Kids’ Stuff, Chicago Style

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 and His Friends

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.

Here’s Geraldine

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.

Blue Fairy

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.

Magic Door

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.

  • Tinky spoke:
    30th/03/2010 to 10:14 pm

    That’s what I call a lineup! Someday I’ll get to the museum and check them out. Meanwhile, I loved your descriptions…….

  • Syd Henderson spoke:
    30th/03/2010 to 10:50 pm

    We used to get “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” when I was a kid; it would have had to be reruns. It made enough impression on me that when I play the Mongols in Civilization, I’m often Kubla Khan and Ollie.

  • What Was Done spoke:
    31st/03/2010 to 8:50 am

    Getting old is only in our mind.
    Age never prevented people from doing things:
    http://www.whatwasdone.com/

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/03/2010 to 8:57 am

    I was a little surprised while writing this how many of these shows employed puppets. My friend had a Garfield Goose hand puppet and my mother used to make hand puppets for me and my brother out of papier mache and cloth. They really were a huge thing for kids. I wonder if they still are.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    31st/03/2010 to 5:18 pm

    Lovely trip down Memory Lane here Marilyn, though these Chicago chestnuts were never within my own sphere of remembrence. Still, as a consideration of shows that made indellible impressions, this one is infused with amazing focus. I have my own memories too, but I’d have to ponder it a while. Shows like “Davey and Goliath,-puppets” “Boris Karloff’s Thriller,” “The Outer Limits,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Howdy Doody Hour,” “I Love Lucy,” “Lost in Space,” “The Twilight Zone,” and Mike Wallace’s Biography were revered especially, but I think I stretching the parameters here. My wife enjoyed your feature here too!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/03/2010 to 9:01 pm

    Thanks, Sam. Glad you and the missus liked this. I almost mentioned Davey and Goliath, which I also enjoyed watching, but I really wanted to keep it local. My favorite line-up of shows was on Sunday: Magic Door – Davey and Goliath – Flash Gordon (the old serials from the flicks) – The Lone Ranger – Charlie Chan movies. I was a big fan of Sky King, too, and of course, the Steve Reeves Superman.

  • Kevin Mummery spoke:
    2nd/04/2010 to 4:31 am

    Great article, Marilyn…it brought many memories of my childhood in Michigan, where we had Jerry Booth’s Funhouse (from Windsor, Ont.), Johnny Ginger, Captain Jolly and Poopdeck Paul, and my all-time favorite, Sir Graves Ghastly, who hosted a Saturday afternoon monster-movie show. Wish I could see some of these old programs again!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/04/2010 to 8:59 am

    I’m glad I helped jog some fond memories for you, Kevin. We still have our old monster movie host, Svengoolie, in Chicago. Not the original guy, of course, but same old jokes, rubber chickens, and good/bad monster movies.

  • Donna spoke:
    12th/04/2010 to 2:00 pm

    Wow, I have fond memories of Kukla, Fran & Ollie on re-runs growing up. I also remember Shari Lewis and Lambchop, I loved Lambchop who was very sassy.

    Our local Bay Area KTVU also had the afternoon cartoon show hosted by Captain Satellite (and three lucky kids from the area). For the horror fans and older kids, KTVU late night had Bob Wilkins and Creature Features on Friday and Saturday nights. I still consider it a bit of a miracle I grew to love horror films as much as I do after some of the incredible dreck that was shown. It was the first spot I saw Bambi Meets Godzilla and it still brings a smile to my face as I recollect that memory now.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/04/2010 to 3:29 pm

    Donna, I was a big fan of Shari Lewis and Lambchop, too.

    The point of Creature Feature shows is to have fun with horror, and I ate it all up. I’m not a real horror fan now, but not because of the TV shows.

  • Jake spoke:
    13th/04/2010 to 1:14 am

    Nice overview of bits of my youth, Marilyn! A couple of quick notes:

    1. I find it scandalous that, out of all the years Garfield Goose was on the air, only FOUR complete episodes are extant today (and they’re all from the 70’s, by which time things were pretty much winding down).

    2. Long-forgotten today by all but people obsessed with useless trivia (meaning me) is that “Geraldine” was replaced by a VERY short time with another Jim Stewart puppet show, “The Glovables,” featuring puppets made simply from gloves with button eyes sewed on top. It may have been too much of a flop to keep on the air (or perhaps just too much additional work; no doubt he was already doing “Passage” by that time) but for awhile every kid had to have his or her own homemade Glovable puppet!

    3. Most important for last: Kukla, Fran and Ollie did, indeed, originate in Chicago, but it was a network show, broadcast nation-wide (which explains why everyone remembers some or other incarnation of it…though probably most from its late-60’s early-70’s brief revival. Again, very few of the early ones from the 50’s remain). And it was far from being just a kid’s show; aside from being my mom’s favorite show back then, such luminaries as Orson Welles, Tallulah Bankhead, Milton Caniff and John Steinbeck were big fans (according to Wikipedia). It’s also noteworthy as having featured the first publicly-announced show broadcast in (what came to become) the U.S.’s regular color system, and the first ship-to-shore (shore-to-ship?) tv broadcast.
    Not bad for a bunch of operatic wannabe puppets!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/04/2010 to 10:26 am

    Great information, Jake! I read about The Glovables but don’t remember watching it. You’ve got a better memory than I do!

  • Paul spoke:
    31st/12/2010 to 4:55 pm

    I’m not sure if this comment went through properly. For those of you who remember Sir Graves Ghastly on WJBK, TV2 in Detroit in the 60s, you can go to a web site for Sir Graves:

    http://www.sirgravesghastly.com/index.htm

  • Linda R spoke:
    10th/12/2011 to 11:34 pm

    Ferdy,

    Love this site! Does anyone rememember on Fridays, when the little theater screen would come out, and Frazier Thomas an episode of these wonderful black and white fairy tale stories. One was the fisherman’s wife where she had three wishes. My mom would rush home from work and we’d watch ‘em together. I cannot find them anywhere.

  • Throx spoke:
    19th/04/2012 to 5:06 pm

    Hi Marilyn,

    I had the “Magic Door” theme song running through my head today and found this site. Well done. Adding to your list (Perhaps your TV didn’t get UHF) BJ and Dirty Dragon were Chicagoans (puppets too!) although if I recall BJ was a pretty good artist as well as puppeteer.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/04/2012 to 5:31 pm

    Hi Throx – I do remember BJ, but I wasn’t really into UHF for children’s programs. I used to watch the bullfights on Channel 26, which is so bizarre, but absolutely true.

  • Kathy spoke:
    25th/06/2012 to 11:22 pm

    WOW…a true trip through memory lane! What a great life we had growing up in the “boonies”, the term I think that was coined by Harry Volkman, the weatherman on WGN news back then. A childhood friend of mine got to go on Bozo Circus, but I don’t think she played the Grand Prize Game. Doesn’t matter. We have those memories.

  • Cree spoke:
    27th/01/2014 to 8:54 am

    I happened upon this site when I googled DeeDee and Scrunch! My only (huge) regret is that these programs were not around for my kids to cherish.

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