On Wednesday June 27, 2018 we were treated to a stimulating and enlightening presentation on Universal Studios and its famous horror films and related and supremely interesting
When Universal Studios sent out a package of films for TV presentation and reviewing, Philadelphia Station WCAU quickly foresaw the potential for increased ownership and profit-making. They quickly hired one John Zacherle, a World War II veteran and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English literature. More importantly, he had a strong resemblance to the deceased movie idol Rudolf Valentino. Not being one to pass up a good promotional opportunity when he saw one, Zacherle adopted the moniker of “Roland.”
WCAU began its quickly famous “Shock Theatre,” hosted by “Roland” on both Monday and Tuesday nights. The movie shows soon became so popular with the younger set that both parents and teachers began protests to WCAU. The result was a change to Saturday nights and even more viewers.
“Roland” pioneered all sorts of stage props. He pretended to live in a crypt with a beautiful and alluring wife who slept in a creaky casket. He even had a creepy servant called “Igor.” Roland became so widely popular that Dick Clark invited him to appear on American Bandstand. Clark introduced him as the “cool ghoul.” Roland even cut a record called “Dinner with Drac.”
Roland’s set up was soon being imitated by TV stations and hosts from coast to coast. Eventually Roland was lured away to the bigger market of New York City when CBS bought WCAU.
We learned plenty of the little known but very interesting history of Universal Studios, which is now the oldest surviving U.S. movie studio. It was founded in 1912 as a nine-man partnership. Soon its President and dominant partner, Carl Laemmle bought out the other eight men and established himself as the sole decider who controlled everything including production, distribution and exhibition. But he never adopted the business model that included the ownership of the theatres themselves. He did not want to take out the large loans that would have been necessary – a decision that proved wise during the Depression.
It has often been said that “luck is more important than brains.” Despite all of his careful planning and tight-fisted management style, Laemmle found himself and his studio in danger of forced bankruptcy.
In the nick of time, Lon Chaney, Sr., arrived. Chaney became commonly known as “the man of a thousand faces.” He was noted for insisting on doing his own makeup. Among his most memorable roles were “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” Chaney made tons of money for Universal Studios.
Universal soon moved into what could fairly be termed the “mass production” of horror movies – at least in relative terms. Among its audience pleasing and classic films were Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy.
We were also treated to a definitive set of revelations of the career and mindset of the most famous of Draculas – Bela Lugosi and the astounding techniques used in the sets and production of the original film. We also got a finishing up rundown on the careers of other actors in the original Dracula.
It proved to be a most truly enjoyable and enlightening evening.