He was the star of what is sometimes called the first interactive video game. A whole generation of children loved following his weekly antics. His name was Winky Dink, and he was anything but rinky dink.
He was before my time, though. I grew up watching 1970s Chicago kids’ TV – BJ and the Dirty Dragon, Ray Rayner, and Garfield Goose. Classics all! But Winky Dink is of my mother’s generation – the 1950s. She always maintained that the shows of Messrs. Dragon, Rayner, and Goose couldn’t hold a candle to the show on which her childhood hero starred, Winky Dink and You.
The premise, she explained, was that spritely Winky Dink loved to play games, tell stories, and have adventures, and he invited the kids in the audience to participate. So if Winky Dink needed a boat to cross a stream, he’d ask his viewers to draw a boat for him right on the TV screen. Well, not directly on the TV screen, but on a transparent plastic sheet that clung to the screen. A kid needed just 50 cents to own a Winky Dink Kit with that sheet and special crayons that could mark on it. Mom said she never had the coins and so couldn’t play along, but still enjoyed the show.
I love my mom, but the whole premise seemed so implausible that I doubted that the show was real. Then recently I came upon an entire episode of the show on YouTube, and Mom happened to be in my house at that moment. I found myself eating some crow.
I also found that the program was hosted by Jack Barry, who I knew as the host of the game show The Joker’s Wild. I always thought he was mean looking, the kind of guy you didn’t want to encounter in a dark alley. But he was downright avuncular on Winky Dink and You. Mom says she liked it as a child that he didn’t talk down to his viewers, as was the style of so many children’s hosts of the day. I guess Jack really liked doing shows for children, as he did two others: Juvenile Jury in the early 1950s, and a version of The Joker’s Wild called Joker! Joker! Joker! in the early 1980s.
Both Jack and Mae feature prominently in this clip from the show.
Winky Dink and You aired on CBS from 1953 to 1957. The show was still popular when it left the air, but Jack Barry had become busy hosting quiz shows, including the ill-fated Twenty One. Moreover, parents had long expressed concern about their children being so close to the screen during the show, claiming it was hard on their eyes and might expose them to radiation, a common fear then. Also, many parents surely cursed poor Winky Dink when their children drew on the screen without benefit of the plastic sheet. My mom never did that, though; she was a good girl. But she still wishes she could have afforded her own Winky Dink Kit.