Watching these shows was the most exciting—and funniest—thing Judge Christopher Kulik has ever done on a Saturday morning.
Strap yourselves down for the ultimate blast from the past!
I'm still laughing. I just cannot stop laughing. After watching 9.5 hours of children's shows from the late '40s to the early '60s, I have tears of streaming down on face…and they are not from nostalgic poignancy. Yes, call me easily amused. Hell, call me insane. But the Shout! Factory's box set Hiya Kids!! A '50s Saturday Morning will no doubt go down as 2008's funniest piece of digital dementia. Of course, the laughs come off as largely unintentional today, though that doesn't mean I didn't have great admiration and respect for these boob tube relics. Trust me when I say this is as old school as it gets.
If you want a taste of what the stone age of television was like, look no further than here. It's almost as if you jumped into a time machine and entered into a standard Nuclear Family's living room where some kids are excited by watching shows on a small screen. Of course, radio was the precursor, but television was the new, revolutionary thing. For those that grew up watching Smurfs, Saved By The Bell and He-Man on Saturday mornings, it's difficult to comprehend that shows like these were broadcast. However, they did, and the Shout! Factory lovingly presents them in their original, creaky, black-and-white medium. In this four disc box set, you will find one episode of each:
"Kukla, Fran and Ollie"—Hilarious from the first second to last, this show featured two puppets having a variety of debates and a woman named Fran (Allison). Sponsored by RCA Victor, this show was completely unscripted and filmed on the fly. The frequent pauses indicated that improvisation was the name of the game here and, somewhat unsurprisingly, it actually appealed more to adults than kids. Even Orson Welles was a fan!?
"Howdy Doody"—The one, the only, the original. I find it hard to believe that anyone hasn't heard of, let alone seen, this legendary show featuring Buffalo Bob Smith operating a marionette that would entertain all the children. I can't even imagine the anticipation children had when they screamed "It's Howdy Doody time!" This particular show had a fun story involving Howdy in "marble" debt and making a deal with Mr. Bluster to do an act as compensation.
"Lassie"—Do I really have to introduce the World's Most Famous Collie? This selection from the long-running, Emmy-winning program has Lassie attempting to find out who was responsible for destroying his owner's treehouse.
"Annie Oakley"—More escapist fun, with the focus now on the female sharpshooter who became a Western sensation. This show hardly fiddled with official history, though Gail Davis is absolutely charming in the title role.
"Flash Gordon"—Seriously low-budget production (lasting only a year) makes the famous serials look like Star Wars. The familiar characters of Flash, Dale Arden, Dr. Zarkov going back to Earth in 1954 and is faced with diffusing a nuclear bomb. Ming the Merciless is missed, though this is still a harmless excursion…and the acting is so bad you will be falling out of your seat!
"Ding Dong School"—Just when you think you've seen it all, welcome to Ding Dong School, where today its instructor will teach you how to blow bubbles.
"Time For Beany"—What's so unusual about a 200-foot giant white gorilla? (Cue cheesy organ music.) Find out as Beany and friends travel through Tim Buck Tooth, through Nothing Atoll, and arriving at the 5th corner of the Earth. Created by Bob Clampett (a Looney Tunes graduate), this show later morphed into Beany and Cecil show. Never mind the stupid plot, just sit back and watch these puppets go nuts in the jungle. Once they break into song, your sides will be hurting!
"The Paul Winchell Show"—While this ventriloquist is best known for his vocal performances as Tigger and Gargamel, he also had a successful show on TV featuring himself and dummy Jerry. Here, they entertain a young girl with jokes and songs. This show wasn't as juvenile as I expected; when Winchell asks Jerry if he thinks the girl is pretty, he responds: "Yeah, her mother ain't bad either!" Good fun.
"The Roy Rogers Show"—Whether you know the famous cowboy or his mouth-watering burgers, he remains a legend. One of the staples of 50s television, this episode has the gun blazin' hero kidnapped and forced to locate a missing horse. Also featuring his wife Dale Evans, his "golden palomino" Trigger, and his "wonder dog" Bullet. Happy Trails!
"Captain Z-RO"—Cheap and goofy, here's another show that has to be seen to be believed. Welcome to Earth, where the scientist Capt. Z-RO is conducting experiments with an assistant and a robot in an undisclosed location (the creator's basement, perhaps?). This show has the distinction of being more about educating children on history than staying faithful to the sci-fi genre. Still, it's howlingly hilarious stuff!
"The Rootie Kazootie Club"—Like Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, this is another show mixing people and puppets, though this one felt more scripted. Nevertheless, it's still fun, with the title character finding himself at the mercy of another evil puppet with a giant magnet.
"Winky Dink And You"—According to Bill Gates, this was the very first "interactive show." The idea is that juvenile viewers would get out their "winky dink kit" and color things in a "magic window"—a plastic sheet put on the television screen. Winky Dink was this weird little person in a picture given a voice; in this case, it's Mae Questel, who also did Betty Boop.
"Super Circus"—The title pretty much sums up this show set under the Big Top. I didn't find this one as amusing as the others, though the acrobatic talent on hand is certainly impressive.
"Andy's Gang"—Sort of a precursor to Reading Rainbow this show had host Andy Devine reading stories from a large book, which are then "re-enacted" for the kids watching. The story in this episode involves a young Indian boy, and it's sad to see all the Native Americans portrayed by white actors. That being said, this was the only show that truly turned me off, as the story itself was boring anyway. An orangutan is the only thing which livens things up near the end.
"The Cisco Kid"—The lone show on the set that's in color, this is a spin-off series of the 1945 feature The Cisco Kid Returns. Dubbed the "Robin Hood of the Old West," the Kid and his partner Pancho would fight corruption and ride all over the plains (with a limited water supply!). In this episode, they come to the aid of a beautiful redhead while looking for water and find themselves in a haunted ghost town. Another enjoyable gem.
"Sky King"—Odd, but original, show about a man named Schuyler "Sky" King, an aviator who would help people in trouble using his plane (named Songbird). Here, his assignment is to find the missing dog of a blind boy. This one had better production values than most, and was reasonably suspenseful, considering the dog is tracking a robber.
"The Magic Clown"—Another show filmed in front of a live audience, this one is split in two parts, each running fifteen minutes each. Generally, it would have a clown performing magic tricks for the kids. I found this one a lot better than the Super Circus, considering the fact the clowns here were much less creepy.
"Kids and Company"—Hosted by a man and a goose (acting like it is on acid), this variety show showcased children presenting their special talents on stage. Some would play bongos or the piano, while others would sing and dance. They would also reward kids who have done good things for society. Interesting, though the poor visual quality makes it difficult to watch.
"Juvenile Jury"—The laughs return here in full force. Featuring the same host as "Winky Dink and You," Jack Barry, this featured kids responding to simple problems, and the answers are hardly copasetic solutions. One of the best of the set, and not just because the sponsors are Geritol and Geritol Junior.
"The Pinky Lee Show"—The title character is a vaudeville comic who would numerous acts for a studio audience, and his antics were more than amusing. Tidbits include Pinky losing his popsicle, imagining he's a private eye, and being jinxed after buying a telescope.
"Sheena, Queen of the Jungle"—Sexy Irish McCalla plays Sheena, the jungle girl living in Kenya. She may not have been an actress (she was actually a former model) though she displayed much more talent than Tanya Roberts. Despite the African stereotypes, this is a fun adventure show which surely attracted kids and their fathers. Oddly, it only lasted for one season.
This box set is a genuine delight from start to finish, despite some dated stuff. Normally, I would complain about the audio and visual qualities of old television shows like this, though the Shout! Factory no doubt had no choice but to distribute these with a googol of problems. Every kind of damage and anomaly you can imagine are present here. The audio has its fair share of flaws, as well, though it's significantly better in its original mono presentation. No bonus features, not counting a booklet describing all the shows in more detail. However, Shout! Factory makes up for that with dozens of original commercials, which are just as hilarious as the shows themselves. Everything from Three Musketeers bars to Turkish taffy served as sponsors.
What can I say? The verdict is not guilty, and despite the poor visual quality, the Shout! Factory is fully acquitted for releasing these forgotten classics. Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• 16-Page Booklet
• IMDb: Kukla, Fran and Ollie
Review content copyright © 2008 Christopher Kulik; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.