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Photography by Lesha Patterson
Dr. Shock & DingbatDr. Shock & Dingbat
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Photography by Lesha Patterson
Nurse Goodbody, Dingbat & Dr. ShockNurse Goodbody gives Dingbat a bit of therapy.
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Photography by Lesha Patterson
Dr. Shock & DingbatDr. Shock & Dingbat
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Photography by Lesha Patterson
Dr. ShockDr. Shock
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The Original Dr. Shock, Tommy ReynoldsThe Original Dr. Shock, Tommy Reynolds
If you’re looking for Dr. Shock, don’t bother lifting coffin lids or poking around cemeteries after dark. Ditto for the old WTVC studios in the Golden Gate Shopping Center, home of the original Shock Theatre. Shock’s current lair is in a suitably funky former hair salon on an appropriately shadowy block of a less-traveled downtown street. The windows are blacked out and a sign on the door alludes to the mischief within: “Nobody gets in to see the wizard. Not nobody. Not no how.” Just knock, goes the saying, the bell is out of order.
Most likely the Wizard of Odd will answer. That would be Scott Fillers, a local magician, horror movie enthusiast and yet another in a growing consortium of Friends of Shock Theatre who have lent their time, talent or, in this case, storefront to the recently revived horror host. Inside, a wall filled with Filler’s kitschy horror movie collectibles shares space with the set pieces that form Shock’s makeshift studio—cobwebbed stone pillars, a coffin, skulls and furniture that would not be out of place in Norma Desmond’s Sunset Boulevard home.
Before Shock himself appears, I regard his button-eyed puppet sidekick, Dingbat, in repose across the crushed velvet couch. When Shock enters from an anteroom, he is shocking only in his lack of Shock-ness: No cape, no dark eye makeup, no dangling cigarette, the latter a signature prop—along with the skull-topped cane—of the original Dr. Shock. “I had to quit smoking,” this Shock says, apologetically.
Shock is in street clothes, in this case his mortal form’s casual attire. Local musician Jack Gray is still feeling the weight of the cape and finding his footing a year after accidentally ascending to the role. But it’s surprising how much Gray, a heavy-set man with hound-dog eyes, a weary smile and an easygoing manner, resembles his predecessor, the late Tommy Reynolds.
Bob Brandy, Miss Marcia and, most notably, Dr. Shock, are figures who still exist in the nostalgic, gauzy memory of those who lived in the region during the 1960s and ’70s. With the exception of Miss Marcia, who still appears on local TV, most have died, as have the shows that propelled them into the hearts of viewers. Reynolds, a longtime program director at WTVC/Channel 9, earned cult celebrity status in 1970s Chattanooga as host of Shock Theatre, the station’s campy late-night horror movie fest that aired on Saturday nights from 1968 to 1975. Abetted by his curiously disturbing puppet sidekick Dingbat (created and voiced by Dan East) and the curvaceous Nurse Goodbody (Patricia Abney), Reynolds single-handedly introduced the genre to the local market.
At first, Reynolds—who began his on-air career as Shock in the 1960s hosting Science Fiction Theater on WTVC—adopted a camp Dracula persona, introducing and ridiculing a series of mostly low-budget horror and science-fiction movies during commercial breaks. He took the show to a new level when he began lobbing satirical bombs at local politicians, the Lookout Mountain elite and his fellow media personalities along with sometimes risqué comic bits that flew over the heads of youthful viewers but quickly caught older fans’ attention.
The pair would often push the envelope, straying into controversial territory, getting Reynolds and East got into hot water with station management, writes longtime local TV and radio personality David Carroll in his book Chattanooga Radio and Television. But their sometimes-naughty behavior just served to boost ratings—and advertiser response—Carroll recalls.
“Starting out as a radio deejay at that time, I can tell you that getting your name mentioned on Shock Theatre, even as part of a fake news story or other comedy routine, was huge,” Carroll says.
Dr. Shock’s reign of televised mock terror hit its zenith in the mid-’70s. Saturday nights after the late news mostly faded to black. But when a new, female general manager took over at WTVC in 1975, both Reynolds’ and Shock’s days were numbered. According to Carroll, “Evidently there was some disagreement between the two, so he went to WDEF, where he hosted afternoon drive radio show for a few years.”
Shock reappeared at Channel 12, but didn’t last long, nor did Reynolds, who landed at WHNT Channel 19 in Huntsville, Ala., where he briefly revived Shock Theatre. But Huntsville got only a glimpse of what had made Dr. Shock a legend in Chattanooga. Gone were Dingbat and Nurse Goodbody, along with the biting commentary. The show eventually fizzled and Reynolds retired.
But old horror hosts never really die—they just find new souls to inhabit. Enter Jack Gray and Johnny Stockman, a local film producer and editor, who had attempted a Shock revival in the early 1990s but was rebuffed by Channel 9. “I’d always loved the show and thought there was room for it to return,” recalls Stockman. “When I tried it [though], I ran into so many naysayers I gave up on it.”
News of Reynolds’ 2008 death again reminded Stockman of the character and when friends remarked Gray had more than a passing resemblance to Reynolds, the resurrection of Dr. Shock was under way.
What began as a Facebook gag quickly evolved into a serious attempt at reincarnating the character. Gray recounts donning the tux and cape for the first time, smearing greasepaint around his eyes and—most importantly—fashioning his hair in that distinctive Tom-Snyder-meets-Richard-Nixon look.
For better or worse, that simple act of bad grooming sealed Gray’s fate.
He’s tapped into the horror host zeitgeist. Reynolds didn’t invent Shock Theatre, nor was he the only Dr. Shock. A zombie army of horror hosts came to life on local channels nationwide when Screen Gems syndicated its fright films library in 1957 in a package dubbed Shock Theater, encouraging stations add a local host. The scheme worked and Son of Shock! followed in 1958, just as Reynolds began his career at WTVC. “When local TV stations were starting out, there wasn’t as much network or syndicated programming compared to what we’ve had since the 1980s forward,” says Carroll. “Stations had to fill some time, they were usually locally owned, so they were making stuff up as they were going along, trying a little of everything.”
Times, technology and programming changed, but horror hosts continued to grow in popularity with the rise of Elvira, Cassandra Peterson’s perennially popular “Mistress of the Dark,” in the early 1980s. Online, multiple fan sites catalog and document the genre’s history, and YouTube brims over with horror host clips. The 2010 documentary American Scary tracked down 300 horror hosts and profiled 60 of the most popular. “They set the tone for how we view horror movies as camp,” co-director Sandy Clark told USA Today last year. “I couldn’t believe no one had told this story before.”
In short, the timing was right for the rebirth of Shock Theatre in Chattanooga. Listen to Gray for a while and you’re convinced.
Baby Boomer masses that grew up with Shock, he says, are ready for it. As proof, Gray offers his large Facebook following and stories of fan encounters at numerous public appearances this year. He’s recruited an eager and enthusiastic co-host in Constance Haynes, who portrays the new Nurse Goodbody in an updated, goth style. Gray has even fabricated a reconstituted Dingbat after finding no one capable of recreating the iconic fanged puppet.
“Historically, it’s an honor to be part of this,” Gray says. “We’re really fans at heart and we’re having a lot of fun.”
Gray has spent the past year perfecting the character, attempting to faithfully honor Reynolds’ memory while adding his own brand of quirks and riffs. “I’m not an actor, I’m a musician. I get nervous in front of the camera and screw up, but maybe that makes it better,” he says. “It would be great to get into Reynolds’ psyche, but I’m developing my own technique as I go along.”
As Shock, Gray has worked hard to rekindle interest—making personal appearances at such events as ConNooga, the local sci-fi/horror convention; appearing at local haunted houses and pre-Halloween events; and preparing for a blowout Halloween night show at The Honest Pint, where his band, the Shock Theatre Orchestra, will perform its original rock opera, Hauntsville, a nod to Reynolds’ exile in Huntsville. All this has been a lead-in to what he expected, until earlier this month, to be the first full version of Shock Theatre on local TV in more than 30 years.
Gray has been doggedly pursuing a deal to return Shock to the air with WTVC management. So far, that relationship has been up and down. When Stockman and Gray first promoted the new Shock with videos on Facebook and YouTube last year, the response, says Stockman, was incredible. “They (WTVC) were calling us,” he recalls. The Shock team filmed segments promoting a Shock Theatre revival on WTVC’s digital channel, ThisTV, before Halloween last year which the station used in advance of the first program on Valentine’s Day. The results of that show didn’t sit well Stockman or Gray.
“They (Channel 9) rearranged and put it together badly,” he says. “It just sucked, the cutting made no sense. You had to watch the movie three times to see it all.” After the show aired, production went into a hiatus, but Gray was still thrilled with the response.
“We were really excited by the initial response from fans and WTVC,” Gray says. “Expectations were high. If we were going to do it, we wanted to honor the original concept and do it right.”
A few months ago, he forged a new deal with ThisTV to air a Shock special on Oct. 29 around Night of the Living Dead, the classic 1968 George Romero film. With the help of a sponsor, local restaurant Aretha Frankensteins, Gray paid $300 for the timeslot and launched a Kickstarter campaign he hopes will raise the $13,000 necessary to fund a full season of Shock Theatre.
But the ghosts of Reynolds’ ’70s quarrel with management and Stockman’s early-’90s attempts re-surfaced. The deal began to unravel, eventually falling apart completely.
First, the station questioned the legality and cost associated with airing Night of the Living Dead. Gray had done his research and assured station management that the film was in public domain, a detail he found odd considering he was dealing with a television station. (For the record, the film accidentally went into public domain after the distributor failed to use copyright notices on the original prints. The film is free and downloadable online).
But when Gray couldn’t produce legal documents verifying that fact, WTVC issued orders requiring Gray to write and film new bits (at his own expense) to air around commercial breaks for another film, most likely a classic from the 1930s already in their library such as Bride of Frankenstein. While this would have eliminated the cost of the airtime, the switch quashed his vision of running a modern horror classic around a coherent Shock program he’d already filmed—a deal the station had previously approved. The new segments would constitute two-minute commercial breaks, not a show, he says. He also had less than two weeks to write, rehearse and film the new bits to run Oct. 31 from 4 to 11 p.m.—not Saturday night, the night Shock fans expect. He was, in a word, shocked.
“They kept moving the target. We just couldn’t produce a quality show in that time,” Gray says wearily. “I’d had enough.”
WTVC General Manager Mike Costa declined to comment on the details, adding only, “It is unfortunate the Shock Theatre special could not become a reality. I made a decision in the best interest of the television station.”
In response, Gray says, “I’m constantly reminded of how Tommy Reynolds must have felt. This was the same way he was treated. I get the feeling they don’t like the fact that people want this to happen. Some things never change.”
Gray remains optimistic Shock Theatre will air again soon, this time, ironically, on competitor WDEF Channel 12 and its digital counterpart, Tuff TV, where he turned after the WTVC debacle and was warmly welcomed. The show will go on—only not on Halloween weekend. Gray says the all-new Shock Theatre will likely air Thanksgiving weekend on Tuff TV around Night of the Living Dead, a copy of which Tuff TV already has in its library.
“Tuff TV and WDEF are very open to what we’re doing, but we need some time to re-film and promote it properly. All this adds up to slowing down and getting this first show right. I think this is going to be a version of Shock Theatre that people will realize is different and much more developed,” says Gray.
But even a successful revival of the iconic show won’t likely usher in a new era of local programming, according to author and WRCB host Carroll. With the vast variety of shows now cheaply available to local stations for syndication, the cost and effort required to produce local programming doesn’t add up.
He notes, “Now that hundreds of channels, with every conceivable niche, are available, it’s unlikely that local stations would spend the money and energy required to launch that type of show.”
Still, you never know. The good doctor might just Shock everyone.