Memphis horror host gets terrifying tribute in 'Sivads of March'

Watson Davis' Sivad look was likely inspired by Lon Chaney's character in 'London After Midnight.'

Watson Davis' Sivad look was likely inspired by Lon Chaney's character in "London After Midnight."

As a longtime Malco ad executive, the late Watson Davis was a not an ostentatious character by any stretch. A balding, slightly avuncular figure, Davis exuded an unassuming Everyman quality.

But as his alter-ego Sivad, "the Monster of Ceremonies," — who hosted the "Fantastic Features" horror movie program on WHBQ-TV Channel 13 for a decade starting in the early '60s — he was a bona fide superstar.

For a generation of Memphians, Davis, who died in 2005 at age 92, was both a pillar and a totem of their youth.

Watson Davis' Sivad look was likely inspired by Lon Chaney's character in 'London After Midnight.'

Watson Davis' Sivad look was likely inspired by Lon Chaney's character in "London After Midnight."

Watson Davis

Watson Davis

Late last year, two dedicated Sivad disciples, Southern-fried indie filmmaker Mike McCarthy and John Beifuss, The Commercial Appeal's longtime movie critic, hatched a plot to honor Davis and his creepy creation.

"John and I were talking and realized we were approaching the five-year anniversary of Watson Davis' death — March 23, 2005. So John said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could have some little tribute to Sivad?' and I said, 'Yeah, we could call it the Sivads of March.' And John immediately replied, 'It'll be bigger than Africa in April and Memphis in May!'" says McCarthy, laughing.

If it isn't quite the cultural juggernaut of those two events, the inaugural "Sivads of March" — which kicked off last night at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art — is shaping up to be a rather remarkable celebration and resurrection of a lost Memphis icon.

The four-day multimedia event will include screenings of classic Sivad-approved horror movies, a L'il Film Fest featuring Sivad-themed original shorts, a gallery art show in his honor, an "I Remember Sivad" panel featuring reminiscences from Davis' friends and colleagues, as well as a concert from longtime Memphian Greg Cartwright's garage rock outfit, the Reigning Sound, whose latest album, Love and Curses, takes its title from Sivad's signature catchphrase.

For McCarthy, who has made a career sorting through the detritus of regional pop culture, Sivad is a uniquely Memphis phenomenon, part of an important group of outsize characters who were culturally unifying figures, including deejay Dewey Phillips and wrestler Sputnik Monroe.

"Personally, to me Sivad is just as valuable to Memphis' identity as the Zippin Pippin or the Coliseum or Jerry Lawler or Elvis Presley. Buildings, people — it doesn't matter, these are all our important pop culture artifacts. And they need to be preserved and not thrown away."

Although a variety of high-camp horror-show hosts flourished across the country from the 1950s to 1970s — including Vampira in Los Angeles, Svengoolie in Chicago, and Sir Cecil Creape in Nashville — Sivad was a unique figure, both in terms of his popularity and his background.

Show business came to Davis early in life. In 1926, at 13, he began working as an usher for Malco, during the golden days of silent films and the dawn of the monster-movie era of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Davis used that background as he rose though the ranks at Malco, staging elaborate theatrical promotional events for films.

"Watson was the only horror host in history who had a dual legacy of coming from the ballyhoo days of cinema with Malco and then converting that charisma to becoming a TV icon," says McCarthy.

When WHBQ decided to launch its own creature feature-type program in 1962, Davis was recruited for the part of host.

Reversing his name (Davis is Sivad spelled backward) and donning monster makeup — his distinctive look likely inspired by Lon Chaney's character in "London After Midnight" — his cheeky humor thrilled audiences.

The show, which ran every Saturday, initially in prime time, was an instant smash, and enjoyed a communitywide popularity that transcended racial and class lines.

Sivad soon became a kind of cottage industry: He recorded a novelty single, issued his own kids' coloring book, popped up on other WHBQ shows like "Talent Party," and made public appearances. One 1963 event with Sivad at the Mid-South Fairgrounds attracted well over 30,000 fans clamoring for autographed photos and a chance to meet their hero.

For a generation of little kids, awkward adolescents or troubled teens, Sivad offered a kind of campy comfort and companionship during their tender years.

"If you're 13, 14, 15 years old and your face is covered in pimples, really, what else do you have to do on a Saturday night except sit home at night and think about girls, and watch 'Fantastic Features,'" says McCarthy.

"You're gonna watch Frankenstein or something and relate to the monster and be entertained by Sivad. You've got everything you need in life. And the misery of a girlfriend will come later," says McCarthy, laughing.

Though there were numerous articles written about Sivad during his peak — he even graced the cover of The Commercial Appeal's Sunday Fanfare magazine — most adults treated Davis' act as a kid's novelty unworthy of serious appraisal. "Even at the time it seems that Sivad was almost destined to be marginalized," says McCarthy.

As part of their effort to explore Davis' personal and professional history, McCarthy and Beifuss have produced a lavish 92-page program filled with stories, interviews and rare photos that bring Davis' fascinating story to life.

Theories differ as to why "Fantastic Features" went off the air in 1972. But declining ratings — the program had been moved from prime time to late night — and the changing cultural climate of the era certainly contributed to its abrupt cancellation.

Regardless, Davis' days in the spotlight had all but come to an end. With the exception of a couple of "where are they now?" TV news features and the rare promo appearance, Davis lived out the rest of his life as a retiree in Stuttgart, Ark., without ever really reviving his famous character.

Given that most of the original footage of Sivad was either taped over or thrown out, hardly any film of him survived. As a result, Davis' creation soon began to fade from the greater consciousness.

"Pop culture eats itself so quickly that it only takes one generation for something to go away," says McCarthy. "And yet so many older folks in Memphis — people in their 50s and 60s — have told their kids about Sivad; it's almost been talked about and handed down as a kind of folk legend."

That legend is set to be rekindled this weekend, and the outpouring so far from fans and friends has been dramatic. Davis' family has even contributed a collection of rare personal artifacts — including Sivad's makeup kit, costume and props — which will be on display at the Brooks during the festival.

McCarthy hopes that the renewed interest in Davis will encourage some local museum or institution to set up a permanent Sivad exhibit, and that perhaps even the Sivads of March can become a perennial event.

"For a long time Sivad was consigned to that dusty shelf of history," says McCarthy. "But the Memphis pop culture and American pop culture figures that truly live are the ones that remain closest to people's hearts. And Sivad is one of those."

Sivads of March: A celebration of the late Watson Davis

Friday

3 p.m. at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Overton Park: A screening of "Bucket of Blood." Admission is $5.

7 p.m. at the Adam B. Shaw Studio, 2547 Broad Ave: "Love & Curses," An exhibit featuring Sivad-inspired artwork. Admission is free.

Saturday

At the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art:

12:30 p.m. A screening of "I Was A Teenage Werewolf."

2 p.m. Lil' Film Fest featuring Sivad-themed shorts. Brooks.

Admission is $5 for both.

At Nocturnal Club, 1588 Madison:

10 p.m. : Reigning Sound and The Nehillistics perform. Count Basil will MC. Admission is $10.

Sunday

At the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art:

1 p.m. An "I Remember Sivad" panel featuring reminiscences from friends and colleagues.

2 p.m. A screening of "From Hell It Came."

3:30 p.m. A screening of "The Giant Claw."

Admission is $5 for the day's events.

For more information, visit sivadsofmarch.com or brooksmuseum.org.

© 2010 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.