The former Chicago radio and television personality is alive and well in sunny California. Still on the air and also running not one but two restaurants (along with his wife and kids). The Video Veteran and Mr. Bishop got together through the magic of technology and talked about his start, touring with the Beatles, Svengoolie, and more...
Jerry G. Bishop began his broadcasting career at a small AM station in Evanston. WNMP was a 1000 watt daytimer with a classical music format. At the time, the station was located in the 1st National Bank of Evanston building.
THE VIDEO VETERAN: How did you come to work for it?
JERRY G. BISHOP: I graduated Columbia College, was singing in a folk trio, heard WNMP on the car radio, drove there and asked if they were hiring. The PD [program director] was an interesting guy Chan Overton. He gave me some audition copy to read, put me in a studio and taped me. He called me the next day, offered me $67.50 a week. I did a morning show "Commuter Express." My news man was Bill Plante, now White House correspondent for CBS.
VV: How long did you stay?
JG: About a year.
VV: When did you adopt the name "Jerry G. Bishop"?
JG: At WNMP I used my real name Jerry Ghan. I also used it in Springfield and Rockford Illinois and Washington D.C. In 1963 Ken Draper hired me for the station he was PD'ing KYW in Cleveland. He suggested that I just use "Jerry G." which I did for the four years I was in Cleveland. When he moved to Chicago and WCFL, he hired me for WCFL's morning show. He asked me to pick a last name to go with "Jerry G." My wife and I went through the Cleveland phone directory trying different last names, came to "Bishop." It sounded right, so I became Jerry G. Bishop.
If there ever was a second golden age of AM radio, the 1960s were it. All around the country top 40 formats were blasting out of transistor radios everywhere. Chicago was no different. After years as a rural farm focused broadcaster, WLS flipped formats and became a rock station playing "Alley Oop" over and over again on their first day. Not long after, Ken Draper was called in to transform boring stiff WCFL into a rocker to compete for the new fortunes discovered over at 'LS.
VV; How was it returning to your hometown?
JG: Exciting. Lots of old friends, family. It was coming home in the best way.
VV: Had radio in the windy city changed?
JG: Radio everywhere (and society) had changed.
VV: Many Chicago DJs of the era look upon this time as the best time ever to be in radio. Did you feel the same way?
JG: Correct! It was rock radio's greatest era.
VV: Of course meeting The Beatles had to be one of the high points of your career. Were you fortunate enough to keep your ties to the Fab Four in their later years?
JG: Nope. I traveled with them in '65 and '66 when I was working in Cleveland.
WFLD signed on in 1966 as the city's third UHF station. By 1970 as UHF became more accepted, the station was becoming a serious contender to the title of top independent station, a title long held be WGN-TV. After leaving WCFL, Bishop walked over and talked with WFLD program director Cliff Braun. Braun hired him to do the afternoon "Dialing For Dollars" movie. When station management decided to air cheap horror films on Friday nights to compete against WGN-TV's "Creature Features" featuring sinister off camera narration by staff announcer Marty McNeely. Coined "Screaming Yellow Theater," Bishop's initial participation in the show was prompted merely because he was on duty on Fridays as booth announcer. In its original incarnation, Screaming Yellow Theater was almost identical in format to channel 9's Creature Features. But it would soon evolve into much more. For the first time since 1956 when WBKB aired Shock Theater, Chicago would have a live on camera horror show host. But where Shock Theater had the myopic mad beatnik Marvin (played by Terry Bennett), Screaming Yellow Theater would be the home of Svengoolie, a guitar-strumming, coffin-sleeping hippie dude with a vaguely familiar accent.
VV: Was Svengoolie (his costume, sets, and characterizations) all your creation?
JG: Pretty much a one man effort at first. Later a Northwestern student named Rich Koz (later Svengoolie on 32 and 26) began writing material for the show.
VV: Were there censorship problems with the management?
VV: How did the show do against WGN-TV's "Creature Features"?
JG: I don't know ratings-wise but we kicked their ass creatively.
As the live on tape version of the show gained popularity, guests became more common.
VV: Were the guests your personal picks?
JG: Originally I got anyone I could get. Later people would call us. It became an in thing to be a "mystery guest coffin opener."
VV: Who were your favorites?
JG: Bette Midler, Neil Sedaka, Barry Manilow.
VV: Did anything ever go wrong during rehearsal but ended up on the air anyway?
JG: Lots of stuff. But we ended up going with it since the audience didn't know that wasn't what we meant to do.
VV: Did you use a regular producer or director?
JG: I was producer (didn't really have a title). Directors were whoever was on duty the day of the taping. The best ones were Rich Bernal, Phil Doty, Don Shannon, and the best- Ray Barnas.
VV: Before Rich joined you, who besides yourself wrote for the show?
JG: Just me. ust me.
In 1973 Field Enterprises had merged with Kaiser Broadcasting and Bishop and Koz were out, replaced by Kaiser's own horror movie host- the inferior Ghoul.
VV: Did you view this as a blessing in disguise? Had you had enough?
JG: Yes. Luckily WMAQ-TV and Radio called and I went there.
VV: How long do you think you would have continued had the show remained on the air?
JG: Not long.
Bishop's other work while at WFLD- channel 32 included "Chicago Voices," some on camera news, and the telethons for the MDA and Easter Seals. He even shot an unsold pilot for a talk show called "Jerry G. & Company." But toward the end of the decade, the sunny skies and warm climate of California was calling.
VV: Why leave Chicago after all those years?
JG: I was offered a daily live talk show here "Sun Up San Diego." [At KFMB-TV] Kind of like Regis's show. Hosted it for thirteen years (won three Emmys). Did the TV show 1978-1990. At KPOP since 1992.
VV: How does your KPOP show differ from your shows on WCFL and WMAQ?
JG: KPOP now is pretty dry. Big bands, Sinatra, Nat KIng Cole, etc. I just talk a few times an hour. Usually about stuff in the news.
VV: What attracted you to the restaurant biz?
JG: Always had a restaurant "fantasy."
VV: Is it a hands-on business for you and your wife?
JG: Yes and the kids too!
VV: The industry has changed so much since your WNMP days. Do you think the changes are for the better?
VV: Would you say local TV is dead?
JG: Very little left but news.
VV: Did Screaming Yellow Theater appear just at the right time in WFLD's history?
JG: Exactly. And in my history.
VV: Thanks Jerry.
copyright 2002 Steve Jajkowski all rights reserved
Section Two of THE VIDEO VETERAN brings you up to date on what's happening with longtime WGN-TV favorite Don Sandburg, the man who gave us Bozo's Circus, the Grand Prize Game, and himself as Sandy the Clown in SANDY SPEAKS! It may not seem like it but Rich Koz has been in Chicago television for over thirty years now. Read about him in RICH KOZ- LAST OF HIS KIND. And our whole chapter opens with THE MEN OF U H F. Interviews with Chicago pioneers of television's last frontier- U H F. Catch up with Bob Lewandowski, Jerry K. Rose, Edward L. Morris, Sterling 'Red" Quinlan, John Weigel, and a VIDEO VETERAN SPOTLITE featuring the last of the Chicago television media moguls Fred Eychaner.