One of my absolute favorite shows as a kid was Gumby, a trippy, somewhat surreal series filmed using stop motion clay animation.There were 233 episodes of the show produced over the course of its 40-year history on TV, all featuring the green clay robot-like little boy with the big feet and slanted head, and his sidekick Pokey, a talking pony.
Created by animator Art Clokey, who developed the unique style of claymation later used in the series while he was a student at the University of Southern California, Gumby made its debut as a short segment on the Howdy Doody Show in 1956 and became a series on NBC the following year.Production on this version of the show continued through the late 60’s.In the 1980’s, the original Gumby episodes enjoyed a revival on TV and home video, which led to production of a new version of the series for syndication.
Besides Pokey, other characters regularly featured in the series were the Blockheads, a duo of red humanoid figures with block-shaped heads, who always created mischief and mayhem; Gumby’s parents Gumba and Gumbo, and later his sister, Minga; Prickle, a yellow dragon; Goo, a flying blue mermaid; Tilly, a chicken; and Denali, a mastadon.
What made the series visually unique was that Clokey didn’t disguise the fact that his characters were made out of clay or try too hard to make the characters and settings look realistic.Instead, each episode highlighted how the characters could melt into various shapes and then reconfigure back to their original forms.The settings for the show were little toy houses and villages, and Gumby and the other characters were like toy figures brought to life.Many of the episodes included a sequence in which Gumby and Pokey would physically slip into a book and then have an adventure in the world of the book’s story.
There was something about the primitive look of the animation and the way that Gumby and the other characters seemed like clay figures made by a child and brought to life to play out a child’s imaginary stories that delighted and entranced me as a young viewer.Gumby’s personality seemed very much like that of a real child, but he existed in a surreal, magical world where anything could happen.I think there is something about that combination that made Gumby so fascinating to so many generations of kids and adults.
It was always a beautiful day in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as Mister Rogers entered his TV set house singing the show’s theme song, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” He would hang up his coat and put on his cardigan sweater, take off his shoes and put on his sneakers, and settle in to talk directly to his young viewers.
Debuting on the National Educational Television network (the predecessor to PBS) in 1968, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the longest-running series in PBS history when it went off the air in 2001 (though its record was later surpassed by Sesame Street).With his gentle and calming manner, Fred Rogers entertained, educated, and reassured several generations of preschoolers, becoming one of the most beloved and iconic figures on television.His sweater even ended up in the Smithsonian Museum.
Like its host, the show was characterized by its quiet simplicity and gentle pace.Mister Rogers would talk to his viewers about all sorts of issues that might be on their minds, from fears about going to sleep or going to the doctor, to disappointment about not getting one's way, to experiencing the death of a loved one.He would sometimes take viewers on visits to shops and factories in his “neighborhood,” demonstrate crafts or experiments, sing songs or listen to music, and interact with a cast of guests and regular characters, including delivery man Mr. McFeely, Neighbor Aber, Lady Aberlin, Chef Brockett, Officer Clemmons, Mrs. McFeely, Handy Man Negri, and Emily the Poetry Lady.
At the start of each show, a little scale-model trolley was seen chugging along a track through the neighborhood. The little trolley would reappear later in the show to indicate the transition from the realistic world to the fantasy world of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which was populated by puppet characters like King Friday the Thirteenth, Lady Elaine Fairchild and Daniel Striped Tiger.Mister Rogers would usually talk explicitly about this transition, sometimes telling the audience what was going to happen and making it clear that it was all make-believe. This clear delineation between reality and fantasy contrasted with other PBS children’s shows like Sesame Street, where realistic and imaginary elements seamlessly blended together.
The jazz-inspired piano music on the show was also notable. Played live during each program's taping, It had a lovely simplicity and flow that accompanied and harmonized with the sketches, almost like another character on the show. The piano was also heard during the many songs that Fred Rogers performed on the program, with lyrics that he wrote himself.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood didn’t talk down to its young viewers, and the series addressed some difficult issues over the years, like competition, divorce, illness, and war.On more than a few occasions, Rogers talked about anger and how to handle angry feelings without hurting others.One of the most famous episodes in the series was broadcast in March 1970, when Rogers talked about the death of his pet goldfish.In November 1983, when ABC showed the futuristic made-for-TV movie The Day After, which dramatized the aftermath of a nuclear war, Mister Rogers aired a week-long series of episodes about war, bombs, and the arms race, designed to help children cope with the after-effects of the TV movie.
Sadly, Soupy Sales passed away yesterday at the age of 83 (obituary in the New York Times today). As my previous post about him noted, Soupy became an icon of children's TV in the 1950's and 1960's. Soupy was the master of pie-throwing (or should I say pie-receiving), and by his own count some 20,000 pies were thrown at Soupy's face or those of his guests on Soupy's shows (incuding Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Jerry Lewis). But Soupy was much more than a slapstick artist. He combined and transmogrified the standard elements of previous children's shows -- puppets, music, clowning, and vaudeville antics -- into a zany, largely unscripted new blend that appealed to children, teens, college students, and adults alike. Lunch with Soupy Sales wasn't just a TV show but more like a hip club that made viewers feel as if they were insiders to something very cool and crazy. In the words of one 13-year-old Soupy fan, as quoted in the New York Times, "He's great, he's a nut like us."
“Captain Video! Electronic wizard! Master of time and space! Guardian of the safety of the world! Fighting for law and order, Captain Video operates from a mountain retreat with secret agents at all points of the globe. Possessing scientific secrets and scientific weapons, Captain Video asks no quarter and gives none to the forces of evil. Stand by for Captain Video and his Video Rangers!”
These are the words that viewers heard at the start of each episode of Captain Video and His Video Rangers, the first science fiction space adventure series on TV.Captain Video ran 5-6 days a week at 7pm on the now-defunct Dumont Network from 1949 to 1955, and was extremely popular with both children and adults.Set in the distant future on a secret mountain-top retreat, the series followed the adventures of Captain Video, leader of the Video Rangers, a group of fighters for truth and justice, as they battled evil scientists and other nefarious villains throughout the solar system.
Programmed as a continuing serial, Captain Video employed many of the early staples of children's programming, like the inclusion of inexpensive film clips and pointed moral lessons, but it also capitalized on the growing public fascination with science and space. The show was live and technically demanding, using the new technology of television, like dissolves, superimpositions, and other crude effects to place Captain Video in fantasy surroundings and allow him to travel through space and time.
Besides fighting for truth and justice, Captain Video was a technological genius who invented a variety of communications devices, like the Opticon Scillometer, a long-range, X-ray machine used to see through walls; the Discatron, a portable television screen which served as an intercom; and the Radio Scillograph, a palm-sized, two-way radio. Captain Video's weapons were also futuristic inventions that were not designed to kill but to capture his opponents, like the Cosmic Ray Vibrator, a static beam of electricity that temporarily paralyzed its target, and the Electronic Strait Jacket, which placed captives in invisible restraints. Captain Video's pro-social uses of science and technology contrasted with the evil purposes to which science was put by such villains as Dr. Pauli, a genius inventor who dressed in gangster-like pinstripe suits and spoke with a Nazi or Soviet-accented snarl.
Without the luxury of video tape and editing, the show’s scripts included a lot of exposition to set up short action scenes.To pick up the pace and allow time for the crew to change sets and prepare special effects, at some point each episode would have Captain Video or a Video Ranger communications officer at Ranger Headaquarters show short action-filled clips from cowboy movies, described as the adventures of Captain Video’s undercover agents on earth. In addition to commercials for Post Cereal, the series' sponsor, other breaks between scenes were filled with Ranger Messages, which dealt with such global issues as freedom, the Golden Rule, and nondiscrimination, or ads for Video Ranger merchandise, like space helmets, secret code guns, flying saucer rings, decoder badges, and Viking rockets complete with launchers.
In the early days of the series, critics derided the show for its awkward scripts and acting.But after the show became a popular hit, such major science fiction writers as Damon Knight, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Sheckley, and Isaac Asimov wrote more intelligent and imaginative scripts for the show.
Unfortunately, the Dumont Network couldn’t compete successfully as other new networks began to attract more viewers and more sponsors.Captain Video left the air on April 1, 1955, and DuMont folded later that same year.Because of a fire that destroyed most of Dumont’s film archive in the 1970’s, only five half-hour episodes of Captain Video and His Video Rangers are available to the public today. You can see two of them in the video clip above.
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An interactive TV show in the 1950’s?!?That’s right, Winky Dink and You, which aired Saturday mornings on CBS from 1953 to 1957, employed a simple but brilliant marketing gimmick that actually allowed kids to “interact” with the TV. The show featured host Jack Barry and his sidekick, the aptly-named Mr. Bungle, who showed clips of the animated adventures of a crudely-drawn star-headed, big-eyed little boy named Winky Dink and his dog Woofer.
What made the show unique was the use of a “magic drawing screen” and set of special crayons that came in a kit that children could buy in order to interact with the cartoon.The screen was actually a large TV-shaped piece of see-through vinyl that stuck to the TV screen by static electricity.At a climactic point in every Winky Dink cartoon, Winky would encounter some obstacle or danger, along with a connect-the-dots picture included in the scene.Winky Dink would then ask the children at home to help him out by connecting the dots on the screen with their crayons, and the resulting drawing would turn out to be a rope, ladder, bridge, or whatever Winky needed to solve his problem.
The interactive screen was also used to send secret messages to the audience. A message would appear on the screen, but only the vertical lines of the letters in the message were visible.Viewers at home would quickly trace these lines onto their magic screen. Then a second screen would appear showing only the horizontal lines, and when viewers also traced these onto their magic screens, the full message would appear.
Another way the magic screen was used was to have the viewers create the outline of a character with whom host Jack Barry would have a conversation. The scene appeared meaningless to viewers without the magic screen and the drawing.
Because of the ingenious magic screen, Winky Dink and You became a big hit in the 1950’s.And the producers profited handsomely from sales of the screen and crayon kits, which every child had to have.Of course, you can guess what happened in the homes of kids whose parents wouldn’t buy them the kits.Some of them simply got out their own crayons and drew right on their TV screens, which couldn’t have been good for their parents’ expensive shiny new Philco or RCA set.
Winky Dink and You was revived in syndication as a five-minute stand-alone cartoon from 1969-1973, but production was halted because of parents’ concerns about the possibility of radiation emanating from TV sets and about kids’ harming their eyesight by watching the TV screen from so close-up.The continuing problem of kids drawing directly on the TV screen probably didn’t help matters either.
In an ironic footnote to the show’s history, host Jack Barry went on to fame and notoriety when he later became the host of Twenty-One, a popular prime-time quiz show that he also co-produced.In 1958, it was revealed that Twenty-One’s top-prize winner Charles Van Doren had secretly been given the answers to some of the questions he correctly answered on the show.Twenty-One was taken off the air, and Barry’s career was over.
The Soupy Sales show was a unique kids’ show with lots of adult appeal that made us all feel like little hipsters.Soupy, a multi- talented performer, hosted several local, national, and syndicated children’s shows from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, with broadcasts originating from Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York. He reached the height of his popularity with the syndicated show produced in New York City beginning in 1964.
Soupy’s show was a kind of ironic twist on the standard conventions of earlier kids’ TV shows, combining vaudeville antics (primarily in the form of frequent pies in the face, which became Soupy’s trademark), puppets, Laugh-In-style comedy sketches, musical numbers that made use of Soupy’s extensive jazz record collection, and guest appearances by major stars of the day, like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and singing groups like the Shangri-Las and the Supremes. Much of the show was ad-libbed, which gave it a loose and slightly dangerous feeling – you knew that anything could happen on the show, and it often did.
The puppets on the show were pretty strange.White Fang, billed as “The Biggest and Meanest Dog in the USA,” appeared only as a giant white shaggy paw at the edge of the TV screen.Fang spoke only in grunts and growls, which Soupy hilariously translated for the viewers.Fang threw pies at Soupy when Soupy’s jokes bombed.There was also Black Tooth, “The Biggest and Sweetest Dog in the USA,” whoappeared as a giant furry black paw and spoke with similarly unintelligible but somewhat more feminine doggy sounds, and would pull Soupy off-camera to give him loud wet kisses.
Pookie the Lion was a little hand-puppet who appeared on a puppet stage behind Soupy.Despite his cuddly appearance, Pookie was a hipster who engaged in rapid-fire repartee with Soupy.He often greeted Soupy with, “Hey bubby, want a kiss?”Pookie would mouth the words to jazz, soul, or pop recordings while he and Soupy bopped around to the music.
Soupy’s show also featured a number of live characters, including Peaches, Soupy’s girlfriend, played by Soupy in drag; Philo Kvetch, a private detective played by Soupy; The Mask, Philo’s evil nemesis, also played by Soupy and later revealed to be deposed USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev; and Onions Oregano, The Mask’s henchman, played by actor Frank Nastasi, who was always eating onions.Every time he breathed in Philo’s direction, Philo would choke and make faces, spray air freshener around, and exclaim, “Get those onions out of here!”
There are a couple of notorious incidents that took place on the show that illustrate how unpredictable and edgy the live show could be.One occurred on New Year’s Day in 1965, when Soupy was apparently annoyed about having to do the show on a holiday.At the end of the broadcast, Soupy urged his young viewers to tiptoe into their still-sleeping parents’ bedrooms and remove the “funny green pieces of paper with pictures of US presidents” from their parents’ wallets.Soupy told the kids to put the bills in an envelope and mail them to him, promising to send them back a postcard from Puerto Rico.Then he got hit in the face by a pie.
When Soupy began receiving envelopes with cash in the mail, he was forced to explain on his show that he had only been kidding and would donate the unreturnable money to charity.But complaints by parents poured into WNEW, the New York City station that produced Soupy’s show, and the station’s management suspended Soupy’s show for two weeks to try to appease the public.Of course, this only generated a backlash by Soupy’s outraged fans, and even led to children picketing the station’s offices.When Soupy returned to the air, he was more popular than ever.
Another time, Soupy’s studio crew played a joke on Soupy on his birthday.The show supposedly took place in Soupy’s living room, and a continuing skit involved someone knocking on Soupy’s door and Soupy opening the door to find a guest celebrity or an off-screen character that the home audience couldn’t see, that Soupy would comically interact with.On Soupy’s birthday, Soupy opened the door to encounter an off-screen stripper who proceeded to perform her act to the tune of “The Stripper,” a popular musical number at the time.Though the home viewers only saw the beach ball that the “stripper” used strategically as part of her act, Soupy saw the entire number and thought that the home audience could see her, too.Soupy and the crew cracked up, but Soupy seemed a little worried about audience complaints.Sure enough, though nothing explicit was broadcast, controversy ensued, which only enhanced the delight that Soupy’s outlaw behavior generated among his young fans.