In TV horror heyday, students and alumni ruled the crypt

top-story-horrorRemember watching weekend late-night horror shows as a youngster?

Sneaking into the living room after everyone else went to bed. Staying up well past midnight to make it to the movie’s end. Becoming a fan of the ghoulish horror host who got things rolling and reappeared periodically with the running jokes, sinister sidekicks or weekly skits that made even a cheesy, semi-scary B-movie into must-see TV.

In the 1970s the horror host genre solidified its place in American pop culture. In Green Bay it spawned incarnations including “Eerie Street with Alexander,” “Creature Feature with Misty Brew,” and “Chiller Theater with Ned the Dead.”

Each of the respective hosts was either a current UW-Green Bay student or recent grad. (Who knew the University had such a ghoulish connection to the masters and mistresses of the macabre?) All three look back on their horror hosting days with strange delight.

alex-smallIn 1971 WBAY-TV Green Bay debuted “Eerie Street with Alexander.” With a concept based on other horror-themed shows gaining popularity across the country, the producers turned to a UW-Green Bay student by the name of Al Gutowski, who happened to be working on the station’s floor production crew at WBAY-TV in Green Bay.

When production director John Hrubesky asked Gutowski if he was interested in playing the role, Gutowski recalls, “I jumped at the chance to do something off the wall,” and Alexander of Eerie Street was born.

Alexander’s early costume consisted of a cape made by a co-worker’s mom, stage makeup and his signature beard. (He still has the cape today.) He quickly ditched the makeup and relied on atmospheric lighting to set the somber, dark and ghoulish tone.

Gutowski hosted the show for two years, enjoying the program’s popularity and the connection he built with “Eerie Street” fans. When local schools would request Alexander appearances, Gutowski obliged by showing up in costume with Alexander of Eerie Street cards in hand.

Gutowski recalls when he first met his wife, Sharon, she told him that her brother was a fan of “Eerie Street,” even if she herself wasn’t so sure. (Actually, she thought it was weird, but went on to marry him anyway.) A Regional Analysis major who graduated in 1972, Al eventually left Alexander dead and buried with a successful career in media and communication that led him to become a partner and officer of the Green Bay firm Media Management Inc.

misty-smallThe second UW-Green Bay alumnus to make an impact in the world of horror was Faye Fisher-Ward, Visual Arts, Class of ‘83. In 1982 the independent UHF channel in Green Bay, WLRE, created a show that was inspired by “Elvira’s Movie Macabre,” then a sensation in the Los Angeles TV market. WLRE was looking for a female horror host, and put out a call to UW-Green Bay students.

“I had a lot of friends in the theatre department at the time and they encouraged me to audition for the part. I wasn’t a fan of horror movies, but I was excited to get an acting gig,” Fisher-Ward says.

Fisher-Ward won the audition and Misty Brew was born. The show was called “Creature Feature with Misty Brew.” Fisher-Ward’s transition to Misty Brew required vintage dresses, big hair and lots of make-up. “Creature Feature” would start with the host sitting up in a coffin; at show’s end she would lie down again and close the lid.

Fisher-Ward remembers getting stuck in the coffin at least once: “I was wearing a body microphone and I laid down in the coffin. The coffin lid got stuck and I was trapped… I could hear the crew saying ‘That’s it for today, let’s go.’”

Scary moments aside, she remembers the show had three fan clubs around the area. Even without makeup, Fisher-Ward was often recognized around Green Bay. After 30 years, fans still remember — she still gets the occasional inquiry (as for this story), and the Misty Brew character was even used as inspiration in the book, Unplugged by Paul McComas. Today, Fisher-Ward is an accomplished artist and designer who lives in the Twin Cities.

When Fisher-Ward moved away from Green Bay after graduation, the horror host crown on local television was again up for grads… until a young news photographer at WLUK-TV claimed the throne.

Steve Brenzel, a 1980 UW-Green Bay Communication grad, was outgoing, personable and, in his own words, “a bit of a dork.” No horror buff at the time, he was nonetheless up for the challenge.

Don Schunke was a writer and promotions specialist at WLUK who conceptualized Brenzel’s alter ego, Ned the Dead, and called the show “Chiller Theater.” One of the earliest influences was Dr. Cadaverino, a Milwaukee horror host of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Brenzel says Ned the Dead’s vaguely Slavik accent is drawn partly from his own Milwaukee-area upbringing, partly from Cadaverino.

Ned the Dead’s “Chiller Theater” started in 1982 and ran off and on through 2005, changing names and stations along the way. At times, the show was a ratings monster. When it dominated the late night after “Saturday Night Live,” Brenzel jokes, viewers had only three viewing options: “The 700 Club,” the test pattern or “Chiller Theater.”

Brenzel says the best part of being Ned is the interaction with fans over the last 30 years. He continues to do appearances — as “grand marshall,” he emceed the Shiocton Cabbage Chuck World Championship in September, for example — but don’t think it’s all glamour.

Makeup, for example, can be a hassle. His advice to aspiring horror hosts, “Be careful what you do at the beginning of your career, it will follow you until the end. Make your character look like you, so it is easier to pull off.” (After a thousand-some shows, Brenzel can apply his Ned the Dead makeup in under 10 minutes.)

Brenzel’ says his favorite horror film is the 1959 sci-fi thriller “Killer Shrews.” His favorite line is from the 1940 epic “Green Hell” (a film treasured today for its awesome badness): “It’s not just tissue, it’s wasp tissue.” His least favorite day is Halloween, probably because it’s harder for a professional ghoul to stand out.

Brenzel looks back on his time at UW-Green Bay fondly. He wrote for the Fourth Estate and worked at campus radio station WGBW. When asked why he thought UW-Green Bay was a common thread tying Northeastern Wisconsin’s most memorable horror hosts, he has a ready answer.

“UWGB attracts free thinkers who are not afraid to be themselves and are willing to express who they are.”

— Story and ‘Ned the Dead’ photo by Daniele Frechette

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