Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Deadly Earnest

I sure was into a lot of ugly things as a kid. If it was gross, if it was grotesque, if it offended conventional sensibilities, I attached myself to it like bacteria . I even allowed it to spit on me one historical Saturday afternoon. But I'll get to that part later.

From the mid-60's to the early 70's, Melbourne's Channel O (now TEN) jumped on the American horror host bandwagon with Awful Movies With Deadly Earnest.

"Deadly", pictured above, would emerge from a coffin and introduce a bunch of B-grade horrors such as It - The Terror From Beyond Space, Larry Buchanan's It's Alive, The Blob and Bert I. Gordon classics such as Serpent Island and The The Cyclops, and Arnold Laven's The Monster That Challenged The World

As a seven year old, the biggest challenge in my world was convincing my parents to let me stay up and watch the show. It usually started around 10:30 pm, but sometimes it started later. I don't remember exactly what my official bedtime was back in those days, but it was somewhere in the vicinity of 7:30. I definitely didn't keep Deadly's hours.

I read about Deadly a year before I watched him. Around 1967, when I was a blood-loving five year old, I read the TV listings religiously and salivated over titles that evoked horror of some kind. When I stumbled across the listing for Awful Movies With Deadly Earnest, I asked my mother: "Why are these movies awful, mum? And what's awful?"

She'd glance at the listings herself and dismiss my two questions with one answer: "They're not movies you need to see."

Now, that was like pushing a wheelbarrow of baby boys into a NAMBLA meeting. She'd lit a bushfire under me that would burn 'til my dying day.

"Not movies I should see"? I was five year's old, for Chrissakes, there was nothing I shouldn't see.

For the next two years, I added some height to my frame, put on some weight, and got my education rolling. Still, none of these acts of maturation softened my mother's resolve to restrict my television viewing.

I'd been allowed to watch Lost in Space, and I did love it, and I was becoming hooked on Dr. Who, too (still am), but I was a pint-sized pot smoker, so to speak, and I wanted to try some crack.

It was 1969. Friday night. My birthday. As I was about to blow out the candles on my 7th birthday cake (which was a custard tart), my mother said: "Don't forget to make a wish."

I hesitated, then made my wish out loud: "I wish I could watch Deadly Earnest tonight."

There was silence for a moment.

My mother looked at my father.

My brother giggled.

My sister threw a pea on the floor. She despised peas.

I tensed up as my spoken wish hovered above the flickering candles.

Then I blew.

Seven flames of hope were extinguished.

The room fell dark, then was saved by the flickering fluoros a moment later.

I turned to my mother: "Can I? Can I watch Deadly Earnest tonight?"

She sighed, as she so often did when I asked her a question.

"Alright. But you'll have to go to bed first."

That became the drill in our house -- at least for me. You went to bed first and got woken up a minute or two before the movie started. Then you went back to bed when it was finished. To have nightmares.

Seeing Deadly Earnest strut his ugly stuff for the first time was better than watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon; I'd done that just two months earlier, and it was impressive (in a grainy sort of way), but Neil Armstrong didn't have a friend called "Claw", didn't live in a foggy graveyard, didn't cackle like a nutcase, and didn't feed viewer mail to a monster called "Igor" who burped like John Belushi.

Deadly did scare me. Like Santa, he was real. I never gave much thought to the fact that a TV station had hired a monster to host movies. It never occurred to me that his graveyard was a set. Never! My thinking was that the TV people drove out to Deadly's cemetery each Friday night and filmed him just being himself. They played the movie on the back of a headstone and viewers got to watch it.

I became obsessed with this guy. He was a true hero.

On Monday mornings at school, I would discuss Deadly's "awful movie" with anybody who'd listen. Only one other kid, David Hagen (who I've mentioned in previous posts), had struck a deal with his folks to watch Deadly. He was the guy who'd told me all about The Blob. Deadly had screened the film a year earlier before I joined his audience, but it had not been repeated.

When Deadly showed The Slime People ('63), I thought it was the best thing ever. All that fog and all those horrible creatures shambling around inside it gave me nightmares. The film wasn't slow or cheesy (as adult reviewers would claim), it was positively terrifying. Young Mr. Hagen and I would spend most of the day between classes reliving the horrors of director Robert Hutton's black and white masterpiece. Deadly was our common bond.

Even though I'd been granted my birthday wish, it wasn't a green light that came without conditions. When the screening time shifted towards the witching hour, I had to negotiate hard with my mother for the right to watch it. This meant promising to wash mountains of dirty dishes (and dry them), mow both lawns, clean the spouting, or pick weeds out of the garden.

Sometimes my offers would be shot down with: "You won't be washing any dishes if you're falling asleep all day." Or: "You've seen enough monsters for a lifetime."

Usually, I managed to keep my date with Deadly. When I didn't, David Hagen would gloat about what I'd missed on the following Monday. And, of course, the movie I'd missed was ALWAYS the scariest one they'd screened.

When you were as anxious as I was to watch a movie, it was damn hard to sleep. When I would retire extra early at 7 pm, my mother would constantly check in to see that I was sleeping. Half the time I wasn't. But I learned to put on a good show by tossing and turning, mumbling, and snoring (which I'd learned from my dad). Whether she really bought my snooze act is not something I've ever discussed with her. Perhaps that's for the best.

My biggest fear was not getting woken up on time. On a couple of occasions, my mother would wake me up while the film was in progress. She'd tap my sleeping shoulder and I'd stir. Right away I'd know that the movie was playing because I could hear it outside the door. I was mortified.

"Are you sure you want to get up?" my mum would ask. "It looks a bit weird."

Are you kidding?

I'd nod, put on my slippers, grab a dressing gown, and hurry into the lounge room. I'd park my pajama-clad rear in front of the black and white TV and shut the rest of the world out.

Unfortunately, my parents' bedroom was nearby. During the movie, often at the best bits, my mother would wander out in her dressing gown and ask me if I wanted to go to bed.

I could never understand the purpose of this question. Go to bed? What? In the middle of a dinosaur eating some guy? While the the Terror From Beyond Space (yes, folks, BEYOND space) was mauling spacemen?

This would happen frequently. Often she'd drift out of her room and say: "Are you still there?"

What the hell was she thinking? That I'd abandoned Deadly in favor of sleep? Sheesh!

Those were wonderful days. Just me, Deadly, and the TV. Aside from my mother, there were no other distractions.

Actually, there was one.

The bedroom door would squeak open and my father would pass by me, half asleep, on his way to the bathroom. Usually he wouldn't even notice me sitting there, and I preferred it that way. I didn't want him asking me things like: "What's it like, terrible?", which he always did when I was watching Dr. Who before dinner.

Yep, Friday nights were mine. And Deadly's.

In the late 60's and into the 70's, school fetes were a big deal. Every school had one. They were like country fairs, except they took place on school grounds. They were put on to raise money for the school.

My primary school, The Holy Family, had a fete every year. And fetes were fun. They had mini-roller coasters, Merry-Go-Rounds (carousels), Fairy Floss (Cotton Candy) and lots of stalls that sold junk food and assorted crap. They would also hire singers, clowns and comedians to keep things jumping. Personally, I wasn't too enthused about clowns or comedians, so I hung around the ride operators. I'd never met people like them. They were rough and unshaved and a little bit creepy. I don't think they attended our church or attended anybody's church. Someone told me they lived in caravans. I could only imagine what interesting lives they must have lived.

When the poster for the Holy Family School Fete of '72 was pasted on a window near my classroom, I thought I was dreaming. I stared at it for a long time and looked over my shoulder, just to be sure the school was still there, then I read the words again: "Special Guest Deadly Earnest". Huh? I read it again. And again. Special Guest Deadly Earnest.

I spent the next two weeks in a haze of disbelief and disorientation.

Deadly was coming to my school? To the fete? During the day?

How did he even know about Holy Family? Did he know that I went there?

When I told my mother than Deadly was going to be at the fete, she ignored me. She didn't believe it, either.

When my father showed her the poster, which had been miniaturized and passed out in church, she believed it, then she looked at me concerned, as if suddenly fearing that I'd run off with Deadly.

"What's he doing at the fete?" my mother asked my father at dinner.

"He's a guest."

My mother shook her head.

She didn't understand the thinking behind Deadly's visit to our school.

Frankly, neither did I, but I couldn't wait.

Fete Saturday was stinky and hot. My parents took so long to get everybody ready that I announced that I was riding my bike instead. They objected, but when I cried that "I don't want
to miss Deadly," they waved me off.

I met David Hagen in front of the wooden stage where Deadly would be appearing. He was as excited as I was. I kept expecting mobs to surround us and fight us for the best seats, but that never happened. My father tapped me on the shoulder a half hour later.

"I don't think he's coming," he said.

Feeling antsy, I countered with: "Yes, he is!" I had the confidence of his manager.

My mother caught my eye and waved as my brother joined me. She actually looked excited for me, which was nice.

"Dad reckons he's not real," my brother said. "He said he's stupid."

I didn't even know what that meant; neither did my brother.

The sun belted down as we waited for Deadly to show. I had a history of fainting, so I took a seat on the hot concrete when I felt my head starting to spin.

"Ladies and Gentleman, Girls and Boys, welcome to the Holy Family Fete," came over the speakers.

When I looked up, someone's father was standing on the stage. He talked some crap, thanked a bunch of people I'd never heard of, then announced the arrival of "The Famous Deadly Earnest" (at least he got that right).

I didn't see anybody at first. The sun was in my eyes. Applause erupted, but applause for what? Then I saw him. My God, he was huge!

Deadly took the stage and parked himself directly above me. He held a microphone and laughed in a sadistic, mean way before launching into an account of how much trouble he'd had getting up out of his coffin that morning and driving to the fete. He talked to his clawed hand, known as "Claw", and he directed his scary gaze at the girls. Some of them started crying.

I just stood beneath him like a devoted apostle. I hung on his every word and enjoyed every scream he incited.

I caught my mother staring at me. Her smile seemed to say: I guess he's not too bad if he's at the Holy Family School fete.

That was enough for me to like her more.

I never knew why, but a lot of saliva left Deadly's mouth as he spoke. Nearly all of it rained down on me. Did I wipe it off? Did I shield myself from it? No. No way. I took it. I took it because it was Deadly's saliva. It was the saliva of a monster. And monster saliva was alright.

What struck me hardest about Deadly was that his voice was awesome. It truly was a voice from a crypt. It wasn't a normal voice. It was raspy and loud and a little bit manic. It was the voice you expected from a guy called Deadly Ernest.

After he stepped off the stage, I approached him and told him that he was "Great." He looked down at me and said: "Stay awful."

I didn't know what he meant at the time, but I did my best to honor his advice.

A week later, I wrote to Deadly via the Channel O network. I thanked him for his fete appearance and asked him for a picture.

I received a signed, black and white photograph that read: "Awfully Yours, Deadly Earnest"

David Hagen's picture said:
Before Deadly went off the air, he started screening episodes of a new TV show called The Outer Limits ("The Zanti Misfits" was my favorite). They were spooky, and I'm now a devotee of the show. At the time, however, I preferred the movies.

Years later, I learned that Deadly didn't live in a real cemetery and produced TV shows during the day.

I was devastated.

I could take Santa Claus being my dad, but this?

If a packet of razor blades had been close by, I would have used them.


  1. I can't tell you how much I laughed when you described the girls crying at Deadly's appearance.

    Did your mom let you watch his show more after his public appearance?

  2. Yes, she did. He'd associated with Catholics, so his evil was somewhat diminished.