Hi There, Boys and Girls!: America's Local Children's TV Programsby Tim Hollis
Whatever happened to Bozo the Clown, to Aunt Norma, to Solomon C. Whiskers, those television celebrities who hammed it up between cartoons and contests during local kids' shows?
In Hi There, Boys and Girls! America's Local Children's TV Programs, Tim Hollis tracks down the story of every known local children's TV show from markets across the United States/i>
Whatever happened to Bozo the Clown, to Aunt Norma, to Solomon C. Whiskers, those television celebrities who hammed it up between cartoons and contests during local kids' shows?
In Hi There, Boys and Girls! America's Local Children's TV Programs, Tim Hollis tracks down the story of every known local children's TV show from markets across the United States.
There have been many books about children's television on the networks, and such shows as Captain Kangaroo, Howdy Doody, and Sesame Street are legends in broadcasting.
However, the local branch of children's programming has received much less attention. For every performer on the scale of a Captain Kangaroo or a Buffalo Bob, there were five or six local personalities who were just as beloved by their viewers--and sometimes even more so--since these local stars could be counted on for appearances at stores, children's hospitals, and shopping centers, where kids could meet them face-to-face.
Anyone over the age of thirty who grew up with a TV set will remember at least one or two of these productions. Whether it was hosted by a cowboy character, a clown such as the one on the many-franchised Bozo shows, a policeman, a sea captain who showed Popeye cartoons, or one of the gentle and lovely ladies who presided over Romper Room, these hometown stars were some of the Baby Boomers' first friends. Although children loved them, these hard-working performers garnered less respect from the rest of the TV industry.
Hi There, Boys and Girls! includes a capsule history of this programming from the earliest days of radio to the early 1970s, when a combination of social changes and broadcast regulations sent most of the hosts into retirement.
Walt Disney once observed that while there is very little adult in a child, there is a lot of child in every adult. This book will bring back a flood of long-submerged memories for anyone who was a child during this golden era.
- University Press of Mississippi
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 8.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.88(d)
Read an Excerpt
Tune Your Dial
and Listen Awhile
Although the vast majority of TV-reared baby boomers are unaware of the fact, most of the programming formats that became standard for television actually had their roots in the glorious days of radio. From roughly the early 1920s to the late 1940s, this wondrous piece of talking furniture poured forth a variety of entertainment that, although now forgotten by the general public, continues to influence show business today.
The ever-popular situation comedy was born from radio shows such as Fibber McGee and Molly, in which a set cast of eccentric characters got into new predicaments each week. The highly successful "rural" form of this genre, as exemplified by The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, was rooted in radio's saga of life in Pine Ridge, Arkansas, Lum and Abner. Television movies had their radio counterparts in dramatic anthologies such as The Lux Radio Theatre, The First Nighter, and many others. Game shows were developed in radio, practically threatening to take over the whole medium in the immediate post-World War II years. Soap operas were still a radio mainstay as late as 1960. Even celebrity talk shows were pioneered by such radio gossip mongers as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.
It should come as no surprise, then, to find that programming for children also began in the days when television was just a crazy idea some mad scientists were working on in their secretlaboratories. As in television, there were many network children's radio shows (Little Orphan Annie; Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy) and even some that were "bicycled" from station to station in the form of sixteen-inch transcription disks, the equivalent of today's syndicated fare. And yes, more to the point at hand, there were local kid shows as well.
Although no one was keeping up with such activity at the time, broadcasting historians eventually determined that the most likely contender for first local radio show for kids was Uncle Wip, which debuted in Philadelphia in 1921 (some sources say March 1922). His name, derived from the radio station's call letters, WIP, makes Uncle Wip one of the first hosts ever to follow the custom of being named after the station's IDor, in television, the channel numberone of the most creative concepts to be found in the business.
The original Uncle Wip was Chris Graham. He played the role until 1933, at which time he contracted tonsillitis and passed away. According to tradition, WIP honored their beloved personality by going completely off the air for a half hour. The role was filled by others for the next few years, until around 1937 when Wayne Cody took over. Cody was no newcomer to children's radio; illustrating how the success of Uncle Wip had already brought forth imitators, Cody had been heard on other Philadelphia stations as The Jolly Man, Captain Sunshine, Old King Cole, Jolly Jack, and The Melody Man. Since WIP was owned by Philadelphia's legendary Gimbel's department store, much of Uncle Wip's activity centered around that business, including the hosting of their annual Thanksgiving Day parade.
By the mid-1920s, locally hosted kid shows were beginning to catch on across the country, particularly in the major radio markets (which, not coincidentally, would become the major TV markets some twenty-five years down the highway). By 1926, station WMAQ in Chicago featured Russell Pratt as the host of Topsy Turvy Time. One of the few things known about this primitive production is that it featured the host reading favorite children's books to the listening audience, a routine that would eventually be transferred to the video era with great success. Among the stories read by the "Topsy Turvy Time Man" were the famous Oz books, which were enjoying the height of their popularity at the time. The radio broadcasts were noted by the books' publisher, the Reilly and Lee Company of Chicago, which issued the following challenge to the stories' young fans: "Write a letter to your own broadcasting station having a Children's Hour, and ask the Radio Man to broadcast the Oz stories, so you can hear them read every day. And tell your little friends to do the same. And if enough children ask Mr. Radio Man, he will do as he is asked. Try it and see."
This blurb would seem to indicate that local children's radio programming was fairly firmly entrenched across the country by this time. Another indication is that by the mid-1920s the concept was familiar enough to be parodied by pioneering radio comedians Billy Jones and Ernie Hare. They devised a hilarious spoof that they called "Daddy Scarum"; Daddy Scarum told bedtime horror stories in a funereal voice. Some of the early children's radio personalities eventually went on to more lucrative work in adult radio; for instance, Don Wilson, who became a superstar for his role as Jack Benny's pompous announcer, early in his career was known as Big Brother Don over a Denver, Colorado, station.
New York City's entry in the romper race was the most famous of all. Don Carney was an announcer at station WOR in 1926 when an event occurred that was destined to be repeated with staff announcers nationwide for years to come. A toy manufacturer wanted to use radio to advertise its line of teddy bears, which were distinctive because they had buttons sewn into their ears. Carney either volunteered or was drafted to be the one to push the baby bruins. He responded by spinning a yarn about a teddy bear that became separated from its owner and couldn't be identified because it had no buttons in its ears. That did it. Carney was now known as Uncle Don, the most famous local children's host in all of radio land.
Except for a brief time in the late 1930s when Uncle Don was carried by the Mutual radio network, the show remained a New York fixture for over twenty years. Of course, since the radio signal of a superstation like WOR could be received for miles and miles, Uncle Don probably had the largest audience of any local kid-show personality in broadcasting history, radio and TV both included. According to Newsweek in 1943, Uncle Don's daily audience numbered some five million kids over a seven-state area. For all of his prominence, however, his format was basically the same as that of all his latter-day television descendants. In 1946, the Saturday Evening Post gave the following synopsis of the daily routine:
Don comes into the homes at 5 P.M. While at the piano in the WOR studio, waiting for the second hand to glide around to his appointed time, Don can hardly hold still.... At the "go" signal, he puts his face almost into the microphone and giggles, "Hello, girls and boys, this is your Uncle Don." Then he fingers the keyboard in E flat and starts his theme. The kiddies at their radios join in. Mothers busy in the kitchens are likely to clatter the saucepans. Fathers unfortunate enough to be home from work just twitch.
The theme song about which the Post was making its sarcastic remarks is one of the few bits of the show that has survived in recorded form. The spelling of some of the lyrics could be left up to any transcriber's imagination, but it went something like this:
Hello nephews, nieces too; mothers and daddies,
how are you?
This is Uncle Don all set to go ... with a meeting
on the radio!
We'll start off with a little song, to learn the words
will not take long.
For they're as easy as easy can be; come on now
and sing with reel
Hibbity gits, hot-sah ring bo ree! Skibonia skippity
hi lo dee!
Hony ko doatz with an ala ka zon! Sing this song
with your Uncle Don!
After belting out this bit of gobbledygook with right good humor, Uncle Don would launch into his program proper, starting off with the Pledge of Allegiance. Following in rapid succession would be stories about some of his friends, Willipus Wallipus Sr. (also Willipus Wallipus Jr.) or perhaps Susan Beduzen and her brother Huzen, and plugs for his many sponsors, which at various times included Lionel electric trains, Maltex cereal, Bond Bread, Borden's dairy products, Bosco chocolate syrup, Good Humor ice cream, and many others which would become mainstays of the TV era. Another of his trademarks was his frequent announcement that little Johnny or Betty Whoever had been so good that week that they would find a present from Uncle Don behind their radio set. Sure enough, thanks to the cooperation between Uncle Don and Mom and Pop, there would be a package stuck in among the radio tubes.
Uncle Don's stories usually contained a moral of sorts, encouraging kids to look both ways before crossing the street or eat all the vegetables on their plate. It is said that on occasion, when discussing the advisability of brushing one's teeth, Carney would remove his dentures and slur his way through a sentence or two to demonstrate in horrific detail the consequences of poor dental hygiene.
The 1946 Saturday Evening Post article also reported on the continuing growth of "radio uncles" as it termed them. According to the writer, local shows were being produced at that time in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Fort Wayne, Des Moines, Portland, and elsewhere. Chicago remained a big playground for children's radio, much as it would dominate children's TV later; station WLS featured at least two series simultaneously: Malcolm Claire as "Uncle Mal" and the team of "Uncle Charlie" Egelstrom and "Aunt Rita" Ascot.
Uncle Don's WOR program left the air in 1949, just as the glow of the New York television picture tube was getting brighter. That same year, another local show made its debut far away from the Big Apple, to be one of the last of its kind. Jon Arthur was an announcer at radio station WSAI in Cincinnati, Ohio, when he created a format that went on the air as Big Jon and Sparkie. Sparkie was an elf who was also voiced by Arthur via a sped-up recording. Eventually, when a visual representation of Sparkie was needed, Arthur enlisted the help of cartoonist Leon Jason (who would later create the character of Jingle Dingle, a "franchised" part of many local TV shows) to do the artistic honors. Big Jon and Sparkie soon outgrew Cincinnati and was picked up by the ABC radio network, which kept it going until the late 1950s. Even that stringed pioneer of network children's television, Howdy Doody, grew out of a program on New York's WEAF radio, Triple B Ranch (the triple B's standing for "Big Brother [and future Buffalo] Bob").
Singer Frank Luther was not exactly a host in the "uncle" vein, but his pleasant delivery of children's songs (both popular and original) kept him busy in various series throughout the years from the early 1930s to the early 1950s. Luther also fell into storytelling in the Uncle Don vein, with his tales of nitwitted Silly Pilly and cute zoo resident Brumas, the baby polar bear. By 1950, comic books were being marketed featuring these characters, even though they were still confined primarily to the New York City market. After his radio days were over, Luther continued to record children's albums, which were still on sale even at the time of his death in 1980.
By far the most common format for children's radio programming was to have the host read the daily and/or Sunday newspaper comics over the air. This might be seen as the foreshadowing of the many animated cartoons that would unreel on TV station film chains nationwide. The reading of comics, not surprisingly, was most common on stations that were owned by newspapers. In Birmingham, Alabama, station WSGN was owned by the Birmingham News (the call letters stood for "South's Greatest Newspaper"), and the daily funny papers carried a masthead reminding all to hear the comic capers dramatized by "Miss Ann" over the air. (There were actually a number of Birmingham actresses who performed this task, but all were known as Miss Ann.) The newspaper comics could be found cutting up on the airwaves in practically every other city as well.
With the coming of television, some of the radio hosts moved seamlessly into the new visual medium, while others slowly faded into obscurity and were forgotten. Television would eventually develop its own breed of kid shows, but it would owe the basic format to those hardy radio pioneers whose stock in trade was to be heard and not seen.
Television Finally Makes It
around That Corner
While Uncle Don, Uncle Wip, and a phalanx of other radio performers were creating programming that continues to be enjoyed today by a small but devoted following, work was steadily progressing on that glassy-eyed box that was known among its pioneers as "tele-vision." Schenectady, New York, claims to have had the first TV station in the country, WRGB having officially gone on the air in 1928. On the air it may have been, but obviously there was no one to receive the station's signal outside of a few experimental receivers in laboratories.
By 1939, TV had made sufficient progress to be unveiled at the New York World's Fair. It was quite a curiosity and caused a tremendous stir. Among the future kid-show pioneers who made television debuts during the fair was puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, well on his way to creating two-thirds of the titular characters of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. On the West Coast, Los Angeles already had at least one TV station by 1939, and one of its premiere features was the showing of a cartoon. (The cartoon in question was the latest Donald Duck short from Walt Disney; the Disney cartoons would be noticeably absent from the development of local programming in the future.)
If the promoters had had their way, television would have been replacing radio by the beginning of the 1940s. However, there was the minor matter of a little tiff, known as World War II, that interfered with those best-laid plans. Wartime conditions prohibited the manufacture of television setsand obviously there was no reason to continue producing programming if no one could see it. Once the war ended, though, the picture tube began to get brighter.
Between 1946 and 1948, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued licenses for a staggering number of new TV stations, all between the channel numbers 2 and 13, designated as the VHF (very high frequency) band. (The mysteriously missing Channel 1 was, and continues to be, reserved for military use.) There were simply not enough numbers to go around, considering the signal overlap that was occurring when TV markets were too close together. It looked like the TV industry was on a collision course with itself, so the FCC brought everything to a screeching halt by using a phrase later made popular by the Dick Tracy animated cartoons: "Hold everything!"
The FCC put a freeze on issuing any new TV station licenses until the mess could be straightened out. Between 1948 and 1952, the only TV stations that went on the air were ones that had received their licenses prior to the freeze. The FCC finally figured a way out of its predicament by coming up with a method to expand the number of channels that were available: it opened up the UHF (ultra high frequency) band of channels, a band which took in all numbers higher than 13. Admittedly, the picture quality of the early UHF stations could be absolutely putrid at times, but it still gave a wider range of channel numbers than were available to potential licensees. Some TV markets subsequently developed as "all-UHF" cities, since any UHF station was in serious trouble at that time if it was in direct competition with a local VHF station. Very few of the original 1950s UHFs, other than these, have survived. In 1964, it was decreed that all television sets manufactured from that point on had to be equipped with built-in UHF dials, so the latter half of that decade, and into the early 1970s, saw a new explosion of high-numbered channels.
Once a TV station was licensed and made it onto the airwaves, whether VHF or UHF, it didn't take long for its officials to discover that there was one very vital element they had to have in order to survive: programming. At that time, the four TV networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, and DuMont) did not provide a continuous "feed" of programming all day long. Network shows were pretty much limited to prime time and a few daytime soap operas, so that meant stations had to come up with something of their own to fill the rest of their airtime.
Besides whatever local talent could be scraped together, local stations depended heavily upon running film presentations, especially during the time of day when they were hoping to attract large numbers of child viewers. In the late 1940s the most readily available kid-oriented film product consisted of old Western movies that had been thought long dead after their initial box-office existence had ridden off into the sunset. Thousands of feet of oaters starring Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, and other horse opera heroes made their way onto local stations nationwide. After television's power had been proven, major stars such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers joined the fun. Realizing that the best way to present the films would be by breaking them up with a live host who could deliver the sponsors' commercials, the most common solution was to put one of the station announcers in a cowboy suit and give him an appropriately rustic setting (Western accent optional). A quick survey of local programming from 1948 to 1950 will show a vast majority of Western-themed kid shows in most TV markets.
When cartoons followed hot on the Westerns' heels, they too were not exactly the cream of the Hollywood studio crop. As with the live-action films, the first cartoons made available to TV stations were ancient silent and early sound-era productions that today would be of far more interest to animation historians than to children. The characters featured in them were worse than obscure, and to confuse matters (and audiences) even more, sometimes the same cartoons were available from different distribution companies, with the same characters carrying different names in each version! A dismal early 1930s series was known variously as Cubby Bear and Brownie Bear; Paul Terry's bucolic Farmer Al Falfa could also be found plowing up airtime under the name of Farmer Gray. And, for obvious reasons, a series of cartoons featuring a tall-and-short human duo, created under the name Tom and Jerry, was rechristened Dick and Larry to avoid confusion with a certain cat and mouse. True cartoon superstars such as Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Mighty Mouse, and their celluloid companions were nowhere to be seen.
The exception to the generally deplorable state of early 1950s syndicated cartoons was Crusader Rabbit, distinguished today as the first cartoon series made expressly for television. The stories were developed in serial form, with five five-minute episodes making up a complete tale. Produced by Jay Ward, who later went on to create the incomparable Rocky and Bullwinkle, Crusader Rabbit aimed its gags as much at the adults as it did at children, and everyone loved it. Stations were quick to snatch up the heraldic hare, either programming all five chapters in one half-hour show or spreading them over a five-day week, one per day. While the animation was crummy, the witty scripts made Crusader Rabbit stand out against the archaic antics of the other cartoon offerings.
The situation started improving in the mid-1950s. In 1954, the poor stepchild ABC network scored big when it talked Walt Disney into producing shows for it, something the other networks had been unable to do. (Disney was willing to work with ABC because the network had agreed to sink a healthy sum of money into the theme park he was building in Anaheim, California.) When the classic Disney cartoons began appearing on ABC, this apparently convinced the other studios to take another look at what they had gathering dust in their film vaults. In 1955, the Terrytoons studio released their escapades of Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, and so forth to CBS, who bought the studio and film library outright. By the late 1950s, any CBS affiliate could have easy access to at least portions of the Terrytoons library.
Also in 1955, Warner Bros. first dipped its toes into the syndicated cartoon pool. Their first offerings consisted solely of black and white cartoons, several of which starred Porky Pig. Their release was successful enough that in September 1956 Warner Bros. let go of the remainder of its pre-1948 cartoon collection. Unlike the first batch, the new releases contained many films starring wisecracking Bugs Bunny, and stations ate them up faster than Bugs himself could chow down a carrot. Also in the autumn of 1956, Paramount Studios released their backlog of cartoon shorts, including a large package concentrated on that pipe-smoking, one-eyed spinach swallower, Popeye the Sailor. Others climbing down from Paramount's star-rimmed mountain peak included Little Lulu, Baby Huey, Herman and Katnip, and other such offbeat oddities. Paramount's second-biggest attraction, Casper the Friendly Ghost, was kept trapped in the Ouija board until 1959. These more obscure toons were later packaged under the overall title of "Harvey-toons," because of the characters' long-running series of comic books published by Harvey Comics.
Excerpted from HI THERE, BOYS AND GIRLS! by TIM HOLLIS. Copyright © 2001 by Tim Hollis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Tim Hollis lives in Birmingham, Alabama. His previous books include Dixie Before Disney: 100 Years of Roadside Fun (University Press of Mississippi) and Cousin Cliff: 40 Magical Years in Television.
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