Ghoulardi was the Cleveland TV alter-ego of mercurial actor Ernie Anderson.
The 38-year old Anderson had already had an up-and-down 10-year career in radio and TV when he joined the staff of WJW Channel 8 TV in Cleveland as an announcer. A year later, he was offered a job at the station hosting a late-night horror movie show. Anderson, who had lucrative side gigs doing commercials for companies such as Ohio Bell Telephone, liked the idea of the extra pay ($60 a week) but didn’t want his marketability as a spokesman damaged by an association with schlocky horror movies.
So, he put on a goofy wig, fake Van Dyk beard, glasses, white lab coat, changed his voice and adopted the persona of Ghoulardi for the show. The constantly-smoking Ghoulardi came across as one part mad scientist, one part beatnik, and one part Bela Lugosi. He peppered his patter with catchphrases such as “turn blue” and “stay sick”.
The first episode of Shock Theater aired on January 18, 1963 with Ghoulardi’s unique presentation of The House on Haunted Hill. It soon became an unprecedented regional hit and at times had hundreds of thousands of viewers. At its height, Ghoulardi’s Shock Theater got better ratings than The Tonight Show, and the Cleveland police reported that significantly fewer crimes were committed in the city when the show was on.
The show’s popularity was due almost exclusively to Ghoulardi’s onscreen antics. He mocked the horror movies (whether they deserved mocking or not) and made fun of local TV personalities and politicians.
Frequent targets were local children’s TV hosts such as Dorothy Fuldheim (a significant portion of his fan base were teenagers who would warm to any ridiculing of shows aimed at little kids). Ghoulardi made fun of the elderly Fuldheim’s somewhat gaudy appearance and would drop her photograph into skits and movie scenes where actors were reacting with horror or morbid curiosity to something. Ghoulardi’s accompanying cry of “Dorothy!” became much mimicked by his fans.
He often interrupted movies with gags and skits; the show was more about having fun than about watching a movie. One ongoing skit was “Parma Place”, which made fun of the Polish community in Parma, a Cleveland suburb.
However, those who were the butt of his jokes were eager to see the show gone. And sometimes, his targets were executives at his own station. Embroiled in an increasingly hostile relationship with the station’s managers and facing sagging ratings, Anderson quit as Ghoulardi on November 14, 1966.
Ghoulardi was a strong influence on artists as diverse as Drew Carey and The Cramps. In fact, there have been both East Coast and West Coast bands that named themselves the Purple Knifs, another Ghoulardi catchphrase. Ghouldardi’s influence on modern shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000 is pretty obvious.
And Ghoulardi was an enormous influence on filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, since Ghoulardi was his doting father. PTA later said that his father’s rather large pornography collection partly inspired him to create Boogie Nights. PTA also named his production company the Ghoulardi Film Company in honor of his late father, who died on February 6, 1997.
Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland Tv’s Wildest Ride by Tom Feran and R. D. Heldenfels
Boogie Nights – Director’s Commentary