Your father was beloved in Indiana. What was his start in the public eye? Bob Carter was a known TV personality even before Sammy Terry came around. He was doing a daytime talk show called Coffee With Carter. He was also doing stand-in work for weather and news broadcasting. He was even a ring announcer for Saturday morning’s Championship Wrestling.
So where did his legendary character come from? In 1962, Universal Studios released the broadcast rights for a package of monster movies. None of the local network affiliates wanted them because the prevailing thought of the day was that no one in their right mind would want to introduce a horror movie into their household. However, Channel 4—an independent station—was delighted to have them. In addition to his on-air duties with Channel 4, Dad would also go out and sell airtime. He went straight to a true film freak he knew who owned a local furniture business with the news that classic monster movies were available to sponsor. Dad’s instinct proved correct. The owner wanted to buy advertising—as long as it could air in six weeks to coincide with a big store event. My dad went back to the station and told his bosses that he’d sold advertising and that it [would air] in six weeks. They told him, “That’s great, Bob, but no, it doesn’t.”
So he had to actually convince them to accept a sponsorship? You have to remember that in those days, advertising was all done live and therefore needed a “host.” Producing it from scratch in six weeks was pretty much unheard of. They didn’t even have any artwork. Undaunted—and wanting that commission check—my dad went down to the state library with an Exacto knife and cut out pictures of Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, and all sorts of monsters from books, took them back to the station and did a mock-up of the advertising spot with his voice narrating and laughing in a spooky tone. The station and the sponsor loved it. And they wanted my dad to be the host. Six weeks later, right on schedule, Shock Theater was born. It consisted of still photos and the voice-overs of Sammy Terry during the movie commercial breaks. And it was a smash.
Obviously, that iconic voice evolved into a fully fleshed-out character with a costume and makeup. When did you start getting involved? From the time I was in middle school, I helped Dad out on the weekends. The broadcasts themselves didn’t pay that well. There was more money in the side jobs, things like the openings of shopping centers, the stage shows, hosting movies at local theaters, and appearing at festivals. My siblings and I sold T-shirts and posters, [took] money, [set] up stages, and [played] all the various supporting characters, like George the Spider, Ghoulsby Butler, Skully Skull, and all the creatures who would run through the audience and scare people. That was me. Then as my dad got into his 70s, his lugging around boxes and setting up stages concerned my mom. It was a comfort to my parents to have me to help.
When did he officially ask you to don the hood and get in the coffin? In 2007, my dad developed neuropathy and became unable to walk. The character was dormant for a couple years after that. Then the owner of a new store in Brownstown, Indiana, who was a huge fan, asked if we’d be willing to send Sammy Terry memorabilia down for his grand opening. He especially wanted the actual coffin and skull. I would never have let those out of my sight, so I agreed to drive down with everything and chat with customers as the son of Sammy Terry, provided I could sell posters and T-shirts on behalf of my father. At the 8 p.m. closing time, I still had more than 100 people waiting. By the time the night was over, I had greeted 300 fans, which was 10 percent of the town’s total population. I’d sold out of every last poster and T-shirt. It was like the old days with Dad. A couple of days after I brought my parents the proceeds and told them how many people were still interested in Sammy Terry, my mom called and told me my father wanted to talk with me. When he asked me to assume the character, it was by that time a completely natural fit. Having those decades of working alongside him made it an easy transition.
So how are you presenting this classic character to today’s audience? I want to look as close as I can to the original because of all the memories. People are always coming up to me and staring at my face. I can see the film projector clicking in their eyes, because when they are looking at me, they are emotionally going back to the time when they were 10, or 15, or 18 years old, watching Sammy Terry. I don’t want to invalidate those memories. That’s why the face I wear today is the same face they would have seen in the early 1980s. It’s rather spooky, especially for me. And it’s nice to have a genetic connection. My voice is extremely consistent with my father’s, as is my laugh. I still wear the original skull necklace he wore in the 1960s and the 1980s cape. Those yellow Playtex Living Gloves are still in rotation too, though I did upgrade from drawing veins on my hands with Paper Mate pens to Sharpies!
What do those young enough to be encountering Sammy for the first time think of him? That generation has been immersed in the horror and fantasy genres. Halloween has never been more embraced, so Sammy isn’t all that scary to them. While I try to maintain a suspenseful presence, I go more in the direction of fun and mysterious with kids. Young people love campiness because it’s retro and cool. At my appearances, I get grandparents with their grandchildren coming up to me. Grandma is quivering because this is the essence of the experience that she grew up with. Meanwhile, her grandkids have been desensitized to horror movie characters.
Your dad left us in 2013, but you’ve done him proud preserving his legacy. Can you remember the very first time you “met” Sammy Terry? I was probably four years old. One night Dad came home from the station, and he hadn’t taken off his costume. So here came Sammy Terry walking in. It was a casual encounter in my house, a non-event. No fear or questioning. It was just Daddy’s job, another day in the office. —Tony Rehagen