Possibly the best Christmas gift that I received was the special from WGN-TV in Chicago, called Bozo, Gar and Ray: WGN TV Classics. I am somewhat of an aficionado of childrens' TV in the pre-Sesame Street, pre-Barney era, and having grown up in Chicago, I remembered the shows that were featured as if I had just seen them recently.
It's amazing how getting older changes your perspective on the things of your childhood, or perhaps it's a matter of appreciating just how hard the performers on those shows worked to make it all seem so easy. There were a couple of times, sentimental old bastard that I am, that I was moved to tears. I guess I never realized just how hard those guys worked to put on a kids' show. And, it wasn't as if they made a lot of money to do it. Most of them did the shows over and above their jobs as staff announcers. For a bunch of guys just dressing up like clowns and running through old vaudeville sketches, Bozo's Circus was a minor masterpiece that happened every day at lunchtime all through my grammar school and high school years. (For those of you into this sort of thing, my brothers and I were home, all sick with the flu, watching Bozo's Circus when JFK was shot.) Ray Rayner, who performed on Bozo and had his own show in the mornings, was a war hero who, it was said, participated in the real-life Great Escape. His show was 75 minutes of utter madness, just him running around in a jumpsuit with notes pinned to him, playing second fiddle to an animated stuffed dog and an irascible duck, making a mess of simple art projects, running "Turtle Races" between quite possibly deceased or nearly deceased turtles, singing songs (he had a nice voice), and telling us that the high temperature was going to be "23 2/3 degrees today". And, Garfield Goose, starring a puppet goose who claimed to be the King of the United States, featured "Clutch Cargo" and other cartoons and conversations between Frazier Thomas, the human star of the show, and these puppets who didn't speak (Garfield had a bill that would clap that more or less approximated words being spoken, but the only one who could understand was Frazier). It was simply a work of art. And, these weren't the only examples of kids' shows in Chicago, nor even the best ones (I was always a big fan of BJ and Dirty Dragon on Cartoon Town). But, they were near and dear to my heart.
Sadly, nearly every one of the featured performers has passed on. I wish I could thank them for the laughs, and for just being there. I remember a lot of lonely hours when my father was sick and my mother was at the hospital with him, and these were the shows who kept me and my brothers company. I spoke with my brother yesterday, and he said that he couldn't live from Thanksgiving to Christmas without hearing Hardrock, Coco and Joe, Suzy Snowflake, or Frosty the Snowman (all of which are available on WGN's website; it's worth your time to go out and see and hear them).
Anyway, today Mary and I finally got out of the house and went to our local used bookstore, where I bought a copy of a book called Father's Day, by former Loyola University professor Eugene Kennedy. The back cover promises "Love and power! Duty and corruption! Behind the closed dores of Notre Dame, Chicago's City Hall and th inner sanctum of the Catholic Church!" I paid 33 cents for it. Imagine, all that for just 33 cents! I mean, it's just all there for me! I've read about a quarter of it, and Kennedy's almost as good a writer as Andrew Greeley. Mom used to call books like this "her kind of dirty book". Whoo-hoo!
I also finished the second book in the Coffeehouse Mystery series of Cleo Coyle, Latte Trouble. It was OK. There was one particularly good passage in it, though, that I wanted to share:
As diverse a town as New York City was, cliques and enclaves tended to reinvorce the idea that everyone around you thought the way you did--and should dress, speak and think like you, too, for that matter. The fashion industry was really no more unique in that regard than a cadre of New York University undergrads--and I should know, having listened to every butcher, baker and candlestick maker prattle on from behind my espresso machine.
Theater people, stock brokers, publishing professionals--everyone had their forged attitudes, jargon and fakery, their what's hot and what's not lists, their correct opinions, perceived winners, losers, and arbitrary size-'em-up yardsticks. Institutions meant institutional thinking, after all, but the dirty little secret after you've lived in New York long enough was that the "arts" were no more immune to this than the advertising industry, and, in fact, even "rebellion" was an organized racket--with its own line of coffee mugs and t-shirts.
Just thought I'd share that.