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Video: Svengoolie Shows Us He Will Outlast The Undead

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 31, 2015 4:04PM


By: Tony Boylan

Svengoolie is moving slowly, even by the standards of the undead.

On a recent weekday evening he’s in the WCIU studio taping mail segments for several upcoming episodes of his national show, and the effects of a cold compounded by his demanding fall schedule have gotten the better of him.

Svengoolie, a.k.a. Rich Koz, 63, will typically do a dozen personal appearances in the weeks surrounding Halloween, two or three each weekend, some of them for crowds of thousand, plus another dozen media appearances. Not that he’s complaining about where his ride of nearly five decades in local television has taken him.

“Never when I started this did I think, ‘Yeah, I’ll be doing this forever,’” says Koz, who since 2011 has had his character and show broadcast to 93 percent of the nation through distribution by MeTV. “But as my boss, Neil Sabin, says, ‘what Santa Claus is to December, Svengoolie is to October.’”

Sabin is the Vice Chairman of Weigel Broadcasting, and the one who in 1994 gave Koz his longest running gig, one with a national audience, nonetheless.

Funny how that works. A guy spends 36 years playing a character through multiple cancellations and moves, goes to nearly every horror movie and comic book convention in the country, gets on a national network after 30 of those years, has a couple of heart attacks along the way, and boom—overnight he’s moderately famous.

This past weekend, for example, Sven was the headliner for a crowd of nearly 14,000 at Elgin’s Nightmare on Chicago Street, an event he’s been working with for years. Fans line up to get autographs and bestow him with gifts at annual events including his Halloween day stop at the Volo Auto Museum and private appearances where you’ll pay more than $1,000 to have him for two hours.

"Every year people stand in line down the block to get an autograph and see him host the costume contest,'' said Elgin spokeswoman Barb Kesilica, noting the event drew 4,500 in its first year, 2011, and has trebled in size in large part due to Sven. "When it comes to Elgin defending zombies from entering our great city ... Svengoolie is our Commander in Chief.''

The corny humor is infectious on Sven’s set, quite literally. As Koz excuses himself to blow his nose and reapply makeup, the executive producer makes jokes that could be outtakes from the script.

“You know the great thing about having a cold? You’re never hungry,’’ says Jim Roche, the executive producer and a long-time friend of Koz. “You think that’s funny, but it’s snot. It’s mucus to my ears.’’

Nearby, Natalie is unfazed.

The 22-year-old producer, filling in on her second Sven session, doesn’t seem to hear any of the jokes, just as she hasn’t gotten a single reference from the show—not the ones to Lawrence Welk, the homage to Stan Freburg, nor even, it seems, the one to Bill Clinton. Asked if her friends are jealous she gets to work on Svengoolie, she smiles and offers some sarcasm to underscore the heavy supply of corn on the set.

“Oh yeah, they can’t stop asking me about it,’’ jokes Natalie Japp Joyce, 22, a producer with another program. “I don’t think I’m exactly the target demographic.’’

Then, as an afterthought, she adds quite sincerely: “Actually, my mom wants to meet Sven.’’

Natalie’s mom is not alone.

Sven counts Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame and Robert “Freddie Krueger’’ Englund as fans. Along the way he has not only worked with many of Chicago’s most famous on-air personalities and rubbed elbows with celebrities from Elvira to comedian and one-time “Simpsons’’ writer Dana Gould, he did some early work with Dick Orkin, once the leading voice in creative radio commercials and considered an artist of advertising.

Koz’ career began in the most organic of ways, like any good sequel. The originator of the Svengoolie character was Jerry G. Bishop, a Chicago radio and TV personality, who hosted a late-night program called “Screaming Yellow Theater’’ from 1970 to 1973. The first Svengoolie borrowed from the counterculture of the time, blending a healthy dose of hippie with an undead Catskills comic.

Svengoolia and other "Chicago legends," photo via Svengoolie's Facebook page

In the early '70s Koz was a broadcast student who wrote letters to Bishop that included jokes.

“I was just a fan,’’ Koz remembers. “I wrote a couple of jokes that he used. Then he would ask me to do a specific gag or sketch and I would. Then eventually, with about a year left on the original show, I joined the program.’’

While the production values of the original WFLD show make the current show look almost Spielbergian, it’s natural for Koz to keep things simple and schticky because he has been there from almost the beginning. His Svengoolie, originally “Son of Svengoolie,’’ has been on the air—mostly—for 36 years now, which is more than 10 times longer than the original.

As part of the show’s self-referential humor, Bishop did the introduction for “Son of Svengoolie’’ in its 1979 debut. After running as Son of for longer than “Screaming Yellow Theater,’’ Bishop told Koz it was silly to continue calling it “Son of.’’ Koz wrote a parody of Smash Mouth’s “Walking on the Sun’’ called “You Might as well Forget About the Son.’’

You might expect a resume that includes hosting children’s shows, doing commercial voice overs, and presenting various programs that package Three Stooges shorts to include a few gaps. But Koz has earned a living in broadcast for more than four decades, bouncing between stations that include WFLD, WGN and his current situation at WCIU. He’s never had to moonlight as insurance adjuster Sven or bartender Sven.

He cites his biggest influences as Bishop, whom he considered a mentor, as well as the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, George Carlin and the old cast of “SCTV,’’ the post-modernist TV show about a cast of misfits who played multiple roles at a local TV station, much like Koz. (See video for his thoughts on SCTV and more.)

Now fans who redefine the word "avid" follow him religiously to hear insights and trivia on what sets in classic or infamous horror and sci-fi movies were reused elsewhere, what bit-part actors went on to play larger roles in key genres, or what gaffes you can pick up if you have a keen eye on your 63rd viewing of “Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy.’’

He is visible as what is known as an Easter egg—the intentionally subtle placement of something in another work, usually out of homage—“in JLA: Liberty and Justice,’’ a Justice League graphic novel. Sven’s image is visible on a security monitor in Arkham Asylum as a patient alongside The Joker, Two-Face and the Riddler.

“It’s fair to say my fans know what they are talking about when it comes to horror movies, sci-fi movies, comic book characters, all of that stuff,’’ Koz said. “

That doesn’t mean it’s been an easy ride to now having a national audience and fans that include Mark Hamill and Robert Englund. Macabre humor doesn’t just apply to the character and movie plots, but to the very nature of running a low-budget, local-origin program in the latter 20th and early 21st century. Svengoolie has been canceled and resurrected so many times it strains credibility—even for a TV vampire.

But Sven has come to a stretch of consistency, now with Weigel Broadcasting’s WCIU and MeTV for 16 years, winning eight Emmy awards and being inducted into more than one broadcasting hall of fame. He’s even on his third TV coffin now.

“Somewhere along the line, it’s started to sink in and make sense,’’ Koz reflects. “I guess this is what my gig is.’’