If The Boogens would make me hide behind the couch, there was one show that could coax me back out – Nightmare Theater.
The show started in 1962, well before I was born, when Indiana station WTTV purchased the rights to broadcast the now legendary Shock Theater package. The package consisted of 52 classic horror films, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man, released for TV showings, from Universal Studios. The show aired on Friday nights at 11:00 pm and following the trend started by other stations across the country, featured a horror host that introduced the movies and appeared during commercial breaks. WTTV producer, director, performer, host of the three-hour morning talk show “Coffee With Carter”, and general Jack-of-all-trades Bob Carter was tasked by the station with leading the charge.
The crew scrambled to put a show together over two frantic weeks. They didn’t even have basic promotional images to work with. “We went down to the Indianapolis Library and cut out pictures of the “Wolfman”, “Frankenstein”, and “Dracula” from the movies. The library has some ‘holey’ books there and they aren’t Bibles. I know because we put the holes in them,” Bob recalled.
Just so they would have something to share with the sponsor footing the bill for the show, Bob recorded a few audio promotions, doing a spooky voice that would later be played over still images. When the sponsor heard these bits, he declared, “That’s the guy I want to introduce my commercials.” He insisted that the station use Bob himself for their regular host of Nightmare Theater. Now the onus was on the small crew to put a live character in front the camera.
During a brainstorming session, Bob came up with the name “Sammy Terry”. “Say it fast and it sounds like cemetery.” Next, they needed a costume. The wife of the salesman who brokered the sponsorship deal used some black material to fashion a cowl for “Sammy” to wear. The rest of the costume was created with a black windbreaker worn backwards, yellow dishwashing gloves with veins drawn on them, and a skull necklace. The skull like makeup and an ominous laugh completed the character.
The staff cobbled together a basic set that had Sammy seated with his legs under a coffee table to create the illusion of him sitting up in a coffin. The first couple of shows were completely adlibbed. “While the movies were on, we would be sitting around the studio deciding what we were going to do next,” Bob laughed. It wasn’t until later that the crew starting writing actual scripts and using cue cards. Sadly, from my research, it doesn’t sound like any of these early episodes were preserved outside of a few still promo photos.
The show quickly evolved, adding a haunted castle dungeon set and a real coffin for Sammy to rise out of. The costume and makeup got an upgrade as well. By the time the show was broadcast in color, Sammy Terry wore a crimson cowl and cape over his black clothes. His face had a ghoulish green cast to it that looked horrific when lit from below. The opening segment featured a worrying bell ringing twelve times while the camera slowly panned over the image of a castle down to the graveyard that lay next to it. “Ghost Girl”, as she was known to fans, faded into view holding a flickering candle melted onto the top of a skull. “In the dead of night, when the moon is high, and the ill winds blow, and the banshees cry, and the moonlight casts an unearthly glow…arise my love, with tales of woe,” she whispered.
The punster needed a straight man to play off of and so “George” the rubber spider would descend from the ceiling to give Sammy someone to talk to besides the audience at home. (George was voiced by another familiar WTTV personality, “Cowboy Bob”, recording his bits and playing them backwards and sped up.) Another little known role played by Cowboy Bob was the white chair that Sammy Terry sat in when he read fan mail. You read that right – the chair. They would throw a white sheet over Bob (or sometimes Sammy’s real life son Mark) who was sitting on a smaller chair. The actor playing the chair held up a wooden T-bar for the chair back that would slowly rock back and forth while the mail was read.
My memories are from the episodes broadcast in the 80’s when the show featured occasional guest segments to promote events around town and characters like “Ghoulsby” the butler. Ghoulsby was a regular who appeared in a zombie mask, communicated in grunts, and hopped around a lot. I remember Sammy also had a skull that he talked to that he called, amazingly enough, “Skull”. “Bob” from The Dresden Files would be so jealous. Another regular gag was Sammy’s enjoyment of his favorite beverage, a “Type O” cocktail. He would hold out a mug that looked like the head of Frankenstein’s Monster and the red liquid would pour down from above or out of thin air courtesy of a visual effect.
Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater ran from 1962 until 1989 with a short hiatus toward the end of the 70s. The show touched multiple generations as parents who grew up watching the show passed that experience on to their children. As a kid growing up in Indiana, you were aware of Sammy Terry even if you hadn’t seen the show with your own eyes. My family talked about the show and how long it had been around. There was a shared experience of hearing that creepy laugh for the first time.
Combined with Scooby Doo, Sammy was a great introduction to horror for me as a little kid. Here was this ghoul in a crypt showing horror movies, but he’s also friends with a talking rubber spider. The host tells scary stories, but he also makes bad puns. He’s showing horror movies, but nothing really super scary. These dichotomies helped ease an impressionable audience into horror films, like learning to swim by starting out in the shallow end of the pool.
I have many fond memories of Sammy Terry. The first time I saw Phantasm, one of my personal favorites, was when it was broadcast on Nightmare Theater. I was 10 and had been devouring the Three Investigators novels over that summer. I was flipping through the TV Guide (we actually had a printed book with listings back in those days) to see what Sammy was showing that Friday night. It was a movie called Phantasm with a description that said: “Three youths investigate mysterious goings on at a mortuary.” I was a bit optimistic in thinking, “Holy shit! They made a Three Investigators movie back in 1979 and no one told me? Awesome!” I didn’t get to see “Jupiter Jones”, “Pete Crenshaw”, and “Bob Andrews”, but I did watch a flick that blew my 10 year old mind.
Like many horror enthusiasts, I enjoy meeting some of our TV and film favorites just to offer my thanks in person. In 2009, I finally had the opportunity to meet Bob Carter, the original Sammy Terry. He was the guest of honor at Paranormal Fest in Columbus, Indiana’s Historic Crump Theatre.
A large crowd of fans, young and old, showed up to see him. He showed some old clips of the show and told some campfire tales, which was great to experience with a group like that. After story time, everyone was invited up onto the stage for autographs and to see props from the show like the coffin and the castle painting featured in the opening.
I can’t explain how excited I was to finally shake his hand and say, “Thank you for giving me nightmares as a kid. You’re one of the people that made me who I am today – a mostly well-adjusted adult who loves scary movies.” I’m not one to really get sentimental, but I suppose that’s exactly what that moment was. Here was a direct link to my childhood, when life was a whole lot simpler. This was someone who stirred up my imagination when I was 5 and it hasn’t settled down since. I was probably just another face in the crowd that day to him, but for me it was more than another check-mark on the bucket list.
Bob is in his 80s now and has since retired. In 2010, his son Mark took over the role. Mark has been very active making appearances at conventions, Indiana events, and even as a character in a comic book. There have been a few recent Sammy Terry specials on TV with Mark playing the role, but no plans yet for a weekly show. You can visit him online at www.sammyterrynightmares.com and on Facebook.
2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the character and Sammy Terry is still a well-known piece of local history. Not bad for a guy who started out in a backwards windbreaker and a coffee table for a coffin. I’m sure George would agree. Until we meet again, as Sammy would say, many pleasant nightmares.