Sunday School

Growing up, Sunday was always the most distressing day of the week. Significantly, it signaled the end of the weekend; the final moments of freedom before the mandatory underage prison known as school snatched our liberty for the next five days. It was also a day specifically delineated for sloth, a situation reflected in the numerous Sabbath styled Blue Laws and regimented retail closings. You could map out your entire day by the familial routine: morning trip to church, afternoon ambled away in a fog of forgotten homework or chores, and then in the evening, a dining room sitdown of favored dishes and forced kinship. Moments after the dishes were cleared began the clock-ticking countdown of the minutes before bedtime. Perhaps the first life skill anyone ever learned during those formative years was how to maximize your pre-sleep leisure while avoiding the parental position that a mandatory eight hours of sleep was good for you.

Indeed, it seemed like Sunday’s main individual focus was centered on finding ways to halt the passage of time. As usual, Murphy’s Law of temporal displacement always ruined everything. The priest’s oppressive sermon seemed to take several centuries, yet that pick-up game of horse or all out Monopoly war with friends blasted by in a mere micron. The trick with such time factors was to find something entertaining and entrancing, an amusement that would somehow envelop your impending sense of approaching deadlines while making those moments feel purposefully unstuck and endless. For many of us growing up in the metropolitan glow of the Second City, that Sunday afternoon repast was WGN’s Family Classics with Fraiser Thomas.

All of us already knew the host from his work on the surreal-seminal kid vid cavalcade, Garfield Goose and Friends. Nothing more than a perplexing puppet show with crackpot cartoons like The Funny Company, Clutch Cargo and the entire Harvey catalog (Casper, Baby Huey, etc), Goose stood out because it borrowed heavily from other, established shows. Thomas was really a uniformed Fran Allison with an insane foul and a silent bunny as sidekicks. As a character, Garfield was convinced he was King of the United States (he did wear a crown, after all), and rendered his frequent fits in a series of arrhythmic claps of his clucking plastic beak. Rombert Rabbit, the ex-magician’s assistant and pseudo friend of this glorified gander tried to be the voice of reason, but since he had to whisper everything for Thomas to repeat, his overall effectiveness in this regard was more or less diminished

So successful was Thomas at capturing the kid’s imagination that the station called on him to helm another family-oriented outing. He would not only host, but be given permission to pick the specific titles featured, and even have them re-edited to fit his strict moralistic standards. A pure proponent of family values, Thomas was like most middle-aged men of his generation. He believed in wholesomeness, a strict sense of patriotism, and frowned on such exploitative ideals as gratuitous violence or suggestive sexual content. The only blood that could ever be spilled was at the moment when good triumphed over evil. And even then, it couldn’t be excessive. Putting these paradigms into play, Family Classics was christened in 1962 and thousands of kids within the broadcast signal’s strength finally found their time-suspending entertainment selection.

As a cultural critic, Thomas tended to be older than old school. He smiled in aesthetic agreement at the movies made during Hollywood’s Golden Era, efforts like Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling Robin Hood and adaptations of timeless classics like Treasure Island and The Swiss Family Robinson. Indeed, Thomas seemed to push action and escapade most, using the boy’s adventure tale tenets to deliver a healthy dose of Jules Verne (Mysterious Island, Journey to the Center of the Earth) in conjunction with his personally mandated life lessons. Within this specific category of film lay a myriad of Thomas’ tantamount values: courage, bravery, loyalty and honor.

Frazier Thomas in full Family Classics hosting mode.

But there was more to it than that. Like most broadcasters who specialized in entertaining children, Thomas knew that Sundays suffered from a dearth of juvenile content. Sports, or cheap to produce socio-political programs, were more or less the standard for a ’60s station, since Mom and Dad usually spent the better part of the day pouring over the oversized weekend newspaper. Kids could, on occasion, catch the occasional movie on the small screen, but the content usually consisted of some dull melodrama or b-movie boredom. So it was up to Thomas to provide an adolescent oasis, a corruption-free zone where all the protagonists wore white hats, the villains always lost, and principles of freedom, honesty, and integrity were chosen and championed. It was just a matter of finding the right films to capture those burgeoning young brains.

Most of what he offered would be considered pedestrian by today’s prissy post-modern standards. Yet every once in a while he stuck in a heretofore-unknown quasi classic. One of the most famous was Mr. Bug Goes to Town (renamed Hoppity Goes to Town for TV syndication). An amazing work by the fabulous Fleischer Brothers (director David and producer Max) this marvelously inventive insect saga (think A Bug’s Life rendered in classic hand drawn animated splendor) had the unfortunate luck of being released on December 9, 1941, two days after the era-defining attack on Pearl Harbor.

The movie never made a dent in the war-oriented mindset of ’40s America, and slowly faded into obscurity. Even today, the plot is perfect. Hoppity and his Manhattan bug buddies are out to save their little patch of lowland from developers. In the meantime, the villainous J. Bagley Beetle is convinced he can undermine Hoppity’s efforts to inspire his creepy-crawly brethren, as well as marry his rival’s bee babe, Honey. Together art and action merge to provide amazingly detailed sequences, including a skyscraper-set finale that has all the wit, style, and imagination of classic Disney designs.

That was the great thing about Family Classics. Thomas could tell us more about the field of animation (each commercial offered the host an intro and outro opportunity to discuss and explain the films featured, like Robert Osbourne does on Turner Classic Movies) than a series of educational lectures. Kids convinced that cartooning began and ended with a certain Mickey Mouse — or better yet, a wily coyote and the Warner Brothers bane of his existence, the elusive Roadrunner — now knew about a family named Fleischer. And along with occasional showings of Gulliver’s Travels, they began to understand that Uncle Walt was not the only artist dabbling in full length animated features. Warner Brothers even got an additional vote of confidence with the frequently shown Gay Purr-ee (the company’s ’60s feline take on a certain competitor’s classic, Lady and the Tramp).

By exposing children to titles they may not have otherwise seen before, Family Classics started many a future sci-fi and fantasy geek on their way to full-blown nerdom. Granted, there wasn’t a lot of serious speculative fiction to work with, but Thomas would take a series of schlock staples — The Colossus of New York, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms — and treat them like the content equivalents of Forbidden Planet or Godzilla. One particular favorite, Tobor the Great, took a mind-bending mid-50s view of traveling to the moon and meshed it with a wide-eyed child’s awe struck love of all things robotic. The title character — its name a dead mechanical man giveaway — is developed by some well-meaning scientists as the perfect American astronaut substitute. NASA is none too pleased, and as Eisenhower era luck would have it, the Commies get wind of this latest technological breakthrough and covet it outright. Using both hook and crook, the Reds force a stand-off. A quick flick of Tobor’s controls, and it’s Marxist butt kicking time, android-style.

It’s no surprise that Thomas loved films like Tobor. They spoke to an era slowly dissipating, a time when movies had strong moral messages. For him, Family Classics was about educational entertainment, about opening up the vault of motion picture magic and letting the kids get their first fascinating taste of his specific spectrum of cinema. He had faith in his young audience, believing they could handle a hearty dose of derring-do or an imaginative exploration of the technological. They just needed his friendly, familiar face as a nudging guide. As a result, Thomas created many a cinephile with his carefully considered choices. As Garfield’s friend, we believed him. Besides, typical TV movie fair consisted mostly of Westerns, crime noir, and Depression era musicals — and they were never aimed at developing minds. Thomas tended to avoid those genres, instead using the heroism, hope, and promise of the outright adventure film to instill and inspire a love of film, and by extension, a discovery of self.

It sure worked on this budding film fan. For two hours every Sunday afternoon, school seemed a million miles away, thoughts of teachers spiraling down toward the center of the planet with James Mason and Pat Boone. My fretful feelings found commonality with Hoppity and his insect pals. They worried about saving their glorious garden, and I, vicariously, substituted their cause for my next day test concerns. As Thomas told us of the upcoming action scene, or warned us that the film’s finale was “incredibly exciting”, we would wash away all worries about the big kid who picked on us during recess or the complex considerations of adding or subtracting fractions. In those last few hours before bedtime called, Family Classics was the solace before the scholastic storm.

Sadly, nothing remotely similar exists for kids today (not that they would care, mind you). In our modern media age, Sunday’s are showcases for infomercials, standard sitcom reruns, multiple doses of every athletic endeavor imaginable and, on occasion, an off-title, first run film or direct-to-video flop getting another syndicated sell-through. No one programs for the wee ones anymore, in part because there are numerous child-specific channels (Nickelodeon, Noggin) overloaded with age-appropriate content. Yet none of those programs can possible inspire the kind of playground pride we all had when, at recess on Monday, the previous day’s ‘Classic’ was discussed. The wrap-up was usually as basic as simulated swordplay (with sticks substituting for sabers), but sometimes, we could get into some pretty meaningful arguments; like who would win in a fight; Robbie the Robot or Tobor. In the current cultural climate, our youth are more likely to discuss the stars involved or the scandalous material presented (read: sex and violence) if the topic of film ever enters their video game-geared frame of reference.

It’s easy now to look back and question why so many of the memories we hold from the past are still so important to us. In many instances, the main reason is over-romanticization. Let someone mention a particular personality or program and we instantly access our internal rose-colored specs. The star could be subpar or the series inconsequential, and all we see are the maroon tinged delights of our equally burgundy-basted past. But Frazier Thomas and Family Classics can claim something that these otherwise mediocre recollections can’t, and that’s a firm foundation in quality cinema. He may not have always chosen the cream of the motion picture crop, but he followed a personal proclivity toward movies that uplifted the spirit, fired the imagination, and soothed the soul. Family Classics was a joyful juvenile elixir, a two-hour dose of plain and simple reality rejection. And frankly, what more could you want on a so-called day of rest?