Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Garfield Goose and Frazier Thomas

Even in the 1970s, children’s television could be frenetic. Frazier Thomas and his friend, puppet Garfield Goose, were the gentle antidote.

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A pleasant morning breeze upon the children’s TV landscape, Garfield Goose and Friends aired each weekday at 8 AM on WGN-TV in Chicago. The premise was that Garfield Goose thought he was the king of the United States, and he appointed Frazier Thomas as Admiral of the King’s Navy.

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Friends Beauregard Burnside III, Chris Goose, Romberg Rabbit, and Macintosh Mouse often joined Frazier and Garfield in the fun. Once in a while, even Garfield’s mom appeared! Garfield was non-verbal; his only noise was his flapping bill, yet Frazier somehow always understood him. Here’s how the show began one morning in 1971. The show was in color, but someone recorded this on an early black-and-white home video recorder.

The theme song is “Monkey on a String” by organist Ethel Smith. As it ends, you see pure Frazier Thomas, interacting both with the puppets and his young viewers. As a small boy, I was drawn in by this adult — a man my grandfather’s age — who talked to me like a friend. That happened nowhere else on children’s TV. It was typical for Frazier to read letters that young viewers wrote, and to share crafts the youngsters sent in. Once in a while, Frazier would invite a young viewer to appear on the program to show off their hobby. You can see one such clip, in color, at this link. It shows Frazier’s genuine interest in his viewers’ hobbies.

Between bits, Frazier and Garfield showed cartoons. I have a dim memory of seeing Augie Doggie cartoons on the show, and something called The Funny Company. But more than anything else, I remember watching Clutch Cargo, an adventure cartoon of sorts. Calling it a cartoon was a stretch, actually, as it was mostly a series of drawn stills. But it was just weird, because when the characters spoke, moving human mouths were superimposed on the drawings. I never liked Clutch Cargo very much. This video shows a full, color open to the show, and then a few Clutch Cargo cartoons.

Chicago was just far enough away from my South Bend childhood home that we couldn’t pick it up over the air. Cable television was in its infancy.  In South Bend, it was nothing more than an antenna on the tallest hill in town, connected to subscribing homes via coaxial cable, providing television stations from Chicago. It cost about $3 per month then, and Dad paid it so he could watch his beloved White Sox. And so I watched Garfield Goose late in its run, from 1972 to 1976. I wasn’t able to see it every day, as I had to be off to school just after it started. But I watched it during the summers and when I was home sick or on break.

But it turns out that Garfield Goose and Friends was the longest-running children’s puppet TV show in history. It went on the air in 1952, first on WBKB (now WLS) and then on WBBM before finding a permanent home on WGN.

But Frazier created Garfield even earlier, while working for a television station in Cincinnati. He started there in radio in about 1940, and moved to television during its infancy in 1948. After he moved to Chicago, he hosted all manner of programs before settling into his role entertaining children and families. Not only did he host Garfield Goose and Friends, but he also hosted a Sunday-afternoon program called Family Classics, on which he showed family-friendly films he selected and edited for broadcast himself.

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By 1976, the children’s television landscape had shifted away from the 1950s style of Garfield Goose and Friends. WGN cancelled the show in September and appointed Frazier to replace retiring Ringmaster Ned on Bozo’s Circus, another WGN kid’s show. Garfield Goose came along; the premise was that Garfield had bought the circus. I never thought the fast-paced, buffoonish Bozo show suited Frazier’s calm, warm personality. But by then, my family had given up cable, and I never saw Frazier Thomas on TV again.

Frazier Thomas died in 1985, aged 66.

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: ABC’s AM America and Monty Python

A post from 2008, retold.

What would happen if Monty Python hosted a morning television news program?

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It actually happened once. In 1975, ABC debuted AM America, its first morning news show. At about the same time, Monty Python released their seminal film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and were, I’m sure, looking for promotional opportunities. Somebody at ABC thought it might be amusing to have Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam sit at the anchor desk for an hour. Here it is, with all the pesky news bits clipped out for maximum Pythonage.

I think the best parts of this clip are the looks on Peter Jennings’ face and at the end when Eric, Michael, and Graham carry host Stephanie Edwards away and then dismantle the set.

If you don’t remember AM America, it’s because it was canned after ten months. Clearly, Monty Python’s antics did not help AM America catch on.

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Stories Told, Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Card Sharks

It was a simple high-low card game, played out on TV for everyone at home. But it was good fun, and it always reminds me of my grandmother. It was Card Sharks, and it aired on NBC from 1978 to 1981.

CardSharks

My grandma used to tell me stories of her grandfather, a sign painter by trade and, according to her, a brilliant poker player. While her dad and his buddies played, she’d serve the drinks and empty the ashtrays — and watch her daddy carefully, trying to figure out his secrets.

Maybe it was her close study, maybe it was genetics, but Grandma had an almost supernatural ability to know which card was next in any deck. When I’d visit my grandma, we often watched game shows together. When Card Sharks came on, she watched especially closely. And frequently, when a contestant would be sitting on a four of hearts and holler “Higher!” — Grandma would holler right back, “No! It’s a black two!” You would have done well to lay bets on those exclamations, because she was almost always right.

Here’s the first ever episode of Card Sharks, from 1978.

From my collection, here’s the Card Sharks theme “in the clear,” as they say, meaning you’ll hear the whole theme start to finish without any voiceovers.

By the way, if you ever encounter me in a poker game, I warn you: my grandma taught me how to play!

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: The CBS Late Movie

I mentioned this post recently here and decided it’s high time to rerun it. It’s an oldie, originally published in August, 2008.

Starting in the late ’70s, my brother and I got sent to Camp Grandma in southwestern Michigan for a couple weeks every summer. The rules were extremely relaxed at Camp Grandma. Pepsi and Vernors and root beer flowed freely, and Grandma always bought Pringles and Lucky Charms and Slim Jims and all sorts of other junk food we got very little of at home.

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Me at Camp Grandma, 1977

We’d sit up late with our grandparents every night, playing penny-ante poker or Kismet and listening to their stories of the Depression and the fabulous 1950s until Grandma’s Gallo wine (from the gallon jug with the screw cap) and Grandpa’s Pabst Blue Ribbon got the better of them. Then my brother and I would roll out sleeping bags in front of the TV and watch until all the stations had signed off. Those were great days.

The late-night-TV pickings were slim then. The networks gave it up at 12:30 or 1 a.m. and most of their stations just signed off. WKZO, Channel 3 in Kalamazoo, sometimes ran a late show. If skies were clear and Grandpa’s antenna rotator was working, we’d try to bring in independent WUHQ, Channel 41 from Battle Creek; they almost always had a late show. Weather and antenna usually determined our bedtime, actually! Once or twice we were still watching TV when Grandpa made his way to the coffee pot at 5:30.

We always looked forward to the CBS Late Movie, which started right after the news. It ran lots of B movies in the mid 70s, including monster movies on Friday nights. But by the late 70s, the CBS Late Movie showed more and more crime-drama reruns, which were sped up by 10 percent and crammed so full of commercials that the shows ran 70 minutes instead of 60. We preferred the movies, but could be happy with good action and suspense in Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, M.E., or Kolchak: the Night Stalker.

What made the CBS Late Movie so cool was its open and bumpers. The opening theme’s vigorous horns triggered anticipation of gritty drama to come. The colors in the star and spinning wheel popped against the black background, and there was nothing like it in prime time. Here’s how the program opened one night late in August, 1982.

Because this bumper was transferred from the 35 mm masters, you can see how colorful these elements were. This particular bumper was used in and out of commercials, and the announcer would say either “We will return to” or “We now return to” followed by the movie name and its stars. The music sounded lonesome, which seemed appropriate for watching in the dark in the middle of nowhere, as we did.

The CBS Late Movie theme is called So Old, So Young, composed by Morton Stevens, who wrote lots of television music in his time. Here it is, from my collection.

In the summer of 1985, the CBS Late Movie ditched these elements for CBS’s then-current prime-time movie look and theme. The program was also renamed to CBS Late Night. David Letterman, filled with mock indignation over the slight to his program, then on NBC and also named Late Night, called CBS during his program one night, demanding to know why they were infringing on his territory. I saw that bit back then, and it made me laugh. That almost made up for losing that classic theme and graphics. At least until YouTube brought them back.

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Freakies

It was a sugar-sweetened cereal for kids. But the cartoony characters that advertised them connected with young viewers in new way, at least for the early 1970s. My mom was not usually a sucker for TV commercials aimed at kids, but she fell hook, line, and sinker for the Freakies. And so we ate Freakies until they were coming out of our ears. I remember them being “good,” in the way any young child finds pretty much any sugar-sweetened cereal to be good. But more than that, the Freakies had a backstory, narrated by no less than Burgess Meredith.

These were the days of toys being packed inside the boxes of cereals aimed at kids. All kinds of crazy stuff came packed in cereal boxes. I remember one cereal — was it Cap’n Crunch? — giving away reflectors to attach to bicycle spokes. Frosted Mini Wheats gave away trading cards of the Presidents of the United States. I had a complete set of them for years. I didn’t eat all those Mini Wheats; Mom sent a dollar to Kellogg’s and they sent a whole deck. But once again the Freakies were different: they gave away only toys related to the Freakies characters.

I had the plastic Freakie figurines and the Freakie refrigerator magnets, complete sets. The figurines didn’t survive childhood, but the magnets lasted into adulthood. When my wife divorced me, they were on our refrigerator. She kept them.

Snorkeldorf was my favorite Freakie. He’s the one with the long, elephant-like snout. The rest of them were Hamhose, Gargle, Cowmumble, Grumble, and Goody-Goody, led of course by BossMoss.

I wish I still had my Freakies magnets.

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Beany and Cecil

Have you ever had a childhood memory so dim and sparse that you wondered if you had dreamed it? I’ve had a few. Sometimes I’ll encounter something that cracks such a memory open.

Here’s one. In college thirty years ago, I built a collection of Paul McCartney vinyl. One day I bought a 45 of the song Another Day, a song I didn’t think I knew. But when I played the record I was suddenly three years old, at breakfast in my mother’s kitchen. I could see everything clearly. The kitchen table was covered in dark simulated woodgrain laminate with a brown plastic edge and brown steel tubes for legs. My high-backed chair was covered in vinyl with a loud green floral pattern. The fridge stood in the corner, its long chrome door handle like a giant upside-down T. A white plastic table radio sat atop the fridge, tuned to an AM station that played this song every morning while it was a hit. Transported, I played the song over and over that college afternoon, enjoying the remembered connection.

While Another Day had slipped entirely from memory, a particular cartoon sea serpent had not, at least not entirely. I clearly remembered the main character’s lisp: Theethil the Thee-Thick Thea Therpent. So I was excited to find this clip of the show’s open on YouTube the other day:

My brother was over the other day and I showed this to him. “Of course I remember it,” he said. “You wouldn’t quit saying ‘Nyah-ah-ahh’ over and over again! You did it for years! I wanted to pummel you!” I felt my brain pop with the recalled memory. It was the villain Dishonest John’s signature laugh! I adopted it as my own until I was 9 or 10! How could I forget? Here’s an entire Beany and Cecil cartoon with plenty of Dishonest John nyah-ah-ahhing:

Beany and Cecil were created by Bob Clampett, who animated the craziest Warner Brothers cartoons. (Side trip: On his blog, John Kricfalusi, creator of the cartoon Ren and Stimpy, deconstructs several of Clampett’s WB cartoons and reveals the man’s genius. See those posts here.) Clampett first created Beany and Cecil as puppets, Cecil just a sock with eyes glued on. In 1949, these puppets became a huge hit on TV in Los Angeles. Albert Einstein is said to have been a fan. In 1959, Clampett animated these characters for theatrical cartoons in foreign markets. In 1962, ABC started running the cartoons in prime time and got Clampett to make more of them. The cartoons ran on ABC until 1967 and in syndication through the early 1970s.

I learned recently from the FuzzyMemories forum that the BJ and the Dirty Dragon Show on WFLD in Chicago showed Beany and Cecil cartoons, and that’s where I must have watched them. The Dirty Dragon finished his run on WFLD in July, 1973, which was about six months after we got cable and could have seen the show. Moreover, it was on at noon, meaning we could watch only during the summer. So after watching Beany and Cecil cartoons for maybe four weeks that summer, I then annoyed my brother for four years repeating Dishonest John’s laugh.

Righteous.

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