Sunday, September 09, 2018

Gimme' That Shoe! - An interview with Marty "Superhost" Sullivan

This interview originally appeared on the old Utter Trash website in August of 2004.

Photo courtesy of Marty Sullivan
Although the opening of the show claimed “mild mannered Henry Bookerstein” was the secret identity of Superhost, in reality it was WUAB channel 43’s newsman, Marty Sullivan, who donned the cape and tights.  For 20 years, “with powers far beyond those of ordinary men”, Superhost was responsible for bringing Saturday afternoon to legions of fans spanning all ages and backgrounds.  It’s thanks to Superhost that I saw my first Godzilla movie, and literally hundreds of horror, science fiction, and fantasy films ranging from the classic to grade z schlock.  In 1993, Marty moved to Oregon, but he still has fond memories of the time he spent as Cleveland’s own super hero. 
Utter Trash:  Are you a Clevelander by birth?
 No, I was born in Detroit.  I spent most of my early years there, or in Michigan.  After I got out of the Navy, a job presented itself in Cleveland, so I went there.  I didn’t even know where it was at first.  I knew where Akron was, strangely enough, but I didn’t know where Cleveland was.   

UT:  So how did you wind up in the television and entertainment business?
:  Being untrained in virtually anything else (laughs).   When I got out of the service, I was going to become a commercial artist, and I went to an art school in Detroit, having some facility with drawing.  The school went belly-up, it went broke, and my G.I. bill went the same way.  In the meantime I’d been doing announcing for radio and TV in Detroit, and a job presented itself so that’s the direction I went. 

UT:  When you came to Cleveland and WUAB, were you originally hired to be the newscaster?
:  I was hired to be kind of a general flunky.  I had some announcing experience, which is what they wanted, somebody to be the booth announcer.  But they wanted somebody to run camera, and keep log, do audio, and do whatever needed doing around there.  There were a lot of little jobs that you had to help with.  It was marvelous training.   

UT:  At what point was the idea broached for you to host the movie show, and how did that come about?
:  That came about when they were doing a show called ‘The Big Beat Dance Party’.  They’d play records from the fifties and sixties, and they had people there from that same era, aging people who would dance to the music like what Dick Clark does.  At one point they had the Four Lads coming in to lip synch a record, “Standing on the Corner”.  They had built a mock up set of the corner for the Four Lads to stand on while people were dancing.  I was doing what they call floor directing.  I had a clipboard, and I had a headset on so I could talk to the control room and they could talk to me.  They had me standing where the singers would be, and while I’m doing that, reading over all my notes and watching over the people in the studio, the director, who was directing this little epic, started hollering over the headset that my fly was unzipped.  Apparently, I looked extremely uncomfortable, and was doing all kinds of gyrations to see if it was, indeed.  The program manager happened to be in the control room and saw my discomfiture.  He called me into his office and said, “Come up with an idea for a movie host, and if management buys it, we’ll put it on the air”.  And that’s what happened there.   A couple weeks later on a Sunday night, after we’d signed off, a bunch of us got together and we taped the pilot show.    We presented it to management, and they said, “Okay, we’ll go with it.”  It was November of 1969 when we first went on the air.   

UT:  What made you decide to go with a superhero character?
:  I was a great fan of Ernie Anderson, and I didn’t want to go the same route he did.  Because I didn’t consider myself ghoulish, number one.  But I also knew I was not “super”, and I thought that would be real funny if I pretended to be a “super person” and obviously couldn’t do anything, including talk (laughs).  So that’s the way that was born.  I worked with a guy I knew in broadcasting, one of the engineers at channel 8, Don Newmeister.  He used to work with Ernie and Big Chuck on their shows, contributed ideas.  He and I were friends from years before, so he and I talked about and came up with the idea of Superhost.   

UT:  Like you said, you were trying to not be like Ernie.  It seems like you were trying to avoid being edgy and kind of more family oriented.
:  I think it had more to do with that’s who the character is than any conscious desire not to emulate Ernie.  I really enjoyed Ernie.  He was wild and disrespectful, and he was edgy.  I enjoyed it.  But I just did what I did, which is sort of a more broad, burlesque humor aimed at two levels; one for the kids with the silly costume, and one for the adults with the more pointed comments on politics.  My “Supe’s Civics”.  Mostly about taxes and politicians.  I did one about “those clowns in Columbus”, and quickly apologized to all the clowns who might be watching. 

UT:  For me as a kid, the format of your show was great.  First you had the a few Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy shorts, maybe a cartoon. Then two feature films. It was the perfect way to waste an entire Saturday afternoon when I should have been outside playing.  How did you get such a generous allotment of airtime?
:  I think the station didn’t have anything else to fill it with.  We didn’t have any sports back in those days.  We couldn’t afford to pay the Indians to show their games.  They figured the cheapest thing to show on television is a movie, and I worked too dirt cheap (laughs). 

UT:  Did you like that format, or would you have preferred a shorter program?
:  Well, I didn’t actually sit there through all the movies.  All I did was wraps around them.  The two pieces, the wraps and the movies, would be put together on Saturday.  I’d go in Friday night and I just did those little ins and outs for the movie, and lead ins to the commercials.     

UT:  You were also doing the news during the Supe years, and I’ve heard you would sometimes do the news dressed in newscaster clothes above the desk, and your Supe costume below camera.
:   It’s true.  I’d try to tape Supe on Thurdays or Fridays, and the news had to go live at 10 o’clock.  So if I was in the middle of taping Supe, the live news had to come first.  So I’d have to stop, change costumes, wash the red off my nose, and try to get serious again. 

UT:  Were there any movies you showed that were favorites?
:  Quite a number of them. I had seen Ernie run ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, and when I got a chance to show that it was a great joy, because so many people liked it.  And you know, the first time I got the chance to show ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, our transmitter crapped out.  The whole show was wiped out, we weren’t even on the air (laughs).  I liked some of the older ones.  I got a kick out of the ‘Starman’ movies, Japanese dubbed in English.  This guy with a little short cape and he’d get in these big brawls.  I actually saw him kick a guy upstairs once, he went boom boom boom up the stairs.  Then there was the one with Leslie Neilsen and Robbie the Robot, ‘Forbidden Planet’.  The program manager was real good at picking them.  I didn’t have any choice in the matter, they just said here’s your movies.  I said earlier that I didn’t watch the movies when we were taping, but I would watch them earlier in the week on a moviola and see where I might refer to it.  Otherwise you kind of look like a dummy if you refer to something and it isn’t there.  I always watched the movies earlier in the week. 

UT:  You didn’t do quite as many skits as Hoolihan and Big Chuck, but the ones you did were memorable, like ‘Convoy’, ‘Fat Whitman’, and ‘The Moronic Woman’.  Do you wish you could have done more of those?
:  I do.  I wish I had the wit to do more of them.  I liked particularly the record offer ones, like Fat Whitman and Caboose Supe.  But I did enjoy ‘The Moronic Woman’, too, because she was so gorgeous (laughs).  The first one we did was the one where The Moronic Woman’s arms got stretched out of shape when she tried to stop a car.  That was suggested by one of the cleaning ladies.  I just sent her a Christmas card a while back and said thanks again for the idea of the stretching arms.  She still lives in Parma.   

UT:  So you had everyone at the station helping out.
:  Anybody that thought of something.  They’d come up and say, “Hey, why don’t you try this?”  And I’d say, “Sure, I will.” 

UT:  What was the best part of being Super Host?
:  The nicest part was seeing the looks on people’s faces.  They’d come up and say, “Hey, there’s that guy from TV” and they weren’t grumpy or throwing rocks at me.  So that was nice.  The one time I got an advantage from being Supe, I was flying somewhere.  I was waiting in the airport, and some lady came along who happened to be an executive with the airline.  She said, “Oh, you’re Superhost.  I’m going to upgrade you to first class.”  I said, “Oh, wonderful.”  So I get on the plane and climb into the nice comfortable seat.  It was the first time I’d ever flown first class.  The plane gets up in the air and takes off for Detroit, then all of a sudden it turns around.  They had some kind of problem, so we had to fly around over the lake and dump fuel and land back in Cleveland.  They put us on another plane, and when they put us on the other plane I got bumped back into coach (laughs).  So much for fame and fortune. 

UT:  Any strange situations ever come up because of playing Supe?
:  I remember one time I was out at the County Fair in Berea.  We had a mobile unit by then, and we were going to tape some stuff out at the fair.  We were pulled into kind of a back area.  I changed into costume and as I came out the door, there was a bus about 50 feet away that was unloading passengers.  I glanced over there and I hear this scream.  This guy who was about 8 feet tall and about 300 pounds came running from the bus at me.  It turns out these were some retarded people they were bringing to the fair, and this big guy was a Supe fan, and nothing was going to stop him from coming over to say hi to me.  He was so huge it kind of startled me, but he was a gentle man.  He was just so excited he had a smile on top of his forehead because he saw somebody he knew from the TV. 
UT:  Towards the end of your run, the station tinkered with the format, right?
:  They took part of the show away to put Professional Wrestling on.  At that point in time they had me just doing an hour of The Three Stooges.  That was because the then station manager, a guy by the name of Bill Scafidi, decided that he could make more money selling wrestling on a Saturday afternoon than he could by showing old movies.  They may have been right, I don’t know, but that’s what he did.   

UT:  Were the ratings going down?
:  They weren’t as high as they had been at the beginning, but they were holding up decently.  I think he just thought he could make more money selling commercials for wrestling.   

UT:  When was the last show finally aired?
:  The exact date I don’t remember, but it was 1989.  It was almost 20 years to the day that it had been on the air.  It was a wonderful run, I’ve got no complaints at all. 

UT:  Despite the changes in format, would you have stayed on if they had let you?
:  I would have still done it.  I kind of thought I was wearing out my welcome, to tell you the truth.  It had been going on for 20 years, and a lot of the people who watched when they were kids were growing up.  I was not unhappy when they let me go, but I wish they would have given me more of a choice in the matter.   

UT:  There used to be all kinds of locally produced shows back when you were on the air.  Why do you think we don’t have that anymore?
:  With cable and everything, there’s just such a choice of what to watch.  You don’t have one or even 2 or 3 big channels in the Cleveland market that has all the viewers anymore.  A station like 5 or 43 is going to do what gets the ratings, and apparently what gets the ratings now is news and sports.  People can turn to some of these cable channels that feature nothing but old movies and just watch that.  It’s always cheaper to just run film or video than it is to have actual people in the studio doing stuff.   

UT:  That aside, there’s still all kinds of people who have fond memories of your show.  Are you surprised at the kind of impact you’ve had?
:  I am.  I’m surprised they still remember after all these years, honestly.  But I must have left a pleasant memory with them, which is good.  I’m always glad of that.   

UT:  So what are you doing now?
:  I got into computers shortly after I retired, so I keep busy emailing people and checking stuff out on that.  Then I got a new house and redecorated the whole thing, so I’ve been keeping busy.  I’m in Oregon now, just north of the California border.  The weather is the main reason I came out here.  I looked in an Almanac, and found out the temperatures in Oregon are more even all year round.  It seldom falls below 40 in the winter, or goes above 75 in the summer.  That’s what I wanted.  And I remember some of those Cleveland winters, and some of those Cleveland summers, for that matter. 

UT:  Anything in closing you want to say to your Cleveland fans?
:  Just God bless ‘em.  There’s times I miss Cleveland horribly, and it’s because of the fans.  People in Cleveland were just wonderful to me.  After all, they supported that foolishness for 20 years.  My heart is filled with gratitude for Cleveland.

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