John Zacherle (1918-2016)


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John Zacherle, a rail-thin B-movie actor who in the late 1950s and '60s became a wildly popular host of children's television shows in Philadelphia and New York, where he appeared dressed as a ghoulish undertaker with a sophisticated wit and sinister laugh, died on Oct. 27, four days before Halloween. He was 98.

Zacherle's death may come as a shock to millions of adults who watched him on TV as children, since many of us thought he was dead to begin with. The beauty of Zacherley, as he was known, was unleashing just the right level of morbidity on his young audience while leavening it with an uproarious but dark sense of humor.

Like many young viewers, I discovered Zacherley through my father, who enjoyed watching the horror movies of his youth on TV's Chiller Theater. Today, in an age today when terror, fear and death seem to be a daily occurrence on the news in the U.S. and abroad, it's hard to appreciate the adolescent obsession with horror magazines, TV shows, trading cards, toys and movies a half-century ago. But back then, before terrible adult events were routinely imposed on children the way they are today, there was a shared preteen fascination with death and understanding why it happens and how it works.

In the realm of juvenile goose bumps, Zacherley was a maser. To his credit, there was always something kindly and above board about his ghoulish humor, and he never crossed over to bad taste, gross humor or anything that would get him booted off the air or arrested. It was just rainy-day fun, and his brand of Transylvanian humor became so infectious and popular it led to the Monster Mash by Bobby “Boris" Pickett, TV's Addams Family and The Munsters on TV and Los Angeles TV host Elvira, the self-proclaimed “mistress of the dark."

There was also something hip, improvisational and jazz-like about John Zacherle's wit. Nothing seemed canned and everything seemed made up on the spot. Even his makeup—dark charcoal streaks on his already boney face and white shoe polish on his lips to create a freshly unburied look—had a Phantom of the Opera-next-door quality to it.

On Halloween, let's raise a skull to the greatest mortuary MC of them all and the father of goth—Zacherley. Here's the New York Times obit of John Zacherle, here's his site, here's a fan site and here are a handful of clips so all of you worldwide can appreciate his grim brilliance:

Here's the Zacherley Archives...

Here's Zacherley in 1967 with the (perplexed) Box Tops...

Here's Zacherley on the Mike Douglas Show...

Here's Zacherley interviewed in 2008...

Here's Zacherley interviewed in 2012 at home...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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