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KMBC Vice President and General Manager Mark Wodlinger, Torey Southwick, and Sales Manager Hal Sundberg act up in a scene from a promotional spot created in 1963, after the release of Roger Miller’s country hit song Kansas City Star.
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Being befuddled is a Bumbles the Clown trademark.
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Cookie and the Captain was originally called S. S. Popeye on KMOV, St. Louis.
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Bumbles the Clown visits with children in the KFEQ studios in St. Joseph.
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Captain 11 entertained kids after school on KPLR in St. Louis.
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It probably never occurred to the kids watching Torey and Ole Gus on television that they never saw the two on camera together. This was because Torey not only was the puppeteer performing Ole Gus, he also provided the voice. “We just worked out schemes where I would manage to get back and forth,” Torey says.
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St. Louis-based KMOX’s Kartoon Karnival with Koko and Kasper was sponsored by KAS potato chips, which might explain all the Ks.
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Bobby Day and D. B. Doorbell came along late in the game, hosting D.B.’s Delight on KMOX from 1977 to 1988.
The display was set up between the snack aisle and the produce section at the Safeway store in our neighborhood. Kitty Clover Potato Chips had put up a black-and-white monitor connected to a closed-circuit TV camera, and if you stood in just the right spot, you could see yourself on television. In those early days of rabbit ears and three broadcast channels, it was cutting-edge stuff. Of course, seeing yourself on a TV set in a Safeway supermarket was nothing compared to seeing your cousin or your schoolmate broadcast into your living room from the studio of the local TV station. And that was just part of the appeal of local children’s programming in those early days of television.
The hosts of these local programs ran the gamut from cowboys to clowns to ship’s captains. If there was a movie archetype that appealed to kids, chances are there was a kids’ show host to match. Most had afterschool programs that offered a few minutes of the local host interspersed with lots of cartoon material, Three Stooges shorts, and “these messages from our sponsors.”
Many times, the inspirations for the shows were the sponsors themselves. “There were so many sponsors in the 1950s and ’60s who were clamoring to advertise to the children’s market that, in some cases, whole programs were created just because the stations had too many sponsors to fit in the programs they already had,” says Tim Hollis, author of Hi There, Boys and Girls: America’s Local Children’s TV Programs. “I guess that’s something that stations today would kill for—to have more sponsors than they have time for.”
Since the shows were created for the sponsors, Tim says that the men and women who were hired to host the kiddie shows had to find their own way in the new medium. But the results were memorable to the youthful viewers.
In his book, Tim writes that the Kansas City market has one of the most distinguished legacies of any TV market in the country.
“It seems to me that those Kansas City shows had everything everyone else had—you know, the clowns and the captains and the Popeye shows,” he says. “Everything you would find anywhere else, they had it all at one time or another.”
But Kansas City wasn’t the only market in the Show-Me State to have its local childhood idols. Here, in no particular order, are some of our favorite kid-show hosts from the classic days of television, before syndicated reruns replaced local programming and when afternoons were filled with fun, friends, and fantasy.
‘I never thought about doing a clown.’
One of the challenges for early television performers was finding a television station whe e they could work.
Clif St. James says he came to the Gateway City in a roundabout way. He left television work in Rochester, New York, when he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, only to discover it would be another five years before the Southern city would get a TV station. Clif’s wife, Nance, had family in St. Louis, so Clif says he headed for Missouri in 1952 even though he didn’t have a job waiting for him when he arrived.
“Everybody comes to St. Louis as a replacement,” Clif says. “We came at a time when it was a tough fight to get into radio.”
There was only one TV station in St. Louis at the time: KSD, which signed on in 1947. Clif and Nance both started doing commercial work. Clif heard about an agency in Chicago that was looking for a clown to represent Tip Top Bread. “I had to audition for the job and I really needed that job,” Clif says. “It was one of those things where you’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t.” On the plane ride to Chicago to audition at the agency, Clif developed the character and makeup for Zippy the Clown.
“I never really thought about doing a clown,” Clif says. “I thought about doing a Red Ryder kind of show or something with cowboys in it.” Unfortunately, Harry Gibbs as Texas Bruce already had a cowboy show on KSD (see “Remembering Texas Bruce,” page 43), so Clif continued performing as Zippy, among other acting and broadcasting assignments. It was around this time that he also started performing as Corky the Clown. When Texas Bruce left the air in 1963, Corky would step into his old time slot.
Corky’s Colorama was the first kids’ show in the area to be broadcast in color, and Clif says he quickly discovered the need to have someone to talk to on the air. He had a stagehand put the face of a little girl with pigtails on a boom microphone, and his on-screen sidekick Lorelei was born.
Clif and Nance have been married for sixty-eight years and still live in the St. Louis area. Nance says she is frequently surprised when grown baby boomers come up to them and reminisce about the program.
“It amazes me how many people remember when they were on the Corky show, what they said, if they got to pull down the cartoon window,” Nance says. “Unfortunately there’s nothing like it anymore. What a shame that kids today are missing such a wonderful experience.”
Corky’s Colorama went off the air in 1980. In 2014, Clif was inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame.
“It was a lot of fun for a lot of years,” Clif says, and he has a special message for all of Corky’s fans: “We’ll come to the party, and we’ll enjoy the party, and—hopefully—keep on cookin’.”
‘Hey Torey, the kids are here!’
If you could only see it today, it would be obvious that all parties involved in the making of the KMBC-TV promo were having way too much fun.
The soundtrack is Roger Miller’s 1965 country hit, Kansas City Star, a song about the pistol-toting, cowboy-hat-wearing host of a kiddie program in the western Missouri city who is offered a big promotion for taking his show to Omaha.
“KMBC made a big deal of it,” says Torey Southwick, the Kansas City kid-show star at the center of the promo. “I lipsynced the record on TV in a cowboy outfit and they put out a promotional thing with the general manager and the sales manager of the TV station holding revolvers aimed at me.”
Although Torey never dressed as a cowboy on either of the two programs he shared with his neighbor and puppet sidekick, Ole Gus, there is an entire generation of Kansas Citians who will tell you that the Roger Miller song was written especially for and about Torey Southwick.
It seems unlikely; Torey never went the costumed route of most kid-show hosts. Where Kansas City’s other stars, Whizzo the Clown and Sargent Sam, were larger than life, Torey was life actual size.
Better Job, Higher Wages
Like the star in the Roger Miller hit, the offer to move Torey’s talents to a larger market seemed to come from out of nowhere. Torey had been working as a morning disc jockey in Akron, Ohio, where he had developed a distinctive character voice to be his on-air sidekick. Torey named the character Ole Gus.
Torey says it was a common practice in the early days of television to put the afternoon radio announcer on television in the morning to co-host a program for homemakers. The morning DJ got the assignment of doing a kids’ show in the afternoon.
“The owners of the television station wanted me to try to incorporate Ole Gus into an afternoon kid show,” Torey says. Torey hired George Latshaw—renowned puppeteer who created the puppet Carrot Top for Mel Ferrer in the 1953 movie, Lili—to develop Ole Gus.
“I think it cost me a hundred and fifty bucks or some- thing to match the voice I had established on the radio show over a couple of years,” Torey says. “One of the fortunate things I did was to copyright the puppet.”
Looking to move to a larger market, Torey sent an audition tape to a radio station in New York City. Though the New York station wasn’t looking for new talent at the time, the station’s program director passed it on to a friend he thought might be interested. “I received an unexpected invitation to come to Kansas City for an interview,” Torey says. “I got the job as morning disc jockey and started on KMBC the first week of 1956.”
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Aunt Norma Champion, Skinny McGinnis, and Rusty Rooster entertained a generation of children from 1957 to 1986, broadcasting from Springfield’s KYTV (now KY3). “I hear adults say, ‘ I wish we had shows like we used to have,’ but I don’t think kids today would watch them,” Norma says. “It’s a different society.”
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Corky’s Colorama ran on KSD (now KSDK) in St. Louis from 1964 until 1980, when new restrictions on children’s advertising from the Federal Trade Commission put a lot of TV kids’ show hosts out of work. In 2008, Clif St. James and his wife, Nance, were honored with Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Awards from the Webster Groves Arts Commission.
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Wally Johnson hosted Wally’s Birthday Party, one of the earliest programs on St. Joseph’s KFEQ.
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Mix kids, clowns, live TV, and a healthy dose of mischief and anything could happen—and usually did. On the Bumbles the Clown set, the star, stagehands, guests, and director engage in an old-fashioned pie fight. The show was broadcast from St. Joseph’s KFEQ (now KQTV) and was one of that station’s many kids’ programs that began in the 1950s and ran through 1972.
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Bobby Day and D. B. Doorbell came along late in the game, hosting D.B.’s Delight on KMOX from 1977 to 1988.
Hero of the Younger Set
After four years in Kansas City, Torey found himself back on TV. He had continued to use the Ole Gus voice on his radio show, and station managers wanted Gus to be a part of the television show as well, with one slight difference. They wanted Gus’s mouth to move. Once again, Torey called upon the talents of George Latshaw to create the animated puppet.
For nearly a decade, Torey was the most popular kids’ show host in the Kansas City market, appearing in a morn-ing taped program called Torey Time, and live in the afternoon on Torey and Friends. Both programs featured a mixture of Popeye and Warner Brothers’ cartoon favorites, Three Stooges shorts, and a number of short cartoons that were specifically made and syndicated to locally hosted children’s programs across the country.
“I was a disc jockey on the radio and a cartoon jockey on television,” Torey says.
Another basic component of local programming was to bring Cub Scout and Bluebird groups into the studio for live interaction with the host.
A classic—if not completely accidental—guest was 1968 Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, who had come to the KMBC studios to tape an appearance on one of the station’s locally produced news programs that ran on Sunday mornings in the 1960s. “We were all out in the hall with the kids and we were waiting for him to get done with the inter- view,” Torey says. “He noticed the kids and asked if there was any chance of getting on the program with them. It’s a typical political question when you’re running for president. So the program director came up to me and said, ‘Guess what? You’re going to have a guest.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding. What the hell am I going to talk to him about?’
Torey says he ended up having a long conversation with Humphrey about his farm and his grandchildren. “Then at the end, I did kind of a classic thing,” Torey says. “I said, ‘Well, Mr. Vice President, it was nice meeting you and I’m glad you came, but I have a confession to make. We’ve been working to elect a different candidate.’ ”
Humphrey’s demeanor visibly changed, Torey says. “His face just kind of fell. He must have thought, ‘What is this idiot kids’ show host going to say?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’ve been kind of working to elect Winnie the Pooh.’ ”
Humphrey exploded in laughter. “He said, ‘I love Winnie the Pooh,’ ” Torey says. “ ‘If I were their age, I would vote for Winnie the Pooh, too!’ ”
Reporters following the vice president filed the story in the newspapers all over the country. “It was a high point in my career,” Torey says.
Another high point was exchanging e-mail correspondence with a former governor of Virginia, the state that Torey now calls home. That governor was Tim Kaine, who at the time of this writing, is Hillary Clinton’s running mate for the 2016 presidential election. “One of the biggest kicks of my life is knowing that one of the kids who used to watch me is now running for vice president of the United States,” he says.
Torey finished his on-air career in 1971 at KCIT in Kansas City. He would later go on to work behind the scenes in television as vice president and later president of television stations in Wichita and back in his native Ohio. In 1990, Torey retired to spend more time with his family. The Kansas City Museum asked for Ole Gus, but Torey said he held on to his TV neighbor and sidekick. “My kids want him,” he says.
As for the lingering question: Did Roger Miller write Kansas City Star about the host of the city’s most enduring kids’ show? “I don’t know,” Torey says. “I never met Roger Miller. But I enjoyed the reflected glory.”
‘Blow Out the Candles!’
There were actually four “aunts” who hosted the The Children’s Hour in its thirty-three years on the air at KYTV in Springfield. Aunt Alice Lowe was on the first broadcast of the show in 1953. She was followed by Aunt Rene Handley and—briefly—Aunt Claudie Cox.
But if you ask most Ozarkers who was their favorite, a clear majority of the first TV generation would vote for Aunt Norma Champion. And in the years that followed, many actually did.
Aunt Norma came to her new position as host of The Children’s Hour the same way many television pioneers did: with very little experience and a willingness to try new things. “Television was very new and I was thinking I would just love to get out and volunteer to help,” she says. “I thought maybe I could do it just for fun and learn something from it.”
With a one-year-old son at home, Norma says she was looking for something to do part-time that would allow her enough time to be home to care for her family. She made an appointment with KYTV general manager Carl Fox to discuss a future in television.
“That was in 1957 and I was so naïve that it never even occurred to me that they didn’t take volunteers in commercial television,” she says. “When I got there, Mr. Fox said, ‘Did you come here to audition for The Children’s Hour?’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”
But Norma went through with the audition and landed the position she would keep for the next twenty-nine years. Carl Fox would later come to joke that there wasn’t anyone else in the building with less experience in television than Norma.
A Whole New World
There were drawbacks and advantages to doing the show in the early days of TV. “The drawback was that nobody really helped you with it,” Norma says. “I think I inherited some safety scissors and some Wonder Books, and that was about it.”
The best part was the freedom. “Because it was a children’s show, nobody paid much attention to it,” Norma says. “The Children’s Hour was whatever I wanted to do with it because nobody really cared. That was the big advantage when I look back on it. I could try all sorts of things, so I learned about television.”
Norma says she worked closely with Fred Raines, a promotional director at KYTV who was also the voice behind and the hands inside Aunt Norma’s puppet sidekicks, Skinny McGinnis and Rusty Rooster. Fred’s screechy falsetto was so distinctive that whenever Happy Birthday To You is sung in Springfield, someone will invariably interject their best impression of Rusty Rooster saying, “Blow out the candles!”
Norma said she never really thought about a concept for the show, but she never felt The Children’s Hour was an entertainment program. “It wasn’t clowns and balloons and stuff like that,” she says. “I didn’t think of it as trying to be educational. I just wanted to be an adult friend who kids could sit down with when they got home from school and talk about something that was interesting to them.”
But Norma was having as much fun learning as the children who were guests in the studio. “We had a karate expert on who broke boards with his fist,” she recalls. “He said he could teach me how to do it.” During a commercial, Norma says she received a quick, impromptu karate lesson. “The camera operator asked me if I wanted to practice before we went back on the air. I said, ‘Oh, heavens no, that means I might fail.’ ”
The cameras came back on. Aunt Norma got into position and, with no previous training, broke two boards with her fist. No one on the set gave Aunt Norma any trouble for the rest of the broadcast.
From Aunt to Senator
When The Children’s Hour eventually left its weekday time slot to be broadcast only on Saturday, Norma took advantage of the new freedom in her schedule to complete her college education, earning bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees. In the final years of the program, she was teaching during the week and hosting on Saturday.
In 1986, The Children’s Hour finally went off the air for good. Norma ran unopposed for a seat on the Springfield City Council, where she served until 1992, and then ran for a Republican seat in the Missouri House of Representatives, where she served for ten years. From 2003 to 2010, Norma was a state senator, and in 2014, she was the first woman named to the Missouri Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame.
Norma was so well known by the time she started running for elected office that her campaign bumper stickers bore only two words: Aunt Norma. “I guess I really did raise my own voters,” she says. “It wasn’t by design. It just happened that way.”
Photos courtesy of KQTV, St. Louis Media History Foundation, Whizzo the Clown Facebook Group, Torey Southwick, Missouri Broadcasters Association