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Sonny Fox (right) as host of "Let's Take a Trip"

Remembering The Wonder Man
of Wonderama Sonny Fox

PART TWO / PART ONE HERE

by Kevin S. Butler

During the time that he was working on “Let’s Take A Trip,” Sonny served as the first host of “The $64,000 Challenge,” a spinoff of “The $64,000 Question.”

He was reluctant to host the show, his nervousness and his inability to present the questions to the contestants proved to the series producers that Fox was not the man for the job. He was let go and replaced by Ralph Story which was a blessing for Sonny… not long after his departure from the game show an investigation was soon launched into the rigging of TV’s popular TV quiz shows.

Some TV game show producers like Mark Goodson and Bill Todman managed to get exonerated in the quiz show scandal of 1958. They had to adhere to new rules from The FCC to prevent any further corruption with the context of the game. They also invited Sonny Fox to serve as an occasional guest host for their game shows “The Price Is Right”, “To Tell The Truth” and “Beat The Clock” when their regular hosts Bill Cullen and Bud Collyer were unavailable.

In the interim, Bill Britten was leaving WABC/WNEW TV Ch.5 NYC’s popular Sunday morning kids' variety show “Wonderama.” A new host was needed for the program but the new owner of the station (at the time) John Kluge wanted to change the format from a comedy/variety concept to a more informational program.

Sonny’s agent, Harold Cohen, approached him and suggested that he audition for the position. Sonny was not too thrilled at the idea of emceeing a local kids’ TV show that was more entertainment oriented than informational but he felt pressured by the fact that no other offers were forthcoming so he auditioned for the show. He won the job and soon realized that the format of “Wonderama” was going to be different.

The subject matter that he presented on the first three shows however were not successful they dealt with rockets, classical and jazz music, dog training, hunting and Dr. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. The young viewers and the studio audiences had difficulty understanding the subject matter.

The station execs were not happy with the results and told Fox, “We didn’t hire you to lose an audience. From now on (you’ll) do 2 to 3 minutes of live (segments) and then (cut to) a cartoon.”

Sonny Fox Wonderama It wasn’t until some episodes later that Sonny found a way of reaching his audiences. During the screening of the cartoons he would play Simon Says with the kids in the studio. He would also allow the audiences to tell jokes, riddles and he had them try to do Tongue Twisters.

He even had engaging conversations with them. Hence, Sonny made the kids the real stars of the show. The station execs were impressed and they encouraged him to continue with this concept.

 

Sonny Fox Wonderama He added additional segments - a recreation of the 1960 Presidential primary and election, “Kidsmericals” (where the kids in the studio would do their own versions of TV commercials for fictitious services based upon their parents occupations), “Teacher Of The Week” (where young viewers would nominate their school to be honored for their efforts in being a good mentor to their students), and a news segment where a selected group of young people went out and covered important stories of the day.

Sonny even revived his trips concept when he took the audiences to many places and events in NYC like ”Santa Land” at Sterns Department Store and “Freedomland USA.

Sonny recreated his trips to Denmark, France, Israel, and Portugal (which were pre-filmed) the scenes with kids in those countries were actually taped at the Ch.5 studios.

 

Many well know performers and personalities visited the show among them were NYC Parks Commish Hoving, former NYC mayor John Lindsey, N.Y. State Sen. Robert F.Kennedy, the comedy duo of Marty Allen and Steve Rossi, ABC TV’s ”Batman & Robin” (Adam West and Burt Ward) and fellow Ch.5 kids TV emcees
Sandy Becker, Soupy Sales, Chuck McCann, Paul Ashley and Paul Winchell. There was also magic performed by “The Amazing Randi.”

And there was “The Wonderama Talent Search” where talented young people would come on the show and perform. One of the those up and coming entertainers was a magician named Rick Saphire.

 

After hosting “Wonderama” for a year by the fall of 1959 he went to the station execs to ask for a raise to help take care of his growing family. Mr. Kluge and the other heads of Metromedia refused to give Mr. Fox a raise but they told him, “If you can create (another kids') show for our Saturday morning schedule we’ll pay you more money for (hosting) that show.”

 

Obviously Sonny didn’t want to do an extra edition of “Wonderama” so he went back to his office and began to recall his days at summer camp as a kid. Remembering back to when the camp held an event called “The Color Wars” where the bunks were split up into teams and they competed in stunts as “The Blue”, “The Gold” and “The White" teams. The team that was able to complete the stunts in the least amount of time would earn points and win prizes.

Seeing potential in this concept, Sonny explained his idea to producer and director Bob Cahn. He liked the idea and together they developed the outline for the pilot and brought it to the execs at Metromedia.

The station execs loved the pilot, Bob Cahn added extra stunts for the show and the tune “High Time,” created by composer Henry Mancini for the Bing Crosby movie of the same name, was used as the show’s theme song.

 

On Saturday morning October 3, 1959, “Just For Fun” debuted on WNEW TV and became a big success. Kids in the studio would try to toss LP’s thru a target without breaking them, or bite into a marshmallow on a string with their hands behind their back.

There was also “The Mystery Chest” segment where one kid had to find a key among several keys inside of a large glass bowl in order to unlock “The Mystery Chest.” If the contestant was able to find the key and unlock the chest before the show was over he or she would win a large collection of toys.

And there was “The Mystery Guest” segment borrowed from the popular Mark Goodson/Bill Todman CBS TV primetime panel show “What’s My Line?” One member from each team would try to guess the identity of the celebrity by asking questions while blindfolded. This sequence featured such famous persons as Carl Ballantine, Joe Flynn, Tim Conway, and Billy Sands from “McHale’s Navy,” Dayton Allen, Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, Charlotte Rae, Huntz Hall, Chuck McCann, and Paul Ashley.

Along with putting the teams through their paces on “Just For Fun,” Sonny also created a second kids’ TV game show called “On Your Mark.”

 

NEXT: PART THREE - The Movie Game & Way Out Games!

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