As we learned in Part I, Jake Esau had made an impression in the Twin Cities hosting Count Dracula Presents; and as the toothy Transylvanian he made numerous paid appearances on the side. This sort of cross-pollination was common among local TV hosts, with public appearances promoting the show, and vice-versa. Despite less-than-stellar remuneration, a horror show host could do reasonably well financially by working a lot of live gigs on the side — and as we’ve seen, Jake was nothing if not enterprising. But his “iron-clad” contract with channel 29 turned out to be not quite so iron-clad as first supposed, and not too long after being pushed back two hours to the 12:30 timeslot by the station’s new owners, he was pushed off the air entirely.
The good news was, he now possessed a commodity he hadn’t had before: experience as a TV horror host who had pulled in solid ratings.
So he started calling local program directors. No one expressed interest — at least at first:
Walter Goins, the eccentric owner of KXLI-TV, Ch. 41 in St. Cloud, wanted to steer clear of “The Count,” yet had me come to his St. Cloud studio to do an audition tape for an old prospector character introducing western movies(!)– which never reached fruition.
Despite going off the regular air-waves, I wasn’t idle….I was also doing some appearances, commercials, and voice-overs as “The Count”– including one high-profile video promo for the new version of “Jeopardy” within the hallowed halls of Ch. 4. While there for the shoot, I found out that WCCO was planning to start a cable arm: WCCO-II….I approached the Sales Manager of the new cable operation, Doug McMonigle; perhaps the station and “The Count” could join forces? He and the GM jumped at the opportunity to get an established character for the nascent enterprise and were even interested in syndicating a “Count” package (my horror movie acumen by now including knowledge of decent public domain films around to build such a package– this was before the proliferation of cable stations that showed PD films on a daily basis).
Talk about a difference from UHF independents! Midwest Cable & Satellite went first-cabin on everything: as studio time was so expensive at WCCO, they wanted me to purchase “The Count’s” original footage from Ch. 29, drew me a check on the spot to enable me to do so, and signed a contract with me to edit the existing footage and marry it to public domain films for a “Count Dracula Presents” 13-week syndicated package (which would be shown initially that fall on WCCO-II). KITN was only too glad to dump the original Count footage (which would only have been erased and used over) on me, figuring that I wouldn’t be able to do anything with it; settle what they owed me under my “iron-clad” contract; and rid themselves permanently of a “bad actor.” The back story was that I had torn a page from the life of the historical Vlad in seizing upon an opportune strategy, and impaled my adversary through the checkbook; I landed on my”bat-feet”: a new TV gig for “The Count,” plus a nice profit on my creative property– and a chance to syndicate. Quite a reversal of fortune!
What could go wrong? A better question to ask is, what couldn’t go wrong? This is the TV business, after all:
WCCO-II was to be on just about every cable station in the Twin Cities (and there were many small ones), except for Continental in St. Paul (which held out for years). The problem was that the channel numbers weren’t uniform (actually a dizzying array of different ones!)– creating confusion in where to find WCCO-II. They printed-up a promotional photo of “The Count” to give out, and the whole back-side was a long listing of all the cable systems and the different channel numbers. Not consistent; not good.
One of my prime sponsors bailed when he realized how difficult it was going to be to direct people to the show. Also, syndication was a swell idea in the abstract, but no one knew how to do it. So they called-in a consultant who owned a video company for a meeting with me, the GM, and the Sales Mgr. … the “consultant” was of the variety that one meets so frequently in show business: he talked a good game, but it was only talk and no action. It was up to me to produce the master copies of the syndicated show and try to peddle them myself.
He spent the summer reworking Count Dracula Presents as a syndicated property, while doing paid personal appearances at parades and festivals all over the Twin Cities (eight different gigs as eight different characters, including the Count, over the Fourth of July weekend alone). He bought a used hearse and hired a driver to chauffeur him around in it; he even got a shiny new casket to put in the back. Things continued to pick up through the fall, and he did a whopping October, with 44 shows and personal appearances, and an exhausting 18-hour Halloween. And of course, the first season of the resurrected Count Dracula Presents was running on WCCO-II — assuming, of course, that you could find WCCO-II on your cable box.
Before the first snows of November had arrived, he packed up the hearse (now dubbed the Batmobile) and drove it to Phoenix for the offseason, figuring he could promote the syndicated show in the southwest and see if the dry desert climate might help relieve his ailments. Despite a good deal of effort (and sidelined for a time by an injury sustained changing a blown tire on a desert highway), the only sale he made for the syndicated Count Dracula Presents package was at KPOL-40 in Tucson. (Amusingly, Jake relates that one way he made money in Phoenix — a city where he knew no one — was by taking out newspaper ads promoting one of his characters, “Walter the Wacky Waiter” for comic appearances at office shindigs).
Returning to the Twin Cities early the following May, he found that his partner — Midwest Cable and Satellite (WCCO-II) — was unhappy that he’d only added a single station to the portfolio, and they eventually passed on a second exhibition of Count Dracula Presents. He was therefore a free agent vampire in the Twin Cities market and wound up leasing the package again, this time to KXLI Saint Cloud / KXLT Rochester, but despite the Count’s most successful October ever (55 paid gigs in that month alone) the show itself could very well have arrived at its terminus.
For Jake himself wasn’t doing so great physically. For years his ailments had remained undiagnosed, misdiagnosed and apparently incurable. He’d tried all manner of remedies, both from the white-jacketed medical world and the fringier quarters of alternative / folk medicine. An herbal tincture he’d tried yielded disastrous results, causing enormous damage to his feet and legs; he found himself unable to walk, and had to retrain himself on how to do so — an extremely difficult and painful process.
He applied for vocational rehab and received training at KFAI to be a radio announcer, an experience he found rewarding though, as he was to discover, 43-year-old radio rookies aren’t in high demand.
But he carried on, migrating to Seattle and expanding his lyceum repertoire; he now did shows at schools, libraries, bookstores and rec centers as “Hans Christian Andersen, The Storytelling Cobbler”, as well as an expanding list of other characters: Edgar Allan Poe’s friend and employer, Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Sherlock Holmes, and — after a long hiatus — Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula. Not big-paying gigs, to be sure, but when coupled with the square jobs he did (telephone sales, mostly) they kept body and soul together.
Jake, through this time, never believed that his days as a TV horror host were behind him. “TV’s Count Dracula” was destined to rise from the grave twice more, and haunt Twin Cities audiences again at the start of a new millennium.
The story behind that, gentle reader, must wait until part III.