They seem to have gone the way of the snail-darter or the passenger pigeon. If there are any left anywhere, we oughta slap a big
"endangered species" label on them and do everything possible to forestall their extinction. It would be nice if succeeding generations of kids
could see one, other than in old tapes of older kinescopes.
I am writing, this week, of kid show hosts — a breed that could be found on local TV stations throughout the fifties and well
into the sixties. In Los Angeles, they became scarce in the seventies, and non-existent in the eighties. Today, watching TV in L.A., you
stand a better chance of seeing actual, live footage of the Abominable Snowman than you do of finding a Sheriff John or an Engineer Bill. They
were two of the superstars of my childhood, along with Skipper Frank, Tom Hatten, Chucko, Walker Edmiston and a few others.
And, of course, we had our local Bozo the Clown. Almost every city had a Bozo. It was some sort of franchise deal, akin to
McDonald's. TV stations across the country paid a man named Larry Harmon for the right to slap Bozo make-up on a local actor, and I suppose
they also purchased Bozo suits and Bozo props and Bozo scripts and Bozo cartoons and Bozo birdbaths and such. Romper Room and Ding
Dong School operated on much the same basis.
The Los Angeles Bozo was an actor named Vance Colvig. Vance was a second-generation Bozo. His father, Pinto Colvig, had
been one of the great cartoon voice actors, speaking for Goofy and countless lesser characters, often writing as well as voicing. In the
forties, when Capitol Records produced some superb albums for children, many of them featured or were presented by Pinto who first performed the role
of Bozo the Clown.
Vance did voices, too. He was Chopper the Bulldog in the Yakky Doodle cartoons on the Yogi Bear show, and I knew
that. I also knew that Yakky's duck voice was provided by Jimmy Weldon, who hosted Cartooneroony on another station and who did the same
quacks for his puppet, Webster Webfoot.
So what you had was Vance Colvig being Bozo on channel 5, Jimmy Weldon speaking for Webster Webfoot on channel 13, and the two men
voicing Yakky Doodle and Chopper on channel 11. I didn't know what any of this meant when I was eight, but I knew it was vitally
important. (Vance Colvig also worked often in front of the cameras, as well. Shortly before he passed away, he had a showy role as a wino
in the "Weird" Al Yankovic movie, UHF.)
When I was a kid though, I assumed the L.A. Bozo was the one and only. Then, on a trip to San Diego, I tuned in the Bozo
show there and discovered an impostor in the Bozo suit! I almost rushed to the phone, called the police and alerted them that some dastardly
villain had clown-napped the real Bozo and assumed his identity. (I feel the same way these days when I watch Letterman...)
That was how possessive we could get about our kid show hosts. As a youth, your day could be a rough one: You could get creamed
playing Candy Land. You could eat twelve of some girl's cookies before discovering they were fresh from her Play-Doh Fun Factory. You
could find that your Colorforms had lost their cling. You could hide for "hide-'n-seek" and hours later discover that no one had bothered to
seek you. You could get off the Jungle-Gym with half the sandbox in your Keds. You could even skin your knee. (I skinned mine every
hour on the hour. It's a medical miracle that I even have a kneecap today.) All these disasters and more could befall you —
— but at the proper time, your TV friends were there with cartoons for you. It wasn't so much that they were entertaining,
as that they were there.
Moreover — and this was key — there were no surprises. Every one of these guys did the same routines and the same
jokes and showed the same cartoons, over and over and over. That was part of their appeal. When you're a kid, you live in a world filled
with things you don't understand. You're constantly reminded just how much you don't know. Not so with a good kids' show. When I
turned on Sheriff John, for an hour it was my world and I understood everything in it. Because I'd seen it all over and over and
My favorite kids' show host was...well, I had several. One was a wickedly-witty puppeteer named Walker Edmiston, who popped up on
most of the local stations at one time or another. He had a stock company of puppets including Kingsley the Lion, Callie the Cat, and a
wonderful Shakespearean bird named R. Crag Ravenswood, who sounded not unlike Hans Conried. Working pretty much on his own, Edmiston
would ad-lib an entire half-hour storyline every day. Very similar to the subsequent Muppet Show in setting and feel (backstage antics
at an old theater), it was an uncommonly hip and funny series, and I never missed an episode.
Walker has since been a prolific actor, both on-camera and doing voice work. He was in the cast when I wrote a series for Sid and
Marty Krofft and, when we were introduced, I insisted on reciting about ninety jokes from his old show and singing its theme song for him. I
gather I was not the first adult to subject him to this, maybe not even the first that day.
Another fave was Tom Hatten, a local actor who donned a t-shirt and a sailor's cap and hosted the Popeye cartoons on KTLA, channel 5.
Tom was a cartoonist and amidst all the spinach-eating and fisticuffs, he'd demonstrate little drawing tips on an easel. They were so clever
and he made it look so easy that you simply had to grab up a pencil and pad, and try to replicate them. As a result, I could draw a semi-decent
Popeye by age eight. (Sad to say, my drawing has not much improved since then...)
I also liked Engineer Bill over on KHJ, channel 9, though not because of his cartoons. If there was a bargain basement for
animated films, that must have been where Engineer Bill shopped because he had the worst — things that couldn't even keep me entertained at
that age. He had Spunky and Tadpole, Q.T. Hush, Colonel Bleep, The Funny Company...stuff like that. Today, my generation
waxes nostalgic for almost anything that was on TV when we were young, but you don't see crowds swarming the video shops, demanding The Complete
Colonel Bleep letterboxed and on laserdisc, do you? I rest my case.
What Engineer Bill did have was a nifty game that he played every day called "Red Light-Green Light." He'd tell you to get a glass of
milk and then, after a break for a mere ninety-two commercials, he'd play this game.
They'd flash a little crossing guard picture that said "green light" (this was before color TV) and the announcer would yell, "Green
light," and we'd all start drinking our milk. Then suddenly, it would change to "red light" and we'd all stop. Then it would turn to
"green light" again and we'd resume drinking. They'd go back and forth, occasionally tossing in a "yellow light," just to be cute, The object
of the game was not to get caught drinking milk on a red light. When they called "red light," you had to cease, even if it meant choking or
passing a mouthful of milk through your nose. I sometimes sprayed the entire TV set in the process.
It was a fun game but I finally decided it was a bit unnecessary. If Engineer Bill wanted to make his viewers spit up, he could
have just shown more Spunky and Tadpoles.
As I said, he had the worst cartoons. Over on channel 7, Chucko the Birthday Clown ran old Terrytoons and the output of the
Charles Mintz animation studio — things like Krazy Kat and Scrappy. Jimmy Weldon on channel 13 had Felix the Cat and the
M.G.M. cartoons. On channel 11, Sheriff John showed early Warner cartoons and what I now know were cartoons from the Van Buren studio of the
thirties (the human Tom & Jerry, not to be confused with the cat-and-mouse version in the M.G.M. package.) Later, the good sheriff
offered up episodes of Clutch Cargo and Space Angel, which I didn't much like but which were so weird, you just had to watch them.
The class act of L.A. kid show hosts was, for me, Skipper Frank over on channel 5. He had a wonderful, albeit limited,
package of Warner Brothers cartoons which he recycled endlessly. One Bugs Bunny epic — was practically a daily feature.
I have several happy memories of Skipper Frank — and one traumatic one. The Skipper was no ventriloquist but he made a
valiant effort with a dummy named Ziggy. Once or twice a show, he'd haul out Ziggy and converse with the little wooden guy, the Skipper's lips
moving like Mick Jagger doing an impression of Martha Raye. Then, one weekend, he made an appearance at a supermarket opening and someone stole
Ziggy out of his car.
Monday on the show, with the seriousness of a parent asking kidnappers for his baby's safe return, Skipper Frank broadcast a public
appeal. It was the saddest thing I ever saw on television. On Tuesday, he again pleaded with whoever had Ziggy to bring him back, and
this continued for several days. He never did find him, apparently. A week or two later, Skipper Frank had a new dummy and we heard no
more about the A.W.O.L. Ziggy.
One of the reasons it was so chilling was that Skipper Frank had a wonderful way of talking to (not down to) children. He
wasn't as funny as some of the other hosts, and he couldn't draw like Tom Hatten. Still, he had a way of looking into the camera and speaking
directly to each and every viewer, not as adult-to-kid but just as one person talking to another. Occasionally, when there was a big item in
the news, he would explain it in terms that made it fascinating and utterly comprehensible to someone under the age of ten. Would that every
parent could talk to their kids as well as Skipper Frank addressed his audience.
That ability to communicate with youngsters was what made a kid show host great...and what ultimately led to their near-total
abolition. As with most everything that happens in television, the reasons were financial.
Kid show hosts used to do commercials. Skipper Frank would talk to puppets and play games and introduce the same Bugs Bunny
cartoon over and over, but he would also sell Sonny Boy soft drink mix. In fact, I remember the ads just as vividly as the "entertainment"
portions, for they were all part of one seamless hour to me then. He hawked Bosco and Oscar Mayer luncheon meats and Popsicles and dozens of
other products, like Fizzies tablets.
Fizzies tablets, when dropped into a glass of water, would fizz like Alka-Seltzer, turning the H2O into a very bad carbonated soft
drink. (We didn't care what it tasted like, of course; it was just fun to make. By the way, I recently saw Fizzies tablets in a K-Mart so
they either still make them, or they've been in that shop a lonnnnng time.)
And Engineer Bill sold Flav-r Straws, which were another great way, like Bosco or Quik, to turn your milk brown. A Flav-r Straw
— was a drinking straw with a chocolate filament inside it. When you dipped the straw repeatedly in milk, it sort of flavored the
milk. Or you could just suck your milk through the straw where, by passing over the filament, it turned vaguely chocolate. Again, it was
more fun than tasty.
The greatest invention, as far as I was concerned, was the Fizz-Nik, and I still have one of these somewhere. A Fizz-Nik was a
hollow plastic ball with nozzles on both side. You put a scoop of vanilla ice cream inside the Fizz-Nik, then you wedged one nozzle into the
mouth of a bottle of root beer or other carbonated beverage. By drinking the soda through the other nozzle, the liquid would flow over the ice
cream before reaching your mouth, making the equivalent of a root beer float.
Someone actually invented the Fizz-Nik. If he didn't make as much cash off this as Bill Gates did off Microsoft Windows, there's
no justice in the world.
The hosts of my youth sold all that stuff and more. But in the sixties, parents' groups got to complaining about content and
commercials being blurred together. It seemed to give the sponsors an unfair advantage. The Federal Communications Commission finally
decreed that a dividing line had to be drawn; entertainment and advertising could not be intermingled on kids' shows; if Sheriff John was the
program, he couldn't be part of the commercial.
(My pal Judy Strangis was a spokesperson for Mattel Toys in the seventies. She was in all the Barbie ads. Then she landed
the role of Dynagirl in a Krofft kids' show called ElectraWoman and Dynagirl, and Mattel dropped her. If she was in the commercials,
they couldn't be aired during that show.)
This ruling came about at a time when dozens of cartoon shows were being made available for syndication. These shows didn't
require hosts and it was a lot cheaper to run them than to hire a whole crew to produce a show every day. With the hosts prohibited from
selling Kool-Aid, there was simply no reason to incur that expense.
There was a certain wisdom to the F.C.C. action. I bought so much junk food because of Skipper Frank, it's a wonder I even
have teeth today. Still, he offered nourishment of another kind.
Children today, when they turn on their TVs, get a pretty good dosage of cartoon characters, ninjas, robots, power rangers, dinosaurs
(lovable and otherwise), monsters and puppets. I have nothing against any of those creatures.
Still, it would be nice (and a novelty) if the kids could spend an occasional moment with a human being. Just in case they ever
encounter one in their later lives.