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Rich Koz keeping Halloween season spooky as Svengoolie

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Being the voice of the clown at Jack in the Box doesn't sound like the speedy road to success. But it worked for Rich Koz. Koz was laboring at the fast food restaurant to earn his keep while he attended college. Unfortunately, the Jack in the Box clown proved the butt of all kinds of practical jokes, says Koz.

"People would order things, and when they'd get up to the window, they'd say, 'Sorry, don't have any money!' And pull off. The manager wasn't a very savory character, so I eventually quit."

The humble beginning didn't foretell what would happen to Koz, who's now known for hosting the popular Saturday night horror flicks on MeTV as the spooky Svengoolie.

Dressed in a top hat, hippie-length hair, starchy goatee and black circles around his eyes, Koz has been serving as the goofy character for 41 years. It all started because he was an admirer of the original Svengoolie, Jerry G. Bishop, who helmed a show in Koz's native Chicago.

"I was a fan of his from his radio work, so I started sending him material," recalls Koz, who dropped out of college when he ran out of money. "And it got to the point where he would actually ask me, 'Can you write a parody of this? — something specific. When he found out I was a broadcasting student, he invited me to come watch him do the show. I went in. And he started having me do off-camera voices and things like that — and writing stuff. And eventually I kinda was his partner on things."

So much a partner that when Bishop left the job, he gave Koz permission to serve as the "Son of Svengoolie" on a similar show in Chicago.

Even though he was shy as a kid, Koz says he was forever erupting with gags.

"I was actually a real good student. I think that was why I got away with things in class — making jokes and things — the teacher would say, 'Well, he's a good student, so we'll let that go by.' I wasn't really outgoing among people that I didn't know."

For him, comedy was always king.

"The whole thing for me was doing the comedy material and performing. I used the whole horror-movie hosting thing as an outlet for it. I like creating this stuff and making people laugh. When we do the shows, I'm writing material that I think is funny and will make the people I'm working with laugh, and hopefully that transfers to the people in the audience," he says.

It did transfer to people in the audience at first. But when a new company took over the network in 1986, the Son of Svengoolie was out of a job.

"I was trying to get something going, and it was kind of frustrating because I felt like I had done the first 'Svengoolie' show and I had these Emmy awards, and I couldn't get arrested. I was doing fill-in radio things. There are times when you feel like the doors have been closed and you're not quite sure why."

His parents had not been too happy with his choice, either.

"My dad was a sheet-metal worker, and this is a whole different world from anything he had any experience in. Mom was a housewife. ... Obviously anybody who's been in broadcasting knows there are times when you can't get anywhere. It seems like nobody's going to hire you, and my dad didn't quite understand. He said, 'Well, you're part of the union and you just go to the union and they send you to a job!' That's not how our union works."

Koz's protracted unemployment corresponded with the birth of his daughter, now in her 30s, who was born with spina bifida. The condition affected her bladder, kidney and legs. She had to wear braces when she was first learning to walk, and for a time she was on dialysis. But at 17, she was given a kidney transplant and is well and healthy now, working for Goodwill, he reports.

Koz and his wife of 38 years made it through the hard times by clinging to their optimism, he says.

"My wife and I talked about this: There are some people when more and more bad things happen to them, they get to the point where they give up and let things go. We didn't do that. We tried to keep positive and do everything we could to hold things together. And I think we succeeded. I was raised Catholic but can't say I was ever religious. I guess you have to have that positive mindset," he says.

The survivor of two heart attacks, Koz, 68, harbors a pacemaker, a defibrillator and a new affirmation.

"It makes you more careful about how you take care of yourself, but the bottom line is — and I know this is cliche as heck — it certainly teaches you to appreciate life and shows you what things are really important and what should be important," he says.

As Svengoolie, Koz has conjured some ghoulish fare for this Halloween season. "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman" will air the night of all spooks, Oct. 31.

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