Friday, September 23, 2011

Cincy TV in the Golden Age

Midwestern Hayride, WLWT

Dear George,

We’ve always been TV addicts of sorts, so, when we moved to Cincinnati in 1966, we soon became fans of local programming. Just the other day the Cincinnati Enquirer featured an article about the early Cincinnati radio and TV hit, The Midwestern Hayride. Not only had we watched the Hayride back in the old days, but we were pleased to discover that the article mentioned Freddie Langdon, our friend Donna’s dad. Freddie Langdon was the world-class fiddler for the Hayride's country music group, The Hometowners. Langdon also appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Show and sang backup for James Brown at King Records in Cincinnati. Dean Richards and then Kenny Price were hosts of the Hayride. Performers who guested or were regulars on the show included Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Bonnie Lou, Tex Ritter, Barbara Mandrell, Waylon Jennings, Merle Travis, Homer and Jethro, Johnny Cash, and many other country stars.

The Hometowners: Buddy Ross, accordion; Kenny Price, guitar; Freddie Langdon, fiddle; Joy Near, bass

Cincinnati, primarily via powerhouse station WLWT, was the nation’s largest producer of live television outside of New York City in the 1950’s and 1960’s, broadcasting up to 24 live programs. The most popular show when we arrived was Ruth Lyons' 50/50 Club. It had started on WLW Radio as The 50 Club, so named because 50 women were invited to each broadcast. When the audience was expanded to 100 people, it was renamed the 50/50 Club. Ruth Lyons is credited with having invented the daytime TV talk show, essentially the Oprah Winfrey of her day. She concealed her microphone in a bouquet of flowers, and she and the audience wore white gloves while they sang "The Waving Song" and waved to the viewers at home. Ruth's guests included Arthur Godfrey, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Bill Cosby, and many other celebrities. The show was so popular that there was a three-year waiting period for audience tickets. The Ruth Lyons Christmas Fund, begun in 1939, has raised tens of millions of dollars and still provides toys to hospitalized children in Cincinnati.

Ruth Lyons 50/50 Club (back: Ruby Wright, bandleader Cliff Lash, Bonnie Lou; front: Bob Braun, Ruth Lyons, newscaster Peter Grant)

Ruth Lyons retired because of illness in 1967, and the 50-50 ‘Club was replaced by The Bob Braun Show on WLWT. We saw a lot of Bob Braun over the years. In addition to becoming one of the best-known TV personalities in Cincinnati, Braun enjoyed careers in radio, singing, and acting (e.g., Diehard 2 with Bruce Willis). His daily 90-minute show became the top-rated live TV program in the Midwest and featured regulars Rob Reider, Mary Ellen Tanner, and Nancy James, as well as numerous celebrity guests, e.g., Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, Phyllis Diller, and Presidents Ford, Reagan, Carter, and George H. W. Bush. Mayor Roxanne Qualls declared a “Bob Braun in Cincinnati Day” in June of 1997.

Bob Braun Show (Rob Reider, Colleen Sharp, Bob Braun, Nancy James, Gwen Conley)

Katja’s favorite daytime program (and mine too) was the Paul Dixon Show which aired at 9 a.m. weekdays. We always watched it if we were home in the morning. “Paul Baby” Dixon had come to Cincinnati as a newscaster in the late 1940’s, co-hosted a local music show for several years, and, after a stint in New York City, returned to Cincinnati in 1955 to host a new morning TV show on WLWT geared to housewives. Dixon delighted in being completely corny, and his audiences loved him. He’d start each show off as the “Mayor of Kneesville,” with the camera panning in on the short-skirted women seated in the front row. The show’s singers and co-hosts, Bonnie Lou and Colleen Sharp, were major celebrities in their own right -- prominent country music singers and regulars on The Midwestern Hayride. The show’s most famous episode centered on the wedding of two rubber chickens who were longtime props on the show which Dixon used in Kroger advertising (you can see this you YouTube if you search for “Paul Dixon chicken wedding”). Bob Braun was the Best Man, and Bonnie Lou and Colleen were Matrons of Honor. Katja and I watch the Chicken Wedding when it occurred, and I remember the broadcast to this day since it reached the heights of goofiness. The Dixon show aired in Indianapolis among other places, and David Letterman, who grew up there, credits Paul Baby with being the main inspiration for his own comedic style.

The Paul Dixon Show (Paul, Bonnie Lou Okum)

Our son J was born in 1969, and he too soon fell prey to the wonders of local TV. The Uncle Al Show on WCPO, co-hosted by Al Lewis and his wife Wanda (known as Captain Windy), was one of the longest-running kids’ shows in TV history (1950-1985), and we watched it with J in his preschool years. Regulars on the show included Pal the Dog, Lucky the Clown, the Merry Mailman, and Mr. Patches. There would be dance contests, birthday celebrations, and Uncle Al would play his banjo and accordion. Perhaps the peak event of J’s childhood occurred when our good friend Susan G. got tickets for the The Uncle Al Show for J and her daughter Jessica. Susan went to the show with the kids, while Katja and I stayed home and watched as adoring parents.

The Uncle Al Show (Captain Windy, Uncle Al, Patches)

I was still working on my doctoral dissertation when we came to Cincinnati, and I would stay up late at night, analyzing my data while watching the all-night movie show hosted on Channel 9 by local TV personality Bob Shreve. Shreve had been a staple of Cincinnati television since 1950, long before our arrival in the city, and had been a regular on The Midwestern Hayride, The Ruth Lyons Show, The Uncle Al Show, and several programs of his own. He started doing the Schoenling All Night Theater on WCPO in 1963. He’d come on at 11:30 p.m. and show movies till dawn. Like Jackie Gleason’s skits with Frank Fontaine, Shreve would play the part of a bartender, greeting his audience as customers at his bar and serving them Schoenling Beer. Shreve intertwined movie segments with crazy antics that were often more entertaining than the movies themselves. Characters on the show included Chickie, a rubber chicken that Shreve would stretch beyond the breaking point; Garoro, a gross severed head; and Spidel, a large spider that would swing into the picture and knock Shreve’s hat off. Shreve lip-synched songs like Limburger Lover, did some soft-shoe dancing, and sometimes made cameo appearances in the movies he was showing. When WCPO cancelled the show, Shreve moved back to WLWT for a year or two and then to WKRC-TV where the show became known as The Past Prime Playhouse. His many guests included Bill Cosby, Adam West (Batman), and “baseball’s kissing bandit,” stripper Morgana.

Bob Shreve, The Past Prime Playhouse

I have fond memories of all these media characters and shenanigans. I’d lived in New York City for a while during college, and radio and TV there were much more hip (e.g., Jean Shepard). Cincinnati productions had a deliberately Midwestern, small town feel about them – non-pretensious, warm, funny, sometimes off the wall. But, since I’m a product of the heartland myself, I guess I won’t complain.




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1 comment:

  1. Bonnie Lou is still alive and so is her fan club, now on Facebook.