"Hiii, Mr. Cartoon!" An Appreciation Of Local Kid Shows Past

Part of a month-long series on the people and peculiarities of where we’re from.

List the twentieth century’s most iconic television characters for children. Some obvious candidates off the top of your head: Fred Rogers as Mr. Rogers was a gentle and avuncular mainstay for generations, as was the more colorful and whiskered Captain Kangaroo, portrayed by Bob Keeshan. Both were televised nationally — the Captain on CBS (for the first 29 years) pre-school mornings, and Mr. Rogers syndicated to your local public television station — and as such they were something all children had in common. If you were a little kid in America sometime between the 60s and the 80s, there’s a chance of somewhere a little bit above zero that you didn’t know who they were. That’s market penetration.

But if you grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, during that time, there was another character that was first in your heart. Every day after school you’d turn on the TV (channel three, WSAZ) and a man in a garish jacket (think something Bill Murray would wear to a not-quite-formal occasion), a hat that was sometimes a boater, sometimes a scrunched-up pork-pie, and heavy shades would bound out to an audience of kids sitting on bleachers and bellow, “HIII, CARTOONERS!!” The appropriate response, whether in the studio or at home, was “HIII, MR. CARTOON!” After which, it was time for, yes, some cartoons, plus also fun. Mr. Cartoon brought the fun.

For the benefit of those born after the advent of cable television, let’s look into the phenomenon of local television. From the birth of the television medium, local stations had to produce a lot of programming. The three networks (CBS and NBC from the beginning, with ABC joining in the 60s) did not provide programs to cover the entire broadcast day, so the local networks had hours of non-primetime to fill. Some of the schedule was filled with syndication, some old movies on the weekend days, but much of a local station’s programming was produced in house. After all, what better way to tailor a show for a sponsor than to make it for them, drop their name on it, mention the product or service copiously, etc.? And somewhere in there, it was discovered that children took to TV like cute little junkies, so amidst the farm reports, the local news and the professional wrestling, portions of the broadcast day were filled with shows aimed at the kids.

Not that all children’s shows were local. In the 50s and 60s, both Buffalo Bob Smith (with Howdy Doody!) and Soupy Sales created successful local shows that were broadcast across the country. And before them, Bozo the Clown, while a national figure, was (but for a short time in the late 60s) not being produced nationally or syndicated but rather franchised, so that there was a constellation of local Bozos all over the country, each on a station paying for the right to do so, each played by a different member of that station’s on-air staff.

So here it is, the sign that you came of age in Charleston: that you remember the moment you realized that Mr. Cartoon and the morning weatherman, Jule Huffman, were the same person. Because they were. The practice of the time, at the local television stations, both large market and small, was that if you were employed as a broadcaster, it was not just as a newsreader, or a sports anchor. Broadcasters were utility infielders, and where there was a need the broadcaster filled in. Hence, the kooky personalities hosting kid shows all over the country had secret identities of the grown-ups who communicated the news to the other grown-ups. As explained by Tim Hollis, author of a history of local children’s television, Hey There Girls And Boys!, in a 2002 NPR interview:

There were very few programs that were able to get by without using cartoons or any sort of film features. It was easier to buy the cartoon package and then dress up a station announcer as a sea captain to host Popeye, or a clown to host Bugs Bunny — any number of variations. Anyone who could be pressed into service to do those kinds of things usually did. Sometimes it could be the weatherman, sometimes it could be the news anchor.

So if you are over a certain age, chances are good that a grown man (or woman) dressed up like a crazy person for the purpose of speaking to you through the television set. In between cartoons these hosts would interview the kids sitting in the bleachers, or run little skits with other characters (played by other employees of the station). Birthdays were huge. Every day the host (in my case, Mr. Cartoon), would run down the list of birthday boys and girls in the audience and then everyone would sing, “Happy birthday.” For a four or five year old, it was must-see television.

So Mr. Cartoon. Jule Huffman was a career broadcaster from Cincinnati that made his way to WSAZ via radio and TV gigs in Ashland, Kentucky and Huntington, West Virginia. He had a voice, and had gotten himself into the field because of it. He was working as the TV weather man when the original Mr. Cartoon shuffled off to another market in 1969. Huffman took the job. And that voice, man did it work on kids, a mellow baritone, clamping down on those consonants before they could run away. He wasn’t goofy or amped-up like a cartoon character himself, no matter how many old jokes and riddles he’d drag out. He was cool. He was the purveyor of the cartoons.

Here he is in the late 80s — after my time, but still a representative snippet.

What happened in the studio while the cartoons were playing? I never was a guest of Mr. Cartoon, although that was the dream of all the kids at Ruthlawn Elementary. My friend Chip Bennett, who was a year older, did get to go, with his Cub Scout troop. Chip had a crew cut, like his dad, a state trooper, and when Mr. Cartoon got to Chip, he complimented Chip on his hair and ran his hand back and forth over Chip’s scalp: “Smooooooth.” When I saw Chip the next day I never did ask what they did when the cartoons played as I was too cowed by Chip’s nascent celebrity, being on TV, getting his head rubbed by Mr. Cartoon like a genie might come out of Chip’s ear. I always figured the kids got to watch the cartoons too.

These were not educational programs in the least, at all, unless memorizing cornball jokes could be considered within the purview of the school system. There was children’s programming that did have an educational bent, thanks to the groundbreaking efforts of the Children’s Television Workshop, which introduced “Sesame Street” in 1969, the same year, as it happened, that Huffman inherited the Mr. Cartoon jacket. The local personality-driven after-school programming was pure fun, more in the vein of the kid shows hosted by the aforementioned Bozo, Buffalo Bob and Soupy. But that did not stop Mr. Cartoon from ending every episode with a little advice, asking if we remembered the four magic words (answer: “please, thank you, you’re welcome and excuse me,” which are seven words, but four expressions, so no harm, no foul). It was not quite a parental presence that Mr. Cartoon, but you did feel that those prescriptions should be followed because you would not want to let Mr. Cartoon down.

But of course we mostly tuned in for the cartoons. And, at least during my time with Mr. Cartoon until my family moved away in 1977, I can vouch that the cartoons played on the show, the old short feature cartoons produced from the 30s on up into the Chuck Jones period of the 60s, were the actual, unexpurgated classics. If you can find, say, a Road Runner cartoon today, you will notice that all the points of impact, the anvil-misshapen coyote noggin, or the puff of smoke at the bottom of the ravine into which Wile E. was in the process of plummeting, have been edited out. Some authority has deemed these exaggerations as too traumatic for the young viewer to experience. This was not so at the time. They were works of art, and the fact that history has deemed them worthy of censoring sucks.

After we moved away, there were other local TV personalities. In Pittsburgh, there was late-nite monster movie host “Chilly Billy” Cardille, and in Rochester there was Tim Kincaid a/k/a Ranger Bob, who left Rochester for Florida when I was in college. But Mr. Cartoon was the first, and Mr. Cartoon was the best.

I never thought to think about what happened to these local shows until now. I guess I assumed that the rest of the world outgrew them in the same way that I did. And the intuitive answer is that the industry changed: local stations began to carry more and more syndicated or network programming, and the hours the local station had to fill shrank. The world just stopped being local. According to Tim Hollis, part of what killed the kids show was that the syndicated programs, the reruns of old sitcoms, were just plain cheaper. And on top of that, the industry changed the rules on locally produced programs. Since its inception, these local shows made their profit off of local ads and sponsorships, and this was not always in the form of commercials. Local hosts would hawk wares on screen, read ads and even testimonials. In 1973, under pressure from protest groups, the National Association of Broadcasters forbade member children’s show hosts from being directly involved with advertising (which at the time could be as egregious as plying the entire studio audience with whatever sugary snack or beverage that sponsored the show and then leading the kids in chants in honor of the product). After this, the local programming got a little bit less lucrative, which in this day and age is a wasting disease.

Mr. Cartoon actually kept at it for a lot longer than many of his peers, retiring in 1995. And he is still around, Jule Huffman, retired and living in Huntington. He’s getting up in years (can’t see much and hearing’s gone in one ear), and his wife passed away last year, but he’s got his kids around to look after him. When I called him, he picked up in three rings, and after the first syllable I could tell it was him. “How’d you get a hold of me?” he asked amiably, and I explained that there weren’t that many Jule Huffman’s in the United States. It was an awesome conversation, much of it chit chat, much of it Huffman sharing whatever memories that came to mind. For example, he learned his meteorology on the job. The station gave him the gig and a stack of books to read, which was his education. A large part of the conversation was Huffman giving credit to those that mentored him into broadcasting, other legends of broadcasting in West Virginia, and an even larger part talking about his faith. He converted from Judaism as a young man and is today an ordained elder at a Presbyterian church. He is an awfully nice man. And I certainly freaked out, quietly, to be talking to Mr. Cartoon.

Huffman presided over his cartooners with sincerity and something that I could only identify in retrospect: an absolute lack of cynicism. His show wasn’t on the air to spawn a feature adaptation or a line of merchandising. He was there to hang out with the new generation of latchkey kids for that time between the end of school and when the folks get home from work. I consider myself lucky to have grown up with him. So I told him that. And I asked him if he had anything to say to all the cartooners out there that might remember him. And he answered: “I work with children, and I wanted them to have something good, and they liked it. And I liked them. And I asked ’em, ‘How come you like me?’ And they said, ‘Because we know you like us.’”

Previously in series: “How Often Do You Get Bitten” A Chat With Sean Casey, Brooklyn Animal Rescuer

Brent Cox is all over the Internet.