It’s surprising upon putting pencil to paper that I realized I never had drawn Chicago’s very own creature feature host: Svengoolie prior.
Svengoolie, like many young Chicagoans before me, introduced generations to classic (and not-so-classic) horror and reeled many into the art of the late night “Creature Feature”. Taking over the titular role in the late 1970s from Jerry G. Bishop, Svengoolie was more than just a horror host. Every Saturday night in the 1990s I parked myself in front of the television and watched Sven’s alter ego (Rich Koz) host Stooge-a-Palooza followed by Svengoolie.
His wacky humor was always comforting when showing a more scary feature but also synced up with the more campy silly movies. He was a bonding agent between my mom and myself as well, as she often recalled soaking up classic monsters via Bishop’s Svengoolie in the late 60’s and 70’s.
For me, Svengoolie always was. As natural as the sunset or rain. And he’s been a local legend in Chicago’s history. If you knew Svengoolie, you were from here. It’s been over a decade since he’s gone national, but he hasn’t lost his luster. I’m glad we aren’t selfish when it comes to Sven, as the horror host is an endangered species. I’ve recently wondered what will happen when Rich Koz retires. Which he’s hinted at numerous times recently. I truly hope someone worthy in his eyes picks up the mantle, as I’d despise the American tradition of the late night Creature Feature tumbling to its death like King Kong.
So I put pencil to paper (as well as ink and color) to create my take on a Svengoolie piece. I combined several of my older “pen and ink” monster pieces into his hat. I put this together as an 18×24 canvas piece and shipped it, along with a short heartfelt note, to Svengoolie’s production studio with the hopes of him simply seeing it.
I’ll keep an eye out if it ends up featured in someway on his weekly show; and I’ll update this post if it indeed does.
UPDATE (10/02): IT INDEED DID.
This aired on October 1st’s episode featuring “Trilogy of Terror” starring Karen Black.
Pretty awesome way to kick off the Halloween season. When it comes to my art, I like bringing things full circle. Sitting in front of a television on Saturday nights watching this man present horror films that shaped my interests as a child, and then seeing something like this…paying respect in my own way and for it be be acknowledged on the show I grew up watching? That’s what it’s all about. Bucket list checked off. I can die happy now.
In October of 1997, fast food chain Burger King featured four Universal Monsters as kids’ meal toys. Universal Studios was in the process of reviving their catalog of classic horror films by remastering them for various official VHS releases. These fast food toys, amongst other various promotions, were Universal’s way of introducing the classic monsters to younger audiences as well as rejuvenating interest within the pop culture psyche.
But I’m not here to talk about that really .
I’m here to explain why a grown man decided to write about 25 year old fast food toys for the sheer fun of it. When writing, I often make humorous attempts to explain as to why I am what I am, taking (not so) subtle jabs at my interests and hobbies. They come off almost apologetic to the reader. I might do that because I realize my topic is a niche that mostly everybody couldn’t care less about. I might know that because I’ve literally seen energy drain from one’s face while I’m speaking to them about said topic.
But you’re here. And you’re reading this. And I appreciate that.
So, with this article, I’d like to go on the record as to deduce why these cheap molded pieces of plastic mean so much to me. And I’ve chosen Burger King’s Universal Monsters Toys because they might just be my favorite toys of all time. Yet it’s not just because of glow-in-the dark paint or a plastic coffin, as cool as those are, it’s the time and place they put you in. So grab some fries, join me, and let’s make sense of this together…
Down for the Count Dracula. Bolts and Volts Frankenstein. Wolf Man Cellar Dweller. The Creature Scaly Squirter. These are their actual names because God Bless America.
I couldn’t tell you when I decided Halloween was my favorite holiday. It was kinda like the hiccups. It just happens. Growing up, Burger King was my favorite fast food restaurant. From the fries, burgers, and chicken tenders…I always felt Burger King just did it better than the golden arches. Though the ultimate deciding factor within my little universe was what toys were being offered. I may have a hankering for a Happy Meal, but who wants another stinkin’ Hot Wheel when BK has The Universal Monsters?! Then these toys meant hours of fun playtime adventures…but today they function as tiny personal plastic time machines.
When I see these Universal Monsters they bring me right back to the passenger seat of my mom’s Buick Skylark. It’s a chilly midwest evening sometime in October. We’re sitting in the Burger King drive thru waiting for our order. At this point in time, this was sort of our new tradition. There was a small notepad in the glove compartment. Scrawled within were home addresses within a reasonable driving distance. The addresses consisted of wildly decorated homes for the Halloween season. Not just some plastic tombstones and cobwebs. This was some truly theatrical stuff. Strobe lights. Fog machines. 6 foot monster dummies. Entire spooky scenes! Serious business. It began with a couple homes casually stumbled upon through The Great Pumpkin’s glory. Sometimes my mom would catch a segment on the local news and she’d quickly jot down the address. And in just a couple years the list grew to a solid nine or so residences.
Come Friday or Saturday evening in the midst of October she would nonchalantly ask if I wanted to “go look at houses”. She didn’t have to ask. This was one of my favorite things to do all year. I rarely trick or treated. There were no parties I’d attend. I was too afraid of Haunted Houses. When it came to Halloween, I realized I was an observer. I loved to take in others enjoying the holiday in their own festive ways. It’s probably why the smell of rubber bats and skeletons shame any essential oils when it comes to obtaining relaxation.
We’d hop in the car and I’d immediately rifle through her compact nylon case of cassettes. Shuffling past Van Halen and The Fugees to find the tape with one of those cheap cardboard slipcases. A Halloween album purchased at the counter of a drug store for a bargain because all the songs were mediocre covers. You know the one. Yet, for this tradition, it was as important as the car keys. With some rewinding and the beginning of an off-brand Monster Mash fading in, we disappeared into the eerily quiet Autumn evening.
Which brings us back to that Burger King drive thru. Waiting for our order. Chicken tendies Kids Meal. That smell of fresh hot french fries entering the car. The bag slightly fogging up my side of the window. I eagerly pull out the familiar toy bag. The warm plastic has the faint texture of oil and grains of salt. I gush over my newly acquired Count Dracula. My mom’s more interested in stealing some of my fries. A bootleg “Purple People Eater” cover plays softly through the car speakers. At this point, the Universal Monsters were not “new” to me by any stretch of the imagination. At this age I was strictly banned from watching horror movies, yet the Universal classics were fair game. My mom told me tales of her preteen indulgences in the “Late Night Creature Feature”. Therefore, she deemed the antics of Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney tame by “modern” standards and acceptable for a young chap such as myself. And, with that, these ghouls and their respective midnight movies became a shared interest, a bond if you will, between child and parent. Especially during the Halloween season.
And, once again, we were off. Rubber to road. Sustenance in hand. A budget rendition of “Ghostbusters” to bob our heads to. Our destinations were the collective creepy creative concoctions only Halloween and its faithful followers could bring. I eagerly munched a chicken tender, feeling grateful for my mother’s navigation of the uneven pothole ridden streets. When pulling up to a home, I took in the gory ghoulish glory peeking out of my passenger window. Sometimes, if feeling courageous, I would roll it down to get a better look. But too deathly afraid to leave the safety of the car and approach the spooky scenes. Graveyards looking as if they were ripped straight from the “Thriller” music video. Lifelike vampires, witches, and werewolves appeared so real I was afraid they’d lunge straight for my throat! Yet, despite all that creepy coolness, the memories that stuck with me most were the drives between the scenes. When we’d wrap up seeing a house and I’d rewind a cassette track. Fantasize in my head about a monster coming to life and chasing us from the yard…making for our narrow escape. Our short conversations pointing out our favorite home so far. Ideas of what we’d do if we had the yard (or money) to showcase our devotion to Halloween for everyone to see. The quiet moments where I’d gaze out my window into the seemingly endless night. Getting lost in fantasy that perhaps a monster, much like the plastic one I gripped, was roaming the dark mysterious roads. The comfort of being with my mom. The sound of fallen leaves crunching below me. The common sight of jack o’lanterns smiling back at me. And knowing, nah, believing that anything could happen during the Halloween season. To know full well that magic doesn’t exist, but to feel like I experienced some form of it.
With patented childlike persistence (and annoyance to my mom and grandmother that comes with it), I managed to collect Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman (two in fact! Wolfmen?). The Creature was the one to elude me, yet I did manage to “battle” a friend’s Creech during an indoor recess. Back when we’d sneak in small toys to fidget with throughout the school day. A physical reminder of the fun and freedom the “outside world” granted us from within the dull monotonous Chicago public school system. Besides action features, the Monsters came with glow-in-the-dark stickers that proudly adorned a few school folders for the remainder of the 1997 school year. But, like everything, time faded those stickers. The Universal Monster figures became buried by newly acquired plastic playthings. And, while certainly not forgotten, I lacked the foresight as a child to value the meaning behind them. Afterall how could I be nostalgic for the “good ‘ol days” when I was currently in them?
The “Halloween House Hunting” tradition was soon to follow. Spookless joyrides led to crossing off addresses within our trusty notepad. The car crawling in front of a dark house and checking if we had the right address became more common than any plastic skeleton or latex limb. We’d reason with each other that perhaps they moved…or maybe someone passed away. Until the season came where we decided to stop altogether. Another victim to the hands of time. But with no styrofoam tombstone to commemorate its existence.
I told you earlier I don’t know when I decided Halloween was my favorite holiday. But, at least, you get an idea of why it is. Yet there’s something that,ultimately, depresses me when writing about it. It could be the simple realization that not only are these days far gone, but the people and places are as well. And, as I get older, the memory becomes more and more muddled. Details become lost or substituted to the point where it nearly becomes fabrication. It could also be a disappointment, I have for myself, that my personal cherished memories stem from cheap molded plastic rather than the people who surrounded me. The truth that a compilation video of old commercials moves me more than a family photo album. But, at the same time, these little aspects of capitalism are triggers for more meaningful memories. An answer as to why one of my favorite pastimes is digging around a plastic toy bin at any comic convention or flea market. I don’t think there’s been an instance of toy scrounging where I haven’t bored my wife with a story or my best friend and I exchange childhood memories like NBA POGS. I guess it’s just how I’m wired.
I’ve recently revisited some of the homes I recalled on those spooky special fall nights. I’d foolishly approach them believing that, just maybe, they’ll look just as they used to be. But all the optimism didn’t change the fact that they currently sit shrouded in shadow. Not even a jack o’lantern present to grin back at me. As for the Burger King Universal Monsters figures, I own them because of course I do. They’re not the originals I had as a kid. I managed to pick up a full bagged set about 10 years back. And I can’t recall whom I was with, but I’m sure I talked the poor soul’s ear off about them….just like I’m doing to you. I rarely get Burger King these days on account of all the Burger King I ate collecting Pokemon and Universal Monster toys. But, sometimes, when I’m yearning to have diarrhea I’ll pull through the drive thru. And everytime that familiar smell of fresh french fries invades my car I’d get that feeling again. That’s Halloween. Let’s pop in that cassette. Let’s go look at houses. Let’s feel that magic that only belongs to me.
And just like everything mentioned, we’ll all eventually succumb to the time. And these cheap molded pieces of plastic may not be immortal like Count Dracula, but they’ll seem like it…to me at least. So, for now, I’m sharing with you these simple silly monster figures. They’re keys. And they’ll always unlock this very memory. No matter how faded it eventually becomes.
Comment below and let me know about your special item and why it means so much to you…
Ballpoint monster sketch numero 4! It’s my childhood favorite: The Wolfman! For reference I “frankensteined” (heh) an image of his head from a publicity shot from the first film and his hands from Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I feel like the quality is dipping ever since I drew the Frankenstein Monster. So I assume that was just magic in a bottle for me. But I still enjoy doing these.