With more than five decades of experience under his belt, longtime Bay Area entertainment journalist John Stanley has covered a wide array of stories from the realms of film, television and the stage. He began in 1961 as a pop culture reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he stayed for 33 years, interviewing some of the most legendary movie stars and personalities of the classic silver screen.
But for generations of Bay Area horror and Sci-fi fans, he's best known as a host of the late-night, cult favorite KTVU show Creature Features, which ran in the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s.
Though he’s been retired for quite a while, the 76-year-old writer hasn’t slowed down, continuing to write on a freelance basis. Earlier this year, he mined the wealth of his extensive newspaper career archive to publish a two-volume set of books featuring interviews with more than 70 famous funny men and women, titled The Funniest Comedy Icons of the 20th Century (BearManor Media).
In the books, which provide a look into the bygone world of vintage Hollywood and showbiz, Stanley recounts chats with stars including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Lucile Ball, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen and more.
“It amazes me sometimes that I collected all of that material," says Stanley over the phone from his home in Pacifica. "It was wonderful to put them all together and update them a little bit, give them a fresh point of view."
Much of the material has never been published before — in his original assignments, Stanley worked with the space constraints of a print publication. But combing through his notes and interviews, he found a treasure trove of unused anecdotes from celebrities, including many who, despite being some of the most famous people on the planet at the time, were stunningly down-to-earth.
Bob Hope, for example, stands out as a particularly fond memory. Stanley recalls how a publicist brought Stanley to Hope's front door, introduced the two, and then left, leaving them for a one-on-one talk and lunch.
“One of the great moments was when he ran up the stairs [back into the house] and I followed him, and as I walked down the corridor I realized that the walls were covered with photographs of his USO tours," says Stanley. "Him with generals MacArthur and Eisenhower, with four presidents. Bob then told me this very moving story."
Hope recounted a time during World War II in which he had entertained the troops just before a major invasion. Several weeks later he was visiting a military hospital when a few of the patients, wounded soldiers, looked over and remembered him from that particular show. Joyfully, they started chanting the name of the island where the show had taken place.
“Bob said ‘That was the one and only time I visited a military hospital and I broke down. Tears were running down my face. I had to walk out of the ward; I had never done that. I recomposed myself out in the hallway, turned around, went back in, and acted like nothing had happened.’”
Another chapter details some of the challenges of dealing with celebrities that didn't want to conform to the standard interview process. In 1967, Stanley was assigned to interview Woody Allen at the Hungry I in San Francisco’s North Beach -- but things didn’t go quite as planned.
“He steps up to the bar and bluntly, flat-out tells me he does not want to do an interview with me," remembers Stanley. "But then he says to come back the next night and that he’ll have something for me. In all my years of doing celebrity interviews, I’ve never encountered a moment like this one.”
When Stanley returned the next night, Allen gave him a “manifesto" -- which turned into a comedic, rambling article that the journalist brought when he met with his editor the next day. The two discussed it, shrugged their shoulders, and decided to publish it in place of a standard interview.
While the celebrity stories from his Chronicle career might seem impressive, he's got a bona fide fan base from his Creature Features days.
Picking up on that fandom, the show's producers are planning a comeback. On the evening of Saturday, Oct. 29, North Bay TV (a local broadcast station) will air Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong, a documentary about the show. It will also premiere a new version of Creature Features, starring Stanley as a special guest in the first episode.
"When those who used to watch Creature Features see it again, they are suddenly transported back through time — it’s like looking through an old photo album or reliving happy moments from one’s adolescence," says Stanley of the show's fans.
"It’s amazing. It's like a corpse that never quite dies," he says with a laugh, finding the Halloween-appropriate analogy. "It just keeps shambling through another decade of your life."