I come to praise Sammy Terry, not to bury him.
With the passing Sunday, at age 83, of longtime Indianapolis music store owner Bob Carter, a chapter of television history closes.
That’s because, of course, Carter was the real-life, not-totally-secret identity of Sammy Terry, horror movie host on WTTV Channel 4 from 1962 to 1989.
I’ve written about Sammy before, but his passing prompts me to recount the Sammy Terry legend at greater length.
Carter was a TV pitchman who claimed to have invented the Kentucky Fried Chicken catchphrase “It’s finger-lickin’ good!” during a live commercial spot. He always seemed like a gentle soul and, on the rare occasions I called him for an interview, answered the phone in a toned-down version of the sepulchural voice he used to play Sammy.
He seemed to take his celebrity in stride. For a couple of generations – at least – of Indiana kids, he was a cultural icon before we knew what that phrase meant. But probably because you couldn’t make barrels full of money taping a once-a-week horror movie show on Indianapolis TV – and no doubt because he loved providing music education to legions of school children – he kept that day job.
But 11 p.m. Friday rolled around and Carter – in yellow rubber gloves with veins drawn on, pasty pancake makeup, a dark purple cowl and cape and plastic skull around his neck – became friend and nemesis to us kids all at the same time.
He was a friend in my household. Because she knew it was important to me, my mom helped me stay up late on Fridays, talking to me and prodding me and even occasionally offering me a McDonald’s hamburger left over from our special Friday night dinner.
For other kids, including some of my cousins, Sammy, his creaking coffin, his spider friend George and his spooky movies were just a bit too much. Sammy’s entrance was a cue for the sleepover to move into deep sleeping bag mode.
And what movies he showed. Channel 4, like stations all over the country, had bought the Shock Theater package of films. The 50-plus films, including many classic black-and-white Universal Studios horror movies like “Frankenstein” and “The Wolf Man,” had been re-released to theaters for much of the 1930s and 1940s and even the 1950s. But in 1957, the package was released to television and many stations built a weekly horror movie show around it. Thus were born the TV horror hosts, men (and a few women) who dressed up in spooky outfits and presented the classic films, often seasoning their introductions and cut-away bits with campy humor.
Carter – whose stage name was a play on “cemetery” – told me on a couple of occasions how much he enjoyed the gig. He recalled with great fondness how the cardboard dungeon set was created and how the most realistic thing about the show – the coffin from which he arose every Friday at 11 p.m. – had been provided by a funeral home that insisted he never tell its origin for fear it would upset customers.
Carter made appearances here in Muncie over the years, and before one such appearance, in the early 1980s, I had done an interview and asked if I could meet him “backstage” at Muncie Mall as he got into makeup and costume. He graciously agreed and, along with a couple of friends, I was ushered into the room where he was getting ready.
Like three starstruck kids, Jim, Derek and I watched as he got ready and made small talk. When he was finished, I took a picture of the other two with him. That picture hung on Derek’s wall for many years.
Sammy’s time as a horror movie host passed more than a couple of decades ago, a victim of changing tastes and TV economics. He continued to make personal appearances, to the delight of the grown-up kids who remembered him and wanted their kids to know Sammy. In the past couple of years, Carter’s son has been making personal appearances in the character and might continue to do so. It’s a continuation I heartily approve of. Sammy would be pleased to know that he, the ultimate Hoosier TV ghoul, had a life after death.
We’ll miss you, Mr. Carter. And you too, Sammy.