Bob Calhoun

Bob Calhoun
Location
Pacifica, California, USA
Birthday
June 18
Bio
Bob Calhoun is a regular contributor to Film Salon and observer of offbeat media. His 2008 punk-wrestling memoir "Beer, Blood and Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling" (ECW Press) has spent one entire week on the San Francisco Chronicle's Bay Area bestseller list.

Editor’s Pick
AUGUST 31, 2009 1:22PM

Zombies in the Outfield

Rate: 9 Flag

 
The Giants scoreboard on Creature Features Night at AT&T Park in San Francisco on August 29, 2009.

 Sitting in the outfield grass of a major league ballpark is a strange place to watch a zombie movie. But on the same 103-foot wide screen that showed replays of homeruns and strikeouts only an hour before were black and white zombies munching on intestines and other assorted body parts. The sounds of gunshots and flesh-eating echoed through the mostly empty arena, making Night of the Living Dead even a little creepier than usual. In the upper deck at AT&T Park, clean up crews swept up the trash left over from the day’s Giants/Rockies game. In the distance, the workers resembled the shambling ghouls from the film we were watching. Back on the outfield, clusters of monster movie fans huddled together in the cold San Francisco fog to watch a movie that they’d probably seen several times before; the film that taught us to board up the doors and windows in case of a zombie invasion. If the undead did rise however, all of us in that ballpark would be toast—or at least a nice carpaccio.

The San Francisco Giants promotional team has gone nuts with special events this season. There have been Carlos Santana and Manny Pacquiao bobble-head nights, two Irish nights and a singles night. Saturday was Creature Features Night, celebrating a Bay Area monster movie show that hasn’t been on the air in 25 years. From a demographic standpoint, it didn’t make much sense for a major league franchise to open its hallowed outfield to fans of a long-cancelled local TV show. I just turned forty this year, placing me at the younger end of the show’s fans. But despite short attention spans, 500 fans stayed after the game to romp with a guy in a Japanese monster suit, score glow-in-the-dark t-shirts, meet a star of Night of the Living Dead and watch the movie that launched an enduring but gruesome pop cultural mania.

Bob Wilkins
Bob Wilkins, San Francisco's almost incongruous answer to Ghoulardi, The Ghoul and Elvira.
 
I was surprised by the turnout but I probably shouldn’t have been. During its run on Oakland’s KTVU Channel 2 from 1971-84, Creature Features was as intrinsic to the Bay Area’s oddball identity as Carol Doda and the Dead Kennedys. Its host, Bob Wilkins, looked more like a mid-tier insurance salesman than the cut-rate Caligaris that were haunting the airwaves of other major cities. Puffing cigars and cracking wise through such clunkers as The Creeping Terror or The Brain that Wouldn’t Die regularly propelled Wilkins ahead of the coke-crazed madness of Belushi era Saturday Night Live in the local ratings books. NBC execs couldn’t figure out what was going on in San Francisco, but they knew it was weird.

When Wilkins left the show in 1978, KTVU replaced him with San Francisco Chronicle writer and monster movie expert John Stanley. Stanley continued the weirdness and even did interview segments with Penn and Teller and Whoopi Goldberg (take that SNL). He also directed a strange short film where he fought Chuck Norris. Despite Stanley’s zest for the show, the home video market took the starch out of Creature Features’ ratings and KTVU pulled the plug on the show in 1984.

Creature Features nostalgia has been building throughout this decade through appearances at comic conventions, film retrospectives and the release of a documentary titled Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong (named after the kooky motto seen in the background of Wilkins’ set). But I still couldn’t help but feel that Creature Features night at AT&T Park was a final good bye to the old show. Wilkins and Bob Shaw, a CF producer longtime KTVU movie critic, both passed away earlier this year, leaving John Stanley to keep the televised memories alive. While future Creature Features events are planned as well as a DVD release of the public domain Horror Express with Stanley’s segments and wrap-arounds interspersed into the film, how can any of it get any bigger, or more San Francisco, than an event at the Giants’ bayside Ballpark (following a 5-3 Giants victory no less)?

On Saturday, Stanley had help from Judith O’Dea (pronounced O-Day), who played the harried Barbara in Night of the Living Dead. O’Dea looked great but it was hard not think of how together she seemed since my only previous contact with her was through her freaking out for 90-minutes of screen time in a George Romero horror flick. And then there was that high def print of Night shown with the aid of three million LEDs and the atmosphere provided by wisps of fog creeping into the stadium.

Judith O'Dea
A harried Judith O'Dea clutching a Pittsburgh (not Colma) gravestone during the classic opening of "Night of the Living Dead."

NOTLD was really the perfect film to show at this event as no other movie was more closely identified with Creature Features than the Pittsburgh produced shocker. In those days before IMBD, Bay Area residents attempted to claim the film as their own. I remember hearing adults say that it was filmed in the graveyards of Colma (the necropolis that lies just south of San Francisco) and that Wilkins played the character of Johnny in the movie’s opening scene (they do look alike). Interviews with George Romero and other people involved with NOTLD in mags like Fangoria revealed the movie’s Pennsylvania roots long before Wikipedia became the final arbiter of all such cinema-inspired arguments.

Channel 2 was one of the first stations in the country (if not the first) to show the seminal splatter film on broadcast TV. “There’s one scene in there where the little girl hits her mom with a garden tool and I think she does it about 36 times in the movie,” Wilkins said during a video piece that ran before NOTLD on Saturday, “We cut it down to seven times and we’d get complaints. People saying, ‘Hey what are you doing to this film!?!’”

Night of the Living Dead
The opening titles of "Night of the Living Dead" on the high def, 103' wide screen at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
 
Watching NOTLD now, it’s striking how it still manages to remain a prism through which to view black leadership in America. In 1968, the role of Ben, the film’s tragic African American protagonist, reflected the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Today, because actor Duane Jones looks and sounds ever so slightly like Barack Obama, the conflicts among the zombie-plagued human characters eerily parallel the healthcare debate. Ben calmly makes rational suggestions on how to proactively meet the zombie invasion while an angry white male named Mr. Cooper (Karl Hardman) just shouts him down like a tea-bagger at a town hell. When Ben and Mr. Cooper finally come to blows during the film’s climax, it looks like what would happen if Obama slugged it out with a combination of Glenn Beck and Dick Cheney.

Judith O'Dea
"Creature Features" host John Stanley interviews "Night of the Living Dead" star Judith O'Dea at AT&T Park on August 29, 2009.
 
During a lull in the movie before the zombies storm the farmhouse, I wandered up to O’Dea as she was packing up her merch table. “Did you ever think that this movie would just keep going when you were filming it all those years ago?” I asked.

“All we wanted to do was make the best movie with what we had to work with,” she answered with a smile. “We didn’t have the resources but we had a lot of energy.” She then chuckled and told my girlfriend and me to get in out of the cold.

As the atonal music played over the film’s grainy, closing montage, we exited the arena onto Third and King Streets. We started to walk towards downtown San Francisco to catch a train home but the sight of human figures moving on the dimly lit block ahead of us made us think twice. Not knowing if the people slowly ambling towards us were the living or the undead, we decided to take a cab. We were scared.

Creature Features events are coming up including a screening of Watch Horror Films Keep America Strong at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles on October 6 and a showing of The Creature Walks Among Us with Bob Wilkins footage on October 13 at the Balboa in San Francisco. Click here for info.

Bob Calhoun is the author of the bestselling punk-wrestling memoir Beer, Blood and Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling, which is currently available at Amazon.com and wherever fine paperbacks are sold.

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Comments

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You know, I never made the connection between the black hero of NOTLD and MLK or Malcolm X. But a recent viewing (pre-election) certainly did make me think of Barack Obama (although I had Mr. Cooper as John McCain).

I liked this post!
Staying up late to watch Creature Features as a kid always made me feel so naughty, but with a call, cool and fatherly hosts like Bob Wilkins and John Stanley, I felt like I was in good hands at the same time.

San Francisco local TV has always done its own thing, and its always been the best. I guess we just don't take ourselves to seriously. It's fun in a smart and ironic way. Like Wilkins himself, sitting there in a yellow rocking chair wearing a his suit, coke bottle glasses, and smoking a cigar. Never what you expect from first glance.

Great blog Bob. Thanks for the memories. I'm glad this event was recounted for the importance it has to the Bay Area.
Loved your Post! NOTLD STILL creeps me out, and I've seen it at least a half dozen times or more, plus the sequels/remakes, etc.

"They're coming to get you, Barbara...."

Loved your tie-in to the Town Halls.
Critical Path, NOTLD is so deep. The last time I watched it was the night of 9/11. Believe it or not, A&E actually showed it at 3am in the wee small hours of the morning that day. Like, they didn't alter their programming schedule that night. What was striking about it then was how much time they spend watching TV news in NOTLD. But that's what you do when the world is falling apart -- watch TV news. Thanks for commenting.
Quoting Bob:

"The conflicts among the zombie-plagued human characters eerily parallel the healthcare debate."

As usual, a funny, interesting, unusual perspective.

And some of the central figures in said debate act like zombies. Or automatons, controlled by some evil, devious and fiendish entity. an entity that seems to inhabit a frightening, haunted house painted entirely white.

What is it about zombie movies? I have not seen one that I didn't like and would gladly watch the same ones repeatedly. Does anyone feel sorry for the zombies?

Thanks for the post, really enjoyed it, always great pictures with your posts.
Thanks M Freed, I've been trying to step up my game on the pics when I can.