PBS // 2011 // 55 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // April 10th, 2011
"In television's first decades, local kids' programs shaped the childhoods of millions of American youngsters."
In an age where Nickelodeon, Toon Disney, and PBS Kids rule the airwaves for the 10 and under set, we've completely lost the once proud artistry of local kids television. It's sad, really. What was must-see morning and afternoon programming drawing upon amazing talents and regional idiosyncrasies, has since given way to fast food for the mind. But the echoes of that long dead art form lives on in the hearts and minds of those who grew up with it, and PBS' Pioneers of Television series is keeping that dream alive.
Narrated by Kelsey Grammar (Frasier), this particular installment tackles kids television from the dawn of the medium in the late 1940s through its ultimate demise in the early '80s. And while there are some notable omissions in this pedigree (e.g. Bob Keeshan's Captain Kangaroo, Bill Jackson's Dirty Dragon and Gigglesnort Hotel) the players and programs it does cover is done so with all the love and respect they deserve.
After all, these shows weren't designed to sell toys or sugar-laden breakfast cereal, they were pure entertainment that wanted nothing more than to make people laugh, kids and parents alike. There were no educational requirements, no focus groups examining every minute detail, and no talking down to the lowest common denominator. These amazing men and women understood that funny transcends age, background, and intelligence. What entertained them as performers would certainly do the same for their audience.
And what a lineup of performers they were...
Time for Beanie, Los Angeles, CA (1949-1954)
With the imminent death of the theatrical animated short, Warner Bros. animator/director Bob Clampett called on two of his favorite voice artists -- Stan Freberg and Daws Butler -- to dive into the new realm of television. His goal: Take the same approach used to create the adventures of Bugs Bunny and friends and infuse it into a puppet stage show that would air live five days a week. What to most was seemingly impossible task turned into a five year phenomenon drawing praise from kids, adults, and Albert Einstein (seriously!).
Sam & Friends, Washington DC (1955-1961)
Inspired by the unfiltered hilarity of Freberg and Butler, a young puppeteer by the name of Jim Henson was assembling his own band of merry men. Cutting his television teeth at age 16 working for Willard Scott on Farmer Willard, Jim -- alongside his then girlfriend Jane and longtime collaborator Jerry Juhl -- took the art form to an entirely new level. He was the first to use soft materials to create his characters and employed control rods to give their bodies more life. More importantly, he was the first to use the camera itself as a stage, leveraging the frame to create movement and depth unlike anything ever before seen. The show also gave birth to now legendary muppets Kermit and Rowlf, and caught the attention of Joan Ganz Cooney who recruited Jim's team to help create Sesame Street, the most successful and innovative national children's series of all time.
Wallace and Ladmo, Phoenix, AZ (1954-1989)
While puppetry was all the rage, comedians Bill Thompson and Pat McMahon set out to prove that live sketch shows could draw in just as large an audience, and boy were they right. Though most people outside of the American Southwest have never heard of Wallace and Ladmo, they remain generational legends to people of the region. As director Steven Spielberg says, "They were Second City before Second City," and they weren't just a one trick pony. A skit called "Hubcap and the Wheels" spoofing The Beatles was popular it spawned a single that rocketed to #1 on the Billboard charts and almost cancelled the show in favor of turning the team into real rock 'n rollers. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and franchise thrived for decades, even spawning a chain of fast food restaurants.
But it wasn't just the obscure performers who cornered this market. There are more than a few familiar names and faces who populated the genre before moving onto bigger projects...
Merv Griffin -- The Lucky Duck Show, Miami, FL
Ted Knight -- Children's Theater, Providence, RI
Soupy Sales -- The Soupy Sales Show, Detroit, MI
Adam West -- Kimi Popo Show, Honolulu, HI
Chuck McCann -- The Chuck McCann Show, New York, NY
Another interesting concept that spun out of this genre was that of franchising. Two shows in particular forged a path that would take a successful show from one market and replicate it throughout the country using a highly controlled business model.
Romper Room (1953-1994)
Created by the husband and wife team of Bert and Nancy Claster, this became the first franchised show for preschoolers and spawned more than a 100 regional variations, each host handpicked and trained by Nancy in her Baltimore studio. All of the scripts, songs, and activities were developed in-house and implemented with precision in each market, "The Clasters were very very strict on how all the Romper Room teachers needed to behave. How we dressed, how we talked, how we related to the children. Everything was based on a formula, and it was a very successful formula."
Bozo's Circus (1949-2001)
Based on a character the predated television and made his mark as a storytelling record, actor Larry Harmon bought the rights and turned him into an American institution. Like Romper Room, more than 100 different Bozo the Clowns graced the air waves, ultimately leaving its imprint on pop culture in three profound ways. Chicago was the crown jewel of the franchise, first with Bob Bell and later Joey D'auria, and remains an iconic figure long after the show ended its 40 year run. In fact, Bob's version of Bozo had such an impact on native Chicagoan Dan Castellaneta, that he became the template for The Simpsons's Krusty the Clown. And last but not least, at the show's peak in Washington DC, Willard Scott (yes, he did get around) did a Bozo appearance at a local McDonald's which resulted in unbridled pandemonium and a lucrative relationship between the two continued for many years to follow. In fact, the impact of this partnership was so great that when the show was cancelled, McDonald's CEO Ray Kroc hired Willard Scott to help create a new clown character to serve as the mascot for the restaurant...and thus Ronald McDonald was born.
There are many more shows and performers touched on in this 55-minute documentary, and suffice it to say this genre changed the face of television. Not only were the shows educating and entertaining kids, they opened a pandora's box to innovative advertising execs who used this captive audience as a powerful market segment. This darker side of children's TV lead advocate Peggy Charon created "ACTION for Children's Television" to prohibit selling products to kids, and inspired actor Bill Cosby to earn a PhD in education and create Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids to use the medium for what it did best. Nobody believed the show would work, and yet it became a landmark cornerstone in animated television history.
Ultimately, in the late 1970s, with changes in the financial structure of the industry, the shows became less profitable for local stations and the genre began to die out. But not before the impact these artists and their series had on the culture of America left an indelible mark on us all.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with standard Dolby 2.0 stereo, the documentary offers up a wide range of clips in varying degrees of quality. It's unfortunate we didn't have the foresight to capture more of these programs when they aired, but no one at the time thought what they were doing would affect us 50 and 60 years later. Sadly, there are no bonus materials, so you'll have to scour YouTube and other video resources -- like the Museum of Broadcast Communications or the Paley Center for the Media -- to satiate your curiosity.
Not the least bit guilty.
Review content copyright © 2011 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 55 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Museum of Broadcast Communications
* Paley Center for Media