Charles “Big Chuck” Schodowski made us laugh as Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson’s sidekick. He later picked up laughs with Bob “Hoolihan” Wells and “Li’l” John Rinaldi. As his memoir, Big Chuck!, arrives, we talk to the late-night movie host about his 47 years on television.
Back when I was a kid, Cleveland was like a series of small countries. You had the Polish and the Germans and the Italians, and everyone had their own barbershop, their own gas station, their own movie theater. All different places, but all the same. That was Cleveland.
Clevelanders are very loyal, but we get disappointed. Like, I don’t hate the Browns. ... I just get angry with them. I mean, ya gotta get mad. And that’s because ya love ’em. Other things don’t make youthatmad. We care enough to get mad.
I was out of high school and worked in the foundry and was the only white guy on the night shift, and all we listened to was “Moondog,” Alan Freed. That’s where I learned to love that music. That’s all we played on Ghoulardi. Those were all my records. Ernie was into big bands. But it was a late-night show, and I thought we needed something bluesy.
I was waiting at a light and was looking at this big TV transmitter, and I thought it must be really cool to work in TV. Because back then, TV people were sort of revered. It was like a doctor or lawyer. Things have changed now. You have teenyboppers doing the news.
One day, I walked into Channel 3. It was the only station I knew how to get to. I walked in and asked the chief engineer what I had to do to get a job. He put me off in a nice way, and said I needed to get a first-class FCC license and told me a school where I could get one. So I went to the school, took one night a week for three years and got my first-class FCC license. I went back to Channel 3 and saw the same guy for a job. He really didn’t have room for me, but said, “Hey, I gotta hire you.”
Every step in my career I was pushed into. Erniemade me go on camera. Bob Hubermademe become a director. Everything I’ve ever done was kind of pushed on me.
I was always worried. When I first started at Channel 8, I was hired as a temporary, and I’d always ask: “When do I become permanent?” They told me I’d be notified by the management and the union in a couple of months. Until the day I retired, I was never told I was permanent.
When Hoolie [Bob Wells, TV 8’s “Hoolihan the Weatherman”] took over, I got half the responsibility. The pressure was incredible. I really wanted out of it. Then I figured we were going to be so bad, trying to fill Ernie’s shoes, we wouldn’t last 13 weeks, and I could stomach my way through that. My family might be embarrassed for a while. Forty years later, I retired from it.
I used to get a lot of ideas from one-frame cartoon strips out of joke books. I could make a five-minute skit out of a picture.
I liked Stosh, “the certain ethnic guy” more than any other character. The sweater he wore was really my own sweater from the ’50s. I grew up in this Polish neighborhood where like every third guy had that same sweater. And every guy wore that hat. One time, John and I were shooting a skit in my old neighborhood, and I’m walking down the street as Stosh, and John says no one even looked at me. There were too many people dressed like me going the other way.
All I had to do was sign a paper and I would have started out as an assistant director ontheDella Reese show,Della. I just loved being here, and I couldn’t leave. But it was always in the back of my mind:Did I do the right thing, staying? A few years later, a guy came back to Channel 8 from L.A., where he was a studio director for the Johnny Carson show. He looked at me one day, without prompting, and said, “You’re Cleveland’s Johnny Carson. You did the right thing.” And with that, I finally knew it, too.
Hoolie was by far the most talented. And the most funny.He entertained me.
Ever since I was a kid, it must have been embedded in me. I just wanted to get married, get a job, have a family, a house and a dog. If I did that, I would be considered successful by my peers, my uncles, my father. I didn’t have any aspirations about a big career. Just be a good guy, raise the family, raise the kids to work hard. And that’s what I did.
Dogs are the most noble animals on Earth. “Dog” is “God,” spelled backward. They’ll just do anything for you. They’re more than just living creatures.
The best thing that ever happened to me was being with June. Having five kids with her, and the grandkids. God, I was lucky to meet her.
From 1969, I was control room director, did the show, shot the skits and did personal appearances on the weekend. It was unbelievable. I don’t know where I got the energy. I must have been Superman.
It was a family show. And how many things can you say you can share with your children or grandchildren? Generation after generation after generation watched the show. Grandparents and grandchildren growing up on the same laughs, liking the same skits — it was special.
from Chuck Schodowski’s new book, Big Chuck! My Favorite Stories from 47 Years on Cleveland TV
Since 1960, Big Chuck has been on camera, behind the camera and in the director’s chair.
He collaborated with Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson and worked with Tim Conway (when he still went by Tom). Big Chuck continued to host a late-night show across four decades — the longest such run in TV history.
He wrote and directed 2,000 hilarious sketches that were watched religiously by adoring fans. Here, we revisit Big Chuck’s early years.
Things began to change at Channel 8 in 1961 when my pal Ernie Anderson and Tom Conway came over from Channel 3. Ernie was going to be the new booth announcer and producer and host of a daily movie show calledErnie’s Place. Tom was going to help him write the show and direct it. At least that was the story. To get him hired, Ernie told everyone Tom was a director. So Tom sat in the director’s chair next to me in the control room but didn’t know how to direct. I worked as switcher on the show and would oversee everything. Ernie told everybody, “Whatever Tom tells you to do, do it only if it’s right. If it’s not right, do the right thing.”
It wasn’t your typical movie show, to say the least, but Ernie wasn’t your typical host. After coming to Channel 8, Ernie and Tom were still calling all over the country to book guests for TV-3’sThe Mike Douglas Showand getting a fee for it. Ernie made his own rules. On his own show, he was beginning to do some real interviews but couldn’t get enough guests. He wanted to do some comedy anyway, so Tom said he’d be the guest. They worked up skits where they introduced him as everything from a karate instructor to a bullfighter. No matter what he was, usually his name was Dag Herford.
Not only did Tom notknow how to direct, he didn’t know how to backtime a movie or how to run it to finish by the end of the show with breaks and commercials. Idid know, because I had to do it whenever there wasn’t a director working. What you can do when a movie is running long is burn film during commercial breaks — just let the film keep running, without going on the air, to pick up a few minutes. But Ernie and Tom were using so much time hosting the show that there was still too much film. We’d have 12 minutes of show left and 22 minutes of the feature. So they’d just cut off the ends of the movies. People liked the show with the skits, but they were annoyed they couldn’t see the end of the movie. Ernie said, “I’ll fix it.” On Fridays, they’d show the ends of all the films we showed that week.
The show was doing pretty well, and the station liked it. The guys on the crew were laughing at the bits, which was a good indicator that it was going over. Ernie also owned Cleveland radio when it came to doing voice spots, and he talked BonJour Coffee into being a sponsor. It was a unique arrangement, because he and Tom were to write the 30-second commercials as comedy bits and be in them. The ads were so good that they seemed like part of the show. And that was good for the sponsor, because viewers kept watching. It was good for Ernie and Tom, too. Especially Tom.
Networks at that time would send stars to affiliates around the country to record local promos. Rose Marie fromThe Dick Van Dyke Show came to Channel 8. Tom went to the studio to direct, threw out some funny lines and took her and Ernie to lunch. While they were out, I racked up the BonJour spots in the tape room, which Rose Marie took back to Hollywood for Steve Allen. At that time, he was doing for Westinghouse the same kind of late-night program he’d done for NBC withThe Tonight Show.
Steve liked the tapes. He said, “Bring me the short, fat, bald guy. I can take the other guy’s place.” Rose Marie told Tom, and they set it up for him to get a shot doing a little stand-up comedy thing. I don’t think anyone but Ernie and I could tell, but he was really nervous — it had to be tough going on a national show, considering he’d never done it. Steve Allen liked him, though, and wanted him to come back to join the “man in the street” segments he did with Tom Poston, Louis Nye and Don Knotts.
I was excited. It was a terrific show, way ahead of its time, and every opening was different. Once, it started with Steve playing the piano, which was all you could see until the camera pulled out and you could see he was hanging from a crane. He’d try anything. Tom went out reluctantly, partly out of loyalty to Ernie and partly because, like me, he was a Cleveland guy. He kept coming back to Cleveland, though, and Steve kept calling him back to Hollywood. The station manager, Joe Drilling, told Tom it was a great opportunity for a young guy, but Tom was still hesitant. He was really loyal to Ernie. Finally, Drilling said, “I’m gonna fix it. You’re fired. Now get out.” Tom thought it was a joke, but Joe officially fired him so he’d have to go.
Out in L.A., Tom changed his name to Tim (because there was a British actor named Tom Conway) and landed a role on a major series,McHale’s Navy, which premiered in the fall of 1962.
Ghoulardi makes his entrance
Late in 1962, the station picked up a package of horror movies for a Friday nightShock Theater. Howard Hoffmann, an announcer and weatherman, was originally considered to host it. But Bob Buchanan liked the way Ernie emceed the station Christmas party, knew his work anyway, and asked him to do it. Ernie agreed.
They gave him a fake Vandyke beard and mustache and told him to talk about the feature in the Bela-Lugosi-typical-of-every-horror-host-style back then. Only his face appeared on-screen, lit from below with one light. It was January 1963, and Ghoulardi was born.
Or almost born. That first version lasted about two weeks. Then Ernie started talking about anything. He’d knock stuff you never knock on the air, talking about celebrities and politicians and personalities on other stations. His Lugosi accent slipped into something more like a beatnik, and he made the sort of comments on the air that he usually made on the intercom.
I came in one night and told him I finally got a home.
“Oh, great!” he said. “Where is it?” It was in Parma. I found out later that he lived in Parma. He never cut his grass and had weeds everywhere. The neighbors hated him. They’d get on him, and he’d argue. “I’m not gonna be picking dandelions,” he said. “If it’s green, it stays.” To me, he said, “Parma! With all the shitholes in the area, you go there.”
On the show, he said, “Chuck Schodowski finally got a home. You’ll never guess where he moved. Parma! I took him to some neighborhoods, and he goes to Parma! Where they put plastic pink flamingoes and chrome balls on their lawns!”
My neighbors did have them. They’re really nice people, friends to this day. I told Ernie they’d resent me if he didn’t stop knocking Parma. He said, OK, he’d cut it out. Naturally, at the first opportunity he did it again, and kept it up. I said, “If you say Parma again, I’m going to cut your mic.” I was a little mad and he was a little mad, but I was the only person who’d argue with him like that. I think everyone else was intimidated. I was, too, but we were friends, and he wouldn’t put me down like he did everybody else. He said, “Oh yeah?” I had threatened him, but he knew I couldn’t cut him — it’s a cardinal sin to put out dead air.
Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. He talked about people doing the polka. Polish people do the polka. I’m Polish. I cued up Frankie Yankovic’s “Who Stole the Kishka?” because it’s got that crazy opening. When he started to sayParma, I cut his mic and played it. He was genuinely surprised the first time, and he started laughing. He liked it so much, he’d say “Parma? Did someone sayParma?” just to do comic takes off the music. It became a big thing.
“You know what?” he said on the air. “I feel bad for Chuck.” I was at the bottom of the scale, not making much money. Ernie said, “I’m gonna get him a pink flamingo. Or if you want to get him something, get him a pink flamingo.”
That was on a Friday night. On Sunday morning, they started showing up. Before the next show, there must have been 50 pink flamingoes on my front lawn. Kids must have stolen all the flamingoes in the neighborhood. I didn’t know whose they were, so I brought them in to the station. Ernie had a wall of them on the set. And for maybe a year, one or two or a bunch of flamingoes would show up on my lawn.
Now there are businesses that will put flamingoes on lawns as a surprise gag for birthdays, anniversaries or other occasions. But that’s how it started.
It was the beginning of Cleveland TV’s wildest ride.
Adapted from the book, Big Chuck! My Favorite Stories from 47 Years on Cleveland TV © 2008 by Chuck Schodowski (with Tom Feran). Reprinted with permission of Gray & Company, Publishers. Available in Northeast Ohio bookstores and online from Amazon.com.