Fan Memories of the Acri Creature Feature!

 

 The Early Years at WQAD; a wonderfully detailed account recollected by:

Phil from Dubuque ~

The first time I saw the Acri Creature Feature on Dec. 26, 1970, I was hooked.  Its free-spirit and campy nature greatly appealed to adolescent males.  In those days, the show began with a wide shot (on 16mm B&W film) of an old white wooden two-story house (probably in a rural location near Moline).  The camera zoomed toward the front window while the familiar theme song played.  When the zoom became tight, they cut to the studio.  One camera focused on the door, while Bill Flannery and Don Raymond drug white Acri sample portfolio cases onto the set.  The routine was that Vincent Hedges invited them to his house and they were to meet Vincent along with Chuck Acri later.  So, Bill and Don sat down, made a few glib comments and introduced the film (early on the films were awful grade C sci-fi flicks).  The first break began with a 30-second segue vignette then faded to the studio.  Bill and Don chatted for a bit, pitched Acri products and then announced, “You know what time it is?  It’s time for Chuck Acri.”  Then a knock on the door, Bill or Don opened it and Chuck waved “Hi Chuck Acri Here” as he entered the room.  At first he was quite stiff, but he seemed somewhat sympathetic next to the zanier Bill and Don.

After the initial pitch, the director would fade to a continuation of the segue vignette.  The vignettes themselves followed a formula: Vincent was on the prowl and attacked some poor soul (a Christmas shopper, New Year's reveler ,etc.) and strangled them.  Sometimes he even pretended to drink their blood a la Dracula.  Emmit always followed and dragged off the body.  On http://myweb.wvnet.edu/~u0e53/horhosts.html Mark Angelcyk accurately describes one memorable vignette.  Although it sounds gruesome, it was pure high camp.  Ken always pantomimed strangulation with ridiculously stiff fingers and his head cocked to the side.  The amateur actors who played his victims could scarcely control their laughter; in fact, often they couldn’t control it.  It looked like everyone involved was having a blast.

This routine went on the for the rest of the show: Lousy film, Vincent segue, commercial, segue, film.  At the end of the film, Bill, Don and Chuck would acknowledge that Vincent Hedges was'nt going to show, so they’d walk over to the fireplace mantel to conduct some contrived “business”.  While they were distracted with their backs to the door, guess who would sneak in?  You got it, Vincent would furtively slither into his coffin and close the lid before they turned around.  Then, the trio would bid farewell to the viewers and haul the sample cases out the door.  The music would start and the camera would zoom into the coffin, Vincent would peak out and wave goodbye – end of show.  

During this period, they had several running gags during the commercial breaks.  One concerned the coffee Chuck would always bring along with him in a thermos.  Another concerned a brief engagement with a puppet character that appeared in the picture frame above the mantle.  The puppet’s not-too-original name was “Froggy De Gremlin.”  Here’s a link to indicate from whence they stole that idea: http://www.angelfire.com/ny/nyuk/froggy2.html.  Froggy was a sock puppet who sang silly songs and predominantly interacted with Bill.  Froggy appeared five or six times on the early 1971 programs.  I remember on the Jan 2, 1971 program, Bill went over the picture frame , lit a cigarette and put it in an ash tray to lament the permanent end of TV cigarette commercials the day before (they were banned as of Jan 1, 1971).

The next week, Bill and Don started displaying letters they received from their young viewers.  Some were quite amusing, so the hosts milked that for a while.  At first there were just a handful of letters on the coffee table (further evidence, by the way, that the show was quite new at the time - - there is no way it could have been on for any period of time based on the sort of response the letters both represented and received).  The hosts were clearly amused by the mail; it had yet to become a ritual.

Well, right away, my friend Dave and I had to get in on the act.  We got together one wintery Sunday in January, drafted up some goofy letter and sent it in (with 6 cent stamps).  We were careful to put four stamps on the envelope - - even though one was enough - - so we could spot it on the coffee table.  The next week, sure enough, there it was.  They didn’t read it, but we were hooked.  From then on, we put great effort into creating all sorts of parodies, artwork, long scrolls of letters and anything else to get attention.

By late January 1971, the show was deluged with letters so the hosts stopped putting them on the coffee table.  That’s when they started selecting a best letter as “Creep of the Week.”  Our second or third letter, which announced that we had created the Bill and Don Fan Club (with just three members), made it onto the air.  They actually mentioned our names (that’s captured on the tape I have).  That first on-air acknowledgment was such a big thrill that I could scarcely sleep that night.  Then a few weeks later, we won the big one: “Creeps of the Week”  We modified a Life Magazine to create a biography titled “The Life and Loves of Vincent Hedges".  Dave and I collaborated on the ideas and I did the art work (I was a cartoonist).

By the time the snow started to melt, the show’s popularity had grown tremendously.  The station started filming (16mm color) the vignettes on location throughout the Quad Cities.  By that time, someone got the idea to add the werewolf to the dynamic duo.  Since the werewolf needed a name, Chuck announced a “name the werewolf contest".  I think the winner got some special promotional items.  In the spring of 1971, they plugged the contest for three or four shows before announcing that “Beauregard Von Acri” was the winning name.

As the weather warmed, the Acri team added the promotional hotrod that still is depicted in the composite photo on your site.  During the ensuing months, the “team” regularly made appearances throughout the Quad Cities area.  I can’t attest to what they did at these appearances because we lived too far away to see any of them.  But Chuck regularly announced these appearances on the show.  Also by this time, Chuck visibly was growing more comfortable on air; hence leading to the quiet departure of Bill and Don.
 
Of note, in the summer of 1971, the show’s hosts began inviting each week’s “creeps” to appear on the show.  We won our second “Creep of the Week” award in September 1971 and appeared on air.
We received the honors through a phone call from Ken Gibson (Vincent Hedges).  My Dad drove my friend and me to the WQAD studios one Thursday evening to make our appearance.  Ken Gibson, who was a real gentleman, greeted us, gave us a studio tour and let us watch him put on his make-up and don his Vincent Hedges costume.  Ken Gibson appeared to have been the creative force behind the early show and seemed to function as a defacto creative advisor on the set.  I read somewhere that [excerpt deleted] the guy who played the original hunchback Emmitwas a WQAD cameraman, but I couldn't tell because he was very quiet and distant.  Our time on air was a real hoot: my buddy became nervous and totally clammed up while I blew the line they gave me to say.

I distinctly remember asking Ken how long the show had been on the air.  He replied that it made its WQAD debut on Halloween night, 1970.  This information, if correct, seems to conflict with some of the accounts I have seen the Acri Company post on the web.  Clearly, when we first started watching the program, the show had a distinct newness to it.

The WQAD set: it was far more substantial than what I have seen of the later iterations of the show.  When I was at the station, I took a close look at the set and it was approx 15-20 feet wide and framed entirely by 2x4s.  In fact, it had a working door with hinges.  On the left side, it featured a window with Vincent’s coffin underneath.  The door was to the front of the window (at about a 45 degree angle).  The back wall depicted weather-beaten wood paneling.  The wall displayed assorted holes that were constructed by simply taping torn cardboard to the wall (it looked good on video).  The right wall of the set featured a fireplace, with a picture frame above it.

The hosts sat around a coffee table in the middle of the room and performed before two color cameras.  It was a fairly high-quality local production and probably incurred costs that exceeded the advertising value Acri got out of the show.  As one Acri salesman told my father, “this show is very popular with kids; the problem is that kids don’t buy siding.”  I think that’s why Acri shifted to doing the show himself in front of one camera and utilizing a cheesy cardboard set.

The original Emmitt the hunchback appears in the photograph.  His primary role was to drag off the bodies Vincent strangled.  Bertie appears on the far left of the composite picture on your site.  She wasn’t on very long, and she wasn’t terribly interesting.  She sort of was a poor man’s “Hazel” (complete with references to “Mr. A”).  Since the werewolf consisted of a head, a sweater and a pair of gloves, I think multiple people played that role.  I saw a younger guy  (18-20) don the outfit when I was there, I sensed he was just one of several – whoever was convenient.  The caveman replaced Emmett toward the end of the WQAD run - - he didn’t have much impact.

We continued to participate in the show and won a third award in the spring of 1972.  That summer, however, the program had begun to grow stale and I think Acri started using utilizing standard commercials sans the vignettes.  At some point in the warmer months of 1972, the show faded away on WQAD.  In the winter of 1972, I saw Chuck and Don Raymond attempt to resurrect the show on KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids, but that version lasted only a couple months - - if that long.  Frankly, I had thought that was the end of the program, but I remember Dave telling me in the mid 70s - - after I had gone away to college - - that he saw it reappear somewhere.

 

A Fantastic Flashback by:

Dr. Jitters ~

Hazy images of vampires and werewolves linger among cherished memories of my youth.  Autumn time -- golden orange leaves cover the overgrown lawn.  The cornfields of rural Illinois have been harvested.  The air is crisp and turning colder as Halloween nears.  At school, thoughts of the Acri Creature Feature, to be shown later that Friday night, distract me.  After a long daydream day and a boring bus ride home, I'm free.  The usual post-school routine of cereal and cartoons gives way to the Friday evening ritual of a pepperoni pizza from Smiley's tavern, complete with some ice-cold Cokes.  Night falls. Mom makes popcorn in the cast-iron pot and the time for Acri's Creature Feature draws nigh at last.

The eerie synthesized strains of the theme, "Windmills of Your Mind", begins the show.  A figure enters from the left, stepping down stairs through the painted archway of an artificial dungeon set.  "Hi, Chuck Acri here!", exclaims the congenial host, holding his skull-shaped coffee mug containing who knows what.  He has entered the inner sanctum of our living room, but he is a warm, friendly soul.  In the course of business, the night's movie is announced, "Tonight's movie is 'The Invasion of the Body Snatchers'!", but first, a commercial!  The inevitable commercial spots for Acri's aluminum siding and storm doors follow.  But creeping in between the advertisements and the movie appears Vincent Hedges, the vampire. In pre-produced film segments, Vincent prowls local haunts and makes the moves on young village girls. Also joining in the dungeon antics is the bashful Beauregard, a mild yet menacing werewolf.  In later years we'd see the doors of a small, black box open to reveal a human skull -- a talking skull named Bernie!

Now comes my favorite part of the show, the display of kid's drawings and the selection of Creep of the Week.  Each week I'd imagine seeing my drawing on the plywood wall, but that was highly unlikely as coordinating the gathering of the address and the purchasing of postage stamps eluded my younger self.  I once sacrificed a one-armed Big Jim action figure to serve as a mummy.  Wrapped in gauze and liberally dotted with iodine, my mummy was to remain eternally trapped within his shoe box sarcophagus.

Probably the best part of the evening however, was just sitting there on the couch next to my Dad. Dozing off in those late hours, it was usually the sound of a woman's scream that would return me to the world of the awakened, this time the climax of 'Monster On the Campus' -- a hatchet clasped to the face of the Sheriff.  I also recall seeing 'Frankenstein' on the Acri Creature Feature, my first real horror film experience, and one I still hold dearest.  

The highlight of my Acri adventures was seeing the Creeps live at a personal appearance at our local highschool.  Dad drove me out to watch them play a game of basketball.  There was the confetti passed off as a bucket of water routine and general tomfoolery.  At the end of the game I received an autograph from Vincent Hedges and my favorite, Beauregard, beautifully penned from his rubber-gloved paw.  

All of these memories are safeguarded in a special place now, deep within my head and my heart.  May they rest there in peace to the end of my days.