This VINTAGE ST. PETE story was originally published on Jan. 14, 2020. For more in the series, click here.
More than two decades after Dr. Paul Bearer left us for that great tenement castle in the sky, his legend lives on.
He still holds the record for the longest-ever continuous run as a TV horror-movie host, 22 years on WTOG’s Creature Feature, which originated in St. Petersburg and was broadcast statewide. Several generations spent their Saturday afternoons in his company.
Dr. Paul Bearer’s curious but good-natured blend of gallows humor and groan-inducing puns still hangs in the air, along with his cadaverous smile, enormous facial scar, disproportionate eyeballs and undertaker’s costume.
And a voice like gravel and grease in a blender, chuckling diabolically while he discussed that day’s “horrible old movie.”
And an unforgettable singsong-y catchphrase: “I’ll be luuuurking for you.”
“A pun was the highest form of humor to him,” says Patty Bennick, who was married to the man for the last nine years of his life. “And if I laughed at it, he knew it was funny. Because I hate puns.”
Dr. Paul Bearer was Ernest Richard “Dick” Bennick, former stage magician, North Carolina “boss jock” and teenage dance-party host and, in his later years, regional sales manager for a pair of Lakeland radio stations.
He created Dr. Paul Bearer while working at WGHP in High Point, N.C. Dr. Bearer replaced Count Shockula, the station’s first horror host, whom nobody (particularly Bennick, who wore the Shockula costume) liked very much.
“I realized that one of the reasons that the other character didn’t work was the fact that he was not human,” Bennick told blogger Ed Tucker in a 1991 interview. “You had no reason to empathize with him. When I changed characters, I had the same sets, the same props, the same coffin and the same jokes but it started to work. I think the reason is because Dr. Paul Bearer became a real person unto himself.”
Finding the “look” took some thought, Bennick said. “I went through all these magazines and I picked out what I liked about various characters to design my new character. The beard came from a Vincent Price movie, and quite frankly I can’t remember which one. Parting my hair down the middle I stole from a guy in New York, (TV/radio horror host) John Zacherley. The spats and the frock coat I just thought looked cool. I had to go to a beauty shop and get them to give me hair off the floor that matched my own to make the beard, because in those days they wouldn’t let me grow one.’
The scar was his pièce de résistance. “I could never explain the scar, I just kind of liked it and that seemed to make it click,” he said.
“As the character continued to develop, I came up with two answers for where the scar came from. If a little kid asks me about it, I say I got it in a used scar lot! If it’s an adult, I tell them I got it in the war and try to prompt them into saying well which war? I reply the boudoir (boo-d-war)!”
When Bennick moved to Polk County, Florida in 1973, Dr. Paul Bearer came with him. He convinced the WTOG station manager to give him a shot – and 22 years and thousands of horrible old movies later, he was as much of a St. Pete institution as Webb’s City, Tropicana Field or even – yes, kids, it’s true – Tyrone Square Mall.
“Dr. Paul Bearer’s world is very real to him,” Bennick said in that 1991 interview. “It’s everyone else who is out of step, and when you stop and think about it, isn’t that how most of us really are?”
They were a team, Dick and Patty. At home in Winter Haven, he meticulously wrote out all his gags, and prepared his props. They’d drive to the WTOG studio on Gandy Boulevard in St. Pete and, on a single Saturday, tape three months’ worth of intros, outros and promos. She was the floor manager, in charge during the shoots on the purposely cheesy-looking tenement castle set.
“Let’s face it, it’s not a class act that I do,” Dick admitted. “It’s pretty schlocky when you get right down to it!
“There are a few things, though, that we try to pay attention to. One of those is don’t pop the gag before I say it. That is a principal going back to the old burlesque blackout routines. That’s what we try to do with the products. If I’m reading a Bleeder’s Digest, don’t show the magazine before I say Bleeder’s Digest.”
Her husband, Patty says, enjoyed all the attention, in and out of costume.
Dick had a prosthetic left eye – the result of a car accident years earlier – and because he also suffered from Grave’s Disease (a pun he surely must have loved), his right eye had a pronounced bulge.
“We were checking into a hotel in Tampa, for an advertisers’ convention,” his wife recalls. “The girl at the front desk said ‘Are you Dr. Paul Bearer?’ and Dick said yes.
“She said ‘I thought you had a glass eye?’
“He said ‘I do!’ And he pulled it out and showed it to her.”
Patty Bennick cackles loudly at the memory. Just talking about her husband makes her laugh.
“One time I heard the guys on Q-105 talking about him,” she says. “And they called him “Ol’ Blue Eye.’”
Annoyed, she told her husband about it.
Hey, Bennick said, as long as they’re talking about me, I don’t care.
He made frequent public appearances, arriving in his decked out 1961 hearse, tossing out puns and signing autographs. “To a horribly good friend,” he’d write, or “Horribly yours,” or something equally corny.
Children adored him. Seniors, says Patty, seemed to be big fans, too (they never could figure that one out).
In 1993, Tampa mayor Sandra Freedman issued a proclamation designating Oct. 30 “Dr. Paul Bearer Day” in the city.
“I was thinking about running in politics myself when this is all over,” Dr. Bearer said at the ceremony. “I’d champion all the dead issues. Of course, I’d have to be a fright-in candidate.”
During parades, Patty would drive the hearse (slowly), while Dr. Bearer sat on the hood and spoke to his fans with a microphone. If a pedestrian strayed into the vehicle’s path, he’d warn them: “Walk in front … ride in back,” and follow up with that ominous chuckle.
It wasn’t always fun and games, however. “He was the Grand Marshal of a parade down in Lake Wales,” remembers Patty. “And this church bus pulls up alongside of us, and they’re all telling us that we’re going to hell and all this kind of stuff. It had its ups and downs, for sure.
“In the Gasparilla Parade, in the float in front of us was a bunch of guys drinking. You know, it’s the upper echelon of the Tampa/St. Pete area. I had my window down, because it was hot, and this guy comes over and said ‘Here, can you take this beer can?’ He wanted me to put it in the hearse, as his trash. I said no, and so he threw it at me.
“Dick had me stop the hearse. We got out of the parade line and left.”
Then there was this: “When we were in the malls, signing autographs, he’d always sit with his back to the wall. Because one time somebody came up behind him and tried to hit him over the head with a 2×4. Because there were people who didn’t like what the character represented.”
Those were the exceptions, she insists. “Everybody loved him. They still do. I get calls from people all the time. I got a fan letter from a kid, he just wanted to have something of Dr. Paul Bearer’s in the worst way. So I sent him a picture.”
Dick Bennick died during heart bypass surgery on Feb. 20, 1995. He was 66.
“Someone once said that you are the sum of all your yesteryears, that is what makes you what you are today,” he observed in 1991. “I brought together the fact that I have always had a hobby of magic, I have always loved puns, I always liked to dress up, I’ve always liked horror movies, and I enjoyed acting.
“You bring all this into play, and this is what comes out in Dr. Paul Bearer.”
This story will appear in the upcoming St. Petersburg Press book Vintage St. Pete: The Golden Age of Tourism – and More.