This post is carried over from my old website, where I had a special page set up called The Vault, dedicated to the horror hosts of the great state of Tennessee. I thought I'd add that webpage onto the blog here as well, so this is the first in a series of posts about the Tennessee hosts...
Shock Theater - Ken Bramming
Click HERE for an article celebrating the life of Ken Bramming
Click here to read an obituary for Ken Bramming on Nashville Scene Newspaper's website
DR. LUCIFUR: NASHVILLE TV’s
by Jeff Thompson
“He was a very elegant gentleman who had been the president of Transylvania for the past two hundred years. He spent a lot of time looking down his nose at people.” This is how Nashville broadcaster Ken Bramming (1926-1997) fondly remembered his horrific alter-ego, Dr. Lucifur, Nashville’s first TV horror-movie host. Bramming, the sonorous-voiced television and radio personality, hosted Shock Theater on Nashville’s WSIX-TV 8 (now WKRN-TV 2, then and now an ABC affiliate) from November 1958 until April 1967. The show originally aired on Friday nights at 10:15 PM CST—“That was in the days of the fifteen-minute newscast,” Bramming remarked—and later moved to Saturday nights at 10:30. “We knew we’d get a young audience on those nights,” Bramming said. “We were aiming for the ten- to fourteen-year-olds, but their parents ended up watching the show with them and liking it as much as the kids!”
In the early months, Shock Theater opened with Modest Moussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” as its theme song and with Ken Bramming’s live, “straight-voice” (non-character-voice) announcement of that night’s movie. Shock Theater’s cinematic fare ranged from the classic Universal monster movies to the Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Moto mysteries to a few science-fiction titles. Bramming himself selected and prepared every film.
In the summer of 1959, seven months after Shock Theater’s debut, Bramming decided to liven up the show by adding a ghoulish on-camera host—played by himself. Bramming created the character of Dr. Lucifur from an amalgam of “Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, some of John Carradine’s characters, and some Vincent Price things.” Bramming’s Lucifur, who always appeared in black-and-white even if the night’s film was in color, was a striking figure. The dapper Transylvanian sported silver hair, a black eyepatch over his right eye, a Ming moustache, and a cigarette holder. He dressed elegantly in white tie and black tails and a flowing black cape, and he spoke with a Transylvanian accent. The “Night on Bald Mountain” theme soon was replaced by “Blues for Lucifur,” a jazzy electric-guitar melody composed and performed by Nashville musician Norm Cole. As the theme played, a wavy circle—“We called it the Mystic Circle,” Bramming explained—appeared on the TV screen and framed Dr. Lucifur, who walked into a pool of light near a lamppost. Fog swirled around the devilish doctor as he greeted the viewers and urged them to come with him on “these journeys into the worlds of mystery, the supernatural, fantasy, and the world beyond.” At the conclusion of the film, Dr. Lucifur reappeared, invited the viewers back next week, and (with “a wild laugh”) said, “Good night—and pleasant dreams!”
This atmospheric “intro and outro” featuring Bramming as Lucifur was on film; therefore, Bramming was free to appear as himself or as other characters in the five live breaks in the course of that night’s film. Dr. Lucifur rarely appeared on-camera in those five breaks although his rich voice was heard whenever the camera suddenly became Lucifur’s “eyes” and showed subjective shots of other people talking to “him” (the camera). Those people—or sometimes creatures!—who interacted with Lucifur and each other ranged from a demented grandmother and a comical beatnik to a wacky poet and a reanimated mummy. While Ken Bramming played Dr. Lucifur off-camera or a man-on-the-street interviewer on-camera, his several assistants portrayed Shock Theater’s other recurring characters.
“My top assistant,” Bramming recalled, “was Corky Savely, a mad genius who was still in high school at the time. He would dress up as a character named Granny Gruesome, who one night showed the viewers how to knit a sports car out of 1500 pounds of steel wool. Corky also dressed as Frantic Freddy the Hipster or Cyril Songbird the Poet—that one we stole directly from Ernie Kovacs!—and Corky would dress up like a mummy whenever we showed a mummy movie. Other characters were played by Herschell Martin and Richard Dixon, and Norm Fraser played the ‘infamous’ Baron Von Sloucho. We did crazy things, and the show had no time limit. Sometimes, our breaks in the movie lasted ten minutes!”
Except for Corky Savely’s mummy appearances and a few other tie-ins, Bramming and company’s live, ad-libbed routines during the movies were completely unrelated to the films. “We did take-offs of popular songs like ‘Monster Mash’ and ‘Tom Dooley,’ and we spoofed many TV commercials and TV series. We did a take-off of ‘The Loretta Young Show’ called ‘The Forever Young Show.’ Miss Forever Young’s famous doors were stuck, and she couldn’t get them open to make her entrance. We even did a take-off of ‘Batman’ when the TV show was popular—only we had [Nashville restaurateur] Mario Ferrari dressed as Batman and speaking Italian!”
An instance when Bramming appeared on-camera as Dr. Lucifur during the comical breaks in the movie occurred in the autumn of 1960. At the same time that New York TV horror-movie host Zacherley was running for President of the United States, Dr. Lucifur ran for re-election to the presidency of Transylvania. Having held the office for the past two centuries, the arrogant aristocrat figured that he was a shoo-in for re-election. However, in a last-minute upset, Lucifur’s opponent Granny Gruesome was elected instead!
These and many other zany stunts catapulted WSIX-TV’s Shock Theater through the ratings belfry. “Between 1958 and 1962,” Bramming revealed, “we were rated number one in Nashville in that Friday- or Saturday-night timeslot. We beat the ‘Tonight’ show on NBC and whatever was on CBS. Shock Theater was a family show. The movies weren’t really scary, and there was never any blood and gore in the movies or in our segments. I insisted on that. We were there to have fun. I never received any bad mail from parents. Instead, I got letters from parents telling me how much they liked watching the show with their kids. There were things for the adults to like, such as the jazz background music of our segments. I used nice things that the adults and I dug by people like [guitarist] Wes Montgomery, the Paul Smith Trio, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet.”
Ken Bramming and his campy compatriots accomplished their live routines with a minimum of sets and props. Dr. Lucifur’s lamppost regularly reappeared as a set dressing for Bramming’s man-on-the-street interviews with Frantic Freddy, Mrs. Moshe Gumora, the Poor Slob, and other characters. “We often used fog for background,” Bramming continued. “The crew at WSIX made a dry-ice fog machine for us. When we did a take-off on ‘Tom Dooley,’ we went into the next studio, where the wrestling ring was, and used one corner of the ring for Tom Dooley’s gallows. But our best set was the Purple Grotto, a purple, cave-like flat with a door in it. The door had bloody handprints on it. One night, the whole Purple Grotto flat fell forward in the middle of our skit! We were live, so there was nothing we could do. That reminds me of another blooper. I often would do live commercials as myself, and one of our sponsors was a man named Fred Mabius, who installed glass shower enclosures. I was standing next to a four-sided shower enclosure [and] doing a commercial for it when the thing fell over and shattered into a million pieces. I looked at the camera and said, ‘Now, friends, if Fred Mabius had installed it, that wouldn’t have happened.’ We quickly went back to the movie after that because the crew was breaking up!
“Television was brand-new,” Bramming continued, “and we did some funny things.” Sadly, because all of Bramming’s skits were performed live, no films or tapes of them exist. The only footage of Bramming as Lucifur is the black-and-white, filmed “intro and outro.”
By 1967, although Shock Theater’s ratings were still good, both Ken Bramming and WSIX-TV felt that the Saturday-night show had run its course. Bramming left WSIX and took a radio-announcing job, but Dr. Lucifur and the Mystic Circle were back on the air in Music City just a year-and-a-half later. Between October 1968 and November 1969, Bramming, as Lucifur, hosted a weekend horror movie on WMCV-TV 17, an independent station. When Channel 17 threw a Halloween party for children in October 1968, Ken Bramming and Corky Savely were on hand as Lucifur and the mummy. This was Dr. Lucifur’s third personal appearance: during the WSIX days, Bramming had appeared in costume at two Nashville department stores. “And the kids climbed all over me!” Bramming laughed.
After his Lucifur years, Ken Bramming re-connected with his horror roots when he served as the pre-recorded announcer for Creature Feature, a Saturday-night horror movie telecast on WSM-TV 4 (NBC) in the early 1970s. The host of Creature Feature was Sir Cecil Creape (Russ McCown, who went on to play the Phantom of the Opry on The Nashville Network). Bramming’s unmistakable voice at the beginning of Creature Feature provided a link between the two horror hosts as did Sir Cecil’s occasional mentioning of his friend Dr. Lucifur, thereby acknowledging that Nashville’s horror hosts existed in the same universe. Bramming even made one on-camera appearance as Lucifur in an episode of Creature Feature, which each week was scripted by WSM weatherman Pat Sajak, years before he too became a noted TV host.
Dr. Lucifur’s latter-day radio incarnations in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s included his voicing a safe-driving public-service announcement for the Tennessee Department of Safety (“Don’t spill your blood on the highway!”) and his annual resurrection on Halloween to host a broadcast of Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds radio drama on WAMB-AM 1200, Nashville’s big-band/easy-listening station. Bramming was the mid-day announcer and program director at WAMB from 1979 until 1997.
The first annual World Horror Convention was held in Nashville in 1991, and both Ken Bramming and Russ McCown were there. The horror hosts appeared together in a panel discussion about their years as Dr. Lucifur and Sir Cecil Creape, and each man re-created his character’s distinctive laugh for the delighted audience. The horror-hosts panel was a once-in-a-lifetime event, for McCown died several years later—and Bramming, a lifelong smoker, succumbed to lung cancer in mid-1997. In the late 1990s and continuing to the present, Dr. Gangrene (Larry Underwood), Nashville’s next great horror host, began keeping Lucifur and Creape alive by mentioning them on his award-winning horror-movie show, Chiller Cinema, later renamed Creature Feature, and on his Internet website.
Despite the passing of Ken Bramming, the immortal Dr. Lucifur lived again on Nashville television on Thanksgiving night 2003 and 2004. In 2003, WKRN-TV 2 celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a documentary, an all-day Thanksgiving cornucopia of classic TV shows, and a new edition of Shock Theater. That night at 10:30, Dr. Lucifur once again strolled up to the lamppost and welcomed viewers before Channel 2 showed The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. On Thanksgiving night 2004, Dr. Lucifur’s “intro and outro” began and ended a telecast of House on Haunted Hill.
In October 2006, the independent documentary film American Scary premiered at the Hollywood Film Festival. American Scary traced the rich history of mid-century TV horror hosts, from Zacherley, Ghoulardi, and Vampira to Dr. Lucifur, Sir Cecil Creape, and Dr. Gangrene, and it revealed how the horror-host legacy lives on today through public-access television, video and DVD, and Internet websites. Although his innovative live skits now exist only in the fond memories of long-ago viewers, Dr. Lucifur, Nashville TV’s tasteful Transylvanian, will live forever.