By Marilyn Ferdinand
You know you’re getting old when public television stations start mixing pledge drives in with musical performances of the stars you used to listen to when you were a teen. So far, my local PBS stations, having moved on from the 40s, are now stuck in the 50s. But I know my time is near. For the last few years, WGN-TV, known throughout the United States for broadcasting the inexplicably popular Chicago Cubs playing in their “ivy-covered burial ground,” have been offering up a heaping plate of nostalgia for Chicagoans my age in the form of a tribute to the great children’s programming they ran in the 1960s.
Now, I know every city has its own local programs for kids—the hubby waxes fondly about J.P. Patches, Seattle’s answer to Bozo the Clown—and I know that many of these shows were great. But Chicago is a peculiarly chauvinistic town—we always think what we have is the best (including, by the way, our Bozo—Bob Bell). And I do absolutely feel that way about the programs I grew up with. They are a huge part of me, informing my love of silent films through a PBS show called The Toy that Grew Up and great family films through Family Classics, hosted by a fellow you’re going to meet below, Frasier Thomas. I’ve thought about revisiting these programs on Ferdy on Films for a long time and finally have a legitimate excuse to do so: five shows from the 1969-1971 run of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, a Chicago-based human/puppet show that went national, have been issued on DVD. Sadly, I was too young to remember the original run of the show (1947-1957) and too old to appreciate the two-season revival. But as a piece of both Chicagoana and Americana, I embrace KFO with almost as much vigor as I do the shows I did experience in my formative years. And without further ado, here is my personal hall of fame of Chicago children’s television:
Kukla, Fran and Ollie
As I said, I wasn’t able to watch this show when I was the age of its target audience, but it’s hard not to appreciate this smart and charming human/puppet collaboration. Burr Tillstrom provided the hands and voices for all of the puppets, and looking at the DVD episode I was sent, “Madame O’s Merry Musicale,” the strong vocal resemblance of Kukla, Ollie, Beulah Witch, and Madame Ooglepuss is obvious. This show from 1970 features the KFO operatic recital of Madame O, hastily arranged so that Madame will not leave the show in a huff. Fran—always slightly befuddled—and all of the characters feel terrible that they haven’t done more to show their appreciation for Madame O, and Beulah especially tries to help in any way she can by hanging a curtain. Her failure is mitigated when Madame embraces her in friendship and says that it doesn’t matter at all. When the guests start arriving to view her performance, she waves to “Marilyn” and “Joan.” Now how many children’s shows these days would acknowledge real opera stars the way this one did Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland? The cultural literacy, intelligence, and excellent values this show presented to children for a total of 12 years make it a gem well worth revisiting.
Garfield Goose and Friends
This enormously popular show in the KFO mold offered us Garfield Goose, King of the United States, and fatherly human Frasier Thomas as his prime minister. Gar and rest of the hand puppets, including Romberg Rabbit, bloodhound Beauregard Burnside III, McIntosh Mouse, and Mama Goose (hilarious in her lace nightcap and granny glasses) were all given life and personality by Ray Brown, but only through movement, not voice. For example, Brown had a killer way of signaling Gar had just been made a fool of by pointing the puppet’s face straight into the camera and twisting his hand so that it looked like Gar was grinding his teeth. Fraiser Thomas would bring out the little theatre screen and hang it on a hook at the front of Gar’s castle, and we kids would be treated to cartoon series like Clutch Cargo (and his pals Spinner and Paddlefoot) and dramas like Journey to the Beginning of Time (actually, a 1955 Czechoslovakian film that was serialized!). Our favorites were the Christmas classics Suzy Snowflake; Hardrock, Coco, and Joe; and UPA’s Frosty the Snowman. I was so attached to Frasier Thomas that I actually cried when he died in the 1980s.
Ray Rayner was a gentler Soupy Sales who indulged a tiny bit of slapstick and a lot of sly humor. The show always started with the Looney Tunes theme song. Rayner always wore an orange jumpsuit plastered with notes that he would pull off and read to announce the various parts of the show. Offering as it did craft projects, Warner Bros. cartoons, even Rayner singing the popular ballad “More” and speaking in French in one episode, Ray Rayner and His Friends was a variety of morning show for kids that gave adults information they could use, too. This wasn’t my favorite, but Chelveston, the live duck who was Rayner’s constant friend, always kept me coming back.
Another puppet/human show, this one featured a giraffe named Geraldine and host Jim Stewart. It had opera-singing Helen Hippo, as well as other wild animals, like J. Pierpont Crocodile and Virgil the Vulture. The most memorable part of this show was its theme song, “Be Kind to Your Parents,” which came from the Broadway show Fannie. I still remember every word of that song, and named a sterling giraffe charm I picked up in Africa Geraldine. Jim Stewart would continue to delight me in my older age with a program that picked up a bit on Here’s Geraldine’s wild animal theme—a travel and nature show called Passage to Adventure.
One show that is a very dim memory for me, but a favorite of my brother’s is Blue Fairy. All I remember is the beginning. The Blue Fairy, a beautiful young woman in a long blue gown, would fly across the TV screen and say “I’m the Blue Fairy. I’ll grant you a wish to make all your dreams come true.” This show won a Peabody Award for excellence in children’s programming. Imagine my surprise to find out that its star was none other than Brigid Bazlen, who played a very convincing temptress in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings.
I don’t know if all Chicago children watched Magic Door, but all the Jewish kids did. The theme song sung by the elfin Tiny Tov (“A room zoom zoom, a room zoom zoom, gilly gilly gilly gilly gilly ah sah sah”) beckoned us to come through the magic door in an acorn bigger than he was. “Just say these words and wonderous things you’ll see.” We spent the half hour with puppets Booby Beaver, Deedee, Scrunch, and other residents of Torahville learning about the Torah and Jewish holidays and traditions. It was pandemonium among us students at Temple Sholom when Tiny Tov came to meet us.
I spent a lovely day looking at some of these old friends, and I sure would like to introduce you. You can see episodes of these shows and thousands of others at the Museum of Broadcast Communications website.