"There is so much writing in English on Japanese cinema that can't be accepted at face value — not because the writers are careless, but because the differences in culture and language are just too intricate. When I see August Ragone's name on a piece of writing, it gives me permission to place my faith in it completely. Among Japanese fantasy film historians, he's the best working in English." —Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Watch Horror Films... Keep America Strong!"

Bob began hosting horror in Sacramento on September 10, 1966.

Robert Gene Wilkins (1932-2009) was the antithesis of the traditional horror hosts that haunted television sets around the country; without an affected accent, costume or cape. Bob played himself on screen, he was one of "us", and his dry humor was his calling card. His cigar, a trademark, was picked up from his days working as a foreman in the steel mills of Indiana. But after a stint in the Korean War, the ghoul went west, where he became an ad man for Sacramento television station KRCA-3 in 1963.

Bob quickly became well known for his brilliant wit and sense of humor, and soon became the MC at the station's luncheons, awards shows and retirement ceremonies. On day in 1964, he was asked to fill in for the absentee host of the afternoon movie show, "Valley Playhouse". Station manager Tom Breen felt that they needed to put this kid on the air, and at 11:30 pm on September 10, 1966, they finally did. Bob later retorted, "See why the News comes first," (back then, most viewers turned off their sets at 11:30 pm).

As the late-night host of "Seven Arts Theater", Bob's first movie was Ishiro Honda's Attack of the Mushroom People (1963), and he opened the show by flipping through TV Guide, and telling viewers what their alternatives on the other channels were. The advertisers were pulling their hair out, but when the ratings came in on Monday morning... "Seven Arts Theater" and Wilkins were certified hits, and the station was flooded with phone calls and letters: everyone was throughly mad about Bob, who became an instant celebrity.

His last show on KCRA was broadcast on March 14, 1970, and was back on the air over at Sacramento's premiere UHF station, KTXL-40, with "The Bob Wilkins Double Horror Show" at a much earlier time slot. From May 9, 1970, he held court every on KTXL ever Saturday night (not including the occasional special written and produced by Wilkins) until February 14, 1981. After making the jump to KTXL, and with five years under his horror host belt, Bob was about to make another monstrous step.

Former KCRA manager Tim Breen had made the move to the San Francisco television market at KTVU-2, broadcasting out of Jack London Square in Oakland, California — and he wanted Wilkins. With some local fanfare, and against another local horror host ("Shock-It-To-Me Theater" with Asmodeus on KEMO-20), Bob brought his magic brand of droll humor and weird movies to the Bay Area with the 9:30 pm premiere of "Creature Features" on Saturday, January 9, 1971 with Del Tenny's The Horror of Party Beach (1964).

We were never the same again.

"Creature Features" started off airing before the 11 O'clock News in a 90-minute time slot, but within five months, the show jumped to full two-hours, and then expanded to a double-feature format on August 7, 1971. Introducing Monster From the Ocean Floor (1954), "This film is so bad, it was delivered to Channel 2 in a plain brown wrapper. No return address." On Target Earth (1954), "It's a story about an army of robots from Venus. Of course, Switzerland is known for their watches, and Venus has always been known for their robots."

There were great movies, too, as the show gained popularity KTVU (boasting itself as the Bay Area's Movie Station) went after as many great horror catalogues as they could lay their hands on, even though there was competition from the other local channels. Another asset was that Bob had guests, such as Forrest J Ackerman (Editor-in-Chief of Famous Monsters of Filmland), Sir Christopher Lee, Buster Crabb, Carmine Infantino, and other horror and pop culture celebrities, past and then-present.

By the mid-'70s, KTVU's show was so successful, that it would often beat network programming in the local ratings, such as Saturday Night Live. In 1976, "Creature Features" moved up to 8:00 pm, and then the show added an additional night on Fridays, starting at 11 pm on February 4, 1977. Bob Wilkins was unstoppable. Even Cleveland's mighty sicko, The Ghoul (aired over on KBHK-44), couldn't knock Bob and "Creature Features" off of their mantle. Of course, as rabid Monster Kids, we were in horror movie heaven.

There's a lot more to the story, but I'll save that for another time.

To those of us growing up in Northern California in the 1970s, Bob was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and "Creature Features" was the greatest local show ever made. I was so fortunate to get to know him and work with him while his shows were in their prime at KTVU-2. He was an idol to millions of Northern California kids (and some who got to see him from Honolulu to NYC during KTVU's brief stint as a "Super Station"). He was my hero, my mentor and my friend.

Counting down to Halloween this month, I'll be publishing a different Wilkins post, every day — so stay tuned! And don't forget to visit the official Bob Wilkins website!

Bob Wilkins lives!


Reed said...

Great write-up. Wilkins was a large part of my active fandom years. His style was hard to imitate, though I tried through the written medium. Wish he was still around. Those were indeed Golden Years.

August Ragone said...

Thank you for the kind words. Bob and that era of television, and the lives of children and teenagers, were truly wonderful for many of us.


Popper said...

Some of my best memories of my older childhood were watching Bob Wilkins, and the movies he had on. But we always looked forward to the breaks, with his guests and other things he did. I saw my first real robot on his show, and I've had a love affair with them ever since. We lived in Oroville, CA, and back then everything was over the airwaves. (no cable TV) We were so far away that we didn't get the channel, except late at night when the atmospheric conditions changed, and were correct (probably with a bounce, and less interference), and when Jupiter aligned with Mars. The show would usually start out with a lot of snow and you were lucky to be able to hear it, and it would get better and clearer over time (usually by about a half hour in or so). We loved Bob and the show so much that we put up with that for years. It was more than worth it. When he left and John Stanley took over, we were heartbroken, but Stanley did okay. Good times, good times. Thank you, Bob. #RIP