Sinister Image: The Rocking Host Winner – Bob Wilkins 1932-2009

David Del Valle with Bob Wilkins

David Del Valle with Bob Wilkins

As a baby boomer pushing sixty, it is difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that nearly four decades have passed since I did my first on-camera interview as a “film expert”. The first person to ever refer to me in those terms recently passed away, on January7th.

Bob Wilkins was a slightly built man with sandy blond hair, who sported high-school-teacher glasses and on occasion smoked a cigar – domestic, of course. Bob was the premier horror host at KCRA channel 3 in Sacramento from 1966 to 1970, before moving Creature Feature show over to KTVU in the Oakland San Francisco area until the early ’80s.

Bob had come to Sacramento directly from the mid-west - Indiana, to be exact – and he soon found a place at the NBC affiliate Channel 3, where he worked behind the scenes until one day at a company dinner his toastmaster antics caught the eye of an executive who recognized Wilkins’ talent to amuse.

It was a common pratice in those days at Television stations to relegate one of their own staff to introduce movies from their film library. Most of the time it would be grade Z horror films that the station airlate at night. Bob was given a group of American International Pictures films that included Japanese fare like ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE – the first film Bob Wilkins introduced as Sacramento’s Creature Feature host.

By the time I arrived in Sacramento to begin high school, I had already been exposed to the Shock Theatrepackages that debuted in Los Angeles in the mid to late ’50s (missing Vampira by about five years). The hostess I recall was a character actress named Ottola Nesmith, who dressed in Victorian purples and lace. She lived in a haunted house and would say things like “Well, it’s midnight; the stores are closed – time to go shopping.” Ottola kept a pet bat and introduced the films by playing an old victrola record player: as she placed the needle on the record, the film would begin (sort of like a primitive laserdisc, I suppose).

Bob Wilkins was a  unique horror movie host in that he avoided that sort of camp stuff. Bob wore a suit and tie and sat in a yellow rocking chair on a small modest set. He would simply rock back and forth, smoking his cigar and lamenting whatever he was asked to introduce as the evening’s feature. He did this every Saturday night - on his own most of the time, but he would try to have guests to interview if he thought they could add something to the witches’ brew he was serving up on Creature Features.

I remember watching CURSE OF THE DEMON one Saturday night early in 1967 with Bob in top form asking his audience to write in if they had any encounters with witchcraft or black magic. Now can you imagine what he would have gotten himself into in today’s world with its goth girls and devil worshippers on the Internet – the response would be mind-boggling.

I decided to send Bob a letter explaining that I had just become a member of the Los Angeles-based Count Dracula Society and really enjoyed his show. Within a week I got an answer back asking me if I would like to appear on the show as a representative of the society and maybe even recuit some new members. I was just a sophomore at Encina High school and had never been on TV, so of course I said definitely into that!

I had at that time no knowlegdge of Donald A. Reed except in name and even less about the society intself, save from their newsletter The Count Dracula Quarterly,which seemed pretty cool in 1967 – with members like Forry Ackerman and Robert Bloch among the faithful. It would be a few years later that Bob Bloch and I would sit in a bar laughing at the idea of Don Reed in a cape far too big for him, trying to knight people like his was our “Queen Mother”….well in his mind, at any rate.

I taped my first Bob Wilkins show wearing a black cape, extolling the glories of Count Dracula and his order, with disciples mainlyin the greater Los Angeles area. Bob showed SON OF DRACULA with Lon Chaney Jr. I am grateful no tape of that show exists to come back and haunt me today.

We taped the show on a Thursday, and I will never forget seeing myself for the first time on TV wearing that dammed cape while promoting Don Reed’s cash cow in LA. The indiscretions of youth andall that. However, something clicked with Wilkins and me, and I was asked back to just talk about the films. The result of these appearances were immediate for me, as everyone at school watched the show, including the principal of Encina, Jack Bassitt. As a direct result of my appearances on Creature Features, I was given my own film series at Encina, beginning with HOUSE OF USHER (1960) and then THE FLY (1958). Some three decades later, I would be sitting in a sound-booth with star David Hedison, recording an audio commentary for the latter film.

One of the perks of being a regular guest was the practice Bob had of allowing me to borrow 16mm prints of the films they were about to run on Creature Features. Remember this was way before Blu-ray, DVD, laserdisc, or even VHS and Beta, so being able to screen films at home on a projector was as close to having a private screening room like the Hollywood moguls as I was likely to get in the Sacramento of the late ’60s.

The only other person I remember doing the show with any regularity was a very camp individual known as Dana Reemes. Dana was a handsome guy with a very healthy ego- which was somewhat understandable as he was and is a gifted artist. When I first met him we were both seeing the same girl – an honest to God witch named Nancy, who kept us under her spell for a time. I still wish I had the watercolor he did for me based on a Robert Bloch short story. Dana moved to Hollywood and now works for Disney I am told.

In 1968 Bob went down to L.A. with fellow KCRA anchor Harry Martin to tape interviews for the station. The highlight of this visit would be meeting Boris Karloff, who was in town to do a cameo for the series THE NAME OF THE GAME. Bob got Karloff to say lines like”Who is Bob Wilkins?” and “I have never watched the Bob Wilkins show.” Wonderful stuff all of it. It was during this moment that Bob Wilkins became my hero for life. Bob knew that Karloff was my idol and made a point durinhghis time with him to inform the great Karloff that he had a number one fan in Sacramento who would appreciate an audience with the eighty-year old icon if time would permit. Karloff was of course very modest that a young man like myself would know so much about his films and would be glad to meet me if I was ever in Hollywood when he was working (Karloff lived in England in those days, only coming into Hollywood for filming).

Within a month of Bob’s return from L.A., I recevied a telegram from Karloff {which I still have to this day), asking me to come down and watch him guest star on THE JOHNATHAN WINTERS SHOW. I immediately phoned Bob to thank him, and he knew by my voice I was on cloud nine.

Now, as luck would have it, this experience of lifetime was just beyond my grasp: one day before I was to fly down, I got in a car accident that prevented the trip. I did get to speak with Karloff on the telephone while he was filming what was to be his last appearance on television. Karloff thanked me for being his fan and wished me god’s speed in recovering from my accident. I will never know if Karloff could tell I was crying over the phone, but it remains the greatist phone call of my life, and I owe it all to Bob Wilkins.

By the time Bob took his show to the Bay area, I was already going to San Francisco State, yet I still appeared on his program – though no longer wearing capes or extolling the virtures of the Count Dracula society. During these tapings, I was beginning to become a film historian with interests extending beyond the genre, and Bob was as always supoportive of whatever I was going to do.

It was at this point that we discussed the possibility of me taking over from him if and when he left the show, and I will always wonder, “What if… ?” But I was determined to go to Hollywood, and he understood that perhaps from the first time we met that nothing else would do but to make the journey for myself.

Bob Wilkins had made the show an institution in the Bay area, creating a fanbasethatis still in evidence today. Bob made himself a much loved figure in the hearts and minds of film fans all over Northern California. He never put the fans down, nor made the films look worthless; his comments were always fun with a genuine sense of wonder that would have made Forry Ackerman proud.

I was sorry to learn of Bob’s battles with Alzheimer’s disease. It took its toll over the last years of his life, yet he never let it stop him from making personal appearances until just a couple of years ago. I never did get to tell him personally how much he meant to me and what an influence his support was during my high school and college days. They were of course the best of times and Bob Wilkins will always be a part of that.

I can still hear Karloff’’s voice over the phone with that unmistakable lisp saying to me, “Your friend Bob Wilkins told me you like my work…well bless you for that.”

Bless you, Bob Wilkins. You will be missed not just by me but the thousands of fans whose appreciation of fantasy and imagination were made all the better for you being a part of our lives.

Bob Wilkins 1932-2009

Bob Wilkins: 1932-2009

About the Author

David Del Valle

Since leaving San Francisco State University in 1974, David Del Valle has achieved national recognition as a journalist, columnist, film historian, radio & television commentator and is one of the leading authorities on the horror/science-fiction/cult & fantasy film genres. He has contributed to magazines internationally and has been interviewed by the BBC, A & E Network, Channel 4 (London) and The Sci-Fi Channel. He appeared prominently in American Movie Classics documentary entitled IT CONQUERED HOLLYWOOD!, the history of American-International Pictures. He is also the producer and on-camera host of Vincent Price's only interview regarding his career in horror. Del Valle oversees The Del Valle Archives, a collection in progress of thousands of still photographs, artwork and ephemera dealing with the horror/fantasy/sci-fi and cult genres. He produced and hosted a series of television interviews entitled "Sinister Image," featuring guests that ran the gamut from Cameron Mitchell to Russ Meyer. His print articles and interviews have appeared in such publications as Cinefantastique, Scarlet Street, Cult Movies, Fangoria, Films and Filming (Del Valle was Hollywood correspondent for this British magazine from 1983-1987), Video Watchdog, The Dark Side (UK), Fantastyka and L'Ecran Fantastique of France for which he was also West Coast correspondent. Del Valle recently completed a year as a radio host in Palm Springs, California in an entertainment-oriented program on AM as well as on the Internet around the world.

2 Responses to “ Sinister Image: The Rocking Host Winner – Bob Wilkins 1932-2009 ”

  1. David,
    Thanks for sharing your wonderful stories about Bob Wilkins, as I have similar stories, having went from writing Bob (religiously), to being a frequent guest on his KTVU-2 shows in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are so many stories, from so many different people, dozens of whom went on to become professionals, all because of the same common denominator: Bob Wilkins.

    I wrote a brief recount of yesterday’s wonderful memorial service for Bob, which was held in the Oakland Hills at his family’s church (the one they attended during their years in the San Francisco Bay Area), which you may want to read.

    And I’d also like to add that we are producing a big Bob Wilkins celebration show at the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco this Spring, and would it would fantastic if you could attend this event and speak about your experiences with Bob. At the moment, we are awaiting the approval of dates from his widow, Sally, before we lock in the show (there are also plans afoot for a Sacramento show). We also dedicate our annual SHOCK IT TO ME! classic horror film festival at the Castro Theatre to Bob every October (he was a guest at our first in 2005).

    In the meantime, a recent documentary on CREATURE FEATURES, WATCH HORROR FILMS: KEEP AMERICA STRONG, will be screening at WonderCon in San Francisco on Friday evening, February 27, and there will also be a Bob Wilkins memorial panel taking place at the convention on Sunday afternoon, March 1. There will be more information on both and sites.

    I will be sure to share your story here on Cinefantastique with as many Wilkins fans as I can — thank you again!

    Best Wishes,
    August Ragone

  2. David, I just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your look at Bob Wilkins. When I was a kid I used to stay up late on Saturday nights and watch his CREATURE FEATURES program from San Francisco (I lived about 3 and 1/2 hours northeast from there – in a little country town called Oroville). We only had antenna reception, so it was always kinda snowy, but I loved it.

    Later, when I was even older, admittedly, I used to watch his “kiddie” weekday afternoon program called CAPTAIN COSMIC, in which he would play host to shows like ULTRAMAN, JOHNNY SAKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT, SPECTREMAN, and CAPTAIN SCARLETT AND THE MYSTERONS (ah, those were the days).

    By the way, I’d love to attend the Bob Wilkins celebration show at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco this Spring if I get a chance. I remember him and his shows with much fondness.

    John Stanhope
    P.S. I too attended San Francisco State for a time.

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