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Sarah Palmer as Gwengoolie, Bill Leff as Nostalgiaferatoo, Rich Koz as Svengoolie and Scott Gryder as Imp on the set of Svengoolie.

From left to right, Sarah Palmer as Gwengoolie, Bill Leff as Nostalgiaferatoo, Rich Koz as Svengoolie and Scott Gryder as Imp (Ignatius Malvolio Prankenstein) on the set of Svengoolie during a taping of the show on November 15, 2023.

Anthony Vazquez

Popular MeTV horror movie host Svengoolie brings on sidekicks (and possible successors)

Rich Koz, who’s been keeping the grandly eccentric tradition of the horror movie host alive on the Chicago TV fixture “Svengoolie” for decades, needed a hand — preferably an undead one.

Koz, who plays the wisecracking, endearingly cheesy horror host, was tasked with filling 30 extra minutes of airtime when executives at Weigel Broadcasting’s flagship station MeTV expanded his show from two to two and a half hours.

During that time, Koz, 71, has written the sketches that punctuate and riff off the show’s old-timey horror movies mostly by himself, and performed nearly all the characters.

He’s also endured countless rubber chickens tossed at his face following his trademark corny punchlines — a show tradition.

The decision was made last year to add some fresh talent to what’s long been considered a shoestring operation. About five people have kept the show’s engine running. The show’s following expanded since it was given a national audience eight years ago — with as many as a million viewers tuning in on Saturday nights.

To attract talent, a beacon was beamed across the Internet late last year announcing the “Spawn of Svengoolie” talent search.

An avalanche of goofy audition videos were sent in.

Two names were plucked from the pile and welcomed to the newly formed Sven Squad. And a third guy kind of sneaked in the side door.

The ‘gorgeous ghoul’ Gwengoolie

Sarah Palmer plays Gwengoolie

Sarah Palmer plays Gwengoolie during a “Svengoolie” taping at Weigel Broadcasting’s studio.

Anthony Vazquez

Sarah Palmer, who works as a character actor at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park in California, heard about the audition opportunity from a co-worker.

Palmer, who’s played everything from a go-go dancer to Bride of Frankenstein at Universal, jumped at the opportunity.

She’s also well versed in horror: She hosts a podcast dedicated to the genre, her home is decorated in a monster motif and a jack-o’-lantern currently tops her Christmas tree.

At 18 she dropped out of college to focus on the job, where she was tossed into the deep end of a large pool in the role of Helen in the “Waterworld” stunt show. It was the lead female role — and the only female role.

“I was this 18-year-old punk thinking she knew everything, but you know nothing,” she recalled.

She’s also served in a supervisory role at the theme park’s Halloween Horror Night, where she oversaw the “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” maze. Actors in heavy clown suits occasionally overheated and barfed — briefly shutting down the operation.

Palmer loves all things vintage, has done pinup and burlesque shows and is known as Pinup Palmer to fans of her YouTube channel.

She flies to Chicago twice a month to film. Her character Gwengoolie is described as a “gorgeous ghoul” and “an enchanting Hollywood, or Hollyweird, diva from the glamor age of cinema” who died 65 years ago and just arrived in Svengoolie’s dungeon.

“I couldn’t have asked for anything better. It’s a dream come true,” she said.

Palmer, who writes her own scripts and came up with the character, said she’ll never forget the feeling she got when she first walked on set.

“Rich is a very quiet human, but very kind ... not a lot of people get to visit Sven’s set; it’s a very personal mom-and-pop operation,” said Palmer, 32. “And for these newcomers to join a show that’s been running for so long ... we’re coming into his space, and for him to accept us and be so welcoming, is wild. That’s a lot for someone who has created an empire on his own and then for these goofy kids to come in and be like, ‘Hi! ’”

One thing she needs to work on, according to audience feedback on social media (which she’s been advised not to look, at but does): Her long green gloves that are stretched out and ill-fitting.

“My character is dead! Buried since 1956! So new gloves wouldn’t be most fitting,” she said before admitting she needs new gloves. “I will get to them.”

The “ingratiating and grating” IMP

Scott Gryder

IMP (Ignatius Malvolio Prankenstein) is played by Scott Gryder, who works at Chicago Opera Theater.

Anthony Vazquez

Scott Gryder, a Chicagoan via West Texas, is an actor whose performances include “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Lyric Opera in 2018, and his Non-Equity Jeff Award-winning turn in “Buyer and Cellar” at PrideArts in 2019.

Gryder studied theater at Texas Tech University and is currently the director of operations and audience services for Chicago Opera Theater. He’s been gifted five rubber chickens since getting the gig from friends in the theater world.

During the pandemic he watched a ton of old monster movies.

“I’ve always been a fan of Svengoolie,” said Gryder, 41.

His character, IMP (short for Ignatius Malvolio Prankenstein), is the “devilishly ingratiating, and slightly grating, sly trickster who keeps claiming Svengoolie is his uncle.”

He writes his own material for IMP and his humor can be boiled down to a brief exchange with a colleague who asked him to shred a document because a shredder is next to his desk.

“I took it and began shredding it: ‘I got you. Oh, sure.’ And I slowly started peeling the paper into small pieces by hand,” said Gryder, who lives on the North Side.

“Rich is the kindest, warmest person and he is just so quick and so funny that he broke the ice and made it so easy to be on set with him,” he said.

Sven’s bloody buddy Nostalgiaferatoo

Bill Leff

Bill Leff, who plays Nostalgiaferatoo on “Svengoolie,” moonlights as host of MeTV’s “Toon In With Me” cartoon series

Anthony Vazquez

The Sven Squad is rounded out by Bill Leff, who plays Nostalgiaferatoo, an 800-year-old vampire.

Leff and Koz have been pals for more than two decades so he didn’t go through the same audition process.

Leff came up through the Second City theater and is a former stand-up comedian and Chicago radio personality who often had Koz on as a guest around Halloween.

“Rich and I have known each other forever and have a similar sense of humor,” he said.

Leff also hosts his own MeTV show, “Toon In With Me,” which features live-action comedy segments wrapped around classic animated shorts featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Popeye.

“Nostalgiaferatoo was a character I was doing on ‘Toon In With Me’ and it was getting good response and it made sense because it was a scare-based character and it just kind of worked,” he said.

“It’s been good. It’s strange. For years he’s done it by himself, mostly. I give Rich so much credit for opening up his world. All of the sudden, he’s got three other people on the show and to me it’s seamless,” said Leff, who is married, lives in Evanston and has twin daughters.

Koz and Leff regularly improvise to see what happens.

“My goal is to break him into laughter. I don’t think he’s someone who likes to be hugged very much, and I know that, so I go out of my way in character to hug him and make him uncomfortable ... old vampires hugging.”

Leff was occasionally on the show before the most recent talent search but is now officially part of the Sven Squad.

Retirement for Sven?

Koz said the new crop of ghouls could one day take over for him but hasn’t really given retirement serious thought.

“I’ve always said the only time I’d leave is (a) If I couldn’t medically continue or (b) If I wasn’t having a good time doing it, and so far I’m doing OK and I’m enjoying it. We’ll see how these new characters develop and which ones are really taken to, and maybe down the line they would take over.”

The Chicago-born Koz has been performing as Svengoolie in some fashion since 1979. The role was originally played by Chicago radio and television personality Jerry G. Bishop.

When Koz was 19 and taking classes at Northwestern University, he began mailing jokes to Bishop because he was a Svengoolie fan. Pretty soon Bishop was asking the teen to write up specific songs and parodies. The two developed a relationship that led Bishop to anoint Koz as his successor: The Son of Svengoolie.

He played the role until 1986 on WFLD-TV (Channel 32), when new management canceled the show. It was off air until Weigel Broadcasting resurrected it in 1994 and Koz dropped the “Son of” title.

Svengoolie (Rich Koz)

Svengoolie (Rich Koz) fends off a barrage of rubber chicken projectiles during a recent show taping.

Anthony Vazquez

The show — taped at Weigel headquarters at 26 N. Halsted St. — has amassed such a cult following in Chicago that baseline knowledge is as essential to proving Windy City credentials as Bozo or hot dog toppings.

“One of the nicest compliments that I get that I like to mention is people will come up to me and say, ‘I used to watch you when I was a kid, and now I watch you with my kids.’ And I take that as a real compliment. And it’s cool because we hear that so many families actually all get together, various ages, to watch the show on Saturday nights, and I don’t know how many shows there are like that,” Koz said.

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