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Sir Graves Show History

 
 


by Keith Milford

Part 3 of 3

Mr. Ghastly goes to Washington (and Cleveland)
1970 newspaper article heralding Sir Graves' new show in Washington DC!With the vaunted '60s "monster craze" still in effect in 1970, and Sir Graves a hit in the Motor City, WJBK-TV decided to offer their hot vampire host to other "hostless" stations in the country. On Friday night, January 16, 1970, the show, now called, "Sir Graves Ghastly Presents", aired for the first time on WTOP-TV Channel 9, in Washington DC, at 11:30 PM, with a Saturday afternoon 4 PM matinee airing the following day (and every Saturday thereafter) as well. Friday's film that first night was TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE, and Saturday's, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY.

And here, too, in Washington, Sir Graves was an instant hit and cult figure. And here, too, the Friday night show was geared more toward adults, with darker, edgier movies being shown and less skits in between. The Saturday afternoon show was slanted more for the kiddies, similar to the Detroit version. However, while the show may have carried the same name and may have looked the same on the surface, Washington actually got it's very own, custom-made shows each and every week! These were not just the Detroit shows warmed-over. To this day many people who caught those WTOP shows in the early '70s and considered themselves fans, still have no idea that the show and Sir Graves actually originated elsewhere and was only syndicated to WTOP-TV. Many just always assumed Sir Graves was a local Washington TV product and express shock and disbelief when told of his Detroit roots and base.

The plane Lawson Deming missed.WTOP screen from 1971.During this time period, Deming would fly out to Washington DC once a week to tape the WTOP shows, fly back to his home in Cleveland, then on Wednesdays, take  a  pre-dawn Greyhound bus from Cleveland to Detroit, to tape the WJBK shows. He was superstitious about that bus, too. Up until January of 1970, Lawson had always flown to Detroit each week from Cleveland. But on Wednesday morning, January 28, 1970, the plane he regularly took into Detroit and just missed catching that day, met with a tragic accident and wound up crashing through the ice of Lake Erie around 7:49 AM, minutes after takeoff, killing all 9 people aboard. But by a twist of fate (thank the Maker!), Lawson Deming missed that doomed flight on that icy January morning, and Sir Graves lived on to rise another day and host another scary movie. From then on, he'd always take a bus to and from Detroit, which meant separate, tedious three-hour trips both ways every week.

Unfortunately for Washington-area fans (the WTOP show would reach viewers in outlying Maryland and Virginia as well), despite good ratings, the show only lasted on Channel 9 for a couple of years (exact run-length still to be determined). As Lawson explained, "We got trapped into a funny thing in Washington. The man who hired me there was the program manager. He'd come from TV2 in Detroit. Unfortunately, he got trapped in a political thing, so when he went, Sir Graves went--despite good ratings." Still, Deming enjoyed his short time in Washington on Channel 9. When asked once about the seeming arduous commute between Washington, Cleveland and Detroit, Deming said, "That wasn't so bad. They'd fly me in and I'd do the show. I had a couple of good directors, and it was amazing--I got mail from people in the Pentagon, the Navy, the Army, college students. It was supposed to be a kid's show!".

WTOP postcard viewers were sent when they wrote to Sir Graves in Washington.WUAB promo postcards.

Around this same time the show was also picked up (again for only a year or two) in Cleveland. It aired for a time in the early 1970s on WUAB-TV Channel 43, Lorain-Cleveland. It ran on Saturday afternoons. Not much was documented about the Cleveland run (that I've found anyway), but it is known that very early on for this version, Sir Graves underwent a name change (which has lead to some understandable confusion over the years). WUAB-TV christened him "Count Alu Card", and even distributed postcards bearing that name! This was most likely done either for legal name-ownership reasons, or, simply in an effort to differentiate between the two shows, since they shared such a close TV-viewing border. I've heard both reasons given as THE reason, depending on who you talk to, but it's still not exactly clear which of these really was the true motivation for the Cleveland name change. Perhaps it's actually a little of both?

Throughout the years (from the early days of the show, right up to the end), Sir Graves Ghastly was a very popular local celebrity in all the cities that knew him and could tune in his show. Gravesy was always in high demand for public appearances and as event emcee. Over the years he made many appearances (especially around Halloween!) and attended many area events not only in Detroit (though obviously the bulk of them here), but also in Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, and Canada (probably others as well). Everything from grocery store openings, city parades, Halloween haunted houses, school commencement ceremonies, dances, and functions, to shopping mall signings, charity events (he was a regular on the Jerry Lewis MD telethons in Detroit), movie theater appearances and pizza shop parties. Sir Graves was so popular he sometimes had to turn down requests due to his already overflowing appearance schedule.

But as popular and successful as he was, Sir Graves was not entirely without competition. At one point in Detroit, there actually was a storied rivalry of sorts (for a time) when The Ghoul, another legendary local TV horror host (played by an insanely talented young Clevelander named Ron Sweed), first came to town in the early '70s to vie for the attentions of Detroit area viewers on channel 50 (WKBD-TV). For a while many fans wondered if there was enough room in this town for the two very popular (yet very different) horror hosts to co-exist! The Ghoul poked fun at and needled Sir Graves on his own weekly latenight Creature Features show, and Sir Graves, for his part, did his best, instead, to try to just ignore The Ghoul as much as possible. Years later he always maintained that he had paid little attention to the whole thing, really, and was always very secure in his position in the hearts and minds of Detroit area monster fans. "If there was any rivalry," Deming once commented, "it was of his making. I paid no attention to it. He started bad-mouthing me on his show, thinking to draw reprise from me. I ignored him."

But, somehow in the end, happily, it turned out there was plenty of room for both hosts to do their respective things (Sir Graves wished his many Happy Hauntings and The Ghoul mangled many medullas), as both shows flourished here for years to come. And the Detroit TV scene was indeed all the richer for it.

By the mid-seventies, after other stations had quietly dropped away and the dust settled, Sir Graves was back to being a Detroit-exclusive show, and there he'd remain for the rest of his 15-year television horror host career. And Detroiters were still mighty glad to have him. Sir Graves stood the test of time and remained a solid ratings performer and fan favorite throughout the rest of the '70s and into the early '80s. An impressive record for any TV show. And considering the fact that Lawson Deming, the man behind the costumes and makeup, wrote all the scripts and dialogue, all the skits and physical comedy bits, and also portrayed almost all the the characters (he also created) on the show (except for Digger Deeper) for those 15 years, it isn't hard to see who deserves much of the credit for the success of Sir Graves Ghastly.

TV2 - Home sweet home!Really, the only big problem the Sir Graves show ran into over the course of its run, was Sports. Weekend sporting events wreaked absolute havoc on Sir Graves in Detroit, and were its only true competition. In fact, fans actually missed out on a ton of additional Ghastly shows over the years, due to pre-emption from baseball, football, basketball, tennis and golf. It even got bumped on occassion for frisbee tournaments and dog shows! Sometimes TV2 would at least make an effort to re-air the show on Sunday afternoon when it got pre-empted on Saturday, but not always.

In many instances, even Sundays were so filled with games, that it would make it all but impossible to even move Sir Graves there. So there'd just be no show for that week, only wall-to-wall sports. And worse, at certain times of the year, every year(!), Sir Graves would go almost entirely AWOL from the schedule for literally a month or two at a time! This happened usually beginning in November or December, and then again in March. It was always a very frustrating time for Graves fans. The price we paid for living in a rabid sports town like Detroit. I always would've rather had Sir Graves, for my part. Basically, whenever the Lions, Tigers, or college football or basketball games were televised, those games would always pre-empt Sir Graves. Lawson once commented, "I always did manage to get very good ratings, unless I was beaten by a big football game or if the Tigers were hot." Alas, the many Sir Graves shows we never got to see.

Beginning of the end
No Sir Graves!On Saturday, November 6, 1982, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents! aired at 1 PM on WJBK-TV in Detroit. The movie that day was
CORRIDORS OF BLOOD . Little did fans know that this would be the very last Sir Graves Show of all time. The ride was coming to an abrupt, and unexpected end. Once again, as in most years, the show was falling into the channel 2 sports black hole in the schedule for a while. Of course, this was nothing out of the ordinary for Sir Graves fans, really. New shows would just have to wait till after the Thanksgiving turkeys had all been eaten, the Christmas presents all opened and the New Year's parties had all ended. By that time football season was over, the bowl games finally played out, and no Baseball or frisbee tournaments to worry about either. By January, it would seem, it was about time for Sir Graves to finally return to the regular Channel 2 schedule again.

But Sir Graves didn't come.

January came and went. February and March, too. Still no Sir Graves. And then, alarmingly, most of April as well! Diehard fans had already noticed and were concerned. Finally, the news came. On Thursday, April 28, 1983, in a headline titled "Sir Graves is aghast at loss of TV contract", the Detroit Free Press reported that WJBK-TV's new General Manager, Bill Flynn, had made the decision to cancel Sir Graves Ghastly. Lawson Deming's contract was not being renewed. As other popular local TV icons and shows were also being axed on TV2, it became apparent that newly-appointed Station Manager, Bill Flynn, had decided that a lot of housecleaning (as Deming would later refer to it) was in order for Channel 2. He simply made his decisions and didn't look back. Many broken-hearted fans protested and complained to the station, to no avail. And many Detroiters would never forgive Flynn for his brazen, and seemingly careless firings of some of our most beloved local television personalities and shows.

Our friendly neighborhood vampire would rise from the coffin no more. No more Glob, Tilly, Walter or Cool Ghoul. No more birthday readings, riddles, jaunts through the Art Ghoullery or Happy Haunting's. It was a sad day for many Detroit area monster-lovers. When asked by the Free Press to comment on the cancellation news, Lawson Deming had this to say at the time, "Mr. Flynn didn't renew my contract, as he didn't so many others. I never could figure out why he'd dump me. We had the highest rated show in the afternoon, and it was a money-maker for them. We never had any conversations at all." However, the TV2 programming coordinator at the time recalled it differently, and responded that they did have prior discussions with Deming about the cancellation. Personally, I'll take Sir Graves' word.

Still, in the final analysis, 15 years is a long time for any TV show to run--local or not--and we should be thankful it even lasted that long. We should be thankful, really, it didn't end in the icy waters of Lake Erie that January morning of 1970. Perhaps it's all a matter of perspective.

New horizons
On WXYZ's Kelly & Company, 1989After the cancellation, Lawson moved on to become an announcer on the Storer Broadcasting station WJKW-TV in Cleveland for a while, as well as doing voice-over work for various industrial films. A few years later he retired from show business completely, and settled in a comfortable house next to the Styx River, in Medina, Ohio, to live quietly and happily with his wife, Mary Rita, tending their large garden, fishing, watching TV and simply enjoying life and their well-earned retirement years.

On Halloween of 1989, Lawson returned to the Detroit airwaves one more time, for an appearance on the popular local morning talkshow, Kelly & Company on Channel 7, WXYZ-TV, where he happily chatted about his career and Sir Graves Ghastly, with hosts, John Kelly and Marilyn Turner, as well as the fans in the studio audience.

At home with wife, Mary Rita, in Medina, OH, early '90sIn 1998, Mr. Deming was honored by induction into the Silver Circle, by the Cleveland Chapter of NATAS (the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences), for his pioneering career in early Cleveland television. A fitting close to a long and amazing (not to mention varied) career which spanned not only Television and Radio (in both acting and production), but also Theater as well. This talented man could truly do it all--and everything he did, he did extremely well. He was also considered one of the nicest people in the business by those who had known and worked with him over the years. Though short in physical stature (about 5'5"), Mr. Deming stood tall in the eyes of many of his co-workers, in terms of talent, class, and above all, kindness.

A distinguished career honored in 1998In the 1990's Lawson was slowed by two hip replacement surgeries (but always gratiously continued to answer fan mail as long as he was able), and more recently in 2003, due to health reasons and advancing age, settled into an assisted-living home with Mary Rita still by his side.

In April of 2004 Lawson Deming turned 91 years-old. Yet even at this age he remains sharp and spirited, though his mobility is more limited these days. And while many of the specific details may be a little fuzzy now, he still enjoys reminiscing about his days as Sir Graves Ghastly, and looks back very fondly on the memories and show, which he always loved doing.

Today, he is touched and gratified to know that so many fans still care about and remember Sir Graves so fondly, and with the assistance of his family, reads the guestbook signings here at SirGravesGhastly.com periodically, where the tremendous outpouring of love and well-wishes from fans has surely been the best way for us all to tell him, that yes, many people out there do indeed still remember and love Sir Graves Ghastly and the endearing legacy the man behind the cape and makeup, Lawson Deming, left behind in Detroit and elsewhere.

Many thanks and Happy Hauntings to you, Sir Graves Ghastly, our friendly neighborhood vampire, for the frightfully priceless childhood memories you gave us all! You will never be forgotten.



"I had little kids come up to me and hug my legs and say,
'I love you, Sir Graves.' And I'd tossle their hair and say
(in the voice of Sir Graves), 'I love you, too.' "

-- Lawson Deming

 

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All content & graphics ©2005 Keith Milford.