I remember "T.N. Tatters" every Christmas, when I hang a silver, glittered walnut -- with a yarn loop -- on our tree. My mom and I made it after watching T.N. Tatters demonstrate the process on his afternoon show nearly 50 years ago.
The ornament is a talisman of a TV clown who occupied little actual time in my life, but carved a wide swath in the mythic pantheon of kids' TV. In the Twin Cities, we watched "T.N.T.," "Casey and Roundhouse," "Clancy and Willie," "Axel and his Dog," "Grandpa Ken," "Capt. Darryl," "Grandma Lumpit's Boarding House," "Dave Lee and Pete," "Romper Room" and a dozen others. They were railroad engineers, cops, riverboat skippers, puppets and, more than anything else, goofballs set out to entertain five days a week with little more than their wits and some cheap scenery.
"We'd rehearse, if you could call it that, while we were on commercial -- 'you say this, I'll say this, and be careful on the ad lib,'" said Allan Lotsberg, who paired with John Gallos in many manifestations of Clancy the Cop and Willie Ketchem. "I was so glad when videotape came."
Lotsberg will host "Hi Kids!" a retrospective of Twin Cities children's television shows on Thursday at the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights. The show, a benefit for the Museum of Broadcasting in St. Louis Park, will feature footage from many of the shows mentioned above, including some rare stuff that hasn't been seen since it was first aired. In addition to Lotsberg, Don Stolz (of "Axel"), Mary Davies ("Axel" and others), Daryl Laub ("Tatters") and Miss Betty from "Romper Room" are scheduled to appear in person.
Laub, 84, was the first costumed host of a children's show when he put on an admiral's cap and blazer to become Skipper Daryl for WTCN, Ch. 11, in 1953. The show was so successful that he soon added "J.P. Patches," a tattered clown.
"Skipper Daryl was such a success that the sales department said we needed another show," Laub said. "So I came up with this other character, J.P. Patches."
The show was so hot that in 1955, KSTP, Ch. 5, hired Laub away with a guaranteed annual salary of $10,000 -- plus commercial and appearance fees. He wanted to patent and take J.P. Patches with him, but he found another Patches character out East. So T.N. Tatters was born across town. Each day Laub appeared as Tatters at 5 p.m., then changed makeup at 5:30 and did a half-hour as the renamed Capt. Daryl.
WTCN, meanwhile, told Chris Wedes, who was then working as Joe the Cook with Casey Jones, to apply clown makeup and keep J.P. Patches alive. He did a few seasons and then went to Seattle, where he continued with the clown until 1981. Laub's "T.N.T." was bumped in 1962, when the station plugged its time slot with cheaper network programming. As was widely the case in early TV, programs were not saved and archived. But Laub has a 1957 kinescope that will be featured in Thursday's program.
The network was not a problem at Channel 11, which dropped its ABC affiliation in 1961 and went independent. Roger Awsumb put on the duds of Casey Jones in 1954. When Lynn Dwyer arrived later as Roundhouse Rodney, they ruled the local market until 1972, appearing six days a week at noon. For several years, the duo did three shows a day -- morning, noon and afternoon ("Grandma Lumpit's Boarding House"). Amid the cartoons, Awsumb and Dwyer would do lip-sync bits ("I Love Onions," "Valkin' in My Vinter Undervear") and skits such as "Oswald" and the "Upside Down" room.
"There was a switch on the camera that would turn everything upside down," said director Al Derusha. "So we attached the lunch table to the ceiling and then flipped the switch."
Casey and Roundhouse walked onto the set and immediately fell to the floor so it appeared they were on the ceiling and the table was upright.
Derusha, who worked for nearly every kids' show in town, recalled the importance of seat-of-the-pants inventiveness.
"I was doing a half-hour news show prior to Casey, and as I was directing that, Roundhouse would come into the control room and say, 'Hey, I need a sound effect, I'm doing a Tarzan bit,' and then he'd go," said Derusha. "He played 25 or 30 characters, so there was a lot of creative ability in those shows."
Meanwhile, Clellan Card was the ace in the hole at WCCO, Ch. 4. Working with Stolz as Towser the Dog and later with Davies as Carmen the Nurse, Card's "Axel" was a sly, satiric presence from his treehouse perch. Card died of cancer in 1966, but Davies kept the program slot warm with "Carmen's Cottage." Lotsberg teamed with Gallos in the Clancy franchise, and they pursued mysteries and solved crimes, sometimes over several days. Competition among the stations was stiff -- particularly with "Casey and Roundhouse."
"They'd been doing that for eight years and we came along, with the same kind of father image [Clancy] and the short, dorky guy who would do anything [Willie]," Lotsberg said. "It looked like 'Casey and Roundhouse' and that parallel really bugged Channel 11. I know we got a lot of verbal heat on that."
When the competitors would see each other at appearances or banquets, the mood was professional but hardly cordial, Lotsberg said.
"It wasn't 'I'm going to stab you in the back,' but there was really a 'tippy-toeing' around," Lotsberg said. "There was no congeniality."
In the end, of course, the competition was less about ratings and more about forces out of their control. FCC rules against hosts doing commercials diminished the ability to make money. Local production was more expensive than turning to the network, ratings waned and new educational series such as "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" buried the slower-paced, homespun shows.
"It was very sad," said Derusha, remembering the December day in 1972 when Awsumb and Dwyer signed off. "Casey and Roundhouse both wept on the air. So did I. Politicians, athletes, moms all fought to keep the show on the air."
But it faded, as did Clancy and Carmen and Willie and, of course, T.N. Tatters.
And then I pull out the box of Christmas ornaments. Ah, yes, I remember.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299