Sunday, February 27, 2000

The stars who turned Detroiters into couch potatoes

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News

It all started in 1947 when WWJ-TV began broadcasting over Channel 4 to a handful of viewers in Metro Detroit. But WWJ, started by The Detroit News in the 1920s as the nation's first commercial radio station, was not alone for long.

    But WWJ, started by The Detroit News in the 1920s as the nation's first commercial radio station, was not alone for long. Later in 1947, WXYZ went on the air on Channel 7 and WJBK set up shop on Channel 2.

    The stations competed for a tiny audience at first. Only 6,400 Detroit homes had television sets in 1948. In 10 years, that number exploded to 1.9 million sets, and with the growth came a host of local television heroes.

    An all-time favorite of baby boomers was Soupy Sales, the wise-cracking comic artist formerly known as Milton Heinz.

    The house specialty for "Lunch with Soupy" at noon was shaving cream pie - a dish served up nearly every time Soupy stuck his face out the door of his set.

Image Soupy Sales got a pie in the face every time he stuck his face out the door of his set.

    Between pies, Soupy's face was pawed by the meanest dog in all Detroit, White Fang, and petted by the nicest dog in the land, Black tooth. Pookie the Lion, Hippi the hippo, and Willie the Worm also wiggled into the scene. And, Peaches the girl next door (Soupy in drag) also visited the set regularly.

    While Soupy was teaching Detroit kids the Soupy Shuffle during the day, he was entertaining their parents with his 11 p.m. show, "Soupy's On."

    The evening show featured Rube Weiss as the drunken songwriter. Other regulars included Shouting Shorty Hogan, and the squeaky voiced Lone Stranger, also Wyatt Burp, and the French singer, Charles Vichyssoise.

    In addition to the slapstick, Soupy offered the best jazz around. His TV band included Jack Brokensha, Stan Getz and Milt Jackson. His guests included Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holliday and Dizzy Gillespie.

    While Soupy later moved on to stints in New York and Los Angeles, there was no lack of local talent to entertain Metro Detroit's young viewers.

    There were the clowns like Bozo, portrayed by Bob McNea, and Clare Cummings as Milky the Clown. Milky worked in a plug for his sponsor every time he did a magic trick and said the magic words "Twin Pines." Merv Welch starred as "Wixie the Clown" by day, an offered raunchy adult stand up comedy in the bars at night.

    There was a stream of shows featuring cartoons and Three Stooges shorts that hosted "characters" like Johnny Ginger dressed as a bell hop or stage hand. And Toby David as Captain Jolly.

    David, who died at age 80 in 1994, started in New York radio in the 1930s. He had parts in several NBC radio shows including Bob Hope, Garry Moore, Jackie Gleason and the children's show "Let's Pretend." He came to Detroit in 1940s, where his radio work included reading Detroit Times comics on the air.

    But David is most remembered for hosting the "Popeye and His Pals" cartoon show during the 1950s and 1960s, which was among the top rated kid shows in the nation. His pals included Whitey the Mouse, Sylvester the Seal, puppets Cecil and Stanley and an off-camera Wihelmina the Whale who plotted constantly to get Captain Jolly into the water.

    As the boomers grew and their tastes turned from Romper Room to rock n' roll, there were local radio disc jockeys ready to show them the latest dances on TV. Ed Mackenzie, Robin Seymour and Bud Davies offered programs featuring local kids dancing the "Chicken," the "Stroll," the "Swim" and a whole lot more.

    MacKenzie started in the late 1940s on WJBK radio as "Jack the Bellboy." Known for smashing records he did not like, he hosted the two-hour "Saturday Dance Party" show in the late 1950s.

    Seymour hosted "Swinging Time" on CKLW until 1968. Seymour's career spanned everything from the big band era to the British invasion. But he missed a beat somewhere when he predicted that Elvis Presley was a sure loser, who "wouldn't last more than a year." Seymour's television show featured 50 to 75 local kids dancing six days a week. Two were chosen for each show to give "yea" or "boo" opinions on new records.

Image Dance show host Robin Seymour once predicted Elvis Presley wouldn't last a year.

    Davies' "Dance Party" aired five days a week. Teens got tickets to the show by mail, and in 1957 there was a 6,000-request backlog. Davies also started "hops" at Metro Detroit schools, which featured records but no live bands. Soon after the first one was held at Detroit's Denby High School, the hops became more popular than regular dances.

    Another disc jockey who moved from radio to television was Fred Wolf, who pioneered televised bowling by hosting 800 TV games. He later owned Eastland Bowl and continued promoting the game. While Wolf hosted the pros, Bob Allison hosted local talents on "Bowling for Dollars."

    Detroit wrestling fans watched the televised antics of local stars like "Dick the Bruiser" and "The Sheik."

    The Sheik kept his real identity secret, claiming at various times to have been born in Tokyo, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Traverse City. He also claimed he made $10 million by making the fans love to hate him.

    While the screaming of the wrestlers attracted audiences, there was quieter television fare like George Pierrot's travel show five afternoons a week.

George Pierrot

    Pierrot had started his World Adventure Series at the Detroit Institute of Arts during the Depression. Detroiters paid 25 cents each to hear his talks and watch his films about his trips around the world.

    His television show featured the films and talks of other world travelers, such as the bicycle rider and humorist Stan Midgley. Occasionally, some of his guest's tales would drag on and Pierrot was seen dozing on his set more than once. But his whimsical humor and rambling tales delighted his loyal fans.

    Another group of local television heroes that attracted a loyal following were the movie show hosts.

Bill Kennedy

    The king was former B-movie actor and film trivia master Bill Kennedy. He aired films daily, and his Sunday afternoon show regularly attracted more than half Metro Detroit's viewers -- even up against pro football.

    For 30 years, Kennedy wowed Detroiters with his blinding plaid jackets and encyclopedic knowledge of movies, stars and Hollywood gossip. Viewers would call in with questions that he would answer off the cuff or not at all - "How d'ya expect me to know that?"

    Some of his shows were taped, but he left all his mistakes intact. Mistakes enhanced his reputation and he knew it. He added corrections later in his show.

    While Kennedy ruled as the king of movie hosts, the queens had their own loyal subjects.

Rita Bell

    Rita Bell hosted "Prize Movie" on WXYZ for 21 years starting in 1960. She aired more than 6,000 movies. "Yes, I watch them all," she said.

    Another movie hostess was Edythe Fern Melrose, better known as the "Lady of Charm." She started her career in the 1920s as the first woman to manage a radio station. During the 1940s she hosted the "Lady of Charm" show, which moved to TV as a cooking and talk show with topics for women. It ran from 1948 until 1960.

    In 1948, she built her "House O' Charm" on the shore of Lake St Clair. It was the first home to be built for testing all the products before she recommended them. Later, she added "The Charm Kitchen" which aired daily, and "House O' Fashion," a weekly show.

Image Edythe Fern Melrose, better known as the "Lady of Charm."

    Mary Morgan, once called "the most beautiful woman on radio," hosted movies along with starring on other local TV and radio programs. She interviewed celebrities such as Lucille Ball and President Eisenhower. She had an aloof glamour, sometimes syrupy and breezy. Her fans loved her and her dachshund, Liebchen, who once licked off one of her false eyelashes and ate it on the air.

    Occasionally, local TV stars had an unusual impact on national affairs.

    Lou Gordon and his wife, Jackie, hosted a Saturday evening talk show with the most provocative and controversial guests available.

    Some guests were just oddballs, like flying saucer buffs and psychics. He asked one psychic who claimed to talk with God to tell him what God thought of him. She replied, "He thinks you are doing a fine job."

    But politics was the mainstay of Gordon's show. He regularly attacked Detroit's mayors as corrupt. He interviewed politicians like Jimmy Carter and George Wallace, who stormed off the show. He debated with Bob Hope, who tried to defend his friend President Nixon.

    Gordon's most famous interview was with Michigan Gov. George Romney. Romney was seeking the Republican nomination for president, and many thought he had a chance. But when Gordon asked Romney why he had changed his stand on the war in Vietnam, Romney said U.S. officials had "brainwashed" him about the war during a visit to the country. Newspapers and broadcasters across the country reported the quote and Romney's presidential bid was destroyed.

Image Bob McNea as Bozo the Clown.