This Childhood Memory Brought to You by . . . An Elegy to the Hosts of Children's TV
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.
Children’s television has never concealed its true intents; a half-hour long cartoon is as much an advertisement for a set of action figures as it is entertainment. Like most of us who grew up on a heavy diet of children’s television, Tim Hollis can to this day remember the commercial jingles fed to him by the local hosts of Birmingham, Alabama. He has even thoroughly incorporated such hosts’ incessant glee and affinity for terrible puns into his writing style for Hi There, Boys and Girls: America’s Local Children’s TV Programs, his half reference work, half elegy to America’s local children shows.
Children’s shows have been in existence as long as television itself. Many were simply old radio programs adapted to the new format. Often, they were run by local stations at times the major networks did not offer any other programming, consisting at first largely of B-Westerns and second rate cartoons. Hosts might have been a news anchor roped into working Saturday mornings, a radio personality trying desperately to survive in the new medium or just someone who had worked in one of the station’s administrative departments. Given such names as Sergeant Jack and Skipper Frank, or even just named after the station’s call letters, these hosts sometimes did as little as introduce each cartoon and tout the sponsoring products.
More than education or even entertainment, advertising was the primary motivator in children’s television. Such is the case with most of broadcast television, but no type of programming could be so associated with its sponsor as children’s shows, which regularly went by such uncreative titles as Birmingham’s Tip Top Clubhouse, which was created for the purpose of promoting Tip Top Bread. Because of the stations’ small budgets, these shows consisted of usually a single set and single host, and often disappeared after their sponsor decided to spend its advertising dollars elsewhere. Other shows were even less discreet, such as Junior Auction, which appeared in one form or another across the country, auctioned off promoters’ toys to the child who could bid the highest number of empty potato chip packets another endorsed product.
Most shows eventually switched from Westerns and old film shorts to animation produced specifically for the new market, cartoons such as Popeye, Mr. Magoo, and the Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers arsenals. Other cartoon offerings redefined low tech. The adventure cartoon Clutch Cargo, for instance, featured patented “Synchro-Vox” system of inserting live action footage of actor’s lips rather than animating the lips, resulting in show mostly consisting of still pictures in which pairs of disembodied lips were the only things that moved.
During the 1950s, franchising of show formats began. Bozo the Clown and Romper Room, two well-remembered, very different programs were actually franchised out for years, with each region boasting its own Bozo and its own Miss Sally to host. Local childrens’ programming remained viable through the 1960s, but by the early seventies the genre was at its end, due to better-budgeted, more constant, national network programming and also the Action for Children’s Television and the FCC’s efforts to curtail advertising within children’s shows.
Hollis grew up during these twilight years, and worked for several years in the late eighties in public access television, trying to recreate what he saw as the lost art of children’s shows, co-hosting a program with the very same “Cousin Cliff” Holman he had watched as a child. Hi There, Boys and Girls continues his attempt at enshrinement of children’s television hosts on a nationwide scale, as he compiles a history and summary of all local shows and hosts categorized by state and town.
Hollis would have done fabulously as a host himself. He maintains an unrelenting cheerfulness as he plows through a dull, dense amount of information regarding shows often so short-lived or inconsequential that the station employees who worked while they were produced sometimes cannot even remember the host’s real name.
After a brief, glib history of the programs in general, the book becomes completely unreadable. It is primarily a sourcebook to be used by other researchers not willing to travel to Lubbock, Texas themselves for more information about the host of Sunshine Sally, or for sentimental adults trying to remind themselves of what they were watching during their formative years. But few people actually need any of this information; fewer still need all of it. Hollis rarely offers up the interesting factoids such as Earline of Earline in Storyland, who not only dressed and acted as a little girl on the set, but in real life as well that make such comprehensive reference works worth leafing through. He sticks to the basics: what station the show was on, its sponsor, its host and what cartoons it showed. In cases where there is actually some information worth knowing, he shys away from telling it himself and instead refers those interested to a host or show’s own biography. At his most frustrating, he will allude to a seedier detail of a host’s history, or make oblique remarks regarding their dismissal from the job, but he hardly reveals anything worth repeating.
More disappointing, though, is that Hollis makes no effort to put the information he has gathered to any use. He offers no insight into what he presents, and holds back judgment upon any show’s relative quality. He has accomplished something laudable, being the first to catalogue a lost era that already has begun to slip away, forgotten. Hi There, Boys and Girls is a labor of love, and Hollis admits that for those who cannot understand why he would do such a voluminous amount of research in the first place, he has no explanation because, in truth, he has not bothered trying to understand it himself.