Shock Theater featured grade-“B” science fiction films and horror films. Shock Theater was aired in a Friday late-night time slot, but at the peak of Ghoulardi's popularity, Anderson also hosted the Saturday afternoon Masterpiece Theater, and the weekday children's program Laurel, Ghoulardi and Hardy.
This irreverent and influential movie host was a hipster, unlike the horror character prototype. Ghoulardi’s costume was a long lab coat covered with “slogan” buttons, horn-rimmed sunglasses with a missing lens, fake Van Dyke beard and moustache, and various messy, awkwardly-perched wigs. Ghoulardi's stage name was devised by Cleveland restaurateur Ralph Gulko, who was making a pun of the word "ghoul," and his own similar last name, tagged with a generic "ethnic" ending.
During the breaks from the movies, Anderson addressed the camera live in a part-Beat, part-ethnic accented commentary, peppered with: “Hey, group!,” “Stay sick, knif” (“fink”), “Cool it,” “Turn blue” and “Ova deh.” Anderson improvised because of his difficulty memorizing lines. He played novelty and offbeat rock and roll tunes, plus jazz and rhythm and blues songs, under his live performance. He frequently played the Rivingtons' "Papa-Ooo-Mow-Mow" over a clip of a toothless old man gumming some food. On movies with chase scenes, he often had his image superimposed on the screen running ahead of the chaser.
Shock Theater drew both a black and white cult audience, who loved Ghoulardi's beatnik costume, the music, and his hip talk, which was a nod to black jazz and R&B artists. More mainstream viewers enjoyed his broad, unpretentious ethnic humor.
Ghoulardi spared no unhip targets: the bedroom communities Parma, Ohio, ("Par-ma?!") which he often called "Amrap" (Parma backwards) and Oxnard, California, ("Remember...Oxnard!"), bandleader Lawrence Welk and polka music, Cleveland television personalities Mike Douglas and Dorothy Fuldheim ("Dorothy Baby"), plus other public figures. In particular, Ghoulardi unmercifully jeered Parma, for its ethnic, working-class, “white socks” sensibility, creating a series of taped skits called Parma Place. He adopted a crow and named him “Oxnard.”
He also mocked the poor quality films he was hosting: "If you want to watch a movie, don't watch this one," or "This movie is so bad, you should just go to bed." He had his crew absurdly insert stock film clips or his own image at climactic moments.
Ghoulardi used friends and members of his talented Channel 8 crew as supporting cast: cameraman “Big Chuck” Schodowski, film editor Bob Soinski and writer Tim Conway (later of The Carol Burnett Show and “Dorf” fame). He was further assisted by teenage intern Ron Sweed. Sweed had boarded a cross-town bus to try to meet his idol at a live appearance, clad in a gorilla suit. Anderson invited Sweed onstage; to the crowd’s delight, Sweed stumbled offstage into the audience. This, plus some unanounced gorilla-suited visits to the Channel 8 studios sealed his place as Anderson’s right-hand man.
Channel 8, then owned by Storer Broadcasting, capitalized on Ghoulardi’s wide audience with a comprehensive merchandising program, giving Anderson a percentage as Storer also owned the "Ghoulardi" name. Anderson also formed “Ghoulardi All-Stars” sports teams, which played as many as 100 charity contests a year, which, reflecting his popularity, frequently attracted thousands of fans.
Anderson openly battled Channel 8 management. Schodowski was quoted as saying: "[S]tation management lived in daily fear as to what he might say or do on the air, because he was live." In spite of his solid ratings and profitablilty, they worried that Ghoulardi was testing too many television boundaries too quickly, and tried to rein in the character. Anderson responded by, among other things, detonating plastic action figures and plastic model cars with firecrackers and small explosives sent in by viewers, on air, once nearly setting the studio on fire. (“Cool it with the boom-booms.”)
Induced by Tim Conway, who had already left town, and greater career promise, Anderson retired Ghoulardi in 1966 and moved to Los Angeles, California. His plan was to act in film and television. Instead, he made a successful career in voice-over work, most prominently as the main voice for the ABC TV network ("the Lu-u-uhv Boat") during the 1970s and 1980s.
In the mid-1960s, Ghoulardi's irreverance overtook the rarefied Severance Hall. Cleveland Orchestra conductor George Szell introduced one of his musicians as being from Parma, Ohio. According to Tim Conway, the concertgoing audience replied: "Par-ma?!"
As a tribute, jazz organist Jimmy McGriff wrote, recorded and released his song "Turn Blue."
In 1971 Sweed appeared on WKBF-TV, borrowing the "Ghoulardi" character traits and costume with Anderson’s blessing, but changed the movie host's name to “The Ghoul,” to avoid misappropriating the "Ghoulardi" name.
Channel 8’s Bob Wells (“Hoolihan the Weatherman”) and “Big Chuck” Schodowski took over Ghoulardi’s Friday night movie time slot as “Hoolihan and Big Chuck,” becoming Anderson’s tamer but familiar successors. Schodowski's show continued on WJW, with co-host "Li'l John" Rinaldi from 1979 onward, until July 2007.
Cleveland native Drew Carey has paid tribute to Ghoulardi in his television sitcom (Carey can often be seen wearing a Ghoulardi T-shirt). In his endorsement of the biography, Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride, cited below, Carey was quoted as saying "Absolutely, big time, Ghoulardi was an influence on me."
The punk-a-billy band The Cramps named their 1990 album Stay Sick! David Thomas, of art rock band Pere Ubu, said that the Cramps were "so thoroughly co-optive of the Ghoulardi persona that when they first appeared [in the 1970s], Clevelanders of the generation were fairly dismissive." Thomas credits Ghoulardi for influencing the "otherness" of the Cleveland/Akron bands of the mid-1970s and early-1980s, including the Electric Eels, and The Mirrors, the Cramps, and Thomas's own groups, Pere Ubu and Rocket From The Tombs, declaring: "We were the Ghoulardi kids." (Akron's Devo aren't included on Thomas' list, but they were formed in the same era as the other groups and shared a similar aesthetic.)
The most obvious "Ghoulardi kid," Anderson's son, film director Paul Thomas Anderson, named his production entity "The Ghoulardi Film Company."