Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Crypt of Crematia!

I interviewed my favorite childhood horror host for the local paper a few years back. This is a good time of year to revisit it, methinks.

Once upon a time, I was a disturbed young kid with a crush on the local late night TV host. Her name was Crematia Mortem, and all week long she would tease me with promos for movies like "The Tingler" and "It Came From Outer Space!" The first time I begged my folks to tape an episode of Creature Feature was a defining moment in my life: the movie for the week was "Night of the Living Dead," and from that moment forward my life was changed forever.

Over the Halloween season, I had the chance to talk to Crematia-- aka Roberta Solomon-- about Creature Feature, her cult of adoring fans, and how she's kept herself busy since the golden years of late night television. This is what she had to say...

SM: Creature Feature ran from 1981-1988. Where did the idea for the show come from? Were you inspired by any other horror hosts of the day? What was initial reaction to the show like? What were the circumstances surrounding its cancellation?

CM: I started out at KSHB (in Kansas City) in 1981, hosting the Saturday edition of "All Night Live." That show had become the station's most popular program, and was hosted during the week by Ed Muscare. "Uncle Ed" had a huge following, and every night thousands of viewers would tune in to recite the "All Night Live Creed" with himand stay up late for an evening of silliness. This was a precious era in TV history, really. Before the growth of the big cable companies, individual stations owned the movies they aired. KSHB was not a network affiliate yet, had a lot of time to fill in the evenings, and a basement full of awful movies they ran at night and on weekends. "All Night Live" pulled weekday evenings together in one very silly package.

In '81, KSHB decided to expand "All Night Live" to include Saturday nights, and because Ed Muscare didn't want to do the show six days a week, the station held auditions for a weekend host. I had very little TV experience beyond a couple of classes at UMKC, but had been on the stage all my life. My audition was dreadful (I auditioned as a country-western singer who wandered into the studio by mistake) but the pickings must have been pretty slim because they hired me. Two weeks later, I went on the air, live, as "Sally Roberts." I had to change my name because the easy listening radio station I worked for at the time was worried I might get weird on TV, so they thought it best if I turned into someone else. It was a wonderful experience, hosting that show, and the response was very positive. On the weekends, however, KSHB played monster movies. My comic elements were tied to what Uncle Ed was doing during the week, but didn't have much to do with the movies we were showing. The station decided that it was easier to change me than to change the movies, so they approached me about creating a creepy new character to host the show. I came up with the name Crematia. My good friend Walt Bodine, who worked across the hall from me at the radio station, gave Crematia her last name, Mortem. I remember sitting in the studio with him and laughing like crazy over that name. It was perfect. So, on my last night as Sally Roberts on "All Night Live," I told the audience I'd been canned and that the following week they'd have a new host. I wasn't sure who they'd found to replace me or where she came from, I said, but I was sure she was a "character they dug up from somewhere." The following week, Crematia made her debut as the hostess of the "Creature Feature."

The response was amazing. Since KSHB was a superstation at the time, reaching several Midwestern states on cable, the audience was huge and we drew viewers from all over. The show was hugely popular, and was a big part of the growing-up-years of a lot of people. Even though we've been off the air now for over 15 years, I still get letters every month from people who want to know if the show's ever coming back.

Toward the end of the Creature Feature's run, KSHB became a Fox affiliate. As their committment to programming from the network grew, my show kept getting pushed back later and later and the audience started to change. The beauty of that show was that it was a family thing--moms, dads, kids, grandparents and babysitters would watch it together and groan at Crematia's bad jokes. But starting the show at midnight meant that I'd lose a good portion of my audience--what parent will let their kids stay up to watch a show that doesn't start until midnight? The Creature Feature was cancelled when I decided to leave.

SM: For those in the audience who haven't seen the show, could you please describe the basic premise? (Who was Crematia? Who were the side characters? etc...)

CM: I never really figured out where Crematia came from. "The other side," I guess. She was vaguely a vampire. (I remember lots of references to making a withdrawal from the blood bank.) She was several hundred years old. Mortem was her married name. (She was a hyphenate, actually. Crematia Post-Mortem.) She slept in a coffin (which was given to my ex-husband by an undertaker in Leavenworth) and lived with a couple of servants, Dweeb and Rasputin, who were never seen. Dweeb was referred to as the "man in the wall," because Crematia had walled him up in her house for some unnamed offense. Both characters were created by Paul Murphy, who was KSHB's "station voice" at the time.

Crematia had a very weird and wonderful family who showed up in episodes from time to time. Her sister Cremora was played by Katey McGuckin, who is the reigning queen of Kansas City morning radio, heard each day on Oldies 95. Their mother, Desiree, was brought to life by actor and comedian C. Wayne Owens, and was later played by Katey's husband, John Woolam. Both of those guys looked lovely in a dress. Along with Cremora and Mom, there was Weird Cousin Henry, a loopy but harmless lunatic played by Steve Bell. You hear Steve these days doing news on KCUR-FM.

SM: Do you have any favorite moments from the show? Behind the scenes memories?

CM: Oh, man. I had nine years of favorite moments so it's really hard to pick a favorite. One episode stands out, however. We had this kid on the show who'd made a giant paper mache monster costume that had stilts inside for the legs. He fitted himself into this get-up and when it was fully assembled, he was about 9 feet tall. We were playing some "giant monster from outer space" movie that night and the kid's creature was a perfect tie-in. We did these bits all night long where Crematia was looking for her "perfect man" through video dating services and the like, without having much luck. In the last few breaks, we were going to have this giant monster wander onstage and Crematia would announce she'd found her man! It was the monster, however, who actually wound up falling for Crematia. When the kid shuffled onstage in his 9-foot-tall costume, one of his paper mache boots got caught on the edge of the rug and he lost his balance. I looked up and saw him falling, in slow motion, like a tree. He landed with a thud on the floor, trapped inside the costume, and there was this horrible moment of silence. Then I heard him say, weakly..."Somebody get me out of here, please." He was fine, but couldn't be convinced to get back inside the costume again to finish the bit. We made do somehow, but I really felt bad for him. He was embarrassed more than anything.

A few months after the Creature Feature was cancelled, KSHB-TV became an NBC affiliate. To inaugurate the station, Tom Brokaw was brought into Kansas City to anchor the Nightly News from the network's newest station. I happened to be driving by the station during the 6:00 news and laughed out loud when I thought, "I wonder if Tom Brokaw knows that there's a coffin leaning against the wall behind him right now?"

SM: Did you pick out the movies each week? What were some of your favorites? (My personal favorite: The Brain That Wouldn't DIE!)

CM: I was NOT responsible for the movies!! They were chosen by the station, and The Brain that Wouldn't Die is definitely among my favorites. I also LOVED those wonderful Hammer Films with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the Japanese monster movies (Destroy All Monsters is one of the best), and in particular the Mexican monster movies with wrestlers in the leading roles.

SM: There is a large underground devoted to preserving the memory of Late Night Horror Hosts. What do you think the interest is, after all these years? Do you see this as a sign of some type of revivalism? Are Horror Hosts on the comeback? What advice do you have for any up-and-coming Horror Hosts?

CM: The kids who grew up with horror hosts are now in their 30's with kids of their own and they're eager to pass along the magic of their growing-up years. There's definitely a sense of nostalgia about the TV horror genre and I do consider it a unique American folk art. I think it's due in part to the fact that you couldn't find those movies anywhere else at the time. The show existed before every home had a VCR, before the advent of cable, and before everyone had access to everything. I get so many inquiries about Crematia, and I know that interest is surging. In the coming months, there's a documentary coming out about TV horror hosts called "American Scary." ( I was just one of at least 50 former hosts featured in the film. There are a number of people out there who'd like to become monster movie hosts, so I know the interest is still there. The major challenge these days is finding an outlet. Stations devote so much time to network and syndicated programming that there's not much local time available. A lot of the hosts who are still on the air are on local cable channels or internet sites.

SM: Obviously, there is still interest in Crematia Mortem... I punched her name into GOOGLE and got several pages worth of information. It was nice to see I wasn't the ONLY who was warped by you as a child! Does Crematia ever make public appearances? Are there any plans to resurrect her character?

CM: I haven't appeared as Crematia since the show went off the air. When I did make public appearances, it was always for a non-profit event. I never wanted the use Crematia to sell a product, and felt a real obligation to use that character to do good things in the community. I would love to bring her back for a Halloween special or a limited-run thing, but at this point wouldn't be able to do the show again on a weekly basis. Contrary to what you may have guessed, the Creature Feature was a lot of work!!

SM: Tell me a little about your voiceover work. It seems that your voice is all over the place these days. How did you initially become involved as a voiceover artist? Where can your voice be heard?

CM: I was in radio before I got into TV, and I've been doing voice work since I got started in the business. It's full time work now. I'm the voice of about 40 radio and television stations in the U.S. and U.K., including KCPT here in Kansas City, WGHB/Boston, KEZK-FM in St. Louis and WMGC-FM/Detroit. You can hear me now doing promos for Animal Planet's newest show "World Gone Wild," and I'm the voice of HBO/Asia.

SM: Finally, how can I get one of those sweet Crematia Mortem promo cards?

CM: Get down on your knees and beg!


No comments:

Post a Comment