Bay Area residents of a certain vintage grew up with Bob Wilkins, who hosted KTVU’s legendary “Creature Features” program from 1971-79, filmed at their studios at Oakland’s Jack London Square. Notorious indie filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler (who often appeared in his own films under the name “Cash Flagg”) made frequent trips from his home in Las Vegas to the Bay Area, appearing almost annually at my Thrillville shows at Oakland’s Parkway and Berkeley’s Fine Arts Theater (both now defunct) between 2000 and 2006. Bob also made personal appearances for many annual live “Creature Features” tributes at the Parkway during that same time span. Ironically, and sadly, both passed away two years ago on the same day, January 7, 2009 – and the Parkway Theater closed less than three months later, on March 22 (though there are current efforts for a revival). Not sure there’s a psychic connection, but without question, this oddly fateful confluence signaled the end of a unique era on many levels.
I didn’t grow up with Bob Wilkins, but after I got to know him, I felt like I did. He was a wry, warm, witty man. My childhood local television horror host in South Jersey was Doc Shock, who presented “Mad Theater” and “Horror Theater” on Philly’s Channel 17 every Saturday afternoon. But I heard about Bob (and his successor, author and friend John Stanley) right after moving to the Bay Area in 1985, the year after “Creature Features” went off the air. As publicist and programmer for the popular Parkway Speakeasy in Oakland, I was in a position to lure Bob down from his Reno home to my regular, live “cult movie cabaret,” called “Thrillville,” beginning in October 2000, with a semi-restored version of the original set on stage, and special guests John Stanley and the late Bob Shaw, KTVU’s award-winning film reviewer who was an editor on the show. (Bob Shaw, a dear man, passed away only a few months after Wilkins, on April 10th – 2009 was a sad year indeed.) But memories of those live shows persist, and Bob Wilkins’ legacy is undiminished by either his death or time itself, despite the fact most of the original broadcasts were taped over and no longer exist. Thanks to the efforts of professional archivists Tom Wyrsch and Scott Moon, among others, certain choice snippets of Bob’s often acerbic wraparound segments, and many of his celebrity interviews – including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Forrest J. Ackerman, Harrison Ford, Richard Pryor, Juan Garcia Esquivel and many others – still survive and are available for purchase on DVD compilations. Bob was also famous (and “anonymous”) as weekday afternoon kiddie cartoon host “Captain Cosmic,” and in fact one year, in 2002, his robot sidekick, “2T2,” was brought out of mothballs for an appearance at the Parkway. These reunion shows, featuring rarely screened prints of classic horror/sci-fi films, including some Bob himself once hosted, like Night of the Living Dead, Attack of the Mushroom People and Horror of Party Beach, as well as local premieres of the latest Godzilla films, were jubilant affairs and among fans’ most cherished recollections of both Bob and the Parkway.
I remember watching the surreal, bargain basement masterpiece The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mix-up Zombies (1964), the “first monster musical,” on TV when I was a little kid, and it scared the hell out of me. As years went on, I no longer found it frightening, at least not as a horror film, but I was forever hypnotized by its hallucinogenic sequences set in a carnival sideshow. I never imagined I’d eventually wind up chasing the director around with a plastic axe during a screening of this very film, as I did on Valentine’s Day, 2002 at the Parkway. Ray brought his own 35mm prints of this film, with the alternate title, Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary, along with his gritty 1965 psycho-on-horseback classic, The Thrill Killers, under its alternate title, The Maniacs Are Loose. The print of Creatures had faded to pink (obsuring the colorful cinematography by future Oscar winner Vilmos Zsigmond) and broke several times during the screening. Ray would good-naturedly get up on stage and entertain the sold-out house each time this happened. “Story of my life!” he said to wild applause. Fortunately the print of Thrill Killers remains in great shape, and I recently donated it to the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, where it will be preserved for posterity (and most of Ray’s films are available on DVD.). Ray loved the Bay Area and would visit with his wife and kids whenever he had the chance, bringing more of his legendary movies to show (“Batman” spoof Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, 1966; “Bowery Boys” riff Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters, 1966; Blood Shack, 1971), all co-starring his beautiful ex-wife Carolyn Brandt, and allowing me the honor of wearing one of the original “Mummy” costumes used for his traveling spook shows in the ‘60s. I still own it, along with the plastic axe. Often his frequent collaborator, the hilarious Herb Robins, best known for The Worm Eaters (1977), would accompany him. Like Bob, Ray loved greeting his fans and signing autographs, always selling homemade videos of his films (he ran his own video store in Vegas) and regaling the audience with long-winded but entertaining tales of guerilla filmmaking back in the day. He was one of a kind, and I’m proud to have known him.
Here’s to Bob and Ray, a pair of truly independent spirits, and their immortal contributions to outré cinema, cheers.
Will “the Thrill” Viharo is a pulp fiction author and B Movie impresario.