Chicago’s Favorite Uncle!
It was a dark and stormy night…
Summer was melting away and the nights had been bringing some rather nasty thunderstorms across northern Illinois. I was ten years old and terribly afraid of thunderstorms. I would worry myself sick as the sky above churned and the Severe Weather Watches blared across the television.
Sitting at home with my father and sister on one of these ugly nights, my Pops did some serious damage control and suggested I sit down and take a break from pacing nervously throughout the house. He flipped on a local channel, WCIU. Nodding self-assuredly, he popped a bag of popcorn and told us to just sit back and relax.
Just as I was about to curl into the fetal position while a new round of storms roared through our neighborhood on their path to Lake Michigan, a monumental event occurred. A television show I had never seen before began, complete with funky theme music and vivid colors splashed across a low-budget studio. Standing in front of the television screen, a coffin burst open to reveal a man in black makeup and a top hat. His voice had that familiar Chicago accent. His eyes twinkled with youthful exuberance. I had never met this man before, but he was instantly someone I liked. He introduced a classic horror film, I can’t recall specifically which one. I was too enamored with this man on the screen who was suddenly making me forget all about the raging storms outside. He joked, he sang and he had rubber chickens thrown at him. His name was Svengoolie, and he was instantly my favorite TV character of all time.
Svengoolie was there for me during those thunderstorms and for much more over the last eighteen years. He was the family member I’d never met. Whilst navigating through a rocky divorce between my parents in my mid-teens, Svengoolie was the voice I knew I could count on to lift spirits and make me forget about the storms outside.
The man behind the make-up is Rich Koz. Born in Park Ridge, Illinois and first making a name for himself on the Main East High School radio airwaves as a teen, Koz began corresponding with the original Svengoolie, Jerry G. Bishop, while he was a student at Northwestern University. In 1979, Koz began his horror hosting career as The Son of Svengoolie, ultimately taking the reigns from Bishop when Bishop moved to San Diego to pursue other opportunities.
In 2011, MeTV debuted Svengoolie nationally. The show is now available in almost every area of the country.
In the three and a half decades since his first night donning the iconic top hat, Koz has won numerous local Emmys and was inducted into the prestigious Silver Circle by the Chicago chapter of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his amazing career that has brought joy to so many. In 2014, Koz was recognized by the Chicago Museum of Broadcast Communications with a special night showcasing the horror host with the most. On Halloween of 2014, the state of Illinois and city of Chicago declared it “Rich Koz/Svengoolie Day”.
Mr. Koz has been at it for over thirty-five years, having long ago cemented his status as one of the most prolific horror hosts in the history of television. He’s as Chicago as Empire and Luna carpet, as beloved as deep dish pizza and the Cubs.
In 2012, I stood in line at Chicago’s C2E2 event with my stomach turning and my hands shaking. I was finally getting the opportunity to meet Svengoolie. I was worried he may not live up to the hype I had built up for the previous fifteen years. What if he wasn’t as fun and outgoing as he was on TV? How would I react if I was simply ushered through the line and pushed away as soon as my photo was signed? When it was my time to step up and shake hands with the ultimate horror host, I was relieved beyond words to instantly know he is as good a person off-camera as he is on-camera. We exchanged small talk for a minute or two and I still have that autograph proudly displayed in my office.
Last week, I was honored with the chance to speak to my horror hero via telephone, a man who still highlights my Saturday evenings with his wise cracks and hilarious parody songs. Svengoolie will forever be loved for what he means to the horror community, but Rich Koz is a man that stands so much taller than his ghoulish counterpart.
MANGLED MATTERS: You are a popular face on the horror convention circuit. You regularly stay well past your allotted times at appearances to sign autographs and pose for photos. What is one thing that surprises you most when you see these enormous groups following you across the state at your appearances?
RICH KOZ: The main thing is that it actually ended up begin a surprisingly very long-lasting career for me. When I first started in 1979, the idea of “How long will I be doing this?” never really crossed my mind. It was just a cool idea that I had this show at this particular time. If someone had asked me back then “How long do you expect to be doing this?”, I certainly wouldn’t have said “Oh, sure, I’ll still be doing this thirty-plus years later!” (Laughs)
MM: I think one of the main reasons you’ve stuck around so long in the hearts of your fans is that you incorporate such a warm-hearted sense of humor to your show and that is just the type of person you are. I imagine there was a lot of laughter in your home while you were growing up. Who were some of your comedic influences growing up?
RK: People in my family had a great sense of humor and very early on, I remember watching as a very young kid watching Jack Benny on television. I really liked him and, at the time, probably didn’t get why I liked the show, but just knew he was a really funny guy. Now, looking back on those shows, I see how well-written the shows were and the comedic timing Jack had. Another big influence were the classic Hannah Barbara cartoons and Warner Brothers cartoons, which were just chock-full of good stuff. Those were like an education for me- things came up in those where you’d actually learn while you were watching, too. I remember first learning what ration cards were while watching one of those classic cartoons.
MM: In 2004, you were inducted into the prestigious Silver Circle by the Chicago chapter of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. What did that award mean to you personally?
RK: Well, first of all, I felt like I wasn’t worthy with all of the names that are in there. People like Jack Brickhouse and, in the year I was inducted, Tom Skilling. These were people who I’ve watched for years and really looked up to. I was just thinking, “I don’t belong here!” (Laughs)
They say it goes to people who have done amazing service to Chicago television for over twenty-five years and made an impact, and I remember thinking, “Wow, I never thought of what I was doing like that”. So it was a tremendous honor and, again, something that I never would have imagined when I first started out on the show.
MM: In 2011, Svengoolie began being broadcast nation-wide. What were your first thoughts upon learning you were going to the coast-to-coast horror host?
RK: It was just an overwhelming feeling. Our company includes MeTV, WCIU and a few other offshoots here locally. Neil Sabin, our boss and the guy who created MeTV, told me one day that he was thinking of putting me on MeTV because it was branded as “Memorable Television” and he really wanted to showcase things from television’s past that people remembered so fondly. He felt like horror-hosted shows were one of those things. Mr. Sabin feels people have a connection to personalities like that and I never would have expected our show to go national. The fact that we are shown all over the country, with just a few exceptions, has been amazing. The feedback we get back from fans is pretty overwhelming. A lot of the people we hear from are in markets that have had their own local horror hosts and I always equate it to people who love the show Doctor Who– the first Doctor you see is usually your favorite! (Laughs) You know, it’s the same with horror hosts! Your guy is better than anybody else! So it’s really special to hear people say they used to watch the host who was in their area and they’re now so happy to see me continuing that tradition. It really is a nice thing to hear that they’ve taken to me even though I’m not their original host.
MM: Can you take us through a “normal” day of production for you on the show?
RK: (Laughs) I don’t know that there really is a normal day of production! We’re post-producing while we are pre-producing! As far as a shooting day, what we normally do is a lot of stuff for several shows in a few days of taping. We’ll do various things for numerous shows along the way, so we are usually working on two or three shows at once.
MM: One of my favorite things about your show are the parody jingles. My all-time favorite is “Bad Bad Killer Klowns“, which is just comedic gold. Do you have a favorite?
RK: You know, that’s hard to say. There are some where I’ll remember bits and pieces of. I can’t cite a specific one but one thing that always makes me really happy is when the words I come up with sound like the original words in the song. When it holds together and the jokes work out, I’m very proud of that. I think we do a pretty good job with those, especially the folks who edit the visuals in to the song. A real favorite of mine is a take-off on “Hit The Road, Jack”, which we did as “Hit The Road, Drac” and that was a really fun one. Of course, my music guy Doug Graves, who is played by Doug Scharf, does all of the musical backgrounds and most of the time, all the instruments you hear in the show is him! He does incredible work and he’s a guy I went to high school with. We’ve remained really good friends for all these years.
MM: I imagine there are a number of very special moments that you hold near and dear to your heart from over the years. Could you share any with us?
RK: I love to remember one we did back in the WFLD days when the third Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee, came on. It was supposed to be a very dramatic entrance where he throws open the coffin and states “I am the Doctor!” So he does that, the coffin knocks a pillar on-set down and the thing almost comes down right on top of us! (Laughs) But we just kept going, played it off and I will always remember that very fondly. We’ve had a lot of people who are terrific on the show- Jerry “The King” Lawler, Mick Foley, Lisa Marie Varon and there’s people I’m looking forward to having, like Mark Hamill!
Mark became a fan of the show when he saw it out in LA and he first contacted me via email. I didn’t quite believe it was him at first. I was trying to figure out a way to have him verify it was really the Mark Hamil, so finally I suggested he post something on his Twitter page, which is verified, and he agreed to. Well, a few hours pass and I start thinking “Yeah, sure,” and sure enough, a Tweet comes up from Mark and it says “One of the nicest things I’ve discovered this year is Svengoolie!” and he sent me a picture of him on the studio set of the newest Star Wars film wearing a Sven t-shirt. So we’re hoping to make it work where he can come in and be on the show one time soon.
MM: What was the first horror film you remember seeing?
RK: There’s two different ones. The Wizard of Oz really scared me as a kid. The flying monkeys? Those didn’t bother me, but the Wicked Witch of the West absolutely terrified me. That voice! I was so frightened. They’d show the film once a year on television back then and she always just really got to me. The other one was the original King Kong. I was so fascinated by the stop-motion animation and it was such an interesting movie. As a kid, I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of the dark, I was afraid of skeletons for some reason, so it’s funny that now I make a living playing horror movies!
MM: I’m very much the same way- as a kid, I was really easily scared. A lot of things freaked me out. I think it’s fascinating to use humor to help peel back the scares. Your show helps a lot of people see the humor in these movies and it really is therapeutic to realize that they are just movies.
RK: I always thought, in a lot of ways, that I’m sort of the safety valve in these movies. Whenever something gets too tense or too scary, there’s goofy Svengoolie to kind of let you relax a little bit and laugh at things. A lot of people take it that way. I do run into people who say they used to be afraid of me as a child. I find that odd, because I don’t have a scary persona, but I think it is guilt by association with the horror movies and popping out of a coffin.
MM: Do you have a favorite horror movie?
RK: It used to be the Universal monster movies and then it became the new class of horror, with Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers. I always thought that the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was such a unique concept pulled off perfectly and it was so terrifying. Robert Englund and I have worked together a few times and he’s said he is a big fan of the show, so that meant a lot to me. We were at Flashback Weekend this year together and we did a panel together and it was so funny waiting backstage before we went on and Robert, in this gruff voice, goes, “It’s so dang itchy under this makeup and these lights!” (Laughs)
MM: Who is your favorite Universal monster?
RK: I’m a big fan of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I love them all, and the Wolf Man would be my second favorite. I really love them all but there’s something so unique about the Creature and I just love him. You know, I think they made a mistake in the third part of the trilogy when they converted him into a land beast because it really limited him. You’ll notice that was the end of the story of the Creature, ironically enough. I keep hearing they are looking to remake the film, but I hope they are planning on keeping him as he was- keep him in the lagoon!
MM: I agree 100%! The Creature is my favorite as well. Remakes are the nature of the beast these days in Hollywood, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel and do anything crazy with the Creature.
RK: Yeah, definitely not.
MM: I never really took into consideration how warm you can get in your get-up! I can’t imagine, especially during these outdoor summer events you are always doing!
RK: Yeah, it can get pretty warm. The makeup seals up my face and then you’ve got the wig and the hat. And then the tuxedo jacket! I’ve been out in some really hot weather, over 100 degrees with the heat index, and that can be really uncomfortable. When we moved to WCIU, I wanted to change up my outfit a little bit and that’s when I had the great idea to wear a red turtleneck under the tuxedo jacket! (Laughs) Yeah, that was brilliant! I did the turtleneck for a while but then I adopted the red tuxedo shirt I wear now.
MM: You’re going to be at the Volo Auto Museum on Halloween this year. What can fans expect at this event?
RK: Well, please get there early because there always seems to be a really big crowd when we come to the Volo Auto Museum and odds are, you’ll have to wait in a line for a picture or autograph, but the wonderful people at the museum have it down to a craft and they really keep things moving very smoothly so it’s always a lot of fun. Not only do you get to see me, but you get to see so many cool cars, too. The Batmobile, the car from The Munsters, General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard. It’s just awesome. The people are so great there and the car collection is just amazing. I always love going there.
MM: You are a crowd favorite at any convention you go to. It’s so neat when people learn that someone they look up to or fondly remember from their childhood is a genuinely nice person outside of the role or facade that we know them from.
RK: People come out to see me and when they talk to me, they talk to me the same way they’d talk to a personal friend with! I think that’s so cool that they can make that connection with me. I’m always so grateful to the people who have watched me for so many years. It means so much to meet someone who says “I watched you as a kid and now I watch you with my kids”. It means a great deal to me. It means they haven’t outgrown me!
MM: You’re the cool uncle of Chicago!
RK: (Laughs) Well thank you, Justin. I really appreciate that.
MM: Stephen King has famously said, “I’ll stop when it stops being fun”. While it’s not a topic I want to consider for quite some time still, has Svengoolie thought about when he might shelf the grease paint?
RK: Well, I really like that quote! When it stops being fun, that’s when you should stop. I know people out there who keep going just for the money or public status, but when I decide I’ve had enough, I’ll have no problem saying “Thanks a lot, I’ve had a great time but it’s time to close this chapter”. However, I don’t see that happening anytime soon, thankfully. I’m very happy that with the way things have gone with MeTV, I don’t think anybody will be showing me the door. So I’m glad to say this will be the job I will keep until I decide to retire.
MM: Well, whenever that day comes, and hopefully it’s a few decades from now, I expect tissue sales in Chicago to go through the roof!
RK: (Laughs) It’ll match the sales of rubber chickens!
SVENGOOLIE airs every Saturday night at 9pm central standard time on MeTV! If you’re a Chicagoan, you can also catch the last week’s rerun on Saturday mornings at 11am! Check your local listings for what channel you can see the show on!
For all things Svengoolie, check out his offical website HERE! Purchase your very own Svengoolie T-shirt or pin set, enter to win an autographed rubber chicken and keep up on all of Sven’s upcoming appearances!