Shock and claw
Leon Meier was Hornstaff on
By John Wooley
The package included such classic Universal Pictures titles as "Frankenstein," "Dracula" and "The Wolf Man," offered to TV for the first time.
To help popularize the "Shock Theater" features, Screen Gems also suggested that individual stations use creepy hosts to introduce the films, a narrative device previously used to good effect in horror comic books and radio shows.
Dozens of stations across the country heeded that tip, and scores of announcers done up in horror drag began shambling across TV screens, kicking off a horror craze among America's youth.
A few, like Philadelphia's John Zacherle and Los Angeles' Vampira, achieved a measure of national fame.
Most, however, were unknown outside of their own station's coverage area -- a fact that didn't stop them from being loved and remembered to this day by the now middle-agers who made up their core audience.
"There were college kids and high-school kids having 'Shock' parties on Saturday nights," recalled Leon Meier recently. "I don't know how we knew about that. Word-of-mouth, I guess. But back then, we did everything nonscripted. No Tele-PrompTer. We ad-libbed the whole thing."
Meier was a cameraman on "Shock Theater," which ran locally on KOTV, channel 6, at 10:30 p.m. Saturdays. He also played Hornstaff, sidekick of the main character Igor, who was an alter ego of KOTV announcer Bob Mills.
"Bob had this wire thing that ran from the corner of his mouth and hooked around his ear, so that it looked like a scar," recalled Meier. "We lit him from underneath, and everything was dark behind him, so it made him look ghostly. That's how he'd introduce the movie.
"I was working nights most of the time at that time, and we had enough guys working that I could get off-camera and play the part of Hornstaff," he added. "Hornstaff wore a big rubber mask -- a Halloween-type mask, but you didn't see many like this one in stores.
"It had great big eyebrows and black hair, kind of like a gorilla. Part gorilla and part caveman, I guess. Like I said, there was no script, no TelePrompTer. We just had a good time."
Things were done so much on the fly in those days that Meier never knew when he'd be working the other side of the "Shock Theater" cameras.
"Most of the time, Bob just kind of did the intros with this ghostly look," Meier recalled. "They might be doing a car commercial and Hornstaff would rise up out of the back seat and look around and then go back down. That was the kind of stuff I did.
"I remember once they did a Hornstaff 'This Is Your Life' -- a takeoff on that TV show. They went to a shot of the engineers in the booth, and they all had on Hornstaff masks," he added with a chuckle.
Once, though, doing "Shock Theater" actually got a little hazardous.
"They had a kitchen there at the studio, a regular working kitchen, and in one of the shows they put me inside the refrigerator in my Hornstaff mask," he said. "Right before we went on the air, Bob shut the door instead of leaving it open a crack, and, you know, you can use up the oxygen pretty fast in a closed refrigerator. I was taking little short breaths and praying he was going to open the door. I don't know how long I was in there, but it was too long," he added, chuckling again.
Even given that narrow escape, Meier said, "I liked the live stuff. You just did it one time.
"Then videotape came in. I've seen times that they've done something over and over and over, trying to do it better than the first time. And they don't."
Meier retired from KOTV several years ago, after 33 years. Mills, who left KOTV for a San Diego station, died in 1997.
"I'm about the only one left who worked on the show," said Meier. "And you know, I've looked, but I can't find any pictures from the show. I never recall anybody taking pictures of us. They just didn't take pictures back then.
"But it was fun," he concluded. "Everything's too serious now; you're watching the clock all the time. It's gotten a lot more stressful. Back then, everybody had fun, and we got along great. We all pitched in. It was a fun thing to do."
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