Creature Features Has Risen from the Grave

How a low-budget monster-movie show kept the Bay Area strong.

The faux-dungeon in KTVU’s Oakland studios was packed with a guy dressed as Darth Vader, a furry in a donkey suit, and various fans and family members all gathered to watch as the two hosts of Creature Features — adman Bob Wilkins, who started the show in 1971, and journalist John Stanley, who took it over in 1979 — toasted each other with Champagne. The mood seemed festive on that late August afternoon in 1984, but it was more like a wake. Creature Features, the top Bay Area monster-movie show from when that really meant something, had been canceled, and no letter-writing campaign could save it. The TV taping that brought these well-wishers here was going to be its last.

After that night’s lackluster movie, Lemora Lady Dracula (1973), rolled to its poorly lit climax, Wilkins observed, “This is the saddest night since they took Bowling for Dollars off Channel 5.”

The two hosts ripped off their clip-on mics, and the camera pulled back to reveal the edges of the set and the stage lights as stock piano jazz played over the credits. When Creature Features faded to black at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 2, 1984, Bay Area TV got a lot less weird. But much like the vampires and zombies that filled its airtime, Creature Features wouldn’t stay dead.

In the 1970s, when TV viewers were a captive audience for local broadcasters, the Bay Area’s weekend TV schedules were crawling with monsters. Independent stations took already decades-old fright flicks and repackaged them with their own hype. There was Chiller Diller, Monstrous Movie, Ghoulie Movie, and KNTV out of San Jose went the extra mile by making an intern in a white gorilla suit boogie to “The Monster Mash” on Monster Matinee.

Despite the gorilla, it was Creature Features that set the high-water mark for homegrown TV weirdness with its mix of bad movies, comic irony, and community programming for misfits. George Lucas and Charles Manson sent in fan letters. Kirk Hammett of Metallica tuned in every week to get news of upcoming sci-fi cons and movie screenings in those internet-free days when there was no other way to get this information.

The connection to Creature Features is still so powerful for the younger Boomers and older Gen Xers who stayed up late enough to watch it that there are now two different attempts to revive it: one anchored by the fez-topped Al Omega and the other by a washed-up rocker character called Vincent Van Dahl. Both have traded off a Saturday night time slot on KOFY TV, and, since this is 2018 and not 1975, both are locked in trademark disputes accompanied by Facebook flame wars.

Why does Creature Features still inspire enough passion among its aging fans to compel two of them to brave the U.S. Patent Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board? The reason: its first host, Bob Wilkins.

“Bob Wilkins was a hipster who sat in a chair and smoked a cigar,” comedian Greg Proops — who watched Creature Features growing up in San Carlos — tells SF Weekly, adding that Wilkins was “wry, sarcastic, and way too inside for the kids he purportedly entertained.”

“I have fond memories of being on that show,” recalls George Takei, a frequent guest on Creature Features where he and Wilkins discussed Star Trek alongside topics like mass transit and architecture. “It’s people like Bob with his regular show who helped to build the large audience for science fiction that we have today.”

While horror hosts at other independent TV stations across the country — and there were many, like Philadelphia’s Zacherley, Cleveland’s Ghoulardi, or Chicago’s Son of Svengoolie — yukked it up in Dracula drag and corpse paint, the bespectacled Wilkins had the bemused look of a guy who took a wrong turn on the way to his local Toastmasters meeting and ended up crashing the weirdest party ever. With its contrarian streak still intact before the techie gold rush, the Bay Area loved him for this.

Bob Wilkins with the first “Watch Horror Films Keep America Strong” sign at KCRA in Sacramento in the late 1960s.

With his dry wit and a sense of irony that was ahead of its time, Wilkins developed his shtick of having no shtick at all in Sacramento at KCRA Channel 3. He took a job in the station’s ad department in 1963 after relocating to California from Chicago, where he wrote glowing copy for Burgermeister Beer ads at the Mad Men-esque Post-Keyes Gardner agency. In 1967, KCRA program director Tom Breen noticed that Wilkins got more than a few laughs at company parties and tapped him to introduce Attack of the Mushroom People (1963), a Japanese phantasmagoria that’s probably best viewed on brown acid. 

“It was awful,” Wilkins told the Examiner in 1974. “The show went on at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. I told whoever was out there, ‘You’re better off going to bed.’ Naturally, they stayed up to see if I was right.”

“I think his connection came based on how he talked about the films that were so bad, his honesty,” Wilkins’ wife, Sally, explains. “It was all a B.S. kind of thing. Pretend it’s better than it is. He was one of the first who would say, ‘This is really terrible’ and ‘turn to some other station.’ ”

At KCRA, Wilkins assembled several of the sight gags he’d later bring to Creature Features, such as the yellow rocking chair and the motto “WATCH HORROR FILMS KEEP AMERICA STRONG,” which hung behind him on the set and which is now at the heart of the legal dispute between the two current Creature Features hosts.

The cigar came much earlier.

“Bob grew up in Northern Indiana, in steel mill country,” Sally Wilkins says. “He went to work in a steel mill with all these big hulking guys, and he had to tell them what to do. He was an office worker, so he took on the cigar as a way of looking older.”

When Breen moved to KTVU in 1970, he soon convinced Wilkins to bring the bad movie formula that worked at KCRA to the Bay Area’s larger, hipper, and way more stoned audience with a new show called Creature Features. Now owned by Fox, KTVU in the 1970s was a locally sourced dream factory that produced many fond childhood memories with Romper Room and Bits & Pieces starring Charlie and Humphrey, a puppet horse and dog who dispensed moral lessons during afterschool commercial breaks.

“I was totally in awe,” says Nelson Wong, who started at the station in 1969 when he was still a teenager. “It was kind of cool stepping into that building down on Jack London Square and seeing all this.” He worked on the wide array of programming coming out of KTVU back then including pro wrestling, roller derby, and Dialing for Dollars. “All the little old ladies loved Pat McCormick during the daytime during that show,” Wong adds, referring to the Dialing for Dollars host, who also voiced Charlie and Humphrey.

Creature Features joined KTVU’s pantheon of local TV favorites on Saturday, Jan. 9, 1971, with a showing of Horror of Party Beach (1963), a surf-rock horror flick with fish monsters that look like they have a dozen hot dogs crammed into their gaping maws.

Since it started at 9 p.m., Metallica guitarist and monster movie aficionado Kirk Hammett caught that first show as an 8-year-old kid growing up in the Mission District.

“I remember watching it and just loving it and loving the movie,” Hammett recounts. “I went to school that Monday or whatever, and all my friends and I were talking about was how cool Horror of Party Beach was and how cool Creature Features was. We had this great new show that we could watch. It was my favorite TV show as a kid.”

Greg Proops also watched the debut.

“There was an instant replay of the dorm-massacre scene after the movie while Bob talked about how dreadful the movie was,” Proops says.

While Wilkins didn’t wear a cape or fangs, he was still surrounded by plenty of creepy props. Nelson Wong assembled the Creature Features set for each week’s shoot.

“He had a huge set-up,” Wong says. “I was told — and I don’t know if these guys were messing with me or not — but that the coffins that were used were real coffins that they actually got from some mortuary.”

Joan Scroggs, who worked at KTVU as a camera operator for 43 years starting in 1959, affirms that there was something unseemly about the coffins.

“So in comes this black, long casket — you know, once you put people in,” she says. “That thing smelled terrible when they brought it in here. We had to de-fume it. I don’t know where they got it. We didn’t ask them.”

“The head imprint was pretty realistic,” Wong adds, describing the pillow inside the coffin that was almost never seen on-screen, although Wilkins emerged from it for station promos. “We also had that skull that was on the set. Somebody told me it was a real skull at one time. So that was one of the early memories I had of working on that show and just believing everything everybody told me. I was gullible back then.”

Besides Wilkins’ quips at his movies’ expense, Creature Features was also known for its guests, ranging from local weirdos who built robots in their garage or knitted a sweater big enough to fit King Kong, to stars like Christopher Lee and the casts of Star Trek and Star Wars.

“This type of show drew a certain number of — for want of another name, I would call them cult-type people,” Scroggs recalls. “They would be allowed to come in and just hang around as an audience. Every once in a while, Bob would grab one of them and bring them over to the set and interview them. He did that quite a bit, and then he drew more and more people from the crowd over in San Rafael that were working for a guy named George Lucas — you may have heard of him. They helped build [Industrial Light & Magic] and the Star Wars thing.”

Beyond the coffins and the cultists, Creature Features also drew midnight-movie royalty. Nelson Wong recalls an appearance by Edy Williams, the star of her ex-husband Russ Meyer’s cult favorite, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970).

“She comes out in her bikini, and I had to mic her up,” Wong says. “I didn’t know how to put the mic on her. I was like 20, 21. She just grabbed my hands and said, ‘Put it right here! What are you afraid of!?!’

“I had my headset on and everybody was yelling in my ear: ‘Careful! Don’t get carried away! Watch your hand. We’re watching,’ ” Wong continues. “I was a little embarrassed there.”

Wilkins also encouraged local filmmakers to send in their short films. Although Scroggs thought most of these movies “were pretty bad,” she was “blown away” by Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969), a minute-and-a-half cartoon with a fawn munching on foliage before — spoiler — getting flattened by a giant lizard.

“I laughed so hard you could hear me over the air,” Scroggs says.

Wilkins also gave a boost to the appliance-laden Star Wars spoof Hardware Wars (1978) by having its director, Ernie Foselius, come on the show to promote what would become the highest-grossing short film of all time. Wilkins even paired the aggressively derivative potboiler Nightmare in Wax (1969) with a rebroadcast of Richard Nixon’s 1952 Checkers speech, in which Tricky Dick saved his political career by extolling a small dog named Checkers after being accused of pocketing gifts from Republican donors.

“My series deals with fantasy and science fiction — things that are make-believe and unbelievable,” Wilkins told the Chronicle in 1977. “In my estimation, the ‘Checkers Speech’ qualifies on every count.”

At Creature Features’ height in the mid-1970s, Wilkins compelled as much as 17 percent of the San Francisco Bay Area’s TV viewers to endure Mars Needs Women (1967) or sit through a moldy carpet being passed off as an alien invader in The Creeping Terror (1964). While it helped that there were only eight or nine stations to choose from back then, Wilkins held his own against the cocaine-fueled, John Belushi-era Saturday Night Live.

Wilkins was so successful for KTVU that the station added him as a weatherman on The 10 O’Clock News in 1974 — despite his complete lack of experience in meteorology.

“Where do I get my weather information? The Weather Bureau like everybody else,” he told the Chronicle. “But I sometimes go to other sources — after all, it’s run by the government.”

Wilkins was done with the weather after his initial two-year commitment, but his TV empire kept growing. In 1977, KTVU expanded Creature Features to three shows a week, with a movie on Friday nights and two on Saturdays. Wilkins also taped another horror show for KTXL Channel 40 in Sacramento, and there was Captain Cosmic (1977-80), a weekday afternoon kidvid show on KTVU in which Wilkins wore a satin superhero suit and presented Japanese monster shows such as Ultraman and Space Giants with a clunky robot sidekick called 2T2.

“I thought that was really stupid,” Sally Wilkins says. “I didn’t like the costume. I didn’t like anything about it, and I always told Bob if he wore that costume out in public that we’d be instantly divorced.”

But when the heavy workload started taking its toll on Wilkins, he decided to step down from television and go back to the advertising business.

“Bob was an adman, first and foremost,” Sally Wilkins says, maintaining that Creature Features “was his secondary job.

“He was exhausted,” she adds. “We now know he got Alzheimer’s at age 50. He died at 76, so of course he was exhausted.”

Bob Wilkins interviews future host John Stanley in front of that all-too-realistic coffin on the set of the original Creature Features in the KTVU studios.

Wilkins’ last episode of Creature Features aired on Feb. 24, 1979, with a showing of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), a gender-bending Hammer horror film. With ratings still pretty strong, KTVU kept the show going for another five years. And to find a new host, the station looked to a cadre of super-fans who’d supplied Wilkins with trivia and background on the movies he was showing, making him seem more knowledgeable about horror films than he actually was. Among these friends of the show were future KTVU movie critic Bob Shaw, Japanese Kaiju expert August Ragone, and Chronicle entertainment writer John Stanley.

“It was on Christmas Eve, I got a phone call from the publicity department of Channel 2 to tell me that I had been picked to replace Bob because he was going to leave the station,” Stanley says, “which was a shock to me, because that had never been my dream to be a horror host.

“I guess because of my contacts through the San Francisco Chronicle, where I was an entertainment writer, they felt that I was kind of an expert on horror films and the science fiction genre,” Stanley continues.

Under Stanley, Creature Features became goofier and more literate at the same time. He interviewed literary heavyweights such as Ray Bradbury and Psycho author Robert Bloch, while the “mini-movies” he produced for the show had him getting strangled by mummies, demented scarecrows, and even Chuck Norris. Stanley may have had authorial aspirations, but he wasn’t above taking pratfalls.

“I have a lot of respect for John Stanley for picking up the torch and carrying it on once Bob moved on,” Kirk Hammett says. “He didn’t try to be Bob Wilkins. He put a serious, scholarly bent on the movies. I appreciate that.”

Stanley was a nerd. To quote the pre-code shocker Freaks (1932), he was “one of us” — but because of that, he lacked that detachment that drew viewers to Wilkins. However, not even Wilkins could have kept Creature Features going against the greater viewing choices offered by VCRs and expanding cable TV packages. KTVU pulled the plug in 1984, the same year that the FCC relaxed standards on the amount of airtime that could be devoted to commercials, clearing the way for the often-sleazy infomercials that pollute local TV schedules today.

“The entertainment value has changed a lot,” Nelson Wong reflects. “All the stations have gone to hours and hours of newscasts. I think we’ve lost that variety: the live, spontaneous shows that we used to do. It’s sad to see that happen.”

John Stanley shopped the idea of continuing Creature Features to James Gabbert at KOFY TV 20, but nothing came of it despite what Stanley thought was a positive meeting. He never reached out to any other stations or attempted to renegotiate with KTVU.

“I just accepted the change and let it happen, and I shouldn’t have,” he says. “I made a terrible mistake.”

James Currie, aka Al Omega, poses with disputed pieces of intellectual property on the attic set of his version of Creature Features.

Wilkins and Stanley would’ve been the Siskel and Ebert of horror if they’d done more than a handful of shows together. They wore sweaters, sport coats, and neckties. They weren’t big on shtick, but the current Creature Features comeback is loaded with it.

Airing on Saturday nights at 10 p.m. on KOFY TV, the current Creature Features is hosted by a triumvirate consisting of clueless rocker Vincent Van Dahl; Tangella, a mute sprite with yarn for hair; and Livingston, the droll butler who gets most of the laughs. While more contrived than its ’70s source material, the new show cleaves to Creature Features tradition, with a heavy emphasis on interviews with local cosplayers, ghost hunters, and the occasional celebrity such as Jon Provost (Timmy from Lassie) or Steve “Zetro” Souza of pioneering thrash metal band Exodus.

Creature Features 3, as they call it — with 1 being Wilkins and 2 being Stanley — is the passion project of Jeff Bodean, who took a modest fortune from co-founding software companies Micromat and Outspring, and bought a small Santa Rosa TV station in 2014 that’s now called North Bay TV. Bodean avoids admitting he plays Van Dahl, but this is about as convincing as Wilkins’ denials that he was Captain Cosmic  — especially since Bodean’s IMDB page credits him with the role.

When Bodean got the idea to bring back Creature Features on his station, he reached out to Tom Wyrsch, producer of the Creature Features documentary Watch Horror Films Keep America Strong (2008), and the man entrusted by the Wilkins family to maintain Bob’s legacy.

“Even though he’ll never come out and say it, [Wyrsch] is really Creature Features right now,” Bodean says.

With Wyrsch aboard as producer, Bodean’s revived Creature Features premiered on North Bay TV on Oct. 29, 2016. In this debut, Van Dahl interviewed John Stanley during a showing of Night of the Living Dead (1968), a movie more associated with the original Creature Features than any other. Completing the air of homage and succession, Wilkins’ original “Watch Horror Films Keep America Strong” sign has a prominent place on the new show’s set.

“Vincent is part of the old tradition,” Stanley says. “He has a tongue-in-cheek approach.”

But Bodean wasn’t the only one in the North Bay bringing back Creature Features, and this would soon cause a rift in Northern California’s horror host scene. James Currie, a retired metal caster, plays spooky Shriner Al Omega in a homemade version he says he’s been taping in a Petaluma farmhouse since 2008.

“You can hear the goats in the background,” he says, “especially in the older shows.” Currie claims his DIY effort is “on stations across the country” and “a couple of Roku channels,” plus there’s always YouTube.

While Tom Wyrsch was aware of Currie’s production, he wasn’t concerned about it when he and Bodean launched their own Creature Features because he believed the name had fallen into public domain.

Creature Features shows have been on since the ’50s, for God’s sakes,” Wyrsch says. “There’s been hundreds of them.”

Hundreds is only a slight exaggeration. Shows called Creature Features have aired in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and several other U.S. metros, with many of them predating Wilkins’ 1971 debut. The Creature Features that ran on WGN Chicago from 1970-76 has also been revived on its own Roku channel.

But Currie found he could trademark the name Creature Features, and he didn’t stop there. Three weeks after Bodean’s Creature Features premiered on North Bay TV, Currie quietly registered federal trademarks on the oft-used title, along with Bob Wilkins’ ironic motto, “Watch Horror Films Keep America Strong.” In a letter posted to various Facebook horror host pages, John Stanley later called this “outright thievery.” The war was on.

“I just found it odd that he would try to lock the names — especially ‘Watch Horror Films,’ because that’s Bob,” Wyrsch says. “You know that belongs to Bob.”

“My two cents on it was, [Currie] didn’t do anything wrong,” says Anthony Licciardi, former director of marketing and promotions at KOFY. “It came up as a trademark. It’s available. He’s the one smart enough to do it.”

Licciardi worked to bring Currie’s Creature Features to KOFY in March 2017 as a replacement for Creepy KOFY Movie Time, the Saturday night bacchanal that brought horror hosting back to San Francisco’s airwaves in 2008. But Currie’s run on KOFY went only two weeks before going into reruns.

“[Currie] had kept missing the deadline for various excuses,” Licciardi says. With Currie not delivering new material, KOFY soon cancelled his show — even though, according to Currie and Licciardi, he paid the station to air it.

“The production value wasn’t good, but he paid his bills,” Licciardi says.

KOFY replaced Currie’s Creature Features with Bodean’s better-produced version. Representatives of KOFY did not respond to requests to confirm if Bodean now has a similar paid programming arrangement with the station.

But blown deadlines and aggressive trademarking aren’t the only things making Currie a pariah among Bay Area horror fans. During a 2016 appearance on Miss Misery’s Movie Massacre, another local monster movie show produced by Reyna Young, Currie spun an offensive and even hurtful origin story for his Al Omega character.

“Bob Wilkins’ car broke down in front of my house one year. My mother and him had a brief affair,” Currie said.

“They made a movie. I haven’t seen it, but it got awards. It’s called Misery,” Currie joked.

But Sally Wilkins wasn’t laughing.

“The most defaming thing Mr. Currie has done is to infer that he, Currie, is the illegitimate son of my late husband,” Sally Wilkins wrote in a scathing Facebook post on March 27 that was also handed out on paper during Silicon Valley Comic-Con in April. Currie also refers to his prop skull as “Bob,” which Sally wrote is “insulting to Bob’s memory.”

With Sally Wilkins’ blessing, Wyrsch and Bodean filed an opposition to Currie’s trademark registrations with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on Aug. 23, 2017. Their goal is to keep Creature Features as open-source as possible.

“As far as we’re concerned, Creature Features is a show that’s been on all over the United States for a long time,” Bodean says, “and for somebody to try to monopolize that is wrong.”

Unwilling to rename their shows, both sides have lawyered up and dug in. A settlement conference held in the California Northern District Court in San Jose on Oct. 1, 2018 failed to close the matter, and discussions continued during a telephone conference on Oct. 12. If Currie and Bodean do reach an agreement, it’s unlikely they’ll make it public. (In a heated phone conversation, Bodean requested that SF Weekly refrain from covering the suit.)

While the fate of his Creature Features is being decided by a combination of civil courts and the USPTO, Bodean looks forward to taping his 100th episode and starting a new season. He is also working to secure a library of “ ’80s, ’90s, early-2000s horror movies” instead of relying on the same public domain films that have fueled horror-hosting for decades.

“We want to bring something new, something different,” Bodean says.

Currie plans to continue producing his Creature Features as well. “If the trademark case goes against me, nothing changes,” Currie says with a laugh. “If they win in trademark court, all that says is that I can’t own the name. So if they win, I keep doing the show same as always.”

For now, Currie and Bodean share a sense of sadness along with their fragments of a beloved TV institution.

“It’s a sad situation,” Bodean waxes. “Unfortunately, we have to do something.”

“I’ve lost a few friends,” Currie reflects. “It’s very hard for me to reach out to a lot of the other horror hosts because they’re not talking to me. That’s actually very sad.”

It may even be sadder than when they took Bowling for Dollars off Channel 5.

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