Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet
Some of my earliest memories have been of television. If any of it is inaccurate, well, these are over 40-year-old.
I was too young to quite appreciate Howdy Doody, though I have strong memories of my brother yelling out, every once in a while, “What time is it?!?!” While I’m sure I saw it too, my remembrance is more of a meta-memory about it rather than of it.
My first strong television memories were of Sunday morning. My older brother Ricky (as we called him then) and I would wake up really early – too early for a weekend – and turn on the TV to the test pattern. This would eventually change to an image of the flag and such jingoistic images of Mt. Rushmore, military jets (this is around 1960, before Viet Nam), Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the White House. Over this was a military band’s recording of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Is there any place in the United States now that has a signing on and off the air? Seems like it wasn’t until the mid-sixties before television turned into a 24-hour telecaster. I am assuming all this was in black and white, but I would not know otherwise because that was all our TV set displayed.
First up on the weekend was a show called something like Modern Agriculture. This was documentary footage of farms, planting, and people working the fields, while an announcer would drone on about “Agrarian society” and the like, while Ricky and I marveled at the tractors. After that, it became a fantasy of mine to drive one of these implements, and I finally had the chance – and a huge tractor at that – thanks to my brother-in-law, during the 1990.
Next was the Farmer Brown cartoons. Originally shown in theaters in the late 1920s-early ‘30s, these were bouncy characters that played out under a classical music soundtrack. I am certain that my appreciation for this type of music dates back to this very silly cartoon.
This was followed by Billy Bang Bang and His Brother Butch. In a similar fashion to Farmer Brown, this show was short silent film westerns by the lies of Tom Mix, but voiced over this time by the conversation of two boys (most likely actually adult women) who discussed what was happening on-screen. This was way before Mystery Science Theater 3000. Mostly it was fistfights, gun battles, horse chases, and fighting with “Indians.” Billy and Butch would say things like “Watch out behind you!” and “Duck!” My brother was obsessed by westerns in his youth, and I’ll be some of that dates back to both Billy Bang Bang and Butch.
Then it was time for The Little Rascals. Most of my friends who liked them preferred the later, Spanky and Our Gang ones. Well, perhaps I did too, especially the ones with musical numbers (“He makes hundreds and thousands of dollars!”), but I also liked the earlier Dickie Moore period (e.g., “Then Tubby sayd [sob] you had a wooden layg”; “Learn that poem…”). What has come to be one of my favorite ones is a rare mid-period one, which featured a very young Spanky, called “Mush and Milk”. The kids are all living in a boarding school by a cruel elderly, cheap matron. The milk (from a goat) is spilled in an accident, so the kids make “milk” out of flour and water. Around the table, the kids spread the word, “Don’t drink the milk; it’s spoiled.” When it gets ‘round to Spanky, one of the original conspirators, he very coolly says to the girl passing it on, “I’m way ahead of ya, sister!” I used that line for years (no matter what the gender, which perplexed some). Many years later, I found out that the actress who played Miss Crabtree had retired to my neighborhood in Bensonhurst.
Last of the Sunday morning line-up was The Bowery Boys, also known as East Side Kids. They were all in their ‘30s by the time these were made, but played teens. I loved these guys, though I never aspired to be like them; but I definitely felt an affinity, probably because I recognized so many of the characters as people I grew up with. They felt like part of my neighborhood, especially characters like Sach and his uncle, who came across as very Jewish to me (though not that I realized it at that age). When I found out that the troupe started out in a serious gang exposes like the film Angels With Dirty Faces, it was very strange to me. It was sort f like when Moe Hoard would occasionally show up on Officer Joe Bolton’s show, with white hair and looking terribly old to us.
Officer Joe Bolton (it was never just Joe Bolton) hosted the daily airing of The Three Stooges shorts for years in New York. Whether he was really a member of the police force was never questioned, and didn’t matter to us. We knew he hosted the show, and we knew he wore the uniform and twirled a wood police baton with grace. That made him cool, and that is what mattered.
Along the same lines was Captain Jack McCarthy (sometimes just Captain Jack), who hosted cartoons such as Popeye. No matter what time the show was on, it was either “Four Bells” or “Six Bells,” and he would pull the string to strike the bell (ding-ding, ding-ding). Although also in a captain’s uniform that looked more like Captain Stubbing, he was a bit blander of a personality than Bolton, but we watched him each opportunity, nonetheless.
One other host I remember, though barely, is Tommy Seven. His prop was a hot dog cart and the theme song, “East side, west side / All around the town / The kids love Tommy Seven / He’s our favorite TV clown.” The memory of his theme lasted longer than the host himself, who dressed as a hobo, though I enjoyed the show at the time.
Captain Kangaroo, Wonderama and Romper Room were all popular, but my preference was for Shenanigans, hosted by the rotund Stubby Kaye. Basically, it was a game show with physical shtick decades before Nickelodeon. There was a board game that went with it, which I coveted for years. However, I did get to play it at friends’ houses. Stubby was a strongly underrated artist and singer, who is probably better known as Nicely Nicely from the film version of Guys and Dolls, where he sang the spiritual “Rocking the Boat,” and as one of the two troubadours from The Ballad of Cat Ballou (Nat King Cole played the other). I still have his album, Music For Chubby Lovers.
My brother who is four years older, caught on to Soupy Sales years before I did, but his adult jokes went right over my head (“Hey Pokie, how come every time I show you the letter F, you see K?” Note that Britney Spears new song is the same wordplay). Just as I started to get into it, the show ended.
By far, my favorite host was Brooklyn native Chuck McCann. Soon as I saw him dancing down the halls of the studio singing, “Put on a Happy Face,” everything seemed good. His show was a mix of sketches, music, reading of comic strips, and never failed to keep my attention. On the big screen, he was powerful as a mute in the drama, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” and starred as the title character in the counter-culture cult classic, The Projectionist. He is another talent that was under appreciated.
A lot of these hosts and shows had a level of subversiveness about them, most of which would be washed clean by the late sixties, after the overreaction and fall of Soupy Sales (much as the FCC cracked down after the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction”). It was, however, these experiments that led the way for the likes of Uncle Floyd, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and even Spongebob Squarepants.