In today’s age of 100-channel cable and satellite television, HDTV and DVD, it may be difficult to imagine a time when home entertainment consisted primarily of a half-dozen local and network television channels, with much of its product generated at the local level. In these “short-attention-span” times, it may be even more difficult to imagine children who were mesmerized by the low-key antics of puppets, clowns and other assorted hosts who doubled as pitchmen for sponsors’ products in between segments of scratchy movie house cartoons, old even then.
But some of these performers and their characters burned themselves into the collective memories of people who grew up watching them every day. The mere mention of performers Ray Rayner, Frazier Thomas and Bill Jackson, or the characters Bozo The Clown, Garfield Goose, Dirty Dragon, Cuddley Dudley and countless others are guaranteed to generate smiles for those now grown-up Chicago kids who enjoyed them. Making these characters even more unique and special is their local connection; mention Romberg Rabbit or Macintosh Mouse to someone who grew up on the West Coast and you’re likely to get a blank stare in response. These characters were created and performed especially for us, and Chicagoans maintain a soft spot in their hearts for them.
You can meet one of the men who brought that era of television to life when former Chicago television personality and producer Jack Mulqueen visits the Oak Park Public Library at 7 p.m. tomorrow. Mulqueen will appear with film-historian Ted Okuda to discuss their new book, The Golden Age of Chicago Children’s Television. The library program also will feature behind-the-scenes stories from local children’s TV dating from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, along with a 15-minute video highlighting many of the shows.
Remember Marvin the Lion and Pandora?
Due in large part to his primarily behind-scenes role in television for most of his career, Mulqueen may not be a household name, but he and his wife Elaine were fixtures of Chicago television for decades. Jack operated and voiced puppet characters including, most memorably, Marvin the Lion, who bantered on-screen with Elaine as the pixie clown-attired Pandora. The pair secured a stint as commercial spokespeople for Coca-Cola and began appearing regularly on the legendary WGN-TV children’s program, Bozo’s Circus in 1962, eventually moving to their own half-hour show (called The Mulqueens) on the station.
Mulqueen explains that unlike most of the personalities viewers remember from local television, he was required to wear many hats including writer, producer and talent, while also being responsible for securing sponsors to pay for air time. Today, we know such ventures as “infomercials,” but in the 1960s, the Mulqueens and their puppet friends were hired primarily to promote the wares of their sponsors, in a time when commercials and sponsor plugs routinely were worked right into the story lines of programs, especially children’s shows. The Federal Communications Commission outlawed such a blurring of the line between entertainment and commerce in the early 1970s, which is a big part of the reason local children’s programs began to disappear from the airwaves.
After the Mulqueens’ stint performing live commercials on Bozo, Mulqueen met with WGN assistant program director Phil Meyer to pitch an independent show.
“The station informed me that if I could come up with $120 each week, they would give us the 9 a.m. slot on Saturday mornings. This meant that I not only had to find sponsors who would cover the cost, but I also had to pay additional funds to cover our salaries, the cost of sets, scripts and all the other production expenses,” recalls Mulqueen.
Though this was a different arrangement from other fondly-remembered local Chicago children’s shows, the venture paid off, with the Mulqueens eventually moving their show to WLS-TV and reformatting it into an American Bandstand-type music show for children, under the name Kiddie-A-Go-Go. It ran on WLS-TV and WCIU-TV from 1966 to 1970. Kiddie-A-Go-Go featured puppet skits, dance segments with the audience, and the occasional musical guest; popular local 1960s band The New Colony Six were the in-studio guests on the first show.
Life after television
After Kiddie-A-Go-Go ended in 1970, the Mulqueens more or less retired from active performing, but embarked on a second career sponsoring movie and television collectibles shows in the Chicago area, often featuring appearances by Hollywood celebrities who would visit with fans and sign autographs. It was at one of these shows that Mulqueen met co-author Okuda, a lifelong Chicagoan who has written or co-written a variety of entertainment-oriented books including a biography of comedian Jerry Lewis and a history of Columbia Pictures comedy shorts, which included the Three Stooges as well as the legendary Buster Keaton and Andy Clyde.
Okuda attended one of the Mulqueens’ first conventions in the early 1980s. “I recognized their names from the TV show,” Okuda remembers. “In those days, Elaine was taking admissions. I looked at her name tag and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, Pandora.’ She was genuinely pleased that someone remembered her.”
Okuda’s lifelong passion for old movies had attracted him to their show, which also featured segments of vintage Our Gang comedy shorts as well as a segment called “Jelly Bean Blackouts,” featuring clips from vintage silent comedies with in-studio narration.
Okuda and the Mulqueens became fast friends, and “Jack started telling me stories. I started asking him about other things, because I wanted to get a feel for Chicago television and I wanted to write a lot of these stories down,” says Okuda.
Eventually, Mulqueen proposed the idea of co-writing an autobiography with Okuda, but Okuda suggested expanding the concept to encompass the whole history of local Chicago children’s television. The pair tossed the concept around for several years. Meanwhile, the Museum of Broadcast Communications opened in Chicago, making tapes of vintage shows available for viewing and hosting occasional evenings with local personalities like Ray Rayner, Roy Brown (the puppeteer of Garfield Goose and Ray Rayner & His Friends who also played Cooky on Bozo’s Circus) and others.
Jim Engel, a commercial artist and member of the museum’s junior board of directors, organized “An Evening With Bill Jackson,” prompting a rare return to Chicago for the creator of Dirty Dragon and the host of Cartoon Town and Gigglesnort Hotel. Jackson’s appearance drew a standing-room-only crowd, and when Engel invited Jackson, Mulqueen, Rayner and other personalities including Beverly Marston Braun (the former host of WGN’s Romper Room) and former Bozo’s Circus performers Joey D’Auria (Bozo), Don Sandburg (Sandy) and Marshall Brodien (Wizzo) to another event in 2001, a comparable number of fans attended. Lines reached outside the building and onto the street. That event coincided with the end of The Bozo Show, the longest-running local children’s program and the last one to remain on the air, finally ceasing production after 40 years.
“Bozo had to come to an end to give this closure,” Okuda says. “This happened when it was supposed to happen. If this book had been written 20 years ago, a lot of the chapters would have been open-ended.” Shortly after the museum event, Okuda started shopping the book proposal around, eventually signing with Lake Claremont Press, a Chicago-based firm specializing in stories of local interest.
“The Mulqueens are pioneers,” Okuda notes. “When I met Jack, neither of us realized we would be collaborators 20 years later.”
Mulqueen and Okuda’s appearance tomorrow at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., tomorrow evening is free and open to the public. For more information, call 697-6915.