Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Television of My Childhood in New York

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.


  1. I remember wonderama in NYC. A 3 plus hour extravaganza hosted by Bob McCallister and a bunch of screaming kids. I always envied the kidsbecause they would all get gift bags every week with a comic book, pack of Armour hot dogs and a Yo Yo! It was always followed by s Bowery Boys movie and that was enough to warp my young mind. I also remember watching the magic garden (now on DVD) and Joya's Fun School, which was strange since the words "fun" and "school" in the same title did not make it fuin at all. Kids shows were the best then. Mario Cantone and Steampipe Alley was the last great local tv show, a bizarre kids show with him doing impressions of Sammy David Jr losing his glass eye. (this was well before the dreck that was Sex and the City!).

  2. Always good to hear from you, Walter. I mentioned you somewhere back in another blog when I talked about record collecting.

    By the time Bob McCallister came around, I was already past Wonderama. The earlier hosts were my speed at the time. But I liked Shenanigans better as a sort of kids game show. Magic Garden was great because of the hosts, one of which was the ORIGINAL Sandy Dumbrowski in the first Broadway version of Grease. I like Olivia, but she couldn't hold a candle to her in that role (and don't get me started about how they took the amazing last song from the play and replaced it with that crap "You're the One That I Want, Ugh ugh ugh." As for Mario Cantone, cool show, especially as it was written by my Queens College schoolmate (and part of our clique), Judy Katchke, who was naturally funny even then. But Cantone could not have existed without Uncle Floyd, the king of adult children's comedy (Q: What's the difference between roast beef and pea soup? A: Anyone can roast beef), who in turn, owed a debt to Soupy, the Chuck Berry of adult children's shows (which I guess would make Uncle Floyd = Jerry Lee Lewis and Mario Cantone = Little Richard).

  3. Wow, great memories. I loved Soupy. I would imitate him with shaving cream pies in the face of my friends. I saw him years later doing stand-up in a small club in DC. I went to see Officer Joe Bolton at my parochial school back in the early '60s. I wish I could find his signed picture. Chuck McCann and Paul Winchell were awesome. Too bad very little of Soupy survives on tape.

  4. Nice to know someone remembers "Billy Bang Bang" besides me.

    My name, being Bill, as you might suppose, "Bang, Bang" was a nickname for me. So i remember the show very well....
    "starring..hard riding, straight shootin, rootin tootin Bronco Bob!!!"
    I was looking for anything on dvd, or youtube, when i discovered this site.
    Soupy was a fvaorite for me too!!
    (you can get some of his work on dvd).

    Wonderrama with Sony fox
    The Sandy Becker Show with "Hambone", and the "Big Professor"

    My older brother remembered "Star Time", and "Pinky Lee" along with "Howdy Doody"-
    Wonderful memories all!!


  5. In regards to the Farmer Brown classical music remarks... I remember being in high school band (probably around 1968-70) and we were working through some new material, attempting "Poet and Peasant Overture" for the first time. For those who don't know, this begins with a long, slow section and then suddenly explodes into the Farmer Brown music where thousands of cats chased thousands of mice. It was like you stuck vibrators up our asses! We knew this music! For an escatic moment, these early-to-mid 50s birthers (NY area) discovered ourselves playing this stuff we grew up on! What a moment! And I've got to mention Sandy Becker, as talented and satgisfying as Chuck McCann. Remember Chuck doing "Little Orphan Annie" withthose blank eye pupils!\?

  6. Absolutely, I remember the Little Orphan Annie bit. Brilliant.

    As for the music deja vu, I had something similar happen in high school when I read Hamelt for the first time, and realized sections of it were on my "Original Broadway" recording of Hair. Good times...

  7. it was wunderful reading all these comments a major part of the baby boomers who grew up in NYC were these shows , and i am surprised no one commented on the condition of the TV's we watched them on, my father was always changing a tube

  8. Hi.
    I remember Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse coming on at 8AM (in NY) followed by "Billy Bang Bang and His Wild West Action..Show(?) at 8:25 (only a five minute installment). The Little Rascals came on at 8:30 until 9. Two episodes.
    But what about Diver Dan and that creepy space cartoon where nothing ever moved and they used real people's lips to talk?
    I also remember the Farmer Brown cartoons having early jazz as the soundtrack and still have one motif looping around in my head.
    Wish I could hear the music again to confirm.
    Thanks for a great post!

  9. I think "that creepy space cartoon" was Space Angel. I remember it well, though I probably haven't seen it in close to fifty years. Characters were Scott McCloud (aka space Angel), Crystal (I think that was her name), Professor Mace, and Taurus. Very limited animation, but real mouths were superimposed onto the drawn faces whenever a character spoke. I think the character design might have been by Alex Toth, but my memory is a bit hazy. Wouldn't mind seeing Space Angel again.

  10. I don't know if any of you watch the show "Svengoolie" which appears to be based out of Chicaqo, has a shock jock host who specializes in showing Sci-Fi and Horror films released by (or having the distribution rights to) Universal. One of the contributors to his blog has the User Name Tommy Seven. I figured he is a native New Yorker as I am. I looked for a website so I could throw some facts in his face about his screen name. I watched the show as a kid and remember it being on both day and night. I also remember the Little Rascals being on in the evening as well. I just found out that was hosted by "Uncle" Joe Bova. This does seem like an interesting web site that hasn't had too many recent postings. If I can figure out how to sign in. I can add additions to supplement this site by adding what I remember of the kid shows - or movie formats designed for kids - I remember from the early sixties

  11. I don't know if any of you are familiar with a show called "Svengoolie" which is based out of Chicago, has a "shock-jock" host and shows SCI-FI and horror films either made by Universal or films the studio owns the right to. One of the posters on his blog has the User Name Tommy Seven. I assume he is a Native New Yorker as I am. I wanted to be able to throw some facts about his screen name at him and found this site. I do recall the Tommy Seven show being on both day and night, as I did with the Little Rascals when it was hosted by "Uncle" Ben Bova.
    This seems like an interesting web site although it has not had many recent contributions. I'm going to add to it by writing about the kid shows (or movie formats designed for kids) on each of the NYC TV stations in the early 60s

  12. I use to get up on Saturday morning and watch The Modern Farmer, I lived in the city and just thought it would be great to live on a farm.

    Those shows bring back memories that kids today will never understand. The memories of what it was like growing up and going outside and playing every game imaginable with friends is something else kids today will not understand. Those old TV shows bring back such great memories too, I'm older and my days ahead are far less than those past, but I consider myself so lucky to have those yesterdays.

  13. loved all thoses 60s local kids shows in n.y.c. loved paul and jerry as well.but was hooked on soupy and got kicked out of ms. hornsby 1st grade class doing soupy sales stuff. but i remeber hyrer and meyer comedy duo. no one else ever heard of them.

  14. Does anyone know who performed that Little Orphan Annie song that Chuck McCann opened his Orphan Annie sketches with? I think it was some kind of girl group with lyrics like "Little orphan annie
    Didnt have a family
    .......lonely little girl
    she had so much hair all it did was curl"
    Can't find any trace of that song on the internet.