Chicago Cable TV ‘Super Station’ WGN

I grew up on this station, owned (at that time at least) by the Chicago Tribune Newspaper.

WGN, like WOR in New York City and Ted Turner’s Atlanta TV station, is often carried by cable television providers as a “super station” and in its heyday WGN was certain super, especially when it came to children’s programming!

Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s the primary fair for children’s programming came from Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Dowdy, which were network produced, along with the syndicated Romper Room. WGN in Chicago, however, recruited long established professionals in the region to work staff created shows.

The biggest successes included Bozo’s Big Top, which featured a station staffer dressed up to look like the cartoon character Bozo the Clown. These cartoons were produced by a low budget studio and syndicated throughout the country where they often ran as a part of an ensemble show, but WGN took this a step further and created a whole half hour Bozo show with live actors who ran the cartoons every few minutes.

Lunch Time Little Theater was another highly popular WGN show that I used to watch all the time. It featured two men and a woman who did vaudeville type bits for a live studio audience of kids, had special guest stars, comedy vignettes and musical interludes, the woman cast member being an accomplished Vibe player who did her musical thing every day – this show ran 5 days a week for a whole hour. They would also have featured guests, including what was left of the Three Stooges (Moe and Larry, plus various replacements for Curly) – they often showed Three Stooges classic shorts from the 1940’s Columbia Pictures era.

They also did a whole Bugs Bunny hour every morning, featuring WGN staffer Dick Coughlin who worked some of the hand puppets of Bugs and the others. They even created original puppet characters for the show including an alien from outer space who lived in his downed space ship. In-between the live action they ran old Warner Bugs Bunny cartoons.

In the evening there was the Dick Tracy hour with Ray Rayner, another local professional who got wooed over to WGN from another station. He played a police officer associated with Dick Tracy and in-between the live action and puppet work they showed Dick Tracy cartoons, which were another low budget animated series produced and syndicated around the country.

My all time favorite, however, has to be Garfield Goose, which ran for an hour and a half in the evening, in color back in the early 1960’s. This was back when few network shows were in color! A creation of Cincinnati’s Frazier Thomas, he brought the program to Chicago in the 1950’s an eventually ended up on WGN where this show ran until his death in the 1980s! The show centered around Garfield, a hand puppet goose who thought he was King of the United States and his Prime Minister, Frazier Thomas. Other puppets were also used on the show, including Romberg Rabbit, who could only be heard by Thomas, who related his words to the viewers after he spoke. Between the original daily plots of the show, which also ran five days a week after school, were some very high brow cartoon offerings, including some from the famous Zagreb studios, the efforts of Paul Grimault of France, some animations made by the Russians and even live action documentary series, such as the one about several kids visiting the Museum of Natural History and literally taking a trip back in time to the beginning of him – right through the dinosaur era.

TV mogul Fred Silverman had one of his early executive jobs at WGN and helped to pioneer that station into making the best of what it had on next to no budget! He put Frazier Thomas in as a host of a show called “Family Classics” which came on after the dinner hour and showed many of the leased and public domain films that WGN already had in their library collection. Silverman would eventually move to a senior executive job at NBC, then ABC where he helped to pioneer such shows as Charlie’s Angel’s, before moving back to NBC and pioneering the classic Hill Street Blues. After this Silverman went into television production reviving many old TV series characters and turning them into movies of the week or limited run TV series.

Frazier Thomas took over the Bozo show in the late 1970’s, with the Garfield Goose character becoming part of that show and Thomas taking over as the ringmaster for Bozo’s Circus, until his death in 1985.

All of these original or adapted children’s programming endured as long as the network mainstays like Captain Kangaroo or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS, if not longer! They brought a lot of quality animation into the homes of children, along with a lot of low budget workmanship, but the ratings were always G, even though the somewhat violent antics of the Three Stooges short films were often a part of some of these shows, along with Republic Series like Commander Cody.

In addition to WGN, the local ABC and CBS affiliates also created some original children’s programming, including Here’s Geraldine, a puppet show created by a husband and wife team who performed in it daily with puppets, original songs and far out college overtones (they had a running gag about James Michner’s book on archaeology called “The Source” which they dubbed “The Zource”), along with Jobblewackey Place (another college theme take-off on Jabberwocky, created by another husband and wife team of puppeteers). These programs made use of many talented college graduates who majored in Theater or Puppettering, who would orinarly not have much of a career beyond doing children's birthday parties on a local level.

When I moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s there was very little in the way of original children’s programming out there, save for Hobo Kelly (performed by a woman with a grease paint beard in Hobo dress) in the mornings and Engineer Bill in the evenings (who also hosted many classic cartoons and republic serials – mostly notably offering the first Los Angeles airing of the classic “Anime” offering Astro Boy – the original!). Of course, I was no longer a little kid, so this didn’t phase me much, but I do still think about those happy days as a child sitting at home watching some really interesting animation on all those WGN programs aimed a children. A concept that, except for a few PBS offerings, almost doesn’t exist today, replaced by Yu-Gi-Oh in this high tech Game Boy era...!
-- E.R.D.

More on animation from this and past issues...

Chicago Super Station WGN Children's Programming
Animation 7 (Zagreb and the Europeans)
Animation 6 (Woody Woodpeck / Walter Lantz)
Animation 5 (Warner, Bugs and Termite Terrace)
Animation 4 (Disney)
Animation 3 (Fleischer, Powers, Bray, etc.)
Animation 2 (Gertie and McCay)
Animation 1 (Primitives)


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