They sprang up in places all over the United States — Kansas City, Nashville, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.— and sounded a siren that pricked the ears of a generation of youngsters. In television’s early days, nearly every town with a station launched its own local kids’ program. In time, these local programs would give way to the more sophisticated children’s television programming we know today. But in its heyday, local kids’ programming generated indelible characters, entertained and educated countless youths, and launched the careers of a host of talented actors and broadcasters.
“It’s not that easy being green,” lamented a certain frog named Kermit, and kids understood what it was like to be a little different. “Hey, boys and girls! It’s Bozo,” cried Willard Scott, assuming the franchised clown persona in Washington D.C., and kids squealed in recognition. Programming aimed at kids didn’t have to be fast-paced just to keep kids’ collective eyes glued to the screen. Local television hosts read youngsters’ letters on the air, advised when snow forced local school closures, showcased kids’ artwork, and brought animals on set. “We did everything we could to entertain people in the morning, and that means you have a chimpanzee as a sidekick,” says actor Adam West, who worked as a local kids’ program host in Hawaii. Some of the best childhood memories for a generation of Americans include a trip to join the studio audience of the local kids’ show.“You would write away to get tickets six months in advance, and then your mother would dress you up … It was a TV show that the kids could visit and then go home and watch … and that was an awful lot of fun,” says Willard Scott.
“Wallace and Ladmo”
Superheroes who were cast on the “Wallace and Ladmo” show, broadcast primarily in and around Phoenix, Arizona, from 1954 to 1989, didn’t need to have X-ray vision or the ability to fly. “A superhero on the ‘Wallace and Ladmo’ show need only be two things: not super in any way, nor a hero,” says longtime “Wallace and Ladmo” performer Pat McMahon. Indeed, the slapstick, tongue-in-cheek show was the longest-running, local, daily kids’ show in television history. And part of the reason “Wallace and Ladmo” had such longevity and a dedicated local audience is likely that the programming was aimed at kids, but the humor was also sprinkled with ironic and clever comedy that resonated with teens and adults. Wallace founded the show in 1954. Within months he added sidekick Ladimir “Ladmo” Kwiatkowski, a cameraman on the show turned entertainer. In 1960 McMahon joined the cast and brought his brand of humor to the set. The program yielded several memorable characters including Aunt Maud, Captain Super and a down-and-out clown named Boffo.
In the 1950s, franchising was in style. McDonalds’ trademark golden arches were popping up in major cities across the nation, and a few enterprising TV producers thought this mass production model might also work in children’s television. Nancy Claster and her husband, Bert, created “Romper Room,” a children’s educational program that was re-produced in markets around the country. The show was heavy on games, songs and moral lessons, and was aimed squarely at pre-schoolers. Each major city had its own local hostess who was trained to be pitch-perfect by Claster. Despite its uniformity, “Romper Room” was successful because each program also reflected its own community.
“Bozo the Clown”
Just as “Romper Room” became a franchised show, generating versions in major cities nationwide, so did a certain wild-haired, manic clown named Bozo. In fact, this clown character, who originated as a record and storybook character, became the most aggressively franchised character in the history of kids’ television. In the late 1950s, Larry Harmon franchised the character of Bozo and soon clowns with the same distinctive make-up were appearing on live public television shows around the nation. Willard Scott assumed the clown’s persona in the Washington, D.C., market. “It really got to me,” Scott remembers of the onerous task of putting on layers of make-up and costume. Harmon had stipulated that Bozo never showed any skin, so that the illusion that Bozo is a clown, not human, was never broken. “I mean I trembled sometimes trying to put the make-up on because it was exhausting,” says Scott. Many Bozos made public appearances in parades, at schools, and department store grand openings. In Washington D.C., the local McDonalds restaurant hired Willard Scott — as Bozo — in an attempt to attract customers. It worked. Bozo’s arrival at McDonalds sparked mayhem. So, when the local Bozo show was cancelled, McDonalds approached Scott to develop a clown persona for the popular restaurant chain. The result: Scott debuted an orange-haired clown named Ronald who was closely modeled on Bozo. Ronald McDonald was born.
“Sesame Street” became the most successful national children’s program of all time, but its success was built, in part, from lessons learned from the original, quirky local kids’ television programming that was blooming in the 1950s and ’60s. In the late 1960s, public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney was developing a new program, and she needed an artist who knew his way around puppets. Cooney found her man in Jim Henson, a soft-spoken puppeteer who, with his wife Jane, had been working in D.C. on their show, “Sam and Friends.” Cooney brought Henson to the “Sesame Street” project, and his iconic characters such as Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and Cookie Monster have entertained and educated generations of children since. The show was innovative in other ways, too. “Sesame Street” was the first national kids show to situate itself in an urban environment. And in terms of content, the show clung close to an impressive educational curriculum.