by Kevin S. Butler and Billy Ingram
INTRO: In 1950, only one out of ten homes in the U.S. had a TV set; by 1955, six in ten had one. That explosion of viewers created a sudden demand for content. Television broadcasting had finally become a profitable business as advertisers lined up to buy time. For a medium in its infancy, the question for the TV stations remained - what to put on between commercials?
WABD-TV Channel 5 in New York City had a very good thing going with performer Sandy Becker in 1955. Becker was a new personality on the local video scene but New Yorkers took to him right away.
After just a few months with the station he was already hosting eleven live children's programs, broadcasting six days a week - including WABD's latest venture for the fall of 1955, a six-hour Sunday marathon kiddie magnet called Wonderama. There were no scripts for these broadcasts (noon until 6:00pm), no cue cards except possibly for commercials. These were the days of sink or swim, life or death, seat-of-your-pants local TV.
Under Sandy Becker, Wonderama was basically a juvenile version of the Today show with cooking lessons from Miss Pat Meikel, magic segments, celebrity interviews, craftmaking tips and anything else one could think of that would fit within the confines of the small studio.
In this You Tube clip, Soupy Sales, Fred Scott and Sandy Becker talk about their New York City kiddie shows:
Considered the all-time reining genius of NYC local TV, Becker was a manic improvisational performer capable of spouting forth a kaleidescopic array of zany characters through his puppet alter-egos, Geeba Geeba, Marvin Mouse and Stanley Q. Stinker.
Becker discovered a way to communicate with kids on a viceral level through the lens of that primitive mid-fifties television box. We're talking ten-inch screens, black-and-white pictures, tiny speakers and uncertain reception.
Al Hodge aka Captain Video was on hand to introduce Universal serials like Captain Marvel and Jungle Jim, John Gnagy hosted a 'Learn to Draw' segment, while Chuck McCann and Paul Ashely famously performed a puppet version H.M.S. Pinafore on one episode.
There were also Fleisher Superman and Little Lulu cartoons, Looney Tunes, Charlie Chase comedies, movie serials, educational films and whatever other available content the station could cobble together to help fill the time. But it was Sandy Becker's incandescant personality that overflowed the screen and called forth the faithful, proving to Channel 5 that there were a lot of bored kids out there, and, more importantly, that Sunday afternoon could be a viable addition to their broadcast schedule.
Wonderama was a hit like all of Becker's other programs, but he dropped out after a year (due to exhaustion, no doubt) so that Herb Sheldon could assume the hosting duties beginning in September of 1956.
Sheldon carried on in the manner of Sandy Becker as the show moved to an earlier timeslot on Sunday mornings, adding segments like drawing lessons for the kiddies with Herb's friend Gene London who went on to host his own massively popular kid's show in Philly.
Sheldon also had the requisite puppet characters - Egbert, the bookworm and Ummely, the steam shovel.
On Tuesday, December 25, 1956, WABD 5 aired the very first 'Wonderama Christmas Cartoon Party' with hosts Sandy Becker, Herb Sheldon and Captain Video. Besides reruns of the Little Lulu, Casper, Superman and Looney Tunes cartoons, Sandy Becker performed a puppet version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." There was also a toy giveaway contest. Kids who called in to the studio and correctly answered a series of questions posed to them by either Sandy, Herb or Capt. Video could win a Christmas tree packed with prizes.
That live broadcast lasted from 9:00am until 6:00pm, a whopping nine hours, attracting a substantial audience. It was NYC's highest-rated kid's holiday special of that year. Herb Sheldon and 'Uncle Fred' Scott co-hosted 'The Second Annual Wonderama Christmas Cartoon Party' on Wednesday, December 25, 1957.
Herb Sheldon hosted Wonderama for two years before the station managers at Channel 5 fired him following a creative dispute.
With the sudden departure of Herb Sheldon, Bill Britten hastilly stepped in from August 10, 1958 until December 28th, 1958. Best known for his role as Channel 7's Johnny Jellybean, which was, "the highest rated (kid's) show in New York City," according to a January 24, 1988 interview with Bill Britten. "We beat out soap operas in the ratings and I had just as many adults watching my show as kids."
At first, Britten hosted Wonderama in the role of a bumbling cowpoke named "Three Gun Willie The Kid" but when that failed to click he reverted to his own personality. It was during this period (on September 7, 1958) that WABD Channel 5 became known as Metromedia WNEW-TV.
Britten was the first to pre-tape the show in front of a live audience of children aged 5 - 12 on Sunday mornings. With so much time to fill and a studio full of kids to entertain, Wonderama took on an anything-goes air, part game show, part kid's show.
Britten kept the studio audience energized with games, magic, comedy skits, puppet routines, stories, songs, craftmaking segments and interviews with guest performers that would drop by to plug their latest ventures.
Radio and TV personality Sonny Fox took the reins in 1959, turning Wonderama into more of an educational talk / variety program with the emphasis less on silly character bits, leaning more heavily on light news reports, spelling bees, and guest interviews. This was punctuated by games like 'Simon Says' and regular joke features, Flash Gordon movie serials, the post-1938 Our Gang shorts, Chatter the Chimp, Looney Tunes and other filmed entertainment.
Sonny used his program to highlight talented kids, youngsters that performed shakespeare, young magicians, budding comics, as well as going out on location, filming from areas of interest in the NYC area.
Sonny's predecesors found themselves hosting marathon shows on Christmas Day. Sonny was given six hours of Thanksgiving duty as well, starting November 26, 1959 with 'The First Annual Wonderama Thanksgiving Day Party.'
The third and final 'Wonderama Christmas Cartoon Party' was broadcast on WNEW Friday, December 25, 1959 when the first and current host of Wonderama, Sandy Becker and Sonny Fox, entertained a packed studio audience and viewers between cartoons of the Little LuLu / Casper sort.
Sonny Fox hosted another 'Wonderama Thanksgiving Day Party' on Thursday afternoon, November 23, 1961 with guests ventriloquist and cartoon voice-over performer Paul Winchell, magician/escape artist and magic historian The Amazing James Randi and folk singer Pat Woodell.
TVparty-er David Goldberg relates, "Wonderama was the only show on Sunday worth watching. My sister and I would sit in our PJ's watching all morning in our Queens apartment.
"Later in college I used to pick up girls by asking if they remembered Wonderama. They would either not know what I was talking about, or be real enthusiastic. Believe it or not, it worked!!!"
Bruce Fleischhacker remembers, "Wonderama with Sonny Fox was the earliest recollection I have of children's television. Every Sunday morning I would sit in front of my parents RCA Black-and-White, with my glass of 'CoCo Marsh' (remember?) and watch Sonny Fox.
"For my 10th birthday (1966) my mom got me and my friends tickets to Wonderama. I remember going down to the WNEW studios on a rainy Thursday for the taping. A lunch that consisted of a tuna fish sandwich and a soft drink was served before the taping. Once the show started I couldn't understand why we couldn't see the cartoons in the studio as we did on TV at home. (I later learned about TV editing.) The show I attended had Sonny Fox as host with Rogers & Hammerstein as guests."
Taping on Thursday afternoons in New York City naturally meant some of the biggest names in show business and Broadway dropped by the studio to chat with Sonny and the kids. Showbiz luminaries like George Kirby, Shari Lewis, Soupy Sales, Odessa, Ritts Puppets, Victor Borge, Allen & Rossie, Bob Kane, Adam West, Burt Ward sat next to Sonny on his Carson show style set. Politicians as well, Robert Kennedy appeared on an episode.
a bit from Wonderama's early days when Sonny Fox
For the kids who made it on the show it was the thrill of a lifetime. Richard F. tells us, "I'd like to add my experience of being on the Sonny Fox show July, 1962. I was 7 years old. Typical Jewish kid from Sedwick housing projects in the Bronx. I was shocked to see how small and dingy the studio was. You had a choice of tuna or peanut butter sandwiches.
"I finally got to see Sonny - poor guy always had a 4 o'clock shadow even at 9 A.M. He looked a lot different in person than on my parent's 1950 model Admiral TV. When my hero made it to the bleachers to interview the kids I started yelling 'Sonny! Sonny!' He asked me 'WHAT...?' I very coyly said, 'I have to go to the bathroom...' He was very nice, he told them to CUT and had his assistant usher me to the bathroom. Problem was I really didn't have to go, so I faked it.
"Later in the show I was picked to play a game - 'Who do you want to be?' Most kids said 'Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Floyd Patterson...' but when it came to me... I stuttered, dribbled and said - 'I... I... want to be you.' So Sonny sat me at his desk and had me take over his job. Sonny played 'Hide Go Seek' with the camera, sticking his tongue out, acting like Sonny. He was a really great sport who loved kids and his job. I'm 48 years old, a father and husband, and still think back to that wonderful day."
In an interview with former WNBC radio host Alan Colmes in 1987, Sonny Fox recalled how the idea for the zany, stunt-like game show Just For Fun came about. Sonny's wife in 1960 (Mrs. Gloria Fox) was going to give birth to another child but Fox wasn't being paid enough for his hosting efforts on Wonderama.
"After a year of hosting Wonderama, I went to the heads of the station and I asked them if I could be paid more money for doing that show. They said, 'No, we can't pay you more money for doing that show, but if you could come up with another kid's show for our Saturday morning schedule we'll pay you more money for that.'"
Sonny didn't merely want to host a Saturday clone of Wonderama so he began to think back to his boyhood days, "to the color wars that I used to play in camp and I used that for the basis of the show."
He and TV producer / director Bob Cahn devised a program (similar to 1980's Double Dare) that had members of the studio audience divided into three teams. The White, Blue and Gold teams competed in stunts like throwing 45 rpm records at a target without breaking them, trying to catch eggs in their hands, biting into a marshmallow on a string with hands behind backs, etc. The team that was able to complete the stunts in the least amount of time won toy prizes.
In addition to Wonderama and Just For Fun, Sonny Fox hosted On Your Mark, ABC-TV's very first Saturday morning show in 1961, a game show that had kids aged nine to thirteen answer questions about different professions. It was a disappointment for the network and lasted only until the end of the year while Wonderama and Just For Fun continued to be madly popular with NYC kids.
Lisa Winston remembers, "I had the good fortune to appear on Wonderama as a kid. The first time was when Sonny Fox was the host - I had the biggest crush on him. I don't remember that much about this particular appearance - I think I was 7 - except that near the beginning of the show they used to play 'Getting to Know You' and pan the audience and show closeups of the kids. I was one of the first kids they focused on and had no idea I was on camera so I looked really spacey. But I guess the producers thought I was cute, because after the show they asked my parents if I could return to appear on a special they were producing called 'Wonderama in Portugal' (which I'm sure no one remembers at all).
"No, we didn't get to go to Portugal. They just dressed up the 67th Street studio to look like Lisbon, I guess (hey, I was 7, what did I know???). The part I do remember is at one point we're all supposed to be sitting in an outdoor cafe and Sonny Fox was telling us about a tradition where the men wore black capes and when a girl kissed them, they would tear off a piece of the cape depending on how good the kiss was. Three girls got to kiss him and I was last. After the kiss, he told me to take the whole cape. I was really embarrassed but my grandmother thought it was adorable. What I'd give for a copy of that show now..."
Lisa isn't likely to get her wish, though there are short clips (outtakes mostly) from Sonny Fox's tenure on Wonderama, there are no surviving episodes.
Sonny Fox released two kiddie recordings - "Inside Kids, Sonny Fox & His Friends Talk About?" for Peter Pan Records and "Sonny Fox Tells The Story Of Tubby The Tuba" for Simon Says Records.
Sonny MC'd Just For Fun on Saturday mornings until July 31, 1965; he left Wonderama after the August 6, 1967 broadcast.
13th, 1967, Bob McAllister began his amazing ten-year run on Wonderama.
"We had an empty studio," Bob recalled of the early days, "and
room for two hundred kids and a five year waiting list to get on."
McAllister was a natural kiddie performer, having toiled for years as a magician and ventriloquist on the kid's TV and live circuit in Norfolk and most recently Baltimore. He brought with him a reportoire of well-honed songs and characters like puppet characters Chauncey and Fadelah. "Have You Heard Any Good News Today," "Anybody here Got an Aardvark," Kids Are People Too," and other routines were repeated weekly to cheers from the raptured sea of kids McAllister swam in for six long hours.
"Wonderama kind of changed through the years," Bob McAllister told an interviewer. "I was really proud that we were the first show to integrate children, we had children that we bused in in the beginning because there were never any black kids on Wonderama. So we started with that in a couple of weeks, we didn't have to do that any more because children from all over saw different colors on Wonderama."
Jonathan Tessler recalls the McAllister years. "I not only watched Wonderama every Sunday but appeared as an audience member 3 times (my sister, cousin and I were on it in the late 60s). What a fix!
"My aunt was good friends with Bob McAllister so it was only natural that after enough whining I was able to score my first-time-ever appearance(s) on television.
"The first two times, my sis and I got zilch (if you discount the stomach ache from consuming candy and RC Cola all day). So my aunt let into Bob. The next time I was on, I not only got to play the 'Snake Charmer' in the Snake Cans game, but awarded a Deluxe Spirograph to my sister (I came away with a fire engine and assorted toys that, piled up, were taller that I was).
"I'll never forget the first time we participated in the 'Aardvark Song' - where the kids were asked to bring and show-off unusual items from home. I brought in a large leather-bound book from the 1800s (unusual enough to have all the kids ask to check it out) and my little sister brought an oversized wooden salad fork and spoon. I was embarrassed by my sister's conception of 'cool,' but it made Bob McAllister hysterical with laughter."
Here's a segment from Bob McAllister's Wonderama in the 1970s. Wonderama shows are very rare. A popular feature was Snake Cans; watch how Bob could really get his young audoience worked up.
Kids liked McAllister so much a weekday version of Wonderama aired on WNEW and in syndication from September 8, 1969 until August 21, 1970. That 90-minute series consisted mostly of edited highlights of the games from the Sunday shows along with reruns of now-familiar Looney Tunes cartoons.
Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, David Essex ABBA, Bay City Rollers, Maria von Trapp, Jerry Lewis, Pearl Bailey, Jose Feliciano, Jim Backus, Jimmy Nelson, the Wombles, Paul Lynde, Rodney Dangerfield, Chuck McCann, Soupy Sales and hundreds of other stars paraded before the Wonderama audience.
David Ferreira explains that, "Wonderama became the show that it was because of Bob McAllister and his excellent talents. Whenever I think about the show, it's Bob who comes to mind first and foremost.
"My brothers and I were on the show in May of 1970. At that age it was really a big thrill. When I was there in 1970, Bob was snapping at people off camera. This doesn't imply that he hated kids, just that he seemed to be under the stress of deadlines etc.
"The taping started at 12:30 pm and continued until 6:45pm on Wednesdays and Fridays. This is per a 1970 letter sent to my mother from WNEW's June S. Hamilton, who worked in the ticket department at the time. Quite a bit of time taping for a kid.
"The prizes were simple and the whole set for that matter was cheap, period. But it was a very original show which was hosted by a very talented man. He really knew how to entertain children, which may explain why he had such a great number of viewers. His job there must have been very demanding on him, but he never showed it, not on camera anyway. Regardless of whether or not his career was as successful as some of his guests were, Bob left a great memory with many people and in the long run that's what really matters."
An LP by Bob McAllister called 'Kids Are People Too' was released in 1971 on Roulette Records. The credit on the back states that all the songs are written by "Susan & Robin McAllister's daddy: Bob."
The list of songs from Wonderama included the title tune, "Fingleheimer stomp", "I wish, I wish (the animal song)", Exercise, "Abracadabra (instrumental)", "Heavy, heavy", "(have you heard any) Good News", "The no, no song (eh-eh- eh)", "The make-up song", and "Ecology."
McAllister recorded three other LPs - "Bob McAllister Of Wonderama" for Buddah records, "It's Great To Be A Kid" and a Christmas album.
There were seven Metromedia stations that carried Wonderama - New York, Boston, Cinncinatti, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Kansas City and Washington, DC but New Yorkers thought of it as uniquely theirs.
Wonderama fan and TV producer Brian Mitchell offers, "McAllister actually put out an album called 'Kids Are People Too' (his big signature line), and did album signings around New York in the early 70's. One of those signings occurred at Mays' Department Store near Lake Success, NY. He was appearing promptly at 10a.m. in the morning and the kids were lined up outside the store. When the doors opened, there was a stampede to the table where Mr. McAllister was. The line went around the store and outside, but I waited patiently until finally I talked to Mr. McAllister and got my autographed copy.
"I went on Wonderama about three times and here's some information regarding tapings. The show was staged at WNEW/Metromedia television studios at 205 East 67th Street in New York, just a few blocks down from the old Jim Henson shop. Overall Wonderama tapings were pretty long. You arrived Thursday at 12:30 and the taping would take about seven hours.
"They didn't supply lunch, only snacks. During each break, McAllister would step away from the kids (my guess that a few got on his nerves) and smoke like a chimney. I remember once or twice he snapped at some kid who was being annoying. Other than doing his bit for the camera, he never seemed to be interested in the kids at all. Maybe it might have been the pressure of an eight-hour long taping.
"The big Wonderama basement where they did all the dancing, was in fact, just the other side of the same studio set. All they did was aim the cameras in the other direction and pulled out those four dancing platforms and turned on the color lighting.
"At the end of the show, many kids ended up going home with just a bag of junk like Silly Putty, Lender's Bagels, Good Humor Ice Cream, Krause's Hot Dogs or some other crud. Very few won the toys. But as a kid I ate it all up cause it was a thrill, and the memories are still good. At the end of the show, they would set up for the Ten O' Clock News (which was done live in the same studio) and they brought you down from the fifth floor by elevator. The parents must have had the worst part - sitting in a small room for the whole day watching it all on the monitor.
"A funny story was relayed in a 1997 interview with Rocky Allen of WPLJ in New York. McAllister recalled that Maria Von Trapp of the Trapp family (Sound Of Music) and Richard Rodgers (Rodgers and Hammerstein) were both guests on Wonderama when the elderly Von Trapp eagerly asked the kids how old they thought she was. One kid screamed out ninety three! Rodgers leaned in to McAllister and said, 'Serves the old bag right,' to McAllisters' delight."
Don Spielvogel worked on Wonderama from 1974-78. He was Bob's assistant and offers a different perspective. "Bob didn't smoke like a chimney. He smoked on occasion, and did quit long before he died. Brian Mitchell sounds like a man who's miffed he didn't win Snake Cans.
"Bob never 'snapped' at a kid. He truly loved kids. Not just hype, but really did. And the bag of junk the kids got when they left were souvenirs. Not gold nuggets. The memories of being there is what counted. The kids were treated well. Very well. They left with a smile on their face.
"Richard Rodgers actually said 'That serves the old bitch right.'"
"The taping didn't start until 1:00pm, we weren't even allowed to have parents or kids lineup until after 'Midday Live' went off the air at noon. Also, the parents who didn't have to stay were kept in a spacious room on the third floor (Kluge Hall), with easy chairs and a couple of big monitors and soft drinks. We tried to make those who did stay comfortable. Very often, I would go down with other staff members, and allow those parents to come to the fifth floor and peek into the studio and/or control room. Against the rules, but nice to do.
"TV is not easy to make, and it takes time and patience. For a number of years, we fed the kids. But the hot lights and excitement caused upset stomachs, so we stopped, and just gave them snacks. You know, if one kid threw up, it would cause a chain reaction. Not good.
"Additionally, I worked with Bob on all of the 'Live' weekend shows he did around the country - the non-televised charity events. 90% of them were for charity - mostly Women's American ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation and Training). I negotiated the deals and worked with him at the shows along with Jan Bridge.
"Bob would make a small fee - barely enough to cover his expenses. We would supply the entire show - all of the props, toys, games, etc. All of the money above and beyond his fee would go to the charity, including a large percentage of the money from the sale of the merchandise - bagel necklaces, pins, albums, etc. We did many, many each year - almost every Saturday and Sunday in NJ, MD, DC, VA, etc. On the very rare occurrence that the turnout was light, Bob would return ALL of the money to the charity - and forego his fee. How many in the entertainment industry can make that claim?
"Bob and I (and Ralph his trained Poolie) drove from NY to LA the first week of July, 1976 - arriving in LA on July 4, 1976. We had worked out a deal with ORT to stage 8 shows in the Los Angeles area over a 2 week period. We were in places like Van Nuys, Tarzana, Culver City, etc. A few years later, I moved to L.A. and lived there for 15 years (in the Woodland Hills area) and everytime I drove by one of those High Schools where we performed, it brought back great memories of a fun and successful fund raising trip. We drove in Bob's big yellow/gold Dodge van, packed with toys and props, and while we were there car customizer George Barris painted the outside of the van to read 'Kids Are People Too.' It was quite a sight. Driving home to New York, you would not believe how many people around the country recognized Bob, and made contact with us on the CB radio. His CB handle (name) was 'Wonderama Man.'
"More random Wonderama notes: producers of Wonderama over the years included - Art Stark, former producer of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson; David Brenner (yep, the same one); Artie Forrest, who I believe just concluded directing Rosie O'Donnell, and directs Leeza; Dennis Marks, who last I heard was working for Marvel; Norman Blumenthal, former creator and producer of the original Concentration. Chet Lishawa was the director of Wonderama and the Channel 5 Ten O'Clock News, and is now a director for the Fox News Network.
"Associate Producers included Jan Bridge, a major force for Wonderama being on the cutting edge of the music business in the seventies. Jan Now works for Sony Music, Gary Hunt - now a partner of Hunt-Jaffe Productions in LA, Other staffers included Anna DeSimone - where are you Anna?, and Neme Schlesinger - where are you now, Neme?
"Other Wonderama guests included - Marcel Marceau, Neil Sedaka, Edward Villella, Roberta Peters, Jacques Cousteau, Leroy Neiman, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, dancer Ann Reinking (was on the same show as The Jacksons), ABBA, Bay City Rollers, Dick Clark (Anna & I appeared on that show in 'The 25,000 Peanut Pyramid'), Rodney Dangerfield, Charlie Strauss and the cast of the original Annie, Mark Wilson, Harry Blackstone, David Copperfield, Dick Van Dyke, and literally a hundred more."
WNEW dropped Bob McAllister following an emotional Christmas Day broadcast in 1977. "I've been proud of what I've done," he told the kids on that last broadcast.
"Then they reran (Wonderama) for three years afterwards and edited out all the guests that we had on the show because they didn't want to pay the 325 bucks, so that hurt quite a bit seeing the shows cut up."
McAllister went public with his distaste over this practice after watching reruns of his show one Sunday and seeing an ad for a Charles Bronson movie. "I had never allowed violence in the frame work of Wonderama. So I took out a rather elaborate display ad in the New York Times and told parents not to watch it anymore."
An embarrassed WNEW briefy replaced Wonderama with 1960's superhero cartoons like Space Ghost and Spiderman, before returning Wonderama to the airwaves on Sunday morning, October 5, 1980 as a one-hour news magazine / travelogue for teens.
The new format was hosted by a group of kid actors - Laura Condon, Alana Brown, Dwight Williams and Bobby Clark. They covered human interest stories on location around the greater New York area as well as interviewed guests in the studio.
By the third season, the studio segments were dropped as the show shrank to thirty minutes. New correspondents Pam Potillo, Claude Brooks, Laura McDonald, Emillio Esteves (not the son of Martin Sheen), and future game show host and producer J. D. Roth were brought in to replace the original group.
Wonderama ceased production in the fall of 1983 but reruns continued for the next four years on Saturday mornings.
WHAT HAPPENED TO
THE WONDERAMA HOSTS?
After leaving Wonderama Sandy Becker went on to become one of the most sought after cartoon voice artists of the late-1960s. He did some TV commercials for Tropicana orange juice in the early-seventies , then disappeared. Sandy Becker didn't return to TV until 1984 when he appeared on Off The Set (a NYC based late night talk show with Stewart Klein as the host) and 40 Years Of Fine Tuning, a two-hour long tribute to WABD/WNEW's four decades of broadcasting). His last appearance was in 1986 on Soupy Sales WNBC radio program Lunch With Soupy Sales (not to be confused with Sales' 1950's/1960's kidult TV show). He died in 1996 after years of suffering from heart problems.
Following his aburpt departure from Wonderama, Herb Sheldon went to WNTA TV 13 in Newark, N.J. to briefly host a Saturday morning rip-off of Wonderama titled "Funderama." He also MC'd a late night game show for adults, Hold That Camera from 1958 to 1959. He then moved to WOR 9 in NYC to host the Looney Tunes Show in September of 1959. The show did so well with NYC's young viewers that it was retitled "The Herb Sheldon Show" and ran until May 29, 1962; he also hosted The Mischief Makers, where he entertained viewers between the silent Little Rascals film comedies weekday evenings from Monday, September 19, 1960 until Friday June 9, 1961.
Sheldon left kid's TV hosting in 1962 due to heart trouble. He became the owner of two summer stock theaters, The Tinkerpound Playhouse in Sysoset, L.I. and the Mountauk Point Playhouse where he also staged, produced and performed in plays. He also co-owned a restaurant in Long Island and became involved with many charities including "The Celebrity Parades For United Cerebral Palsy Telethons" with Mrs. Jane Pickens Langley (Hoving) and Dennis James. Herb Sheldon died on July 21, 1964.
After Wonderama, Bob McAllister hosted Kids Are People, Too, a ninety-minute talk/variety series for ABC in 1978, airing Sunday mornings at 10:00am. He was replaced after one season by a younger host - Michael Young.
Don Spielvogel, Bob's former Wonderama assistant recalls, "After I moved to LA in 1978, and Bob was no longer hosting Kids Are People Too, he came to stay with me for a couple of weeks in the early 1980's, and did a week's worth of shows at The Magic Castle for packed houses every night. It was great to be there, and great to work again with Bob in front of the likes of Cary Grant, David Niven, and a who's who of the entertainment industry - all loving the show he did. He geared the live Wonderama and magic show to adults and everyone had a ball. Castle owner Milt Larson was thrilled."
Thereafter, Bob McAllister returned to New York and taught adult magic classes at Stuyvesant High School, performed shows at nearby theme parks and later did a nightclub act for the kids, now grown up, that he entertained years earlier. Only now they were drunk.
Bob McAllister died of lung cancer on July 21, 1998. Marc Natanagara tells us, "I was saddened to hear of the passing of Bob McAllister, but only slightly more so than I was to see him on a tiny stage at New Jersey's Six Flags Great Adventure about four years earlier. He was doing the same shtick to the same schmucks (okay, we watched for awhile) and I would not have imagined him to be ill. The small audience seemed either to be the morbidly curious or old-timers like us (we were about 30) dragging their kids to see what they used to watch every Sunday for three hours on channel 5 (before it became Fox). Strangely enough, the kids were eating it up.
"An even better story from New Jersey dates back to when I was about 8 (1972). My parents got us tickets to see Wonderama at the Paramount theater in Asbury Park (now actually making a comeback after years of neglect). I don't know if they were as stupid as my younger brother and I were or if they were just going along with the game, but we all seemed to think we were going to be on TV. Instead, it was just a scaled down version on the Paramount's hard cement floor with kids packed into a few old bleachers. I recall being very disappointed not seeing any cameras. I also don't remember old Bob being very friendly. We still watched the show religiously, though, and I told all my friends that I was on Wonderama. Don't tell my wife I wasn't."
Bill Britten went on to play Bozo in the NYC area and took small roles in movies like Fame in 1980. He is semi-retired but occasionally does voice-overs for radio and TV commercials and works as a performer, writer and director of stage plays.
"My big brother got to sit in the audience on Wonderama, so Sonny Fox was always kind of a big deal in our house in Jersey. Okay, maybe not as big as Soupy Sales.
"I work as a news producer and came across an interesting story a few years ago about a group called Population Communications International. They devote a lot of their energies toward encouraging writers and producers of soap operas to put some kind of socially relevant message in their shows -- not just U.S. soaps, but in countries with serious concerns about overpopulation like India and Mexico and the Phillippines. Their primary focus is on getting out anti-AIDs and pro-contraception information, preventing teenage pregnancies, and trying to use entertainment shows to get this message out (Even if it's a somewhat controversial one, especially in predominantly Catholic countries).
"I got a call from their chairman, Sonny Fox. I told him he had the same name as a kid's show host I used to watch in New York thirty years ago. He went into a Wonderama routine over the phone.
"When we shot our story with him, Sonny looked pretty much the same; not bad for someone who's got to be around seventy. He didn't look like he'd been re-built by a bunch of plastic surgeons, either. He was charming and very much committed to his full-time cause.
"He has since hosted a Hollywood event called the 'Soap Summit,' where producers and stars of All My Children and all those other shows got together and discussed politics. Weird, but interesting.
"If you're curious, his organization's website is: www.population.org."
Sonny Fox hosted other kid shows and became head of Saturday morning television for NBC for one season in 1977. Sonny Fox is currently Sr. VP of Population Communications International and is writing his memoirs. He tells us, "Whenever I meetup with former viewers, I am struck by how vivid the realtionship remains. What wonderful satisfaction to know that one has left a thumbprint on the malleable minds of young people - an impression which is still alive after thirty years."
Mr. Dennis Marks, the writer of many TV cartoon series like The Beatles, Batfink, Josie & the Pussycats, the 1980's animated versions of Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk and the producer of Bob McAllister's version of WNEW's Wonderama died in January of 2006. He was a great talent and will be missed.
Author Joel Eisner, who has published some of the finest books on Classic TV of all time including the Batman Batbook writes:
It was taped 10 days in advance of the broadcast, so we took the train from Brooklyn, to Channel 5 on a Wednesday afternoon, the show was taped from about 2PM until 8 PM. The guest was some teenage girl pool player, which was taped first and later cut into the program. The show was disappointing, they decided to use stock footage from a previous season of parents (not of the kids in the audience of our show) doing all the games and stunts. we just sat in the bleachers and watched the tape on the monitors. They didn't even do the snake can game. (After the taping, the brought cans out and let the kids play a round off camera. One kid won the bicycle and I happened to be on the subway platform when the took the bike home)
McAllister stayed away from the audience except when on camera then disappeared between shots. Lunch at at about 4 PM consisted of a good humor ice cream bar and a can of soda. When we finally left, the gave us a Wonderama shopping back with a smash Twinkie, a few pieces of candy and a gift certificate for a free hamburger at Burger King. Needless to say, we were tired and disappointed.
In the Summer of 1981, I interned for College credit at Channel 5 in the Programming Department. I was the one who produced the weekly schedule of reruns to be distributed to the press. I had access to much of the files on every show they aired. I found the Wonderama file and asked the woman who I was working for why McCallisiter was dropped from the program and was replaced with reruns. Now this is what she told me: McAllister was an ultra liberal, who tried to pressure the station into having more minority kids in the audience.
By the mid 1970's and having been on the show I can tell you from first hand experiance that my friend and I were among handful of white kids in the audience of what was about 100 or more kids. So, what McAllister was complaing about was ridiculous. I was informed he was becoming unreaonable and when he demanded that the station pay for buses to bring minority (in particular black kids) in from Philadelphia, they fired him. Every other story as to why he was let go was just invented to cover up this incident.
The last time I heard about McAllister was not long before he died. He made an appearance at the now defunct Brooklyn comedy club called Pip's in Sheepshead Bay performing his magic act for kids. I thought this was sort of sad end to his bright career.
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