By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008
He lives in a housing development where the streets have names such as Autumn Breeze Court. His lawn is a lush green. His kitchen walls are painted canary yellow. As you walk in the front door, his tidy office is to the left. The entrance to his dungeon is straight ahead, through the plain white door under the stairs.
Down there is an altar with red candles, orange buttons to toggle fake lightning and a very real coffin. He's hoping it endures longer than his last three coffins.
It's the hinges that wear out quickly, says Dick Dyszel, sighing and resting his hand on the lid in his basement in Northern Virginia. Coffins aren't made to be repeatedly opened and closed. This particular coffin he's had for eight years. It's solid maple, with stronger hinges. It should last.
"It's a shame I'm gonna be cremated," he says.
That is, if he ever dies. Dyszel's alter ego is Count Gore De Vol, a vampire who hosted "Creature Feature," a horror show that aired Saturday nights on Washington's WDCA-TV (Channel 20) off and on from 1973 to 1987. He masterminded the count during his first job as a TV anchor in Paducah, Ky., in 1971. At 20 minutes past the hour, the sports reporter on the 10 o'clock news would take over from Dyszel, who then had 10 minutes to run off camera, change into his vampire costume and makeup, and slip into in his coffin for "Night of Terrors," the station's own horror show. All of that was done on the fly.
"Everything was live," Dyszel says. "Well, the count was kind of dead."
The count is still dead, but very much alive. (Stay with me here.) After leaving TV in the late '80s, Dyszel resurrected "Creature Feature" in 1998 on the Web at http://www.countgore.com, becoming perhaps the first horror host to introduce and stream horror films online. He's also the patron ghoul of the Spooky Movie film festival, about to start its third year Thursday at Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax. The count will be there Thursday and Friday to do what he does best: emcee the show with cheeky, cheesy wit.
"Gore is a well-meaning vampire looking for success, but deep down inside he knows he's never going to get it," Dyszel says. "The best stuff is where Gore has these great ideas and they never quite work out. In many ways he's the Homer Simpson of vampires, except he preceded Homer Simpson."
Dyszel, 61, grew up in Chicago watching Ernie Kovacs and Jackie Gleason on TV. He studied radio and TV at Southern Illinois University and performed as Bozo the Clown at the station in Paducah. It was Bozo that brought him to the Washington market in 1972 (to replace Willard Scott), and on Channel 20 he played Bozo and the count as well as children's host Captain 20. There were Transylvanian accents, primitive special effects, missed cues, double-entendres and occasionally a Penthouse Pet as a special guest.
A generation grew up watching the count. Reston native Steve Niles, now a horror comic-book writer in Los Angeles, watched "Creature Feature" every week and credits the count for introducing him to, among other films, "Night of the Living Dead."
"It's like you're cozying up for a campfire story," says Niles, best known for his series "30 Days of Night" and its 2007 film adaptation. "The show made you feel like a part of something, rather than what you usually feel like as a horror or comics fan: an outsider. It's like, 'This guy gets me.' "
Spooky Movie founder Curtis Prather used to stay up as late as he could to catch the show .
" Watching a grown man in makeup: It was Halloween year-round," says Prather. "That, to me and to a lot of people, is kind of an appeal. In many ways we've lost sight of Halloween, where it's become another drinking holiday for adults. And there is a kind of goofy, silly, playful element that you can experience going to these movies."
Over his long career, Dyszel has won a local Emmy Award, which he keeps in his office, and continues to shoot "webisodes" on the count's set, which he keeps in his basement. He films introductions and uploads horror movies that are in the public domain. It's just like the old days, but
"It's amazing," he says, flipping off the lights in the dungeon earlier this month, at the start of the busy Halloween season. "I walk down here every day and think about how it cost millions for Channel 20 to produce a show. And now I'm doing it for next to nothing."
When people come up to him to say they loved his show, Dyszel appreciates it but always hands them a card to let them know it's still on. "You don't need to rely on memory," he tells them. "We're doing it as good, if not better, today."Fright Nights With the Count
Spooky Movie: 2008 Thursday-Oct. 20. Cinema Arts Theatre, 9650 Main St., Fairfax. 703-978-6991. http://www.thespookymovie.com. $8-$12, $30 for an all-festival pass.
All Hallows Scream Oct. 31, 10 p.m.-2 a.m. Short films and music by Karlos Borloff and the Monsterminators. Hosted by Count Gore De Vol. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse. 2903 Columbia Pike, Arlington. 703-486-2345. http://www.arlingtondrafthouse.com. $10.
Hypnosis Show with Dick Dyszel as Count Gore De Vol Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Ballston Common Mall, Comedy Spot, 4238 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-486-4242. http://www.comedyindc.com. $15.