Elvis Presley’s first television appearance. The first decade of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Super Bowl II. These are just some of the early television moments lost to time before the advent of home video.
And while it isn’t quite as historic, you can add to that list the 1970-’76 run of Richmond’s own beloved “Shock Theater.”
The weekly, late-night horror movie show was hosted by local comedy icon the Bowman Body, on ABC television affiliate WXEX Channel 8, now WRIC. The role was played by Bill Bowman, who at 80 can be heard as a weekday morning radio host on Hopewell’s WHAP-AM 1340.
“Shock Theater” ran weekends on WXEX, where Bowman worked as a production manager. As he changed jobs he revived the show as “Cobweb Theatre” on WVIR in Charlottesville from 1977 to 1979, and as “Monsterpiece Theatre” on WNVC in Northern Virginia until 1984. (He later worked as the longtime production manager for WCVE public television’s studio at the General Assembly.)
Three decades later, Bowman is filming two new episodes of the show with Sean Kotz, who produced a 2011 documentary about the Bowman Body and whose company, Horse Archer Productions, also produces the nationally syndicated public television show “Song of the Mountains.”
“Bowman was the man! His ratings were through the roof!” says Kotz, 50, who recalls watching the show through static as a boy in Portsmouth. “It was a pop-culture phenomenon for the Richmond area.”
A playful, affable ghoul, the Bowman Body emerged from his coffin every weekend wearing a black cape, tux, string tie and cheap canvas sneakers, greeting viewers with, “Hi there, horror movie fans!” in his trademark squeaky voice. His face was coated in white makeup with blacked-out eyes, he sported a Band-Aid on his balding forehead, and he played his ukulele and ad-libbed jokes. When inevitable screw-ups happened or someone’s performance fell a little short, he’d drily boast, “You won’t see that on 6 and 12!”
Only 13 minutes of footage from the original “Shock Theater” exists.
“A reel of tape at that time cost $300,” Bowman says, “so I mean there’s no real logical reason why the station would have kept them. By the end of the month they would have had $1,200 worth of tape sitting in a closet doing nothing. … I don’t think anybody ever had any concept that the memory of it would last this long.”
“I’m so excited about these new episodes! I’ve never seen a full episode of his,” says Bowman’s granddaughter, Casey Bowman Miles, 27, who was raised by her grandparents and calls Bowman “Daddy.”
Lead singer for the Petersburg ’80s cover band, Off the Record, Miles says her grandfather still gets recognized, even vacationing in the Bahamas.
“Everywhere that we go, at some point someone comes up to him and knows who he is and talks to him,” she says. “I don’t think he realizes how special he is to everyone. … He’s an amazing man and he’s very thankful for this opportunity. It’s a really wonderful gift that Sean has given him to breathe life back into [the show]. We’re very excited.”
Bowman will film host segments for the two episodes Aug. 8 at the Ashland Theatre with a studio audience — a first. In fact, back in the old days, he recalls, fans would turn up at the WXEX studio in Petersburg at 11:30 p.m. on Saturdays because they thought the show was live. (It was actually taped on Thursday afternoons.)
“I used to have to ask for people on the air not to do that,” he recalls.
The set is getting a major upgrade, with a new and improved coffin and a three-dimensional, faux-stone castle wall background being built by Ashland set designer Arthur Brill of Behind the Curtain. “The original set was a little on the skimpy side,” Bowman acknowledges.
The new episodes will feature appearances from former Bowman Body sidekicks Reed Woliver (Count Drac) and Tom Blalock (the Mummy) and will be wrapped around the films “House on Haunted Hill” starring Vincent Price, and “Horror Hotel” with Christopher Lee. The final products will be available on DVD from the Bowman Body website and will be screened at the Ashland Theater on Sept. 26. They’re also working on an October screening at the Byrd Theatre.
“It’s exciting to think that I’m actually going to be doing this again after all this time,” Bowman says. “I’m looking forward to working with some of the old gang who were on the old shows. It’s going to be fun.”
And it isn’t something he ever thought would happen, he says, quipping, “I don’t think I’ll wait another 31 [years] to do the next ones.” S
Tickets for the Aug. 8 tapings of Shock Theater — at the Ashland Theater, 205 England St. in Ashland — are $10 at thebowmanbody.com gift shop, and include both the 10 a.m.-noon and 2-4 p.m. tapings. For an extra $3, fans can catch the documentary, “Hi There Horror Movie Fans!” at 8 p.m.