What about Bob?
How one geeky, slightly twisted regular guy brought dysfunctional families together with Gilligan’s Island on shrooms and other frightfully good bad TV
True story: When I was seven, my dad disappeared into a bottle. Five years later, and pretty much out of the blue, he showed up on our doorstep, sober and hoping to reconnect. My mother warmed up to him quicker than I did; I was still pretty mad.
But my dad and I soon learned we did share one thing in common, and every Saturday night after the late news, he would turn on Channel 3. The big-band strains of “Gotham City Municipal Swing Band” by Neal Hefti (who’d also composed the theme to television’s Batman series) started up, and a peculiar character, sporting thick black horn-rimmed glasses and a blond comb-over, typically smoking an oversized stogie and sitting in a rocking chair, would announce the week’s feature, most often something from the el-cheapo horror-film canon.
My dad loved a good monster movie and, even better, a bad one. And—because we shared the same geek genes—so did I. Still do.
And Bob Wilkins, that guy with the horn-rimmed glasses, knew how to serve ’em up. At the apex of his popularity, Wilkins was hosting monster movies on Sacramento television, first on NBC affiliate KCRA Channel 3 (1966-1971), and later on then-independent KTXL Channel 40 (1971-1982); he also hosted Creature Features on then-independent KTVU Channel 2 in Oakland (1971-1978).
The Wilkins feature I remember best was something called Attack of the Mushroom People. The plot of that film was similar to the American TV series Gilligan’s Island, except these tourists on the S.S. Minnow happened to be Japanese. After they found themselves shipwrecked on a jungle island, this hapless crew, no doubt merely out for the proverbial three-hour cruise, went looking for whatever chow the island had to offer.
If I recall, one of the more intrepid of the tourists stumbled across a dilapidated and overgrown shack containing tins of something potentially edible; driven by intense hunger, he pried a can open and devoured the contents. Then he disappeared.
One by one, the other tourists found the shack, tasted whatever was in the tins and promptly vanished. It wasn’t until near the end of the film, when the last of Team Gilligan-san found the shack and gobbled the forbidden comestibles, that the shocking truth was revealed: After consuming whatever fungal delicacy was stored in the shack, the lone survivor was surrounded by giant, laughing mushrooms. “You have eaten the mushroom!” one big hairy fungus person hissed in a laughable and badly dubbed Japanese accent. “Now you must become—a mushroom!”
“Yeah, it’s like Gilligan’s Island,” quips Scott Moon, who created and maintains the Web site BobWilkins.net. “Gilligan’s Island on psilocybin.”
Moon, a onetime local rock musician who became a graphic artist, launched an occasional pop-culture publication that covered sci-fi and horror film buffs called Planet X Magazine. The first person he interviewed was Wilkins. And when Moon learned that the local TV celebrity didn’t have his own Web site—a must in an age when a reasonably popular 1960s or ’70s television figure can parlay that fleeting local fame into convention appearances, book and DVD sales—he helped Wilkins put one together.
According to Moon’s storyline, in 1964 Wilkins was working at Channel 3 as an ad salesman, occasionally writing jokes for his pal Harry Martin, who, among other on-screen duties, hosted Valley Playhouse, a weekday afternoon movie slot. When Martin went on vacation, someone recommended Wilkins for the gig, and his combination of boyish charm and deadpan humor apparently was a hit.
The station approached Wilkins to host a Saturday night late show in the latter part of 1966, hoping that whatever spark Wilkins had demonstrated during his afternoon stint would carry over to whoever it was who stayed up past the news on Saturday nights.
The focus of this new Seven Arts Theater show was horror and science-fiction films. Someone asked Wilkins how much he knew about those genres and he told them, well, not much. So they pulled three reels of a film from the station’s library along with a projector, and told Wilkins to go home and watch. He couldn’t make much sense out of Matango, otherwise known as Attack of the Mushroom People or Fungus of Terror, and he must have figured that whoever else would be watching something like that on a Saturday night wouldn’t comprehend it either—which is movie-host heaven, if you have the sense of humor that can milk a good cheap laugh. Wilkins, of course, could.
The charm that made Wilkins such a Northern California smash was perfectly timed. His brand of anti-hero geek appeal fit in with a certain mid-’60s mood, also evident in the pages of Mad magazine. According to both Moon and John Stanley, the San Francisco Chronicle entertainment writer who succeeded Wilkins as host of Channel 2’s Creature Features and recently wrote a book called I Was a TV Horror Host, Wilkins ran against the grain of monster-movie hosts. Instead of belaboring the typical image—primped up in Victorian funerary duds and speaking in an ill-advised “Transylvanian” accent—Wilkins dressed for business during normal hours. He wore a suit and tie, and his blond hair, glasses, boyish face and young-sounding voice made him come across like a regular guy, albeit one who was slightly twisted.
From the beginning, Wilkins displayed a “what, me worry?” attitude and lack of pandering toward advertisers, which manifested on his first show with him reading listings from TV Guide in competing time slots, telling viewers to take their eyeballs elsewhere.
“On Monday morning,” Stanley recalls, “the Roseville car dealers were on the phone with KCRA, demanding that Bob Wilkins have his ass kicked out of there, fired for degrading the entire idea of the program.”
Apparently, regular station advertisers figured they could put the kibosh on such heretical programming—but changed their tune as soon as KCRA management informed them that Wilkins had trounced everything else in his time slot.
“It was the cool thing to watch,” Moon says. “In that era, there were horror hosts all over the country. And I’m sure that everybody is as passionate about the horror host that they grew up watching as we are about Bob. But Bob was different.”
He was. While his show would feature some of the finer horror films (as I recall, the English studio Hammer Film Productions, with its Gothic vampire movies, was a Seven Arts Theater favorite), Wilkins would land some of the stars of those films for some memorable interview segments. Even though he’d begun his horror-host career not knowing much about the genre, he took the genre and its auteurs seriously—well, when he wasn’t poking fun at it and them.
Bay Area fans also got to witness Wilkins, in the late ’70s, playing “Captain Cosmic,” an action figure inspired by Japanese kiddie-TV programs like Ultraman and George Lucas’ Star Wars epics. (Modesto native Lucas once admitted to Wilkins that the director grew up watching Wilkins’ Saturday-night fright fests on Channel 3.) And Wilkins even took a turn as a Channel 2 weather man, which—according to a friend who watched—might include skiing sequences from old James Bond films as part of the nightly snowpack update.
After his television career ended in 1982, Wilkins focused on his advertising agency, the other career he’d pursued while still an on-air personality. “You remember Chuck E. Cheese’s, that Northern California pizza chain?” Stanley asks. “That was one of Bob’s accounts.”
Wilkins later took a marketing position in Sparks, outside Reno, with John Ascuaga’s Nugget casino and hotel; he worked there until a 1995 heart attack, and the doctor’s advice that followed, motivated him to retire.
Unfortunately, these days Wilkins is homebound with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. He doesn’t make appearances, although he has showed up for some tributes—last March at the Crest Theatre, along with another theater in El Cerrito—and he may appear on Halloween at the Fremont Presbyterian Church’s “Trunk or Treat” fete, where he’ll be dressed as a vampire in a rocking chair, with his wife Sally playing a witch. “Trunk or Treat” runs from 6:30-8 p.m., and the church is located at H Street and Carlson Drive in River Park.
The cost of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient isn’t cheap, and one of the features of Moon’s Wilkins Web site is a place where fans can help his family defray the expenses by donating through PayPal.
What’s unfortunate about the era of television in which Wilkins played an essential part is that so little of it was documented for posterity. Standard station practice called for studio tapes to get recycled again and again; no one had the foresight to imagine a future audience for gems like Wilkins’ shows, or Ron Schmeck’s Easy Living Country, or anything else produced on the cheap by local stations to fill the spaces between ads.
But for anyone who can remember, Bob Wilkins united those of us growing up with non-mainstream tastes in Northern California. He made us feel OK about our idiosyncratic natures. In my book, that’s the mark of a true friend.