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The Clown Prince of Chicago Kiddie TV: Part 1

Built out of little more than the simple "Hey, someone's got a barn so let's put on a show" idea that drove quite a few films of the World War II era, locally-produced kiddie TV of the 1950s and 1960s created magic on the cheap out of clowns, cloth hand puppets, big hunks of clay, and animation considered even then to be ancient or just plain awful. Almost every TV market large and small had their own kiddie TV shows, created and staged at any number of local stations, with their own unique and memorable hosts.

Those hosts were talented, creative station employees who often ended up as a matter of course working as supporting players on other programs at their stations - and by some accounts weren't paid as handsomely as we might think. Still, they became icons, keeping us company before school, after school, and when we were stuck at home on sick days and snow days. They became inseparable fabrics of our kid lives, created right here in Chicago.

Bill Jackson was one of those people, one who saw first-hand the heyday and then the slow, painful erosion of local TV production. A native of Missouri born to parents steeped in traveling-carnival life, Jackson helped put Chicago's WFLD-TV on the map with Cartoon Town with Bill Jackson, later renamed The B.J. and Dirty Dragon Show. The background of Chicago kiddie TV and Jackson's role in it is too extensive to go into here, so you can start here. He would go on to create and syndicate the Emmy-winning Gigglesnort Hotel at WLS-TV, but by the time that show was canceled in 1978 after three seasons, original locally-produced kiddie TV was all but dead in Chicago.

Today, Jackson may be the last surviving, instantly-recognizable Chicago kiddie-TV icon. Ray Rayner, Bob "Bozo" Bell, Ned "Ringmaster Ned" Locke, Frazier "Garfield Goose" Thomas have been dead for years. Hosts of other popular Chicago-produced shows ("Miss Beverly" Marston-Braun of Romper Room, Debra Wuerfel of Treetop House, Charles "Tiny Tov" Gerber of The Magic Door) and a supporting player or two may still be around, but their names are not quickly recognizable unless you associate them with their shows.

The following interview took place via a two-part e-mail exchange and will be presented here in three parts. The initial and follow-up questions and their answers appear as they were asked and answered; their order has been rearranged in some cases to provide continuity and context.

Beachwood: Your Wikipedia entry says you live quietly in California. How accurate is that?

Jackson: Quite accurate. My environment is peaceful and I do not rant, shout, yodel, or froth at the mouth (well, there was last Saturday night, but what the hey?).

Beachwood: Children's TV host: Job or an adventure?

Jackson: Always an adventure. The challenge to be entertaining every day compares to performing a high-wire act. Skip lightly across the wire and the audience cheers. Trip and fall off the wire and the ringmaster yells, "Next!"

Beachwood: Other than Joey D'Auria (Bob Bell's successor as Bozo in 1984) and maybe Marshall Brodien (Bozo's Wizzo the Wizzard), you're the last major, recognizable icon from Chicago children's TV (as I remember it between roughly 1962 and 1978) who's still alive. How scary is *that*?

Jackson: Scary, no, but sobering, yes. When I came to Chicago I had just turned 30, which made me probably about 10 to 15 years younger than the established pros in town. I do not have to ask for whom the bell tolls next.

Beachwood: TV clowns were big during the 1950s and early 1960s, and you broke into Chicago kiddie TV as a clown as well. What's the upside and downside to being a TV clown?

Jackson: Well, for me the upside was that taking the role got me to Chicago. WBBM-TV's management selected me to host the station's token offering to the FCC's demand for educational and/or worthwhile children's programming. The downside was twofold: Programmers are more apt to be guided by the success of others rather than an imaginative new show. Bozo's success convinced management that a clown show would be the most popular and so required me to wear a red wig and baggy pants even though my prior success had been being myself, which in looks meant sometimes being mistaken for Dickie Smothers.

I gave baggy pants my best shot, but the second downside was that this very early morning show was programmed to start five minutes past the half hour and ended five minutes before the hour. Since most potential viewers select their shows straight up on the hour or half-hour, and my lead-in was The Farm Report. I was the best kept secret in broadcasting. The station manager felt bad about letting me go and allowed me to shoot a pilot before my departure, a truly generous gift since the use of a TV studio, facilities, and crew costs a fortune. The pilot, done as myself, plus enthusiastic lobbying by June Borkowski, my Clown Alley producer, led to my being hired by WFLD-TV.

Beachwood: Back in the day, when it first powered up, WFLD-TV brought you in to go up against Garfield Goose and Friends. That was a tough act to go up against. What kind of expectations did you have - and more so, what expectations did the station management have - for your show to be considered successful enough against Garfield to continue?

Jackson: For the answer to what kind of expectations I had, see the answer to question two. I greatly admired Frazier Thomas' presence and Roy Brown's puppetry, but I had no intention of copying their styles. I immediately pushed for all the production capability the station could provide, and Cliff Braun, who, unlike most other program directors, actually had studio experience, backed my approach in a roll of the dice that paid off for both the station and me.

Beachwood: The owners of WFLD-TV were allegedly notorious for being cheap. How did you manage to work around that in terms of creating new material, sets, and characters? And if you don't mind answering this one, how much could a local TV icon pull in during those days?

Jackson: The crew was flat-out dedicated, very proud of the shows, and pleased with the production pulled off despite time restraints and almost non-existent budgets.

Here's an example: We were shooting a scene for one of the serials. I think it was "Dirty Dragon Meets the Monsters." Now, we shot live on tape, meaning no turning back, no corrections, you lived with what you got. The segment was a doozie. Multiple sets. Roll tape! The director hit the shots right on the money. The audio engineer feverishly controlled microphone volume, brought in mood music, and nailed a multitude of sound effects precisely on cue. Camera operators swiveled, dollied, trucked, framed, focused, and always, always kept the puppeteers heads out of the shots. And the puppeteers. The puppeteers, myself included, became a frenzy of bodies rushing from set to set, hitting marks, grabbing up a puppet, lip-synching the dialogue, tossing down that character and rushing for the next. When the scene ended, the studio resembled the remains of a battle field; a haze of smoke lingering over the sets; puppets strewn like dead bodies, their operators sitting in a panting daze; camera operators drooped against their machines; the audio operator face down over his console, and the director silent and staring wide-eyed at the screen. Bobby Walker, a Kentucky-born stagehand, rose from the desolation and called, "Well, Mayor, whadduyah think?" In my understated, Missouri way I replied, "That was pretty good." Walker rushed to the middle of the studio and yelled, "You hear that? B.J. thinks that was pretty good! That means it was BY GOD SENSATIONAL!" And the crew was.

Salaries? Children's television paid according to how much fun you had. The more fun you had, the less you were paid. I had a ball.

Beachwood: As far as salary, I was thinking more along the lines of an actual dollar figure. General ballpark. After all, a guy from Missouri in his 30s with a family to support can't just eat fun, and I can't imagine you making the same $2.50 an hour as the supermarket bagger down the street.

Jackson: I didn't just eat fun, but I prefer not to talk money. I have no idea of my peers' salaries, but my impression was that the salaries of Chicago kid show hosts fell far below that of newscasters, weathermen, and talk show hosts, and that definitely was the case for me.


Part 2: Twinkies and the FCC.

Part 3: Sideburns and carnivals.


Comments welcome.


Posted on April 27, 2010

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