What's a Ghoul to do?

Aug 22, 2001 at 12:00 am

Some Detroiters remember those crazy days when you actually chose to stay home just to see what that pierogi-wielding nut would do next. And the rest of you missed so much. Late-night sci-fi flicks with segments in between by a guy wearing fur on his head, a pasted-on Vandyke like a beatnik Groucho Marx, a white lab coat covered with buttons (from the Fonz to Bela Lugosi) and sunglasses with the left lens missing, just in case you weren’t sure there was a human being under ova dey. He was the self-proclaimed emperor of lunacy, with a toilet for his throne and a collage of cornball absurdity for his domain. He wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself or the films he was doomed to show, “improving” them with sound effects and inserted dialogue. When he had the camera to himself, he’d construct ludicrous skits with a conglomeration of rock ’n’ roll, slapstick, social commentary, explosions, polka music, little rubber frogs, and all things unhinged, demented and deranged. He used his own language and worked on a set full of posters, plastic models and whatever else his fans decided to send in.

If you thought the Ghoul was cursed to lie for eternity in a moldy, nostalgic grave watching Return of the Fly over and over again in Cleveland, think again. You got the Cleveland part right. At 51, the Ghoul is once again turning blue, scratching glass and terrorizing late-night television in his native land, continuing to horror-host those unbearable B-movies. Believe it or not, this year Ron Sweed, the man behind the lab coat, celebrates his 30th anniversary as the Ghoul. Having survived a checkered TV history and a long underground, off-the-air stint, not to mention endless sci-fi and horror conventions, he’s kicking and exploding things again on Cleveland’s TV and radio airwaves. And he’s anxious to light the fuse ova dey in Detroit. (Hey, cool it with the boom-booms.)

Earlier this year, Ghoul lovers here demonstrated their undying support for their king and leader by barraging Thomas Video as Sweed signed copies of The Ghoul (S)Crapbook, and then again later that day by pouring into and overextending the Magic Bag for the Attention Benefit Disorder, hosted by the Ghoul, to help bring Ghoul Power back to Detroit. So why isn’t he on the air?

To find out more about the man loved by so many Detroiters, I journeyed down to the land of gorilla suits and the undead, otherwise known as Cleveland. I observed the Ghoul in his natural habitats: Co-hosting the “All-Request House Party” radio show with Mr. Classic, MCing a sci-fi convention, taping his weekly TV show, drinking lots of coffee. I had the privilege to behold a de-fright-wigged and beardless Ghoul, a transforming and just plain weird experience. And I was able to talk to the people who know him best, his wife, and the source of all evil, the Ghoul’s mother.

Dawn of Terror

Metro Times: Did you ever expect to give birth to a Ghoul?

Irene Barnard: Ron was very different right from the time he came out of the chute. It started out when he was about 3, maybe 4 years old. His grandfather took him downtown to see Santa Claus, and he was going to buy him one Christmas present, like maybe a football or a baseball or a catcher’s mitt. Ron picked out a hand puppet, and he couldn’t be dissuaded to give that up. As early as that, he wanted to entertain. When he got older, like maybe 8 or 9, we bought him marionettes, and he used to give shows for the kids with marionettes. He also used to do spooky things in the basement. He’d hang lights across and he would drape them with blankets. It was sort of like Ron’s Funhouse. He’d get all the kids in the neighborhood. The kids would shriek and holler. Ron always, always had some surprise for them.

He was a troublemaker right from the word “go.” His fourth-grade teacher, the only way she could get his attention and not have him distract all the pupils ... he had a Jerry Mahoney dummy, and every Wednesday he would give the class a show of Jerry ... and this is how she kept him in line.

Then when he was about 16, maybe 17, he was an avid Beatle fan. He had persuaded everybody in the neighborhood that Ringo Starr was going to come to our house. He told me this, and kids would come up to me and say, “Is Ringo Starr really gonna be at your house?” I said, “Would I lie?” That’s all I’d say. Ron at that time had all Beatle clothes. Anyhow, there were people, I mean, there were mothers and fathers and flashbulbs. These people were all drawn into this thing. Ron was on the inside of the house by this time and we had to get him out! We had a porch right from the dining room, and his father had pulled the back of the car to the porch. They only saw a glimpse, but he was all in his Beatle clothes. He had glasses on, and he wore his hair that way, and he got in the car and they ... Oh the people were just thrilled to death! I think to this day they thought that Ringo Starr was at our house.

A brilliant hoax P.T. Barnum would have been proud of. But little did Ron or his mother know that this budding young Ghoul’s future rested inside an unguarded crate.

Teenage Gorilla

Barnard: He and a bunch of kids one day went to the neighboring show which was, oh, maybe a half hour’s distance from our house. And the matinee show should have been over maybe 4 o’clock, maybe 4:15, and I waited, and I waited, and I began to sorta worry, then, all of a sudden, I see this crowd of kids come walking down the street, and I knew ... Ron is in the middle of this crowd, and he was. What had happened ... this was some sort of a fright show at the Shore Theater in Euclid. Unbeknownst to me, he said this was tossed into the rubbish. It was a gorilla suit, and he wore it coming home. He said that it was just thrown out in the trash. I was very gullible. I believed that. That poor guy lost his gorilla suit. This is how he met Ernie Anderson.

Ghoulardi Who?

The late, great, Ernie Anderson became one of the highest paid voiceover talents in Hollywood back in the ’70s and ’80s, the well-known voice of ABC’s The Love Boat, and America’s Funniest Home Videos. But before Anderson found his fortune on the West Coast, he had taken Cleveland by storm from 1963 to 1966 as Ghoulardi, with his coffeehouse-poet-beatnik-horror shtick. He broadcast live Friday nights, Saturday afternoons, and also for a half-hour each Monday through Friday as “Laurel, Ghoulardi and Hardy.” A local superstar, Ghoulardi was the original televised rabble-rouser lighting up the “boom-booms,” and ultimately inspiring an entertainment-bound 13-year-old Ron Sweed.

Metro Times: What drew you to Ghoulardi?

Ron Sweed: I think just his irreverence and disdain for things pompous. I just have a problem with people who take themselves too seriously, or feed you a line of bull like, “Hey, it’s a great movie tonight.” I’m saying anybody prior to Ghoulardi, no matter how bad the product was, “Oh, this is a dandy!” Yes sir! Ernie Anderson was the first one to say, “This movie’s so bad, gang, you oughta go to bed early. It’s a piece of crap!”

Metro Times: Tell me how you met Ernie Anderson.

Sweed: My friends and I went to a afternoon matinee of [in a carnival barker’s tone] “Dr. Silkini and his live stage show of horrors, on stage in person, the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, King Kong and 45 horror movies,” you know, all in one afternoon. Well, hey, can’t pass that up. You know, that’s almost as good as Christmas. All the kids are screaming, throwing popcorn at the Frankenstein Monster. We weren’t very kind 13-year-olds … Then the show was over, so we took this short-cut home which was through a back alley. Silkini was loading up to go home. It was his misfortune to have left an open trunk with a gorilla suit there.

I always had a fascination for gorilla suits. You know, The Three Stooges always had some gorilla in it, some of those old B-movies. Yeah, look around, there’s no Dr. Silkini, Hot damn! I got a gorilla suit. … We were walking from one street to another to get to our street just gathering more people, “Hey, a gorilla! Look at that!”

“Mom, look what I got! They’re giving out these free gorilla suits!”

And so we heard a couple days later Ghoulardi’s gonna appear at this amusement park which was a 15-minute bus ride from my home. And so we took the bus to Euclid Beach, and it wasn’t a bus driver with a sense of humor. “Uh, you gonna get on this bus, you take the head off, man.” I’ve always rebelled against, ya know, ’cause it’s stupid. Give the bus driver a little bit of power; the guy won’t let you wear a gorilla head.

So there’s the Thriller [roller coaster] on one side, and the Laugh in the Dark, and constructed right in the middle was a pretty elaborate stage. The place was packed because Ernie Anderson was uh ... I mean, the crime rate in Cleveland went down on Friday nights when Ghoulardi was on the air.

He was huge, he’s just fabulous, and so I figured he’s gotta notice me, OK. So there I am in the gorilla suit, and he comes on. All of a sudden, he just stops, “I don’t believe that! Look at that ova dey! Hey, come on up here, baby.” So I go up on the stage with him, “Look at that, Ghoulardi has his own gorilla!”

I asked him if I could come down for the Saturday afternoon show and bring the gorilla suit. “Yeah, do whatever you want. I don’t care.” He put me on the air that day, the Saturday show. I got to be performing with him three times, two live shows and now on TV with him, so to make a long story short, I just showed up every Saturday after that. “I’m here!”

Sweed became Ghoulardi’s personal assistant. Ernie Anderson left for the West Coast in 1966, and Ron continued working at the station, writing for the “Hoolihan and Big Chuck” skit comedy show. In 1970, he got a phone call from Ernie; a producer had asked him to come back to Cleveland to do a one-hour special. Sweed pleaded with Anderson to come back to Cleveland periodically to tape Ghoulardi shows. When Ernie refused, Ron went to plan B and asked if he could take over the character.

“You’re a quiet, Dick Cavett kind of guy. Why don’t you do something more suited to your nature?” Anderson asked.

Sweed recalls answering, “Well, you know, there’s another side to me you don’t know, I think I could pull it off.”

With Anderson’s OK, Sweed would continue the character of Ghoulardi, but a rival broadcasting company owned that name, so they changed it to the Ghoul.

It was a local success, and then Kaiser Broadcasting syndicated the Ghoul to its seven stations across the country, including Detroit. Out West, Anderson saw it and relayed a message: “Tell Ron I’m watching him. Son-of-a-bitch, he did it!”

Just in his early 20s, Sweed had the opportunity to emulate his hero and carry on what Anderson had begun with twists of his own. Plenty of Ghoulardi props and shticks stayed; others were added, but all were dished out in a more erratic and frantic manner as the next “heavy metal” generation took over. His ridiculous crackpot humor struck a strong chord with viewers, and sometimes his antics were more popular than he would have liked them to be.

The Twanger

Metro Times: OK, I’ve got a series of words. Give me what comes to your head.

Sweed: OK.

Metro Times: Froggy!

Sweed: Froggy? [Groan] Boring. I was only gonna do Froggy one time. You know, “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy,” OK, then I’d beat him with a baseball bat. So what more can you do? People loved Froggy. He was getting all this mail and everything. “Heya Froggy, we love you!” Just a little rubber thing man, he was getting mail. You gotta stay tuned into what your audience likes, so I’ll do some more Froggy bits, you know, I’ll burn him up, blow him up, or whatever.

Froggy, the Frog Prince, was originally a character on the popular kids show “Buster Brown” back in the ’50’s. He became the Ghoul’s sidekick and nemesis.

Metro Times: So, Froggy represents the establishment?

Sweed: Ehhh, he could, yeah, well, no, not really, no. He’s just a dumb little toy I was blowing up! Didn’t represent anything really. But everybody loved it, so we kept it.

Metro Times: Parma.

Sweed: Parma. Ernie Anderson lived in Parma for a while, and he hated his neighbors. When he moved to the country, he started to just make fun of ... “Hey, well I’m glad I don’t live in Parma!” His engineer then would hit this polka music, and Ernie thought that was hysterical, because Parma has mainly Polish people. “Parma!” Boom-boom-rum-pum-pum-pum. And so that’s what happened. I carried Parma over, and people loved it. When I did Detroit, their Parma’s Hamtramck. Hamtramck spelled backwards is Kc-mart-mah. Did you know that? Detroit and Cleveland match up suburb per suburb, and the people are so much alike. It’s just Detroit’s Parma, and there’s a place called Lili’s I always used to appear at in Hamtramck. Even before I knew about Hamtramck, Detroit loved Parma.

Metro Times: Kielbasa.

Sweed: There you go again! Kielbasa, or kielbasi, as we call it. People always wanted to know … I didn’t take drugs and I didn’t drink, but people were convinced that the Ghoul had to be high on something. “You can’t be straight doing that show!” they’d always say. Yes, I can! You’re right, OK, the Ghoul’s secret is he smokes a good kielbasi before the show and I’ll tell ya’, you do a couple big drags on a kielbasi, it’ll take you places that Steppenwolf could never re-create on a magic carpet ride. Whoaah! [The Ghoul gesticulates, imitating his kielbasi-induced magic carpet ride, and knocks his coffee over.]

Sorry. OK. Well there’s kielbasi, Anita.

Metro Times: Boom-booms.

Sweed: Ghoulardi used to blow stuff up, so I inherited that. It’s just amazing how people love the blow-ups.

Metro Times: How are you different now from when you started?

Sweed: A long time ago, if people would say, ‘Hey, you’re a kids-show host, aren’t you?’ “Bullshit! You know I’m on 11:30 at night, I do adult entertainment!” I used to get rankled. I would tell Channel 20 when I was on there, you know they tried to censor me, “Look, if you wanted Captain Kangaroo in the first place, you should have hired him. You hired me as the Ghoul, and you know what the Ghoul does.” It’d be very frustrating. At the time, if I did a toilet flush sound effect, my Cleveland program director said, “Oh, you can’t. That’s in really bad taste. Do you have to have the toilet flush?” Again, here we go: “Take your head off before you get on the bus.” You know, that mentality. And two hours discussing a toilet flush one time in this man’s office. Hey, I’m not gonna compromise my art.

I’d be rankled being called a children’s-show host. Then, about three years ago, this Mom, she must have had 20 kids, she goes, “I want to thank you. With all the garbage that’s on nowadays, there’s nothing that you can watch with your kids. I grew up watching you, now I have kids, and now they enjoy watching you, and we watch the show together.” And then that month I heard it from several other sources. I realized how very nice it is that I could entertain young people at the same time, still entertain adults on that level, the kids are laughing at one thing here, while the adults are catching some stuff up there.

Another difference between the Sweed of the ’70s and the Ghoul of today took place away from the camera’s view.

I Married a Ghoul

Sweed met Mary Terese Matousek, his second wife, back in ’88. She had never seen the Ghoul on TV. She fell in love with the man first.

Mary Terese Matousek: We met through a friend who I was working with, and she invited us to go out with a group of people, so we went out to see the movie Hairspray. It was like we’d known each other forever. He was late ’cause he was stopped for a ticket. I should have known then.

Metro Times: What’s it like being the wife of the Ghoul?

Matousek:It’s just been amazing to me. The first time I saw him, he was at a small club (in Cleveland). It was like a Thursday so there weren’t a lot of people. But we went to Detroit, at the Magic Bag, the first time I saw him do a big live show. It was amazing to see how the people responded to him. I mean, literally, his foot hit the stage, and everybody in the whole place just got to their feet. It sent chills up and down my spine. And then I think the most amazing thing about the character is that people come up to him and tell him all of these stories about … you know, “When my parent died, I was so bummed out, the only thing that helped was watching your show,” or “You know, I’ve had this horrible job for all of these years, and I always looked forward to Friday nights, and a pizza and beer and to watch you, because you’re the only thing that made me laugh.”

Possessed by the Undead

The Ghoul has always had a special relationship with Detroit. “I love Detroit and I love the fans!” he exclaims. “But I love living here. I lived in Detroit a couple of years and was miserable ’cause I missed Cleveland. No reflection on Detroit, I just wanted to be back home.”

Yet, it’s in Detroit, where Ghoulardi never aired, that the Ghoul is truly his own monster, in the shadow of no one. Or is the Ghoul’s maniacal brand of Froggy-encrusted, Cheez Whiz-soaked humor more conducive to the hearts of this city? Regardless, Detroit comes out on top.

Metro Times: What’s the reaction in Cleveland?

Matousek: It’s pretty good. The thing that happens here is people call him Ghoulardi. So they don’t make the distinction, they just say, “Hey Ghoulardi!” Whereas Detroit’s just … it’s consistent, it’s consistent, it’s consistent. People are rabid — in a good way. But you know what, the other thing is that people are so polite and patient. There’s never, never been a problem with people waiting in line for the Ghoul. I was talking about the Magic Bag. He was scheduled to do two shows, but he added on a show because there were so many people waiting for him. Everybody was lined up in the back parking lot of the Magic Bag. He would run in to do the show, then come out and sign autographs, then he’d run back in. And he did that till, like, 4 o’clock in the morning. You know the police were driving through because there was this big crowd of people. If you have a line that long, statistically speaking, you’re gonna get some people who are mad, and angry, pushing other people and screaming and yelling. … It doesn’t happen. People stand there and wait politely. He spends time with people. What’s happening now, is that people who saw him when they were younger have families, and people are saying to him, “This is our bonding time.” You know, since he’s been there [Detroit] the last time, people keep e-mailing: “When are you getting back on TV?”

Tomb of the Ghoul

Greg Russell produces and hosts “Positively Detroit,” a monthly special on WB 20 in connection with Detroit’s 300th Birthday. On the recent segment dealing with Detroit television over the years, the Ghoul was featured.

“Of course the Ghoul was a big part of Detroit’s TV!” says Russell, “Like I’ve told some people, ’cause I’m in that same demo, 40-ish and all that. Whenever I go out and am doing interviews with people who are, you know, like around my age, some older, some younger … and I tell them where I work, the first thing out of their mouths is, ’Oh, the Ghoul!’’’

Even with a built-in audience, Detroit television stations don’t seem to be clamoring for Sweed’s talents. They could be put off by Sweed’s spotty and scattered television past. After his Kaiser syndication from ’72 to ’75 — and a court battle over his name when Kaiser folded — the Ghoul moved to the Detroit area because of his intense popularity here. From ’75 to ’79 he lived in Waterford, performed on radio and was passed around Detroit TV stations like a mop-headed hot potato, going from Channel 50, to 20, to 62, then back to 20. According to Sweed, the reasons for station hops varied, but were usually due to trouble with management. Sweed decided to take a break from Ghouling in ’79, and moved back to Cleveland, but it wasn’t long before he was talked into doing weekend radio, putting him back in the public ear by 1980, and once again, back on Cleveland TV from ’82 to ’84, then off again for the longest Ghoul break ever, although he kept up public appearances and radio work throughout.

But while he was gone, the world of TV changed dramatically.

Mark Dawidziak, TV critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has followed TV in the Cleveland-Akron area since 1983. He says Sweed wasn’t the only local personality having trouble staying on the air back in the ’80s.

“That was a point where almost everybody everywhere was slowing down except for TV news personalities. The Cleveland personalities were being dropped sort of left and right ...” And it wasn’t just Cleveland. Think about what Detroit’s airwaves lost: Local personalities were our “friends” on the air. We knew their quirks; we were hip to their inside jokes; we accepted their mistakes and flubs because they were “family.” But that era faded. Good-bye, Rita Bell. Good-bye, Bill Kennedy. Hello, cable, infomercials and syndicated comedies.

“There’re so many places to go now for entertainment when you have cable, over a hundred channels in some cases, that stations are not getting as much as they used to,” says Channel 50 and 62 news anchor Rich Fisher. “It’s all bottom line. Television is a business, and if they can’t make money doing a show like ‘The Ghoul,’ they’re not gonna put it on the air. A show like that has to pay for itself, and make a profit.”

Rob St. Mary promotes Ghoulish activities in the Detroit area, and has his own ideas: “I think it has to do with the network and corporatizing of the local TV stations. They’re mostly owned by big corporations, so they’re all hooked into networks. Instead of being a mom-and-pop situation that runs itself, the network tells them, “OK, these are the shows we have, these are the shows we’re gonna show.’ There’s very little local input.”

Revenge of the Managers

Fisher believes that part of the reason Detroit TV isn’t chomping at the bit to put Sweed back on the air is because most of Detroit’s TV station managers are from other parts of the country and have no idea what all the hype is about. Without that nostalgic foundation, does the Ghoul have a chance?

Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek Stations Inc., which include Detroit’s WDIV-TV, may not have grown up with the Ghoul, but he sees other problems.

“Local things always work, can work, clearly. I think there’s room in programming for local characters, but people are more sophisticated now than in the ’70s; they’re more cynical. You have to find new and different ways to do something — you can’t do it the same way 30 years straight. And stations don’t have a need to run as many movies as they used to, because of the encroachment of the big networks into local markets.”

But the Ghoul does have that Cleveland toehold, and he’s held onto it for three years now.

Return of the Ghoul

“Ron’s show airs on Sundays on the WB affiliate. That’s not a prime slot. Midnight Sundays obviously speaks for itself,” says the Plain Dealer’s Dawidziak. But Dawidziak adds: “Nothing gets a forever ride in television. … I think the fact that Ron is on the air at all and that he’s pulling any kinds of numbers speaks to the fact that after all these years there is still a loyalty factor, and there are still people who kind of share the same passion for this kind of kookiness.” In fact, Dawidziak says one could make a “counter-argument” that since the pendulum has swung so far away from the local TV personality maybe it would pay off for stations to buck the trend now and invest in local personalities like the Ghoul.

For his part, Sweed maintains that since his move to Sunday nights, his ratings have doubled, which doesn’t sound like a woolly mammoth on its way to the tar pits.

And at the mobbed signing at Thomas Video, the Ghoul hardly looked to be near extinction.

Owner Jim Olenski, a Ghoul fan himself, commented: “There’s people that come in here that are under 30 that know who the Ghoul is, just from his previous appearances. So it’s like it’s somehow kept going by word of mouth. These guys are bringing their kids in, so now the kids know about the Ghoul. The guy like has an incredible taste, and, I might add, an incredible collection of music. But I think what I like the best is, when he does stuff, it’s that, ‘What-the-hell’ attitude. I like that. But he keeps it wholesome. In fact, when he did the shows at the Magic Bag, it was like family stuff.”

Lair of the Ghoul

During my travels to Cleveland, I had the rare opportunity to experience the guy underneath the beard. Ron Sweed, minus the Ghoul getup, is a sweet, gracious man whose main focus is to make sure everyone around him is enjoying themselves. He’s still wacky and seems to possess thought processes that are mysterious to me, yet somehow fit Cleveland. But there’s a part of Sweed that will always be the Ghoul, whether he’s in costume or not, and the opposite is true as well. Maybe that’s what Detroit is attracted to. Although the Ghoul may rant and rave about this and that, he’s never mean-spirited, never comes from a dark place. Everything he does is all in fun, and who doesn’t like fun?

On one of my visits, I observed the magical inner workings of the Ghoul show at the studios of Channel 55. Ron and the Ghoul crew were planning the day’s taping, which included, “The Watermelon Bit.”

“Let’s blow it up inside.”

“We can’t blow it up inside. Remember what happened to the sandwich? It vaporized.”

“There’s still pieces of that pumpkin in the roof.”

After much heated negotiation, it was decided “The Watermelon Bit” would take place outside. I was supplied with guest earplugs and a sheet of Plexiglas to shield myself. Then the Ghoul did what he does best and pulled out his lighter to ignite the M-80 lodged into the top of the hapless melon.

Zowee Scowee Boffo Socko Boom-Boom!”

The Plexiglas didn’t keep me from getting sideswiped. As I picked pieces of watermelon out of my hair and, with a laugh, wiped the sticky goo from my cheek, it all came back to me: Well eveybody’s heard about the bird, buh-buh-buh-bird, They’re coming to take me away ha ha, Da boom right in the schmenke, Santa Ghoul, blended Froggy, ow ow ow! Chef Curdle — the Galloping Ghoulmet, Papa oooh mow mow Papa oooh mow mow, hiya hiya hiya gang, and that little Ghoul Power T-shirt I loved to wear with the classic Milan Kecman caricature.

“I didn’t think it would go all over like that,” Ron proclaimed, probably for the millionth time.

With that airborne fruit salad, the Ghoul exploded me back to a time I loved, back when he gave me courage when fate presented me with the opportunity to change the course of my life.

“Hey, we need someone to wear the gorilla suit!” goes a cry.

Ghoul Power will never die.

Visit www.theghoul.com and find out how you can support the Ghoul. Or see him distribute Metro Times from 4-6 p.m. on Aug. 22 along Main Street in downtown Royal Oak.

See also our accompanying story which offers wit and wisdom by and about our friend, the Ghoul: "Ghoulosophy."

Anita Schmaltz writes frequently about theater and other ghoulish arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]