At the beginning of the Baby Boom, television broadcasting expanded to make boomers the first TV generation. By 1955, half of all U.S. homes owned a TV, so the next issue for broadcasters was to fill the programming day. From the early days of four-hour prime time broadcasting (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.), the burgeoning networks had grown the broadcast day to twenty hours, signing off the air at 2 a.m.
The dilemma broadcasters faced was what to put on the air after 11 p.m. on weekends, when most people (and all good Baby Boom children!) were already in bed. While the networks experimented with late-night programming during the week (i.e., Broadway Open House in 1950, The Tonight Show in 1952), it wasn’t as lucrative to them in terms of advertiser sponsorship. For the most part, late-night broadcasting was left up to locally-owned stations. The cheapest way for them to fill the time was by airing old movies.
As the 1950s became the 1960s, many stations were airing syndicated segments of movies from the horror genre on weekends in the time between midnight and 2 a.m. Some had a voiceover actor to introduce the film, then disappear until there was a commercial break or the film ended — whichever came first since it was difficult to sell late-night ad space. Most had a local host or hostess who was often dressed as a ghoul, vampire or monster themselves to introduce the movie of the night. While the hosts may have been adept at slapstick and schlock with a distinct feeling of improvised scripting, the movies were from Hollywood — often B movies but also top-rated films like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. Various regional favorite hosts emerged (such as Vampira on the West Coast).
Their success drew copy cats from other regions, to the point that several used the same titles for their programs even though each region generated their own content on either end of the movie being aired. Some of these program titles included Nightmare Theater, Creature Features, Chiller Theater and the most famous of them all, Shock Theater. Shock Theater became synonymous with the genre, so much so that the title is now considered a generic name for programs airing late-night movies from classic horror films of the 1930s and ’40s to the sci-fi and Japanese monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s.
Shock Theater began as a syndicated package of Universal/Screen Gems classics. The originally syndicated package ran from 1957 to ’59. There was a version of the movie package under the umbrella title of Shock! airing until the 1980s. Mister Boomer and his siblings were in bed long before the shows came on, though his father was a late-night TV watcher/sleeper. Mister B, a light sleeper, would wake up when the TV broadcast ended and white noise filtered into his bedroom down the hall. He’d turn off the TV and shut the light, then head back to bed.
Mister Boomer saw his classic horror films mostly at Saturday matinees at the movies, but later enjoyed them on TV during daytime or nighttime broadcasts. He was well-versed in everything from Abbott and Costello Meets the Mummy to creepy Vincent Price movies like House of Wax. There is one time, however, that Mister B recalls seeing Shock Theater. He believes he was in the third grade when a classmate held a sleepover with Mister B and a couple of his friends. After the boy’s parents went to bed and the house was dark, the group made their way to the TV to watch Shock Theater. Mister Boomer was frightened that the boy’s parents would get up and be angry with them, but that did not happen. Mister Boomer would view a Shock Theater program.
Mister B remembers that the movie that night was Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). It didn’t matter that the film was in black & white (as was the capability of the TV set); the movie scared the bejeebus out of him. There was no other movie that gave him more nightmares than that one episode of Shock Theater, watched in the dark in a strange home in the middle of the night.
Did you watch Shock Theater or weekend late-night scary movies in the 1950s and ’60s, boomers?