Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hi, cartooners!

Because I had some irons in the fire on both Tuesday and Wednesday evenings this past week I didn’t get around to seeing the newest Pioneers of Television episode until Sunday afternoon.  The subject of PBS’ critically-acclaimed history of the boob tube was “Local Kids’ TV”—a celebration of programming aimed at the lollypop set featuring grown adults who dressed up in goofy costumes (for often little to no pay; one of the interviewees comments: “I can't think of anything connected that I didn't like...oh...our salaries...that's the only thing...”) and hawked cereal and toys until those busybodies at Action for Children’s Television put a halt to all that good, clean fun.  (The ACT organization, founded by concerned Massachusetts housewife Peggy Charren, lobbied Congress to pass a law that prohibited kiddy show hosts from promoting products on their programs and because that sort of funded the bottom line on these shows for a good many TV stations, the local hosts soon started becoming extinct.)

Because my familiarity with this topic wasn’t as far-reaching as some of the other segments featured on Pioneers of Television, I really enjoyed this hour—and in fact, really wished it could have continued on for a little bit longer.  I was familiar with many of the individuals featured like Stan Freberg (KTLA’s Time for Beany) and Chuck McCann (there’s a choice clip with McCann hitting a snare drum that turns out to be filled with milk—which I’m pretty sure he cribbed from Ernie Kovacs); there were also clips from Ray Rayner and Friends and Garfield Goose, which I was able to see because our local cable company in my hometown of Ravenswood, WV carried Chicago’s WGN.  The program also concentrated on people who started out doing local kid shows but graduated to bigger and better things (while remaining in the same line of work), notably Muppet master Jim Henson, who started out on a Washington, DC program called Sam and Friends until Children’s Television Workshop founder Joan Ganz Cooney convinced him to ply his trade on what eventually became known as Sesame Street.  (I thought it was interesting to learn that Henson was originally reluctant to take the Sesame gig, feeling that entertaining kids was sort of out of his sphere and that his métier was using his creations for commercials for products like Chinese food and coffee.)  The other “pioneer” examined was the incomparable Fred Rogers, whose humble beginnings began on Children’s Corner in Pittsburgh, PARogers explains on camera that his trademark sneakers came about as a result of his wanting to be able to move about the studio without making too much noise.

The one show that I did not have a previous acquaintance was the legendary Wallace and Ladmo of Phoenix, AZ’s KPHO-TV (channel 5), which lent itself to a lengthy discussion and presentation of some hilarious clips from that long running series.  The show began in 1954 as It’s Wallace?—“Wallace” played by the station’s art director, Bill Thompson—as a vehicle to show cartoons with Thompson performing various comedy bits to eat up time between cartoons and commercials.  Thompson talked his pal Ladimir Kwiatkowski (a cameraman at the station) into joining him in front of the camera as his sidekick “Ladmo,” and a few years after that a third man, weatherman Pat McMahon, was thrown into the mix.  The result was a series that lasted thirty-five years on the station; a program that showcased a satirical and slightly subversive sense of humor (Thompson and his pals often ribbed their sponsors) done live (in front of a studio audience) five times a week.

McMahon’s wacky cast of show characters included superhero Captain Super (McMahon observes on Pioneers that “a superhero on The Wallace and Ladmo Show need only to be two things: not super in any way nor a hero”), octogenarian Aunt Maud and spoiled brat Gerald, a character so loathed by the audience that they would boo him when he came on…and Thompson and McMahon both tell a hilarious anecdote about how kids stormed the stage during a live appearance that featured the Gerald character, throwing gherkins at him and then rocking the cab of a truck that McMahon had escaped to in order to evade their adolescent wrath.  My personal favorite in the clips I saw was Boffo the Clown, a cynical performer who despises kids and is pretty much in it only for the money (“I'll be the clown, you be the kids...just sit there and shut your mouths...").  It kind of made me wish I had role models like that growing up…except I might have really turned out more twisted than I already am.  The program’s title became Wallace & Company in 1968 and two years after that it took on its now better-known title and continued as The Wallace and Ladmo Show until it left the airwaves in 1989.

A good deal of discussion was also devoted to children’s shows that were essentially local productions but were part of franchises—Bozo the Clown being the most famous example, of course, and there is mention of Boston’s Frank Avruch (whose program has been released to DVD; I discussed one of the sets here) and Chicago’s Bob Bell (and later Joey D’Auria) as just two of the many amazing performers who brought “the world’s most famous clown” to life.  (The program also talks with another famous Bozo, former Today weatherman Willard Scott, who played the Boz on a Washington, DC station and often found himself in demand doing promotions for the McDonald’s chain in the DC area.  When WRC cancelled their Bozo program, McDonald’s asked Scott to become their new mascot and spokesman…and lo and behold, Ronald McDonald was born.)  The other well-known franchised kid show was TV’s Romper Room, and reminiscences of that program come from the likes of Room hosts Mary Ann King, Marlene Manderfield and Socorro Serrano.

My only exposure to Bozo growing up was WGN’s Bozo’s Circus, which was the highest-rated local children’s program in television history (and also the high water mark of local TV, IMO), but I have to confess that I watched that show long after my kid days had come and gone.  (It was that good.)  WJCL-TV in Savannah had a Bozo, which I sometimes watched when I visited my grandparents (who lived in that city long before my family moved there in 1983—in fact, it was my grandfather who greased the wheels for my father to get a job); I remember tuning in one afternoon (my grandmother had a color TV, which was astoundingly cool because I got to see Get Smart in color for the first time) to hear a local announcer deliver the news that due to technical difficulties the Bozo festivities would be in black-and-white.  (I did not know at the time that JCL had only been on the air since 1970 and that they were still working out the kinks on the whole color broadcasting thing.)

I do, however, remember watching Romper Room as a kid—WCHS in Charleston had a franchise (hosted by “Miss” Marilyn Fletcher)—but I never cared for the program for several reasons, notably because Miss Marilyn didn’t show cartoons and as patient as I was for her to call my name when she looked into her “magic mirror” as the end of each telecast she never did.  (This sort of emboldened me in a way; I figured if she couldn’t see me I could get away with some pretty devilish behavior without experiencing any repercussions.)

No, in my formative years I had two idols who hosted kiddy show programs—the first was Uncle Willie, the titular host of WCHS-TV’s Uncle Willie’s Popcorn Theater.  “Willie” was the alter ego of a musician and entertainer named George “Sleepy” Jeffers, a West Virginia broadcasting legend who headlined his own country music show on the station in the mornings and then did the kid show thing in the afternoon.  Uncle Willie told bad jokes, sang corny songs (some to a young girl named “Little Linda,” who was Jeffers’ real-life daughter) and showed cartoons accompanied by a comical sidekick named Roscoe Squirt.  Roscoe was a member of Sleepy’s country music band (and played a pretty mean steel guitar) along with “Sonny” and “Honey,” who were collectively known as the Davis Twins (the Davises and Sleepy had a regional hit record with Pretending is a Game in 1957) and I got to meet the two of them (Rosc and Wil) at some carnival function at the school my next-door neighbors attended, where they were the main attraction.  (Uncle Willie could make his bowtie move up and down with his Adam’s apple, a pretty impressive deal when you’re a mere sprat.)  This post at Random Thoughts was written by a guy who worked for WCHS-AM and knew Sleepy pretty well since Jeffers worked the late shift—I remember tuning into the station sometimes around 5 in the morning and hearing ol’ Sleepy on the air.  I have been known to this day to use Uncle Willie’s signoff, “Bicycle!”—to the puzzlement of various friends and acquaintances.

But the king of local television children’s programming in my youth was the one and only Mr. Cartoon—a man who has had such an influence on my life (his standard greeting to kids is the title of this post) it’s positively uncanny (his sign-off about having to “skedaddle out of here” has stayed with me to this day), and who ruled weekday afternoons at four for one solid hour of cartoon entertainment on Huntington’s WSAZ-TV for nearly thirty years.  Mr. Cartoon was originally played by a man named George Lewis (who doubled as WSAZ’s “Steamboat Bill”) but when Lewis left the station in 1969 for a job in Maryland Jule Huffman, hired by the station as a singer and announcer in 1953, replaced him (Jules was also WSAZ’s weatherman).  Huffman had been a regular on Steamboat Bill as the voice of Merlin the Sea Monster, and he also hosted a puppet show (that showed Popeye cartoons) at the butt-crack of dawn on Saturday morning called Popeye and His Pals.

Mr. Cartoon couldn’t make his bowtie move up and down like Uncle Willie but then again he rarely wore one—his taste lent itself more to loud sports jackets, topped off with sunglasses and hat.  He’d never really hit you over the head with a good deal of moralizing but he did teach me to always use the four magic words: “Please,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome” and “Excuse me.”  He would also insist that I make sure to “attend the church or synagogue of your choice” on Sundays—something that never did quite sit right with me because I was curious as to what he had against those of the Muslim and Buddhist faith.  Apart from that indiscretion, I would have given my eyeteeth to have gone on the show as a kid but I never got the opportunity—I do remember that when I was at Marshall University in 1981 we asked WSAZ if they would consider letting us be on the show (even though we averaged about eighteen years of age) and they looked at us like we were nuts.  “You’re too old,” they dismissively told us, and even though we tried to persuade them (and I thought our arguments were pretty sound) that we thought so highly of Huffman that we wanted to do his show as a tribute to what a great role model Mr. Cartoon was they waved us off.

Mr. Cartoon showed a variety of cartoons—he’d switch back-and-forth from Bugs Bunny to Popeye to Woody Woodpecker to Rocky and Bullwinkle…at one time the station even had the Banana Splits package, complete with the adventures of Atom Ant, Secret Squirrel, etc.  For a while, Mr. Cartoon would have one of the Splits on the show as his sidekick (Bingo, Fleegle, Drooper and Snork[y]) but in 1974 he got a subordinate that he didn’t have to pay royalties to: a…well, I never did figure out what he was supposed to be but he answered to “Beeper.”  Beeper had a jones for peanut butter sandwiches, and all the kids in the “Kartooners Korner” would hand Mr. Cartoon a paper bag containing a sandwich for ol’ Beep…I used to wonder even back then whether Beeper actually polished them off himself or whether they donated the food to a soup kitchen (my Mom was a fanatic about wasting food, which probably explains why I’m the size I am today).  A mutual friend of my paisan Jeff Lane and I donned the Beeper outfit a couple of times when he worked at the station but he’d never tell us when because he didn’t want us watching.

Though my childhood dreams of being on Mr. Cartoon never reached fruition, the man himself did make an appearance at another school carnival function—this time in Ravenswood, WV.  I had planned to have my picture taken with my idol but a few of my alleged friends, seeing me standing in line for the photos, began to razz me to the point where I became embarrassed and I sheepishly ended up sneaking out of the line…something which I regret to this day.  As for Mr. Cartoon, he suffered the indignity of having his show removed from weekday afternoons in 1988 (the station replaced it with The Oprah Winfrey Show—which for me is just one of the many reasons to hate Oprah) and relegated to a Saturday morning timeslot, where it flourished until 1995.  The program was cancelled two months before Huffman retired from WSAZ—he told the powers that be that he’d be perfectly willing to continue despite his official retirement and those idiots said talk to the hand.  Huffman will celebrate his 87th birthday on March 31st of this year…but I thought I’d give him a shout-out right now in case I forget.

If there’s one fault with this particular Pioneers of Television segment it’s that they donate a little too much time to letting Bill Cosby stand on a soapbox and preach about how terrible TV is for kids; the Cos’ Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids is discussed here…which seems out of place for an hour about local kids’ television (since Albert was an animated network show) and really, the only thing I ever learned from Cosby Kids was that people with speech impediments (Mushmouth, I’m talking to you) were apparently funny.  When ACT got their “act” together they kind of ruined things for fans of these shows (I’ve always held them responsible for the cancellation of Linus the Lionhearted) who really didn’t watch them to be lectured or talked down to…they simply wanted to be entertained.  As Sharon Kelley, a one-time director for Wallace and Ladmo succinctly states during the telecast, “They weren't trying to teach us anything...they weren't trying to give us any morals or present any lessons...they just...it was just for laughs.”  So take a deep breath…one more deep breath…just one more deep breath…and say it with me now: “Bye, cartooners!”

The above is a photo of WSAZ-TV’s news team in the 1970s, with Jule “Mr. Cartoon” Huffman doubling as weatherman and the first “Bob” of this group is anchorman Bob Brunner, who once gave a speech at a luncheon for my high school’s Quill & Scroll Society…and was falling down hilarious.  (I remember one time he “subbed” for Huffman as Monsieur Cartoon, telling the kids that he was Mr. C’s “younger and better-looking brother.”)  The “Bos” is Bos Johnson, a veteran reporter/anchor who tried to teach me broadcast journalism while I was at Marshall but he insisted on instructing me at the ungodly hour of 8am.  I liked and respected Bos a lot, but I don’t think it was reciprocated—he once told me: “I get the feeling you don’t take too many things seriously.”

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Chris Riesbeck said...

I wonder what difference it makes to kids growing up today that all the television shows they see is nationwide and canned -- nothing local and live. TV's content is as remote as the satellite the signal comes from these days.

It's interesting to me that the hosts existed to hawk products. In my mind's eye, I can still pull up images of many hosts from my childhood in upstate NY, but those images don't include commercials.

Brent McKee said...

It has always seemed to me that childrens TV of any sort is a vanishing commodity on most broadcast channels. As a kid there were always shows for kids on in the mornings and afternoons, whether they were national shows out of Toronto and occasionally Montreal, local shows with local hosts - usually some guy from the local station who was doing double duty - or reruns of network shows from a few years before. All gone now. I guess it's cheaper to buy syndicated court shows and TV pshrinks for adults who spend money than something for kids that they can't sell crap to.

Scott said...

Growing up in L.A., it was Channel 11's Hobo Kelly (who was briefly syndicated after scoring locally). Dressed and made up like a man, but played by a woman, Hobo Kelly opened each show -- explicably -- by flying like Superman over blue screen shots of the city. She prattled in an Irish brogue as thick as oatmeal, showed cartoons, and operated a large machine that vomited toys.

Looking back it was, like most kids' shows, ineffably weird, but I firmly believe she was the best flying transvestite hobo on TV.

Second choice was the avuncular and beloved Sheriff John and his "Lunch Brigade," which ran from the 50s until 1970.

ClassicBecky said...

Everybody has different memories of local kids' shows, of course. I date myself by remembering Romper Room, loved Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans. Here in Indianapolis, we had the Janie show, featuring cartoons. The rumor always went around that poor Janie was drunk in the shows. Urban legend, I imagine!

My favorite was Cowboy Bob. Nice looking young man, wholesome, fun, good cartoons, always wore his 10 gallon hat. I did learn years later that Cowboy Bob had long hair, past his shoulders, unusual in those days, and he kept it tucked up under his hat.

I think things like that are as much fun as the shows themselves!

Rick Brooks said...

I had never heard of Wallace and Ladmo, either, but the clips they showed in this program make me wish I had. If the show was anywhere near that funny on even a semi-regular basis...

Anonymous said...

Sadly, Mr. Cartoon, Jule Huffman, passed away today. 4/16/15, 91 years old. I was searching for old video and stories about him and his show when I came across your blog. I'm from Huntington and was on his show in the 1970s, before Beeper was even on. 😃

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Thanks for letting everybody know, anonymous one. I saw the news on Facebook about an hour ago, and I don't have to tell you that learning of Jule's passing opened up a whole day of suck. I'm going to try and get something about his passing up on the blog a little later today.