Tombstone Photo

He’s back!

Well, sort of.

For nearly 25 years, radio executive Dick Bennick, Sr. delighted fans as Dr. Paul Bearer, host of WTOG’s Saturday afternoon horror fest Creature Feature. Growing up, young Richard Eric Koon was one of the thousands of fans in the Tampa Bay area who tuned in to watch the frightfully punny host introduce and provide commentary on “horrible old” B movies.

The show ended after Bennick’s death in 1995, but like many fans, Koon never forgot the good-hearted, humorous host who filled his youthful Saturday afternoons. Years later, after marrying and starting a family, Koon began donning a Dr. Paul Bearer costume – complete with the creepy but hilarious makeup and slicked-back, center-parted hair – on Halloween. After numerous requests from friends and family, he purchased an old tux and a 1994 Lincoln Hearse, and began appearing in local community events in 2008. By 2010, he was a favorite in parades.

With respect to Bennick and blessed with well-wishes from his widow, Patty Bennick, Koon adopted the moniker Dr. Paul Bearer II.

He also built a set based on Bennick’s old TV digs and filmed short videos the garage of his Winter Haven home.

They were a hit on YouTube.

A year ago, Koon realized his dream of following Bennick’s footsteps and began hosting his own quarterly horror show, Tombstone Tales at WTOG, now known as CW44 Tampa Bay.

I wrote my first newspaper story about Koon and his Dr. Paul Bearer II persona in 2010. I’ve been keeping track of him ever since. In honor of the Halloween season, I sat down with him this week to chat about life as a TV horror host. When he’s not touring around in his alter ego’s hearse, Koon is taking care of business at Richline Appliance Parts in Eagle Lake. He regaled me with tales of the friendly undertaker in between serving customers in the busy shop.

D.K. – What made you decide to bring back the Dr. Paul Bearer character? What was it about him that grabbed you?

R.E.K. – What made me even consider it was back in the day of Creature Feature, my sister Beth (Koon) used to run downstairs, turn on the TV, and sit there religiously watching Dr. Paul Bearer. And I used to say, “What is this guy? He’s kind of dumb,” because I didn’t understand the puns. He was quirky, kooky.

Later, Dr. Paul (Bearer) had done a couple of segments and I caught one and actually laughed. There was something about the character itself that was creepy but cool. He had “The Look.”

You see all these characters out there, and yeah, there are some good ones – Freddy and Jason. Elvira. They have the kooky horror look. But there’s something about Dr. Paul, it’s not just the look – he was really cool. Dr. Paul’s a good guy. He’s not out there to cut your throat.

D.K. – What do you enjoy most about Tombstone Tales?

R.E.K. – When we get in there, there’s something about when the set is assembled and the lighting is on, I transform more into the character than when I’m out and about dressed in costume.

I think it’s fantastic that it’s not just a “me thing.” We have a whole team. We will write it, they will direct it and I will act it. The amazing thing is when they put it together I’ll see what I’m doing… I do what the director tells me and then it’s funny. It’s hilarious.

Last night I watched yesterday’s show with my family and busted a gut open. I was cracking up so hard. I know I found the niche. I now know what it is I want to do in front of the camera. It’s basically this: Dr. Paul had this saying, “Be peculiar because to be normal takes a lot more effort.”

To watch Dr. Paul Bearer as himself, as nonchalant as he is with all of this hoopla going on around the Tenement Castle, it’s normal to him. It doesn’t faze him.

D.K. – Do you still have the set in your garage?

R.E.K. – That’s it. (He points to a photo on the computer screen.) I carted it over to the station to show the station manager and Greg Blackburn, who worked on the original creature feature. I set it up and when they came in and saw it, everybody’s jaw dropped. They were like, “Wow!”

D.K. – That’s cool.

R.E.K. – Yeah. We took the old set and mixed it with the new set. I really feel “in tomb” when I’m on the set. I’m sorry, I don’t mean this. (Referring to the pun)

D.K. – Yes, you do!

R.E.K. – Hmm….go on.

D.K. – What is it about the Dr. Paul Bearer persona that makes him so endearing?

R.E.K. – During Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail, I could just sit there and wait for somebody to turn around and when they did, they got spooked. I just made eye contact, and the eyes open and with that black makeup, they look kind of cross. And then I’d go, “How are you doing?” (fast, low voice)
“Okay, I guess.” (wavering voice of a small child.) “How are you?”
“I’m doing terrible. Just the way I like it.” (fast, low voice)

And then they start loosening up a bit and I start bringing in a bit of conversation and throw in a couple of puns, and the next thing I know they are smiling. It’s fright and then smile, and then friendship forever.

D.K. – Describe Dr. Paul Bearer’s personality. In what way are you two alike?

R.E.K. – He really doesn’t like stress. He has a way of dealing with stress – he pays it no mind. He tries to find the humor in everything. When I’m in character, it’s pointed out to me that people wish they could be me because I could step into that character and leave Richard – and all the worries – behind and I’m just Dr. Paul Bearer. And she’s right – she being my wife – because when I’m on set, when I’m in persona, when I’m doing events, Richard is gone. Dr. Paul Bearer is there. I love it when people come up and smile. It’s an incredible feeling. It really is.

Patty Bennick (Dick Bennick’s widow) told me, “I want you to develop the character and I want you to put a little bit of Richard in there.”

And a little bit of Richard is in there. In fact, one of my customers says, “There’s the Richard I know” because I do love to cut up.

D.K. – People still watch movies based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To what do you attribute their continued popularity?

R.E.K. – A lot of people are wanting the black and white films. I tell you one thing, they get to the point. There are movies out there today and it takes forever to get to the point. And there are some movies today where you actually have to think. Those (old) movies, it’s like curl up on the couch, turn out the lights, and they have creepy, creepy music. (He imitates creepy music) Maybe we like it because it makes us feel young again because we saw it when we were young.

D.K. – Do you think people just like to be scared?

R.E.K. – Yeah, because after they’re scared, they laugh. That’s why I love to scare people on Halloween. I love it.

D.K. – What is your favorite horror or paranormal movie? Why?

R.E.K. – Ahhh, there are so many! I’ve always loved the Amityville Horror. Of course now that I’ve decided that it was not paranormal, it kinda ruined it. As far as the classics go, definitely Frankenstein.

D.K. – Why?

R.E.K. – You’ve got to think back to the 30s or 40s, you had Nosferatu, which was just creepy itself and you didn’t even need sound with that one. The technology, for them to come up with this – we didn’t have this type of (modern) technology. But man, did they make it happen! As long as you put common knowledge out of your head and go with what the movie is saying, it’s entertaining. I mean you can’t do a head transplant, but that didn’t even cross my mind when I was watching Frankenstein. (Koon becomes animated and shouts, “It’s alive. Alive!”)

Of course, I still love – it was one of the first ones I watched – the Attack of the Giant Leeches. It’s so hokey! They had these trash bags and the sound they made was creepy. (He makes more sound effects.)

D.K. – How do you come up with your puns – do you dream them?

R.E.K. – A lot of it is by the seat of my pants. I have always, even before doing Dr. Paul Bearer, had diminished hearing. I’ve never been able to understand words to a song. I hear different sounds from what a lot of people hear. So, I’ll start filling in my own words. We’re driving down the road and a song comes on. I’ll start singing it using my kids’ names and whatever the situation and they giggle and crack up. I guess the more you practice, the more it happens.

Last week at ZombieFest, people would come who had a ticket for getting their picture taken in the casket with Dr. Paul Bearer. As they were coming in, it just dawned on me and I’d say, “Come in, come in, you want to lie down? Heh, heh, heh, this is my sleep number bed.”

They’re like, “Sleep number bed?”

“Well, yes it is, most certainly, because when your number is up, this is the bed you get. Heh, heh, heh!”

That one just came to me.

D.K. – Do people laugh, or do they just go, “eh?”

R.E.K. – If they get it, they laugh. A lot of times I have to explain it and then they’re like “Ohhhhh.”

(He launches into a string of puns.)

“Why do you part your hair down the middle?” That’s where the bullet went.

When they ask me to do something I always say, let me take a stab at it.

(He pulls his pun folder from a desk drawer and reads one.) What’s the favorite health insurance for goblins, ghosts, and monsters? Mediscare. (He laughs.)

They (people) think I’m weird, but when they get it they’re like ‘that’s cool!’

D.K. – What are some of your frequently asked questions?

R.E.K. – Are you the original’s son? My reply is “only by character.”

Do you have his hearse? No, I wasn’t lucky enough for that. Busch Gardens has that in one of their scare houses. I have a newer edition. It’s a 94 Lincoln. I had to have air conditioning.

Are you ever going to do a show? Yes, we have been. Go check on Facebook for clips.

Do you do private parties or private events? I tell them selectively. I would have to get their information to my agent. I don’t do any private events in people’s homes. If it’s out and about, I’ll consider it.

Is that scar real? I tell them the same thing Dick did: “You like my scar? You can have one too; just go to the used scar lot.”

D.K. – Where can people find segments of Tombstone Tales?

R.E.K. – Facebook and Twitter. Facebook, that’s generally where I do a lot of my content. Check Facebook.com/Dr.PaulBearer2. I’m always posting the dates and times of shows, and usually the station will send me clips of what they’re airing – 5 second spots promoting the show. At the end of every show they show bloopers, I post those.

drpaulbearer@gmail.com, they can reach me there too.

D.K. – Would you like to add anything else?

R.E.K. – I’ll be lurking for you!