His irreverent and influential host character was a hipster, unlike the horror character prototype. Ghoulardi’s costume was a long lab coat covered with “slogan” buttons, horn-rimmed sunglasses with a missing lens, a fake Van Dyke beard and moustache, and various messy, awkwardly-perched wigs. On television, a low-key light was used to provide a spooky effect. Ghoulardi's stage name was devised by Cleveland restaurateur Ralph Gulko, who was making a pun of the word "ghoul," and his own similar last name, suffixed with a generic "ethnic" ending.
During breaks in the movies, Anderson addressed the camera live in a part-Beat, part-ethnic accented commentary, peppered with catchphrases: “Hey, group!,” “Stay sick, knif” (“fink”), “Cool it,” “Turn blue” and “Ova-dey.” Anderson improvised because of his difficulty memorizing lines. He played novelty and offbeat rock and roll tunes, plus jazz and rhythm and blues songs under his live performance. He frequently played the Rivingtons' "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" over a clip of a toothless old man gurning.
Shock Theater drew both a black and white cult audience, who loved Ghoulardi's beatnik costume, the music, and his hip talk, which was a nod to black jazz and R&B artists. More mainstream viewers enjoyed his broad, unpretentious ethnic humor.
Ghoulardi spared no unhip targets: the bedroom communities Parma, Ohio, ("Par-ma?!") which he often called "Amrap" (Parma backwards) and Oxnard, California, ("Remember...Oxnard!"), bandleader Lawrence Welk and polka music, Cleveland television personalities Mike Douglas and Dorothy Fuldheim ("Dorothy Baby"), plus other public figures. In particular, Ghoulardi unmercifully jeered Parma for its ethnic, working-class, “white socks” sensibility, creating a series of taped skits called Parma Place. He adopted a raven and named him “Oxnard.”
He frequently mocked the poor quality films he was hosting: "If you want to watch a movie, don't watch this one," or "This movie is so bad, you should just go to bed." He had his crew comically insert random stock footage or his own image at climactic moments. In movies with chase scenes, for example, they might superimpose a shot of Ghoulardi running away, as if it was Ghoulardi being pursued.
Ghoulardi used friends and members of the station crew as supporting cast: engineer “Big Chuck” Schodowski, film editor Bob Soinski and writer Tim Conway (later of The Carol Burnett Show and “Dorf” fame). He was later assisted by teenage intern Ron Sweed, who had boarded a cross-town bus to try to meet his idol at a live appearance, clad in a gorilla suit. Anderson invited Sweed onstage; to the crowd’s delight, Sweed stumbled offstage into the audience. This, plus some unannounced gorilla-suited visits to the studio, sealed his place as Anderson’s intern.
The station, then owned by Storer Broadcasting, capitalized on Ghoulardi’s wide audience with a comprehensive merchandising program, giving Anderson a percentage as Storer also owned the "Ghoulardi" name. Anderson formed the “Ghoulardi All-Stars” sports teams, which played as many as 100 charity contests a year, frequently attracting thousands of fans.
Anderson openly battled station management. Schodowski was quoted as saying: "[S]tation management lived in daily fear as to what he might say or do on the air, because he was live." In spite of his solid ratings and profitability, they worried that Ghoulardi was testing too many television boundaries too quickly, and tried to rein in the character. Anderson responded by, among other things, detonating plastic action figures and plastic model cars sent in by viewers with firecrackers and small explosives on air, once nearly setting the studio on fire.
Induced by greater career promise and Tim Conway, who had already left town, Anderson retired Ghoulardi in 1966 and moved to Los Angeles, California, planning to act in film and television. Instead, he made a successful career in voice-over work, most prominently as the main voice for the ABC TV network during the 1970s and 1980s, the voiceover in previews for the syndicated program Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Anderson died of cancer on February 6, 1997.
In the mid-1960s, Ghoulardi's irreverance overtook the rarefied Severance Hall, where Cleveland Orchestra conductor George Szell introduced one of his musicians as being from Parma, Ohio. According to Tim Conway, the concertgoing audience replied: "Par-ma?!"
As a tribute, jazz organist Jimmy McGriff wrote, recorded and released his song "Turn Blue."
In 1971, Ron Sweed first appeared on WKBF-TV as “The Ghoul,” borrowing the "Ghoulardi" character traits and costume with Anderson’s blessing, but with a name change to keep Storer Broadcasting at bay, as they still owned the "Ghoulardi" name. "The Ghoul Show" went on to air for many years in Cleveland, Detroit, and limited national syndication.
Channel 8’s Bob Wells (“Hoolihan the Weatherman”) and “Big Chuck” Schodowski took over Ghoulardi’s Friday night movie time slot as “Hoolihan and Big Chuck,” becoming Anderson’s tamer but familiar successors. Schodowski's show continued on WJW, with co-host "Li'l John" Rinaldi from 1979 onward, until July 2007.
Cleveland native Drew Carey has paid tribute to Ghoulardi in his television sitcom The Drew Carey Show, where his character can often be seen wearing a Ghoulardi T-shirt. Episode 17 of season two of the show was dedicated to the memory of Ernie Anderson. In his endorsement of the biography, Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride, Carey is quoted as saying "Absolutely, big time, Ghoulardi was an influence on me."
A recent episode of Big Bang Theory which had comedian Lewis Black guesting as an entomologist proclaimed that when funding was cut from his lab he would be forced to move in with his daughter in Oxnard. A subtle nod to Ghoulardi.
The self-proclaimed "psychobilly" band, The Cramps, named their 1990 album Stay Sick! and dedicated their 1997 album, Big Beat From Badsville, to Ghoulardi's memory. David Thomas, of art rock band Pere Ubu, said that the Cramps were "so thoroughly co-optive of the Ghoulardi persona that when they first appeared in the 1970s, Clevelanders of the generation were fairly dismissive." Thomas credits Ghoulardi for influencing the "otherness" of the Cleveland/Akron bands of the mid-1970s and early-1980s, including the Electric Eels, and The Mirrors, the Cramps, and Thomas's own groups, Pere Ubu and Rocket From The Tombs, declaring: "We were the Ghoulardi kids."
Anderson's son, film director Paul Thomas Anderson, named his production entity "The Ghoulardi Film Company."
Stay sick, knif!