The Passing Of A Community’s Icon
A seven year old boy sits rapt, wrapped in a heavy quilt in a darkened room, the only light coming from the television, which created sporadic flashes of light and shadow against the living room walls. Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff are on the screen, emoting Roger Corman’s interpretation of the Raven. In between scenes of decrepit castle chambers and crypts of the unquiet dead, commercials for King Kwik and other local retailers burst forth in chromatically bright colors in stark contrast to the desaturated dimness of the movie.
After the vendors are done hawking their wares, a familiar black and white face appears, a gentle smile plastered across his grease painted visage. Dr. Creep launches into a faux interview or an outlandish skit that, by the grace of it’s own unpolished design, seemed funnier. Whether it was spoofing the movie that was playing or reviewing the disco moves of John Revolting, Dr. Creep, in his signature black top hat and cape, would reassure you that this was all make believe, that nothing could hurt you and that the world of horror was a landscape to be explored and not abhorred.
The nephew of Doug Hobart, a makeup artist and stuntman who had a traveling monster show back in the 1940’s and 50’s called Dr. Traboh’s House of Horrors, Barry Hobart was almost predestined to become Dr. Creep. Hobart was a master control engineer for WKEF-Channel 22 when, in 1971, he suggested a late night hosted horror show to salvage lagging ratings in the late night time slot. After submitting a tape of Dr. Death, the project was well received, yet remained shelved until the following year. On January 1st, 1972, Dr. Death made his television debut on Shock Theatre. Several shows into the series, the woman in charge of makeup got rid of the vampire teeth and changed Hobart’s costume. A name was drawn out of a hat and Dr. Creep was born.
The comedic aspect of the show was an accident. Props failed, lines were forgotten and effects either didn’t work or went on far longer than intended…which cracked the Creeper up. The whole crew decided to go with the natural flow of things and an organically kitschy comedy of errors ensued from 1972 until 1985. Throughout those years, from being a child all the way into my adult years, I would run into Dr. Creep at various events or in the most unexpected places. I remember going with my mom to the Dairy Queen on Airway Rd. to an autograph signing attended by Dr. Creep, Wolfman Jack and someone who I believe was Elvira, although it could have been one of the other incredibly seductive vampires roaming the countryside at the time. I was at the drive-in on Halloween when they buried Dr. Creep alive as part of a benefit. There was a dusk to dawn showing of B-rated horror films with periodic updates broadcasted by Dr. Creep from beyond the grave. Years later, I was talking to Philip Chakeres, owner of Chakeres’ Theaters, and we got onto the subject of that particular event…
“You were talking about Dr. Creep earlier. Well Steve, the guy who runs the drive-in there, he can tell you better… he said that one time, this drive-in actually buried Dr. Creep.” Chakeres went on to talk about what those kind of evenings entailed. “I mean, there were all sorts of things done. We used to do that stuff and we would give away Dracula Cocktail, which was just Cream Soda, and then when the movie was over, during the dusk to dawn shows, we’d give out coffee and donuts at dawn. There were some times when we ran dusk to dawn shows where the sun would start rising and the credits were still on the screen. Those were the good old days…”
The “good old days” also included a lot of local programming, creating local icons that attained their own, more homespun, brand of celebrity. The King Kwik “Brothers” (Mike Tangi), Steve Kirk, Bob Shreve, Ruth Lyons, Bob Braun, Don Wayne, Uncle Al…the list goes on. At the top of that list sat Dr. Creep. With his kind heart and his patented ‘hoo-ha-ha’ laugh, Dr. Creep was probably the most recognizable local television personality in the Tri-sate area. Black grease painted eyes and white face tended to make you stand out in a crowd…and driving around in a hearse would make an impression as well. He also used his celebrity wisely by offering his services for a slew of charities, such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Project Smiles as well as a host of many other, smaller, fundraising events. In interviewing John Higgins, a puppeteer who worked on Shock Theater, Hobart’s generous heart was one of the first subjects he brought up.
“Those years working with Creep on Shock Theatre and Saturday Night Dead were some of the most fun of my working years. Having fun and making a difference in people’s lives were key values he lived by…and we all shared. It was always amazing to see how much everyone loved him, particularly the kids.” Higgins went on to reflect on the oddity of the children’s reaction to the Creeper. “The kids absolutely loved Dr. Creep, someone they, by all rights should have been afraid of, with that white face and black eyes…they must have sensed his very kind heart.”
On the topic of benefits, John went on to reflect that, “Barry was always soliciting me as puppeteer and director of Night Vision Puppets to do freebie benefits with him for people in need in the community. I’d get Obieyoyo and other characters and appear with Creep and musician friend Garry Pritchett, who appeared a few times on Shock Theatre as the four armed bongo-playing hipster, Octo Rhebop. It was always fun, always for a good cause, and usually never involved any kind of income. That was Barry. He loved helping people, he loved getting friends to help out…and he was fun to work with.”
Dow Thomas, a comedian and writer for Shock Theatre which, by that time, had become Saturday Night Dead, had some insight into Hobart’s unerring compassion…
“The best thing I remember about Barry is that he was always kind. He was a good, I mean serious Christian. He went to church all the time and really cared about people. He did all these benefits and expected nothing in return. Some of them would be long and grueling and he would be hot in that costume, but he would talk to everybody and sign autographs.” Dow added, “He was sincere about it and he has really touched a lot of people’s lives. I think it broke his heart when he lost the show.”
Even though the films that were shown were creepy and campy, like Curse of Frankenstein or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the movies actually became a secondary feature to the show. Everyone tuned in to see what kind of Gong Show antics Dr. Creep and the crew would brew up this week. From regular characters like Obieyoyo, Duffy the Dog and Freddie Forefinger and His Phalangic Friends to skits featuring Lester Fern’s Disco Dance Studio or the Flamboyant Frankenstein, viewers were always given some of the most deranged and off the wall comedy available on television.
“One of the things we did was, I decided to have them tell me what movie they were going to show, and I would write a skit about it. Like, we showed The Valley of the Gwangi, which is about a bunch of cowboys ropin’ and ridin’ dinosaurs and Gwangi is the Tyrannosaurus Rex.” Dow Thomas related. “There’s an old man in it who plays the professor (Laurence Naismith), so I put on my old man mask and a pith helmet and played him, and I’d say things like, ‘I think I have recording of old dinosaur sounds’ and I’d start playing a woman singing and everyone would go, ‘Those aren’t dinosaur sounds! Those are Dinah Shore sounds!’”
Dow’s recollection of this particular episode brought up one of the other key players in the calamitous comedy of Shock Theatre, John Riggi. Riggi has since gone on to write for such comedies as The Dennis Miller Show, The Dana Carvey Show and, most recently, 30 Rock.
“I don’t know if you remember, but the first thing they find in The Valley of the Gwangi is a little horse…eohippus I think is what the professor says it is…it’s a prehistoric animal. Well, they put it into their rodeo act and everyone would come to see this little tiny horse…it’s a weird film. So, they would go from the movie to us doing all of this stupid stuff and it all matched.” Dow went on, saying, “There’s one point where one of the Mexicans in the movie says, ‘Hey gringo! I want my little horse back!’ John Riggi played one of the Mexicans in a skit and I had a big sombrero that Wiley (original owner of Wiley’s Comedy Niteclub) had given me and we put it on John’s head, and then we cut to Riggi in this sombrero saying, ‘I want my little horsey back!’ Dr. Creep finally goes, ‘Okay.’ So here’s Dr. Creep on all fours and John Riggi riding on his back around the studio. I mean, just think about what a good sport Dr. Creep was to get down on all fours and have John Riggi ride on his back like he was a horse.”
There were countless times when the powers that be and the rag tag members of the Shock Theatre brigade locked horns. Sometimes it was a disagreement about a skit’s content, like an incident where they wanted to show a headless Duffy the Dog on an operating table with four sets of feet, one set which would be where his head should have been. Other times it had nothing to do with the crazy house that the show had become, per se, but more to do with the types of personalities that ran the asylum…
“I remember John Riggi and I getting yelled at because we changed the weather map one time. We got up there and started putting a bunch of tornados around Xenia…they were just little magnetized things back in those days.” To sum up the tensions, Dow simply said, “We were hippies in a studio that had rules.”
John Higgins, who acted as producer of Shock Theatre as well as its puppeteer, filled in some of the blanks as far as Hobart’s other duties at the station.
“I love how his friends and colleagues at work almost always called him ‘Creep’…whether Barry was in costume or not. Anyway, Creep was the person who usually taught the new people how to operate the on-air master control. He was patient, calm, and quite adept at this nerve-racking task…and a great teacher.” Higgins went on to remember an amusing incident. “I remember sitting with him in training early one Sunday morning. We were running the Jimmy Swaggart religious show, a program Swaggart paid the station to put on the air. Creep looked at the clock, then said ‘Okay, the tears start in 3 minutes.’ Sure enough, at exactly 22 minutes after the hour, Jimmy Swaggart started crying, asking for contributions from the audience. Apparently it happened each program at exactly the same time; Creep knew the on-air job so well he could have run the station on-air with his eyes closed.”
Over the years, I have run into Barry Hobart in different locations. Sometimes he was in Dr. Creep’s full regalia, other times he was just simply Barry. I never expected him to remember from one meeting to the next, as each one was separated by a chasm of years. We spoke of different things at each meeting, but an underlying sense of connectivity to the community seemed to prevail over each conversation. In recent years, I had heard and read about his failing health and difficulty in keeping up with his related health care bills. The last time I saw him, he was attending a benefit in his honor at Wiley’s Comedy Niteclub. This was one of several benefits held to aid Barry Hobart with his mounting health care bills. Everybody was more than willing to help someone out in their time of need, especially someone who had given so much over the years, even if it was just a moment of laughter, fending off, for a moment, the darkness of this scary movie that we find ourselves extras in.
That is probably the most important thing that Dr. Creep gave to the community: an alternative to fear. While some may have jumped and cowered with a throw pillow clenched to their face when the voodoo doll came to life in Trilogy of Terror and began chasing Karen Black down the hallway with a knife, soon there would be a respite from the nameless dread, a halo of hilarity to make us feel safe, to make us feel not alone. Barry Hobart was not only an integral part of our community, he created an alternative community populated by people from all walks of life who shared in his skewed embrace of horror shows and campy comedy.
On the afternoon of Friday, January 14th, 2011, Barry Hobart passed away in a hospice facility. I had just logged onto my computer when I received the phone call telling me of his passing. After I hung up, I held my thoughts in a moment of silence and as I looked upwards, my eyes fell on a photograph of myself and Dr. Creep that was taken at the Wiley’s benefit, which sits upon the top of the armoire that houses my computer. As I looked at it, I became aware of all the other trinkets and other knick-knacks that have collected up there over the years. Books of photographs. A riot helmet from one of my old security jobs. An ashtray full of cigar tubes and bands, the cigars long gone, smoked with some of my closest friends and family. It struck me that all the other items represented momentary epochs in my life. Periods of the past that I have collected totems of so as to remember them clearly. While this may seem silly, the picture of Barry Hobart represents the constants in my life, from the present all the way back to when I was a seven year old boy sitting rapt, wrapped in a heavy quilt in a darkened room…learning a lesson that the darkness can be fended off by the light of one’s compassion.