Saturday, June 12, 2010

Kids' Afternoon Programming on American Television Part Two

Local Children's Shows

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!

KOMU, Channel 8, KRCG's rival in Columbia, also had its own children's show, although it debuted and went off the air before I was born. Dave Derring hosted Captain Bob. I have no idea when it debuted or when it was cancelled. While KOMU would have little success with children's show, KHQA, Channel 7, in Quincy would have considerably more. The Cactus Club debuted on KHQA on October 12, 1953. The show was hosted by Richard Moore, who played Cactus Jim (in Mr. Moore's words, a "clean livin' cowpoke"). The series was sponsored for the entirety of its run by local dairy Prairie Farms. Indeed, it would be historic as the first show KHQA ever sold in a daily, half hour slot. In its earliest days The Cactus Club showed classic B Westerns starring the likes of Tex Ritter and Johnny Mack Brown. As the Fifties progressed, however, The Cactus Club would begin showing animated shorts, most notably the Popeye cartoons. The Cactus Club was enormously popular for quite sometime, so much so that Prairie Farms even merchandised Cactus Club milk cups in the shape of cowboy boots. The Cactus Club ran on KHQA until 1961, then moved to WGEM, Channel 10, in Quincy until May 1971. Like Bill Raliff and Showtime, Cactus Jim has fans to this day. Indeed, he has his own website and his own Facebook page!

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.

The Rise of Animated Cartoons on Television

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.

Animated cartoons would first appear on television very early in its history, although it would be sometime before they would become common. As early as 1947 animated shorts produced by the Van Beuren Studios (which had been out of business for nearly twenty years) were shown on DuMont's Small Fry Club (also known as Movies for Small Fry). The first cartoons made expressly for television would also occur early in the medium's history. It was in 1948 that Alex Anderson and Jay Ward formed Television Arts Productions. They pitched an idea for a series entitled The Comic Strips of Television to NBC (including the original version of Dudley Do-Right and a concept for a series entitled Frostbite Falls which evolved into Rocky and Bullwinkle). The one series NBC did buy was entitled Crusader Rabbit, which the network did not air but did syndicate to stations across the country. The series was test marketed on stations in 1948 and officially debuted on September 1, 1949.

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).

CBS would prove to be a bit of pioneer in cartoons on television. It was in 1953 that the network debuted the first network weekday cartoon show, Barker Bill's Cartoon Show. It lasted until 1956. What is more, CBS would go even further than other televisions outlets, not simply buying animated shorts but an entire studio.  In 1955 CBS bought Terrytoons from Paul Terry, who was retiring. CBS would use the old Terrytoon shorts to create the first Saturday morning cartoon, Mighty Mouse Playhouse, which debuted in December 1955. It would be followed by a short lived primetime series featuring Terrytoon shorts in June 1956 and The Heckle and Jeckle Show in October 1956. CBS would also syndicate the cartoons under such titles as Farmer Alfalfa and His Terrytoon Pals and Terrytoons Club. As a division of CBS, Terrytoons would produce the cartoons Tom Terrific and The Adventures of Lariat Sam to air on Captain Kangaroo, and still later such television cartoons as Deputy Dawg  and The Astronut Show.  While owned by CBS, Terrytoons would continue to produce theatrical shorts until 1963.

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.

Nineteen sixty would be another turning point for cartoons on television. That year Famous Studios would sell its remaining shorts and characters (including Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey, Herman and Katnip, and others) to Harvey Comics, who had been publishing them in comic books since 1952. Harvey Comics repacked the cartoons as Harveytoons and syndicated them to television stations, as well as producing new cartoons for the small screen. It would also be in 1960 that MGM would finally break down and strike a deal with United Artists Television to syndicate many of their animated shorts, including Barney Bear, Screwy Squirrel, George and Junior, and The Captain and the Kids. Neither the Tom and Jerry nor the classic Droopy shorts were included. In fact, MGM's most famous characters would not be seen on television until 1965, when The Tom and Jerry Show would debut on CBS on Saturday mornings. The series usually consisted of two Tom and Jerry shorts and one Droopy short.

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.

Indeed, in 1958 three syndicated cartoons made for television would be produced. It wast that year that Trans-Lux distributed a new series featuring Felix the Cat (the original Messmer shorts having proven very popular), produced by Joe Oriolo. Two hundred sixty animated shorts were made. It was also in 1958 that the largely forgotten series Adventures of Spunky and Tadpole was produced. The series featured a boy and his teddy bear, who operated as detectives. One hundred fifty shorts were produced of five minutes each, each short being part of a ten part story. It was among the first animated cartoons made for television to break with the format of five to ten minute, self contained shorts established by theatrical shorts. Also debuting in 1958 was The Huckleberry Hound Show, Hanna-Barbera's second show and their first to be produced in colour. The series consisted of three segments, one featuring Huckleberry Hound, one featuring Yogi Bear, and one featuring Pixie, Dixie,and Mr. Jinx. While the segments of the series could be aired individually as shorts on children's shows, the show could be shown on its own, complete with its own opening and closing credits. In fact, not only was it more often shown on its own, but it was so popular with adults that many stations aired in primetime.

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).

It was in 1963 that CBS hit upon the revolutionary idea of scheduling an entire block of cartoons on Saturday morning. CBS scheduled The Alvin Show, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, Quick Draw McGraw (originally a syndicated Hanna-Barbera show), and Mighty Mouse Playhouse. ABC would also schedule two hours worth of cartoons, The Jetsons (from primetime), The New Casper Cartoon Show, Beany and Cecil (from primetime), and The Bugs Bunny Show. NBC lagged behind with only The Heather Heatcote Show (produced by Terrytoons), The Ruff and Reddy Show, and The Bullwinkle Show (from primetime). These cartoons blocks would see such success that the 1964-1965 season would be the first Saturday morning as many younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers would come to know them. CBS would schedule three hours worth of cartoons on Saturday morning, among them Linus the Lion Hearted. ABC would be more modest with two hours worth of cartoons. NBC would still only have one hour's worth of cartoons on Saturday morning, although one of them would be the legendary Underdog. After the 1963-1964 season, the Saturday morning cartoon blocks would grow by leaps and bounds until 1968, when the CBS Saturday morning line up was six hours in length (it ended at 2 PM EST).

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.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Kids' Afternoon Programming on American Television Part One

Time to Start the Show

When many younger Baby Boomers and Gen Xers think of children's programming on American television, they are likely to think of Saturday morning, when the bulk of such programming aired on American television throughout its history. And while it is true that for several years Saturday morning would be the home to the bulk of children's programming on American television, the fact is that the late afternoon has also seen its fair share of kid's shows. Indeed, there was a time when late afternoon was the preferred time for airing children's shows, well before the tradition of kids' programming on Saturday morning was established.

The practice of scheduling children's shows in the late afternoon was established on radio, well before the advent of regular, network television broadcasts in the United States. Indeed, the first regularly scheduled radio serial for children to air in the afternoon may well have been Little Orphan Annie. Based on the popular comic strip, it debuted in 1930 on WGN in Chicago. On April 6, 1931 it made its debut on the NBC Blue Network. It aired six days a week at 5:45 PM. Little Orphan Annie proved to be a huge success, running until 1942.

Little Orphan Annie would be followed by a number of shows targeted at children which either aired in the late afternoon or early evening. And many of these shows would see even more success than Little Orphan Annie would. The Lone Ranger aired at 7:30 PM EST for nearly the entirety of its run. Its companion series, The Green Hornet, aired as early as 4:30 PM EST and as late as 8:00 PM EST. For much of its history The Adventures of Superman aired at either 5:00 or 5:30 PM EST. Jack Armstrong, All American Boy aired at 5:30 PM EST for most of its run. The list of juvenile radio serials which aired in the late afternoon or early evening is not a short one. Among the late afternoon and early evening children's shows were Uncle Don, Challenge of the Yukon, The Singing Story Lady, Captain Midnight, and many others.

The late afternoon and early evening hours having been established as a time for children's programming in radio, it was only natural that when regular network television broadcasts began in the United States after World War II that children's shows on television would also be scheduled in the late afternoon and early evening. Contrary to popular belief, the first regularly scheduled children's show was not Howdy Doody. In fact, two rather famous children's show debuted before Howdy Doody, although in the same year.

Today it is difficult to say what the first regularly scheduled, network children's show was, but it is quite possible that it was The Small Fry Club.  Indeed, in The Complete Directory to Primetime Network TV Shows, Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh state that it might have been the first series to air five days a week. The Small Fry Club debuted on the DuMont network on March 11, 1947 (a full nine months before Howdy Doody). It starred "Big Brother" Bob Emery, who sang,  played the ukulele and banjo, told stories, and included educational segments on current events, history, literature, music, and so on. Often The Small Fry Club featured guest performers or speakers on topics of interest to children. The Small Fry Club lasted until June 1951.

The second important, afternoon children's show to debut in 1947 would see more lasting success than The Small Fry Club. On October 13, 1947, Junior Jamboree debuted on WBKB in Chicago. When it moved to WBNQ in Chicago on November 29, 1948, it would be renamed for its stars--Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. On January 12, 1948 it made its debut on NBC. As to the stars of the show, two of them were puppets created by the series' creator, puppeteer Burr Tillstrom. For the whole run of the show he was its only puppeteer. As to the puppets themselves, Kukla was the leader of the group, a character who resembled a clown but definitely was not one, and Ollie or Oliver J. Dragon, a somewhat roguish dragon. The only human star of the show was Fran Allison, a radio comedian and singer. The cast was filled out by other puppets, such as Fletcher Rabbit, the group's rather fussy postman, and Cecil Bill, the group's stagehand.

Kukla, Fran, and Ollie differed from many children's shows (and even adult sitcoms) of the time in that its humour grew out of its characters. Indeed, the quality of the writing on the show was such that it boasted many adults among its fans, including Tallulah Bankehad, Milton Caniff, Orson Welles, and others. Indeed, when the show was cut back to 15 minutes in 1951, it was not children who expressed anger at NBC, but the show's adult fans! In all, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie would run 10 years, until 1957. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie would later host The CBS Children's Film Festival on Saturday morning and still later would be featured in their own show on PBS from 1969-1971.

As to Howdy Doody, perhaps the most famous children's show of the Fifties, it debuted on December 17, 1947 under the title Puppet Playhouse. Its title would officially be changed in 1949 to The Howdy Doody Show. The series was at its heart a puppet show, starring a marionette named Howdy Doody. Howdy's original incarnation was a rather scruffy haired, goofy looking fellow in Western clothes. It was in 1948 the puppet's designer, Frank Paris, walked off the show with the original Howdy Doody. Since Paris rightfully owned the marionette, the show had no choice but to redesign Howdy. Fortunately, the producers found a way to explain Howdy's absence. As Howdy was running for President of the Kids in 1948, it was explained that he was away having plastic surgery in order to better compete with his handsome opponent, Mr. X. In the meantime, for nine months the show utilised a puppet covered in bandages until the new Howdy Doody was unveiled. When Howdy's new face was finally revealed, it was the familiar red haired, freckle faced boy that everyone identifies as Howdy Doody. The new Howdy Doody was designed by Thelma Thomas of Walt Disney Studios, who created the head and face, and Scott Brinker, the show's prop man,  who made the body. Howdy's country bumpkin voice remained the same.

Of course, Howdy Doody was not the only puppet on the show,. In fact, there was a whole slough of them, living in the town named Doodyville. There was Mayor Phineas T. Bluster, Flub-a Dub (a duke's mixture of various animals), Sandra the Witch, and many others. Of course, there were human characters as well, the most prominent being Buffalo Bob Smith.  Dressed in Western garb, Buffalo Bob Smith was the host for the show for the entirety of its run save for nearly the show's entire run, and was the voice of the puppet as well. While Buffalo Bob was recovering from his heart attack, master voice man Allen Swift (best known as Simon Barsinister and Riff-Raff on Underdog) voiced Howdy, while the show featured various guest hosts (including Gabby Hayes). Perhaps the most prominent human character besides Buffalo Bob was the mute Clarabell the Clown, played by the legendary Bob Keeshan (later to become more famous as Captain Kangaroo) until 1952. There was also Chief Thunderthud (played by Bill LeCornec) and Princess Summerfall Winterspring (originally a puppet, but soon replaced by the beautiful Judy Tyler).

From its beginning, The Howdy Doody Show  was wildly successful. It became the first NBC show to be aired five days a week. In 1952, NBC spun off a radio show based on the shit TV series. Starting in 1954 NBC used Howdy Doody's face for their colour test pattern.In 1955 Howdy Doody became one of the first TV shows on any network to air regularly in colour. Naturally, Howdy Doody  produced a ton of merchandise. In 1949 Dell published the first Howdy Doody comic book. There were also lunch boxes, wind up toys, Howdy Doody dolls, and numerous other items.

Unfortunately, The Howdy Doody Show was not immune to the changing television climate in the Fifties. It was on October 3, 1955 (which I'll discuss in more depth later) The Mickey Mouse Club debuted on ABC. The show proved to be a smash hit. Indeed, even though ABC had fewer affiliates than NBC, The Mickey Mouse Club still trounced Howdy Doody in the ratings. An hour in length and starting a half hour earlier than Howdy Doody, children were loath to switch from The Mickey Mouse Club to Howdy Doody. It was then in 1956 that The Howdy Doody Show moved from its weekday afternoon time slot to Saturday  morning. The Howdy Doody Show would only survive four more years on Saturday morning. Its run ended on September 24, 1960. The biggest children's show of the Fifties would not survive into the Sixties.

Here it must be pointed out that not every children's show which debuted in the late Forties was a puppet show. In fact, it was on June 27, 1949 that DuMont would debut a show that, in retrospect, was highly revolutionary. Indeed, Captain Video and His Video Rangers was American television's first science fiction programme. Created by DuMont vice president James L Caddigan, the show was set in 2254 and centred on Captain Video, head of the Video Rangers, who reported to the Commissioner of Public Safety. He was assisted by the young Video Ranger (no other name was ever given) and with the Video Rangers battled threats to interplanetary safety.

Captain Video and the Video Rangers aired live and on a shoestring budget at that. As a result the production was somewhat crude, although it did manage to take advantage of such recent technology as primitive luminance key effects, dissolves, and superimpositions. During every programme until 1953 either Captain Video or communications officer Ranger Rogers would check in on Captain Video's other agents (who looked suspiciously like cowboys) on a television screen. As a result, at least ten minutes of the half hour programme was devoted to clips from old Westerns. This allowed the crew to set up switch sets and to prepare for special effects. Although its scripts were attacked by critics early in its run, Captain Video and the Video Rangers  would improve over time. The special effects would improve noticeably after Alex Haberstroh and Leo Russell were hired in 1952. After 1952 the scripts were being written by such noted science fiction writers and fantasists as Arthur C. Clarke, James Blish, Damon Knight, and Jack Vance. By 1953 clips of old Westerns were no longer being used.

From 1949 to 1950 Richard Coogan starred as Captain Video. He would go onto star in the 1957-1959 series The Californians. From 1950 to the end of the series, Captain Video was played by Al Hodge, best known as the original voice of The Green Hornet on radio. Don Hastings played the Video Ranger for the entirety of the show's run. He would go onto appear on The Edge of Night and then to an extraordinarily long run on As the World Turns.

Captain Video and the Video Rangers proved extremely popular. It inspired a 1951 Columbia serial entitled Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere. Fawcett Comics would also publish a Captain Video comic book. More importantly, the series would inspire yet other juvenile science fiction shows, including Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Space Patrol, and Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers among others.

Unfortunately, the success of Captain Video and the Video Rangers could not save the faltering DuMont network. From the beginning DuMont had faced obstacles from the FCC rules (restricting the network's growth), AT&T, and even its business partner Paramount Pictures. While DuMont produced such legendary shows as Cavalcade of Shows (which introduced the world to The Honeymooners), Life is Worth Living, The Original Amateur Hour, and Captain Video and the Video Rangers, it was not enough to overcome these obstacles. By 1955 DuMont was in a position where it could no longer afford the expensive coaxial cable over which its shows were broadcast. It was then on April 1, 1955 that Captain Video and the Video Rangers ended its long run. Its last regularly scheduled programme, the game show What's the Story aired one last time on September 25 of that year.

It would be another struggling network that would debut another revolutionary children's show not long after Captain Video and the Video Rangers went off the air. ABC had been in much the same position as DuMont, struggling to compete with the two major networks (NBC and CBS). It was in 1953 that United Paramount Theatres merged with the meagre network, giving it a much needed boost in capital. In 1954 the network would also be greatly helped by the debut of Disneyland, an anthology series produced by Walt Disney. Dinseyland proved to be a smash hit, even producing an outright craze with the "Davy Crockett" miniseries. It was in 1955 that Walt Disney followed up this success with a children's show which would air five days a week on ABC, The Mickey Mouse Club. It debuted on October 3, 1955.

Today it is easy to take The Mickey Mouse Club for granted as simply a very popular, afternoon children's show of the Fifties and the show that launched Annette Funnicello to stardom. but at the time it was revolutionary. Previously television shows were made to appeal to adults (most of what aired on primetime), young children (shows such as Howdy Doody), or teenagers (American Bandstand and number of other dance shows). The Mickey Mouse Club was the first children's show designed to appeal primarily to what is now called "tweens," children between the age of ten and twelve. In more ways than one, then, The Mickey Mouse Club is the forerunner of such shows as Hannah Montana and The Wizards of Waverly Place.

The format of The Mickey Mouse Club was simple. It was a variety show for kids. An average episode of the show would consist of a newsreel, a classic Disney cartoon, an episode of one of the show's serials (including "Spin and Marty" and  "The Hardy Boys"), as well as musical and comedy segments.The show had an appealing cast, led by the adult host, singer, actor, and songwriter Jimmie Dodd. The cast consisted of Annette Funicello (the show's breakout star), future drummer Cubby O'Brien,  future makeup artist Tommy Cole, and several others.

The Mickey Mouse Club proved incredibly successful, so much so that it outstripped the once phenomenal Howdy Doody in the ratings. In fact, it was after only one year against The Mickey Mouse Club that Howdy Doody was cut back to Saturday morning. It was still highly rated when  it was cancelled in 1959, largely because ABC and Disney could not come to terms over the renewal of the series. The show could have possibly continued on another network, but ABC forbade Disney from either shopping The Mickey Mouse Club or Zorro to another broadcaster.

In many respects The Mickey Mouse Club was the last hurrah for children's programming in the late afternoon on the networks. As the Fifties progressed, there would be increasingly fewer and fewer children's shows on the networks in the late afternoon. At some during point during the 1951-1952 season, all four networks had at least one children's show that aired in the late afternoon or evening hours, sometimes more. By the fall of 1960 only ABC aired children's shows in the late afternoon (of course, DuMont had ceased to exist four years earlier). The decrease in children's programming on the major networks happened gradually. Throughout the decade CBS aired children's shows in the late afternoon only sporadically at best, finally ceding late afternoons to their local affiliates and abandoning children's shows in those time slots entirely in 1957. Between Howdy Doody and The Pinky Lee Show NBC had scheduled children's programming for most of the decade. When the network moved Howdy Doody to Saturday mornings and cancelled The Pinky Lee Show in 1956, NBC abandoned children's programming in the late afternoon altogether, save for a brief revival of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie in the 1961-1962 season.

ABC was the lone hold out among the networks when it came to late afternoon, children's programming. In the 1959-1960 the network showed reruns of both The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and My Friend Flicka. In the 1960-1961 season ABC scheduled reruns of Captain Gallant, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, The Lone Ranger, and Rocky and His Friends. In the 1961-1962 season ABC aired no children's shows in the late afternoon, but returned children's programming to the time slot in the 1962 to 1963 season with Discovery. Discovery was an educational show which explored various topics ranging from science to art to history. It lasted one season in the late afternoon before being exiled to Sunday morning, where it remained until its cancellation in 1971. It would be the last network offering for children in the late afternoon for decades. From the Sixties into the Eighties, children's programming on the networks would only be seen on Saturday mornings and, for a time, on Sunday mornings as well.

As to the reason children's programming vanished from late afternoons on the networks, it came down to simple economics. In some respects late afternoons were more ideal for children's programming. In the Fifties and even the Sixties, more children were available to watch television in the late afternoon than on Saturday morning. What made the late afternoon less desirable as a time for children's shows than Saturday morning was the simple fact that many more adults were available to watch television in the late afternoon as well. In fact, the adult audience for the late afternoon was much larger than that of children. The end result was that advertises who bought spots on children's show in the afternoon would have to pay higher rates than advertisers who wanted to attract adults. In the end, it became simpler for the networks to simply cede the late afternoon to their local affiliates, who could then programme whatever they pleased.

Of course, this would not be the end of children's programming in the late afternoon on weekdays on American television. Many local stations had their own children's shows that would continue to air for many years, while others simply elected to show any number of cartoons. Although it might decrease in its sheer numbers over the years, children's programming on weekday afternoons would not completely vanish.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bob Cummings' 100th Birthday

It was 100 years ago today that actor Robert Cummings, also known as Bob Cummings, was born in Joplin, Missouri. In the Forties Mr. Cummings appeared in such films as King's Row, Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, and in comedies such as The Devil and Miss Jones and Moon Over Miami. In the Fifties he appeared in such films as How to be Very, Very Popular and Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder. In the Sixties he appeared in such films as My GeishaBeach Party and  What a Way to Go. While Bob Cummings made many movies, he may have been best known for two sitcoms: The Bob Cummings Show and the short lived cult series My Living Doll.

Robert Cummings was born to Dr Charles Cummings, who was a surgeon at St. John's Hospital in Joplin and founded the Jasper County Tuberculosis Hospital in Webb City, Missouri. His mother, Ruth Cummings, was an ordained minister in the Science of the Mind. His godfather was Orville Wright, who taught  Mr. Cummings how to fly when he was attending Joplin High School. For a time he attended Drury College in Springfield, Missouri, but due to his interest in aeronautics he transferred to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, he ran out of funds before he could graduate, due to the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Mr. Cummings discovered  the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City paid actors $14 a week and as a result he enrolled there.

In studying acting Robert Cummings would even master an upper class English accent, as English actors were in large demand in the United States at the time. He made his debut on Broadway in 1931 in the play The Roof, using the stage name Blade Stanhope Conway. Fittingly, he played an Englishman. Bob Cummings would later assume a Texan persona, using the stage name Brice Hutchins. It was under that name that he made his second appearance on Broadway, appearing in The Ziegfield Follies of 1934.

While Bob Cummings had success using pseudonyms and personas other than his own, it would be under his given name that he would find lasting success in Hollywood. He made his film debut in an uncredited role in the movie Seasoned Greetings in 1933. His first credited role would be in the 1936 Western Desert Gold. For the next several years he appeared in roles in B movies and in smaller roles in such major motion pictures as Wells Fargo (1937) and  The Texans (1938). His breakthrough role would be in the film Three Smart Girls Grow Up in 1939, which included him on the piano.

Robert Cummings would establish himself as an actor in such light comedies as The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) and It Started with Eve (1941). In many of his films Mr. Cummings played a gallant, but often bumbling young man. At the same time that he made his name in comedies, however, Bob Cummings also proved he could give great performances in dramas as well. Indeed, aside from the two movies he made with Alfred Hitchcock, his most famous film may well be King's Row (1942). In the film, Mr. Cummings played young physician Parris Mitchell. Not only was Mr.Cummings was one of the featured players in the film, but he was also the only native from the state in which the real King's Row was located. King's Row, the fictional town in Henry Bellamann's novel of the same name, was very thinly based on the town of Fulton, Missouri, where the Missouri State Mental Hospital is still located (it was the first mental hospital built west of the Mississippi). Bob Cummings also played the innocent aircraft worker Barry Kane, duped by spies in Alfred Hitcock's Saboteur (1942). Mr. Cummings appeared in comedies and drama alike throughout the Forties, including Flesh and Fantasy (1943) and The Accused (1949).

It would be in the late Forties that Mr. Cummings first appeared in the medium that would give him lasting fame. Bob Cummings made his debut on television in an episode of Sure as Fate in 1950. He also made two guest appearances on Your Show of Shows, one in 1950 and another in 1951. He also returned to Broadway, for the first time using his given name, in the play Faithfully Yours in 1951. In 1954 Mr. Cummings appeared as crime fiction writer Mark Halliday, who seeks to thwart the murderer in Dial M for Murder. He also appeared in the film How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955). Increasingly, however, Bob Cummings appeared on television. Throughout the Fifties he guest starred in such shows as Lux Video Theatre, Robert Montgomery Presents, Studio One (as Juror #8 in the original, television version of "Twelve Angry Men"), Playhouse 90, and The Twilight Zone. He received his first series in 1952 with the short lived series My Hero, in which he played a bumbling real estate agent. It would only last one season, but Mr. Cumming's second series would be much more successful.

The Bob Cummings Show debuted in January 1955 and ran until September 1959. The series is notable as being one of the first created by Paul Henning (a fellow Missouri native who would go onto create The Beverly Hillbillies) and as being the first series ever to debut as a midseason replacement. It was also the first series for Dwayne Hickman, who played Bob's nephew on the show. He would go onto more success in the series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. On the show Bob Cummings played Bob Collins, a playboy and professional photographer . The series also starred Rosemary DeCamp as Bob's sister and Ann B., Davis as his secretary. The series would not only do well in its first run, but would have a phenomenal syndication run. It would be repeated into the Eighties and can still be seen on some channels to this day.

In 1961 Robert Cummings would star in another sitcom, The New Bob Cummings Show. In this series Mr. Cummings played Bob Carson, a pilot and amateur detective. Unfortunately, the series would not prove to be successful, lasting only one season. Mr. Cummings would appear in major motion pictures in the Sixties. In 1962 he appeared in the film My Geisha. In 1964 he played the pivotal role of the poor psychiatrist to whom Shirley MacLaine's character relates the untimely demises of her husband in What a Way to Go! He also appeared in Beach Party (1963), The Carpetbaggers (1964), and a remake of Stagecoach (1966).

While Bob Cummings appeared in various movies throughout the Sixties, his most notable role may have been in a sitcom which lasted only one season. My Living Doll debuted in September 1964 and was one of the many sitcoms which followed the lead of the hit My Favourite Martian. In My Living Doll Bob Cummings played psychologist Dr. Bob McDonald. MacDonald is left in the care of an android, designated AF 709, developed by his friend Dr. Carl Miller (Henry Beckman), when Miller must go to Pakistan on government business. Unfortunately for MacDonald, AF 709 looks exactly like Julie Newmar (who played her, of course). Furthermore, AF 709 is top secret, so MacDonald must keep anyone from learning that AF 709 is actually a very advanced robot. MacDonald named AF 709 "Rhoda" and passed her off as Dr. Miller's niece, who was staying with him. He also "hired" her as his secretary at work (a job for which she is perfectly suited--she can type hundreds of words a minute and her memory banks hold thousands of bits of information). MacDonald also decided to teach Rhoda how to be the "perfect" woman--one who does what she is told to. In this final task MacDonald appears to have never quite succeeded, as Rhoda seems to have somewhat a mind of her own....

Sadly, My Living Doll would be scheduled Sundays opposite Bonanza, then the top rated show on television. CBS would move the show to Wednesday in January, where it would perform no better against another highly rated Western on NBC, The Virginian. Complicating matters were problems on the set of My Living Doll. Although both stars gave sterling performances, Bob Cummings and Julie Newmar did not get along particularly well. Eventually, Mr. Cummings would walk off the set with five episodes left to be shot. The role of Rhonda's caretaker would then be assumed by co-star Jack Mullaney, whose character Peter had learned she was a robot. Sadly, My Living Doll would be cancelled after only one season.

Bob Cummings would not be absent from television, however, as he guest starred on Green Acres, The Flying Nun, and appeared in the telefilm Gidget Grows Up. He would go onto guest star on such shows as Arnie, Bewitched, Here's Lucy, Love American Style, and The Love Boat. He appeared again on Broadway in 1966 in the play The Wayward Stork. His last appearance on the screen was as the host of "Walt Disney World's 15th Anniversary Celebration" on The Disney Sunday Movie. In 1988 he was an honoured guest at Fulton, Missouri's Kingdom Days festival and even hosted a special screening of King's Row. He died on December 2, 1990 at the age of 80.

Although best known for his gallant and often bumbling roles in movie comedies and his role as playboy Bob Collins on The Bob Cummings Show, Robert Cummings was actually a very talented actor. Indeed, he was a bit of a chameleon. He received his first role on Broadway by masquerading as an Englishmen. He would later play scientists, such as the psychologist on My Living Doll and the anthropologist on Beach Party. He was perfect in comedies, where his sense of timing was always impeccable, but could also play in dramas as well. It is because of his versatility and sheer talent that Bob Cummings is still remembered today.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Late, Great Himan Brown

Himan Brown, who created such radio dramas as The Inner Sanctum Mysteries (better known simply as The Inner Sanctum), The Adventures of the Thin Man, and Dick Tracy passed on June 4, 2010. He was 99 years old.

Himan Brown was born in Brooklyn, New York on July 21, 1910. His parents were immigrants from the Ukraine, and when Mr. Brown entered school he could not speak English (only Yiddish having been spoken at home).. He learned of radio from a shop teacher when he was attending Brooklyn Boys High School. He convinced radio station WNRY to let him read poetry on the air.

Himan Brown's stint on WNRY led to an audition with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), where he performed routines based on the characters from Milt Gross' comic strips. His skill in Jewish dialect and Yiddish brought him to the attention of Gertrude Berg. She asked Himan Brown for help in selling her idea for a radio show. Mr. Brown packaged and sold the show, the legendary Rise of of the Goldbergs. The series debuted on November 20, 1929 on NBC. Mr. Brown played Jake Goldberg in the earliest episodes of the show. Unfortunately, after six months Gertrude Berg fired him and bought his share of the show out for $200.

Himan Brown moved on from The Goldbergs to acting as an independent producer of radio shows while attending Brooklyn College. He developed a knack for matching concepts for radio shows with sponsors. He created Little Italy for Blue Coal and The Brooklyn Marriage Bureau for Goodman's Matzos. He also acted on both shows. Mr. Brown would also work with Anne Ashenhurst, who with Frank Hummert, produced many of the soap operas in the Thirties. Mr. Brown produced and directed such Ashenhurst soap operas as Marie, the Little French Princess, John's Other Wife, and Way Down East.

Mr. Brown would eventually graduate from Brooklyn Law School, which would help greatly in obtaining licenses for some of the most popular characters of the day, including Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, and Nero Wolfe. Indeed, it was in 1934 that Himan Brown brought Dick Tracy to radio. The show proved incredibly popular, running for fourteen years. In 1935 he produced an adaptation of the comic strip Flash Gordon under the title of The Amazing Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon. It was in 1937 that he created one of his most legendary shows,Grand Central Station. Grand Central Station was an anthology series in which every episode was linked to the famous terminal. It ran for seventeen years.

Himan Brown would bring some of the most popular comic strip and literary characters  to the air. In 1937 he adapted Terry and the Pirates  as a radio show. It proved to be another success, running for eleven years. In 1941 he brought Dashiell Hammett's popular crime solving couple Nick and Nora Charles to radio in The Adventures of the Thin Man. The show ran for nine years. In 1941 he also adapted Bulldog Drummond as a radio show. It also ran for nine years.

It was also in 1941 that what may have been Himan Brown's most famous show debuted. The Inner Sanctum Mysteries (better known simply as The Inner Sanctum) debuted on January 7, 1941 and ran until October 4, 1952. The show was an anthology of horror, suspense, and mystery episodes. What set it apart from many other similar anthology was its tongue in cheek introductions from its hosts. The show would open with the sound of a creaking door (one of the first sounds ever trademarked), followed by the introduction of the host. The host of The Inner Sanctum Mysteries was perhaps it best known, Raymond Edward Johnson, who would begin each show with the greeting "Good evening" and "This is your host, Raymond." Raymond would leave the show in 1945, and its other hosts would simply refer to themselves as "Your host." The show was incredibly successful, ranking in the top twenty for many years. Its success would lead to a series of six Inner Sanctum horror movies produced by Universal Pictures in the Forties.

Himan Brown would go onto produce The Adventures of Nero Wolfe (1942-1943) and Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator (1951 to 1955). With television rapidly driving radio dramas into extinction, Mr. Brown would turn to television himself. In 1954 he produced the syndicated series Inner Sanctum, based on his most famous radio show. He also produced the films That Night (1957) and The Vialators (1957), as well as the television drama Summer of Decision. In 1992 his most famous radio show would provide the basis for the telefilm Seduction: Three Tales From the "Inner Sanctum."

In 1974, well after the age of Old Time Radio had ended, Himan Brown would once more see success with a radio show. CBS Radio Mystery Theatre was largely patterned after The Inner Sanctum. It would begin with a creaking door, after which the show's host (originally E. G. Marshall) would introduce himself. For a series which debuted after Old Time Radio had ended, CBS Radio Mystery Theatre proved very popular. It ran until 1982 and has been reran a few times since then.

Himan Brown would create another radio show in the Seventies, General Mills Radio Adventure Theatre. General Mills Radio Adventure Theatre debuted in 1977. Its target audience were children, with adaptations of such classic works as Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne,  and The Last of the Mohicans  by James Fenimore Cooper, as well as original episodes. Unfortunately, General Mills Radio Adventure Theatre would end its run after only a year on the air.

Arguably, Himan Brown was the greatest producer of radio shows of all time. He worked in the medium for over six decades, far longer than most radio drama producers. Mr. Brown also produced some of the most successful radio shows of all time: Dick Tracy, Grand Central Station, Terry and the Pirates, Inner Sanctum, and The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. It is estimated that he produced or otherwise took part in around 30,000 different programmes. Indeed, the first radio show I ever heard was CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. I would later seek out many of the Old Time Radio Shows, many of which (like The Inner Sanctum Mysteries) were produced by Himan Brown.

Even if Himan Brown had only created The Inner Sanctum Mysteries, he would have been a legend in radio. Along with Lights Out, it was the greatest horror radio anthology ever produced. The series not only had one of the most memorable openings in the history of radio, but it attracted some of the best known actors in the Forties, including Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Orson Welles, and Claude Rains. It inspired a series of movies, a TV show, a TV movie, and numerous parodies. To this day it remains one of the most famous radio shows of all time. The secret of the success of Inner Sanctum was much the same as with Mr. Brown's other shows. Quite simply, he could do more with sound effects, creepy music, and talented actors, than many producers could do with a big budget feature film.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Dorothy DeBorba of Our Gang Passes On

Dorothy DeBorba, who appeared in twenty four Our Gang shorts from 1930 to 1933, passed on June 2 at the age of 85. The cause was emphysema.

Dorothy DeBorba was born in Los Angeles, California. She made her film debut when she was only five, appearing in the comedy A Royal Romance in 1930. She impressed Our Gang producer Hal Roach with her ability to cry on cue, and joined the cast of the popular shorts in 1930's "Pups is Pups." In that short, she played Jackie Cooper's little sister. Dorothy was easily recognisable because of her light brown hair, generally done up in ringlets with a bow. After appearing in three shorts as Norman "Chubby" Chaney's little sister, in which she parroted whatever Chubby said, she became known on the lot as "Echo," even though the name was never used on screen.

Dorothy DeBorba would appear in other films besides the Our Gang shorts. She appeared in bit parts in such films as Men of the North (1930) and The Boyfriends short "Blood and Thunder." Dorothy's last Our Gang short was Mush and Milk in 1933. Her last film appearance was a bit part in Bombshell that year.

Miss DeBorba graduated from Van Nuys High School and later worked at Republic Studios as a secretary. She also worked as senior clerk at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. She would later become a regular guest of the Sons of the Desert, the Laurel and Hardy fan club.

While Dorothy DeBorba may not be as famous as Spanky, Alfafa, Darla, or Buckwheat, she was one of the many actors who made the Our Gang comedies a success. She had a natural gift for comedy, with impeccable timing and perfect delivery Indeed, like all of the Our Gang actors she did not seem so much like an actor as she did a child doing what children do naturally. Although she was not one of the most famous members of the Our Gang cast, she was as gifted as any of those who were better know.