Friday, October 12, 2012

Blowing Out the Candles with Sheriff John (and company)

Put another candle on my birthday cake . . .

Yes, my birthday is coming soon, and it practically coincides with news of the death of “Sheriff John” Rovick, at the ripe old age of 93. Any kid who grew up in L.A. in the 1950s remembers Sheriff John. He was the TV guy -- the one with the badge, the khaki uniform, and the big white hat -- who led us in the pledge of allegiance and helped us celebrate our birthdays with a song about being “another year old today.”

Then there was “Engineer Bill” Stulla (who recently died at age 97). He wore overalls and a striped railroad cap, and led us in a milk-drinking game called “Red Light, Green Light.” I also remember Tom Hatten (born in 1927 and still going strong), who wore a sailor cap and bell bottoms, and knew how to draw. Not to mention the rather creepy Chucko the Birthday Clown. (Chucko lived into his 86th year. Something about being a TV kiddie-show host seems to have prepared these guys to live practically forever.) All of them showed cartoons (Hatten had a monopoly on Popeye the Sailor Man), and all were fixtures on local TV stations eager to cater to an audience of young Baby Boomers.

Television was a novelty then, and we kids would have watched anything, including test patterns. (Remember those?) But the stations won over our parents by filling their programming with lots of pro-social messages. Along with cartoons, we got lessons in manners, citizenship, and the work ethic. Those sheriffs and engineers and sailors had us all subliminally convinced that one day we too would be defined by our professions.

Even more than the cartoons, I think what we liked best was the opportunity to participate in the TV experience. Several of the shows welcomed local kids onstage. (I got to walk through Bill Stulla’s “Castle of Dreams.”) And there was nothing quite like hearing your very own birthday announced on the air. I don't know what show was involved, but I distinctly remember the year I was told over the airwaves to look behind the TV cabinet in my living room for a special birthday gift. Lo and behold, I found a recording of Harry Babbitt singing “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” –- would wonders never cease?

Looking back, I realize that these programs combined the miracle of television with an appeal that was local, and thus seemed intimate. Yes, there was national kids’ programming too, but it mostly came later. Mr. Rogers didn’t hang out in his TV neighborhood until the late Sixties, and Sesame Street didn’t begin revolutionizing children’s television until 1969. The big change for my own generation came in 1955, with the arrival of those peppy lily-white youngsters who sang and tapdanced their hearts out on The Mickey Mouse Club. We all loved those kids. Hell, we wanted to BE those kids. But they never announced our birthdays on the air the way Sheriff John did.

Today I’m struck by the fact that, in a world grown ever more impersonal, we’re all desperate for intimacy. Look at the success of Facebook, where your friends (and your Facebook “friends”) are notified of your birthday weeks in advance, and respond by sending you cheery messages. Then there’s radio: I suspect part of what people love about A Prairie Home Companion is its homey feeling. When Garrison Keillor broadcasts the studio audience’s folksy announcements of birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations, we’re all part of one big community. In this day and age, isn’t that how we want to feel?


  1. Beverly, thanks for this. I'm sorry to hear of Sheriff John's death. Although I was thrilled to be in the audience of one of his shows when I was about 5 (around 1964), I was shocked to notice that my hero's arm was in a sling. How could Sheriff John break his arm? I still wonder.

  2. Obviously he had been rassling a perp who had tried to slice his cake! Thanks for the memory, Jack!

  3. Oh, a lovely post to commemorate not only your own birthday - Happy Birthday Ms. Gray! - but the passing of a local Los Angeles legend. I am not familiar with your local children's show hosts - but I appreciate you giving me a glimpse of them today. I had Romper Room - the national show that was local - and then there was Mr. Patches out of St. Louis Missouri when I was very young. As I grew older we got The Funny Company - a half hour of Three Stooges and cartoons hosted first by Cactus Pete (old Western prospector looking guy) and later by Uncle Briggs (harder to describe - kind of a cross between a train engineer, a janitor, and the lost Mario Brother, if you can imagine such a thing). Uncle Briggs taught us that the nest way to watch cartoons was through "cartoon eyes" which he insisted we put on to watch with him - this meant you made rings of your thumbs and forefingers, then flipped your hands so that your fingers caught under your chin and you brought the rings up to your eyes. MUCH easier when I was a more flexible child. And I'll keep this comment a little shorter by only briefly mentioning the scads of horror hosts I watched - starting with Seymour - syndicated out of Los Angeles - through our own local hottie Misty Brew in the 80's - and on to Elvira, still cutting up across some old movies - including Roger Corman's public domain The Wasp Woman - as recently as last year in a new syndicated series. I have a real nostalgia for the days when we could watch local programming made within miles of where we sat watching - and sharing that experience with a few thousand people who lived in the magical ring around that local broadcast tower.

    I hope your birthday is swell - please let us know if you get any fun surprises!

  4. Hi Mr. Craig!

    The birthday hasn't rolled around yet, but thanks for the good wishes. Maybe I'll spend it watching vintage TV with my "cartoon eyes" (what a concept!). Regarding horror hosts, I wasn't a big fan. But when I spent the weekend at Girl Scout Camp in the Hollywood Hills, we got to hike to a special cave apparently used by Vampira in her TV appearances. Have you heard of Vampira? She predated Elvira, who apparently stole much of her act. For shame!

  5. Well now - it could be said (and has been) that Maila Nurmi stole her act from Charles Addams's original Morticia character from the New Yorker comic strips too. (Yep, I've heard of Vampira - she of the 20 inch waist and infamous appearance in Plan 9 from Outer Space for Ed Wood.) Although Ms. Nurmi maintained that Elvira stole her act - they were very dissimilar in demeanor and not at all alike. Vampira was chilly and slightly monotonic, gothic; Elvira was/is Valley girl from Transylvania. The reason for the rancor was that Ms Nurmi was originally contacted by a Los Angeles television station to revive her Vampira character in the early 80's. When she proved too difficult to work with, the station ceased working with her and hired and young woman named Cassandra Peterson to play a "new" character named Elvira. That's the price of being too possessive and controlling - you'll be left behind while others run with the basic idea for 30+ years of success. I side with Elvira down the line on this one.

    If you like "cartoon eyes" I might introduce you to Uncle Briggs's later concept "Three Stooges eyes"...

    Was that cave in Bronson Canyon?

    1. Thanks, as always, for the background, Mr. Craig. Bronson Canyon? I wasn't sure, but the Wikipedia description of Bronson Canyon as an area just outside of Griffith Park certainly sounds right. I only remember that the walls of the cave were glittery, so it obviously wasn't entirely natural.

  6. I hope you have a nice day! Very good article, well written and very thought out. I am looking forward to reading more of your posts in the future.teddy bears

  7. Hi David,

    Thanks for the nice words. Please do come back again -- I write about a variety of movie-related subjects (as well as making the occasional foray into TV and mass media), so I'm sure you'll find something of interest.

  8. This was a great article, and a nice trip down memory lane. I only remember catching Captain Kangaroo in the early mornings and Mr. Rogers in the afternoons after school and an occasional Soupy Sales rerun here and there.

    In some ways, I miss when networks would sign off between 2 and 4 in the morning. It kind of made staying up late more meaningful in that after a certain point, you were cut off from the world for time, lol.

    Nowadays, so many things are taken for granted since so much is so easily within grasp and you barely have to leave the house anymore, lol.

  9. Soupy Sales doesn't count, I think. As I recall, much of his audience was made up of high school kids (like me) who found his impersonation of a kiddie-show host deliberately ironic. And I believe he was ultimately fired for making an obscene gesture. sheriff John would have NEVER done that. I love your memory of the networks' middle-of-the-night sign-off.