"Fantastic Features" debuted at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, 1962, with "The Giant Behemoth," a 1959 film in which a radioactive dinosaur terrorizes London. The prime-time slot was not without controversy. According to The Commercial Appeal, college fans of the folk music program "Hootenanny," which was pre-empted locally for "Fantastic Features," picketed Channel 13 in protest. "Sivad in turn picketed 'Hootenanny' and the pickets," the newspaper reported.
When WHBQ eventually telecast "Hootenanny" at a different hour, clever Channel 13 producers "cut Sivad's photo into the crowd as the cameras panned the audience of college students who cheered the Limelighters (sic) and other folk groups ..."
Sivad's incredible popularity was demonstrated on June 17, 1963, when his appearance at the Mid-South Fairgrounds drew a crowd that police estimated at 30,000 fans. A week later, 2,000 fans lined up at Goldsmith's, where Sivad signed copies of his novelty record. The crowds demonstrated that Sivad's appeal transcended race in a way that was all but unprecedented in the Mid-South, with the exception of professional wrestling and, in later years, Tiger basketball. To this day, black and white Baby Boomers may disagree about the merits of Elvis or the Ford family, but their eyes light up at the mention of Sivad.
Sivad and his fellow horror hosts -- such as Chicago's "Svengoolie" and Cleveland's "Ghoulardi" -- functioned as spooky godfathers for a generation of kids who built Aurora monster models, read "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine and, as adults, continue to collect Sivad memorabilia, obsess over classic horror DVDs and haunt such Web sites as monsterkid.com.
In the days before cable, a program like "Fantastic Features" could reach a huge percentage of the viewing audience, not just in West Tennessee but wherever the Channel 13 signal could be pulled from the sky. According to a 1963 story in The Commercial Appeal, "Fantastic Features" attracted "50 percent of the metropolitan audience from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturdays."
"Fantastic Features" moved to late nights in 1966 and finally ended its 10-year run on Feb. 5, 1972, with "The Human Duplicators." (For a complete "Fantastic Features" chronology compiled by Memphis's Harris M. Lentz III, see myweb.wvnet.edu/e-gor/tv horrorhosts/sivadsho.html).
"Fantastic Features" died due to falling ratings and Davis's declining interest in the rigors of weekly tapings. The old school (old ghoul?) charm of Sivad and his overfamiliar army of giant leeches, teenage werewolves and creeping unknowns couldn't compete with the sexy, bloody terrors of horror's post-"Night of the Living Dead" new wave.
Nevertheless, Davis continued to transform himself into Sivad for the amusement of Arkansas trick-or-treaters each Halloween until about four years ago, said one of his four surviving children, Beverly Ideker of Stuttgart.
"Right up to the end, when he went to hospice care and he was pretty much stuck in his bed, we took a bunch of photographs of Sivad and he'd autograph them for the nurses and doctors, and they all loved him," Ideker said. "He was the sweetheart of the nursing home."
Ideker said she owns Davis's Sivad oufit, including "his wig, eyebrows, his teeth he put in, three different hats and his musical instruments," including his homemade "ghoulaphone" and "coffinola." She said she hopes to be able to display them in a museum or exhibit some day.
Cartwright said Davis's death marks the end of an era. "It's sad, because it makes you think of all the awesome things about local television that are gone now. Early movies, late-night movies, all the things that pretty much gave television its flavor are gone, and now he's gone, too."
Those wishing to express condolences or appreciation to the family of Watson Davis are invitied to write his wife of 32 years, Mabel Davis at 1002 N. College, Stuttgart, Ark., 72160.
March 29, 2005
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