While the major networks had ceased programming for children in the early Sixties, local stations would continue to broadcast their own children's shows in the late weekday afternoons for many, many years. Like the nationally broadcasted children's shows on late weekday afternoons, local children's shows had existed in the days of Old Time Radio. One of the first was The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour, which first aired on Halloween, 1927 on radio station WCAU in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Essentially a children's variety show, The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour was unlike many children's shows in that it aired on Sunday mornings. Starting in 1947 it was simulcast on television, making it one of the earliest local children's shows on television as well. The series ended in 1958.
From the Fifties into the Seventies, late weekday afternoon children's shows were commonly found local stations across the United States. It seems likely that, at one time or another, every television market had at least one, and the bigger markets many more. In his excellent book Hi There, Boys and Girls, Tim Hollis discuses around 1400 different local children's TV shows which aired in the United States.
For the most part the local children's television shows of yesteryear had remarkably similar formats. Their hosts often took the role of some colourful character, ranging from cowboys (very common in the early days of television), clowns, ship or boat captains, magicians, or simply "uncles." Much of the fare on the local children's shows were made up of pre-existing short films. In the earliest days this generally took the form of short B-Westerns or even Western serials (which explains why cowboy hosts were so prevalent in the early days of the shows). As various libraries of animated theatrical shorts (more on that later) became more available as the Fifties progressed and television started producing its own cartoons, local children's shows would increasingly show cartoons. Live action, theatrical comedy shorts would also be popular on the local children's shows throughout their history. The Laurel and Hardy shorts would be syndicated to television stations as early as 1948. The classic Our Gang shorts would be syndicated under the title The Little Rascals (MGM had retained the trademark Our Gang) starting in 1955. The ever popular Three Stooges would actually be late comers to television. It was in 1958 that Screen Gems syndicated 78 of their shorts to local stations.Of course, the local children's shows did not simply show cartoons and live action comedy shorts. They often featured short educational segments on topics of interest to children. The local children's shows would even have special guests, such as firemen, magicians, police officers, and so on, who would give talks to the viewers.
It should not be surprising that local children's show hosts often enjoyed a greater degree of celebrity than other members of the staffs of local television stations. Often they would make personal appearances at county fairs, supermarket openings, fund raisers, and other special events. Given the small staff of the average television station, it was rare that a children's show host's only job at his or her television station was hosting its children's show. Often a children's show host might be the station's programme director, one of its announcers, the host of the station's weekend horror movies, or even the station's meteorologist or other newscaster.
A few local children's shows would eventually be aired nationwide. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie originated as a local programme on Chicago's WBKB. Romper Room and Bozo the Clown were local shows that took a unique approach to going nationwide. Both shows would sell franchise to local stations, whereby they could produce their own version of Romper Room or Bozo the Clown rather than air a national telecast. These local versions of Romper Room and Bozo the Clown would have essentially the same format as the original show, but their own hosts and own casts.
Given the sheer number of local children's television shows, it would be impossible to discuss even a fraction of them in one post. As an older Gen Xer, however, I do have personal experience with such shows. Indeed, I watched such a show for the entirety of my childhood. That show was the long running Showtime (sometimes given as Show Time in old newspaper TV schedules), which aired every weekday afternoon on KRCG, Channel 13 in Jefferson City. Sadly, as with many children's shows very little of it has been documented and my own memories of Showtime obviously only go as far back as my life time. Even then, my earliest memories of the show are not exactly clear. I do know that Showtime debuted in 1955, not long after KRCG first went on the air.
At any rate, I do not have a clear memory of the show's host when I first starting watching Showtime (which was probably when I was two or three). I have heard and read references to Curly Houser, a weatherman with KRCG, who seems to have been the host of Showtime in the Sixties. As to the host I associate with the show, that would be Bill Ratliff, who hosted the show for much of my childhood. Mr. Ratliff first started hosting the show in 1968 and would do so for the rest of its run, making him the longest running host of Showtime. As to the format of the show, like most local children's shows Showtime aired cartoon shorts. The earliest cartoon shorts I remember on Showtime were the classic Warner Brothers shorts (a mainstay of the programme for most of its run), Popeye cartoons (both the classic theatrical shorts and those made for television in the Sixties), and the animated shorts King Features Syndicate made of their comic strips Beetle Bailey, Krazy Kat, and Snuffy Smith in 1963. Later they would show shorts that were originally part of the Saturday morning cartoon Cool McCool and such Hanna-Barbera shorts as Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, and Yogi Bear. For much of the show's runs, classic Our Gang (under the title The Little Rascals) and Laurel and Hardy shorts were a part of Showtime as well. Bill Ratliff would have co-hosts in the form of puppets. I remember one named Ralph and another that was a dog (they have been one and the same, as far as I know now). The show also featured a number of guests. A regular was the Library Lady, a librarian either from Boone Regional Libraries in Columbia or Missouri River Regional Libraries in Jefferson City (I can't recall which), who would handle segments about books. There would be other guests as well, ranging from magicians to, if my memory isn't failing me, representatives from the Missouri Department of Conservation,, to celebrities such as Burt Ward and Yvonne Craig (Robin and Batgirl from the old Batman series of the Sixties). Every holiday season weatherman Lee Gordon would dress as Santa Claus and read letters from children in segments sponsored by the Mattinglys department store. Mr. Gordon would also play The Count on KRCG's Tales of Terror on Saturday night. It was only recently that Mr. Gordon (who has one of the most incredible voices in the history of local television) retired!
Showtime had an extraordinarily long run. In fact, it was the last local children's show still airing in the Columbia/Jefferson City market and one of the last in the state of Missouri. According to Hi There, Boys and Girls, it ended its run in 1985 after thirty years on the air. I think this may be inaccurate, as I remember it going off the air in 1981 or 1982, when it was replaced by reruns of Dallas. Either way, it lasted several decades!
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Sadly, the passage of time would not be kind to the local children's TV shows, as a number of factors would conspire to bring about their demise. Foremost among these causes was the rise of made for television cartoons in the late Fifties and early Sixties (more on that later). While many of the early cartoons made for television followed the format of theatrical shorts in being about eight to ten minutes in length, many of the later animated shows which debuted in the late Fifties and early Sixties would be a half hour in length and entirely self contained. As such cartoons became more common in the Sixties, many television stations would opt to show them instead of producing their own children's shows. Another factor in the demise would be the same as one of the factors which ended the production of network children's shows in the late afternoon. Quite simply, as many advertisers in the Sixties preferred to reach adults rather than children and there were more adults available than children to watch television in the late afternoon, many stations decided to no longer produce children's shows and air reruns of primetime network series made for adults in the late afternoon instead. While many of these shows would also appeal to children (The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, and so on), the fact remains that they were originally made for adults. The Seventies and Eighties would see the beginning of another factor in the demise of local children's shows, that of syndicated talk shows as such as The Merv Griffin Show and The Phil Donahue Show, and still later Oprah and Geraldo.
The local children's television shows would begin a slow decline in the Sixties that would continue into the Eighties. By the Seventies most local children's shows would air on independent stations (KRCG was one of the exceptions). By the Nineties most local children's shows would disappear almost entirely from the television landscape.
Today animated cartoons are not only prevalent on television, but downright common. Indeed, there are entire cable channels devoted to cartoons, such as The Cartoon Network, Boomerang, and Toon Disney. There was a time, however, when cartoons were not nearly so common on television as they are today. Indeed, it would be several years after the advent of regularly scheduled network broadcasts that cartoons would become the dominant form of entertainment for children.
In fact, it would not be until the advent of cartoons on television that the attitude that cartoons are primarily meant for children would fully develop. From the earliest days of theatrical shorts such as those featuring Felix the Cat in the Twenties, cartoons were made primarily for adult audiences, or at least made so they could be enjoyed by adults and children alike. The classic Warner Brothers cartoons often featured double entendres and pop culture references that could only be appreciated by adults, while the Fleischer Studio's pre-Code Betty Boop cartoons could be downright racy even by today's standards. That is not to say that the attitude that cartoons were primarily meant for children did not exist even in the Thirties and the Forties. In the January 1939 issue of Look, in an article entitled "Hollywood Censors Its Animated Cartoons," none other than Leon Schlesinger, founder and head of Leon Schlesinger Productions (the independent company which produced the Warner Brothers cartoons until bought out by Warner Brothers in 1944), said, "We cannot forget that while the cartoon today is excellent entertainment for young and old, it is primarily the favourite motion picture fare of children."
It would be with the advent of television, however, that the attitude that cartoons were primarily meant for children would become even more common. Much of this would be due to the fact that television stations would schedule cartoons during their local children's shows and still later made for television cartoons which were obviously made for the younger set. By the late Sixties the idea that cartoons were primarily meant for children was firmly engrained, aided no doubt by the rise of the Saturday morning cartoon. Even animated television series made for primetime viewing for adults, such as The Jetsons and The Adventures of Jonny Quest, would end their network runs on the Saturday morning schedule reserved for children's fare.
The second cartoon made for television may have been The Adventures of Pow Wow, the Indian Boy, although it is unknown if in its original incarnation it was truly an animated cartoon or simply drawings with narration. Regardless, it debuted on January 30, 1949 as a fifteen minute programme on WRCA-TV (now WNBC-TV) and ran until March 1949. What is known that, regardless of its origins, it is known that the second incarnation of The Adventures of Pow Wow, Indian Boy was an animated cartoon which was aired on Captain Kangaroo from 1957 to 1958, before being syndicated by Screen Gems in 1958.
While Crusader Rabbit would prove very successful (indeed, a second series would be produced in 1957), it would be many, many years before television would see its next cartoon made expressly for the medium. That having been said, there would not be a shortage of cartoons on television for very long, as throughout the Fifties more and more theatrical shorts were released into television syndication. Indeed, it was in 1950 that Official Films, which had started in the home movie business in 1939, became the first television syndicator of animated theatrical shorts. Their original package of Van Beuren shorts which they had bought aired on ABC that same year
As the Fifties progressed, yet more and more theatrical shorts would find their way to television. It was in 1953 that CBS aired old Terrytoons' Farmer Alfalfa cartoons on their weekday afternoon programme Barker Bill's Cartoon Show, although for some reason they renamed him "Farmer Gray." It was also in 1953 that Official Films bought the classic Pat Sullivan/Otto Mesmer Felix the Cat cartoons, added soundtracks to them, and syndicated them to television stations. The turning point at which cartoons would become commonplace on television would arrive in 1954. That year Hygo Television Films bought 156 classic Charles Mintz cartoons, including Krazy Kat and Scrappy shorts, for television syndication. At around the same time Motion Pictures for Television bought 179 Walter Lantz cartoons, including Oswald the Rabbit and Pooch the Pup shorts, for syndication to television stations. At the time Billboard estimated this increased the number of animated shorts available to television stations by 40%.
For some time the major studios would hold off on selling their animated shorts for television syndication. In fact, Walt Disney never would sell his cartoons for television syndication. This is not to say that they would not find their way to the small screen. Many of the classic Disney shorts and even feature films would appear on the anthology series Disneyland, which debuted in 1954. Classic Disney shorts would also appear on The Mickey Mouse Club, which debuted in 1955. It was in also in 1955 that U.M.& M. TV would buy many of Famous Studios pre-1950 cartoons, including the classic Betty Boop, Little Lulu, and Gabby shorts, but excluding the Popeye shorts (which went to Associated Artists Productions), the Superman shorts (which went to Motion Pictures for Television, who produced the live action series), and the assorted characters published in comic books by Harvey Comics (including Casper the Friendly Ghost and Baby Huey).
It was in 1956 that was one of the two biggest animation studios, Warner Brothers (the other being MGM) sold their animated shorts made prior to August 1, 1948 to Associated Artists Productions. That same year Associated Artists Productions bought the ever popular Popeye shorts from Famous Studios. UPA would enter television when a contract was signed by the studio with CBS to produce a television series. The result was the primetime series The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show, which featured UPA's animated shorts and debuted in 1956. Unfortunately the series would prove cost prohibitive and left the air after three months. MGM, whose cartoons were less popular and considered less prestigious than those of Warner Brothers even then, would remain one of the few hold outs from television. In 1957 a deal between MGM and Associated Artists Productions collapsed. The deal would not have included the Tom and Jerry shorts, which were still popular in theatres.
While MGM's shorts would not be seen on television for a few years, this would not be the case with other major animation studios. It was in 1957, the same year that MGM's deal with Associated Artists Productions fell through, that Walter Lantz brought The Woody Woodpecker Show to ABC. Aired on Thursday afternoons, the series was hosted by Mr. Lantz himself and featured classic Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, and Chilly Willy shorts. The series would run until 1966, not only securing Woody Woodpecker's immortality, but allowing Walter Lantz to continue producing theatrical shorts until 1972, longer than any of the other studios of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The same year Screen Gems would package the remaining Van Beuren shorts in a syndication package consisting of 334 cartoons.
It was in 1960 that Warner Brothers would finally release their animated shorts made after August 1, 1948 to television. The cartoons arrived in the form of a primetime series, The Bugs Bunny Show. In its original form the series featured three Warner Brothers shorts, with new linking material created by Warner Brothers. In 1962 the series would move to Saturday morning, where it would remain for nearly the next forty years. Curiously, Warner Brothers would see much more success on television than their old rivals MGM. The Tom and Jerry Show would only last seven years on a network, five them on Sunday morning.
By 1956 theatrical shorts would not be the only source for cartoons on television. It was that year that Gumby first appeared on The Howdy Doody Show. The stop motion animated character would receive his own show on NBC's Saturday morning schedule starting in March 1957. This made The Gumby Show NBC's first Saturday morning cartoon, not The Ruff and Reddy Show as commonly believed. This is not to say that The Ruff and Reddy Show does not have a place in history. It was the first show produced by Hanna-Barabera and the first cel animation show to air on Saturday morning on NBC.
As it was, 1957 would see the debut of another important animated series. Today Colonel Bleep is nearly forgotten, but it was the first cartoon made for television to be produced in colour (in its earliest days Ruff and Reddy was produced only in black and white). The series consisted of 104 five minute episodes, aired in syndication on local children shows and on their own. Although successful for a time (it still aired in some markets as late as 1970), fewer than half the episodes now exist today. Tom Terrific and The Adventures of Lariat Sam would also make their debuts on Captain Kangaroo that same year.
The success of Mighty Mouse Playhouse and The Ruff and Reddy Show was the beginning of the transformation of Saturday morning television. A few hours of children's fare had aired on Saturday morning since 1950, when ABC debuted Acrobat Ranch and Animal Clinic. Until Mighty Mouse Playhouse, however, all of these shows were live action. The success of these two shows would see yet more animated cartoons on Saturday morning. What is more important is that the success of these two shows, along with Colonel Bleep, would see the production of yet more cartoons made for television. In the early days, the vast majority of these would be produced for syndication. Naturally, television stations would air these cartoons as part of their local children's shows or on their own.
The success of Felix the Cat and The Huckleberry Hound Show would see a plethora of syndicated, made for television cartoons made over the next several years. Among them would be The Quick Draw McGraw (1959, produced by Hanna-Barbera), Clutch Cargo (1959), Deputy Dawg (1959, produced by Terrytoons), Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse (1960), Q. T. Hush (1960), and Space Angel (1962). Nineteen sixty three would see the arrival of Astro Boy on an American shores. It was an adaptation of the Japanese series Tesuwan Atomu and hence the first anime series to air in the United States. It would be followed by Gigantor (1964), 8 Man (1965), Kimba the White Lion (1966, the first anime series produced in colour), Prince Planet (1966), The Amazing 3 (1967), Speed Racer (1967), and Marine Boy (1967). The many Japanese series which made their way to the United States did not stem the tide of domestically produced animated shows for syndication. The next few years would see Rod Rocket (1963), The Mighty Hercules (1963), The Astronut Show (1965, produced by Terrytoons), The New Three Stooges (1965), Roger Ramjet (1965), Laurel and Hardy (1966), The Abbot and Costello Cartoon Show (1967), and Batfink (1967).
While many of the early cartoons made for television consisted of shorts which could easily be shown during local children's shows, many of the later cartoons would be a half hour in length and entirely self contained. This was particularly true of the many anime series which made their way to the United States. As a result, these cartoons had their role to play in the demise of locally produced children's shows. Many television stations decided it would be cheaper to simply to show these syndicated cartoons than to produce their own local children's shows. As a result, many local children's shows would be cancelled in the Sixties, to be replaced by a syndicated cartoon.
This is not to say that the syndicated cartoons would last either. By the late Sixties the rush to made for television, syndicated cartoons that began in the late Fifties would come to an end. Much of this was due to the transformation of the network's Saturday morning schedules into huge blocks of animated cartoons. During the late Fifties into the early Sixties, NBC and CBS made due with at most one or two cartoons each on Saturday morning. It was in the 1962-1963 season that the three networks finally aired more than a half hour or hour's worth of cartoons. ABC, which had aired no cartoons on Saturday morning, broke down and aired two, both of them immigrants from primetime (Top Cat and The Bugs Bunny Show). NBC also aired two cartoons (The Ruff and Reddy Show and King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, the first cartoon produced by TTV). CBS aired two as well (The Alvin Show from primetime and the perennial Mighty Mouse Playhouse).
The growth of Saturday morning cartoon blocks on the networks would have two effects on weekday afternoon children's programming on local stations. Once cancelled many of the cartoons made for the network's Saturday morning cartoons would enter syndication. When coupled with the cartoons still being made originally for syndication, this created a glut of cartoons on television--something unthinkable in 1947 when cartoons first aired regularly on the medium. The end result was that original cartoons produced for television syndication more or less ceased in the years 1967, 1968, and 1969. In the Seventies about the only significant, original cartoons syndicated in the United States were both imports from Japan: Battle of the Planets (a very loose adaptation of Gatchaman syndicated from 1978 to 1985) and Star Blazers (an adaptation of Uchu senkan Yamato, syndicated from 1979 to 1984).
The other effect that the number of cancelled Saturday morning cartoons would have on television is that they would further cause the demise of local children's shows. Much like many of the syndicated cartoons of the Sixties, many of the networks' Saturday morning cartoons were self contained. As a result, many stations would opt to simply show reruns of old Saturday morning cartoons instead of producing their own local children's shows.
In the end, the creation of cartoon blocks on Saturday morning would not only transform the network's Saturday morning schedules, but would also have an impact on the weekday afternoon schedules of television stations. By the late Sixties those local stations which did not simply opt to show reruns of cancelled, primetime sitcoms might well show reruns of Saturday morning cartoons rather than their own local shows or even original cartoons created for syndication. By the Seventies, those stations not showing Gilligan's Island or The Phil Donahue Show in the late afternoon may well be showing reruns of Josie and the Pussycats instead of their own local children's show or even Battle of the Planets. Of course, as the Seventies progressed and later became the Eighties, even the reruns of Saturday morning cartoons would be overcome by reruns of sitcoms and talk shows. By the Nineties many local stations would show no children's programming whatsoever during weekdays, their afternoons filled with nothing but talk shows. Even reruns of sitcoms would disappear from the afternoon schedules of local television stations.
The networks had effectively given up on children's programming on late weekday afternoons in the early Sixties. Local stations would largely continue the tradition of children's programming on weekday afternoons, either though their own local children's shows or syndicated cartoons. By the Seventies the local children's shows would begin disappearing at an accelerated rate, while syndicated cartoons (either reruns or originals) would be overtaken by sitcoms and, more often than not in the Eighties, talk shows. As the Eighties began it may have seen that television outlets, both local and network, had abandoned children's programming in the afternoon entirely save for a few independent stations. As the Eighties progressed, however, children's programming would return to weekday afternoons in a big way.