Inside Look: Rich Koz aka Svengoolie
You tell someone that you are from Berwyn. They reply to you with an intense “BERRRWYN!” Maybe you recognize the tune or maybe you don’t. We got together with Rich Koz to let him tell you a little more about then man behind Svengoolie and the “BERRRWYN” that he loves. Enjoy!
Meet Rich Koz, Svengoolie host, Me-TV
Svengoolie has been the premiere horror show icon of Chicago, since multiple Emmy award winner Rich Koz became the hand-picked successor to the original Svengoolie back in the late 70s. Since then, generations of viewers have become fans of the monstrous mirth and movies that this video vampire dispenses every week over the airwaves!
Where did you grow up?
Originally the west side of Chicago- then moved to the northwest suburbs when I was about four. Things were so undeveloped back then that when we moved in, there were farm fields and a pond across the street from us! They are long gone now.
When did you become interested in acting?
Definitely when I was a kid. I loved playing characters and doing skits. I really loved TV and radio as well. In high school (Maine East in Park Ridge), I found out I could be on the air on their real FM station and that put me on the road to broadcasting!
What attracted you to the show and how did you become Svengoolie?
I was a fan of the original Sven, Jerry G Bishop, first from his radio work, then, from stuff he did on TV, a wacky daytime show called Dialing for Dollars and then he started doing the Svengoolie program. I was a fan of his work and when he asked viewers to send in jokes, I was happy to do so. He began to rely on me to send material and started requesting specific stuff like parodies of certain commercials. When he found out I was a broadcasting student, he encouraged me to come in and watch him tape shows. This led to me working with him on the program and beyond. Once it was cancelled, we worked together in radio. About that time, a TV program director friend of his asked him if he’d want to do Svengoolie again, just as a fun summer fill-in thing. Jerry didn’t want to suit up as the character again, but he decided that I could take over the reins as the character and he and I would write and produce the show. After a few false starts, nothing came of it. Later, when Jerry was moving to San Diego and we were talking about what path I might take on my own while still here in the area, he told me that if I wanted to try getting this Son of Svengoolie bit on-air then I had his blessing. To make the story short (a little late for that, isn’t it?) after shopping it around, and WFLD deciding they’d have lots of people audition to be a horror movie host, I finally got the job and went on the air in June of 1979.
How was your relationship with the show’s creator, Jerry Bishop?
We were very good friends. I was flattered that he liked what I did and felt I had real potential. He was such a talented guy, great mentor and extremely generous to allow me to take on the character with his full approval and support. I always wish that he and I could have worked together once I had learned the ropes and stood on my own. I think we could have done some amazing things!
How has the character evolved and what has allowed you to remain become a multiple Emmy-winning TV mainstay for almost half a decade?
Well, let’s begin with the obvious. Along the way, I’ve lost a lot of the accent. (Mainly because when I had to talk fast, it made it hard to understand. I’ll just say that I’ve been in this country long enough that I’ve lost the accent!) And “ahem” gained some weight. I think that I throw in a few more sly double entendre jokes along the way, but never go over the line because I know we have a lot of kids watching as well as adults. I’ve tried to keep up with pop culture and reflect that in what I do. I’ve certainly learned a great deal more along the way of how television production works and how things are put together. I’ve always written stuff that would make me and my friends laugh, and that seems to translate to the viewers as well. And, very honestly, working for people who actually believe in me and support me — Neal Sabin, the genius behind WCIU, the U and MeTV, along with the Shapiro family who own the stations — has given me the chance to succeed, now on a national scale with MeTV all over the country.
Why Berwyn? Berwyn loves you—and you love them back. Can you give us a little background on your love affair with BERRRWYN?
I have to start with our own “Why Berwyn?” When Jerry was doing Svengoolie, he remembered that Ernie Anderson, who played a similar horror host in Cleveland named Ghoulardi, made playful jokes about a local suburb there. Jerry wanted to do the same thing, but combining it with the “small town” jokes that Rowan and Martin and Johnny Carson were doing at the time about “beautiful downtown Burbank.” When he learned that Berwyn had a parade each year in honor of mushrooms, the Houby Day parade, he decided that it should be Berwyn! He began that sort of call and response of “BER-wyn???” I was handed that torch when I became Son of Svengoolie. The jokes about Berwyn were always just in fun, and never mean-spirited, despite the opinion of one former mayor. All the other mayors and the people of Berwyn have ALWAYS been so kind and supportive of both Jerry and I! They feel that we’ve put them on the map (and now, I guess, on the national map), but the city itself has done so much in recent years to draw attention to itself. In any interview where Berwyn was brought up, I have always made sure that I made clear that my jokes were ONLY that — just jokes — and that I indeed have a love affair with it and its citizens.
Berwyn has become quite the hot spot. Do you have any favorite hangouts here?
Of course, I am a BIG fan of John Aranza’s wonderful horror memorabilia store, Horrorbles, and of John himself (a great guy) and one of the people who has certainly sparked Berwyn to further success. I’m definitely a fan of the original Buona Beef and the iconic music venue Fitzgerald’s. And let’s not forget Autre Monde Café, just down the street from the Friendly Tap!
Other than cemeteries and haunted houses, where do you like to hang out and what are some of your hobbies?
I guess anywhere I am could be classified as a haunted house. I like being able to spend time with my friends, no matter where it might be. I love being by Lake Michigan, getting the chance to hit a Bulls game or visit with some of my pro wrestler pals. I like the museums, and don’t forget you can see my original coffin and set at the Museum of Broadcast Communications on State Street in Chicago. I always have a great time meeting fans at appearances. It’s funny, but a lot of the things that were my hobbies, music, art, etc., are adapted into the show. I do like to travel when I can, search for silly collectibles in antique and “junk” shops and, whenever I have time, read.
What is your all-time favorite horror movie?
I don’t have a single favorite horror movie. I like different movies for different reasons. Of course, I love the original Universal horror films, Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein, Wolf Man and I love Creature from the Black Lagoon, and then, the modern horror classics like Nightmare on Elm Street and the original Halloween. And then there’s….see? I can’t just name a single favorite!
In your opinion, what did these classic horror movies offer then that perhaps isn’t offered today?
Well, they have a certain atmosphere to them that doesn’t seem to be present in modern movies. I know some people will actually groan and complain, “ohh, it’s in black and white” but that amazing use of shadow and lighting, along with performances that can be terrifying, and yet have heart, like those of Boris Karloff, make these films so special. And, they terrified viewers without total gore and bloody effects, which are fine when used correctly in today’s movies, but create a chilling world of horror without them back in those days of the classics.
If you could play a monster or a goblin, what would you be?
I’m not sure I could ever pull off the suave vampire type, but I might like to take a crack at being a werewolf or Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. They’d be the closest thing to being the Incredible Hulk!
Only one – never end an interview without a joke…Oops.