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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Lurking Back: Dr. Paul Bearer creeps out the St. Creaturesburg Times (March 29, 1978)

Dr. Paul Bearer (aka Dick Bennick) rehearses at the WTOG Ch. 44 studios in St. Petersburg.

TIMES | Robert Bowden
Dr. Paul Bearer (aka Dick Bennick) rehearses at the WTOG Ch. 44 studios in St. Petersburg.

TIMES | Robert Bowden
Published Jul. 13, 2017

WTOG-44 was different in the 70's and 80's. They didn't have a giant corporation providing them with the same television shows that every city in America had. They had to fill their broadcast with content produced here in Tampa Bay and, much like every small TV station in America, they realized that a cheap way to fill time was to show twenty-year-old scary movies. These "horrible old movies" almost always had a local host to provide comedy relief during the intro and commercial bumpers of "I was a Teenage Werewolf" or "Night of the Blood Beast."

For those of us growing up in the bay area Dr. Paul Bearer was our host. With puns even scarier than the movies he showed Bearer became a beloved local celebrity and one of the best "ghost hosts" in the history of television.

This story appeared in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times on March 29, 1978. What follows is the text of the original story, interspersed with previously unreleased photos taken by Times staff writer Robert Bowden.

Dr. Paul Bearer scares up plenty of work

By Robert Bowden

Times staff writer

Anyone would approach him cautiously, as I did, slowly extending my hand in a gesture of friendship. He gripped it, pumped it a few times, grinned broadly and said through clinched teeth, "It's so horrible to meet you."

Dr. Paul Bearer was right in character.

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

There he was, in the, er, flesh, with the deep, gravelly voice, the black undertaker's outfit, the hair parted in the middle, the scar on the right cheek, the half-closed eyelids, the moustache-goatee, the skull ring, the eyeball bracelet, the ever-present cigarette.

And here I was, sans death imagery, in the studios of WTOG-Channel 44 for the taping of eight weeks of Creature Feature, the Saturday afternoon horror movies.

A minute later, it wasn't Dr. Paul Bearer in the studio. It was Dick Bennick, radio ad salesman for WGTO in Winter Haven. He was wearing Dr. Bearer's costume, but his voice was quite normal, his presence commanding. He was reading notes on a yellow pad, creative notes he had written to help him through a morning of videotaping.

Flitting about the studio was a woman in a full-length blue-leotard partially covered by a yellow two-piece swimsuit. Sue Bennick, wife of Dick Bennick and floor manager for Dr. Paul Bearer's tapings, was dressed to be "the invisible woman." A trick called Chromakey will drop out the blue during her taping.

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

The "tenement castle" set was at the west end of the WTOG studio. Flats painted as stones were the backdrop for Dr. Bearer. A fake spider web adorned the wall. The mantelpiece for a fake fireplace was decorated with a skull and a wax figure of Paul Bearer's head.

One floodlight illuminated a stuffed chair in which the Creature Feature host would sit.

Glory be, it wasn't too scary.

Every two months, Dick and Sue Bennick make the drive from Winter Haven to St. Petersburg to tape segments of Creature Feature. Dick will don his makeup and ad lib introductions to the "horrible old movies" on the show. His gimmicks are prepared ahead of time, with his wife Sue doing the artwork that transforms, say, a Pringle's potato chip canister into a Strangle's potato chip canister. Sue is very good at her artwork.

This weekend was going to be rushed. The taping had been scheduled for the previous weekend, when Bennick had all day to spare. But a balky camera had prevented all but one minute's work. A second taping scheduled the next Friday night had gone haywire also. Now it was Saturday and Dick Bennick had exactly four hours to tape two month's worth of shows.

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

Then he had a personal appointment to keep during the afternoon. Or rather, Dr. Paul Bearer had an appointment. Dr. Bearer is busy about 50 weekends a year.

Now Bennick was ready. Two cameras are used, one for overall pictures and one for closeups. The main camera's red light blinks on after Sue has counted down from five. The other camera is aimed at the Strangle's canister.

"Watching these movies kinda make me hungry and I thought I'd enjoy a little snack today. I thought I'd try some Strangle's potato chips, hee hee hee, yes siree. Let's see if they're as good as they say they are. Uhh uhh humh humh. Not bad at all. Arghhh, oh boy, one thing about Strangle's potato chips, they really strangle you. Well, while I enjoy these crunchy old, arghhh, good, arghhhh, arghhh, why don't you watch some more of ..."

In an adjacent glass booth with many small television sets on the wall, the show director is ordering the theme music up, "Fine, that's 58 seconds, looks good, okay. Roll two." The segment replays. "No problem."

One down.

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

It was a good take. A bad light reflection off the Strangle's canister had been caught before the taping began, and the canister had been tilted to kill the reflection. Little things count and Dick Bennick will catch those little mistakes as often as the director.

Bennick moves over to the fireplace to consult his creative notes. The director continues nonstop. Sue Bennick holds up a slate denoting when the next taped segment will be used. A camera records the slate on tape. "Roll one. Slating." Three sharp beeps are heard through the studio to mark the slating. "Okay. Black. Five seconds. Standby music. Three, two, one, music, lights, cue."

"Heeeh, heeeh, heeeh, well fright fans, we certainly hope you're enjoying our horrible old movie." And Dr. Paul Bearer is off and running with a sight gag about his coat.

The entire eight week's of taping is over in two-and-a-half hours. Amid the jokes, Bennick plugs Dr. Bearer's appearance this past Saturday on Hee Haw (a cornfield joke with Roy Clark and Buck Owens) and in an upcoming horror magazine (he has six pages).

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

He's been doing this characterization for 14 years now (three for WTOG) and it comes easily to him. There is no nervousness, just a sense of fun. Maybe the freewheeling atmosphere is a result of being a radio disc jockey for 27 years before he moved on to radio ad sales.

If at all possible, Bennick would like to take his Dr. Paul Bearer characterization nationwide. But unfortunately, it doesn't lend itself to syndication, since the character only introduces movies, as opposed to starring in a movie or situation comedy.

Maybe anything is possible though. After all, 14 years ago Bennick watched a TV host introduce horror movies and said to himself that he could do a more horrible job. Time has proven him correct. Now he wants a national audience for his character. Horrible as that prospect may be, he may just succeed.

TIMES | Robert Bowden

TIMES | Robert Bowden

To order reprints, license or download any Times image from this gallery, or to see other Dr. Paul Bearer photos, please visit the Times image archive.

Jeremy King

Twitter: @TBTimesArchive

e-mail: jking@tampabay.com

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