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”).
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.