Life

The stars who turned Detroiters into couch potatoes

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 firstcommercial radio station, was not alone for long. Later in 1947, WXYZ went on the air onChannel 7 and WJBK set up shop on Channel 2.

The stations competed for a tiny audience at first. Only 6,400 Detroithomes had television sets in 1948. In 10 years, that number exploded to 1.9 million sets, andwith 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 shavingcream pie – a dish served up nearly every time Soupy stuck his face out the door of his set.

ImageSoupy 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 allDetroit, 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 nextdoor (Soupy in drag) also visited the set regularly.

While Soupy was teaching Detroit kids the Soupy Shuffle during theday, 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, alsoWyatt Burp, and the French singer, Charles Vichyssoise.

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

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 ClareCummings as Milky the Clown. Milky worked in a plug for his sponsor every time he did amagic 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 Stoogesshorts that hosted “characters” like Johnny Ginger dressed as a bell hop or stage hand. AndToby David as Captain Jolly.

David, who died at age 80 in 1994, started in New York radio in the1930s. He had parts in several NBC radio shows including Bob Hope, Garry Moore, JackieGleason and the children’s show “Let’s Pretend.” He came to Detroit in 1940s, where his radiowork 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 thenation. His pals included Whitey the Mouse, Sylvester the Seal, puppets Cecil and Stanley andan 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 torock n’ roll, there were local radio disc jockeys ready to show them the latest dances on TV. EdMackenzie, 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 theBellboy.” Known for smashing records he did not like, he hosted the two-hour “Saturday DanceParty” show in the late 1950s.

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

ImageDance 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 theshow by mail, and in 1957 there was a 6,000-request backlog. Davies also started “hops” atMetro Detroit schools, which featured records but no live bands. Soon after the first one washeld at Detroit’s Denby High School, the hops became more popular than regular dances.

Another disc jockey who moved from radio to television was FredWolf, who pioneered televised bowling by hosting 800 TV games. He later owned EastlandBowl and continued promoting the game. While Wolf hosted the pros, Bob Allison hosted localtalents 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 tohave 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 wasquieter television fare like George Pierrot’s travel show five afternoons a week.

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George Pierrot

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

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

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

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Bill Kennedy

The king was former B-movie actor and film trivia master BillKennedy. He aired films daily, and his Sunday afternoon show regularly attracted more than halfMetro Detroit’s viewers — even up against pro football.

For 30 years, Kennedy wowed Detroiters with his blinding plaid jacketsand encyclopedic knowledge of movies, stars and Hollywood gossip. Viewers would call in withquestions 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 theirown loyal subjects.

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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 radiostation. During the 1940s she hosted the “Lady of Charm” show, which moved to TV as acooking 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.

ImageEdythe 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 interviewedcelebrities such as Lucille Ball and President Eisenhower. She had an aloof glamour, sometimessyrupy and breezy. Her fans loved her and her dachshund, Liebchen, who once licked off one ofher 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 showwith 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. Shereplied, “He thinks you are doing a fine job.”

But politics was the mainstay of Gordon’s show. He regularly attackedDetroit’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 PresidentNixon.

Gordon’s most famous interview was with Michigan Gov. GeorgeRomney. Romney was seeking the Republican nomination for president, and many thought hehad a chance. But when Gordon asked Romney why he had changed his stand on the war inVietnam, Romney said U.S. officials had “brainwashed” him about the war during a visit to thecountry. Newspapers and broadcasters across the country reported the quote and Romney’spresidential bid was destroyed.

ImageBob McNea as Bozo the Clown.

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News