For several summers in the late 1980’s Nashville tried to revive its derelict downtown with a festival called City Lights. Vendors, some local, like radio stations, others national, like insurance companies, set up booths along the sidewalks and handed out cards, pens, tote bags—the usual swag. Restaurants from around the city, since there weren’t any downtown, set up tents and sold food. It’s where I tried sushi for the first time, but that’s another story. There were also stages where local musicians performed. The whole thing was a big multi-block party and then when it was over everybody left and downtown emptied out again. It was fun, but there was one year I decided not to go. I don’t remember why exactly although I wasn’t old enough to drive and always went with my parents, so it was probably because my friends were doing something more interesting. When my parents got home that night my mother told me, “The funniest guy was there, but no one knew who he was,” and handed me a Commander USA Fan Club card. Commander USA, my hero, had been at City Lights and I missed him.
At the same time that Nashville was trying to make its defunct riverfront funct again cable TV was sweeping the neighborhoods, and that probably put a bit of a dent in City Lights because why would people go and sweat up and down the sidewalks for a cheap t-shirt when they could stay home and watch Godfather II without commercials and with all the bloody violence? And in addition to the premium movie networks there were the basic channels which were basically unregulated and, at the time, kind of a wild west of television. MTV was still all about music, Nickelodeon was struggling to fill time with content mostly ripped from other continents, and the USA Network hadn’t yet become a dumping ground for Law & Order reruns, but every Saturday and then Sunday afternoon it was time for by Commander USA’s Groovie Movies. Commander USA was a retired superhero who wore an old raincoat over his red, white, and blue costume. He had a painted on mask and was a member of the Legion of Decency, who, from his secret lair under a New Jersey shopping mall, would host old horror films and I don’t think I should have to explain why I was an immediate fan. Most of the time it didn’t matter what the movie was. I tuned in just to see Commander USA banter with a stuffed deer head he called Monroe and his pal Lefty—a face he drew on his right hand with cigar ash. And for some reason at the City Lights festival that year the USA Network had set up a booth and brought along Commander USA.
Commander USA was played by actor Jim Hendricks who, in the horror host documentary American Scary, explained that his original idea was to play the role as Uncle Willie, a character he’d created as a disc jockey. It would have been a very different take on the conventional horror host, but then so was a superhero, which was the idea the producers had instead. Most horror hosts, like Nashville’s own Sir Cecil Creape, or Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark, had darker personas, but Commander USA was easygoing and a little goofy. Some hosts are sarcastic, or just blunt, about how terrible the films they’re hosting are, but Commander USA was always positive. No matter what the movie was his “Holy cats! It’s real excitin’!” sounded completely sincere. I was a fan of old horror movies—and horror hosts—before Commander USA, but his upbeat persona assured me it was okay to like them, and his enthusiasm appealed to more than just me. My friend John’s parents were the first people in the neighborhood to get a VCR and they used cable to build up a massive movie library, some from the movie channels, but sometimes his mother would sit through network movies, her hand over the Pause button on the remote, carefully editing out the commercials. One Saturday we watched the original Little Shop Of Horrors, hosted by Commander USA, together, and about halfway through she said, “I wish I’d thought to tape him too.” The commercials may not have been worth keeping but Commander USA was.
Here’s a copy of the fan club card:
Nashville no longer has a City Lights festival—downtown is thriving, some might even say it’s doing a little too well, but every year in late summer I get a little nostalgic, and after all these years I’ve never given up the hope that Jim Hendricks and I might actually cross paths, even though I’d probably be just as starstruck and speechless as I would have been meeting him when I was young.
A few days ago I checked Wikipedia and learned that Jim Hendricks, Commander USA, passed away on March 17, 2018. I’d missed his passing, I’d missed him, again, and I won’t get another chance. And maybe it’s better that way. Aside from a few details about his career I don’t know anything about Jim Hendricks, what he was like as a person, and maybe it’s better that I missed him. One of the advantages of age is I’ve come to expect being disappointed in my heroes. Not that I want to speculate ill of the dead—maybe he was, in life as well as on screen, an all around good guy, and I’m happier thinking that he was. It may even make me a better guy. The good we imagine in our heroes reflects the good we’d like to see in ourselves. The mask matters more than who’s behind it. Now that the telepsychotronic screen heat and radiation shield has closed for the last time I’ll take his parting advice to keep my nose in the wind and my tail to myself, and remember the pledge and try to remain an All Around Good Guy. Forever.
Hail and farewell Jim Hendricks.
Commander USA, keep on soaring.
You’re my hero, Chris, and I hope we get to meet some day. I doubt I’ll be disappointed.
I admire your strength, talent, and just what you do so much that I’m staggered that you think of me as your hero, and I hope someday to visit Boston, but, more importantly, to never disappoint you.
I was an Elvira enthusiast, but he sounds delightful. I also remember early Nickelodeon. And I’m one who might say downtown Nashville is too funct. Sorry you missed him.
Elvira was–and, I think, still is–amazing. She’s also co-written a children’s book parody called Bad Dog Andy that’s pretty funny–it’s about a misbehaving Dalmatian. And downtown Nashville has definitely gotten too funct. I wish it could go back to that brief period when it was just starting to revive and hit that balance of funky and dysfunctional.
My horror show host was Zacherley (whose real name was John Zaherle) and mostly showed Tarzan and gangster movies. What I loved best about him was that in the middle of a scene in the movie, he would show up in a similar scene and do something totally moronic, then go back to the movie. It was a total hoot! This was in the 50’s and 60’s in New York. Thanks for the reminder of these great actors.
Oops – I spelled his real name wrong – it was Zacherle.
I’ve seen clips of Zacherle and he’s amazing! He also appears in that documentary American Scary which I highly recommend because all those horror hosts who sprang up around the country deserve to be remembered.
That’s funny, Chris, I don’t remember this guy! But any hero of yours is a hero of mine. All hail Commander USA, may he forever rest in piece!
Commander USA was easily missed if you had better things to do with your weekend than sit in front of the TV, although a funny thing about the internet is there are now plenty of clips of him on YouTube–and, as I was writing this, I discovered someone has even uploaded whole movies complete with his appearances.
Anyway one of the things I hope I conveyed was that the reason he was a hero to me was because he tried to find the good in everything, even some really terrible movies; he was a guy who, when life gave him lemons, made orange juice, and that’s a great philosophy for approaching life.
What a heartbreaking little story.
It was kind of a shock, one more part of my childhood gone, but I take some consolation that he’s preserved on YouTube–it can take me back and also share with others.
Couldn’t agree more, Chris. I like the way you both think. 🙂