A friend recently posted an obituary on Facebook for Bill Cardille, an iconic Pittsburgh TV personality. Cardille is best remembered as "Chilly Billy" the host of "Chiller Theater," an iconic show from the '60s that introduced many of us to classic horror movies. This prompted a slew of comments about favorite local TV shows when we were kids, and I couldn't help chiming in with my own.
I grew up in northern New Jersey, watching shows from local New York stations, and I still remember waking up early Saturday and Sunday mornings, sitting in front of the family RCA television set in my Superman pajamas with a stack of Oreos, watching a test pattern waiting for the station to start its broadcast day. With my parents still asleep, I was large and in charge.
Saturdays were loaded with cartoons from TV's earliest days like the crudely animated "Spunky and Tadpole," "Crusader Rabbit" and "Colonel Bleep," along with the more sophisticated Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle toons. But Sunday morning shows had the hosts. I'd click between Channel 5 and 11, watching "Wonderama" with Sonny Fox and "Let's Have Fun" with Chuck McCann, and I didn't even care that there was no such thing as remote control.
"Wonderama" was great but it went on for four hours and sometimes got a bit boring—there were spelling bees, Shakespeare and educational guests—but "Let's Have Fun" more than lived up to its name.
Thanks almost entirely to the silly antics and singular talents of the great Chuck McCann. Of all the kiddie hosts, Chuck made me laugh the most. He pretty much played all of the characters on the show and I particularly loved when he read the Sunday comics dressed up as Little Orphan Annie or Dick Tracy. Cream pies and other props would routinely fly in from off-camera assailants and he'd often crack up in the middle of these bits, right along with me and a million other kids.
He also hosted "The Chuck McCann Show" on weekday afternoons, introducing my entire generation to Laurel and Hardy. He sometimes even dressed up as Oliver Hardy and also used hand puppets of the legendary comedy team as his co-hosts. It was always another fine mess.
Soupy Sales also started out as a local host before his pie-in-the-face comedy brought him national fame (and to my attention) on Channel 5. Soupy had his own guest puppets—White Fang, Black Tooth, Pookie the Lion—and gave us a new song and dance called "The Mouse." He also got himself (and some of us) in hot water by telling kids to take the funny green papers with pictures of the presidents out of our parent's wallets and send them to him. My folks were not amused.
But that's because all of these shows and their hosts weren't talking to them—they were talking to me. On weekday mornings, we attended TV school with Miss Louise who taught us to be a "Do-Bee" not a "Don't Bee" on "Romper Room." After school in the late afternoon, naval officer "Captain" Jack McCarthy sailed in with Popeye cartoons followed by "Police Officer" Joe Bolton and The Three Stooges.
There was also Ray Heatherton's "Merry Mailman" delivering Hercules cartoons and "The Sandy Becker Show" which featured an ensemble of ethnic puppets, curious child Norton Nork and the popular fast-talking, Hambone. Finally, at 7 PM, we had "Ringmaster Claude Kirshner's Terrytoon Circus" and his puppet sidekick Clowny, who'd send us off to bed at the show's end.
But the best was saved for Saturday nights when Zacherley, "the Cool Goul," came on and spooked the hell out of us with horror movies. He was creepy, corny and irresistibly strange, everything I wanted in a friend. Those horror flicks—ranging from Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man to ultra-low budget gems like "Plan 9 from Outer Space"—were the first films I truly loved and I get as much pleasure from them now as I did back then.
I think the main reason we bonded so strongly with these hosts is that they treated us like peers, like friends. They talked to us and not at us and were only interested in showing us a good time. And that's why we'll remember them forever.