Friday, November 25, 2011

Count Gregore & Retro Metro OKC

Collectively, Wayne Coyne and the Oklahoma Gazette's annual Halloween Parade have doubtless captured the fancy of the contemporary grizzly and ghoul market in the city. But, in my youth, the one and only person that did that was Count Gregore, also known as John Ferguson.

One could not have possibly grown up in Oklahoma in the late 1950s through the late 1980s without knowing about the dreadful Count. From May 1958 until 1988, about 30 years running, WKY-TV's late Saturday night Shock Theater (beginning at 12 o'clock midnight) was broadcast throughout central and at least southwestern Oklahoma (but, as you will see from an interview below, it was evidently seen in other parts of the state as well). I graduated from Lawton High School in 1961, and, before doing so, our television antennas could be appropriately aligned to be able to pick up Count Gregore for Shock Theater parties with my Lawton High School buddies. This was before the days of cable television and during the days that house-top TV antennas in Lawton could be rotated to receive television signals emanating from Oklahoma City.

The 83 year-old but still fearful Count will be the speaker at the December 12, 2011, 2nd Annual Holiday/Christmas/Whatever Party of Retro Metro OKC. This post features the history of Count Gregore — speaker at that meeting and festive occasion.

Ann DeFrange, Oklahoman reporter, wrote a fine piece in 2008 which gives a better summary of John Ferguson's public life and the development of the character that he is most remembered for than I could. She wrote the following:

Count Gregore Lives On
John Ferguson Followed His Star
By Ann DeFrange, The Oklahoman
May 21, 2008

        Count Gregore, an Oklahoma television icon, turned 50 years old this month, although he appears to be ageless, John Ferguson, his creator, is 80 and almost as immortal.
        Ferguson and the Count scared generations of children in Oklahoma in the past half century.
        Ferguson describes himself growing up in Indiana as small, anemic, poor and a bad student. As a high school freshman, he was 5 feet tall and weighed 90 pounds. But, "I was a dreamer," he said. His mother's movie magazines and some acting classes offered an "escape mechanism" and in the 1950s, he went to Hollywood. He worked at a gas station until he managed an interview with the prestigious William Morris talent agency.
        He was told he'd never make a leading man, and that television was preempting movies. But in Hollywood he met Billie, married her 53 years ago, and moved to Oklahoma.
        He sold men's clothing in a Tulsa store. Upstairs was the studio of KVOO radio where Ferguson fell in love with radio. He narrates his life story like a radio drama.
        He followed his star, he said, behind a touring dog act and upstairs to a microphone. He coincidentally auditioned at a station in Muskogee the day they fired their announcer. Then he moved to that company's television station.
        In 1955, after he had been in the business for only 18 months, he got a job at WKY Channel 4 in Oklahoma City which had been in business only since 1949.
        He was staff announcer and ad salesman. The small-screen world was black and white and "everything was live, even commercials."
        Opportunities for creativity were ample, because there were no rules and no technology to rely on.
        He was one of the pioneers of the medium. His early contemporaries are a roll call of local broadcast history — Wakefield Holley, Joe Jerkins, Bill Howard, Wally Kinnan, Hi Roberts, Johnny Shannon, Steve Powell, Bill Thrash, Ed Birchall.
        But he kept thinking: "I'm an actor. I want on that stage so badly."
        In the afternoons, Channel 4 ran a kids' space adventure with a cast of one — Danny Williams. Ferguson developed his own character. "It had to be villainous, evil."
        Inspired by Ming from the "Buck Rogers" comic strip [ed. note — sorry Ann, but that would be from Flash Gordon, I'm pretty sure], he painted on a Van Dyke beard and mustache, shaped his eyebrows like V's, greased his hair to a point on his face and called himself the Duke of Nukedom.
        Williams added him to the script, which was more like a scenario, allowing the actors to spontaneously improvise.
        So, before "Star Trek," there was Bazark and Ubik. Sometimes one of them went to Earth and visited the Circle 4 Ranch, setting for another kids' show.
        In May 1958, when Williams moved to radio, WKY-TV planned a show to follow, "Saturday Night Wrestling." "Shock Theater" showed classic horror films with a live host, so Count Gregore came to live and stayed on local TV until 1988.
        Ferguson has appeared on every television station in Oklahoma City and made other appearances as Gregore. He and the Count frightened generations of children in Oklahoma, who had never played gory video games or seen sophisticated scare movies.
        He still uses his original cape. And he has the voice, a soft, but harsh whisper; the pointed eyebrows that bore into you and leave terror in your heart and a nostalgia for the good old days when scary was deliciously innocent.

Retro Metro OKC 2nd Annual Holiday/Christmas/Whatever Party! The person you have been reading about above is the featured speaker.

All Retro Metro members and their guests, as well as all non-members who have a passion for Oklahoma City history, are invited to attend. Click here for a PDF flyer describing this outstanding event.

The party will be on December 12, 2011, at 6:30 pm at Bellevue Health and Rehabilitation Center's dining room, 6500 N.Portland, which is at the southwest corner of the Bellevue facility.

Here's a map — the red arrow points to your destination.

Hors d'oevres, soft drinks, and wine are provided.

One provider is due singular attention: Ed Lynn, owner of Buffalo Wild Wings at 4130 NW Expressway, is donating 250 wings for the event, a magnificently generous contribution.

Retro Metro OKC is more fully discussed in this blog post, but, briefly stated, Retro Metro OKC is a not-for-profit 501c3 organization which endeavors to make Oklahoma City history more accessible to anyone who wants to learn more about it. Its website is and its Facebook page is here.

Videos. Here are some videos for you to enjoy ...

The Oklahoman's Dave Morris & Angi Brus Intverview
John Ferguson ... How He Got His Start, May 2008

John Ferguson Describes Changes in Horror Films, May 2008

The Count's Top 10 Favorites, October 2008

Excerpts from Nightmare Theater
KSBI-TV Channel 52, Cox Channel 6, October 31, 2011
The Brain That Wouldn't Die

When the Count appeared on Channel 5, his program was called Nightmare Theater (I don't know the dates). This past month, on Halloween, KSBI-TV Channel 52, Cox Channel 6, presented a special showing of Nightmare Theater for its audience, and it contained some video of the Count unlike what we've ordinarily seen, focusing on his singing and dancing capabilities!

Nightmare Theater Opening & 1st Vampira Sequences (2:00)

The Movie — The Brain That Wouldn't Die
To save viewer pain, I've truncated the movie to 1 minute,
57 seconds (opening title, head scene, closing title)
Notice that the opening and closing titles are not the same.
This 1962 movie was simply awful!

The Count Sings With Vampira (3:17)

The Count Dances With Jackie Short (2:42)

The last two clips involving singing and dancing performances may have been from the July 2011 Improv Festival Oklahoma mentioned below, I don't know. For now, at least, the complete Nightmare Theater presentation is at KSBI's website: Part 1 and Part 2.

Closing Notes. At right is a WKY-TV ad on Saturday February 2, 1974, featuring none but the fearful Count.

A March 24, 1974, a note in the Oklahoman's TV section shows Mr. Ferguson looking at a drawing of himself, as perceived by a loyal fan. Ferguson hoped that the fan would identify him/herself so that recognition could be properly attributed — either that or maybe the Count had something more sinister in mind for the artist — who can say? His Channel 4 show ended in 1988.

Even so, the Count continued to grace our television screens and civic affairs for many years. He hosted programs on Channels 4, 5, 25, 43, 52, and Cox Cable.

Mr. Ferguson serves the public in other ways, also. He is presently a member of the Mayor's Committee on Disability Concerns. In 1981 he was a judge at the 3rd annual Paseo Harvest Moon Festival. On June 3, 1997, he was honored by fans and fellow performers at the "First Annual Gregore Retirement Roast" in Bricktown at Pearl's Crabtown. In April 2008, he was recognized at Muskogee's ninth annual Barebones Independent International Film and Music Festival for his contributions to Oklahoma television and media arts. In the October 28, 2008, Oklahoman, David Zizzo reported that,
And Ferguson still can’t quite put his finger on why the count was — and is — so popular.

"I'm surprised to this day," he said.
But, in the article, Zizzo succinctly and accurately gave the explanation ...
It's because Ferguson is so good at bad, or at least acting that way.
In July 2011, he performed at and haunted the third annual Red Dirt Improv Festival Oklahoma at the City Arts Center, Oklahoma City.

Tom Fowler wrote Ferguson's biography and hopefully copies will be available for sale and book signing. Also, check out John's Facebook page.

Also, check out this Rosebud Radio link for a soon to be launched internet radio station which will broadcast Old Time Radio on Friday afternoons and nights, all day Saturday and all day Sunday. From 7:00 PM to 11:00 PM will be Count Gregore's Suspense Theater, which Rosebud Radio says will feature the finest mystery radio shows such as Boston Blackie, Perry Mason and The Thin Man, and from 11:00 PM to 3:00 AM Count Gregore's Theater of the Macabre is scheduled. His part of the schedule is in dark red, below:

Very plainly, what Ann DeFrange said in 2008 remains true today, "Count Gregore Lives On!"

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