The recent untimely passing of Leonard Nimoy has put me in an atypically nostalgic frame of mind, and turned my thoughts back towards the great unheralded time of UHF.
Back at the dawn of time, during the age of both the Tyrannosaurus and the Mastodon, television, in its infancy, only had three or four basic channels, and they all broadcast in signals over the airwaves rather than through a cable. (Now that satellite communication and entertainment is standard, programs are once again going out through the stratosphere, albeit through a much longer range and with many, many more options. Still, the more things change, etc…)
The channels were dominated by the major networks, of which there were three: NBC, CBS and later ABC. Although the local stations that received these network broadcasts and transmitted them to customers in their area were locally owned, they were under contract to the majors, as they were know, and any network programming superseded local shows, both during daytime and primetime hours.
A mainstay on morning television in Philadelphia was CAPTAIN NOAH & HIS MAGICAL ARK, a children's cartoon/educational program. (Here the good Captain stands with Mrs. Noah and members of his puppet crew.)
There were programs created locally and broadcast on these channels, but for the most part the networks held sway. (This was before the invention of syndicated programming and infomercials; back during the Jurassic period, I believe.) These programs were broadcast on what was referred to as VHF, or Very High Frequency, and occupied the lower end of the dial mechanism used to select the evening's programs. (Remote controls didn't emerge until the Paleocene Era.) Their channel numbers fell between 2 and 10 for the most part.
Up further on the dial, operating still in VHF by on a slightly higher frequency were the Public Broadcasting Stations of the late 1960s and 70s; they could generally be found on channels 11 through 15. (I understand I'm generalizing a great deal to keep this history lesson simplified. Obviously the larger metropolitan areas had more channel selections; as an example, in the Philadelphia area the main channels broadcast were on 3, 6 and 10, but you could also some areas pick up channels 5 or 7, broadcasting out of relatively nearby New York, if you had a strong enough antenna, those ancient devices of antiquity.)
But…up further on the dial, in a magical netherworld of diffuse and difficult-to-reach transmissions, were the UHF stations, UHF of course standing for Ultra High Frequency. Most major areas had at least one or two; very small, locally owned and manned stations that could be picked up on a special supplemental antenna that came with most sets. The quality of the transmissions usually varied as to distance and whether conditions, but they usually broadcast specifically to their intended markets, and tailored their programs to their viewers without thought of other regions.
(A short note: in much of what is to come, I'm using the term UHF, but the programs and individuals described could often be found on the local channels on the lower side of the dial as well. I'm engaging in some poetic license; please indulge me.)
Now, as I stated, the local channels that carried the network programming was at the mercy of their schedules and products; usually the afternoon game shows, soap operas and talk shows would pre-empt any local efforts, and the block of time each evening from 7:30 until 10 or 11 belonged to them. But the UHF channels, operating during the same 24 hour cycle, was responsible for all its own programming, 24 hours a day, seven days a week! That's a staggering amount of time to fill, and the smaller budgeted and staffed channels had to be particularly inventive with their efforts.
Of course, local sports figured frequently on UHF; fans could see their favorite local teams at their own parks and stadiums in this time before ESPN or the Sports Channel. Each station usually produced a morning show for children, complete with cartoons and a host. And each station held the license for many, may old movies, and broadcast them on a continual basis with their Tuesday Night Movies, Wednesday Night Movie, Weekend Double Feature, Friday Late Night Movie…well, you get the idea.
But between these would be local productions that drew loyal, faithful fan followings. There was often a late afternoon dance program, ala AMERICAN BANDSTAND (which actually started out as a local program before moving to the network) featuring teenagers from the nearby high schools dancing and competing for prizes. There were early morning information and talk shows that often featured cash giveaways and dealt with local news and interests, quite often hosted by the celebrity news anchor or radio DJ. And if a station was particularly inventive and had access to its own mad performers, you'd get a comedy show that echoed Second City and SNL, featuring skits and prerecorded bits of filmed ridiculousness. Both the celebrated Soupy Sales and Uncle Floyd began as local programs on UHF before being lauded on a national level. Most of these efforts were produced on a budget barely able to sustain the catering on most network series; it was ingenuity and pure hard work that made them succeed.
I commend a motion picture from some years ago, Weird Al Yankovic's aptly titled UHF. Although it exaggerates their situation for comedic potential, many of the basic details presented are remarkably accurate: the UHF station employees were a small band of tireless workers that did everything from manning the camera to maintaining the equipment to creating, producing, and editing shows to appeal to audiences of all ages. It wasn't uncommon for a station member to man a camera for a news broadcast, film and edit commercials for local businesses, then change into an outlandish costume and host a children's cartoon program, all during the same day.
Each UHF station would develop their own personalities, with frequent appearances by familiar local talent adding to an off-Broadway, collegiate show atmosphere and infusing each station with a sense of neighborhood pride and pleasure. The people that appeared on the air were friends to the viewers, known and loved as well as any Hollywood star. In Philadelphia, morning DJ Bill Webber would don a loud sports coat and become Channel 17's Wee Willie Webber, host of the afternoon cartoon show, singing the SPIDERMAN theme and introducing Popeye to young viewers. Competing for their attention on Channel 48 was astronaut Captain Philadelphia (also known in human guise as Stu Nathan), who offered youngsters THE BANANA SPLITS and THE FLINTSTONES.
Captain Philadelphia (Stu Nathan)
It was common in most markets for one person to play multiple roles at the station. Count Gore De Vol, in addition to his HorrorHosting as himself, also appeared on the children's cartoon program as Captain 20 (it was Channel 20) and the local version of Bozo the Clown, in addition to the evening's weather reports on the news. Each persona was beloved in his own way, and had their own legions of fans that occasionally crossed over into their other work.
And this was the absolute glory of the UHF channels for those with a taste and love for the Dark Fantastic: UHF was its own Disneyland, offering grim, spooky wonders to sate any appetite!
Many, if not most of the HorrorHost of legend came from UHF. Philadelphia again had the late, beloved Dr. Shock, whose call, “Let there be fright!” echoed on Channel 17 both in the late night hours and Saturday afternoons, depending on what year you tuned in. And Svengoolie, then known as Son of Svengoolie, graced the city with his macabre, outlandish presence in the early 1980s by being syndicated on Channel 48.
Doctor Shock with his young assistant 'Bubbles' (actually his daughter Doreen)
Each offered their own selection of films, depending on the library of each station, and the choices ranged from the early Roger Corman low budgeters to the classic Universal oeuvre to some of the newer independent films too specialized, unusual or gruesome to pass network scrutiny. NOT OF THIS EARTH, COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE BLOB, RUBY, BLACK CHRISTMAS, CHILDEN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF…these are just a minuscule sample of the terrors presented.
What UHF often excelled at was its selections of network programs to rerun in syndication, five nights of the week during the early evening hours. It was on UHF that you'd find classic comedies like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, I LOVE LUCY, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, THAT GIRL, and others. For adventure and mystery fans there was MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, THE UNTOUCHABLES, 77 SUNSET STRIP, PERRY MASON and IRONSIDE.
But for fans of Fantasy, Horror and SF there was a treasure trove, particularly for the very young viewers who missed the programs on their initial run. STAR TREK, a ratings failure on the network (at least to the programmers) became the cult program and social phenomenon it is today directly through syndicated reruns. There was the Irwin Allen collective: LOST IN SPACE, TIME TUNNEL, LAND OF THE GIANTS, and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. For adults there were the classics THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THRILLER, THE OUTER LIMITS, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and NIGHT GALLERY. Horror was represented by DARK SHADOWS; early Steampunk by THE WILD WILD WEST, and even comedy in the forms of THE MUNSTERS, THE ADDAMS FAMILY and BEWITCHED. And depending on the resources of your station, there was the occasional rare surprise of ONE STEP BEYOND and WAY OUT, or the 1950s British series of THE INVISIBLE MAN.
For those with a taste for the unique and unusual, there were imports such as THE AVENGERS, the wonderful though short-lived THE CHAMPIONS, the indescribable THE PRISONER, and the introduction of one of the most iconic heroes in SF: DOCTOR WHO. Yes, before it became an American mainstay on PBS, the Third Doctor Jon Pertwee was introduced to in syndication and broadcast locally on Channel 17.
Wee Willie (Bill) Webber with two of his cartoon companions:
Tobor, THE EIGHTH MAN and ASTROBOY
And then there were the special events that truly created that feeling for family and rituals of the holidays. Each Halloween, during the week before the event. Wee Willie Webber would once again become Bill Webber, donning a tuxedo and hosting five nights of classic Universal Horror films: FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLF MAN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and THE MUMMY, each with appropriate introductions and background information on each movie. (One year FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN was substituted with BRIDE, and Mr. Webber explained that Mr. Lugosi's stumbling, arms-outstretched portrayal of the Creature came about because of its supposed blinding in the previous film, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN.)
And it's here that Mr. Nimoy's death brought back memories of these stations. Channel 48 (and I'm assuming other stations across the country; it would have been incredibly generous of the personalities involved to have acted so simply for one market) had special Christmas messages recorded from the stars of their programs and broadcast them between commercial breaks. Mr. Nimoy's went, “Hello; this is Leonard Nimoy – Mr. Spock – wishing you all a Merry Christmas from the crew of the starship Enterprise!”
Rod Serling also recorded a message: “Hello; this is Rod Serling, wishing you all a very merry Christmas from all the ghouls and ghosts in the NIGHT GALLERY!” This would have had to have been prior to 1975 and Mr. Serling's sad passing, and although you can find almost anything on the Internet, I've scoured online in YouTube and other places trying to find these messages to no avail.
What brought the story of the UHF channels to a close? Not simply the arrival of cable, although that certainly helped hasten it. No, it came about more from the globalization and corporations that swept through local television markets in the 1980s. As more and more independent stations fell under the control of their network interlinking corporate identities, local programming began to disappear. It was far easier and cheaper to program infomercials and other syndicated fare 24 hours that to have the stations produce their own content.
The last local programming of any import that I can recall was the marvelous SATURDAY NIGHT DEAD, starring Philadelphia's own version of Elvira: Stella, the man-eater of Manayunk. It was broadcast Saturday evenings following SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE for six terrific years before it too was gone, like the other programs. (I fell in deeply in love with her beauty and wit, as well as the fact that SND actually showed some fantastic lesser known films, including THE SHOUT, SHIVERS and SPIRITS OF THE DEAD.)
Stella from SATURDAY NIGHT DEAD
(Allow me a moment to digress, if I may: among the many local personalities on Philadelphia television during the 1960s and 70s was a young entertainer, artist and storyteller named Gene London. His program, called variously CARTOON CORNERS, THE GENE LONDON SHOW and GENE LONDON'S CARTOONS & STUFF, would feature Mr. London with young people gathered in his studio set, which resembled a general store. He would tell stories, often illustrating them on a huge sketchpad while he spoke, bring on guests of local interest to education children on a variety of subjects, or show cartoons, mostly Disney or Mr. Magoo. He was a soft-spoken gentleman, in some ways a precursor to Mr. Rogers.
But Mr. London also had a love of the macabre, and one of the most astounding features of his series were times when he would dramatize, with him in the leading role, various classic Horror tales. Among the many stories presented were “Frankenstein”, “Dracula” (with Mr. London in a dual role as himself and the legendary vampire count), “The Phantom of the Opera”, and “She”. Mr. London also used a magical Golden Fleece that he'd found to send him off on other fantastic and magical adventures, and towards the conclusion of the series' run he adapted a version of the SF film ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, complete with performers in (at the time) the ground-breaking ape makeup from the films.
[As an aside, he also presented other classic tales, including “Treasure Island” and “The Count of Monte Christo”, each, like “Frankenstein”, interspersed with film clips from the MR. MAGOO series of cartoons where he adapted those classic tales, taking the lead role. Whatever happened to those marvelous cartoons? They're certainly do for a revival and remaster on DVD…]
It was a fantastic program, for, with the gentle and courageous Mr. London as the fulcrum, the stories were frightening without being overtly terrifying. I'm certain more than one child in the Tri-State area can probably trace back his love of Horror, SF and the Dark Fantastic to Mr. London's gentle administrations, and I thank him for that greatly and gratefully.)
Despite what might commonly be believed, I don't think cable was the downfall of the UHF phenomenon – at least not in the beginning, for cable itself, when it premiered, was in need of its own inventive programming ,and each station stepped forward with efforts worthy of UHF at its finest. HorrorHosts Rhonda Shear, Joe Bob Briggs and Commander USA all would have been right at home on local UHF stations, and it's well-remembered that Elvira, or all her national and international acclaim, got her start the same way.
Probably the very best, and the most lamented, UHF-worthy effort on early cable was USA NIGHT FLIGHT program, which ran for six hours from midnight until 6:00 am each weekend. Truly indescribable, NIGHT FLIGHT filled though six hours with a smorgasbord of programming that was unmatched for variety and Mondo sensibilities. Music videos, documentaries, experimental student films (Robert Rodriguez of EL MARIACHI, FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN and SPY KIDS had one of his first films, the delightful BEDHEAD, broadcast on NIGHT FLIGHT) mashups of various public domain films with current television archetypes (“Twin Geeks” was a re-editing of the 1951 movie CHAINED FOR LIFE with the stylistic camera tricks of the then-running David Lynch series TWIN PEAKS).
Nothing like NIGHT FLIGHT had ever been seen before or since; one human companion remembers it “…like being under the influence of low-wattage LSD; because of the late hour, 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, you were physically and mentally exhausted, and these images were just bombarding your senses, making you wonder, ‘Am I really seeing this, or just imagining it?'” And sadly, nothing like it will likely appear again; like UHF, it is gone, but not forgotten.
The sad fact is that with the current corporatization of television, both cable and satellite, despite the wide variety of channels, broadcasting is extremely homogenized, with infomercials, reality shows, clip shows and reruns filling the late night and early evening hours. While there is certainly good programming being produced, none of them have the same local feeling of the neighborhoods and people in your particular town, and very few of them have the eccentric inventiveness of the UHF era.
There is currently public access television, where many of the best and best-known HorrorHosts do their work today, but they are restricted both by budgetary concerns and the overshadowing guidelines and regulations of their station's sponsors and licenses. There is also the Internet, and quite a lot of good work is being done online by inventive independent producers and artists, but because of the nature of the worldwide web these efforts are most often directed at the world audience at large instead of focusing on their regional influences.
No, I'm afraid, like so many good things, the UHF era is gone for good, fondly remembered and sadly lamented as “the best of times…the worst of times”. In many ways it's a shame that the young, who could most easily be inspired by the madness that was UHF programming, don't have that particular resource to draw upon today, when, with video filming and editing in the hands of backyards auteurs (thanks to the growing and increasingly available technology) they could definitely blossom and flourish.
But it was a wonderful time while it lasted.
A variety of Philadelphia Television Kid's Hosts, circa 1965, probably for an event celebrating Ronald McDonald House.
(Left to right, top row) Lorenzo the Clown, Rex Morgan, Ronald McDonald, and
(bottom row) Stu Nahan (Captain Philadelphia), Sally Starr (a very popular western host that featured Three Stooges shorts), Lori Rosenblit, Don Rosenblit,
(Wee Willie) Bill Webber and Scott Rosenblit. From the collection of Bill Webber.