The golden age of Chicago children's TV


What made it special and why did it go away? By Andrea Guthmann :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

photo courtesy of WGN-TV "Bozo's Circus," featuring the eponymous red-headed clown, was a staple of Chicago children's programming in the '60s. Clockwise from bottom: Bozo (Bob Bell), Sandy (Don Sandburg), Oliver O. Oliver (Ray Raynor), Big Top Band leader Bob Trendler and Ringmaster Ned Locke.

Remember when children's television was fun instead of fierce? Before the days of "Pokemon" and "Power Rangers" there was a more innocent age of children's television, and much of it originated from Chicago.

At one point from the 1940s through the early 1970s, every TV station in Chicago produced or aired some children's programming. Today, the only local children's program produced in Chicago is "The Homework Show" on WCIU-Channel 26.

Back in the golden age of children's television there were beloved programs such as "Kukla, Fran, & Ollie," "Garfield Goose," "Super Circus" and "Ray Rayner and Friends," all of which still are remembered fondly by Chicago area baby boomers.

What about those programs was so special? Many of them aired live with hosts who directed their conversations to their young viewers-they were familiar and comfortable. Film historian Ted Okuda and Chicago TV veteran Jack Mulqueen reminisce about that era in their new, aptly named book, The Golden Age of Chicago Children's Television.

Okuda, 50, says he enjoyed watching these shows as a boy, particularly the low key shows-even Bozo was a little too vaudevillian for him. "My favorites were shows like ‘Ray Rayner and Friends' and ‘Garfield Goose' ... They made you feel like this whole effort was for you."

That comfort level is missing in today's shows, he says. "I'll watch TV with my niece and nephew and be horrified by some of it. It's bewildering what they put on children's TV. It would be refreshing to see a calm host step in front of the camera."

It's about relationships Bruce Dumont, founder and president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, also grew up during this era of kinder, gentler television. "I still remember walking home from school for lunch and watching ‘The Uncle Johnny Coons Show.' Shows like that, ‘Kukla, Fran, & Ollie,' and many others from that time are part of what I call the ‘Chicago school of TV,' where the hosts would speak directly into the camera. It really made you feel special."

Things weren't always tranquil, though. On live TV anything can happen-and did.

Mary Hartline, who led the band on "Super Circus," which aired from 1956 to 1959, reminisces in the book about having to do her best to avoid stepping in elephant dung while marching across the stage. "The stagehands worked frantically to clean the floor while the band and I marched heroically in front of them. We were slipping and sliding all over the stage."

And then there was the "Bozo's Circus" episode in 1963 when a trapeze artist fell and broke his wrist. Viewers at home saw the TV screen go to black, while stagehands waited for the paramedics to arrive.

Why it ended The biggest blow to locally produced kid shows came in 1972. "That's when the Federal Communications Commission and the National Association of Broadcasters created new advertising rules," says David Kleeman, executive director of the American Center for Children and Media.

Those rules, for example, banned the common practices of hosts pitching a sponsor's product on air and making personal appearances at sponsor-related events.

According to Kleeman, "The FCC felt that it was unfair advertising to have someone so close to the children marketing a product, and I can't say that they didn't have a valid point there. If they hadn't done that, these shows could have just ended up looking like half-hour infomercials."

Other factors also helped bring to a close this chapter in television history. "The morning news shows just became too lucrative for kid shows to compete for the advertising dollars," says Kleeman. Also, kids were no longer coming home for lunch-the time when some of these shows aired.

"Finally, the rise of children's cable channels closed the door on local programming," Kleeman says. "Network executives had already begun to realize it was cheaper to create a cartoon and syndicate it nationally than to hire live hosts. With the advent of the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, kids knew there were 24-hour-a-day channels where they could always find something they liked."

Just as with most things in life, television has changed. Neal Sabin, executive vice president of WCIU, writes in the forward to The Golden Age of Chicago Children's Television, "A pie in the face is still funny, kids still like to dance, and the last time I looked, you could still buy six buckets and nail them to a board and call it a grand prize game."

Yet, as fond as Sabin is of these old shows, he seems more interested in remembering the past than reliving it. "We can be nostalgic about the passing of great local children's fare such as ‘Bozo's Circus,' ‘Ray Rayner and Friends,' and ‘Garfield Goose.' However, I believe that today's children have more and better choices in programming via countless cable networks, PBS and some broadcast offerings.

"What is missing is the localism, the heart and soul that emanated from these and other programs. Economics, regulation and expectations for what a program should look like have altered children's television forever."


Andrea Guthmann is a producer at WTTW-TV and mother of Maxwell, 6, and Charlie, 4.


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