People and events of consequence cast their shadows before them — never behind. Fort Worth broadcasting pioneer Bill Camfield casts three such long shadows in an original stage production set to open at Hip Pocket Theatre.
Playwright-director Grainger Esch grew up under the televised influence of Camfield. When he was 5 or 6, Esch witnessed a pie-in-the-face slapstick routine on a Camfield show and decided straightaway, “That’s what I want to do.” Hence Esch’s parallel careers as a Ringling Bros. clown, and as a playwright-director-actor. His personality-driven homage to Camfield (1929-1991) is called “The Slam Bang Story of Ichamore Twerpwhistle.”
Even during his crowd-pleasing prime, Camfield was eclipsed by his on-camera personalities: The mention of kid-show host Ichamore Twerpwhistle, alias Icky Twerp, of the after-school attraction “Slam Bang Theatre,” still can trigger fond Pavlovian memories in anyone who resided during the 1950-70s within viewing range of KFJZ-TV/Channel 11 (later, KTVT).
No less memorable is Camfield’s horror-fim host, Gorgon, who in 1957 reintroduced Universal Pictures’ Gothic chillers of the Depression-into-wartime years for the Fort Worth/Dallas version of a syndicated package called “Shock! Theater.” Camfield named his program “Nightmare.” Unlike most of his fellow “Shock!” hosts around the country — from John Zacherle in Philadelphia and New York to Morgus the Magnificent in New Orleans and Jeepers Creepers in Los Angeles — Camfield played things straight, without campy excesses or corny interruptions.
His academic and literary bearings would allow no hokum, except when he was portraying Icky Twerp to the goofball hilt. “The likes of Frankenstein and Dracula come from literary classics,” Camfield said in a visit during the 1980s at the Fort Worth Headliners Club. “I’d be remiss to play them for cheap laughs.”
Channel 11 was a scrappy independent station in a market otherwise dominated by network affiliates — reliant upon eye-catching local programming. Camfield, as chief writer/executive producer and featured announcer, sensed the potential of attractions that Hollywood and corporate broadcasting had overlooked or forgotten.
The Slam Bang story of Ichamore Twerpwhistle
By acquiring local-TV rights to a faded short-comedy franchise called “The Three Stooges,” Camfield-as-Twerp helped to spearhead a revival of popular interest. Lured out of retirement by the unanticipated appeal to a new generation, surviving Stooges Moe Howard and Larry Fine thanked Camfield and a bunch of other TV kid-show hosts by casting them in a valedictory movie called “The Outlaws Is Coming!” (1965). Various “Slam Bang Theater” revivals during the 1980s found Camfield – in civilian life, a serious writer and level-headed suit-and-tie businessman – as generous as ever with the unbridled silliness.
Esch, 55, has rejoined the Fort Worth show-business scene from an entrepreneurial theater in Salado, where he devoted 10 years to a mixed regimen of variety shows and dramatic exercises. As a student at Duke University in Durham, N.C., he had connected with the Clown College of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he earned Big Top credentials that also have served him through a stretch in Hollywood, including a backup role in Ron Howard’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000). He has impersonated the Old Hollywood comedian Stan Laurel at the Universal Studios theme park. Esch applies the background nowadays as a therapy clown at Cook Children’s Medical Center, exploring the healing properties of laughter as a character called Dr. Quack.
“I’d been missing the theater,” Esch explains. A connection in 2019 with Hip Pocket Theatre and its founding artistic director, Johnny Simons, matched Esch with early roles in “The Monkey Wrench Gang” and “Seven Sinatra Veronicas” (playing a caricatured Frank Sinatra).
“I love the scene at Hip Pocket Theatre,“ adds Esch. “Their shows are so anchored in movement, and of course physical theatre is my wheelhouse.” The combination of his grounding in knockabout comedy with Simons’ basis in the Old World commedia dell’arte tradition seems to find a natural extension in the life of Bill Camfield, who — among other accomplishments — helped to make his industry safe for unabashed slapstick at a time when commercial television was still exploring its greater possibilities.
“The Slam Bang Story of Ichamore Twerpwhistle” will run weekends through Oct. 3 at Hip Pocket Theatre, 1950 Silver Creek Road, Fort Worth 76108. The Web address is www. hippocket.org.
More about Bill Camfield
Not to give away any plot-points from Grainger Esch’s “The Slam Bang Story of Ichamore Twerpwhistle” — but some reflective sketches are in order to convey a context for Bill Camfield’s accomplishments. Camfield experienced private-life tragedies and professional successes in more-or-less equal measure (again, no plot-spoilers, here), and during his later years he proved unfailingly ready to explain his approach to combining business management with humor and intellect.
On his Gorgon character, from “Nightmare:” “I had majored in English literature at Texas Christian University,” Camfield said over lunch in 1984, “and I had developed a keen appreciation for the Gothic origins of “The Wolf Man” and “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” and suchlike.
“Most of the other horror-show hosts around the country were playing it tongue-in-cheek with the Shock! Theater package – but I wanted to play my version for all the menacing mood I could muster,” added Camfield, relishing the alliterative wordplay.
He said he nearly gave in to the temptation to record a rock ’n’ roll tie-in for “Nightmare” after a few such personalities produced phonograph records during the 1950s-’60s — John Zacherle’s “Dinner with Drac,” for example. In Los Angeles, the host known as Jeepers Creepers hired a young musician named Frank Zappa to produce a platter. A Morgus the Magnificent record showcases New Orleans rockers Frankie “Sea Cruise” Ford and Malcolm “Dr. John” Rebennack.
“I had thought about maybe making a Gorgon record, back then,” Camfield recalled, “what with our fine local community of rock ’n’ roll talent, like Delbert McClinton and his band, available to back me up. Never quite got around to that. TV was plenty — and I had some other specialty-show characters that kept me busy, as well.”
Camfield at length preferred to retire Gorgon, rather than to venture beyond Old Hollywood’s acknowledged classics. “Without the Frankensteins, the Draculas, the Mummy pictures, etc.,” as Camfield told Elena M. Watson, author of a 1991 book called “Television Horror Movie Hosts,” “you would have a mishmash of cheap sci-fi, splatter pictures, and some mysteries.”
During his last years, Camfield became a newspaper columnist and cable-television developer. No strictly-business luncheon conversation with Camfield was complete without his occasional split-second lapse into character as Icky Twerp or the hollow-voiced Gorgon. Camfield would begin to address a dead-earnest state-of-the-industry question by saying, “Now, here’s how I look at it…” And then he’d cross his eyes and crane his neck at an awkward angle: “Yeah, here’s how I look at it!” (The gag was as old as Vaudeville — but it seemed to become fresher every time Camfield pulled it.)
Camfield’s fleeting dinner-table transformations invariably were greeted with amused delight and, sometimes, befuddled stares from fellow diners seated within gawking range. Some would request autographs, specifying, “Make sure you sign it as Icky Twerp.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the opening of “The Slam Bang Story of Ichamore Twerpwhistle” has been postponed until further notice, according to Hip Pocket Theatre.
Veteran journalist and film historian Michael H. Price consulted frequently with Bill Camfield while covering the cable-television industry during the 1980s for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Price is an occasional collaborator with [full disclosure] Hip Pocket Theatre’s Johnny Simons.