry was so huge, decades before the internet, tens of thousands of actual letters flooded the television station. Channel 17 had a hit on their hands and they’d made a mistake, they quickly restored Dr. Shock to the airwaves.
While I never Dr. Shock (I probably could, his personal appearance schedule was exhausting) I loved him a lot and quite a bit of my initial horror knowledge came from him (and my enabling big sister). I first saw the original Frankenstein on Dr. Shock with the electrifying birth of the monster scene leaving scars in my imagination even from a tiny black and white TV. He also showed me Daleks before I knew who Doctor Who was. I saw many of my favorite kaiju eiga for the first time on Dr. Shock, and loved seeing him do magic, especially the fire eating, or something simple that we could do at home.
I remember the night a baby was left on Shocky Doc’s doorstep, and he named her Bubbles, after his soda sponsor Bubble Up. Bubbles was Zawislak’s daughter Doreen, and she became just as much of a star as he was, appearing on the show for many years. We never had Bubble Up when I was a kid but I recently found the beverage at both Cracker Barrel and Rocket Fizz even though I had not seen it in decades, and then only on Dr. Shock. It’s like a much sweeter, more lemony version of 7-Up.
Dr. Shock is much missed, and with the passing of Zacherley, many Philadelphia folks remember him as well, and especially at this time of year. We miss you, Shocky Doc, and we love you!