Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hey Kids, What Time Is It?

My granddaughter Ava loves to play, and will wear you out going from game to game with the inexhaustable energy of a six-year old. When she does get tired, she will sit for a while watching her favorite TV shows. Over the years we've seen her go from the likes of Barney and The Wiggles to more "mature" shows like Disney's Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Naturally, when she decides to rest, we all plop down beside her, grateful for the break and happy to watch anything she wants so long as we're sitting down. After a while, you find yourself actually enjoying these shows. They are engaging visually, always have positive story lines, and are extremely adept at helping kids learn. Ava has much better vocabulary and reading skills at age six than 1950's kids ever dreamed of. The quality of modern children's programming got me thinking about the "kiddy" shows I watched growing up when television was in its infancy.

The earliest kid show I can remember was called "Junior Frolics", hosted by "Uncle Fred" Sayles. This low-budget extravaganza aired locally on channel 13 from 1949 to 1958. The thing I remember most is the horrible cartoons they showed like Felix The Cat, Koko The Clown, Farmer Grey and Terrytoons, some of which were so old that there was no sound. Uncle Fred would provide a running commentary on what was happening, as if dropping an anvil on someone's head was so deep that we couldn't possibly understand it. Here's a sample of what passed for kiddy entertainment in the dark days of television.
YouTube - Felix the Cat in Hollywood (1923)

"Hey Kids, What Time Is It?" "It's Howdy Doody Time" we all yelled! "The Howdy Doody Show" was one of the best children's shows in television, and ran from 1947 to 1960. The show featured buckskin-clad Buffalo Bob Smith and a cast of marionettes including Howdy, Phineas T. Bluster, Flub-a-dub and Dilly Dally. Smith treated the marionettes as if they were real, and as a result, so did the children of America. There were also live characters, like the (now stereotypical) native Americans, Chief Thunderthud and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, and of course Clarabelle the Clown, played by Bob Keeshan who went on to fame as Captain Kangaroo. NBC shrewdly used the popularity of the show to sell television sets to American parents, and demonstrated the revenue potential of the new medium to advertisers. If you remember the show, you might enjoy this clip.
YouTube - Puppet Playtime-Howdy Doody intro

On the science-fiction front we had "Captain Video and His Video Rangers", which premiered in June 1949 on the DuMont Network. Despite horribly amateurish production values and mundane scripts, Captain Video went on to be the longest running science fiction show in early television. His adversaries included such notable villains as Clumsy McGee, (played by Arnold Stang as an inept Martian), and Norgola (played by Ernest Borgnine of all people) who turned the sun's energy into magnetic forces. Young viewers were also encouraged to join the Video Rangers Club (which I did) and to buy Captain Video merchandise, including helmets, toy rockets, games, and records. (which I didn't, despite pestering my mother to death). For all you Video Rangers out there, open this link and move the scroll bar about half-way through to see a clip of our hero.
YouTube - (1949) Captain Video and his Video Rangers 3/3

A classic kid show of the 1950's was the "Our Gang Comedies", (also known as "The Little Rascals."), a series of short comedy films about a group of poor neighborhood children and the adventures they had together. Created by comedy producer Hal Roach, Our Gang was produced at the Roach movie studio starting in 1922 and lasted into the mid-fifties with episodes made for television. Our Gang also notably put boys, girls, whites and blacks together in a group as equals, something that had never been done before in cinema, but was commonplace after the success of Our Gang. A sad footnote to this show was the inglorious and sometimes violent end that came to many of its child stars including poor Alfalfa (Carl Switzer) who was shot to death in 1959 over a fifty dollar debt. Slip into your time traveler suit, I think I hear that famous theme song.
YouTube - Our Gang/Little Rascals

"The Sandy Becker Show" was a favorite of mine. In between cartoon shorts, Sandy entertained his preschool-aged audience with puppets Geeba Geeba (an elderly man), Marvin Mouse, Henry Headline (who offered kid-friendly items of news) and others, along with Becker’s real family dog, Schatzie. Becker became the first host of the long-running "Wonderama", which originally aired for six hours straight on Sunday. Sandy was an extremely likeable guy with a wry sense of humor that often broke out of the "kiddy" format with an irreverent remark clearly intended for adults. He never got the wider audience his talent warranted, and the frustration of spending too much time in the company of kids resulted in the wicked but very funny set of outtakes from his show as seen here.
YouTube - Sandy Becker Show Outtakes

Like children everywhere, my grandchild takes TV for granted, after all, it was always there waiting to entertain her at the push of a button. As kids in the fifties, we saw television as something just short of supernatural. Neighbors would gather fascinated in the homes of the lucky few who had sets to watch the small screens with the spotty reception. It didn't matter how poorly produced the shows were, or that they were few in number and broadcast in black and white, TV was a phenomenon!


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association


The Whiner said...

"Official space helmet on, Captain Video!" I haven't seen that Honeymooners in years...perhaps I'll dig it out of the vault tonight. I remember Wonderama, except I think it was a guy named Bob McCallister who hosted it in my day. And HR Puffinstuff...someone was sure puffin some stuff!

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

How could you not mention Gabby Hayes, and Quaker Oats, shot from guns? My kid sister would watch Ding Dong School with Miss Frances! And, oh, Hoppalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and the Cisco Kid. I wanna go back!!!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Laura: Sonny Fox also did a stint on Wonderama. Can you believe a kiddie show that was on for six hours!

Joe: I remember all the shows you mentioned. Hoppy was a fav of mine...loved the outfit and his big white horse. Miss Francis was more for girls and future choreogrophers.