Tuesday, October 9, 2012

the medium is the birthday song*

This morning I learned from a Facebook friend that Sheriff John had died Saturday morning in a Boise nursing home after turning 93 last Tuesday, October 2. Internet coverage of the loss has brought a wave of nostalgia to our global village, for 'Sheriff John' was a persona of John Rovick, who hosted Lunch Brigade on L.A.'s Channel 11 (KTTV) from 1952 to 1970.

Lunch Brigade was designed for children who could watch at noon -- preschoolers and kindergartners mostly. I was in sixth grade in 1952, so only saw it on the occasional 'sick day,' then and on into my junior high years. The show really stuck in my mind, though, and so the videos being shown on line today have been very familiar to me.

Seeing Sheriff John open the door and walk onto the set evokes a later icon of children's TV: Fred Rogers, whose Mister Rogers Neighborhood ran from 1968 to 2001 on PBS . Of course Mister Rogers would never have shown cartoons, but it's the host's personality that seems so similar. These gentle men were laid-back, non-confrontational adults who treated young children with respect.

Sheriff John sang a special birthday song, Put Another Candle on the Birthday Cake, that is meaningful to many people. I never internalized it to the extent that I did Uncle Whoa-Bill's Happy Birthday Just for You (sung to the tune of the Franz Lehar's Merry Widow Waltz). That's the one I'll sing at the drop of a hat and tend to leave on friends' voicemail.

Unfortunately, Uncle Whoa-Bill is pretty well lost from the annals of media history. He had a radio show on L.A.'s classical station KFAC in the late 40's, and he really knew how to create media magic for children's birthdays. Besides the wonderful song, he would mention a child by name, and give a special message such as: "Follow the string tied to one of the dining room chairs" Sure enough! A special gift would be found at the end of the string.

My coverage of children's media ends with Captain Kangaroo. His show ran from 1955 to 1984 on various channels, and was a favorite of my youngest cousin, Jonathan. Jon asked his mother, my Aunt Isabelle, to write to the Captain and find out what he did with all the leftover birthday cakes from his shows. Like Fred Rogers, Isabelle took children's concerns seriously, and so she wrote the requested letter. Next time I see Jon, I'm going to ask him what the answer was.
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*Allusion to Marshall McLuhan, most famous for defining "the global village" and observing, "The medium is the message."

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License