TV’s original Svengoolie, ‘a great, great talent’

Jerry G. Bishop as Svengoolie

Jerry G. Bishop as Svengoolie

Jerry G. Bishop traveled the country with the Beatles, worked as a major market radio and television personality over five decades, and created the original character of Svengoolie out of his fertile imagination.

But he always considered himself a Chicago kid at heart, proud of his roots in the Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side. He even modeled his two restaurants in San Diego after his favorite hometown dining spots.

Word that Bishop died Sunday at 77 evoked memories of his unforgettable run as morning star of the former WCFL during the golden era of Top 40 radio in the ’60s.  ”He was a great, great talent,” Bob Sirott recalled. “Those WCFL shows he did were very clever.”

“Those were magic times,” Bishop told me in a 2001 interview. “We were nipping at the heels of WLS.” Despite his success, a change in management and format at the station cost him his morning job, which eventually went to Howard Miller.

In 1969, Bishop joined WFLD-Channel 32 ostensibly as a staff announcer. Two years later he transformed his off-camera role as the voice of “Screaming Yellow Theater” into the live persona of a wildly funny and enormously popular horror movie host named Svengoolie. Rich Koz, Bishop’s writer and protege, eventually inherited the role, which he made his own and continues to this day.

“He was an incredibly talented, generous man,” Koz tweeted Monday night. “I owe him everything.”

Bishop later worked at WMAQ-Channel 5 and the former WMAQ-AM before he moved to San Diego to begin a 13-year run as host of “Sun Up San Diego” for which he won three Emmy Awards. He also hosted an afternoon radio show there for 14 years.

He opened two waterfront restaurants in San Diego — a Greek place named after Chicago’s Greek Islands Cafe and an Italian joint called Asaggio. “Our sign says we serve ‘the best Chicago deep dish pizza west of Wrigley Field,’” he boasted.

Bishop last worked on the air here as weekend personality at Chicago’s former “Real Oldies” WRLL from 2003 to 2006. He voice-tracked the show from San Diego.

Born Jerry Ghan, he attended the University of Illinois and Columbia College, and began his radio career in 1961 at the former WNMP in Evanston. He quickly advanced to stations in Washington, D.C., and Cleveland. As a top-rated nighttime disc jockey at Cleveland’s KYW, he traveled with the Beatles on their 1965 and 1966 concert tours.

The program director he’d worked for in Cleveland, Ken Draper, eventually brought him back to Chicago and put him on WCFL. “To this day people tell me that was the greatest radio ever,” Bishop told me. “And they’re right.”