John Zacherle, TV’s Cool Ghoul and Rock DJ, Dies

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"Zacherley," in a 1960s promo photo

“Zacherley,” in a 1960s promo photo

To kids growing up in the New York and Philadelphia areas during the 1950s and ’60s, there was no one more frightening than the man who went by the single name of Zacherley. It was a good kind of scary though: as the host of TV programs featuring horror and monster movies, the “Cool Ghoul,” as he called himself, introduced generations of young people to films and characters that would stay with them for a lifetime.

So would Zach.

Unlike other horror movie hosts of the early TV era, John Zacherle, who died at his New York City home on October 27 of an unknown cause at age 98, took on the role of horror character himself. With his black hair slicked down and parted in the middle, his piercing, menacing stare, undertaker coats and pancake makeup that gave him a ghostly pallor, Zacherley—who also portrayed a character called Roland, who kept his“wife” in a coffin and had a lab assistant named Igor—personified spooky at a time when real life wasn’t quite as treacherous as it is today.

His career didn’t begin and end with television though. Zacherle was also a recording artist, disc jockey and author. As his audience grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s, he switched gears, becoming a DJ on the hip rock stations WNEW-FM and WPLJ, staying at the latter for a full decade.

On February 14, 1970, he introduced—appropriately—the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore East (he can be heard on the live album Dick’s Picks, Vol. 4, from that show).

Related: Another iconic ’60s TV host, Soupy Sales, died in 2009

Born September 26, 1918, in Philadelphia, John’s parents were strict and didn’t allow him to see the horror movies at local theaters. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and, upon graduating, served in World War II. He went into acting after the war and landed work in a live Western at a local television station. In the role of an undertaker he found his eventual calling and by the mid-1950s, when TV stations began airing old horror B-movies, he took a job presenting them on Shock Theater on Philadelphia’s WCAU, portraying himself as a horror character himself—he would even inject himself into the films he aired, providing comic relief. His fame grew to the point that, at one time, some 14,000 people turned up at the TV studio in response to an open invitation to meet “Roland.”

When Zacherle appeared on What’s My Line?, sans makeup

In 1958, he moved into recording, cutting a single, “Dinner With Drac,” as John Zacherle—The Cool Ghoul, for the local Cameo label; it was popular enough throughout the country to achieve a #6 placement on the national Billboard chart, becoming a Halloween staple forevermore. In 1958, adding the letter y to his last name, “Zacherley” moved to New York’s WABC, where Shock Theater became even more successful. In 1959 he made another move, this time to New York’s WOR, channel 9, further promoting himself and his own characters at personal appearances as he was embraced by ever larger audiences.

Listen to “Dinner With Drac”

A 1960 paperback horror story anthology, Zacherley’s Midnight Snacks, proved so popular that the publisher issued a sequel, Zacherley’s Vulture Stew. That year he also launched a mock presidential campaign, and that same year he released his first full-length record album, Spook Along With Zacherley. In 1962, Cameo released an album, Monster Mash, featuring Zach’s voice over instrumental tracks in place of the label’s star acts, among them Chubby Checker and Dee Dee Sharp.

Throughout the ’60s, Zacherle kept his finger on the pulse of teen culture, hosting live rock ’n’roll concerts. In 1963, he began hosting horror movie programs, including Chiller Theatre, on WPIX, channel 11. In 1965, he began hosting Zacherley’s Disc-o-Teen on a Newark, New Jersey, station, describing it as a Transylvania Bandstand.” (See the clip below.)

Zacherley for President

“Zacherly” for President, from 1960

By 1967, as the teens who comprised his core audience were listening to the new rock music by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Zacherle began hosting his first radio program, on New York’s WNEW-FM. He switched over to WPLJ-FM in 1970 and remained with that station for 10 years. All the while he continued to portray himself in character at personal appearances, hosting Halloween parades and appearing, when he was asked, on various television programs. He appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1982. He also made part of his living doing voiceovers during the era. As the ’80s rolled out, he continued to make radio and television appearances, hosting three TV specials in 1985 alone.

Zacherle’s career began to wind down by the 1990s, although he hosted horror film conventions and made other appearances. He also hosted a nostalgia radio program on New York station WXRK. By 2015, in his late nineties, Zacherle was still appearing at conventions, meeting the fans who’d grown up with him over the decades.

The Box Tops appear on John Zacherle’s Disco Teen Halloween special in 1967

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Jeff Tamarkin

2 Comments so far

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  1. Chuck Barber
    #1 Chuck Barber 29 October, 2016, 08:25

    Like millions of other kids in the 60s, I watched Zach on Chiller Theater and listened on the radio. He was great. I wish I had the chance to meet him. RIP Mr. Cool Ghoul.

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  2. Duck
    #2 Duck 29 October, 2016, 17:36

    Zach, you were awesome loved when you would put yourself in the mummy movie rip brother well see you again

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