The Return of The Bowman Body
On Saturday morning, August 8th, to be exact, there was already a line forming outside the Ashland Theatre at 9:00 a.m. Dedicated fans, many in costumes or t-shirts of their favorite character, greeted each other by calling out lines and laughing hysterically at the responses. Most of the audience is made up from local people, but some travelled from Pennsylvania and Maryland to be here.
Was this a revival of a favorite film series? Die-hard Star Wars fans perhaps, queuing up to see a sneak preview of the next upcoming blockbuster?
No, these were fans of The Bowman Body, a late night horror host that dominated the airwaves during his tenure with WXEX TV-8 over 40 years ago.
The Bowman Body was played by Bill Bowman and the hastily put together series, which featured a mix of classic horror films as well as less than stellar flicks, quickly became a ratings juggernaut. When the initial run wrapped up, Bowman told his audience that if they wanted to see more of the show, “just drop a line to the station management.”
Within days the station was flooded with postcards and letters imploring the station to keep the show on the air.
I confess that I wrote several of those letters myself.
Bill Bowman went on to play his alter ego for a number of years in Central and Northern Virginia before leaving the air and eventually coming to work at WCVE PBS doing production work from the General Assembly.
It was rare to catch Bowman at our studios on Sesame Street, but one afternoon there he was at the front desk. I don’t get nervous talking to celebrities, but on that afternoon, seeing the man who made so many of my nights enjoyable, I was in awe.
Working up the courage I approached the man whom I had idolized as a youth and said, “Mr. Bowman, it is a real honor to meet you. It was because of your work that I wanted to work in radio and television.”
Without missing a beat, he sized me up and said, “Kid, don’t blame me for your bad decisions.”
It was the perfect comeback from a man who would eventually become a good friend.
The fans were lined up to see Bowman tape two shows scheduled for DVD release – something no other audience had ever seen. When Bowman was taping his show it was usually in the afternoons with just a few people working at the station being treated to the madness.
“At one time,” he remembers while putting on his trademark make-up, “I had to tell people not to show up at the station at 11:30 at night. They thought we were doing it live and wanted to be a part of it.”
All of this came about when producer-director Sean Kotz was making Virginia Creepers, a documentary about the history of the horror hosts in Virginia. Even for an old fan such as myself, that film was a real eye-opener to many names I had forgotten or never known.
“When we debuted Virginia Creepers,” Kotz says, “there was terrific demand for a documentary on Bowman. Everybody wanted to see more of Bowman and they especially wanted more clips from his shows. That was the hard part. Very few clips of his shows exist as this was in the pre-VCR days and the station didn’t want to tie up expensive tape with clips from Shock Theatre.”
The Bowman documentary, aptly named Hi There Horror Movie Fans was a success and had its world premiere at the Byrd Theatre with several hundred die-hard fans jamming their way in to see their hero. Bowman was humbled by the outpouring of love and he autographed posters and DVDs for anyone that wanted one, and chatted with those that just wanted a moment of his time.
I was fortunate enough to meet Kotz at the Byrd Theatre when he showed Virginia Creepers and brought in several horror hosts from around the state. Dr. Sarcofiguy, Karlos Borloff, Dr. Gruesome and Skeeter joined Bowman on the stage as I moderated a Q-and-A session with the audience. Kotz was already hard at work on Hi There Horror Movie Fans lining up people who had worked with Bowman or had stories to tell about him.
Kotz realized that the Holy Grail for Bowman’s fans was to recreate in minute detail the complete Shock Theatre experience. That meant getting Bowman (now older and with nothing left to prove ) to agree to doing them, then recreating the set which has long been lost, and finally finding a place in which he could make it all happen and still be able to film the event.
That’s when Arthur Brill stepped in. Brill is the mastermind behind the Ashland Haunted History Tour who also happens to design sets. Brill is a member of a Facebook group dedicated to getting more shows by the Bowman Body. He answered a post by Kotz and quickly secured the Ashland Theatre and began redesigning the set.
“Sean sent me a large photograph,” Brill says, “and I projected it onto my flats. I had to use several different angles to make sure it was right, but in the end what you are seeing is a faithful reproduction of the Shock Theatre set. In fact, one audience member came up to me and asked if we had found the original set in storage somewhere. That was the greatest compliment someone could give me.”
Brill also decorated the set with some of his props from his Spook Show extravaganzas including the skull that recently portrayed the character of Yorick in Henley Street’s production of Hamlet.
It all rested on the shoulders of Bill Bowman.
While the crew is working on last minute touches, I grab a couple of minutes with Bowman. Now in his eighties, he still has excitement and is worried that he’ll somehow disappoint his fans. He walks around his makeshift dressing room while his granddaughter Casey and her husband Aaron try to get him ready. “What if I just can’t do it,” he wonders out loud while everyone assures him that he’s going to be great.
The moment he walks into the theatre the audience erupts into spontaneous applause and cheers. You can see his smile beneath the layers of makeup and his eyes light up like beacons. He waves to everybody and thanks them for coming out.
Within moments the production starts and everyone is hanging on every word spoken by Bowman. Even when things go wrong – and it wouldn’t be Shock Theatre if something didn’t go wrong – he generates laughter from the assembled group.
In between the tapings, while the audience is out getting lunch, Kotz is still tinkering with the script (actually more of an outline, Bowman doesn’t want to get too tied into a script) and figuring out shots while devouring a couple of slices of pizza. “I can’t believe how well everything is going,” he says. “And look at all the people who came out to support this. Not just the audience but members of the horror community.”
Indeed, there are representatives from two international magazines dedicated to horror, plus appearances by several horror hosts. Armisted Spottswood, who appears on WCVE PBS’ Midnight Frights appears in both episodes; Dr. Sarcofiguy, who in real life is author and artist John Dimes, plays a part in the second show, as does internationally known horror host, actor, and voice over artist, Mr. Lobo, whose voice will introduce the new shows (listen to an interview with Mr. Lobo above).
By the end of the second round of taping, Bowman is exhausted but still has to make an appearance for an eight o’clock showing of Hi There Horror Movie Fans. He still spends almost 20 minutes posing for pictures and talking with fans. Finally Casey and Aaron are able to break him away so he can rest and remove his makeup for the show.
It’s been a long day, but for Bowman Body fans everywhere it’s been an exciting day. A day over 30 years in the making, and now they only have to wait until September to see the world premiere at the Ashland Theatre and the October showings at the Byrd Theatre.
Of course there’s more information about how you can get your own copies at thebowmanbody.com.