Doctor Shock was the television horror host for Philadelphia from 1970 until 1979. He appeared on
several shows over the years: Scream In, Horror Theater, and Mad Theater. All of these shows aired on
WPHL-TV, Channel 17. He was known as the mad magician of fright, and would frequently perform magic
tricks during his show. His favorite trick was fire eating.
Doctor or Dr. Shock was played by Joe Zawislak, a magician from the Manyunk region of Philadelphia.
When Joe was a boy his father passed away suddenly from a heart attack. Joe’s mom was left with the task of raising Joe and his brothers all by herself. Joe had a tendency to get into trouble. He was a prankster and the class clown. He often ran away from home simply to see how far he could get. On one of his excursions he attended a carnival and became fascinated watching a fire eating act. From that moment on Joe knew what he wanted to do. After a brief stint in the Navy where Joe began to learn how to perform magic tricks, Joe decided to become a full time magician. Jobs were difficult for him to get at first so he supplemented his income with a variety of jobs like working in a butcher shop and selling insurance.
When John Zacherle hit the airwaves in Philadelphia as horror host Roland, Joe was blown away. Roland was the host of Shock Theater on Channel 10. Joe watched every episode and even had an autographed picture of Roland. Joe was so overwhelmed by Roland that he would dress as him and perform his stage act. He would walk the streets of his neighborhood as Roland and perform tricks for local children. He even made live appearances on behalf of Roland since John Zacherle wasn’t interested. At some point Joe used a fake electric chair in his magic act. At that time he called himself Dr. Shock. He still used his Roland make up. Over the years Joe performed as Dr. Shock, Dr. Alkey, and a number of other names. It was a chance meeting in a barbershop, though, that changed Joe’s career forever.
It was 1969 and Channel 17 had just picked up a package of horror films cheap. The station was looking for a host. They approached John Zacherle, now a radio DJ in New York, and he had turned down their request to come back to his hometown and host the show. Joe was sitting in a barbershop when the Channel 17 station manager came in for a trim. He was complaining about having to audition people in order to find a host. The barber told Joe to do his thing. Suddenly Joe took cigar ashes and rubbed them across his cheek, forehead, and chin, and then he went into a dialogue of magic. The station manager was impressed and took Joe into the studio for a screen test. It worked for them all and horror host Dr. Shock was born. John Zacherle was consulted for permission as the characters were very similar in appearance. John gave it and wished them good luck.
Joe was given a thirteen week trial. During that time Joe was insane. He took Roland to the extreme. During the commercial breaks Dr. Shock performed magic tricks. He ad libbed like crazy and often ran over his time slot by up to half an hour. The studio panicked and Channel 17 cancelled Dr. Shock. The fans rioted and a month later Dr. Shock was back on the air with a new show and new characters. His show was Scream In and he had the addition of his daughter, Doreen, to the show. By adding the child, Channel 17 hoped to tell parents that it was okay for their children to watch. Doreen was called Bubbles in honor of the show’s sponsor Bubbles Booth Soda. Dr. Shock ruled the Saturday night spot. Of course other stations in Philadelphia showed horror movies. There was Creature Features on Channel 48 and Chiller Theatre on Channel 29, but they didn’t have a host. Joe filmed a month’s worth of episodes in one day leaving him available for personal appearances the rest of the time. Joe’s popularity skyrocketed as he did appearances in a three state area.
By the mid-1970s Channel 17 had been sold several times and new blood was looking for ways to generate more revenue. They started with Dr. Shock. Channel 17 ended Scream In and broke Dr. Shock’s normal double feature into two separate programs: Horror Theater and Mad Theater. That way an advertiser would have to pay double to advertise on two different shows. Dr. Shock was also taken out of the Saturday night time slot and moved to Saturday afternoons where one or both of his programs regularly got pre-empted for sporting events much to the dismay of his many fans.
In the meantime Dr. Shock was very busy. He produced a music single. It sold out. The next logical step was a full length music album. It was a smash in a tri-state area. Joe Zawislak had been elected president of the local magician’s union. He was involved in charity events and got to perform with Jerry Lewis on one of his muscular dystrophy telethons. He golfed with Bob Hope. He visited the Playboy mansion. Just when Dr. Shock was at his peak, tragedy struck. Joe Zawislak, like his father before him, was taken from us by a heart attack. He was still in his forties.
It is difficult to say where fame would have taken Dr. Shock and Joe Zawislak. His show may have gone on for several more years. He may have ended up hosting a horror convention like John Zacherle or Zacherley (his New York horror host name) does with Chiller Theatre. Or he may have simply faded away which is one choice I seriously doubt.
His legacy, however, lives on with his children and the memories of the millions of fans who watched and loved him.
|Click the TV to
|From "Presenting the Frightful Dr. Shock
By John Skerchock