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This Week In Illinois History: Svengoolie! (June 16, 1979)

On June 16, 1979, Rich Koz made his TV debut on WFLD Chicago as horror host “Son of Svengoolie.”

Each week, Svengoolie, with his thick, ghoulish makeup, signature top hat and tuxedo, emerges from his psychedelic coffin to introduce schlocky horror and sci-fi films. He tells corny jokes, sings parody songs and shares film trivia. He also gets bombarded with rubber chickens. Lots and lots of rubber chickens.

The character was created by Chicago radio and television personality Jerry G. Bishop, who played Svengoolie from 1970 to 1973. Bishop came up with the name by merging the words “Svengali” and “ghoul.” “Svengali” comes from the novel Trilby by George Du Maurier, in which the villain, Svengali, manipulates and exploits the title character. The term later came to mean anyone who dominates or manipulates with evil intent. Bishop played the original Svengoolie as a long-haired, undead hippie.

Rich Koz began writing for the original show while still in college. When Bishop and Koz discussed resurrecting the character in 1979, Bishop suggested Koz play the role as “Son of Svengoolie.” Bishop also provided narration for the premier episode.

Rich Koz as "Son of Svengoolie" in the show's early years.

“Son of Svengoolie” was a hit in Chicago and built a cult audience in other local markets. But when FOX purchased WFLD in 1986, it cancelled the show after 334 episodes. Koz revived the show yet again in 1995. Bishop suggested he drop “Son of” from the title, because the character was “all grown up now.”

In 2011, the MeTV Classic TV network began broadcasting Svengoolie every Saturday night, propelling the character to national celebrity.

For the show’s 35th anniversary in 2014, Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications created a “Svengoolie” exhibit, which includes items from the set and the original coffin. After 42 years and numerous awards, including several local Emmys, Rich Koz's "Svengoolie" continues to broadcast weekly from Chicago.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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