When last we left Jake Esau, it was early May, 1992, and he was boarding an Amtrak train bound for the west coast. He had decided to migrate to either Seattle or Portland, in the end choosing the former because there seemed to be more telephone jobs advertised. He had a lot of experience with phone work, and it’s the sort of job that could be done in any town. At first he took a temp job fundraising for a non-profit, later landing a permanent position as a telephone sales rep for an art publisher. This square job gave him a modicum of financial stability, and time enough to build local contacts. He started doing pro-bono shows in the city in order to build his reputation and create demand.
For Halloween, 1993, I did three pro-bono Poe programs in Oct. for Seattle Public Libraries–leading to 2 paid school shows; in Mar., 1994, I did a series of eight pro-bonos for SPL again— this time “Meaty Readings from Upton Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE”; Oct., 1994, saw me do a series of 15 Poe pro-bonos for the SPL– this time for the 150th anniversary of “The Raven.” Programmers and public audiences were beginning to know who I was. In 1995, I finally started getting steady bookings from the King County Library System– which had ample programming funds. Usually using Poe first as an introduction, they’d then consider and book others. By Oct., I was ready for another big Halloween; in addition to 10 paid Poes, I was booked to do an additional 14 paid “Count” shows.
Yes, it was the resurrection of “The Count”! The Director of Public Programming knew that I had done the character, and offered me big-buck (relatively) bookings to do it again. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go through “The Count” grind again, but I found a paid driver to get me to the various gigs in far-flung King County. “The Count” being back in the saddle again and much in demand, the next several years saw me doing him quite a bit (especially at Halloween)– along with new characters and shows that I developed and unveiled– some for Halloween and some for other times of the year.
It felt good to be making a living as a character actor again– a veritable “whole repertory company in one” and the king of the one-person educational entertainment program locally.
Far from being the stereotypical actor who’s unemployed up until the moment the phone rings, the enterprising Mr. Esau lived by his wits, and here, as he had done in the Twin Cities, he carved out a niche of his own.
He developed a portfolio of one-man shows that kept him busy with paid gigs. Aside from Poe, Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair and the Count, he developed a new show for the King County Library System called “Meet Mr. Sherlock Holmes” which was a hit. As there was always a demand for actors who could do seasonal work, he added a new show featuring Clement Clark Moore, purported author of the poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”.
By 1997 the success of the Count’s live appearances led to feelers being sent out to TV stations nationwide, to see if another run at syndication might be worth taking on. In spite of some encouraging responses from a couple of markets (Tampa and Nashville), the show’s comeback was foiled by the very common pitfalls of local TV: budget cuts, friendly program directors departing, and so on.
It happened that in 1998 Jake returned to visit the Twin Cities for the first time in six years, and in checking in with local TV program directors detected some interest in Count Dracula Presents from KLGT channel 23, a religious / family UHF station which was in the process of being sold to the Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcasting chain. Jake visited the station (albeit without the costume or make-up, and not in character, as he hadn’t been anticipating an audition). KLGT’s reaction was positive but said it was up to Sinclair. Jake immediately called the new owners, who said they’d permit the station to do a four-week run of the show leading up to Halloween, and that’s exactly what happened:
The four movies (“Night of the Living Dead,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster,” and “Nosferatu”– 1922) were well-received and well-rated; the station and the website both got mail asking where “The Count” had gone. Was his show cancelled already? It was necessary to explain that the package was only a Halloween special– for now. Even though the duration was brief, it was good to be an active TV horror movie host again.
This success was encouraging, but a regular broadcasting gig seemed elusive. Even though Count Dracula now stalked the streets of Seattle and had cultivated a following on the live performance circuit, he wasn’t likely to host any TV programs there. This was due to the presence of the long-established Seattle horror host Professor Fred, who broadcast a creature feature out of a station at Seattle Community College. Program directors were (quite reasonably) dubious that the Seattle market could sustain two horror hosts. There was nothing wrong with Fred, of course, though it was all spoof – his movies were invariably bad and his research on them sloppy (Jake was always exacting in his knowledge of the movies he showed). Nevertheless, to program directors, one horror host is very like another. Barring a werewolf attack, it looked like Professor Fred was there to stay.
(Nice song, professor Fred — but Lionel Atwill played the one-armed Krogh in Son of Frankenstein, not Bride of Frankenstein!)
Jake began to feel that the Twin Cities, which was still horror-host free, offered the best chance to reboot the series. He moved back on Christmas Day, 1999, and even though it was his hometown, he was essentially starting over. A lot of his old contacts had moved on in his absence, and he again began doing pro-bono shows in order to re-establish his credentials. The trusty stand-by of telephone work wasn’t as easy to come by as it once was — Jake was by now in his mid-50s, and began to run into the sort of age discrimination that employers always insist is a thing of the past. But luckily, he heard of a new station coming to the Twin Cities — KSTC-45, a UHF spinoff of Stan Hubbard’s KSTP-5. Channel 45’s creation was made possible by a recent change in the old antitrust law that had barred broadcasters from owning more than one station in a single market (the so-called “duopoly” law). As he’d done in the past, Jake got on the phone immediately, and before long had secured a meeting with Mike Smith, the PD of the new station:
He had grown-up in Detroit, and was familiar with TV horror movie character hosts; he informed me that the Ch. 45 format was going to be nostalgic, retro, and experimental, and that they intended to resurrect “Horror Inc.” Could I figure out a hosting format in a short time and do some location shooting during the summer? Does a vampire bat fly in the woods?
It had long-been my wish to appear on KSTP, and this was very close– same building, same studios. I didn’t know how long that I could survive in the reportedly “shark-infested” Hubbard Empire, but was going to give it my best shot. We hammered-out details of a contract for me to perform/write/produce the new “Horror Inc.” (one clause to which they agreed was that all shoots were to take place on location after sunset and that my 3 promotional appearances weren’t to include the Halloween month of Oct.– both of which will be discussed later). Hubbard also agreed to a modest per-show expense budget for props, transportation, etc. A short wait followed as the contract had to be scrutinized and approved by Hubbard Legal; finally the legal eagles approved with some slight changes in language stipulated and mutually-agreed. We were finally on the same page, and ready to roll! It was exciting to be “back in the saddle” and part of building something from the ground up again. A KSTP News satellite shooting truck came for me one summer weekday evening (after sunset!), and I came out of the house dressed as “The Count”– causing a major stir in the neighborhood (it had been about 15 or so years since “The Count” and his hearse had resided in that house, and this was novel to many new neighbors). “The Count” now commenced location shooting with a crew that was actually interested, engaged, and into it. They seemed to value my concepts and ideas for the show, and I welcomed their input. Everyone called me “Count” when I was in make-up and costume, not “Jake.”
I came up with a format based on “The Count” coming to the Upper Midwest to conquer “Minnsylvania,” “Wallachsconsin,””North Dakotavia,” “South Dakotavia,” and a play on Iowa (which evades me at the moment– possibly “Cornucopia”); it might take him 45 plans to succeed in unfurling his vampiric flag over the Capitol Building, but
he would be adamant. Each week’s movie would provide specifics for the current plan for conquest. I thought that it was a clever and catchy format. The list of movies Mike showed me and asked me to select for an “H.I.” lineup were all public domain– from different packages provided by distributors and from the master collection of p.d. films that all stations in the market at one time possessed and from which duplicates had been made (Mike assured me that these films were of the highest quality, even if p.d.). Although many were “bad”(if not absolutely “terrible”), I selected what I considered the best ones and cult classic curiosities, and then scheduled them for him to give the best shot at decent ratings– especially in the major sweeps periods. I also spent additional time on every show timing out the movie segments and submitting timing sheets, thinking of trivia bumpers for buffering the transitions to commercials then back to the movie, and working with an editor in the booth to type them out on the character generator. While I was taking great pains as producer to come up with an extremely watchable product (my aim was that viewers would have a seamless experience, without ever being sure what made it so smooth; I also wished to cater to the classic horror fans in the audience, without excluding the general audience– just as I had done before for “C.D.P.”).
I had spent much time on the phone as producer securing permission to shoot at some relevant Twin Cities landmarks– including Landmark Center, the St. Paul Central Library, the Governor’s Residence, Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery on Lake St., Mpls. City Hall, the Wabasha Caves, etc. We shot much footage which proved valuable later-on as stock shots on “green-screen,” because suddenly in late summer the location truck was no longer available to us (bureaucratic News decision) and all shoots would have to take place in-studio
(which was originally only supposed to be used for supplementary scheduled time). “The Count’s” Hubbard honeymoon was starting to unravel– this being the first of many “adjustments” required in producing the show.
Now, you may have noticed the stipulation in Jake’s contract that required that all outdoor shoots had to take place after dark. This wasn’t just for the sake of atmosphere. Jake’s mysterious ailments (which seemed like allergic reactions of some sort, though they remained stubbornly un-diagnosed) now included hypo photosensitivity; any direct exposure to sunlight, even briefly, could cause a nasty sunburn, even if he covered up as much as possible. He could only venture outside unprotected on the cloudiest of days, or after dark.
The irony of a TV vampire being allergic to sunlight wasn’t lost on him. Unfortunately, his vocation made it harder to get his ailment taken seriously. People tended to assume it was all in his head, or that he was identifying too strongly with the character he played. Actors, as we know all too well from having watched, ahem, certain movies on Horror Incorporated, are a dangerously unstable lot.
But Jake persevered, covering up as much skin as possible when he was forced to venture out during the day. On Saturday, September 16, 2000 the rebooted Horror Incorporated premiered on Channel 45. Its first movie was 1958’s The Crawling Eye, starring Forrest Tucker and Janet Munro. While Jake wasn’t happy with the premiere episode due to jump cuts in the film print and timing issues on the intros and outros (he was — and is — a perfectionist) it was a good start. Horror Incorporated was back on the air — and Jake was at the helm in full Count Dracula regalia.
The location shoots gave the show an unusual and sumptuous look. Ratings for the new show bounced up and down, never settling into a predictable groove, and advertisers for the new show were hard to come by; to make matters worse the show was only being promoted on channel 45 itself. At the end of season one, Mike Smith ordered that they retire the high-concept “Count-Dracula-conquers-Minnesota” approach, and for the second season the show was recorded indoors, in Hubbard Broadcasting’s Studio B.
The new Horror Incorporated came up with some interesting promotions; the first was a contest called “Who Wants to Marry the King of the Vampires”, in which viewers submitted essays on why they should become the bride of Dracula.
After a summer of re-runs (which I selected, scheduled, and for
which I was compensated a re-run fee– per contract), it was time to
shoot the second season as a traditional horror movie host. However,
Sept. 11, 2001, derailed the whole station; the aftermath and mourning by a shaken nation meant a long stretch without commercial income. Weeks later, as things appeared to be coming back to normal, a massive “bloodbath” occurred
at Hubbard– resulting in many lay-offs. Fortunately for me, I
survived the decimation– and my contract was honored (any non-regular
employee without a contract was let-go). Morale at the stations took a
big hit, though. The second season of the new “H.I.” started off
appearing to be “snake-bitten.”
This was illustrated by an incident in Sept., when I’d been called
on the carpet by the station manager. It had been reported to her by
the Promotions Dir. that I was being recalcitrant in arranging some Oct. appearances for them. I met with her when I found out that she
was displeased, and showed her a copy of my contract which definitely
stated that none of my 3 included appearances were to take place in
Oct. (Oct. being reserved for any possible Halloween gigs and
commercials). She scrutinized the document, then seemed to resign
herself to its legalities. She didn’t appear happy as she said: “Then
let’s put this behind us.” She had been hired after I was already
on-board, had no in-put in the decision, and was not a fan of “The
Count” nor classic horror. When the time came to consider a third
season, I’m sure that her thumb was definitely down….
…In my desperation to boost and/or garner ratings, I had shown
“Sherlock Holmes” movies
during Feb. sweeps and played “Sherlock” for the bits. Before the end
of the season, my last gasp was a “Sidekick Contest,” which gained
many entries and great interest. The winner
was an attractive blonde who called herself “Lucretia,” and I
featured her on several fun-to-do, well-done shows (she had
As shooting wrapped for the second season in late April, it
didn’t take a Babylonian prince to read the handwriting on the wall
for my time at Hubbard. The last show featured Van Helsing (one of my
stock characters– very Edward Van Sloan-like) going “bat-crazy” and
staking all of my other characters! The last shot was “The Count”
resting in his casket, with a stake in his heart– and a graphic
saying “The End?”. This allowed me closure on my own terms, with a
sliver of possibility for a continuation. I threw a “wrap” pizza
party for the crew to thank them for all their hard work, left a
schedule of summer re-runs and blank contract for a third season
(should Hubbard somehow want it), packed up my remaining stuff from
the studio, and left for the final time. Only a week or so later, I
boarded the Amtrak at the old Midway Station, heading to my second
“home” in Seattle to lick my wounds and recover from my latest reign
as “TV’s Count Dracula.” I had done the best job that I could under
the circumstances; if this was to be the last reign of “TV’s Count
Dracula,” he was not ashamed of how it devolved.
While I would have enjoyed seeing Jake become a fixture of Twin Cities late-night TV, and holding court in the midnight Saturday time slot for decades, I think he did as well as anyone in his circumstances could have done. In a way, Jake came on the scene both too early and too late.
He was too late in that when Count Dracula Presents first premiered, home video (not to mention cheap syndicated programming) was already providing tough competition for broadcast movies (a trend that has only accelerated; local stations tend not to broadcast movies at all anymore). The golden age of TV horror hosts had already passed its zenith by the late 1980s. On the other hand, he was too early for Youtube and the other online conduits that made it possible for hosts to build a following anywhere.
He deserves credit, though, for ably curating classic horror for a Twin Cities audience. I thank him for that, and for sharing the story of a working actor’s life with me, and with all the readers of the Horror Incorporated Project.