Jake Esau: Part 1

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One benefit of working on the Horror Incorporated Project is the opportunity to correspond with some really interesting people. One of them is Jake Esau, professional character actor and recovering TV horror host who did several stints over the years as Count Dracula on late-night television. Jake hosted Count Dracula Presents on KITN (channel 29) in the 1980s, and he hosted the first reboot of Horror Incorporated on channel 45 (KSTP’s sister station) in the early 2000s.
 While I’m not an actor myself I think it’s safe to say that his career trajectory was a bit unusual. He gravitated toward one-man shows early in his career, starting out with a focus on Edgar Allen Poe (from the perspective of Poe’s friend and employer N.P. Willis) and later Bela Lugosi (he would eventually bill himself as “an entire repertory theater in one”, a claim that somehow makes me imagine him touring the Old West by stagecoach, traveling with a trunk full of costumes and props). It was the Lugosi show that led, in time, to his screen persona as Count Dracula:

 

I was looking for a second character one-person show to do in 1982 and saw a clip of Lugosi from the movie “Dracula.”  I knew that I had to do him, discovered that 1982 was Lugosi’s centenary, and put together a production to perform twice in Oct. at St. Paul’s Landmark Center.  “Poe” had taken me 8 years to transform from idea to stage (nobody helped me in its generation; I was on my own and just flew by the seat-of-my-pants); “Lugosi” took me 6 months– writing the script, developing the character, and mastering the accent (as close as I could come). It was a critical success and with it I became a genuine character actor, but there was only a limited market for a Lugosi show locally.  I discovered, however, that “The Count” all by himself was marketable– especially at Halloween. I did a series of paid shows of what later became “Vampire or Victim?” for the Mpls. Park Board on Halloween Night, 1983, as well as being the official greeter and entertainer to long lines awaiting admission at the immensely popular “Ghost Manor” (the old Longfellow House in Minnehaha Park) for two weeks that Halloween Oct.  It was there that I internalized the character and developed much of the interactive shtick that later paid-off so “royally” (44 shows and appearances during Oct., 1986; 55 during Oct., 1987).  Of course, by then “The Count” was a TV star (hence “TV’s Count Dracula”).

I was lucky enough to see “Vampire or Victim?” at the old Bound To Be Read bookstore on Grand Avenue in Saint Paul in 2002.  Like many bread-and-butter actors Jake did many performances at small venues like this: libraries, schools, bookstores – whatever place might pay an actor for a couple of hours to ply his craft and draw a crowd.
 Ironically, just as Jake’s career as a one-man repertory house was gaining traction, he began battling a number of crippling physical ailments, which were never properly diagnosed and which resembled severe allergic reactions. His bouts of illness began quite suddenly (he remembers the day and time it first hit him precisely: February 13, 1984 at 4:05 pm) and plague him to this day. For a while he was so laid up he could barely walk around, let alone work. But he still possessed what might be the greatest weapons in an actor’s arsenal: a drive to keep going no matter the cost, and a canny sense of opportunity.
 Like most professional actors Jake has always been his own agent, and in the early 1980s he managed to carve out his own niche in the unforgiving ecosystem of local television.  The Count’s top hat, cloak and gaunt visage became a familiar sight around the Twin Cities, both on the screen and in the many personal appearances he made around town. His approach to the character was to play it straight and intense, but with a playful charm to it. Audiences responded well to him (though some wondered if he was a method actor being “serious”, or if it was tongue-in-cheek) and he slowly built a following around the Twin Cities. All the same he shared the lot of many horror hosts: shoestring budgets, odd hours, and (given the frequent changes in station management / ownership) a distinct lack of job security. But the results were inarguably good television:
 Just how did Jake end up hosting a late-night creature feature? He tried something that never would have occurred to most of us: he asked.

  WFBT-TV (a religious UHF broadcaster) was purchased by the Beverly Hills Hotel Corporation and became KITN-TV in a market not used to small independents nor UHF stations.  The change was remarkable, as Ch. 29 began showing old TV series and a lot of movies.

I noticed that they were playing the Universal Horror Greats, including “Dracula” (1931). One day, I called the station– asking to speak to the Program Director.  Mel House, who was both Station Manager and Program Director, actually picked-up.  I told him that I was a professional character actor who’d been watching their station and liked what I saw.  Since one of the characters that I did was Bela Lugosi’s “Count,” I asked him a salesperson’s question: if he’d be interested in the “The Count” hosting a horror series. Imagine the serendipity when the enlightened Mel, who’d grown-up and managed in markets where TV character horror hosts reigned, actually wanted me to come out to the station in Brooklyn Park to talk about it.

We set an appointment time, and I knew what I had to do.  Ill or not, I had to show-up as “The Count”!  It was a swelteringly hot and humid summer day when I got a ride out to the “boondock” suburb of Brooklyn Park in full make-up, tux, and regalia.  You might surmise how blown-out they all were to meet “The Count” himself and amazed that I could stay in flawless character the whole time.  Obviously, they wanted me; plans were made for a 14-week series (initially) to begin on 9/29/84 @ 10:30 PM–  called “Count Dracula Presents.”  In the meantime, I’d also landed a high-profile gig at the State Fair entertaining people in line and passing-by the well-known “Haunted House” attraction (a lucrative gig that repeated annually for 4 years); it was a wonderful opportunity to promote the upcoming TV series. So, despite my illness, I was very busy with the Fair, scripting/shooting the show, and doing voice-overs for the station.

While I’d done some video previously for public access cable, I found that I had an ease and facility working before the cameras and crew in that cavernous, warehouse-like TV studio; I also adapted my writing skills to a hosting and skit format, as well as producing the show myself.  The budget of a small independent UHF station was bare-bones, but the product was well-received from the start.  I coped with my personal discomfort and illness to rise to the occasion; for the initial months I commuted by bus from downtown Mpls., then later from Highland Park (“a fur piece, as the bat flies!”).  The show was renewed for the rest of the first season, and I was able to purchase a used car to get around to shoots and appearances. The high-point came in May, 1985 (the most important sweeps period of the year), when– at 10:30 PM Sat. night– “Count Dracula Presents” out-rated hated-rival KMSP’s “Blockbuster Movie” by 3-to-1 (Stu Swartz, GM of Ch. 9, never forgave me for that!).

There were high-hopes for the second season, but difficulties arose.  The station was sold again, this time to Nationwide Insurance– an even more bare-bones outfit. More and more limitations were put on me, as far as prop-budget, guests, and studio time; it took all the ingenuity that I could muster to work around such strictures. Perceptive horror fans in the audience could tell that the show had passed its zenith. There was constant friction between me and management over such things, and the fact that I was working well-ahead of schedule and “out-of-sequence” (doing different show segments at different shoots, rather than doing one complete show at a time).


Eventually the show was pushed back to a 12:30 am timeslot, which cost the Count a good deal of his audience. But for those who stayed up late, it was worth it. Even the Count’s ads were entertaining:

Count Dracula Presents disappeared all too soon from the Twin Cities airwaves, but like the Transylvanian nobleman himself, he would be back. Just how it happened is an interesting story – one that we’ll return to soon.

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3 comments

  1. Apropos of nothing, I will mention that Jake recently cc:d me on an email where he mentioned the passing of KSTP’s Rod Person. That brought back a flood of memories. Rod Person hosted an Abbott and Costello show on channel 5 in the late 1970s. It was, near as I can recall, on in the early evening on Saturday nights one summer. I went bananas for Abbott and Costello (I was around 11 or 12, probably the perfect age to encounter them) and Rod also had a serial that ran each week as part of the show (The Whispering Shadow) that held me mesmerized. Every week I became absolutely convinced that whatever dimwit red herring character they threw at me HAD to be the Whispering Shadow (Jake told me that he knew right away who the real culprit was….well, of course he did!) That summer I became a big fan of Rod Person, telling my dad endlessly what an amazing and talented guy he was (my dad probably thought I needed to have my head examined) and even years later, when I was in high school, I was so impressed when a friend told me he’d worked over the summer for Rod (doing landscaping work or something). It just goes to show, TV hosts have an impact, they become like people you know. And you never forget the things they introduce you to.

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