Jan 9, 2009

Bob Wilkins 1932 - 2009

On Wednesday, TV icon Bob Wilkins passed away, after having a long battle with Alzheimer's. In California throughout the 1970's, his show, "Creature Features" had endeared Bob to many viewers. This beloved horror movie show in the silver age of television featured a host who didn’t dress up as Dracula to introduce the movie, in a set that wasn’t predominately dressed in cobwebs and candelabrum. The original theme music for the show eschewed creepy organ music and instead sounded like something for “Dave Allen At Large”! What is more, the fearless host hated horror films (or at least, his monologues deprecated the movies- "Don't stay up, it's not worth it!").

He was the least assuming horror host around, in his loud suit jackets and wide spectacles, talking to the camera in a high wispy voice while smoking a cigar. Initially he began hosting films by telling viewers they should be watching something else instead! At first, producers and sponsors were mortified that he was encouraging people to switch away, but instead the opposite happened. “Creature Features” drew a large population who grew to love Wilkins’ cigar-puffing persona that introduced the films with his dry wit. (Although the cigars became a trademark, he originally started smoking on the air to hide his nervousness!)

But indirectly, “Creature Features” was tremendously influential on those in his viewing area. In addition to featuring such guests fantasy film stars as Boris Karloff, Anthony Daniels (AKA – C3PO) and (of course) “Famous Monsters” guru Forrest J. Ackerman, Wilkins also brought hopeful young filmmakers on set to introduce their little homemade epics (among them, Ernie Fosselius and his classic, Hardware Wars.)

Bob Wilkins also played himself on the big screen, in the regional favourite, The Milpitas Monster. In addition to introducing movies on Friday and Saturday nights, he would also host a kids program on weekday mornings as "Captain Cosmic", as a silver-suited spaceman superhero introducing Japanese cartoons . After Wilkins packed it in, "Creature Features" was succeeded by John Stanley, initially a “San Francisco Chronicle” writer who first began preaching the virtues of Wilkins in a 1971 column, and then hosted the show until it ended in 1984. (John Stanley also put out the “Creature Feature Movie Guides”, with capsule reviews of science fiction –horror films, filled with the same kind of punning that he used on television.)

In the Bay area, Wilkins was an institution, winning the respect of fans and celebrities alike. Despite how he talked about the films he introduced, he gave nothing but admiration and tact in his lengthy and thoughtful interviews (which would usually be featured at the show's halfway mark). Over the years, collections of Bob Wilkins footage have been made available, where fans young and old can see his entertaining show. Thanks to the advent of DVD, Wilkins has found new fans outside of the broadcast band. Amidst some of the "Creature Features" sequences, one can also find lengthy specials devoted to thoughtful and reverent analyses of "The Twilight Zone" and the "Star Trek" phenomenon of the decade (shot just when the first movie was being rumoured), as well as the hilarious "Monster Movie Quiz" (in an actual game show setting), priceless "Captain Cosmic" sequences, and interviews with such stalwarts as Ben Johnson or Buster Crabbe. All of this stuff is pure gold. And one wonders why some TV producer today with some iota of moxey can't offer up something like this, which keeps the history of the big screen alive on the small screen.

Bob Wilkins was truly an institution, and you owe it to yourself to find this footage. Visit his website for purchasing DVDs and supporting Alzheimer's. Despite not having been on the air for a quarter-century, Bob Wilkins still leaves a long shadow in television coverage of fantasy cinema.

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