josh hadley | the shadows of pop culture | oct. 2017
If you grew up in the Green Bay area at all in the 1980s or the 1990s then you most likely spent your Saturday late nights with one Ned the Dead on either WLUK (Channel 11) or later on WACY (Channel 32).
Who is Ned the Dead and why did he have such a huge impact on the youth of Northern Wisconsin?
Ned the Dead is (surprise) really mild mannered Steve Brenzel. Also you might have missed it but Brenzel is the voice of Van Vreede's and those commercials have been on the air for as long as I can remember.
Brenzel was the horror host for Green Bay and the surrounding territories but before we go any further let's fill in the younger readers on the larger context of what a horror host was.
When TV first came onto the scene there were far too many hours to fill on the air verses the number of TV programs there were. Universal and other studios opened their film vaults and sold their movies to TV stations all over the country to occupy those late night times. The most famous of these is known as the Shock Theater package from Universal, but other studios followed suit and opened their vaults as well. All of a sudden if you missed seeing the 1931 Dracula in the theater (perhaps due to not being born yet) now it was on your TV, coming into your home for free, all you had to do was convince your mom to let you stay up late. With the horror and sci-fi movies tending to be relegated to the late night hours or Saturday afternoons this also brought us the first horror hosts, a nice jocular person that hangs out with you and watches the movie alongside you.
The Shock Theater package proved to be a huge success and for a long, long time horror and sci-fi movies were a staple of not only primetime television but of "filler" (for lack of a better term) for independent stations who needed those afternoon and late night slots filled. Indy stations would make grand ratings on movies in the afternoons and overnights, with or without a host, and soon a host became the norm.
Most larger cities had their own host who catered to that specific market. These were a fun set of individuals with whom you could identify and despite the bad movies, made the experience a positive one. Ned the Dead was the plank spanking guide to the depths of film that Green Bay was graced with.
Ned would show movies of varying quality while he piped in every commercial break from his makeshift "ticket booth." He could make fun of the movie or simply ramble on about some pointless thing he happens to find amusing. Either way, he riveted the kids of Green Bay and made staying up late a necessity.
“Chiller Theater" ran from 1984 through early 1989 and then was revived in 1996 and this time ended in 1999. Not content to leave things as they were, Brenzel was feeling the itch yet again and, sans the “Chiller Theater," brought us Ned the Dead's Demented Drive In around 1999 for a two-year run – then resurrecting yet again as “Chiller Theater" in 2005. Ned just will not die ... despite the dead part of his very name.
How did Ned the Dead (Chiller Theater) come about? Well:
"At the time (1983) I was a young news photographer for WLUK," says Brenzel. “I was very outgoing, very energetic and somewhat wild. The Program Director at the time, Dave Comisar, decided that they would like to have a late night horror show to utilize the large number of horror movie titles that they had access to. They took a look at their staff (because they didn't want to pay anyone) and thought that I might have what it takes to be bad on television."
That is all it took for Ned to be brought to life (death ... whatever) ... the desire to not pay another person to do the job.
Very quickly finding a loyal audience proved that Green Bay had found their horror film voice in the rotund little zombie with the addiction to spanking his own plank and pronouncing that as "dat."
All was good with the ratings to the point that this low budget "filler" show had a full-blown crew. They would record a show in the mornings after the news was finished with a single camera operator, a director, a technical director, an audio person, a teleprompter operator and an engineer. That is a hearty layout for a show that mainly catered to kids and insomniacs.
"Back in the day, everything was recorded 'as live,'" adds Brenzel. We did not edit the segments after recording them. Over time, the number of cameras increased and the number of crew members varied."
Traditionally horror host shows are throwaways to their stations and yet here WLUK was treating “Chiller Theater" with respect.
Brenzel believes that he recorded well over 1,000 shows in his time as Ned the Dead. An accomplishment to be proud of. With the ease at which Ned the Dead appeared on the air, Brenzel was not always so chilled out as Ned may have appeared.
"I had major reservations about being Ned the Dead. It was probably the scariest thing that I had ever done. In the early years, I had to read the teleprompter for parts of each segment. I had to use an accent that I developed in my car while stuck on the Mason St. bridge and I had to remember the accent at the next taping, which was often two weeks apart. I had to wear itchy makeup. I knew nothing about horror movies. (Sadly, this is still true). The reservations quickly vanished."
Indeed it is clear that Ned the Dead has a lasting impression here in Green Bay to the point that even at the recent MST3K Live event, Joel Hodgson was asked if he remembered Ned the Dead. Sadly he was not in Green Bay at the time Ned was on the air, but that the fans remembered Ned shows the enduring power that this little show had on those of us show grew up with it.
"I can NEVER do justice to describing how cool it was to be Ned the Dead. I still believe that I am the luckiest living human for being given the chance to do it. People were so kind to me and gave me so much love for something that should have been so insignificant."
Ned is actually so embedded in Green Bay culture that the legacy runs multi-generational with many parents who grew up with Ned showing their kids the 2000s version. Brenzel is always humble about his status and treats his fans (past and present) with a dignity that exceeds those far more famous than he.
"I can honestly say that in 32 years I never dissed a single soul who wanted to interact with Ned. I always made sure that anyone who engaged me as Ned knew that I was grateful for their time and attention. People have shared the most amazing stories about how important it was to them to have watched the show with their families. There is one incident in particular that made me realize how important it was to some people. I was in the grocery store and a man who worked behind the meat counter asked me if I was Ned the Dead. After I confirmed it, he told me that one of his favorite things was when he and his brother sneaked downstairs to watch “Chiller Theater." Then he told me that his brother had passed away and one of his enduring memories forever would be the two of them watching me. Then he thanked me. It should have been me thanking him."
Full disclosure: This writer knows Steve Brenzel personally. I worked at Channel 32 when the 2000s-era “Chiller Theater" shot there and I was his cameraman for many, many shows (even appearing on the air to participate in the shenanigans now and then).
"All of the crazy times with the crew taping all those episodes. How much we would laugh if something super crazy happened."
Those shows were so much fun to tape (usually once a month where four were taped in a single afternoon) and I had a blast working on them. Brenzel, on the other hand, thinks he was putting us out.
"Keep in mind that taping my show was generally a pain in the butt for the crew. They had to haul out my stupid 'spanking plank' and all of the dorky stuff that we used for the show. Then they had to tape countless shows generally 'between the blocks' (between the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news). They were always fun and kind and they gave me tons of energy. I remember many sassy moments that I cannot share in their full disturbing context."
I can indeed attest there are a few memories I have of taping shows, which cannot be related here.
Of all the nonsense and grand episodes out there Brenzel says "My favorite memory, though, did not involve humans ... it involved a sheep. Late in the first run of 'Chiller Theater' ... maybe 1988 ... we had a contest to win a chance to be a guest on Chiller. I will never forget the name of the woman that won: Linda Todor Newcomb. Not only did she come on the show, she brought her sheep “Snow" as well. Late in the show, I laid on the floor and she poured dried corn on my chest and the freaking sheep ate the corn off of my chest. On TV. RIGHT NEXT TO THE MICROPHONE! All you could hear was a combination of my excited barking and the fantastic sounds of the sheep chewing. It was by far my favorite moment on the show."
Sadly, most of these moments are lost to time as the master recordings are on a severely outdated and obscure video format and of those that remain, quality is a very real issue. These things were never meant to be preserved. If you grew up here in the 1980s and the 1990s then you experienced things that will likely never happen again. The horror host is a bygone era and with infomercial programing dominating those late night slots which the horror host requires we can still remember Ned the Dead and the barking and plank spanking.
A fiercely confrontational and arrogant critic whose stubborn nature makes him immanently readable and equally angering, Josh Hadley is a writer for magazines such as Hustler, Fangoria, Paracinema, Shadowland, Grindhouse Purgatory and Cashers du Cinemart, as well as a radio host on Jackalope Radio. Find more from him at 1201beyond.com, a website that only the most anti-social personalities would engage.