Alfred Eaker has the week off, but here is a reprint of a classic column originally published October 29, 2009.
On Friday nights in Indiana during the 1960’s and 70’s, you invited your best friend over to spend the night (Denny), pleaded with Mom to fix a tray of pizza rolls and, out of courtesy, asked to stay up late for a night of Nightmare Theater with Sammy Terry. Of course, Mom always allowed it, as you knew she would, fixed those pizza rolls, brought in the blankets and left the two of you to your night of magic because she sure as heck was not going to watch those “scary movies.”
The creaking of the coffin filled the house as you watched, transfixed, as Sammy Terry and his spider, George, emerged to host a night of classic horror. Usually, it was one of the Universal movies starring Karloff, Lugosi, or Chaney, Jr.
Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Black Room, Werewolf of London, The Invisible Man, The Wolfman, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and Creature from the Black Lagoon were frequently shown favorites. Quite a few of the RKO featuress were shown regularly, as well as the occasional Jack Arnold film, such as Monster on the Campus, Tarantula, or The Incredible Shrinking Man. My own personal favorite was Edgar G. Ulmer‘s The Black Cat, with Karloff and Lugosi battling out to strains of the Beethoven 7th. If the films shown on Nightmare Theater were not always approached by the filmmakers as high art (i.e. The Wolfman) , then there was certainly consummate craftsmanship that one always felt Sammy approved of.
In between the features, Sammy Terry would discuss the movies, make jokes with George and other regulars (Ghost Girl, Ghoulsbie) , have an occasional guest, talk about the Pacers, or show off the crayola drawings of Sammy and George that local children would send to WTTV 4. Sammy had an inimitable laugh that would send shivers down the 8 year old spine.
If you made it to the end of the night (and frequently did not, hence the blankets) Sammy would retreat to his coffin and bestow his wish of “Many Pleasant Nightmares.” You knew, with excitement and dread, that he would return the following Friday.
There were lots of local urban myths about Sammy Terry and we were all too happy to spread those myths to fellow classmates since Sammy was a favorite subject. Of course, this was long before the days of cable TV, VCRs, and even color TV (at least until the mid 70’s at our house) so the local WTTV 4 Station ruled the roost out of the four available TV stations.
Local WTTV cartoon hosts Janie, Peggy and Cowboy Bob excited too (especially Peggy, whose mini-skirts aroused the young boys and annoyed Mom. Whatever happened to Peggy?), but it simply got no cooler than Sammy, at least to the boys (most of those silly Janie-loving girls just could not appreciate the Nightmare Theater atmosphere, and they were more than a tad jealous of Peggy).
When color TV finally did grace our homes, we had to adjust to Sammy Terry in color, just as we did seeing George Reeves’ Superman in red and blue rather than black and white. The magic was present, but a little diminished. The movies were still in black and white and there remained an inexplicable otherworldliness, but we had no idea that preoccupation with hyper-realism was soon going to render our world as “obsolete and lost.”
When an interview with Karloff aired, the star explained that these films were more akin to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, rather than outright horror in the contemporary view. He clearly preferred the world of those fairy tales to the cold, brittle modern world. Why wouldn’t he? Karloff’s monster was only a monster by exterior design. He suffered misunderstanding and loneliness. He loved, was rejected and died in the iciness of that rejecting, real world. One of Karloff’s last (and better) films, Targets, was aptly sentimental for those fairy tales.
Towards the end of the 70’s Nightmare Theater was canceled and Sammy was off the air for several years. He returned in the 80’s, but it was not the same. He was saddled with more current and, decidedly inferior, horror films. It was a bit like the Night Gallery letdown after Twilight Zone disappeared. Bob Carter, the man behind Sammy’s face paint let it be publicly known that he was not altogether pleased with the quality of the newer films being shown. Still, Sammy had class and mantled the attitude that the show must go on, even if we knew that the outdated fairy tale had gone the way of the dinosaur.
Predictably, Sammy’s return did not last long. Television and the world had changed. Sammy Terry now seemed like an alien character from a ghostly, dead romantic era. He was as out of place as Bing Crosby’s depression era man, so he gracefully departed, making occasional appearances at haunted houses and horror conventions.
Sammy Terry has lived long enough to see a local comeback. In the early 2000’s, he returned for a few televised specials, such as WTTV 4’s 50th anniversary special, Scary Tales (hosting a special of Indiana ghost stories) and Halloween Night showings of Night of the Living Dead and Tim Burton‘s superb grand guignol Batman Returns.‘s
Last year, Sammy Terry, now approaching 80, made an appearance at the Asylum House. The onslaught of age has taken it’s deadly toll and Sammy nobly struggled through the night, signing autographs and posing for pictures. It was difficult to connect his fragility with the vibrant horror host we grew up with 40 years ago, but late in the night, after the crowd had dissipated, Asylum host Trick and myself talked with Sammy about his family music store. Bob Carter seemed please that I remembered his store (about the only local place one used to be able to obtain sheet music of everything from Beethoven to Mahler to Xenakis). Later, as the conversation returned to classic horror, Bob Carter, on cue, morphed into his classic character, Sammy Terry, once more; briefly, he was his young horror host self again.
Due to health issues, Sammy Terry is making no more appearances this Halloween and that is a first. One suspects this is a permanent retirement.
Dedicated in nostalgic honor to that much missed, magical world of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that Sammy Terry brought to us on those Friday Nights, along with Boris Karloff’s monster and Mom’s pizza rolls.
Sammy, the Fairy Tale was so much warmer, and better.
Sammy Terry’s website: