Saturday morning, as lemons were flying across seats and grown-ups were grunting to voice a clay blob, the Lake Theatre became Cartoon Town. And Bill Jackson, the legend of Chicago children’s TV who was mayor of the not-to-be-forgotten puppet village, was enjoying one more hurrah.
Jackson – now 74, retired and living in California – was back reliving his glory days of the late 1960s and early 1970s for an event that benefited the Museum of Broadcast Communications, an archive of radio and television works that was founded by Oak Parker Bruce DuMont.
“All I can say is: Are you ready?” Jackson asked the audience of 300 faithful after receiving a 50-second standing and roaring reception to his introduction. With that go-ahead, he launched into two hours of time-machine fun.
Surrounded by the TV sidekicks he’d designed – such puppets as postmaster Dirty Dragon (pictured) – Jackson hosted his game of Whozit, where he sketched cartoons of famous people and asked for guesses, and followed up with a trivia quiz on his career. He found participants for the career quiz by tossing lemons into the audience.
Jackson’s Emmy-winning career as a kind of Mr. Rogers for Chicago began in 1965, when for WBBM-Channel 2 he did both a weekday show, Clown Alley, and a Saturday morning show, Here Comes Freckles. No signature sweater for him. His memorable accessory was a top hat, either red or blue. Jackson made all the puppets he worked with and did all their voices.
In 1968, the after-school show that he’d come to be known for, Cartoon Town, debuted on WFLD-Channel 32. It lasted until 1973, by then renamed The B.J. and Dirty Dragon Show. In 1975, WLS-Channel 7 picked up him up with The Gigglesnort Hotel. That Sunday morning show lasted until 1977.
According to the program for Saturday’s show, a special guest was slated to appear for the final segment.
The Blob arrived alongside Jackson, strolling down the aisle on his pedestal. The clay puppet was always modified by Jackson to embody another object or creature. In the spirit of the holidays, Jackson morphed The Blob into Rudolph, the red-nosed moose. The transformation involved Jackson placing cardboard antlers on The Blob’s head and planting a red bulky flashlight in the middle of his face.
Earlier in the show, there was a Blob voice contest. It was judged on the best replication of wordless grunting.
“I wanted to thank you for visiting me,” Jackson said to his fans before dancing off the stage to an upbeat soundtrack, waving a cane and wearing a top hat.
Jackson said he came out of retirement for this performance because he was called this spring by DuMont, who told him he needed help for his now-homeless museum. In 1995, when the museum was in the Chicago Cultural Center, Jackson made his first public appearance in almost 20 years and did a benefit for DuMont, donating to the broadcast museum the shows starring his puppets.
Tickets to Saturday’s show, which was sold out, were $60 for standard seating and $120 for premium seating. Premium seats included meeting with Jackson before the show. The event raised about $20,000, which will be used for “paying the bills,” DuMont said.
Work on the museum’s permanent home, a 62,000-square-foot space at State and Kinzie, has had several delays, with both money and Illinois politics, since construction began in 2005. Its location in the Chicago Cultural Center was the second of the two temporary homes for the museum that DuMont founded in 1982. Work on the new space is expected to be done at the end of 2010.
“I want to keep the museum visible and remind them the museum will be back,” Jackson said after the show. Though the museum has no bricks and mortar home for now, its archive of thousands of radio and TV programs is at www.museum.tv.
“It was a flawless, successful event,” DuMont said after the benefit. “There were 300 happy people.
“We had to get here,” said Bill Smith of Bolingbrook, who was trying out Blob impressions on his wife, Becky, as they waited in line after the show to get their pictures taken with Jackson.
“He was your friend. He shared something with you,” Smith said, recalling days he planted himself in front of the TV set to watch Jackson and his puppets.
“It’s history returning,” his wife said. Smith agreed.
“I feel like I’m 10 years old today.”