News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

October 4, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Hoosier horror comes to Linton

In the pre-600-channel days, weekend television held a peculiar, wonderful, homegrown appeal.

Especially late nights. It was as if somebody snuck into the studio and took over the TV station’s programming.

Roller Derby. Fishing shows. Championship wrestling. Dr. Hopp and Friends. Organ music. Local college football coaches’ shows. All punctuated by Ronco commercials full of “slices and dices,” “and that’s not all,” and “isn’t that amazing?”

In our salad days as newlyweds in a campus apartment, my wife and I spent late nights watching Erv Coppi’s “Movie Night” shows on the local PBS station, using a tabletop TV set, with a dazzling 11-inch (diagonal) black-and-white screen. Erv entertained us with a mix of classics, comedies and horror flicks filmed before either of us were born.

More than two decades earlier, Sammy Terry ruled the central Indiana airwaves in the wee hours of Friday nights.

His eerie stewardship of “Nightmare Theater” on Indianapolis’ WTTV — better known as “Channel 4” — scared and attracted kids and teenagers throughout the 1960s and ’70s, and periodically in the ’80s. The program featured vintage and bad B-movie horror flicks, with Sammy as studio emcee. Accompanied by his dangling rubber spider sidekick, George, Terry spoke directly to his audience during commercial breaks, dressed in ghoulish makeup, black turtleneck and pants, skull necklace, and a hooded cloak. He typically sent the audience back to their movie with a long, creepy laugh.

A half-century after Sammy Terry debuted on Channel 4 in 1962, his legacy continues. Folks in Linton can reacquaint themselves with Sammy at the “Frightmares Haunted House” event from 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday at Humphrey Park in that Greene County town. Fittingly, visitors can shake hands with the iconic Hoosier horror character, get an autograph, photos or memorabilia, and then walk to a nearby haunted house at 688 A St. Northwest.

Those face-to-face greetings are fun for both parties.

“It’s really cool looking back into the eyes of people today, because I get to watch them melt back into that 11- or 12-year-old watching Sammy on Channel 4,” said the man behind the face paint.

Like me, you’re probably doing the math in your head right now … “Let’s see. He started in ’62. I watched him in ’73 as a fifth-grader. Hmmm. Holy cow, Sammy Terry is still at it?!”

Bob Carter, the man who created and portrayed the character, indeed still lives in Indiana at age 84. Likewise, Sammy Terry remains popular, making appearances around Indiana each October in recent years. The Sammy baton has been passed, though, from Robert Carter to his 46-year-old son, Mark. The elder Carter is retired “and resting now, and he doesn’t do anything public,” Mark explained.

Three years ago, Mark stepped up and filled in as Sammy Terry in an appearance his elderly dad couldn’t make. It was a success.

Shortly afterward, “when my father asked me to take over the character, it was like a bolt out of the blue,” Mark recalled. He’s been doing it ever since. As he tells the curious, “Only Sammy Terry’s blood can use this cape.”

Thus, Mark carries on the Sammy Terry tradition in both classic and 21st-century methods, in person and through a fan page on Facebook (with 16,366 “Likes” as of Wednesday afternoon) and an interactive website, sammyterrynightmares.com, complete with history and collectibles, including DVDs of original “Nightmare Theater” broadcasts. Mark also did a cameo in a feature-length comedy-horror film, “Creeporia.” On Oct. 31 — Halloween night, 2012 — Sammy Terry will return to WTTV, hosting an airing of the 2009 film “The Uninvited,” same time (10 p.m. to midnight), same channel, (4, in old-school terms).

It’s all a blend of nostalgic and next-generation Sammy.

“Sammy has re-emerged from the crypt,” Mark quipped Wednesday morning.

The father-to-son evolution is not a stretch. From his sixth-grade year through high school, Mark frequently provided other characters’ voices — including George — on “Nightmare Theater” alongside his dad in the WTTV studio. “That was typically me,” he said. “I’ve been inundated with Sammy Terry since I was born.”

A few years before Mark’s  birth, Sammy Terry was born, purely by happenstance.

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Millikin and Syracuse universities, Bob Carter moved to Fort Wayne and then Indianapolis in 1961, joining WTTV as a jack of all trades — producer, director, morning talk-show host and ad salesman. In the latter role, Bob got an Indy furniture store owner — who also loved horror movies — to sponsor a new “shock theater” package. Hollywood had just come up with the concept, which bundled fright films such as “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and the Lon Chaney catalog. Channel 4 needed someone to introduce the films, and handle the live commercials on Friday nights, so Bob — by virtue of having landed the furniture store sponsor — got the job.

At first, Bob just used voice-overs in character, while still photos appeared on the screen.

Eventually, Sammy Terry — a pun of the word “cemetery” — moved in front of the camera.

Ironically, Bob had never before paid much attention to a genre that soon would make him an Indiana legend.

“So many great and grand things grow out of nothingness,” Mark said. “He didn’t have any great interest in horror, but because that was the opportunity on the table, he developed an interest in horror movies pretty quick.”

Initially, the show was approved for only a 13-week trial, Mark said. “And that was the longest running 13-week contract in the history of television,” he added, with a laugh.

The character’s longevity helped earn Sammy induction into the Horror Post Hall of Fame last year.

Horror cinema today looks quite different from Sammy’s offerings of the ’60s and ’70s, relying more on gore and shock value. “I’d much rather have the classics, because they were more inside the mind,” Mark said. That was Sammy’s forte — getting into young viewers’ imaginations.

“It wasn’t just this TV show they watched,” the Terry heir said. “He got inside their mind.”

Those memories, once scary, are now fond.

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