In the 1960s and early ’70s, in eastern Maine, if you stayed up late watching TV on a Saturday night, you were probably, at some point, going to get weird.
Weird, as in “The Weird Show,” the late-night monster and sci-fi movie program on WLBZ 2, hosted by local TV legend Eddie Driscoll. It was one of several shows hosted by Driscoll, an omnipresent figure on channel 2 from its first day of broadcasting in 1954, until he retired 33 years later, in 1987. Driscoll died in 2006, at age 81.
Many regional TV stations in those days featured late night horror and sci-fi programming. Before cheap videotape became available and syndication became widely used, there were hours of time to fill on local TV — and the low-budget flicks featuring Z-list talent were just the sort of time-fillers programmers were looking for.
Local horror shows all had local hosts. Los Angeles had the sexy Vampira; New York and Philadelphia had the dastardly Zacherley. And Bangor, Maine — one of the smallest TV markets in the country — had Uncle Gory and Krandall (and Zog, and Hadley the Horrible, and any number of other oddball characters Driscoll would dream up on a given night).
Uncle Gory was a one-eyed hunchback who hosted horror movies from deep within his underground lair. Science fiction movies were hosted by the extraterrestrial Krandel from his alien spacecraft. Driscoll’s antics were as much the attraction for viewers as the old movies he showed, whether those movies featured Frankenstein, Godzilla or the attack of the fill-in-the-blank.
“If you were a college student in Maine in that era, you probably went back to your dorm on Saturday night to watch ‘The Weird Show,’” said Bill Green, a longtime broadcaster with WLBZ and WCSH. “You only had three channels to watch back then, and this was before ‘Saturday Night Live.’ If you were watching TV, you were watching Eddie.”
Green, who as a kid in Bangor grew up watching Driscoll, got his first job in television as a second cameraman as a freshman in 1971 at the University of Maine. Who gave him the job? Eddie Driscoll.
“He was a mentor to me, in a lot of ways, and I was just in awe of his talent,” Green said. “He did everything with no budget. It was all just creativity. There was nobody funnier than Eddie.”
Driscoll was known for much more than his late-night horror show, of course. Eastern Maine residents likely knew him more for his cavalcade of characters, be they frumpy housewife Margaret, dim-witted hayseed Bruce Budworm or the sweet-natured puppet Mason Mutt, a dog who mused philosophically about everyday life on “My Backyard,” Driscoll’s children’s show.
They certainly knew him for his game show, “Dialing for Dollars,” in which Driscoll would call up random numbers in the phone book and ask whomever answered questions for cash prizes — usually not more than a few dollars at a time. According to a story the BDN wrote when Driscoll died in 2006, “Dialing for Dollars” at one point attracted a 72 percent share of viewers when it aired. His other shows, including “The Great Money Movie,” were similarly popular.
If not from one of those shows, then they knew him from one of the thousands of commercials and station promos he shot over the years for channel 2 — for more than three decades, he was the face of the station.
Driscoll, a Brewer native born in 1925, did not get started on TV until he was 29. He was working at the Eastern Fine paper mill in Brewer when he was hired at the then brand-new WLBZ channel. Though he was a newcomer to broadcasting, he spent years before that honing his talents on local stages — a Kiwanis dinner here, hosting a dance there.
He was also a gifted artist. According to his daughter, Amanda Driscoll Vieira, he attended art school in Boston in 1949 and had a studio in their home in Brewer where he would make all his puppets. He also loved to draw, and before he turned to television, he wanted to make a career as a cartoonist.
“He was just an incredibly creative person,” said Vieira, who now lives in Gorham. “It became a normal thing, for me, to see my dad on TV. I’d watch ‘Captain Kangaroo,’ and then my dad.”
Driscoll’s performances were generally totally improvised. Long before improv comedy was commonplace on stages and screens, Driscoll was coming up with things to say and gags to pull, right off the top of his head — live on TV — with the kind of stream of consciousness energy seen in performers like Jonathan Winters or Ernie Kovacs, and the slapstick skills of fellow TV pioneer Milton Berle.
“He came a bit after the vaudeville era, but he was very much of that vaudeville tradition,” Green said. “He understood slapstick. He could tap dance. He could walk into a strange town and put on a show — though in his case, he was doing it through television.”
When Driscoll retired in 1987, an array of famous Mainers wished him well on a TV special honoring his career, including Stephen King. King facetiously blamed Driscoll for making him into the man he is today — he did not end up loving vampires and monsters just out of the blue.
“I don’t know what I’ll do, if I can’t tune in before ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and see you looking like a refugee from a Belfast chicken farm in that ‘M.A.S.H.’ t-shirt, offering trips to North Vietnam or wherever it was you were going to send people,” King said in his goodbye message. “You warped my childhood, you destroyed my adolescence, and now, you’re going to leave me like this.”