On May 8, 1948, the first children's television show in the Twin Cities aired on KSTP-TV, Channel 5. "Riddle Griddle" was a quiz show for kids that had originated on radio, emceed by Clellan Card's former announcer Jimmy Valentine.
In one early version of the show, a panel of three children would try to answer riddles posed by the audience. That format didn't work too well, though, because the proceedings were essentially turned over to the kids -- sometimes things degenerated into a chaotic mess.
Before long, voiceman Valentine changed the set-up, appointing himself "The Riddle Master." He studied a book of riddles and got good enough to respond correctly about half the time. Occasionally, though, kids posed questions that he was afraid to answer: "What's about six inches long, has a head on it, and women love it?" (The solution? A dollar bill!) After a few dirty jokes made it onto the air the station declared that the riddle had to be taken from a book, magazine, or newspaper.
"Jimmy's Junior Jamboree," another Channel 5 offering, followed in September 1949. When someone in station management suggested the new kids' show, the conversation went something like this:
Jimmy asked, "What day of the week will the show run?"
The reply was, "Monday through Friday."
"How long a show?"
"Half an hour."
"When do you want it to start?"
"How about a week from Monday?"
"I had to put together a five-day-a-week kids' show, when you're reading about Milton Berle having a nervous breakdown 'cause he's doing one hour a week," Jimmy laments, "and he had a staff of God knows how many people! And at KSTP, the announcers did their own production. You wrote, did everything but direct it - which you couldn't do, physically."
Nevertheless, Jimmy did get a show together, although originally it had no name. A contest was held to give it a title, and more than 2,000 suggestions poured in. Minnesota-born actress Linda Kelsey (Billie Newman on CBS-TV's "Lou Grant") says that her brother came up with the name "Jimmy's Junior Jamboree," and won a bicycle.
Television was still in its infancy in those days, and anything that could go wrong usually did. Once, just before he went on the air, Jimmy was informed that technical problems had squelched the show's audio. He had to pantomime the entire program.
The format of Jimmy's Junior Jamboree was similar to The Mickey Mouse Club. Each day's program was composed of three different ten-minute segments. On Mondays and Fridays, for example, they presented "Talented Tots and Teens," a variety show featuring local youngsters. Another regular installment was "Kartoon Komics." The animated cartoons that were shown were atrocious silents, but in those ancient days of TV, it hardly mattered what was on - as long as it moved.
One Thursday segment was called "Pooch Parade." (They were quite fond of alliteration on "Jimmy's Junior Jamboree"!) Kids brought their pets onto the show in an effort to win various contests: the prettiest dog, the dog with the longest ears, the dog that could bark the loudest, et cetera. For "Pooch Parade," a canvas flat weighted with sandbags was painted to look like the front of a doghouse, with the door cut out. Children would lead their dogs through this opening onto the set, where Jimmy would interview the boy or girl and look over the hound. Then he would thank them, they'd go back through the doghouse door, and the next pair would come out.
One memorable incident occurred during a contest to find the biggest dog. Among the contestants were two small youngsters who brought huge canines that took an instant dislike to each other. Jimmy took pains to keep the belligerent mongrels separated, and before the show went on the air he told one of the young dog owners to exit the stage by walking straight off camera instead of going back into the doghouse. When the "Pooch Parade" segment began, the young girl came out with her gargantuan dog. Jimmy talked to her for a bit, then thanked her and turned to begin a commercial. Forgetting Jimmy's instructions, the girl and her pet walked back through the doghouse door and ran smack into the other hostile mutt.
A terrible fight broke out behind the stage flat, with animals growling and barking and biting, and kids screaming and crying. Without so much as an "Excuse me!," Jimmy dove through the door and managed to get one dog off the other's throat by pulling on its leash until it was forced to stand on its hind legs. Just at that moment, however, he realized that the whole doghouse set was falling toward the cameras.
Jimmy desperately grabbed for the canvas through the door opening, while at the same time he stomped on its wooden base. He succeeded - barely - in stopping its fall, but the heavy backdrop was left teetering precariously at a forty-five degree angle. There he stood, the dog's leash in one hand, the flat in the other, his foot propped against the base... and dead silence, except for a whimper here and there. The television technicians had been trained never to get in front of the camera, so no one moved a muscle until Jimmy finally begged, "Would somebody please come in here and help me?"
For its part, Channel 4 (at the time WTCN-TV, but later to become WCCO-TV) put amiable Toby Prin on the kidvid beat. One of his earliest television shows aimed at children was called "Mailbox Melodies," which premiered on August 22, 1949. Its sole gimmick seems scarcely believable today. The audience sent in song requests, along with a photo. The picture would be displayed while Toby sang and played the tune. That's it - that was the whole show.
Still, the young viewers of the era apparently loved it. In its first eight months on the air, the show received - and showed - more than 5,000 pictures.
Another of Toby's early vehicles was "Uncle Toby's Tune Time," which aired Mondays in the fall of 1949. It was a talent show, with kids demonstrating their abilities in music, drama, and other fields.
Toby acted as the emcee and played accompaniment for the young performers. Each week, a winner was chosen by a jury made up of six children.
The program was later revived as "Toby's Talent Hunt," wherein Toby was assisted by a girl named Patty Hicks.
Sadly, Roger Awsumb, star of the "Casey Jones" children's shows on Twin Cities television from the 1950s into the early 70s, died on July15, 2002.
Axel's Treehouse website: axelstreehouse.tvheaven.com
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