Vintage TV: Winky Dink and You

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.

Winky Dink

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.

Drawing on the screen

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.

I also learned that Winky Dink was voiced by none other than Mae Questel. I’m a big fan of the old theatrical cartoon shorts and enjoyed her work as the voice of both Betty Boop and Olive Oyl.

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.


11 responses to “Vintage TV: Winky Dink and You”

  1. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    Yeah, the moment you said kids drew on the screen, the alarm bells went off. 50¢ profits or no, who didn’t see the likely outcome of that idea? :)

    I thought it was interesting that you mom noticed that Jack didn’t talk down to the kids. That was one of the things I really didn’t like about Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers was a great educator, but he had this way of addressing the audience that, even when I was 5 or 6, seemed kind of patronizing… like you couldn’t possibly keep up with what he was saying if he talked like any other adult in your life, or if he moved off-centre even a little from 5 emotionally to 4 or 6, you’d freak out.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I always had the impression that Fred Rogers was who he was on his show — he always talked like that!

      My mom watched Chicago TV as a girl in the 1950s. Her family had a TV set by 1951. Television produced in Chicago had its own style — they called it the “Chicago school.” The kid show hosts from that time, for the most part, seemed to be cut from the same cloth, at least those I’ve seen. They liked to pretend to have a conversation with the viewer, but it always ended up sounding cloying. Here’s a typical example.

  2. Denny Gibson Avatar

    Good post. As you’ve undoubtedly guessed, I have fond memories of Winky Dink. We did eventually get a kit but it wasn’t new. Possibly from a yard sale of a hand-me-down from a better off cousin. Some (maybe most) of the magic crayons were missing. Before that, I think we tried the recently introduced Saran Wrap and regular crayons. Of course, getting the Saran Wrap from Mom wasn’t all that easy (“This stuff doesn’t grow on trees.”) and I think she tested a tiny piece on a corner of the screen to be sure it would come off.

    Last Saturday, I was talking with a not overpaid bartender who had spent about 6 hours getting a Black Friday $70 deal on a game console for her son. I don’t know which one but she said it would normally be around $200. Not only does the 50 cents vs. 70 (or 200) dollars say something about inflation, it says a whole lot about parenting. Kids today wouldn’t even think about marking on a TV screen though quite a few seem to get great pleasure from marking on bridges, buildings, subway cars. Progress? Don’t think so.

    And the Saran Wrap didn’t even come close to working.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Denny, I gather that lack of funds kept many children from the full pleasure of Winky Dink. But at least you got a used kit.

      A major difference between a video game console and Winky Dink and You is that you can play the console anytime you want — but Winky Dink was on once a week for a half hour!

  3. Nancy [ Roe ] Stewart Avatar
    Nancy [ Roe ] Stewart

    I don’t remember Winky Dink at all I guess because we didn’t get a television until probably 1958-59. We were farmers and Iguess my Dad figured we were too busy to be watching television. I remember listening to the other kids on the school bus talking about what happened on Gunsmoke the night before. That’s the one I wanted to see and when we finally convinced Dad to get a set I never missed an episode and it remaind my favorite show until it went off the air in 1975. From the old Chicago shows I remember Hardrock,Coco and Joe and Suzy Snowflake at Christmas. I grew up listening to the old radio shows many of which went on to become television shows later. My dad and I would always listen to the Gillette Saturday night fights[boxing]. I also remember listening to the national elections when they would go down the roll call of each state. Of course my mother had her radio soap operas that she listened to . Incidently, I just remembered my cousin Mary was one of the first Romper Room ladies in Chicago. She was about 8 years older than me. Of course I never saw her on the show because we DIDN’T have a T.V.!!!!!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Nancy, what a hoot that your cousin was a Romper Room lady. Was this her?

      It’s hard to imagine now that television wasn’t in every household through the 1950s. My mom’s parents bought all the latest gadgets (and had the debt to prove it), so they had TV from 1951. My dad’s family wasn’t as well to do and Dad said they didn’t have TV until much later.

      I wrote about Hardrock, Coco, and Joe, and Suzy Snowflake, last year: I guess WGN still shows these shorts every year at Thanksgiving.

  4. Chris Rowland Avatar
    Chris Rowland

    My dad still has his Winky Dink sheet and crayon, and he broke it out about six months ago and we used it for a vintage episode that he had recorded. It was kind of funny how the greenish sheet was so tiny compared to my dad’s gigantic television. The episode that we ‘participated in’, I think we had to draw a car for Winky Dink.

    1. Jim Avatar

      In the 50s, a 21″ screen was considered very large — today, that’s a small screen, the kind you put in your bedroom maybe!

      1. Denny Gibson Avatar

        Chris: Can you tell us the size of that sheet? As Jim suggests, 21″ was probably about the upper limit and I’m thinking that 19″ might be about right.

  5. Nancy [ Roe ] Stewart Avatar
    Nancy [ Roe ] Stewart

    My cousins name is Mary Lee and I’m not sure where she was at that time. I just remember the older folks talking about it. since she was so much older than I was I didn’t pay a lot of attention. I just she was a graduate of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Illinois way down south where my family is from. Not sure how long she did it.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Nancy, I didn’t know you were from southern Illinois! At any rate, how neat that your family has this claim to fame.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.