EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Karen Scioli
(aka, Stella, horror hostess of Philadelphia's Saturday Night Dead)
by Dustin Bennett
How did you become the hostess of Saturday Night Dead?
In 1984, TV station KYW (an NBC affiliate in Philadelphia) bought a package of horror movies and decided to cast a horror host to present them. Philly has a glorious horror host history (Roland aka Zacherley 1958, and Dr. Shock 1969-1979) but with Elvira's success and popularity (and cleavage - she was on TV in L.A. at the time) KYW decided it was time for a female host.
So KYW launched a huge promo casting campaign to find the horror hostess for their new show, Saturday Night Dead (we came on at 1:00 AM following Saturday Night Live). 150 people showed over the course of the two week auditions. This was in the summer of 1984.
I am a Philly girl born and raised, but at the time of the auditions I was living in NYC, trying my hand at stand up comedy. My bff in Philly, Alfina, sent me the newspaper clipping about the auditions and said "you should try out!" My mom, Florence, bugged me for days to come down and audition. So I did. I auditioned on a Sunday morning at 9am. I wrote a 5 minute audition that included silly impersonations of horror movie women. I dressed very glamorously in a black jumpsuit and rhinestones. I think I stood out because I did NOT dress as any kind of ghoul or vampire. My "shtick" was that I was normal but surrounded my monsters.
In three days I got a call back and was one of the ten finalists. When I went back to the finals audition, I was handed a script and noticed that it was the material I wrote for the first audition! I said to the producer, Steve Bronstein, "Hey! This is what I wrote for my first audition!" And Steve said "You should be flattered." My response was "I will be if I get the part!" AND I GOT THE PART!!! Had to have been the most exciting time in my life.
I was very lucky because KYW was a big station in a large market (4th in the country) so there was a lot of publicity involved with interviews and press parties, costume and makeup styling, PR photo sessions so exciting!
How much influence did you have on your character's persona and the direction of each episode's theme?
I'm pretty sure one of the reasons I got the part was because I was writing comedy at the time and the producer definitely wanted someone to help with the writing of the show. When I auditioned, the name "Stella" was already chosen. Steve, the producer, loved the idea of men yelling "STELLA!" like Marlon Brando in Streetcar. As for everything else Stella's look, her residence, characters, we worked on together. It was decided that Stella would live in a haunted condo instead of your typical castle or mansion. Stella initially had a doorman ala "Carlton" on the TV show Rhoda (I know, ancient history. But it was 1984). We never made Stella a vampire or ghoul or even immortal. She was a vamp, plain and simple, who happened to live in a bizarre, macabre world. I wanted to look like Rita Hayworth and my new makeup stylist, Stefanie Lombardo, made me look gorgeous! She became one of my best friends. Henry David of Philadelphia, and his partner Charles, designed my first gown and wig. I felt like a movie star!
But the budget was not really one of a movie star. In the beginning, I had one regular actor on the show other than myself, Jeff Dehart a very talented impersonator and comic. Jeff was hired before me and he mainly did all the crazy voices off camera. Later he did appear on camera with his incredible Rod Serling impersonation. We also did a special "red carpet" event that aired right before the first episode. It was filmed outside the station, we had a large crowd, and "horror stars" would pull up in front of the station and be interviewed by the "papparazzi" before the premier. Jeff DeHart played all the stars!! Boria, Bella, Peter Lorre, etc. We even had a fabulous Godzille costume so "Zilla" showed up for the premier too. (I believe the red carpet premier and the first episode are on YouTube, on my Karen Scioli channel).
We also added "Iggy," Stella's huge, green projectionist monster who lived in the dungeon (yes, her condo had a dungeon), and "Bed" (formally called Beda Lugosi) who was Stella's talking bed. Bed's voice was a lot like Goofy or some Disney character. No words, just a lot of "yups." The art department made me a wonderful four poster green bed with drapes. We would make an intern go under the bed and shake the springs to animate him.
We also had a large portrait over the mantle/fireplace. The portrait had big stuffed lips that could be manipulated like a puppet from behind the portrait. We just called him "Portrait" and he was always horribly sarcastic and insulting.
But by the second show, my producer said I could bring on another actor to play a one-time character so I didn't even think twice to hire my good friend and extremely talented actor Glenn Davish. Glenn was in every show from then on. So I had Jeff as my voice over person and Glenn as my on-screen character actor.
My producer Steve and I would come up with ideas for each show but I was pretty much the writer. My actors throughout the years were my muses and certainly added hilarious input.
I went thru 3 producers and as the show progressed over the years I had more and more control over the content. In the beginning we tried to connect the show to the movie. For example, the second movie I showed was The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant so I wrote a show about The Incredible Double Breasted Transplant and Glenn Davish played Dr. Schuylkill. Schuylkill is an area and the name of our crazy expressway in Philly. I still have to look up the spelling. But as we went on in years I gave up trying to connect my show to the movie. We sort of became our own little 1/2 hour sitcom, sometimes even having cliff hangers until the following week.
Was Saturday Night Dead shot live? What can you tell us about what production was like on the set?
We did not shoot live, but rather live on tape. We shot every Monday for the show that aired on the upcoming Saturday. We would go in about 10am, I'd have a production meeting with the producer and we'd go over props and wardrobe and discuss the shooting.
Then we'd have a script rehearsal with any actors (this is where we'd get silly and add ad libs and improvs to the script), then I'd get in makeup and wardrobe and at about 12:30, right after the station shot the live local news, I'd go in the studio and sit on my glorious throne and do promos for the show. After that we would have lunch, then back to block the show on set.
We shot the show from 8-10pm then the station was busy with news promos and the news. I shared the crew. By the time we shot in the evening the script was finalized and we had to stick to it because of our limited time.
Sometimes, after the show was well into it's second and third year, we'd use the short afternoon studio session to shoot scenes that were more complicated or where I played other characters to get it over with before the 2 hour session.
We had no wiggle room. We'd shoot the scenes in one take unless there was a technical problem. The actors were not allowed to mess up or get a second chance! If we made a mistake, we kept rolling and improvised our way out of it. Needless to say it made for some hilarious moments.
In the beginning we didn't have a studio audience. Maybe a few people like my mom and in-laws, but that was it. That changed eventually because the actors LOVED having a studio audience of course. The seating was limited, so we'd delight some fans and invite them to tapings. Every once in awhile if we had a Halloween special, we'd bring in the bleachers and have a full house. Now that was a blast! Once I had a whole busload of Sciolis come to the taping. Best ... audience ... ever ... All in costume, too.
Were you a horror fan before taking on the role of Stella?
As a kid, my sister Cathy and I loved horror movies, as most kids do, right? Watching the old Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff black and white movies on our little TV was terrifying and exciting. Some of our most fun afternoons were going to the local movie theater and seeing two or three colorful Hammer movies with Vincent Price and all those wonderful actors from the '60s horror movies. I was definitely into the gothic sets and costumes and vampires. Loved all the Roger Corman "Poe" movies. I was not a big sci-fi fan. Slasher movies came later and I was not a big slasher fan either. I was always old school horror. So yes, I was a horror movie fan but nothing like an expert or anything. I had fans who would write and complain because we chopped off 7 seconds of a scene. I would also get asked very specific, deep questions about the movies or actors in them and I had no idea. As a matter of fact, after about 3 or 4 months when I first started the show, I stopped watching the movies. Once we went thru the fabulous Hammer films the movies got too bad even for me to watch. Have you ever seen Dracula vs Frankenstein? I swear this movie was shot in someone's backyard.
What are some of your best memories/experiences from the set?
Generally speaking the entire experience was positive and the most fun a creative person can have. Everyone was enthusiastic about the show from the crew to the art department, sales department and of course the actors. (And the fans! It was a hit right from the beginning almost). With that being said, we had some specific hilarious moments. And they just got better as the years went by.
My favorite amazing moment was hiring Robert Billbrough, in 1986, as Stella's butler Hives. We held an open audition for characters, Bob showed up and was brilliant. At first we didn't have enough money in the budget to have him speak (it was a union show) so we could only have him on as an "under five" meaning he could only say five lines or less. So we got around that by having him talk gibberish, or his own odd language that only Stella could understand. After all, he was from Transylvania. His language became insanely funny and eventually we found money in the budget so he could really speak. And he was even funnier. So now I had Glenn Davish and Bob Billbroug as my regulars. We felt like Carol Burnett (my all time idol), Harvey Korman and Tim Conway - but morbid. Bob was always Hives the butler, but every once in awhile we'd write scripts where he would play other characters like our series of James Blond. And he was a fabulous James Blond. He also did an incredible Poe and a host of other characters. One of my favorites was Bucky the Buckaneer who came out of a bottle. Or my pipes or something. Very dashing. And his Bogie, in our nod to old black and white movie scenes, was really fun. Glenn on the other hand, came in playing a million characters, my most favorite being Cousin Mel who always cried so much he wore a yellow slicker and had toilet paper on him at all times. Glenn's other character that I loved was Maria Al Dente, the Italian Spaghetti Western director who convinced Stella to do a western style mini series (Lonesome Dove was a big TV series at the time so we did Lonesome Div). Glenn Davish is a genius. He had Bob and I crying from laughter.
My favorite shows were Lonesome Div which lasted for 4 episodes. The art department built me a western set that was awesome. I had a saloon and the bar was slanted so that when we passed a drink down the bar it would always slide right off the edge. I was able to dress as a cowgirl in a kelly green outfit with hat. We added a few other characters to the show Lance Bullwhip, a self-centered western star who gave us a lot of problems (played by Richard Bell so friggin' funny), and his sister who he insisted Stella give her a big part in the mini series. His sister was played by Alan Fitzpatrick who looked ridiculous in a tight white jumpsuit.
My second favorite show was A Sliver of Life which is on YouTube. Stella was a big fan of a local (fake) TV soap opera called A Sliver of Life and the soap invited her to be a guest on the show. So first I got to play Phaedra, the leading actress in the soap who had some sort of accident so Stella stepped in for her. Of course it was a disaster. Stella went from being involved in several scandals, lost her eye sight, got amnesia and ended up having to have a brain tumor removed in surgery. We had great sets for all this and I got to smash vases off mantles during my blind phase. Oh, she also had a baby. All within 20 minutes. Bob and Glenn played dapper soap stars Flip and Flake. So ... much ... fun ...
Another series of the show was when Stella fell in love with Rhett Cutlet, the young butcher from Bridesburg (a section of Philly), played by Alan Fitzpatrick. It was love at first sight and I believe she met him on The Dating Game. The love turned into a full-blown romance and we made up fantasy scenes about their love together. We were Cleopatra and Marc Anthony, Lucy and Ricky. It was the most fun ever. Then at the wedding (which turned out to be a big Pr promo with invitations sent out, a bridal shower at the Moose Lodge (I had to track down a taxidermy place in Feasterville PA to borrow some moose heads for the lodge. Stuffed then into my mom's little VW and drove them 35 miles to the studio.
We had other regulars - Donna Ryan and Kathy "Big Babe" Robinson - outrageous characters. Once we all got together it was so difficult to not laugh thru the tapings. These actors were all insane and would do ANYTHING for a laugh.
One time when Stella was holding a (fake) cattle call audition for her mini series Lonesome Div, we had a real cow show up. The local farm school provided us with the biggest cow we ever saw. She slowly clomped her way into the studio and we had to put floor covering down because she was slipping and almost tumbled over (real cow tipping). And once in place ol' Elsie let out a gush of cow urine that took several buckets and lot of saw dust on the floor to soak up. It was like a fire hose on full blast. I'm sure I have photos of this.
Then there were the star guests Roland aka Zacherley. Oh my God. Everyone in the station had to meet him, he was OUR beloved horror idol and we were humbled and flattered to have him there. We gave him the script about two weeks before the shoot but I don't think he realized he had to memorize it. So we had hidden scripts all over the set - in a coffin, on the floor, even pinned to Glenn's hump back (he was playing Humpy and had a hunch back). John Zacherley was a doll and a gentleman and complete professional. And we had a lot of laughs. And dare I say this, he was one sexy man! I found that disturbing. But he is sexy!
Then we found out that Rip Taylor who was appearing in Atlantic City, was a fan of SND and asked to be on the show. Another thrilling moment! Rip was sweet, a Diva (but in a good way) and once we got rolling he was in his element and was so frigging funny. We invited a studio audience to give him some enthusiastic feed back and he responded to the live audience and they LOVED him.
Then there was the incredible time when I had Sally Star, Pixanne and Trudy Hanyes on as guests from Stella's (fake) Host and Hostess High. We were all floored having our childhood idols (Sally and Pixanne Trudy was KYW's entertainment reporter) on the show. They were wonderful. We actually continued to cast Jane Norman (Pixanne) into a few specials and became friends with her and her husband. She's a sweet, talented woman with a generous heart. Love her so much.
We also had what we called "mumble offs" which were ad libs as we got out of a scene. These made us laugh more than anything. We (Glenn, Bob, Donna and Kathy) always tried to make each other laugh during these mumble offs. My favorite is when Glenn, as Mario Aldente was trying to show Stella had to cry on cue by pulling nosehairs out of his nose. "Look! I cry! I cry!" And it works, by the way. Tears come to your eyes when you pluck a nose hair. Valuable info for an actor.
Later Richard "Dicky" Bell, from NYC, added a lot of crazy. He played many characters - The North Jersey Devil (jealous of the South Jersey Devil from the Pine Barrens), a cop, an Aunt of Stella's, a film critic, but my favorite was Tallulah Bankhead in our recreation of Life Boat. We were all lost at sea and found Tallulah in the ocean struggling to get in our boat. God how I loved working with Dicky Bell. I think he did Bette Davis, too. I get all the drag characters mixed up. I think Glenn did Bette as well. I know we all did Zas Zas Gabor during our Gypsy Queen Off show.
Stella stumbled upon a Gypsy camp because her dog Stinky ended up there and to win him back we had to have a Gypsy Queen off contest. Thus the multi Zas Zas Gabors. The contest consisted of redecorating the gypsy camp and singing obscure show tunes to determine who was the biggest Queen. After we taped the show our producer said "I think we may have gone too far." Years later when I look at it, it's funnier than when we shot it. We got away with murder. Not a lot of political correctness back then. It was the time of our lives and we knew it. We often said to each other "we are making memories." We were sort of the brat pack of the station and everyone wanted to work on the show.
We had pros building our sets like Rene Heckman (God rest his talented soul) and his wonderful crew, who had a blast putting together sets and scenes for our show. If we wanted a bar scene, he built it. If we wanted a dungeon in a castle, it was there. Rene said it reminded him of his silly days when he worked on the Ernie Kovack show. We were so honored and lucky to have this old hand making magic out of nothing for us. Gurus on mountains? Done. Hospital operating rooms? No problem. Underwater submarines? Easy. How lucky we were. I love and miss all the crew.
Were you able to keep any of the props from Saturday Night Dead when production ended? If not, is there anything you wish you could have taken with you?
The crew snuck my big Stella portrait that was hanging in the large hallway at the station along with all the other portraits of on air talent, and managed to put it I my car for me to take home. It's my pride and glory. I so wish I had kept my throne, and the Iggy puppet hand. Other than that, I do have some relics and memorabilia that I managed to keep like my friend Ferdnhand (a fake hand) and a stained bed sheet. And tons of fan mail. Now that's a treat for a dark, stormy night, to open a bottle of booze and read thru some of them. I was very popular in Cell Block 8.
If you could go back in time, keeping all the knowledge you have now: Would you change anything about the time spent on the show? If yes, what would you change?
I have to say, I don't think I would change anything! We had so much fun and had complete creative freedom (almost). It was the perfect job for any actor. I love that over the 6 years the show was on air I was able to give many actors and comics the opportunity to be on the show and have fun with us. Having a low budget made us even more creative. I truly think I got the most out of it as I possibly could. I did everything I wanted to do; looked glamorous, played crazy characters, did a Lucy impersonation, won a local Emmy, but most of all worked with my favorite people of all time Bob Billbrough and Glenn Davish. I got to write a script every week, meet celebs, went on amazing personal appearances and got paid for it all!!! I am a very lucky Diva.
Do you get recognized as Stella on the street in public when not in your Stella outfit?
Well, certainly not any more! During the height of the show once in a while people would recognize me. They were the diehard fans. But more often people would recognize my voice and say "I think I know you from somewhere." Of course, if I was out with my mom she ALWAYS outed me. Even if we were in the supermarket she would say to strangers "Do you know who my daughter is?" She was my biggest fan. I always made sure I had makeup on and looked decent when I went out with her.
How does it feel to have been inducted into the Horror Host Hall of Fame?
The biggest honor I have had to date. The entire experience was incredible and I was kind of shocked that I was perceived as famous as all that. My husband Rick and I took the road trip to Columbus OH for the event and I had a table at the HorrorHound convention in a room with all the other horror hosts. I got to meet so many of my Facebook horror friends! I probably spent a lot of time crying all weekend. I was especially thrilled to meet the two Daves from Terror Beyond the Daves, Doctor Dorian Destruction (I had been on his radio show in Wisconsin several times and I adore him), Gore DeVol, Baron Von Porkchop, Fritz the Night Owl, on and on. So many! I was stunned that they all knew who I was. But my favorite part was that I was personally inducted by Mr. Halloween Jack. Halloween Jack is the host of Kreepy Kastle radio and The Monster Channel. He grew up in my neck of the woods so Stella was a part of his TV history. He knew my show from the very first one that aired in 1984. I met him for the first time when I did the Chiller Theater convention in Parsipany NY in Oct. of 2009. It was my first convention and I was thrilled to share a corner and table with John Zackerley (who remembered being a guest on my show). It was an amazing event. Hives (Bob BillBrough) and Rick went with me. I met Halloween Jack there and loved him. I was so honored that he went to Columbus to be my inductee. We've been good friends since, along with his beautiful fiancι Halloween Jacqueline.
I think the most bizarre moment at the induction was that I finally, for the first time, met Elvira! Sort of. She was dashing to the ladies room before the induction (she was inducted the same year) and I was behind her so I called to her and introduced myself (I'm sure she knew who I was since I've been around as long as she has) and congratulated her on the induction. She said "thanks, you too" and that was that. Sadly she didn't wear her Elvira costume for the induction.
While doing the show, did you have any thought or idea that it would still have this much of a fan base, impact and recognition this many years later?
Never ever in a million years. When I got the part of Stella I asked the producer how long he thought the show might last and he said about 6 months. I was thrilled! As a working actress, a 6 month job was a big deal! Never did I think it would last 6 years. After the show ended in 1990, there was no internet, Facebook, etc. Then one day a cutie-pie named Michael Monahan got in touch with me via my old TV Station and asked to interview me for his documentary American Scary all about American horror hosts. I was honored of course, and he came to my house and interviewed me and Bob Billbrough. That was the beginning of Stella's revival! The documentary (and follow up book) sort of became the new Horror Host Bible. That had a lot to do with Stella reaching a new, younger audience all over the place.
After years of not doing anything Stella related, The Blobfest called and asked if I would be their guest of honor at the fest that year and I said "oh what the hell. No one will remember me anyway!" Well, I was shocked. Because of the internet and the documentary, everyone knew who I was! It was at that fest that I was convinced to do the Chiller convention in October. So I did, that was my first convention. I've only done two others since then Monster Mania in Cherry Hill and HorrorHound in OH. The Cherry Hill convention was wonderful. Since it was on my own home turf, hundreds of people showed up to meet me with the most incredible stories and memories. One strapping lad from Scotland rushed up to me with tears in his eyes saying "IT'S YOU!!!" then he saw Hives and said "AND YOU TOO!" Apparently his American cousin would tape my show and mail him the tapes so he grew up in SCOTLAND watching SND and was a huge fan! I was shocked. You just never know what kind of impact you make on people. People shared many stories like that with me at that convention. I'm still moved as I think about it.
What are your current projects?
I'm proud to say I am the creator of a new web series called Goth Mothers of Transylvania. It started out as a spoof on the Housewives shows but now I'm reforming it into a modern type of comedy horror show ala The Munsters or Addams Family. It's a work in progress but we had a BLAST working on the show and it continues to get some positive attention and feedback. Episode two is on the drawing board. It's difficult to work on high quality projects with no money! But I'm sure that will come in time. I worked with a lot of my old SND buds- Glenn and Bob, and had an amazing crew, talented actors, and A FABULOUS SOUND STAGE (Hill Studio in Paulsboro NJ)! Thank God I was nice to so many people back when I was a production coordinator for a local film company. Everyone was excited and happy to work their buns off on this project to have fun and hope something will come of it. My husband, Rick Rydell, did a phenomenal job on the editing. I'm a lucky girl!
I'm also working on a children's book (My Crazy Aunt Stella), and some horror greeting cards. Who knows, perhaps a line of bras is next??? Oh, I also have a line of hot sauce. But of course I do.
Any thoughts to bringing Stella back outside of convention appearances?
Last Halloween I had a busy High Holiday with incredible appearances. I opened the new Boogie Nights nightclub at The Tropicana in Atlantic City, I made an appearance on the Preston and Steve Radio Show (those guys are adorable and fun), I hosted a Red Cross Blood Drive, appeared at a movie night in Manayunk, and had a huge event planned at the amazing Underground Arts theater on Halloween night but sadly Sandy hit and so many of my people involved were without power or worse. I had to cancel and felt terrible about that and worried for so many of my friends. Maybe this Halloween will be better.
But throughout the year I continue to make radio appearances on Kreepy Kaslte, a few on The Monster Channel, some radio shows here in Philly (1210 Remember When with Steve Ross), Doctor Destruction's radio show, etc.
I'd love love love to do the Monster Mania convention again in Cherry Hill but seems they're not into horror hosts joining the convention. I always get asked if I will be appearing there but it doesn't seem to be something the show is into. Too bad.
Any words to your legion of fans?
Legion of Fans!!! I LOVE that term! Ok, for all of you horror fans out there, mine or otherwise, let me just say you're the best. I know this will sound weird, but there's something about horror movies that brings out the kid in everyone. The fans are faithful and dedicated and the most fun people I have ever met. I've been to conventions with thousands of people and everyone there is loving and fun.
To my personal Stella fans, well, I love you all from the bottom of my cleavage. I could not be more honored and humbled to even be considered an icon in the crazy world of horror. We'll always have horror movies because every generation loves them. And to be part of this history is an accomplishment I will always be extremely proud of.
You can also see old clips and full SND shows on Karen Scioli's official YouTube channel, including the Zacherley show, a clip of Stella as Lucy, some of the Sliver of Life show, Lonesome Div, etc.
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