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Hi there, Boys and Girls!
America's Local Children's TV Programs

by Tim Hollis

(University Press of Mississippi; $25.00 384 pages, paperback, November 2001.)

There are a couple of things you should know up front about Hi There, Boys and Girls! America's Local Children's TV cover scanPrograms, Tim Hollis's affectionately written, encyclopedic history of Baby Boomer kiddie shows.

The first is that the key word in the title is local. National shows are not included. Meaning you will only find passing references to well known and well documented television genre staples of the fifties and sixties such as Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo and Super Circus. Mr. Hollis's information a-plenty is on the Uncle Als, Skipper Eds and Officer Joes who dotted old Philco and Dumont screens in the morning and after school, emanating from local stations coast to coast; sugar-coating our young lives with comedy skits, hand-puppets, classic comedy shorts like The Little Rascals and The Three Stooges, and cartoons like Popeye, Mr. Magoo and Tom and Jerry (to name a few), like so much of the breakfast cereal they tried to sell us. Or, if the hostess was a "Miss" followed by a first name, simulating an hour in pre-school or kindergarten, dispensing a gentle blend of basic knowledge, home-spun morality and fun and games, backed by a schoolhouse piano and joined by an in-studio "class" of young-'uns just like ourselves. (Except I never dressed in a white shirt and necktie...)

Hold up, I can see that glazed look of nostalgia in your eyes already.

The second is that the book is divided by state and then subdivided by television market. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia are covered. (Mr. Hollis saw fit to include New Jersey and Delaware in the markets of neighboring states; hence, two are "missing".) The states are then broken down into city-markets, two hundred of them in all. This means that, if you're like me, you will begin your read by flipping immediately to the city-market in which you grew up and fan out from there. Each market is given a fair share of space, although southern stations received more attention by proportion than perhaps they deserved. This could be due partly to Mr. Hollis's own Alabama upbringing, and partly to University Press of Mississippi's mission statement to publish "...books that interpret the south and its culture to the world." (I guess "Uncle Bunky" of Columbus, Mississippi represented enough of an interpretation of the south and its culture to merit almost a page and a half in this book, while the entire city of Detroit was given just over two pages.)

But that's a minor nitpick. What HTBAG lacks in balance, it certainly makes up for in trivia. For instance, did you know that Romper Room -- the show with those annoying little "do-bees" and "don't-bees" on the blackboard -- was a franchise? So was Bozo the Clown. That's right: stations paid for the rights to the format (Romper Room) or the character (Bozo) and produced their own versions with local actors and actresses playing Miss "Whomever" and ol' Bozo himself. Or that in 1954, long before Dick Van Dyke ever picked up a chimney broom and became the most famous leading man in a movie based on an Ian Fleming novel -- other than those Bond portrayers, that is -- he hosted a program called Favorite Story on Channel 11 in Atlanta, on which he "related gentle children's fantasies while illustrating them on a drawing board"? (Hmm, my own "gentle fantasy" had to do with one of those Romper Room misses...) And that's only a fraction of the nostalgic minutiae waiting to be discovered between the covers of this painstakingly researched book.

The incredible thing is, HTBAG is only 308 pages long, if you don't count the index, introduction or bibliography. Mr. Hollis has created a TARDIS-like encyclopedia, with more information on the inside than one would ever reckon from looking at the unopened book sitting there on the table. What could possibly be the cause of this grand illusion?

It's all in Mr. Hollis's gift for being able to compact many factoids into one paragraph without overloading it.

For example, in the first half of one paragraph taken at random, I learned that the first St. Louis television station had the call letters "KSD." It broadcast over Channel 5. It signed on in February, 1947. One of its first kid shows was called The Wranglers Club. It ran from 1955 to 1963. It was sponsored by Adams Milk. The show's host was named Harry Gibbs. And he played a dairy cowboy named "Texas Bruce."

For those of you who are interested, the second half of the paragraph is about Corky the Clown.

In fact, every time I turned another page in this book, I felt as though I were unzipping a compressed file in my computer.

I also began to realize something else, something that became more obvious as I ventured further into the book. In spite of each host's own uniqueness, children's shows in the fifties and sixties were pretty much the same all over: film shorts and cartoons, simschool, and heavy doses of gentle humor ranging in sophistication from sly to out-and-out moronic. There was no attempt to change the prevailing formula for success. The hosts and hostesses all acted pretty much the same, looked pretty much the same and sold pretty much the same products. Oh sure, a few of them may have performed goofy character skits in between cartoons and commercials and a few others may have picked up a guitar and sang. But the mentality and approach was always the same. And in that respect, local children's shows reflected American life and its gray flannel suit conformity more accurately than any other segment of the American pop culture of its day.

And if it was the purpose of the publishers to interpret the South and its culture to the world... well, they may have done a better job of it than they realized. You see, in this entire 308 page tome (not counting the introduction, index and bibliography), there are a hundred and fifty photographs of various hosts, broadcasts and cartoon characters. And of those hundred and fifty photographs, there is not a host or a hostess to be found with a brown face. Whitey was in charge here, make no mistake about it. And since the music and motion picture industries -- those bastions of American pop culture -- were already beginning to experience a mixing of the races in their worlds, this is about as accurate a reflection of Southern culture's influence upon the rest of America during this warm and fuzzy period in our history as it gets.

And no Uncle Al, Skipper Ed or Officer Joe can sugar-coat that.

Social commentary aside, don't buy this book if you just want to read about the daytime shows you watched when you were young and innocent. Even with Mr. Hollis's brilliantly compacted text, there still isn't enough information on any single city-market to justify spending $25.00 for a few pages of remembering when. You will probably be able to obtain the detail you seek from some Web page on the Internet more dedicated to your favorite kiddie shows than you ever were.

However, if you are looking for a nostalgic joy ride across America, you've come to the right place. Between these covers, the entire white-face community of uncles, skippers, officers and misses is waiting, so hop on your spiffy Schwinn tricycle and get going!

Review by Randy M Dannenfelser.

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