REVENGE OF THE CREATURE'S TEACHER!
Will the Thrill interviews Bob
Wilkins - FROM OCTOBER 1999
Everybody who grew up in the Bay Area and Northern
California in the last thirty-five years knows and loves Bob Wilkins, legendary
host of Channel 2's sadly defunct Creature Features show that ran for
well over a decade, starting in 1971 after he'd already won a large cult
following in Sacramento. Since I grew up across country in South Jersey, I was
introduced to the horrors of B monster madness via Doc Shock, out of Philly's
Channel 17. I loved Doc, but I have to say, after hearing all about Bob Wilkins
for the past fifteen or so years, I miss his cigar-smoking, deadpan diatribes
as much as everyone else does, and I wasn't even here to appreciate his reign.
His astonishing appeal ranges across all social barriers: EVERYONE I talk to
loves Bob, regardless of age, race, creed, sex, or even taste in movies. He is
the only icon besides Bugs Bunny that everyone, of all generations, agrees on.
He practiced a lost art: hosting the late night horror movie, with style and
personality. Around here he is as famous and beloved as LA's Vampira (and later
Elvira) and New York's Zacherley, but with an important difference: Bob Wilkins
is shockingly normal. He's also very nice. Witty and irreverent, but
also friendly and unassuming. In short, worthy of his mantle as a Bay Area
celebrity favorite, who achieved his status purely through chance, as he
explained to me in a recent interview from his present home in Reno,
- Have you ever been to the Parkway?
- Oh yes, we used to go there, in better times. I
lived in Oakland for a long time.
- Well, better times are back!
- WILL (after explaining what the theater has
become, with sofas and food and beer:):
- WILKINS: I started out as a writer and producer of
television commercials, in Sacramento. I saw the power of television. We'd have
an ad on the air and next thing you know I'd go to the grocery store and there
it was, they were selling it. This was the early days of color television (the
early 60s), and we had the first color camera in the country!
- What station was that?
- Channel 3, the NBC station in Sacramento. Two young
guys, the Kelly brothers - one was actually younger than me - they were very
innovative, and they made that station one of the top stations in the country.
I saw the power of television there. All of a sudden they wanted me to host
this late night show. This is the early 60s, and after the eleven o'clock news,
there were three network stations in town, they would play the "Star Spangled
Banner" and then go to black. We were the first ones to have a show in that
slot. They gave me a 16mm projector to take home, and they said, why don't you
think this over before you do it. And it was our first movie,
Attack of the Mushroom
People. I'd seen the old classics like
The Wolf Man and
Dracula like everyone
else, and after I watched the first reel of this one it didn't make any sense
at all. I kept watching and wondered, did I get the reels mixed up? This thing
is terrible! I didn't know they were making movies like that. And that became
the format of the show: I'd be honest and tell people not to watch it if it was
- But it was kinda reverse psychology, because then
everyone wanted to stay up and watch it.
- For the most part, yes. That's the history of the
- The show in Sacramento was called
Seven Arts Theater. Did
you do all kinds of movies then?
- No, just horror and science fiction.
- I know in the 50s there was a package distributed to
all the network affiliates called Shock
Theater, which contained all the Universal classics.
That's what Vampira showed in LA. Did you get the Shock Theater package?
- Yes, I did that show for four or five years, and did
every package available. They were very inexpensive for the station, I know
- What people tell me they most fondly remember from
your show are the Hammer films.
- For a lot of young people, it was the first time they
were seeing these, not in the theaters, but on TV.
- I've also heard your real pride and joy was
interviewing the celebrity guests. You had almost a variety show, because you
did your bit and had guests as well as showing a movie. I know you interviewed
among many others Christopher Lee and George Lucas, who I heard asked to be on
your show after Star
Wars came out.
- George was a very shy individual. He used to watch
the show in Modesto. Later I met him and he wanted me to go to work for him. I
was surprised that he even went on national television recently to promote his
film. He's an introvert. I started to get a lot fan mail early on, and I heard
from young experts correcting me on various things, because I was not an
expert. All of a sudden I got amateur films that kids were making, in those
days it was 8mm. In fact, in Stockton they had a film festival every year and
showed the films these kids were making and by God, they were just
unbelievable! My show became a showcase and opportunity for young people to
come on, make-up experts I still hear from today, working in Hollywood. It was
very refreshing to be able to showcase these kids, and they went on to bigger
and better things.
- You perfected the format in Sacramento before your
eventual move to Oakland. How long were you in Sacramento?
- I was there four or five years. I got an offer to do
the show in the Oakland market from a gentleman named Tom Breen, who used to
work for Channel 3 in Sacramento, who hired me. So Channel 2, which was a Cox
station then, invited me up to do a movie there, so I would cut one show, jump
in the car and cut the other one.
- So for a while you appeared concurrently in both
markets. You pretty much had Northern California covered. (NOTE: After Bob's
Bay Area show took off, Channel 3 dropped his original Sacramento show, but it
was quickly picked up by Sacto's Channel 40 and ran twelve years.)
- Yea, pretty much. And in those days you didn't have
a lot of independents around and so forth. Bob Shaw was one of the first people
to write me a fan letter. He was about twelve years old, suggesting films for
the show or correcting some of the mistakes I made. I couldn't get over that
these young people were experts on this stuff! Later Bob worked for me on the
show, and I couldn't have done it without him. He's responsible for its
- There's something about whatever fascinated you as a
kid, it sticks with you. It goes so deep it just stays with you. I'm 36, and
you get a group of guys around my age or older in a room and they start talking
Creature Features, trivia and memories, they're all ten years old again, except
they can drink beer. You were on the air throughout the 70s, correct?
- I retired in the early 80s.
- And then John Stanley took over.
- Right. John Stanley wrote for the San Francisco
Chronicle, and he was one of the first people to promote my show. He could
pick up Sacramento, and all of a sudden in the Chronicle, which was
another market, he started to write little blurbs about me, so we corresponded,
and then when I did get the job at Channel 2, John was one of the first people
to interview me. John was really an expert on this stuff. He was really a
horror movie fan, and of course he later came out with the books (the
Creature Features movie guides, in various updated editions). When I
decided to leave the program, John was the man I wanted to take over. He did a
great job and the show lasted another five years.
- But people missed you, and still do. Why did you
- My goal was to have my own advertising agency; that
was my background. I had a degree in Marketing from Indiana University. After I
graduated, I worked for an ad agency for about two and half years. So I
envisioned one day having my own agency. I knew because I had been on
television so long, it would open a lot of doors for me. So I retired from the
television business and opened the agency in Oakland, and it was very
successful mainly because people knew who I was.
- You've been in Reno a while now?
- My wife had an offer for a school-teaching job in
Reno, and we've been here four or five years.
- Do you miss the Bay Area? Because the Bay Area
- I don't miss the traffic and things of that nature,
but I go back once in a while, probably to Sacramento much more than the Bay
- My girlfriend Monica, Tiki Goddess grew up around
here in Union City, and she watched your shows, not because she's a fan of
horror movies - she gets scared even if Abbott and Costello are in it - but she
remembers your bits. She liked that part. Even people who weren't fans
of the genre watched Creature Features. So there must have been
something about you personally that made it a hit. I think it was your
personality and irreverent take on the whole thing, that was part of the whole
- Well, I think many people could associate with me
maybe in that, I didn't have the deep announcer's voice or handsome looks that
most people have on television. I'm an average man from Indiana, you know, a
Herb Shriner type. When I had people on like Christopher Lee, I tried to ask
him questions the fans might like to ask. I think it was that simple. John
Stanley had much of the same attitude.
- You could show a lot more than I can, because I can
only show what I can get in 35mm. This month I'm showing movies people probably
remember seeing on your show, like The Amazing
Colossal Man and I Was
A Teenage Frankenstein. If you didn't show these, you
showed movies like 'em.
- Oh, yes.
- And like you, I get facts mixed up on stage or in my
column and the audience corrects me. And I love these movies! Even the bad
ones! Especially the bad ones! Anyone who grew up around here and is a
fan of the genre remembers and worships you as much as Forry Ackerman
(publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland). But you were never a
particular horror fan, so this was like an accidental celebrity?
- That's right. Although I never announced that to the
- Did you develop a kind of affection for these movies
over the years, though?
- Oh sure, I like all movies. If the movie was good,
we told them; if it was bad, we told them. (NOTE: Fans recalled to me that
Wilkins used to actually go through the TV Guide and tell the viewers what was
on the rival station and suggest they turn the channel! No one I talked to ever
- I'm showing a new 35mm print of Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, which
is a classic -
- Oh, good!
- And I also wanted to do a Hammer flick, partly in
your honor, and out of the few available I picked The Vampire Lovers, which is pretty explicit
and never played on TV, not on your show anyway. This is one of the advantages
of showing 'em in a movie theater - nothing gets cut out. But I'm frustrated by
what I just can't get anymore. Out of the movies you showed, do you have any
- I always thought that Night of the Living Dead was a great
- Yea! I'd love to show that if I could find
- Actually, that gentleman, George Romero, he flew out
(from Pittsburgh) when I played it for the third or fourth time and was on the
show because he had a new movie out.
- Was that Dawn of the
- It might have been. I don't remember.
- That's proof of the power of your show, that you
could get all these cool people on it. (NOTE: Other guests included William
Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, Maud Adams, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher,
Kerwin Matthews and Kathryn Crosby (for the mid-70s re-release of
7th Voyage of Sinbad), Bela Lugosi Jr., Ray Harryhausen, William
Marshall (Blacula), Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet and many
- Well, television is powerful.
- That's true, but in the 70s, every urban market had
its own TV horror movie host, but not all of them had the pull to get the
guests you did.
- We had all the Star
Trek people on at time or another, and then
Star Wars, when that
came out. Of course the Bay Area is a major area for talent to pass through.
When Star Wars came
out, they flew us to Hollywood to interview the stars. After that movie came
out all the stations including Channel 2 tried to get their hands on anything
"outer space," so 2 came up with a lot of Japanese stuff,
- Like Astro Boy,
- Yea. They called me in and said, we want you to
think of some ideas for an afternoon show. And they completely gave it to me,
that was the only direction I had. So I showed some stuff to my two young kids
at home and of course they enjoyed it, and we eventually wound up with
Captain Cosmic. I found
a robot in Sacramento that was in some guy's garage, that was a high school
project, and we brought that up to the Bay Area and had a car dealer spray it
silver, and we put Channel 2's logo on it and called it 2-T-2.
- Wait - did you show Space Giants?
- Oh, wow, Monica talks about that show all the time!
Now that was one she loved! She used to say, I watched this show hosted
by a space guy and he showed a thing about a robot family with silver skin and
hair. She was talking about you!
- It became the number one kids show in the Bay Area.
I mean no one was near it. And it was Monday through Friday. And I dressed up
as the mysterious Captain Cosmic. You couldn't see my face, and I said, We've
taken this voice from a Bay Area celebrity, but I'm from another planet!
Anyway, that show had outstanding ratings and was on for two years, but we
finally ran out of product. We started to re-show stuff over and over again,
and we finally went off the air. We stopped doing Japanese stuff and went to
the old Flash Gordon
serials, which the kids would not buy. It was too hokey for them. It died not
because of the idea, we just ran out of product.
- Do you miss your TV days?
- Yea, I miss television in general. It's so powerful.
It's the only medium that has ratings points, so you know just how well you're
doing, or how poorly you're doing. If you come up with an idea and it works,
it'll last a while. It was challenging, and fun.
- Well, like I said, you're fondly remembered, and
- (laughs humbly) Well, thank you.
There you have it, the inspiring saga of a local
hero. I could relate on at least one level: Bob's story about wondering if he
got the reels mixed up while watching Attack of the Mushroom People
reminded me of the time in the Midnight Lounge when I showed the 1957
AIP drive-in classic Blood of
Dracula, and the reels WERE mixed up. Nobody but me
even noticed the lapse in continuity.