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Sir Graves Show History


by Keith Milford

The Haunted History of Sir Graves Ghastly

Part 1 of 3

For thousands of kids growing up in Metro Detroit in the late '60s to the early '80s, Saturday afternoons at 1:00 were a time for TV monsters, ghosts, creatures, witches and diabolical madmen! But most of all, it was time for Sir Graves Ghastly! In darkened living rooms, bedrooms and basements all across Michigan and into parts of Ohio, Canada, and for a time, the Washington DC viewing area, Detroit TV's friendly neighborhood vampire, Sir Graves Ghastly, implored us weekly to turn out the lights...pull down the shade...draw the drapes...and cuddle up in our favorite spots by the telly, to watch frightfully spooky (and sometimes silly) monster movies with him and his eccentric Ghoullery of wacky friends.

And watch we did! For 15 years we joined Detroit's television horror host, Sir Graves Ghastly, on local CBS affiliate station WJBK-TV Channel 2 in Detroit, for all the monstermania mayhem he could dish out--which was quite a lot, it happily turns out. Curling up all cozy under our blankets in front of our TVs, with plenty of snacks close at hand, and watching the spooky show every Saturday afternoon was a beloved weekend ritual for kids and adults alike all across metro Detroit (especially for monster movie fans), and Sir Graves Ghastly, as conceived and portrayed by gifted Cleveland-born actor and radio man, Lawson Deming, quickly became a Detroit household name and local television legend. But how did it all get started? Where did Sir Graves Ghastly come from?

Case Western Reserve UniversitySchool and radio days
WHK Radio, 1930's Lawson J. Deming was born in April of 1913, and grew up in and around Cleveland, Ohio. Starting at an early age, he did theater work even as a child, and then on through grade school, junior high, and high school. After high school
he attended college at Western Reserve University's Cleveland College in the 1930s, where he studied speech, dramatic arts and math. It was at this time that his radio career began.

The college had instituted a radio play production class and Lawson decided to enter it, with a keen interest in learning as much as possible about radio and radio production. After getting his feet wet there, in September of 1932, he showed up in Studio C of WHK-Radio, in Cleveland, thus officially beginning his professional radio career. It was also here, at WHK, where he met his wife, Mary Rita, the hostess of a women's homemaking show at the station during that time. After a few years at WHK, Lawson free-lanced for other Cleveland area radio stations, including WTAM-Radio, eventually even landing a short announcing job at a station in West Palm Beach, Florida. But he quickly grew restless there and returned to Cleveland during the '40s, with his eye on entering the new and promising world of television.

Enter Television
n 1949 Deming began working in TV hosting an afternoon movie show in Cleveland, called, One O'Clock Playhouse, on WNBK-TV, Channel 4, an NBC owned and operated station. The program was a regular broadcast of TV plays. Lawson's role on the show was similar to Detroit's longtime Channel 50 (WKBD-TV) movie host, Bill Kennedy, who was once a Cleveland co-worker of Deming's. One O'Clock Playhouse ran until 1956, giving him plenty of good experience in the fine art of hosting a weekly television show.

In the early '60s, at the same station (now called KYW-TV, Channel 3), Lawson eventually became a regular on the wildly popular Cleveland TV kids' show, Woodrow the Woodsman, which starred fellow Cleveland actor Clay Conroy. His face didn't actually appear onscreen, but he co-produced, was the puppeteer, and also supplied the voices of the animal friends on the show, including such characters as Freddy Gezundheit the Alleycrock, Tarkington Whom II the Owl, and Voracious the Elephant. It was here that his tremendous talents in doing accents (he could do 27 ethnic dialects), developed and honed in his days in radio, really paid off, and would continue to serve him well a few short years later on the Sir Graves show.

During this time, Lawson also had taken to touring the local lecture circuit as a phony Russian science professor named Miechyslav Dombroyan [see photo at right], who raved about UFO sightings, government cover-ups, and spouted anti-American sentiments--all in an effort to shock the local community into the realities of political and civic complacency (and also just to have some fun and pull a fast one on his unsuspecting audiences). It was a welcomed chance to work on his accents and acting skills. Most audience members didn't realize his act was only a joke until the very end, when he'd pull off his fake beard and mustache, reveal his true identity, and explain the lesson he was trying to convey with his spirited (and often alarming) performance. In fact, one of these outrageous hoax appearances in front of the Ohio Jaycees at a Holiday Inn in 1962, even made the local Cleveland papers, where the ruse was reported and the identity of the Mad Russian, Dombroyan, was finally revealed to be local radio and TV man, Lawson Deming. Once audiences realized it was all a joke meant to educate and entertain, of course, they would laugh with relief and surprise.

The move to Detroit
In 1965 (when KYW-TV was sold), NBC informed the Woodrow crew that they weren't interested in doing children's shows any longer, so the show was no longer needed. According to Deming, one of the last places they wanted to go was Detroit, but they wanted to continue the show (and keep working), so they wound up there in late 1966 on a three-year contract with TV2 (WJBK). Woodrow the Woodsman would continue on Detroit television from 1966 to 1970 (soon Sir Graves himself would even call in to the show now and then to remind kids to watch his program on Saturdays on TV2!). They began taping Woodrow at WJBK the last week in 1966.

As fate would have it, about a year earlier, TV2 had lost their popular local horror movie host, Morgus the Magnificent (played by Sid Noel), who had emceed their Friday night 11:30 horror movie slot under the title Morgus Presents!. Now they were in the market for another weekend monster movie host. So about two weeks after Woodrow began taping at WJBK, the station approached Lawson about playing a horror movie host for their Saturday afternoon monster movie slot. The initial plan was actually to call this new host "Ghoulardi", but because that name was already being used in Cleveland by Ernie Anderson (also a former Cleveland co-worker of Deming's), Lawson suggested that he create his own character himself. They agreed and told him to go ahead and come up with a character and show outline. Thus, the "Sir Graves Big Show" (as it was originally titled when it launched soonafter) was officially born in early 1967.

The creation of Sir Graves Ghastly
One of the earliest WJBK promo photosLawson went home to brainstorm a character and suitably scary-sounding host name with his wife, Mary Rita, as well as to develop a general outline for the show. Sir Ghostly . . . Sir Graves Ghostly . . . Sir Ghouly, were all names they threw around
initially. And in Deming's own words; "Then it hit me! Sir Graves Ghastly, a tongue-in-cheek vampire, would be perfect, because it allowed me to be a bit more human, shall we say, than any of my wild sidekicks. I thought, 'Geez, it would be cute to do a vampire,' and she [Mary Rita] thought that was a good idea.

Then we made up a story about Sir Graves Ghastly being from an Italian family that went to England when the Romans controlled it." He continued, "My name, Sir Graves Ghastly, was a derivation of Gravarious Ghastliano. The story was that Graves, who had trod the boards with Shakespeare, got in an argument with Her Majesty the Queen, and she had him hanged in the Tower of London. But like a poor vaccination, it didn't quite take, and so consequently, Sir Graves was able to return. It was sort of a tongue-in-cheek character (it was always intended to be tongue-in-cheek), not much ghastly about it."

As for the costume and look, Lawson says; "Then I figured, 'What does a vampire wear?' So we came up with the black suit and the black tie and the black cape with blood-red lining and the fancy hairdo with the big swirl on the forehead, and a mustache and beard, which I pasted on. It just sort of grew. You know, it's a funny thing--when someone says to come up with a character, you really start stretching your imagination. It was like getting paid for having fun."

And then there was The Laugh.

That famous signature Sir Graves Ghastly laugh was based on the Devil character in "Damn Yankees", Deming says. In the end, it was so memorable and endearing, it would follow him like his own shadow for the rest of his career--and into retirement. When asked about it, he remarked that if he had a buck for every time he did that laugh over the years, he'd be a multimillionaire. He once recalled this encounter: “I was making an appearance Downriver somewhere [Detroit], and a portly nun walked up to me and said, ‘Tell me what you think, Sir Graves.’ She then let out a terrific imitation of the Sir Graves laugh. She said, ‘I use that to get my kids' attention!’ ”

And that famous cackling laugh is still the stuff of legend and warm childhood memories for many in Michigan. It became an integral part of the Sir Graves Ghastly character.



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All content & graphics ©2005 Keith Milford. All Rights Reserved.