The world is a little scary and a lot of fun when you're 8 years old.
When I was 8, the fun part was filled with characters whose only job was to entertain me. Some were funny, some were magical and all came armed with just the right combination of old movies, games or cartoons guaranteed to mesmerize the pre-pubescent mind.
Some were seen nationally ...
The king of nationally televised kiddie characters was Captain Kangaroo. Every morning he would open his door and let us inside the little piece of our imaginations in which he had apparently attained the rank of captain. I later found out that the kangaroo part came from the deep pockets in his jacket, but I didn't ask those kinds of questions back then. Here we met Mr. Moose, Grandfather Clock, Dancing Bear and most especially the Captain's wing man, Mr. Green Jeans. Mr. Jeans wore green overalls (although that was an article of faith on our black-and-white TVs), often brought exotic animals and, contrary to an urban legend from later years, was not the father of Frank Zappa.
Today it's said that adults watched Kukla, Fran & Ollie almost as much as their kids did. (Orson Welles and Adlai Stevenson were reportedly big fans.) It was basically a comedy show done every morning. Kukla was the ringleader, Fran was the only human seen on most shows and Ollie was a one-toothed dragon. I have to admit that this show was a little (actually, a lot) above my head. But now I'm not feeling so bad about that since I defy any 8-year-old to hang in there with the director of Citizen Kane and a three-time almost president.
So after the morning shows had brushed away the cobwebs from our tiny brains there was Lunch With Soupy Sales. Soupy was a whole different breed of cat when it came to kiddie show hosts. Watching this show gave a person (even a little kid person) the feeling that there was something a little naughty going on. There were comic sketches; there was slapstick (pies in the face in every episode); there were recurring characters, White Fang (“the world's meanest dog”) and Black Tooth (“the world's sweetest dog”) seen only as giant paws; and there were an unending series of puns, many of which were not really meant for the kiddies to understand. And today we have evidence that Soupy's most famous ad-lib moment really did happen!
Of course we had no shortage of Philadelphia-area host/babysitters, too ...
The queen, my first love and “our gal Sal” was Sally Starr. Not only was she pretty, sweet and a cowgirl, but she had the Popeye cartoons and the best movie stars ever (my considered opinion at the time), The Three Stooges. I can still hear Sally begging us not to try the Stooges' stunts at home because they used “trick photography” to accomplish them. (I resolved right then that I had to get me some of that trick photography, whatever it was). Years later Sally hosted a “Western Theater” movie of the week with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and a lot of her “old friends” from the cowboy days. It never occurred to me to question how old my gal Sal would have to be to have known some of the old cowboys, but I guess that's just the wanting-to-believe of youth.
Usually right before Sally came on (or sometimes right after) there was a Native American “other side of the old West” show with the great Chief Halftown. The chief's name really was Halftown, and he was 100 percent Seneca Indian (it's said he preferred the term “Indian” to the more politically correct one I just felt compelled to use). Never seen in public without full feathered bonnet, buckskin and beads, he was the epitome of dignity and authenticity before any of us knew what those things were. He liked to point out that in the old movies you never saw an Indian laughing. Well, Chief Halftown laughed a lot and so did his “tribal members.”
At Cartoon Corners General Store (where you could get “anything that you're hankering for) we met the amazing Gene London. He told the best stories on television, and illustrated them right before your eyes as he was telling them (our first exposure to “multitasking”). His boss was Mr. Dibley, or “Old Dibble-Puss,” who paid Gene eight-and-a-half cents per week (our first exposure to “The Man” keeping us down). The cartoons Gene showed were mostly Disney, which fit right in with the kind of atmosphere at Cartoon Corners … classy but fun!
One of my very earliest memories is watching Happy the Clown and his “marching sticks,” the exact purpose of which escapes me to this day. If I remember correctly, the idea was to bang the sticks together while marching along to music. One end of the sticks was red and the other blue and kiddies only got to use one particular color (I forget which) when it was their birthday. Although I can't attest to this personally, there have been multiple reports that “Happy” was anything but happy in real life. Rumor of his surprising dislike for children may or may not be an urban legend, but I do know that he provided me with the first lifetime goal that I ever failed to accomplish ... banging a marching stick on TV for my birthday. So I guess that's a valuable life lesson.
I think it's safe for me to admit today that occasionally I cheated on my first love, Sally Starr, with the delightfully sprightly Pixanne. To be fair, the fact that she could fly was a big attraction, and she lived in the “Magic Forest” with creatures that looked a lot like Muppets before I'd ever seen a Muppet. She sang and danced and spread “pixie dust” wherever she went, which are top-shelf qualities in a girlfriend when you're 8. There was also a witch named Windy who occasionally appeared in the forest. She looked a lot like Pixanne, but was very, very nasty. Political correctness and a healthy instinct for survival prevent me from pointing out that this split-personality quality may have been an invaluable lesson in dealing with women in the years to come … so I won't do that.
At the very tail end of my kiddie show years, I was introduced to Lorenzo, a very unusual clown/hobo. At the beginning of each show Gerry Wheeler, who played Lorenzo, came on without make-up and would slowly transform himself into Lorenzo while we watched. That seemed odd (or maybe I was just growing out of the genre). But Lorenzo did serve as a kind of conduit to teen years by highlighting a special dance known far and wide as The Lorenzo Stomp. I never did become much of a dancer, but the guy tried, at least.
I would be negligent if I failed to mention two shows that I barely recall but which probably were the very first things I saw on television.
When I was very young there was Pete's Gang, hosted by the very grandfatherly Pete Boyle. My two favorite things about Pete are that he introduced me to Our Gang movies (or Little Rascals movies, if you prefer), and that his son went on to do a monstrously funny “Puttin' on the Ritz” in Young Frankenstein.
Around that same time, Bertie the Bunyip was a puppet show with quite a few puppet and people characters, the most important of which (to me) was a puppet called “Sir Guy de Guy.” Why was he so important? Well, it seems that my grandmother Reilly had this great talent for giving people nicknames. There was “Markie Down the Street,” who I believe was actually named Margie but who did live down the street, and an aunt called “While You're Up” who would die of thirst rather than get off the sofa for her own drink. But when grandmom Reilly named a man on her street Sir Guy de Guy (I'm guessing because either he looked like the puppet or his name was Guy) I finally got the genius of her talent!
A little after my time there came more kiddie shows. They seemed to be more educational than my generation of shows, which I suppose is a good idea. There was Captain Noah for one (who I saw only in passing and mainly remember as a man in a sea captain's uniform who spoke very slowly). But I have to say that I'm very happy to have been a kid when we learned our life lessons very slyly sneaked in between Popeye and the Stooges.