If you ever watched horror movies on television during the last century, chances are you’re familiar with the occupation of “Horror Host” — the sometimes creepy, usually campy personality who introduced the late Friday or Saturday night movie with tongue firmly in cheek.
Pioneered by Vampira, who dressed like Morticia Addams and hosted KABC-TV late night movies in Los Angeles in the 50’s, Shock Hosts proliferated across the country after Screen Gems saw a nifty way to cash in on its aging library of horror films. Classic monster movies like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy were packaged with lesser movies and sent to local stations with the suggestion they air the movies using a costumed host.
One of the stations that took up the idea was WWL-TV in New Orleans and the city hasn’t been the same since.
On a Saturday night in January 1959, Morgus the Magnificent, along with his sidekick Chopsley and a talking skull named Eric, hit the local airwaves. He immediately captured the attention of TV viewers and, six decades later, continues to be a favorite in the hearts, minds and T-shirts of NOLA residents.
Within four months of his show’s premiere, Morgus would be memorialized in song. Frankie Ford, Jerry Byrne and Mac Rebennak (the future Dr. John) recorded Morgus and the Three Ghouls at Cosimo Matassa’s studio on Governor Nicholls Street. While never a hit, it plays locally on occasion and showed up on Dr. John’s anthology Mos’ Scocious. In 1962, Morgus became the first Horror Host to have his own movie, The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus.
Morgus wasn’t your typical monster or vampire show host. He was a benevolent, though somewhat high strung, mad scientist working out of his laboratory above the Old City Ice House in the French Quarter. Filled with superhuman self confidence in his genius, he would devise ill-conceived schemes and experiments that had good intentions but would always fail miserably.
I recollect one show I watched as kid in the 60’s where he created his own weight reduction clinic and during the commercial breaks he demonstrated weight-loss technologies straight out of a Vincent Price movie, including a swinging pendulum (lose weight or else). Needless to say, by the end of the show his clients had lost more than pounds.
Morgus was the creation of Sid Noel Rideau, a native New Orleanian with a wacky imagination. He did a brief stint of Morgus in Detroit where he apparently recorded a surf rock tune called Werewolf under the name of Morgus and the Darringers.
But my favorite song representation of him was done by the band Galactic on their 2010 release Ya-Ka-May. The CD’s first track, Friends of Science, samples a typical opening of one of Morgus’ shows. “Good evening my dear students, and of course friends of science and those of the higher order.” You’ll find over a dozen New Orleans artists credited in the CD’s liner notes, including Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Big Freedia and Trombone Shorty. But there’s no mention of Morgus or Rideau.
Apparently, Galactic had a hard time getting permission from Rideau but finally did with the condition that it would be uncredited. In promoting the album to Offbeat magazine, Galactic’s bass player Robert Mercurio pondered “how many people are going to get that one. I think maybe you’d have to be from New Orleans to really get that voice.”
Not necessarily. Not if you catch the distinctive voice of Morgus when he’s played on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa, this Monday (show now airs on Thursdays), starting at 10 a.m. Also, if you’ve read this far, perhaps you would like to subscribe by clinking the link in the upper right column.
Postscript: Since this post, this documentary was posted online, focusing on the original run of Morgus.