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Bell Bottoms

Ah, bell bottoms, those monstrously impractical yet completely irresistible flared pants. This fashion statement came straight from the good old U.S. Navy. Supposedly, the reasoning behind them was that the flared opening made the trousers easier to jettison in case you fell overboard. Then, they could be filled with air to make a life preserver.

Whatever. In the 60’s, this look was declared to be cool, and cool it was. I got my first pair when I was nine years old. They were green striped, and instantly transformed me into the coolest thing in school.

The striped pants were a fixture in TV, the movies, and advertisements. But they pretty much disappeared early in the 70’s. But flare-legged jeans rolled on.

Obviously, bell-bottoms were still cool to wear by the later 70’s.

I had a pair of Levi’s Big Bells circa 1976. Man, those monsters completely covered my big feet.

The monstrous-sized bells have become passe, but flares continue to live on. The internet has stores that sell more bell bottoms and flares than you could possibly assimilate. They even teach you how to easily create your own from standard jeans.

Here’s to bell bottoms. Seeing a pair of big bells instantly takes you back at least thirty years.

Getting Rid of the Training Wheels

The lessons we learned when we were children! We gained wisdom that would serve us well as adults. For instance, we learned that the safety and security of training wheels was comfortable, yet it had to be left behind sooner or later for the much more unsure, daring world of riding around on two wheels.

Every kid starts out with training wheels, regardless of the generation. We Boomer youngsters may have had them attached to traditional Schwinn hand-me-downs, or perhaps on brand new Sting-Rays. And the bolt-on wheels would make for a nice smooth ride. But eventually, peer pressure and the desire to spread young wings would make you ask your dad to remove them. Thus, your first step towards growing up.

What would generally happen next was that your father would steady your bike as you climbed aboard, then exhorted you to start pedaling hard as he turned you loose.

Generally, the next step would be picking you up off the ground. You had to pedal harder than that.

But eventually, you would get the hang of it. And before long, you would be screaming down the street on two wheels, forever freed from training wheels.

Every group of kids had one youngster who had a hard time getting the hang of biking without training wheels. Sadly, such a child would frequently be marked for life among the neighborhood gang until he redeemed himself through some act of great courage.

Of course, in those days, if you fell off of your bike, you got banged up. If you misspelled words, you were given bad marks. If you misbehaved, you got the paddle. In other words, you were responsible for yourself.

Nowadays, when it takes a village to raise a child, and we are much more concerned with self-esteem than genuine learning, our grandkids are being taught the abomination of “creative spelling.” And if he or she falls and gets hurt on a bike, it’s because the manufacturer was remiss in protecting the child from the mishap. There is a plethora of lawyers in the Yellow Pages ready to take the lawsuit.

That’s a shame. The earlier you learn to pedal hard or fall over and get hurt, the quicker you’re ready to make your own way in the world. While schools have gotten much easier for children to earn passing marks, the world has only gotten tougher.

Riding in the Rear Deck

By the time my first child was born in 1986, we had already purchased a baby seat for the car. It had become law here in Arkansas a couple of years earlier that children under the age of two would be strapped in.

But go back about twenty years (from 1986, that is), and the only protection small children had going down the highway was the sheer mass of the vehicles in which they were traveling.

Many of us Boomers fondly recall gas for less than thirty cents a gallon, and consequently drive economical cars today. My ride of choice to get to work (25 miles away) is a 1992 Toyota Tercel which has a new engine and gets 35-40 MPG. Four men at each corner could probably lift it off the ground.

But go back to JFK’s era, and cars were HUGE!

Like I have mentioned in previous columns, dad was on a Plymouth kick in the 60’s and early 70’s. We would go to the same car dealership in Neosho, Missouri every other year, and would once again be treated to new car smell on the drive home.

And the Furys that dad liked all had one thing in common: that sloping rear window that allowed a kid to lay there and soak up the sunshine. Or possibly the starlight, if we were driving back to Miami from Joplin on a Saturday night after dining in Mickey Mantle’s restaurant.

I used to lay back there and periodically roll down into the expansive back seat. It was great fun. And we would be speeding down I-44 at 75 MPH the whole time. No, it wasn’t child neglect. It was life in the 60’s.

I like to go to old car shows and marvel at the sheer size of the vintage vehicles. I sat in a 1950 Pontiac coupe recently. Though the car only had two doors, the back seat was the size of a single bed. No wonder drive-ins were so popular back then! ūüėČ The glove compartment alone was big enough to hold a twelve-pack of beer.

Times have changed in so many ways. Cars are smaller, more fuel-efficient, and laden with passive and active restraint devices. Babies and toddlers are cocooned in their own little worlds of safety in the back seat. But we Boomers remember when a kid’s place was the rear deck!

Lucky Tiger Hair Tonic

Today, I’m known as the bald guy. In fact, when I incorporated my website design business, it became known as The Bald Guy Enterprises, Inc.

But go back to circa 1968, and when I got spiffied up, my luxuriant blonde hair was coated in a generous slathering of Lucky Tiger Rose hair tonic.

It was called “tonic,” because the oils and other secret ingredients were advertised to be good for the scalp. In fact (though I don’t think the company ever claimed it), it was rumored to prevent baldness!

Trust me. That was not true.

But still, it was a great feeling, slicking your hair back and enjoying that tantalizing, manly scent.

In one of the most blatantly sexist product monikers ever produced, the name Lucky Tiger implied that the user would never again have to worry about a dearth of female companionship. The ads posted removed any subtlety. The message was clear: wear Lucky Tiger and get lucky, tiger!

I’m pleased to see that the product is still being produced in its original form by its original maker. When the Dry Look (the wethead is dead!) took over in the 60’s and 70’s, sales plummeted. But a fierce following kept the fortunate feline on store shelves, where it remains today.

And today, a head full of “greasy kid stuff” is now considered chic. And what could be better for the purpose than genuine Lucky Tiger?

WWII Dramas All Over the TV Screen

There were a lot of WWII veterans in the US during the 60’s. Our fathers (and some of our mothers) who served in the war were now in their 30’s and 40’s. They were likely the single biggest demographic group out there, and the TV networks wanted their business.

WWII was a long, horrible, bloody, tragic blot on history. But the fact is that the US and its allies kicked the butts of those who would take over the world by force and rule with an iron hand.

Thus, our parents felt proud of what was accomplished, and the war was greatly romanticized in the eyes of the media. That meant that it was great fodder for TV.

Many a WWII drama was aired on the one-eyed monster during the 60’s. And we kids watched them along with our parents. Our fathers knew that the action had been greatly bowdlerized, but that didn’t stop them from tuning in anyway. And the success of the shows ensured that many a slightly cheesy half-hour episode would be churned out while the viewers continued to tune in.

Combat!¬†was the most successful of the WWII dramas. It debuted in 1962 and ran for five seasons. It took an approach that was the most realistic of the bunch. War wasn’t glamorized. Instead, the characters were depicted as weary, shell-shocked individuals who felt an obligation to put the interests of army and country ahead of their own. They were disillusioned, to be sure, but felt compelled to keep plugging along anyway.

Scene from Combat!

The show was a hit, and may have lasted deeper into the Vietnam era had ABC not cheaped out on stars Vic Morrow and Rick Jason. They had signed five-year contracts, while other actors had opted for seven. Rather than renegotiating with the two, ABC chose to rewrite the series as¬†Garrison’s Guerrillas, minus the characters of Saunders and Hanley. As you would expect from such cheapskate techniques, the replacement series was quite pale in comparison, and was gone after a single season.

You can read the autobiography of Rick Jason in its entirety at Pretty interesting stuff.

Two other WWII shows that populated 1960’s prime time were¬†Twelve O’clock High¬†and¬†The Rat Patrol.

Twelve O’clock High¬†was based on a successful 1949 movie starring Gregory Peck. The series debuted in fall 1964 and lasted three years. It started out in B&W, and was known for featuring actual combat footage. In 1967, it began to be broadcast in color, but only lasted halfway through the season.

What was impressive about the show was that a real B-17 was flown for many of the scenes! That wasn’t a cheap thing, and one of the signs that the show was heading downhill was the conspicuous reduced air time of the bomber during the last season, replaced with “patrols” of a P-51 Mustang, which was much cheaper to fly.

The Rat Patrol¬†debuted in 1966. It started out in color, and featured the single most instantly recognizable jeep in the eyes of a 1960’s kid. It had this incredibly bonzer 50 caliber machine gun mounted in the back. The characters patrolled north Africa, making General Rommel’s life as miserable as possible, and sending many a clueless German soldier to the promised land.

The show lasted two years. 1968 marked a changed perception of war in general for the country, as kids were being shipped home in boxes from Vietnam in ever-increasing numbers, and Dan Rather’s reports were gritty in their depiction of the misery going on over there. The spreads in the various¬†pictorial weeklies¬†showed little girls getting burned with napalm, Buddhist monks going up in flames, and executions carried out with a bullet to the head.

People stopped tuning into war dramas, and the genre went away for a while.

Interest in WWII was rekindled in 1998 with the success of¬†Saving Private Ryan, which led into HBO’s¬†Band of Brothers¬†a couple of years later. The movie and TV series depicted war in all its gritty realism, with grisly death shown uncompromisingly.

That was impossible for network TV series during the 60’s, of course. But the nightly news and weekly magazines of the era demonstrated that when war is shown in a largely uncensored state while it’s actually going on, it’s compelling. But what it’s not is good advertising for heroic war dramas on television.

One last observation: possibly, my mom harbored at least a little resentment to Germany and Japan over the war. While I was swiftly and decidedly punished for using ethnic terms that were still common in the 1960’s, she never seemed to have a problem with me referring to “Krauts” and “Japs” when I was playing army. Perhaps the free usage of the words by the patriotic press of the 40’s put them in a different category.

It’s Howdy Doody Time!

Howdy Doody broadcast its final episode on September 24, 1960. That means I have absolutely no recollection of ever seeing it. But there are a bunch of you Boomers out there who outrank me, age-wise, including my oldest brother. And you have spoken. And I have responded with today’s article about the original king of kid shows: Howdy Doody.

One of television’s first original shows, i.e. not a converted radio program (it barely qualifies. Read on), Howdy Doody first appeared in 1947. That means its original viewers were too old to be classified Baby Boomers! Oh well, so were the first users of yo-yos, Lincoln Logs, and erector sets.

But Howdy Doody is a very precious part of the memories of the more senior members of the Boomer generation. So, big kids, as I used to call you many years ago, today’s piece is for you.

Howdy Doody had a rather limited audience in its inception. After all, there were about 20,000 televisions in the entire United States when it debuted. But it was a hit among its fledgling audience, especially among the audience’s fledglings.

NBC New York radio affiliate WEAF had a hit show in 1947 called The Triple B Ranch. The three Bs stood for Big Brother Bob Smith, who spoke with the country bumpkin voice of a ranch hand and greeted the radio audience with, “Oh, ho, ho, howdy doody.” Martin Stone, Smith’s agent, suggested putting Howdy on television. He approached NBC television programming guru Warren Wade. NBC liked the idea. They launched Puppet Playhouse on 17 December 1947. A week later the name of the program was changed to The Howdy Doody Show.

Smith’s puppet stole the show, as well as its name.

The incarnation of Howdy Doody that appeared the first few episodes was a bumpkin, in keeping with Smith’s radio voice. A dispute over royalties and licensing led to his creator taking the original puppet with him and leaving. Howdy was reincarnated as the red-haired All-American boy, with a freckle for each state in the union. That would be 48.

The show was one of the first to be broadcast in color. September, 1955 was when the color broadcasts began, predating even the NBC peacock. It was also one of the first to be broadcast five days a week, and to be videotaped for later broadcast.

Besides Howdy and Bob, other characters included Clarabell the Clown (originally played by Captain Kangaroo himself), Chief Thunderthud (to whom surfers owe the term “kowabunga”), Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Mayor Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally, and the strange creature known as Flub-a-Dub.

Clarabell was known as the silent, klutzy clown who would douse others with a seltzer bottle. He was perhaps the most loved character, after the show’s two stars, of course.

The show began a tradition that has extended through Bugs Bunny, Bullwinkle, right down to Sponge Bob Squarepants: the parents get just as hooked as the kids. Its early-evening timeslot ensured that elders would view the program.

But eventually, the show was moved to a weekly Saturday morning slot. And it stopped making money. With that, in September, 1960, it slid off into the sunset.

That final episode was immortalized by silent Clarabell speaking for the first time. I hereby post a quote from Wikipedia:

The episode was mostly a fond look back at all the highlights of the show’s past. Meanwhile, in the midst of it all, Clarabell has what he calls “a big surprise”. The rest of the cast attempt to find out the surprise throughout the entire show, with only Mayor Phineas T. Bluster succeeding, and promising to keep it a secret. Finally, in the closing moments, the surprise was disclosed through pantomime to Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody. “You mean…you can talk??” said Bob. “Why, golly…I can’t believe it!” Howdy Doody exclaimed. “You can talk?!” Bob asked again. Clarabell nodded. “Well”, Bob continued, gently shaking the clown’s shoulders, “Clarabell, this is your last chance! If you really can talk, prove it…let’s hear you say something!” A drumroll began as Clarabell faced the camera as it came in for an extreme closeup. His lips quivered as the drumroll continued. When it stopped, Clarabell simply said softly “Goodbye, kids”, and the picture faded to black. Lew Anderson’s (Clarabell’s) genuine tears upon delivering the only line Clarabell ever spoke in 13 years, made this one of the most poignant moments in television history. The recently discovered and restored color videotape of the final broadcast is now available commercially.

Wow. Amazing stuff. And I thought St. Elsewhere had a great closing episode.

Here’s to a show that broke ground in lots of ways, and that is a wonderful member of countless Baby Boomers’ memory banks.

Winky-Dink and You

Winky-Dink and You host Jack Barry doing his thing

The elder members of the Boomer have once again spoken. Today’s I Remember JFK memory is all about Winky-Dink and You, praised by, among others, uber-geek Bill Gates as an interactive kid’s show that turned the television into the world’s first multimedia device.

Winky-Dink began airing at 9:30 central time on Saturday mornings in 1953. Televisions were rare enough then that kids would often gather at a home that had one to see the adventures of the little star-headed adventurer wearing the plaid pants who needed YOUR help to get out of various fixes.

Winky-Dink featured Jack barry as Winky’s narrator, who would prompt kids at home to put their plastic Winky-Dink screen over the front of the boob tube and draw whatever it was that the hero needed to formulate an escape from whatever fix he had found himself in. Of course, the mere lack of a screen wouldn’t stop imaginative children from drawing directly on the glass with whatever writing implement was handy. Thus did many a parent learn that a fifty-cent investment in a Winky-Dink screen kit would greatly extend the life of a much more expensive television set.

Winky-Dink screen kit

To say that Winky-Dink had a passionate following would be an understatement. There are a wealth of memories all over the web from grown-up kids who assisted W-D in escaping tight spots by drawing bridges to get over rivers, parachutes to gently lower him to the ground, or ladders to crawl out of deep holes.

The reason for these vivid recollections is simple: the act of drawing on the screen helped plant the moment deeply into the child’s permanent memory. TV was new enough that the youngsters involved likely remembered life without it, and now, this recently-obtained incredible talking moving picture machine was inviting them to become part of the show!

That’s powerful stuff.

The interaction also involved decoding messages. Example: Horizontal lines would appear on the screen. Barry would direct kids at home to trace them out with the soft Winky-Dink crayons included in the kit. Later in the show, vertical lines would be shown. Once the kid traced them out, a secret message would appear.

Now, I ask you: is there anything on this planet more cool than that to a seven-year old kid?

Afterwards, the plastic screen would be peeled off of the television and wiped clean. Static electricity made for a very powerful “magnet” that held the sheet in place. It was all perfect for an interactive television experience.

Mr. Bungle joined Jack Barry on the show each week. Dayton Allen played the hapless assistant who would inadvertently screw things up. Allen was a familiar “face” of 1950’s and 60’s children’s television, playing the puppet voices of Phineas T. Bluster and Flub-a-Dub on Howdy Doody, He also voiced Deputy Dawg, Fearless Fly, and those mischievous magpies known as Heckle and Jeckle.

Winky-Dink and You rode high until it was canceled in April 1957. Host Jack Barry had gotten quite busy with other projects, including hosting the soon-to-be-infamous quiz show Twenty-One. Thus ended chapter one of Winky-Dink.

Chapter two began in 1969, with a syndicated version of the show that once again caused kits for interaction to be sold in dime stores all over the nation. The five-minute show was a minor hit until 1973. This time, the cause of its demise was more obvious: concerns about radiation possibly emanating from now-common color televisions.

Today, you can still purchase Winky-Dink (the latter incarnation) on DVD, including the screen kit, at this site. It’s a cheap 25 dollar investment in planting some seriously great memories into the minds of your grandchildren.

And great memories are what life is all about, right?

When TV Stations Signed Off at Midnight

Are you wide awake at 3:00 AM? Are you staring at the ceiling? Is reading a book too much work? No problem, there is always something on the idiot box.

Nowadays, practically every TV station is a 24/7 affair. Even local stations run all night, selling the wee hours of the morning to infomercial producers. You can ease your insomnia by watching a long sales pitch for a George Foreman grill, a diet plan that is guaranteed to make you look like an anorexic, or a mattress that heats up, adjusts for different firmness, and lets your dogs out when they need to go.

But go back to our childhood years, and you can remember when the station would shut off the lights shortly after Johnny Carson (my Tonight Show host, perhaps you recall Jack Paar, or even Steve Allen) would say goodnight.

The signoffs I remember would commence with an announcement by a member of the station personnel thanking me for watching, and letting me know that the broadcast day was now coming to a close. I was invited to tune in at 6:00 AM tomorrow morning for a local country music show (I guess C&W fans were early risers). Then, the National Anthem was played, followed by a video of a jet fighter flying through the clouds while a poem called “High Flight” was recited. The poem went like this:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Now don’t get me wrong. That is one seriously great poem. But what does it have to do with a station signing off?

Anyhow, the next thing you would see would be the Star Spangled Banner playing, followed by the Indian head test pattern, accompanied with a shrill, obnoxious shrieking sound.

Now THAT one I have figured out. It’s like when your company won’t leave and you flash the lights off and on to give them a nudge out the door. The shriek was telling you to turn the blasted TV off and go to bed like decent folks!

After a few minutes, the screen would turn to static, as the station shut the power to the transmitter off.

Color TV tuning bars

The next morning, about 5:45 AM, the color bar test pattern would appear. One of our three stations would announce what the colors were with a recorded voice every couple of minutes, so you could use your fine tuning, tint, and hue controls on your color TV to match them as well as your imagination would allow. After all, everybody knows what exact shade cyan is, right?

Anyhow, at about 5:57, the broadcast day would begin, with the playing of the National Anthem again, and some official-sounding announcements about power, frequency, and other technical data that was likely required by the FCC.

Tom Snyder goofed things up for local stations by beginning Tomorrow in 1973, a show that would extend signoff times by an hour for its NBC affiliates. Soon, other later-than-late shows appeared, and some stations decided to run all night, showing old movies and such in the off hours.

Cable changed everything, and in 1979, ESPN showed 24 hours of sports. Of course, some of the sports included badminton, spelling bees, and the immortal Australian Rules Football, but station signoffs dwindled faster than ever. Today, it’s rare that a station signs off.

The fact that we have 24/7 TV only adds to its place as an important part of our lives. I don’t see a whole lot good about that.

Maybe TNT could start signing off at midnight local time, with a reading of High Flight, of course. Hey, I think Law and Order rerun fans would survive.

Westerns on TV

Roy Rogers is riding tonight
Returning to our silver screen!
Comic book characters never grow old
Evergreen heroes whose stories are told
Oh the great sequined cowboy
Who sings of the plains
Of roundups, and rustlers, and home on the range!
Turn on the TV
Shut out the Light
Roy Rogers is riding tonight!

Thus sang Elton John on his 1973 album¬†Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Bernie Taupin, the writer of “Roy Rogers,” had fond memories of watching the golden western hero as a child, and so do most Boomers. Those old enough to recall the 50’s enjoyed his adventures on prime time TV, the rest of us got our weekday reruns.

The 1950’s, the first complete decade of TV, was wholly, totally, completely dominated by the genre of the western. In March, 1959, westerns held eight of the top ten spots of the Nielsen Ratings. Not only were there a multitude of series, but many low budget western films were aired to fill time that would otherwise be dead air, as the networks were not yet able to fill out schedules like they do today. No wonder that six shooters, holsters, spurs, and cowboy boots and hats were some of the largest selling toys of the era.

The Cisco Kid

The decade began with¬†Hopalong Cassidy,¬†The Lone Ranger,¬†Gene Autry, and¬†The Cisco Kid. Other shows that came along later during the Decade of the Western included¬†Roy Rogers, Annie Oakley, Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Bronco, Johny Ringo, Tales of Wells Fargo, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Maverick, The Restless Gun, Wanted Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Lawman, Rawhide, The Deputy, Laramie, The Rebel,¬†and¬†Bat Masterson.¬†That’s an amazing collection of horse operas!

Three other western shows spawned in the 50’s deserve special mention. The first is¬†Bonanza, which first aired on September 12, 1959. This show, a favorite of the Enderland household, lasted an impressive fourteen years, airing its last episode in 1973. The second is¬†Gunsmoke, which ran from 1955 to 1975, an amazing twenty years. Somehow, Miss Kitty stayed foxy throughout the whole run. But the longest running western you probably forgot about was¬†Death Valley Days. This show first aired in 1952, and lasted an astounding twenty-three years!

Syndicated during its entire run, the show had a number of formats. From 1952 to 1965, it followed the adventures of the Old Ranger, played by Stanley Andrews. Ronald Reagan took over as host in 65, stepping aside to run for governor of California. Robert Taylor took over, followed by Dale Robertson. Despite the fact that no new episodes were filmed after 1970, new footage was spliced in to create new shows. Merle Haggard narrated many of them.

The “new” episodes appeared under different show titles. These included¬†Frontier Adventure, The Pioneers, Trails West, Western Star Theatre,¬†and¬†Call of the West.

Cast of The High Chaparral

What you’ll remember best was the main advertiser: Twenty Mule Team Borax. That venerable team of mules trudging along in the hot desert sun was a part of nearly every episode. Boraxo, a hand soap, was also hawked vigorously in between action shots.

But back to the decade which spawned the series, specifically my own recollections.

I never saw many of the series which failed to score in syndication. But I did watch a lot of¬†Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Have Gun Will Travel,¬†and¬†The Rifleman. These shows all did well in syndication, and were viewable by 60’s brats on the idiot box after school.

The western genre continued to ride high throughout the 60’s.¬†The Virginian, The Big Valley, High Chaperral, Laredo, Daniel Boone¬†(not technically a western, but come on!), and the offbeat¬†The Wild Wild West¬†all aired with varying degrees of success during the turbulent Decade of Change. But as the 70’s rolled on, the number of new westerns began to dwindle. Only one series debuted and ran longer than a single season, Alias Smith and Jones. Amazingly, a single western series was released in the 80’s: ABC’s¬†Wildside. It died a quick six-episode death up against NBC’s must-see TV on Thursday night.

Westerns made a modest comeback in the 90’s.¬†Lonesome Dove¬†was a highly acclaimed miniseries that scored high on the Nielsens.¬†The Young Riders¬†(actually launched in 1989) had a good run, and so did¬†Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

But the decade of the western was without a doubt the 50’s. It’s highly unlikely that they will ever dominate network television again, but then again, network television will never dominate again like it did before cable and the internet.

No problem. That’s what our memory banks are for.

Topo Gigio

One of the most popular search terms people use for this site is “popo gigo.” This proves two things. First of all the animated Italian mouse continues to have a worldwide following, and second, people have a hard time with his name!

Well, I’ll drop the term Popo Gigo two or three times into this article to help them find us. Indeed, in Japanese the mouse is properly known as Toppo Jijo and Topo Jijo. There, that should get Google involved in sending me more curious folks who remember a mouse with an Italian accent. Because, after all, I Remember JFK is THE source of all things nostalgia to the Baby Boomer generation, right? ūüėČ

Topo Gigio was the creation of Italian animator Maria Perego. The stick-controlled foam rubber puppet was a big hit on Italian TV in the early 60’s, and Ed Sullivan’s staff got wind of the mouse’s popularity among children and adults. Thus Topo Gigio made his first appearance on April 14, 1963, just in time for me (as well as millions of other 60’s kids) to become an ardent fan.

Researching this piece opened my eyes up to a correction of something I had believed all my life: that Topo Gigio was French. That’s probably some sort of great insult to both cultures. I guess I just didn’t understand the subtle nuances between the Latin-based languages when I was five.

It was a team effort to make Topo Gigio come alive. According to a source I found in 2008:

The puppeteers moved Topo with their hands and three inch sticks. Maria Perego, Topo’s creator, moved Topo’s mouth and legs. Frederico Giolo moved Topo’s arms, while his wife Annabella controlled the puppets oversized ears. The man who gave Topo his voice was Peppino Mazullo (some sources have called him Giuseppe Mazullo), who provided it offstage.

If I recall correctly, Topo Gigio would make his appearances late in the show. He would appear in his nightclothes and parry with “Eddie” for a couple of minutes before telling him that he must go to sleep and dream. Many times, the object of his dreaming was his sweetheart, Rosie. Then Ed would give him a kiss and he would crawl into his little bed.

Such a ritual was very therapeutic for a kid who was terrified by the prospect of waking up shaking from a nightmare. Little Topo Gigio let me know that dreaming was, indeed, a wonderful thing, to be looked forward to. After he went to sleep, I was ready to do likewise.

The diminutive mouse was a regular fixture of the show right up until its final 1971 episode. He might have vanished at that point, and for the English-speaking world, an argument might have been made that he did indeed do just that.

But remember Topo Gigio was an Italian creation. And despite losing the weekly boost in popularity from “Eddie,” his creators continued to market the mouse to the rest of the world.

The result is that today, Topo Gigio has a huge following among the Spanish-speaking and Japanese-speaking world. Topo appears (as Toppo Jijo) in Japanese anime cartoons. So today, millions of Japanese children are planting memories of the very same mouse that we Boomers fell in love with way back in the 60’s, albeit in a completely different format.

He has also been the subject of record albums and videos released all over South America. Thus, the popularity of the product of Ms. Perego’s imagination has, in many ways, surpassed that of “Eddie” himself, whose show planted the mouse in our Boomer memories.

Here’s a Youtube video of Sullivan and Topo Gigio doing their thing.