|Crazed Fanboy presents Monster Memories!|
As a sudden blare of eerie, otherworldly music filled the room, the television would come alive with the sight of tinted black and white stills of monsters, both the classic and the obscure. The music would reach a fevered pitch only to be broken by a ghoulish cackle as a sinister voice intoned "Channel forty-four presents Cree-cheer Fee-cheer---and now, your ghost, Dr. Paul Bear-rear." So began The 44 Creature Feature each Saturday at 2:00PM in Florida and any self-respecting fright fan, as the Doctor liked to call us, knew that he or she was in for an afternoon of sight gags, puns, and black humor with a couple of horror movies thrown in for good measure!
I donít remember where I was that Saturday afternoon in 1973 when WTOG channel 44 from Tampa/St. Petersburg premiered its new Creature Feature program. I canít even recall for sure the first time I saw the show with its morbidly humorous host Dr. Paul Bearer, but I am certain it was within no more than a few weeks of its debut. I would have been seven years old at the time and, like most boys, had a healthy interest in horror and science fiction. During the week I could thumb through the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland or build the latest Aurora monster model but Saturdays were reserved for my friend Dr. Paul Bearer. At 2:00PM sharp he would always come through the sticky front door of his tenement castle and welcome us with his cheery greeting, "Well good afternoon, whatever you are." Occasionally he would pause long enough to say hello to his pet spider Spinjamin Bock (howís that for dating the show kids?) or comment on the lunch or some bizarre item he had stopped by to pick up on the way over. Usually, though, he just went straight into announcing the film or films to be presented that day. No matter what they were, from classics like King Kong and The Mummy to not so classics like Children Shouldnít Play with Dead Things or Al Adamsonís Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, to him they were all really horrible, or my name isnít Dr. Paul Bearer!
Periodically throughout the show, Dr. Paul Bearer would check back in with us to make sure we were still watching. During these breaks he was usually found munching on a big bowl of Frosted Snakes cereal or reading the latest issue of Better Tombs and Gardens because he didnít care for that day's feature. Even as a youngster, these self-depreciating barbs were not lost on me. I found it hilarious because Dr. Paul Bearer was obviously an adult and this was his job. For him to continually refer to the pictures he presented as horrible old movies or to repeatedly ignore what was being shown because it did not interest him was unthinkable. In my mind, I equated this to telling a teacher I was not paying attention to the math lesson because I found the comic book I was reading more interesting. Incidentally, this never happened but one could always dream!
Sometimes, if we were lucky, the good Doctor would take us up to his music room and favor us with a song on his Frankenstein-way piano! These musical numbers were nothing more than lip-synched versions of Tom Leher songs, but they introduced multiple generations of kids to Poisoning Pigeons in the Park! Guest stars like Witch Hazel, Irma Broombeck, vampire singer Fang Sinatra, and Jack the Ripper would often drop by during the film. The latter was a school chum of Dr. Paul Bearer from their days together at Cutting U! When the Doctor would ask him why they called him Jack the Ripper, Jack would always fly into a rage and tear off his clothes!
At the height of its popularity, Creature Feature was on for four hours on Saturday. The show consisted of two films with a chapter from an old science fiction serial shown in between. The show was usually preceded by an episode of some series like Voyage to the Bottom of Sea or The Time Tunnel so the average horror fan could kill an entire Saturday afternoon with no trouble at all! The longer format also gave Dr. Paul Bearer more flexibility and some of his most memorable gags came during these years. His popularity was so great during this time that WTOG even featured him in one of the most tasteless promotional spots ever filmed. The good Doctor was shown sitting up his trademark coffin with his glass eye in one hand (Dick Bennick lost his right eye in an automobile accident early on in his career and the glass eye he wore gave Dr. Paul Bearer his uniquely off kilter look) as he croaked, "WTOG Channel 44, weíve got our eye on youuuuuu!" As politically incorrect as this was, they still ran the spot continually for a number of years.
As I grew older, Creature Feature gave way to other pursuits and I gradually visited the tenement castle less and less. Somehow we never lost touch entirely and even after I moved away to college I still managed to find time to catch the odd episode on a Saturday when I was back visiting my parents. I had the good insight to finally start taping a few shows during these years and, even though the quality of the films had deteriorated drastically by this point, Dr. Paul Bearer was still his old ghoulish self! It was in my newly post college days that the Doctor and I would finally meet on the same side of the television screen for one unforgettable afternoon.
My love of horror and science fiction has blessed me with many friends and acquaintances over the years. In the mid 1980ís I became involved with a South Florida science fiction club that put on an annual convention around Halloween. One of my friends was involved in the video programming for the show and I offered the resources of my vast collection to improve the content of what was shown. You would think that in the days before mass cable and satellite stations, fans would welcome the opportunity to view rare television series like the Kolchak: The Night Stalker or films like I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Destroy All Monsters. Unfortunately we fought an uphill battle every year to steer the video rooms away from Blockbuster video rentals and neo-pornographic Japanese animation! Because the convention was held in Tampa, we had pitched the idea of a Creature Feature tribute program to the group for several years. Finally, in 1991, they agreed to give us adequate space to show a weekend long marathon of difficult to find films that everyone within the broadcast range of WTOG would remember. Even for those fans unfamiliar with Creature Feature, this weekend would offer an opportunity to see rare films like The Last Man on Earth and Gamera Vs. Monster X that still to this day have not been released on video. As my friends and I began to meet to plan out the program schedule, we quickly realized we could not pay proper tribute to the Creature Feature experience without honoring the man who made it so memorable - Dr. Paul Bearer.
Our initial plan was to contact Dr. Paul Bearerís alter ego Dick Bennick and ask for permission to use video clips from the show in between the movies. As we began to reminisce about the gags we all loved and remembered so well, we also began to realize that Dr. Paul Bearer was really what had made the show so memorable. The films he played were just a vehicle to give the Doctor an opportunity to do his schtick each week! With that in mind we knew a more formal video presentation was in order and we decided to honor Dr. Paul Bearer with a plaque, paid for with our own money, in recognition for his years of dead-ication as a horror movie host. Fortunately, Dick Bennick was extremely agreeable to, if not truly honored by, the gesture and agreed to be interviewed to provide information for the tribute.
The August afternoon I spent at Dick Bennickís house was every horror fanís dream come true. My friends and I reminisced about Creature Feature, horror films in general, Halloween, haunted houses, and a whole list of other subjects with a local legend. If I left his house that day with nothing else, I knew that Dick Bennick had a genuine love for the character he created. I believe that his one great regret over the years was that he was never able to make a full time career from playing Dr. Paul Bearer. It had become obvious to us as fans that the television station did not have the same respect for Dr. Paul Bearer that we did. By the time we did the interview, Creature Feature had been paired back to one film and sometimes these were shown in 90-minute time slots. The film selections had also been reduced to throw away titles that had only the vaguest connections to the horror or science fiction genres. Even though he was the longest-running horror host in television history by this point in his career, the television stationís tone was more of tolerance than of reverence.
From a technical standpoint, our video tribute was everything a Creature Feature fan could hope for. Thanks to Dick Bennickís help, we created an excellent presentation of classic clips to fill in between the films. I also did an introduction over a still frame of the original 44 Creature Feature logo that told the story of our revered host. Unfortunately, the large interior room we had been promised for the presentation had somehow become a glorified pool house adjacent to the rear of the hotel. We managed to salvage the plaque presentation by moving it to the main lobby but the unwarranted change of venue had dampened our spirits. Dr. Paul Bearer saved the day though, as he pulled up to the hotel in his infamous 1963 Cadillac Corpse-De-Ville hearse. Fans immediately flocked around him as he entered the hotel and chattered away as we lead him to the main lobby amidst a barrage of flash bulbs. After a brief speech, we presented him with the plaque and he graciously signed autographs, posed for photos, and answered questions from his many fans. Always the professional, Dr. Paul Bearer gave an excellent performance although he must have wondered if there really was a tribute room or not! Even as we toasted our success afterward in the hotel bar, we swore this was our last year of involvement with the convention.
This was to be my last meeting with Dr. Paul Bearer but the moment was preserved with some great photos of us in front of the hearse and a video of the entire ceremony I will always treasure. I sent Dick Bennick a copy of the video presentation we did that weekend and a few weeks later he proudly displayed our plaque on the air during a live broadcast. As he read the inscription aloud and said a few words of gratitude, I knew it had all been worthwhile.
I continued to catch Creature Feature as often as I could after that, even though it became a test of endurance to sit through some of the films waiting for Dr. Paul Bearer to offer a few moments of real entertainment. Then, one day in February of 1995, my father called to tell me that Dr. Paul Bearer had passed away. Dick Bennickís death at age 66 was so sudden and unexpected that it caught everyone by surprise. The following Saturday, WTOG aired a sparse tribute show of classic clips hosted by their news anchor, Barbara Callahan. A career of over thirty years, the last twenty-two of which were spent at that station in Florida, was summed up in a meager 30 minutes. As the tribute came to a close it finally became apparent that Dr. Paul Bearer, Dick Bennick, and the 44 Creature Feature were gone forever. The television station had no intention of continuing the program in any form and a Saturday afternoon tradition was over. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but Dr. Paul Bearer had one surprise left in store me.
As soon as I learned about Dick Bennickís death, I immediately called my friends in Tampa to find out all the details. All that was known at the time was that his widow had asked the station not to air any further broadcasts of him after his death. Rumor had it that the props from the show were to be donated to a local museum and a letter I sent to Mrs. Bennick expressing my condolences and asking about plans for the future of the character went unanswered. It would be five more years before I was to finally able to get my answer as to what had happened to the legacy of Dr. Paul Bearer.
By the fall of 2000, I had long since forgotten my curiosity about what had happened to Dr. Paul Bearerís effects. Then the phone call came from a friend in Tampa. He said he had the name of a lady who had Dr. Paul Bearerís hearse and costume for sale. I was extremely skeptical when I called her number but the tales of her association with Dick Bennick matched with personal information I knew about him. She was a friend of the Bennick family and five years after his death his widow, Patty, was about to remarry. In preparation for a move she had sold the contents of a storage unit to her friend and included the now dilapidated hearse as part of the deal. The remains of the hearse had already been sold but she still had a box of his personal effects and a suit bag containing his costume! Needless to say, negotiations were short and sweet and within a week the large box was in my possession. The effects turned out to be some photos, posters, awards, and magazines from the many years of his career. The most surprising find was a proclamation, signed by the Mayor of Tampa, which recognized Dr. Paul Bearer for his years of service and declared October 30, 1993 Dr. Paul Bearer Day. Impressive as all this was, the suite bag contained the real treasure. As previously mentioned, Dick Bennickís death had been sudden and unexpected. As such, the contents of the garment bag had been untouched since the last time he had removed the costume in 1995, certainly intending to wear it again. The costume was complete, down to the shoes, socks, and suspenders. Everything had been perfectly preserved, even the trademark Be Peculiar button and the white flower on his lapel. Within the pockets were an eye patch, a gold card case filled with Dr. Paul Bearer photo business cards, and a small vampire joke book filled with puns. The costume has since been cleaned and framed and now decorates a corner in my own tenement castle where it will remain on display as a tribute to my childhood friend.
Many of the props from the show were destroyed over the years after the show went off, due to a combination of vermin and climate. Those that did survive now adorn a room in Dr. Paul Bearerís Haunted Mansion; a haunted house attraction sponsored each year by the Kiwanis Club of Mulberry. The attraction was started in 1989 with the creative input of Dick Bennick and was renamed in his memory after his death. According to Chuck Cooper, the mansion even features an introduction tape compiled from several different speeches Dr. Paul Bearer did for them over the years. The Kiwanis Club also maintains a small permanent display of photos and items on Dr. Paul Bearer. The hearse had fallen into extreme disrepair over the years and was basically nothing but a shell. Fortunately, it ended up in the hands of the local tourist attraction, Busch Gardens. They painstakingly restored it to its past glory and it can now be seen on display during their annual Howl-O-Scream horror nights each October.
Saturday afternoons will never quite be the same again without my friend Dr. Paul Bearer. He survived six presidents, two wars, and thousands of horrible old movies and could still be counted on for a bad pun and a good laugh. No final words are more appropriate than the ones with which he closed the show each week: "Until next Saturday afternoon, Iíll be lurking for youuuuuuuu!"
|"Dr.Paul Bearer and me" is ©2001, 2002 by ED Tucker and is published here with permission. The above article has also appeared in Scary Monsters™ magazine. Webpage design and graphics are ©2002 Nolan B. Canova.