In today’s age of 100-channel cable and satellite television, HDTV and DVD, it may be difficult to imagine a time when home entertainment consisted primarily of a half-dozen local and network television channels, with much of its product generated at the local level.
In these short-attention-span times, it may be even more difficult to imagine children who became mesmerized by the comparatively low-tech antics of puppets, clowns and other assorted hosts who doubled as pitchmen for sponsors’ products in between segments of scratchy movie house cartoons which were old even then.
But some of these performers and their characters burned themselves into the collective memories of thousands of people who grew up watching them every day. The mere mention of personalities such as Ray Rayner, Frazier Thomas, Bill Jackson and characters such as Bozo The Clown, Garfield Goose, Dirty Dragon, Cuddley Dudley and countless others are guaranteed to generate a smile on the faces of those now grown-up Chicago youths who enjoyed them.
Making these characters even more unique and special is their local connection. Mention Romberg Rabbit or Macintosh Mouse to someone who grew up on the West Coast, and you’re likely to get nothing but a blank stare in response. These characters were created and performed especially for us, and Chicagoans maintain a soft spot in their hearts for them.
Chicago-based author and historian Ted Okuda pays homage to these beloved characters and their creators in the book, “The Golden Age of Chicago Children’s Television,” which he co-wrote with veteran Chicago broadcaster Jack Mulqueen, a familiar name and personality to Chicago television viewers who grew up in the 1960s.
Okuda will be on hand to reminisce with local residents about this gone-but-not-forgotten era of local entertainment when he appears at 3 p.m. this Friday, June 10, at the Brookfield Public Library, 3609 Grand Blvd.
For viewers who want to relive a little bit of local television history, Okuda said Friday’s presentation will includes a 12-minute video reel with clip from shows covering a timeline from the 1950s (“Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” “Ding Dong School,” “Super Circus”) through the 1960s and 1970s (“Garfield Goose And Friends,” “Ray Rayner And His Friends,” “Bozo’s Circus,” “Gigglesnort Hotel”). Afterwards, the floor will be open for questions and answers.
Okuda, author or co-author of a number of books on film and television, noted that “writing about this stuff is not like writing about movies or other television shows.”
Rather than evaluating these programs and performers from a critical perspective, Okuda said he mostly wanted to capture the spirit of the shows the way viewers remember them.
“You’re writing from your heart, not from your intellect,” he said. “Our intention for the book was that for people who’d never seen any of these shows, the stories would still be interesting. We hope that’s the case.”
Indeed, explaining the appeal of many of these personalities to the uninitiated viewer could be a difficult prospect. Chicagoans cannot help but remember them fondly: the irascible Garfield Goose, the self-appointed “King of the United States,” wildly clacked his beak at “Prime Minister” Frazier Thomas while sidekick Romberg Rabbit silently interpreted, with Thomas pretending to understand every word.
The affable Ray Rayner had a weekday morning show that virtually defies description, not to mention classification by demographic. He would sing songs, read sports scores, attempt (usually very unsuccessfully) do-it-yourself craft projects, announce school closings during the winter months and introduce Looney Tunes and other cartoons for young viewers.
Bill Jackson created, performed and voiced an entire village’s worth of memorable characters including Dirty Dragon, The Old Professor, Mother Plumtree, Wally and Weird, who inhabited WFLD’s “Cartoon Town” before relocating to WLS’s “Gigglesnort Hotel” (with a short stint on WGN in between).
The Blob, not quite a puppet but simply a slab of clay which Jackson molded into a different creation on each day’s show, may be the single most bizarre character ever to appear on Chicago television.
And then there were vaudeville and burlesque routines, the best of which went right over the heads of the kids in the audience, performed by Bob Bell and his various sidekicks on WGN’s “Bozo’s Circus.”
Along with these familiar names, co-author Mulqueen also was a strong presence on the Chicago children’s television scene in the 1960s. Due in large part to his primarily behind-the-scenes role in television for most of his career, Mulqueen may not be a household name to contemporary Chicagoans. But he and his wife, Elaine, were a fixture of Chicago television for decades.
Jack Mulqueen operated and voiced puppet characters including, most memorably, Marvin The Lion, who bantered on-screen with Elaine as the pixie clown-attired Pandora. The pair secured a stint as commercial spokesmen for Coca-Cola and began appearing regularly on WGN’s legendary “Bozo’s Circus” in 1962, eventually moving to their own half-hour show (called “The Mulqueens”) on the station.
Mulqueen explained that unlike most of the personalities viewers remember from local television, he was required to wear many hats including writer, producer and talent, all the while being responsible for securing sponsors to pay for air time.
Today, we know such ventures as “infomercials,” but in the 1960s, the Mulqueens and their puppet friends were hired primarily to promote the wares of their sponsors, in a time when commercials and sponsor plugs routinely were worked right into the storylines of programs, especially children’s shows.
The Federal Communications Commission outlawed such a blurring of the line between entertainment and commerce in the early 1970s, which is a big part of the reason local children’s programs began to disappear from the airwaves.
Chicago held out much longer than many other local TV markets. Although the performers were now prohibited from delivering commercial pitches on the shows, a station of WGN’s caliber had enough national sponsors to support their roster of local productions.
Still, one by one they disappeared. After several years of being bounced around from one station to another, Jackson finally left town in 1979 after “Gigglesnort Hotel” and a short-lived follow-up series, “Firehouse Follies.”
Ray Rayner left Chicago in 1980 and moved to Albuquerque where he became a weekend weatherman at the city’s CBS affiliate. Rayner passed away in 2004.
Chicago’s original Bozo, Bob Bell, retired in 1984. Both Bell and sidekick Roy “Cooky” Brown were inducted into the International Clown Hall Of Fame in the 1990s; Bell died in 1997 and
Brown died in 2001.
Frazier Thomas continued to host “Family Classics” and “Bozo” after “Garfield Goose” left the air in 1976; he died in 1985. “Bozo” itself, with comic actor Joey D’Auria replacing Bell, eventually became the longest-running local children’s show in the history of Chicago television, finally leaving the air after 40 years in 2001.
Today, the only holdout of the era of local Chicago-based television is “Svengoolie,” the horror movie showcase hosted by Rich Koz on WCIU-Channel 26.
Their stories are all in the book, which attempts to cover over 20 years of television history. There are lengthy chapters on “Bozo” and the careers of performers Frazier Thomas, Ray Rayner and Bill Jackson. Other shows from the earlier years of television, such as “Kukla, Fran & Ollie” and “Elmer The Elephant” are covered too.
Thanks to Mulqueen’s participation, his career is covered at length. In fact, the book began as a biography of Mulqueen and his wife, but Okuda suggested expanding the topic to cover the entire era of local children’s television in Chicago.
Writing the book “was a good experience,” Okuda said. “It was nice to get in contact with a lot of people whose work I enjoyed.”
Okuda said he tried to get in touch with as many of the performers and producers as possible and, while he made an effort to be thorough, there were some omissions. The lengthy history of WGN’s “Bozo” is covered, even though the show’s run extended far beyond the timeline covered by the book. The chapter’s emphasis is on the earlier part of the show’s history.
“I regret that I didn’t contact Joey D’Auria,” Okuda said.
Although D’Auria took over the role of Bozo in the mid-1980s, “he could have told us a lot about the people he worked with.” Additionally, “there isn’t a lot of material in the book about Terry Bennett.”
However, the one-time host of WBKB-TV’s “Jobblewocky Place” and “Shock Theatre” will be covered at length in Okuda’s next project, a volume on Chicago TV horror movie hosts, which he is currently co-writing with a journalist in the Riverside-Brookfield area.
Okuda said reaction to his book has been mostly positive.
“It seems to have struck a responsive chord with the target audience,” he said, adding that he and Mulqueen have made several appearances of this type and there are certain questions they are asked almost every time.
Okuda said one of the more frequent questions they are asked is whether or not these types of programs could ever be produced today.
“I don’t think so,” Okuda said. “It would be considered too much trouble.”
He cited a difference in management policies as well as work ethic.
“In those days, performers’ contracts were different,” Okuda said. “They worked these guys to death.”
A good example is Ray Rayner, who for several years performed on three live broadcasts five days a week”hosting his morning show, appearing as Oliver O. Oliver on “Bozo’s Circus” at noon, and playing Sgt. Henry Pettibone on “The Dick Tracy Show” in the afternoon).
“There is no way they could do that today,” Okuda said.
Additionally, he cited the cost of mounting an elaborate local production.
“Stations found it was just a lot cheaper and easier to air something that was syndicated,” he said.