Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Certain Ethnic Horror Host - An interview with "Big Chuck" Schodowski

This interview originally appeared on the old Utter Trash website in August of 2004. Since that time, the late night "Big Chuck" and Lil' John Show was cancelled. There have been a few revivals of the program as a daytime show on weekends showing skits only, with Chuck and John still hosting. Check your local schedules.

With that in mind, this interview is presented as it originally ran. A few things are no longer relevant, but since this deals with Cleveland TV history, most of it still applies. Enjoy!

Chuck Schodowski has been an institution on Cleveland late-night television for decades. When the Ghoulardi show went on the air in February of 1963, Chuck was working behind the scenes. Eventually, Ernie Anderson, the man who played Ghoulardi, coerced Chuck into appearing in a few skits. Then, when Ernie left the show in 1966, Chuck and TV8 weather man Bob “Hoolihan” Wells became the new hosts of the station’s late night movie program. Wells eventually moved on, but Chuck continued, sharing the hosting duties with John “Lil’ John” Rinaldi since 1979. It’s a track record unrivaled by any other local television program, and generations of Clevelanders have grown up watching Schodowski host movies and act in comedy skits. Chuck easily has enough good stories to fill a book, and in fact did just that in in 2008 when his autobiography, 'Big Chuck! My Favorite Stories from 47 Years on Cleveland TV' was published.

Utter Trash: How did you start working on the Ghoulardi show?

Big Chuck: I started my TV career in 1960. I was a summer replacement at channel 3. When I went there, Ernie Anderson was a booth announcer. I only worked there a few months and then went to channel 8 in the fall. Ernie and I had gotten to know each other at channel 3.

In 1961, Ernie came to channel 8 because they wanted to do an afternoon movie show, and they asked Ernie if he was interested. He said only if he could bring his director, Tom (now Tim) Conway. He wasn’t a director, though. Ernie lied. Tom used to write for The Big Wilson Show and all that, and Ernie wanted him there to help with the writing. So they brought Tom over as a director, and after a short while they caught on. They were both doing comedy skits on the show, Ernie’s Place. I got to know them very well.

Then about 1962 I was in the tape room and showed some of their skits to Rosemarie from the Dick Van Dyke show. She took the tape to Steve Allen. He saw it and said, “They’re funny. I want the little fat guy. I can do the other guy’s part.” So Conway went to be on the Steve Allen show and eventually McHale’s Navy. About that time the station wanted Ernie to host a late night movie show. He was still under contract, but the afternoon show wasn’t making it. So that’s when Ghoulardi began.

Ernie and I had become very good friends by the time he started Ghoulardi in February of 1963. I worked on the show with him doing mail, getting sound effects, and dropping things into the movies. All the music on the show back then was mine, because Ernie liked “big band” stuff. Before I got into TV, I worked in a foundry on the night shift, and I was the only white guy there. They listened to rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues, the Moondog show, so I got to really like that music. We used that almost exclusively on the show for the first year.

So I worked very closely with Ernie, and he wanted me to get on the show. But I wanted no part of being on camera. I played for the Ghoulardi All Stars, and was a pretty good athlete – that’s where I got the name “Big Chuck”. It’s just an affectionate name, because I’m not that big. I’m only about 6 feet. One time I was in the announcing booth. There’s a glass window, and Ernie saw me and said over the phone, “What size shirt do you wear?” I said why? He said, “Just what size. What size pants.” And I said, “Ernie, I’m not going to do anything on the air.”

What he did was he got me a Cleveland Indians’ uniform. He wanted me to pretend I was the Indians’ batting coach. I was nervous and didn’t want to do it, but he threatened to get these big guys to change my clothes for me, so I figured it would be easier to just do it myself. At that time, the Mets were the worst team in baseball. I was supposed to explain that I was the new batting coach coming in to the Indians from the Mets, and because I was so nervous doing it, it only seemed more realistic. I’d keep trying to hit a ball and missing it. Ernie thought it was the most hilarious thing he’d ever seen, so he kept bugging me to do stuff and it got easier and easier to do. Ernie did a lot of skits when he was Ghoulardi. A lot of people don’t remember that. He liked to do skits.

So eventually Ernie left for Hollywood in August of 1966. He taped a few shows. He came back and taped ‘em, so he was on the air until September. The station held a big audition for someone to replace him. Hoolie and I were pretty good buddies, he’d just come to the station from Nebraska. He wanted to audition for the show, and he knew I worked with Ernie and I wrote a lot of stuff, so he asked me to help him. So we did about 4 or 5 short skits and brought them to the audition.

I figured that would be great. If he gets this thing then I’ll be able to do some skits. I think every DJ in Cleveland auditioned. The station decided they wanted me and Hoolie. I said that’s great, but what do you mean? They said, “We want you to be partners.” I was just so nervous, and was sure I was going to embarrass my family. But I figured it would only last a few weeks, so what the hell. So we did it. And here we are almost 40 years later.

UT: You’re actually the longest continuously running local TV program in the country, right?

BC: In the world, yeah. And I think, I was talking to Tim Conway, and he thinks we may the longest running show of any kind. The only one that even comes close is ‘Face the Nation’, but he seems to think they were off the air for a year. I never checked into it. But you could easily say we’re the longest running show of our kind in the history of television.

UT: When you and Hoolie first got the job, was there any pressure from the station for you to create characters similar to Ghoulardi?

BC: No. They knew that I had a huge input on Ernie’s show, so they sort of trusted me to produce it. When Hoolie wanted to do the audition, he was going to come out in the beard and all that, and be exactly like Ghoulardi, and then we’d appear in the skits. I told him I didn’t think that was a good idea. I think he did something like that at the audition and led into our skits, but the station told him the same thing I did, that it wouldn’t be a good idea to try to copy him.

So it was up to me to try and think of what format we could have. I think our first few shows we were sort of like roommates, much like the Odd Couple. We’d just be watching the movie and leading into the skits. Then we had an old casket we’d use instead of a table. We were getting into the “creature” stuff. Kids were sending us all kind of ghoulish posters, because we did have a lot of horror films at the time. We sort of modified it as we got other movies besides horror movies. We got more sci-fi and other stuff, a mixture. We were still more sci-fi and horror than anything else. So I sort of did the set differently. Made it more generic like a movie theatre with movie posters. We still have a huge audience that wants horror films, and every time we run one, they respond.

UT: How did Bob Wells get his nickname of Hoolihan?

BC: Before he came here, our station was looking to get someone to do the weather. In their search, they went to some convention somewhere, and the program manager at the time, Tim Days, was in a hotel room and saw this guy come on who was “Hoolihan the Weather Man”. He thought that was so catchy. So when they hired Bob Wells, they said, “You’re name is going to be Hoolihan”. Bob hated that. He’s a little theatre nut. He goes for procedure and how things should be in showbiz, and if you’re the star you get billed first. He just didn’t want to change his name. He was irritated, because especially when we started our show, no one would call him anything but Hoolihan. Even I call him Hoolie.

UT: So how much input do you have on what movies you show? When I watched as a kid, you had not just all the classic horror and sci-fi movies, but things like Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan movies. The movies you show now are very different.

BC: Well, things just changed. The packages that were available with these horror movies have been bought up. The cheapest thing you used to be able to get were these horror movies. Now, they sort of put them in with a bunch of other movies. You can’t just select them, you have to buy the whole package. It’s harder to do that because there’s so many bad movies.

Plus, now that we’re with Fox, they have millions of movies that they own which we more or less have to run. They started a bartering system now where we get the movie with spots built in, and we get the movie for almost nothing. So the whole thing has changed. The only way you could get a horror host now who can pick the movies and stuff like that would be maybe on a small cable channel or something like that. We’re on a pretty big station, and we’re caught up in the way TV is going.

I keep trying, though, and I convinced them to give me 13 horror films that we can run any time we want. I got ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, ‘House on Haunted Hill’. Those are some of my favorites. Every once in a while I’ll throw one of those in, and we’ll usually make it an oldies night. They don’t do all that well as opposed to a ‘Rocky’ or something like that we show.

UT: Do you think kids today are turned off by black & white movies?

BC: Absolutely. I was just talking to my grandson, I’ve got 14 grandkids. We were on Kelly’s Island and I rented a movie, an old crime thing in black & white, I can’t remember what it was but I’d seen it as a kid. And we were watching it and he got disinterested. And I said, “I’ve heard that kids don’t watch black & white movies,” and he said, “That’s right.” And I said why not. He couldn’t give me any answer. I asked if any of his friends watched black & white movies, and he said now. I said, “Does anyone tell you not to watch black & white movies?” He said no, they just don’t. That’s why they’re colorizing some of these classics, which I hate. On the show, I finally got Laurel & Hardy’s ‘Way Out West’, and I was all excited about it. We were going to have a special night. It comes in and it’s colorized. I tried like hell to get the black & white version in time, but we couldn’t.

UT: That’s a shame. I think because of watching you and Superhost as a kid, it gave me not just an appreciation of horror and science fiction films, but for black & white and older movies in general.

BC: People don’t understand that those are great movies. Using the black & white, they had all kinds of special lighting they had to do. They had all kinds of shadows. When you colorize them, you lose all that. You’re actually taking a step backwards in the artistic value.

UT: Some of the best known skits on your show are the “certain ethnic” bits. How did those come about, and were you cautious about it considering the heat ‘Parma Place’ generated for Ghoulardi?

BC: When the show started to become popular, Hoolihan and I would read jokes at the end of the show. About that same time, the late sixties, Polish jokes were the big thing. Everyone would send us jokes and they’d be, “Did you hear about the Pollack” who did whatever. They were the same thing as the moron jokes, and some of them were funny. I wanted to read the jokes, but I didn’t want to say Pollack. So I came up with the term “certain ethnic”. Actually, it caught on all over the country. Years later I heard everyone call it “certain ethnic”, and I know for sure I started it. I just used “certain ethnic” because it could be anyone, even though I was Polish in some of the skits.

UT: When did you create the signature character you had with the sweater, hat & cigar?

BC: Very early, 67 or 68. I created a bunch of them at the same time. The Kielbasa Kid and that. Ben Crazy came a little later. Back then I was still an engineer full time. I don’t know where I got the energy. And then I’d do the show, tape, play ball, do benefits. Anyway, I was pressed to do something new every week, and get new characters. I actually got “Readings by Robert” and “The Kielbasa Kid”, they were mine, but “Readings by Robert” was a take-off on “Percy Dovetonsils” by Ernie Kovacs. Kovacs also had a character named “The Kapusta Kid in Outer Space”, but the Kielbasa Kid was totally different. I just thought it was funny to use these Polish names.

UT: Another thing you did, which I think was really innovative, is that years before MTV you were making music videos for Ray Stevens songs and things like that.

BC: Yeah, you know, that hit me a few years ago. I saw Ray Stevens was doing a music video and selling it for Christmas. I’m looking at that, and I did videos for like 3 or 4 of his songs. So I’m looking at this promo for his video, and actually we did better. So I’m thinking, I was doing Ray Stevens music videos before he even thought of it, or before anyone thought of it.

And remember that movie ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ with Steve Martin? Way before that, I was taking old news clips, like with Nixon pulling in to a gas station. And we’d intercut Hoolie with him, like Hooie was a gas station attendant. The films were black & white, so we shot in black & white. I did several things like that, intercutting old pieces of news film. I had Stalin waving to a large marching crowd and tanks, and put myself in a tank waving back.

UT: Do you know if Ray Stevens ever saw any of the videos you made?

BC: I don’t think so. It’s amazing how many people that come here, and know who I am even though they’re not from the area, because there’s lots of bootleg stuff out there. He might have, I wouldn’t doubt it. It being his stuff, he might even have checked out the legality. I don’t know.

UT: Does it bother you that you don’t get as much credit for these ideas as you should?

BC: No, because every once in a while people like you will write that, and that’s enough for me. The people who like this kind of movie host thing, they all know it, and that’s all that matters to me. If people ask me, I’ll gladly tell ‘em I did it. I’m not really bragging, I was just driven to do this.

UT: Were you also responsible for the “Poppa-Ooo-Mow-Mow” gurning guy?

BC: This fellow that I worked with early in Ernie’s show, he was a film cutter and projectionist named Bob Soinski. He and I, because Ernie would not prepare for a show. Ernie would be at a bar next door, and he’d come into the station at a quarter after eleven. He’d be running down the hall putting his beard on, and he’d have no idea what he was going to do. So Bob Soinski and I would look at the film, and look for long scenes that had no edits where we could put Ernie into the film. And if they were short scenes, Soinski would find these goofy clips like Poppa, we’d throw him in whenever it was appropriate, or trains or cars crashing. We’d put ‘em into the film. A guy would get into a car and say, “I’ll see you”, and then boom. You see a car crashing. You didn’t know if that was in the film or if we put that in there. This was 1963 when we started doing this.

UT: When I started watching in the seventies, you had quite the supporting cast. How did you find all those people? Did they work at the station?

BC: Actually, I used anybody. In order to make myself comfortable, I’d use people I knew instead of going through a modeling agency. They’d send out real professionals, and they’d talk about how we were going to pay them, and I didn’t want to get into that stuff. So if I needed a girl to play a nurse or wear a bathing suit for a beach scene, I think I used my sister in law, and on and on. I’d used my relatives and friends. I used our photographer’s wife in skits. They all either worked at the station or I knew them or they were related. It’s easier for me to control ‘em when I’m producing it. They’ll do what I want, they trust me. But these other people want to know why, and this and that, and they argue. Spare me.

UT: One of the guys I always liked was Art Lafredo. Where did he come from?

BC: I actually got Art his job here. He was taking a night course over at Normandy High School. He liked to do pantomime stuff. He sent it over to me, and it was good. I said come on done and re-do it, so I can use it. He started doing little things for me like running errands and doing favors for me. He was a part-time house painter. For a couple years, he helped me a lot. There were a couple big specials that I did, like with Burgess Meredith and stuff like that. I made him assistant director. I kept saying to the station you ought to hire this guy, he’s really good. So after two years they finally hired him. He’s still here today.

UT: Did you look at other hosts like The Ghoul and Superhost as competition, or was it more of a fraternity?

BC: Actually, it was more like a fraternity because Ron Swede, the Ghoul, actually started with Ernie and then he worked with us. A lot of the things we do were Ron Swede’s ideas. So he helped me with my show. He became a friend, he used to come over to my house. And Superhost, I never thought of him as competition, because he would call with ideas for our show. And I would give him ideas. Once in a while we used to go to channel 43 to cut a commercial or something like that. A couple of times we were there, he was taping, and we would sneak in the background. We’d tell everyone not to tell him, and while he was on the air we’d walk behind him and take something off the set and put it on our show, see how long it takes for him to find out. One time we even took his phone booth. Clevelanders are like that, they tend to help each other more than most people.

UT: When and why did Hoolie leave?

BC: He left in 1979. First of all, he came here as the 6 and 11 weather man, and right after that they got Dick Goddard. Hoolie got bumped to weekends and fill-in. He was just getting tired of it. He’d done a lot of voice over work. He was a pilot, so he’d fly to Chicago two days a week to record stuff there. He really wasn’t available for skits anymore, and I could sort of feel that we were going downhill. He’d lost his enthusiasm.

He told me one day he had this offer from a religious station in Florida, and he was leaving. I figured I was going to quit, because it would be too hard to start over. Hoolie was always the professional, and I was the amateur. If I would get tongue-tied, I’d just shut up and Hoolie would take over, he was such a pro. He could talk for two minutes and say nothing, and be interesting, too.

So I’m thinking whoever comes in, I’m going to have to take lead. The only person would either be Art Lafredo or John, because they both had skits in the can that I could reuse. If we got someone new in, we’d have to start doubling up on the taping. Art’s personality was too similar to mine, sort of laid back funny. Lil’ John was all fired up and keyed up, and what you see is what you get. I figured he’d be better for me, so he became co-host. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks that now we had two amateurs out there. But we did alright. We struggled at first. But Dick Goddard kind of sensed that, so he would do walk-ons on the show and help us out. I never asked him to, he just did it. Then we got comfortable.

UT: How many new skits do you do these days?

BC: We do maybe two or three a year. I’m making every effort starting this fall to do at least one a month, maybe more if I can. I just want to get back into that mode and do some new stuff. If I do or not depends (laughs). I just don’t have the energy. Like I said, I’ve got 14 grandkids now, and when I get a day off I just like to enjoy my family, it’s sort of the laid back lifestyle I have. But I get the urges, and I really feel like I should do it for at least a year.

UT: You mentioned there are bootlegs out there. Why aren’t there official DVDs out?

BC: We had some things out, and they were worried about ASCAP getting on us because the music we use was ASCAP music. I said we pay a certain amount of ASCAP fees every year just because we use the music on the air, and wouldn’t that be the same? They said they didn’t know, and didn’t want to open that can of worms. We did a copy of VHS tapes and they sold out right away, then the station said maybe we shouldn’t do that.

We were owned by Storer broadcasting at the time. After that, we were owned by two or three different companies for a year, and they didn’t even want to talk to me. Then Fox took over, and they seem to feel that if I want to do it, then I can go ahead. And it’s just me not having the energy. But I want to do that, I want to write a book, I want to do a bunch of things but I just have to get off my ass and do it.

UT: So does the current management appreciate what you do?

BC: I know for sure they do. The station manager is a guy named Mike Renda, he was a salesman here. When he was a salesman he used to stop me and say, “Man, you guys are the best thing I’ve ever seen.” Now he’s the station manager. And Kevin Saliers, the production manager, started here as a tour guide. He was a huge fan, I used him in skits. These two guys would let me do anything I want. They’d encourage it. In recent years, they’ve been very good to me. We don’t get any promo spots, but we never did.

UT: What’s been the best thing for you personally that has come out of doing the show?

BC: I always wanted to be in show biz. Not necessarily the star, but I always wanted to be producing or doing something. I used to talk kids in the neighborhood into going into a garage and making a phony theatre. And I’d write some goofy play and want people to play parts. I did all that, but I didn’t want to do the acting. Being on the air was something that Ernie made me do.

But it’s so gratifying when people come up to me and say, “You know, the funniest thing you ever did…” Especially now, in the later years, they thank me for all the fun they had growing up watching. They’ll come to the show now, and I can hear guys tell their kids, “You know, daddy came here when he was a little boy. Grandpa brought him down.” So it’s like, wow, three generations have watched the same show. It’s very gratifying because people are so nice to me. It makes me feel like somebody. It’s a good feeling, especially when people tell me that it meant a lot to them. And that’s about the best thing I got out of it, because I certainly didn’t get rich. It’s a nice living, it’s a chance to be creative. When I worked in the foundry we used to make aluminum ingots. No one ever writes you a letter and says, “Hey, nice ingot.”

UT: Do you think it’s still possible in this day and age for someone to do start a local show like yours on a major local station?

BC: Yeah, I would think, because there’s so many stations and the competition is so tough. Kids today have 150 things to choose from. We’ll never see that era again. John and I and a few others are the last vestiges.

UT: When you and John retire, do you think Fox 8 will try to get someone else to take over, or will that be the end?

BC: I think that will be the end. They’re just giving it to us because they grew up with it. We can do it as long as we want to, but I think after we leave that will be it. If they did get something it would be more like some of the racier stuff Fox likes to put on late nights.

1 comment:

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