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TV pioneer Jerry R. Gregoris, dead at 91, starred in cult classic

TV pioneer Jerry Gregoris. | Supplied photo

Jerry Gregoris worked on children’s TV shows that make Baby Boomers want to skip down memory lane, including “Lunchtime Little Theater” and the debut of “Bozo the Clown.”

He also helped direct “Garfield Goose and Friends,” “The Ray Rayner Show” and “The Blue Fairy,” according to Steve Jajkowski, an archivist with Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications.

A director, producer and writer, Mr. Gregoris had to be resourceful to make programs look good. When “Bozo” began in 1960, it had a modest set and small budget, said Ted Okuda, co-author of “The Golden Age of Chicago Children’s Television.”

Okuda recalls an episode where Mr. Gregoris’ team shined. When Bozo introduced a cartoon about a clown in the army, “They took a toy tank, and, through depth perception, they put it in front of the camera and made it look like Bozo was popping out of the tank,” he said.

Mr. Gregoris also had a hand in WGN broadcasts of the Cubs and Sox, boxing and wrestling, telethons and March of Dimes programs. He helped produce music specials on the Ravinia Festival and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, among others, featuring Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson. In 1966, he won a Chicago/Midwest Emmy for producing “Illinois Sings.”

As an independent filmmaker, he did promotional and industrial shorts for Norwegian Cruise Line, the Teamsters, State Farm Insurance and the Indiana Republican Party.

He started out as a radio actor and auditioned for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, according to his wife, Jean. But just before that tryout, he cut his hair short. She said he was passed over in favor of the lustrous-locked Farley Granger, who went on to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and “Strangers on a Train.”

Mr. Gregoris, 91, died June 30 at Cambridge Nursing & Rehab Center in Skokie.

Shortly before he turned 60, he stepped out from behind the camera to act in a 1981 B-movie that described as one of the worst of all time: “Croaked: Frog Monster from Hell,” previously titled “Rana: the Legend of Shadow Lake.”

Though he was good friends with director Bill Rebane — known for churning out low-cost, high-grossing cult films from Wisconsin like 1975’s “The Giant Spider Invasion” — Mr. Gregoris was both tickled and discomfited about his association with the drive-in classic.

“He said, ‘Oh, my God, somebody Googled me, and all I’m good for is [‘Croaked’], ’’ said his wife.

In “Croaked,” “He plays Charlie, a crazy old coot who knows the secrets of the lake,” according to the book “Regional Horror Films.”

Mr. Gregoris, a mentor to Rebane when they both worked at WGN, planned to co-write and co-produce “Croaked.” But “we were short one actor,” Rebane said. “He agreed to do it, and I think we had a blast.”

Mr. Gregoris chewed the scenery with the abandon of a sideshow geek, feeding chickens to the avenging frog monster.

“We had a good costume, very good prosthetics, and it was very believable throughout,” Rebane said.

Still, “It’s the kind of movie that you laugh at,” said Lloyd Kaufman, maker of “The Toxic Avenger” and president of Troma Entertainment, the distributor of “Croaked.”

Poster for “Croaked.” | Troma Entertainment
Poster for “Croaked.” | Troma Entertainment

As “Not Coming to a Theater Near You” put it, the movie “looks like it was conceived, scripted, rehearsed, and shot in one weekend, and produced entirely with found objects.”

But back when drive-ins were around — and, later, video cover art featuring “a monster and a young person in small clothing” — those kitschy independents raked in money, Kaufman said.

Mr. Gregoris threw himself into TV productions with the same enthusiasm as his “Croaked” role, his wife said. At WGN, he helped Rebane move from the mailroom to jobs as an assistant director, floor manager and assistant to the executive producers. “He was an incredibly talented human being, very kind, family-oriented,” Rebane said.

A longtime Evanston resident, Mr. Gregoris was born in Venice, Italy, and arrived in the United States at 4, said his wife. He grew up in New York, becoming a radio actor at 17. During World War II, his mother begged him not to join the Air Force. So he entered the Army, where he wound up getting badly wounded, according to his wife, who said he was left with “a plate in his head.” He served in Germany, France and Italy and received a Purple Heart.

In the early 1950s, Mr. Gregoris joined ABC-TV in Washington, D.C. He worked on President Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration and the McCarthy hearings, said retired TV director Bill Lotzer. After working for WGN, he moved to ABC in Chicago, where he was a program director, Lotzer said. Later, he opened Jerry Gregoris Productions.

He enjoyed fishing. And, using his father’s wine press from Italy, he made excellent red wine, his wife said.

Mr. Gregoris is also survived by his children, Jeannine Schiebold, Lisa Hults, Colette Dim and Tina Teevens, and 12 grandchildren. His ashes have been scattered in one of his favorite places, Northern California.