Growing up in San Antonio in the early ’80s, one of my fondest memories was Saturday night. That was when they showed “Nightmare Theater” on the local CBS affiliate KENS-TV. It was a cheaply produced affair that showed two horror movies starting at 10:30 pm hosted by The Grim Reaper, a sort of cornball jokester dressed in an oversized, hooded robe along with an unwieldy scythe who would appear during breaks and interact with freeze-framed scenes from the movie, chroma-keyed in the background. I remember the very first NT I saw. My dad had some friends over when “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi came on. He was drinking beer and in a good mood and let me stay up to watch the show (sent me to bed for the second feature though). I had never seen anything like it. I was hooked. I wanted more. I loved the eerie black and white atmosphere and the Grim Reaper brought a certain levity to the proceedings that my 10 year old mind appreciated.
My parents didn’t usually cotton to me staying up watching horror movies on Saturday nights cause we had to get up and go to church in the morning, so I devised an elaborate scheme. I would go to my bedroom and lay quietly still at around 10:15pm. My folks usually retired to the bedroom about that time. I had a tiny color television set in my bedroom. I wrapped an old blanket around the set and created a tent that I would pull over my head. I found an old monophonic transistor earpiece (this was just before the walkman came out) and plugged it into the audio jack and kept the volume low and my finger on the power button on the TV. Whenever I detected a suspicious noise (ie. my parents coming in to check on me), I turned that sucker off, fell back into my pillow and pretended I was asleep.
Over the next year and half or so (it seemed like forever) they never caught me — although they probably knew something was up. I would always watch the first movie…and the Twilight Zone or Star Trek that preceded it…and sometimes would stay up for at least a part of the second movie although I was usually exhausted by midnight — and the second movie was usually total crap…most of the time an old ’40s Lon Chaney Jr. vehicle. Needless to say, I was always falling asleep in church on Sunday morning (what normal kid isn’t?) but for a chance to catch all those great Hammer films, it was worth it.
A wave of nostalgia sent me on a Google search for any info about Nightmare Theater. I stumbled across this site which not only mentioned NT and the Grim Reaper but pointed me in the direction of Bob Crowley, part time KENS weather man…and none other than The Grim Reaper himself! An email to Bob resulted in a response. With his kind permission, I’m posting a portion of his email:
“Nightmare Theater was one of the high points of my career. The last program we did, the 3-D movie in July of 1982, pulled a 48 share, 24 rating through the entire two hours. Pretty good for a musty old movie and 20 minutes of content that I literally made up as we were going along!
Every so often I hear from someone who enjoyed the show. Most surprising was this guy at the UT career day in 1989 or so. I told him how we did it, and some observations on dealing with the people involved. He grew up to be Robert Rodriguez, the film director! So I guess you are in good company.”
Turns out Crowley, who bears more than a passing resemblence to Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, works down the street from me at WBAP 820AM in Arlington, TX where he does the overnight news. He revealed to me that he only made $4.14 an hour working at KENS(!) Even by early ’80s standards, that was chump change. No wonder he left after a few years.
Here’s to you, Bob, for helping to twist a young boy’s brain!