by Ian Pugh Take a gander at the stuff you used to watch as a kid and you'll more than likely come to two realizations: 1) that a lot of stupefying crap wormed its way into your living room; and 2) that the shows that were actually pretty good tended to throw out a lot of jokes that flew right over your preteen head. Dedicating each of its four discs to a different block of children's programming from some indeterminate period of the Golden Decade*, Shout! Factory's Hiya, Kids!!: A '50s Saturday Morning DVD collection strongly suggests that this would prove true of every generation from the boomers on. Entire plotlines ripped from the pages of LIFE magazine, a bobbing camera briefly acting the part of the audience collectively nodding its head in agreement, "Hamlet" characterized as a comedy--watching television from fifty years ago is an interesting venture, though "interesting" may be as far as a greenhorn like me can go in examining this set. Although it appears to have deliberately avoided iconic moments from the shows in question in order to maintain the illusion of simply stumbling on them with a flip of the dial, Hiya, Kids!! is somewhat self-defeating as the re-creation of an experience. It's easy to get the gist of the show in question (the "dramas" are especially easy to pin down), but it's extremely difficult to form a substantial opinion about anything in this line-up. True that you often decide whether or not to dedicate yourself to a TV series on the basis of one episode, but with the sheer number of interactive concepts on display--most notably in all-inclusive "clubs"--you realize that the phenomenon that surrounded many of these programs contributed immeasurably to their purpose and appeal. Alas, without much context, the brilliant concept behind Hiya, Kids!! tends to feel a little arbitrary.
You can also sense a strain on Shout!'s part to portray a cross-section of the decade's archaic social mores. Though the premises of "The Cisco Kid" and "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" more or less demand a uniform dedication to political incorrectness, racist overtones in a single episode of "Time for Beany" and sexist remarks in a single episode of "Flash Gordon" cast doubt on the notion that such attitudes were really so casual as to become tightly concentrated into a single Saturday morning. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't; again, the unavoidably fractured format makes Hiya, Kids!! somewhat dubious as either genuine entertainment or education. Despite being or maybe because I was born thirty-odd years after the fact, I relished the opportunity to explore this era of television--yet all I really took away from this sampler was that advertising techniques were a lot more intrusive back then (though the pop-ups and watermarks increasingly common in prime time herald a return to these halcyon days), and that milquetoast schlubs in the Zeppo Marx mold could have a steady career so long as they were doing something patriotic. Of course, I can probably watch any given episode of that shitty "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" cartoon completely without context, understand everything, and end up pining for a childhood spent with action figures that now rot away in a closet somewhere. I suspect Hiya, Kids!! is first and foremost a nostalgic fetish object aimed at those who grew up with the shows in question.
The set's A/V quality indicates that the DVD's producers may not have had a lot of choice in terms of episode selection. Image and sound vary wildly between programs, although they're all mired in various states of blur and/or buzz, and contrast is blown-out almost across the board. Resembling a bad photocopy, "Kids and Company" is virtually unwatchable, while "The Cisco Kid" (the only colorcast on offer) is smeared, noisy, and abundantly brown. One might attribute these problems to the inherently lousy quality of kinescopes, but much of this material appears to come from consumer-grade dubs, as demonstrated by the occasional tape-based tracking error. Note as well that advertisements were removed from the original broadcasts of some shows but not others--wait, back up, there was a Geritol Junior? (Doubtful that episodes of "The Magic Clown" would make any sense without their ads.) The only bonus is an insert booklet containing helpful synopses of the featured programs; trailers for "The Johnny Carson Show", three seasons of "McHale's Navy", and "The Milton the Monster Show" cue up on startup of the first disc.
The platters break down as follows:
The set starts off with a surprisingly sophisticated episode of puppet show "Kukla, Fran and Ollie". Pseudo-human hand-puppet Kukla reads an article from LIFE and attempts to categorize his friends according to excessively simplified "highbrow" (ballet) and "lowbrow" ("cowboy picture") standards. With "good" and "evil" serving as popular signifiers in shows like these, it's impressive, to say the least, that a children's program would discourage its viewers from applying knee-jerk labels to both people and genres of entertainment. The downside? Everything screeches to a halt when the puppets launch into a comprehensive overview of a record player from sponsor RCA Victor.
No such problems plague "Howdy Doody", which drops us in the middle of an apparently long-term plotline wherein the villainous Mr. Bluster hits up Howdy and Buffalo Bob Smith for five of the ten thousand (literal) marbles they owe him. Even for the era, the show feels charmingly analog (Buffalo Bob voices the Howdy puppet from just outside the frame) and is careful to include its live and home audiences every step of the way. The seamless interactivity of this episode makes it immediately apparent why "Howdy Doody" became a cultural touchstone, and the show probably best represents the intentions of the set as a whole.
An episode of "Lassie" finds the heroic dog thrust into a practical cameo as his owner Jeff builds a treehouse with dumbass friend Porky Brockway, only to end the friendship after the treehouse is wrecked under mysterious circumstances. Lassie later runs off into the night to reveal that a runaway carnival bear was the true culprit. I remember watching and enjoying the "Timmy" era of "Lassie" when it reran on Nickelodeon; one hopes that the show normally gave her more to do than this.
Far more exciting is "Annie Oakley", a reasonably entertaining B-western starring Gail Davis as the famous sharpshooter. Oakley here is the sheriff of a small town, a wise move considering that the presence of an actual story precludes a preponderance of the novelty tricks that became the real-life Oakley's bread and butter. Or, at least, it does in "Annie and the Bicycle Riders," in which a couple of no-good rustlers stick-up a post office and hide their ill-gotten gains in a box of bicycle parts owned by a husband-and-wife team of transcontinental riders. Most interesting to contemplate is how Annie's younger brother Tagg's fascination with biking neatly parallels the contemporary kiddie obsession with westerns.
Next up: a melodramatic instalment of "Flash Gordon" entitled "Deadline at Noon." Some kind of space-communist plants a space-bomb somewhere in 20th century Berlin, and our lantern-jawed space-heroes have a half-hour to travel back in time and disarm it before it blows up Earth in the space-future. If that sort of ticking-clock scenario is ultimately irreconciliable with the ready-and-waiting time machine, the show's stilted acting and heavy reliance on stock footage already recall one of Ed Wood's disasterpieces, anyway, so the gaps in logic are hardly shocking. There is a complex moment where Flash and company marvel at the primitive world of 1953 and mention that, unlike the scientists of their own day, the women there really know their way around a kitchen. It sounds outrageously sexist at first, but think about it for a minute: was this an awkwardly-stated plea to break away from long-standing gender stereotypes? Eh, probably not.
One of the most bizarre things I've ever seen, "Ding Dong School" is essentially an unbroken shot of matronly Dr. Frances Horwich, who teaches her audience how to blow bubbles, bounce balls, and fold handkerchief origami (seriously, handkerchiefs?) before ordering them to run off and play while she shares a word with their parents. It's a precursor to "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood", I guess, in the sense that the host speaks directly to the audience, but ol' Fred was never quite as patronizing as Miss Frances. This is more like a Bible school approximation of fun--a series of repetitive activities based exclusively on some abstract idea of how "proper" children should behave. No real surprise that the show was sponsored by kid-tested/mother-approved/cardboard-flavoured Kix.
As for Bob Clampett's "Time for Beany", you'd be better off hunting down the "Beany and Cecil" animated series for a taste of its creator's wacky-yet-droll sense of humour. Still, there's a winking slyness to the whole affair: with its largely static human puppets and unabashed hand-sock Cecil, it never lets you forget for a moment that the characters are manipulated by puppeteers and invites you to have fun regardless. Not to be missed is a bit with a man in a white gorilla suit slapping Cecil around while our favourite seasick sea serpent sings "Ach du Leiber Augustin."
A far less successful puppet property, the Yuletide episode of "The Paul Winchell Show" sees ventriloquist Winchell imagining Christmas past and future with his dummy Jerry Mahoney in tow. About the only thing you learn from watching "Wacky Races" or "The Smurfs" is that Winchell was an incredibly talented voice actor, but this episode of his own show fails pretty spectacularly to build on that talent. The basic formula boils down to Winchell and Jerry trading lame jokes and song lyrics; it always seems a hair's breadth away from prompting its host to drink a glass of water while Jerry sings "Swannee River." Let's face it: ventriloquist dummies constitute a pretty piss-poor form of entertainment and are just plain creepy. Interrupting the "action" are commercials for Cheer detergent and "beauty soap" Camay that hilariously/awkwardly position these products as the best friend of bored housewives.
In "The Roy Rogers Show", Roy is kidnapped by a bank robber who orders our hero to utilize his superior tracking skills to locate his lost equine buddy before his gang holds up a money exchange. This episode encapsulates my problem with Roy Rogers and his "singing cowboy" shtick: he never treats the western like a genre so much as an enterprise; the familiar hats and six-guns are lethargically part of a brand rather than a convention.
Similarly, science-fiction Mr. Wizard "Captain Z-RO" expects a set filled with robots, flashing lights, and weird machines to distract from the show's painful didacticism. Although most episodes apparently sent its characters back in time to fix written-history gone awry, this one revolves around the construction of Roger the Robot, a giant walking thermos intended for transport to Venus that's accidentally sent to San Francisco, where it predictably wreaks havoc. The action is clearly secondary, however, to Captain Z-RO's protracted lessons about Venus' orbital rotation and the various sights of the City by the Bay.
"The Rootie Kazootie Club" is another puppet show, a knock-off of "Howdy Doody" that stars the non-descript child-puppet Rootie Kazootie and his terrifying English-speaking Dalmatian, Gala Poochie Pup (formerly "Little Nipper," after the RCA Victor mascot). It's nowhere as engaging as "Howdy", "Kukla, Fran and Ollie", or "Time for Beany", but I love the fact that the young audience is furnished with rolled-up newspapers with which to whack Snidely Whiplash-esque villain Poison Zoomack at the appropriate moment. Now that's comedy.
Apparently the first truly "interactive" television show, "Winky Dink and You" features Jack Barry and his sidekick Winky Dink, a crudely-animated elf who resides in a nearby video monitor (and is voiced by the former Betty Boop, Mae Questel). They encourage the kids at home to wrap a special brand of transparent plastic across their television screens and draw various images on it per the show's instruction; these scribbles are then "brought to life" in one silly scenario after another. The predominance of empty space makes it strange enough to watch without the aid of the "Winky Dink kit," but Barry's extended guilt trip was enough to make me feel bad for not owning the damned thing. Which was, of course, precisely the point. That said, it's a model of restraint next to "Super Circus", a tiring round of typical Ringling Brothers nonsense (trapeze artists, clowns acting stupid) sandwiched between long, long advertisements for 3 Musketeers and Snickers bars.
Better known today as a western cliché, character actor Andy Devine hosts "Andy's Gang", a kiddie revue that starts off with a paean for Buster Brown Shoes and seamlessly flows into a storytime interlude starring Native American stereotypes. Every line is littered with tortured metaphors and/or completely bereft of contractions; nothing to see here, folks--until the second half, that is, at which point the show becomes quite fascinating for its (unintentionally?) surreal imagery. At the behest of one "Froggy the Gremlin," Devine performs a soft-shoe routine to the accompaniment of a harmonica-playing orangutan. With Devine caught somewhere between kindly authority figure and honorary kid, you have to wonder if the folks who grew up on this show were heartbroken to see him play the part of the cowardly relic of the West in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance a few years later.
An episode of the notoriously cheesy "The Cisco Kid" (as in "Oh, Cisco!") has the Hispanic caballero and his cowardly sidekick Poncho protecting a wayward young woman from harm in a treacherous ghost town. It's light and predictable, though it fits in rather nicely with a hypothetical block of programming for a lazy Saturday morning. Besides, it has a working knowledge of tension, unlike "Sky King". The hero pilot of the title--whose name I guess is "Sky King"--manages to rescue a blind kid's dog and capture a thief in one fell swoop. Yet when you get right down to it, he's just some middle-aged guy with an aviator's license who flies around and looks for things. The concept surely delivered more thrills in its original radio format.
Back-to-back episodes of "The Magic Clown" test the limits of childhood gullibility with an aggressive ad campaign for Bonomo's Turkish Taffy that flanks pedestrian magic tricks. And crops up during the magic tricks, too: "Bonomo" is the Magic Clown's "abracadabra," chanted by the grade-school audience--all wearing fezzes, like the mascot on the wrapper--at appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) intervals. It's an insidious way to pimp your goods, but maybe not quite as overtly cynical as the limited-time offer for "the magic clown magic face kit"--evidently nothing but a piece of paper and some pipe cleaners that could be yours for twenty cents...and a Bonomo wrapper. Though it sports a goose puppet that tells us "the fun of having feet is wearing Red Goose Shoes," "Kids and Company" is considerably less obnoxious in its product placement, if finally left wanting for actual content. For what it's worth, although the set calls it a contemporary "American Idol", it's more of a straightforward talent show, complete with patriotic songs and stories of kids who saved their friends from fires and alligators. Heart-warming, I suppose, but I can't imagine tuning in week after week.
Jack Barry acts the part of the smug asshole in "Juvenile Jury", a formalized "Kids Say the Darnedest Things" with precocious tots aged four to eleven spouting unsurprising answers to problems posed them by other children (the younger kids offer humorously impractical advice while the older ones are obnoxious know-it-alls) and we're expected to laugh like idiots at the results. This particular episode may have been chosen for a moment in which a four-year-old implies that she has received the questions in advance, a claim Barry denies several times over thereafter--a retroactive reference, perhaps, to the infamous "Twenty-One" scandal that nearly wrecked Barry's career several years later. Frankly, I couldn't care less either way; the whole genre of childhood-condescension makes me a little sick.
The opposite problem plagues "The Pinky Lee Show", a program so shrill that it couldn't possibly appeal to anybody but the youngest, most indiscriminate of viewers. If Lee's acrobatic dance moves are unquestionably impressive, his hyperactive antics--such as his unsettling tendency to get so freakin' close to members of the live audience that they touch noses--essentially paint him as the poor man's Jerry Lewis. I chuckled a few times at the "Dragnet" parody, but that's about it. Unfortunately, the set ends on a yawner as a circus strongman and a hypnotist seek revenge on "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" in "The Rival Queen." It's less offensive for an ocean of unga-bunga Dark Continent stereotypes than for its thundering boredom. Sheena portrayer Irish McCalla once stated that she couldn't act but could swing from vines exceptionally well--and by God, that's all they gave her to do. Originally published: April 28, 2008.
*There are no specific dates ascribed to these ersatz Saturday mornings, and according to the DVD booklet, the programs contained herein aired within different periods of the decade. There's no telling where syndication would have played into these hypothetical scenarios, but considering that the 1950s are often spoken of with non-specific reverence, the lack of carbon-dating can probably be considered a major selling point. return
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