Josephine the Plumber

Josephine the Plumber and her Comet

We Boomer kids watched a bunch of television. Familiar faces soon placed themselves permanently in our memory banks, requiring only a slight nudge to be brought back to life in our imaginations. Today, we nudge back into existence a cute, perky, helpful female plumber named Josephine.

Josephine the plumber was portrayed by actress Jane Withers. She was born in 1926 in Atlanta. The daughter of an actress, she was a precocious talent who made it onto a local Atlanta radio show as “Dixie’s Dainty Dewdrop.” She would sing and do impressions of adult celebrities. Her parents soon moved to Hollywood, and she was able to get work as a child actress doing bit parts.

In 1934, she played obnoxious Joy Smythe in Shirley Temple’s film Bright Eyes. It was the break she needed to showcase her talent. Fox signed her to a long-term contract.

A long string of films followed, and Jane was generally cast as a more mischievous version of Shirley Temple, with the sugary sweetness cut in half. It worked, and she was a Top 10 box office draw for three straight years, 1937-39. She ranked her own “name” costars, like Gene Autry and the Ritz Brothers.

She kept making movies as a teenager in the 1940’s, and seemed capable of breaking out of the child star stereotype that so few were able to overcome. Instead, she took a hiatus when she was married in 1947.

Her break ended with a supporting role in the 1956 blockbuster Giant. She became fast friends with James Dean, who trusted her to wash his favorite cowboy shirt. He left it with her to launder when he took off on his Porsche ride to immortality. She still has it.

Jane went to work doing guest bits on TV shows after that. Advertising legend Milton Gossett approached her with the idea of portraying a Rosie-the-Riveter knockoff called Josephine the Plumber in a series of ads for Comet cleanser. I was unable to pinpoint the exact date in the 60’s when the commercials began, perhaps a reader can help? Anyhow, the ads were a hit with the public, and, more importantly to Procter and Gamble, they sold a slew of Comet.

A recent photo of Jane Withers

Josephine the plumber was one of the most recognizable faces on 1960’s and 1970’s television screens. Always in a good mood, ready to help perturbed housewives, and full of energy, she became a cultural icon. And Withers even overcame the obvious stereotyping that committing to such a role brings with it.

After P&G decided to end Josephine’s run, she appeared in guest shots on several TV series, including The Love Boat, Hart to Hart, and others.

In 1996, she was chosen to finish voice-overs for Mary Wickes, who passed away before completion of Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When the sequel came out in 2002, she kept the role of Laverne.

The real life Jane Withers is as perky and affectuous as Josephine herself. Now 88, she is a regular face at Hollywood functions, and boasts one of the largest doll collections in the world. (update: still with us in 2019!)

So here’s to Jane Withers, the actress, and Josephine the Plumber, a familiar face we grew up with.

When We Went Nuts Over a Seagull

Original cover of Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Nowadays, New Age is everywhere. Some are into nature sounds (I particularly enjoy writing while “rain” falls all around me), some into crystals, others dig reflexology.

But go back to 1970 and the concept of New Age was an obscure one. Some hippies were into Yoga, but by and large the New Age movement had yet to ignite.

The spark it needed was the 1970 publication of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The tale of a seagull who wanted more out of life than fighting amongst other members of his species grabbed the nation’s attention that year, and became a runaway best seller.

And just like that, many decided the rat race was no longer for them. After all, what was the difference between clawing one’s way up the corporate ladder and fighting your fellow seagulls for a piece of rotted fish that had washed up on the shore?

Thus, Richard Bach’s tiny little novel (I read it in a single day when I was twelve) revealed the dissatisfaction that many Boomers and their younger parents had with their mundane lives.

Thinking like that was a million miles away from that of our grandparents, who were simply glad to have survived the Great Depression without starving to death.

But this was the Boomer generation. We questioned everything. Go to war? Not unless it’s for the right reason. Cut our hair? Why? Get a job? I’d rather join a commune.

While the WWII generation was mystified by the behavior of the rebellious offspring they had raised, Jonathan Livingston Seagull’s struggles with his desires to do his own thing perhaps cleared things up a bit for them.

Jonathan had a love for flying that his fellow seagulls just couldn’t understand. Eventually, he is banished from the colony. Undaunted, he does what he loves: flying. One day, he is met by a pair of gulls who take him to a heaven of sorts, a higher plain of existence. He is mentored by a mystical gull named Chiang who teaches him all sorts of cool stuff, including what we science fiction fans call teleportation. Jonathan then returns to earth to find and enlighten other dissatisfied seagulls.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull soundtrack

Richard Bach (himself an Iowa Air Guard pilot) based the story on his friendship with a barnstormer of the twenties and thirties named Johnny Livingston. Livingston won many air races and also put on numerous exhibitions across the Great Plains with his biplane. The free-wheeling airman loved flying above all else.

The book proved to be such a hit that movie plans were put in place. Of course, the movie would have to be shots of real seagulls, given human voices. These voices would include those of Richard Crenna, James Franciscus, and Hal Holbrook, among others.

The movie was released in 1974 and in fact turned a profit, despite caustic reviews. Neil Diamond did the soundtrack, and managed to garner a hit single with Skybird. Lonely Looking Sky and Dear Father were also pretty good songs on an album designed to be listened to in a hot tub with the fondue pot heating up and margaritas in the blender.

Thus it was when we went in a big way for a tale of a seagull who wanted something more. Nowadays, many of us Boomers are casting uneasy eyes at our retirement funds with much the same feelings.

Getting Mad, Sick, or Cracked

MAD magazine from 1967

Pity America’s youth prior to 1952.

They had to manufacture their own sick, irreverent, cutting-edge humor. Nowadays, the term for such is “politically incorrect.”

But that year, a strange new comic book called MAD began to be published by EC Comics. EC would be infamous for pushing the envelope a bit too far for 1950’s readership with their horror and science fiction lines, and causing the formation of the Comics Code Authority, which would ensure that kids would only have much blander fare to read for the foreseeable future.

MAD also horrified parents, of course. That was one of the biggest reasons that kids loved it. It specialized in lampooning, and would frequently offer sardonic “apologies” within story lines, begging people not to sue them.

It was great stuff from the get-go, and was also an instant success. Two years after its debut, MAD switched from comic book to magazine format. Those early MAD issues are among some of comicdom’s most sought-after collectibles. But MAD, the magazine, would go on to be a huge influence on the Baby Boomer generation. It would also spawn its imitators.

The first of the pretenders showed up in 1958. Cracked had a simple premise: lowball imitations of westerns, romances, and other popular genres in TV, movies, and on the magazine racks.

While never publicly owning up to imitating MAD, it did so nonetheless, as did the rest of the pretenders.

Cracked magazine from 1958

This is more of a testimony to MAD’s blazing of satire’s trail, rather than the desire to imitate its editorial style. MADwas the first, and it did an incredible job of skewering everything in sight.

Cracked mazagine (it wasn’t until I researched this piece that I learned that it had always been misspelled like that on its cover) managed to carve out an original slot or two on its own. They are the ones who originated the Shut-Ups series. Example: a woman tells her husband “Honey, it’s not nice to avoid someone just because of his color.” “SHUT UP! This guy is a nut!” The man of “color” in question had a bucket of purple paint upside down on his head.

However, Sick magazine simply didn’t stick in my memory banks like the other two. That’s no reflection on the magazine itself, it just that nothing I read (and I read a lot of them) stuck in the permanent brain cells, FWIW.

But despite its inability to stick in my mind, Sick did manage to survive for twenty years, from 1960 to 1980.

The three satirical rags were familiar sights on store magazine racks and also could be spotted stacked up in boys’ bedrooms.

I don’t see any of the three as being a hit with girls. Ladies, is that a true statement?

But we boys loved them. I think it’s safe to say that any 1970’s era class clowns like myself owed much of their material to the Big Three, particularly MAD.

Sick Magazine from 1962

Nowadays, Sick and Cracked are gone (although cracked.com is one of the better hit “wesbites,” and yes, it’s the same folks). MAD is down to four issues a year, but it’s still around.

Today’s class clowns glean much of their material from the interweb. Either that or they watch any of a bazillion shows on a jillion networks.

But we Boomer kids didn’t have that many channels to choose from. And the humor on them was quite tame, compared to what we were looking for. Of course, we couldn’t even envision something like the internet.

So we bought the satire magazines by the bagfuls. And we would hold onto them for years, to be read again and again.

And that’s where many of us got our cynical eye, our willingness to question authority, and our ability to laugh long and hard at the not-meant-to-be-funny antics of the human race.

Fleer Funnies

Fleer Funnies

A penny was real legal tender in the 60’s. You could walk into the local supermarket or grocery store with a single cent and walk out the proud owner of a piece of Dubble Bubble gum.

Not only did you have the best chew that could be had, complete with that timeless bubble gum taste, you also got a small but significant piece of American literature: A copy of Fleer Funnies.

Fleer Funnies featured a character named Pud. He had some other friends who were regular visitors, as well as the occasional space alien as evidenced by this graphic.

I learned several interesting facts about Fleer Funnies at This great site, loaded with lots of pictures. For instance, Fleer started putting comic wrappers around their gum in the 1930’s! And they still do! The site also reminded me that Pud frequently shared his space with ads for baseball caps, Indian arrowheads, and such.

And yes, the venerable Pud is still around. You Boomers from the 50’s will remember a porky little kid. By the 60’s, he had slimmed down. He doesn’t look the same now as he did when I was a kid, but very few of us do ;-).

Dubble Bubble was a small but significant part of my childhood. I’m pleased that it’s still around. It doesn’t cost a penny apiece any more, though.

Dr. Seuss

Theodore Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss, on a postage stamp

A wonderful tradition began in our childhoods, which was passed on to our children, and then our grandchildren. It was reading the books and savoring the included illustrations of one Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.

What Baby Boomer out there doesn’t have among their earliest childhood recollections reading about Sam I Am, Horton the elephant, the Grinch, and, of course, the Cat in the Hat?

Dr. Seuss was a gifted writer in the minimalist style of Ernest Hemingway. However, he took it to an even more basic level. He felt like children learning to read should concentrate on a few basic words, and wrote wonderful stories using only those selected ones.

For example, legend has it that Green Eggs and Ham was written as a response to a bet proposed by Bennet Cerf that he couldn’t write a book with only fifty different words. Count the words yourself, he pulled it off, and created one of our favorite childhood memories in the process.

The Cat in the Hat

But it was Seuss’s illustrations that captivated me. He drew exotic landscapes of roads and tree branches populated by endless varieties of creatures with a distinct look that can only be described as Seussian. His illustrations conveyed happiness. They were reassuring to a kid who might otherwise be having a bad day.

Seuss began as a freelance writer, producing humorous articles and illustrations that were published by the likes of Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Vanity Fair. As WWII began, he began producing political cartoons. He took a hard line against Japanese-Americans in particular, a seemingly paradoxical view for a beloved producer of children’s books.

Speaking of which, his first was published in 1937: And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street. It was a success, but only after being rejected by 28 publishers. Imagine if he’d given up, the world might never have known the Cat in the Hat.

His next book was Horton Hatches the Egg, which teaches kids the importance of sticking with what you know is right, perhaps an allusion to the difficulty he had getting his first book published.

Seuss produced books every few years after that before his prolific period of the mid to late 50’s, just in time for the largesty generation of kids the world has ever known. My personal favorite, On Beyond Zebra, was penned in 1955. In it, he invented an extended alphabet which stretched on beyond z, with an appropriate fantasy creature to illustrate each letter’s usage. For instance, the letter “floob” is used to spell floobooberbabooberbubs, large serene heads that float in the water.

On Beyond Zebra

The Grinch and the Cat in the Hat appeared in 1957, Yertle the Turtle in 1958, and Sam I Am in 1960. After that, Seuss’s output slowed just a bit, but he still gave us Hop on Pop in 1963, Fox in Socks in 1965, and the Lorax in 1971. The latter book was banned from some schools because of its anti-forestry stance.

Seuss’s last book is considered by many to be his finest: Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Penned in 1990, it was a manual for kids on how to handle life’s challenges. While aimed at children, it has proven to be a popular high school and college graduation gift.

Seuss’s legacy lives on. Grade school libraries are still loaded with his work. When my kids were small in the 90’s, we bought Seuss books for them. And no doubt, my grandkids will love them too, when they get here.

How fortunate we are that this beloved author-illustrator stubbornly insisted on sharing his talent for reaching kids with the rest of the world.

Don’t Touch Blasting Caps!

Blasting Caps warning poster

When we were kids, one of the greatest dangers that we faced was that of blasting caps. They were EVERYWHERE! Why, you couldn’t sit in a back yard without some Eddie Haskell troublemaker type finding one in the grass and making plans to put it in your father’s barbecue grill and blowing up your sister!

We must have seen hundreds of public service ads on TV warning us of the dangers of blasting caps. What was frustrating to us boys was that despite the fact that the filmed spots advised us that you couldn’t walk across a vacant lot without stumbling across blasting caps of every conceivable type, we never found a one.

The message of the filmed spots was to make us afraid, VERY afraid. But unintentionally, they turned us into eager seekers of blasting caps. Imagine the sheer coolness of the lucky kid who actually located a genuine blasting cap. The leadership of the neighborhood gang would have been his!

But in my sleepy hometown of Miami, Oklahoma, the closest thing I ever found that resembled blasting caps were discarded electrical parts at my dad’s truck garage. They were close enough to scare the girls at school, though, which was a pretty significant accomplishment in itself.

This 1957 video runs about fifteen minutes. Odds are that if you remember JFK, you saw this in school. It certainly rang a bell with me.

It’s worth a watch for many reasons. Seeing dad roll up in his Lockheed Constellation (quite simply, the sexiest airplane ever built), hearing him talk about his WWII flying days, and the wise words of Mr. Barrow, who was likely old enough to have risked mustard gas and trench foot in the Great War, make it worth your time.

But there’s more. There is some seriously cool retro furniture on the back porch, where tragedy was narrowly averted by Tag, who stopped evil Chuck from blowing up his family. There’s Mr. Barrow’s sad description of a kid who handled a blasting cap and maimed his hand. “He’ll never play baseball again!”

Tell that to Jim Abbott.

Commercials about blasting caps aired on an almost-daily basis in the 60’s. While the adults in the ads were sorely concerned about the potential of the detonators falling into the hands of curious children, my dad would merely grunt if I asked him about them. I guess he knew that the biggest hazard that I faced in my NE Oklahoma hometown was getting popped in the head by a foul ball at the Babe Ruth league that we watched my older brother play in.

But obviously, the danger was out there somewhere. Otherwise, why would none other than Willie Mays be telling us about how much better it was for all concerned if we kids played with baseball bats and gloves instead of those ominous-looking little metallic cylinders with those threatening wires attached?

Blasting caps public-service ads aired all through my childhood, then disappeared from view when I was a teenager in the late 70’s. The IME (Institute of the Makers of Explosives) continue to offer educational materials just like they did in the 50’s and 60’s, but TV stations no longer feel the need to broadcast them on a daily basis.

Indeed, nowadays, we parents and grandparents worry more about things like pedophiles, drug dealers who have no qualms about selling to kids, and psychopathic students who show up at school with anger and loaded weapons.

What would wise old Mr. Barrow have to say about that?

DC Comics and That Beautiful Checkered Header

Detective Comics with that beautiful checker top

This was, by far, IMHO, the most beautiful comic book design in history.

I was a comic book nut growing up. I loved them all (except those yucky romance ones, of course). But the books that leapt off of the rack into my seven-year-old hands were these gorgeous DC comics with that distinctive checkerboard pattern at the top.

If you walk into my house, you’ll see that same checkerboard pattern in my floor. It’s timeless, classic, and beautiful.

I didn’t buy many issues in the 60’s. They cost twelve cents, and that would mean that I would have to go an entire day without candy. My allowance was two nickels a day. Do the math. It was easier to read them in the store, the tolerant owner of Moonwink Grocery allowing it.

Anyhow, in the mid 1970’s, there was a used book store that was open in the nearby community of Rogers, Arkansas. It was a gold mine for me, still into comics in my early-to-mid teen years. He had an incredible stash of comics dating to the late 50’s for TEN CENTS APIECE!

I bought every checker-topped DC comic he had. Most showed wear, but I had a Justice League of America in pristine shape.

The comics were stored at Mom and Dad’s house while I moved to California at the age of 21. When I eventually returned to the area and bought my own home in 1985, they gave them back to me.

However, I was now too busy to pay them any mind. In fact, I unloaded the entire lot at a yard sale not too long afterwards.

I like to think that they are receiving loving care at the hands of collectors. Whatever, they will live forever in my memories.

Classic, Vanished Comic Strips

Lil Abner comic from the 40’s

It’s amazing the changes in the comics pages over the years. The hottest comics out there didn’t exist in our childhood. And, as cartoonists inevitably age, strips either continue with new authorship, or die with the creator.

Peanuts had such a wealth of material, and it was material that had no connection with the world’s events when it was new, that it continues to run as a very successful daily despite the death of Charles Schulz. On the other hand, strips like the depicted Lil Abner were very in tune politically, so even though it is available today as repeats, it’s not a big hit.

I was always a huge fan of the comics. Even today, it’s the first part of the Sunday Paper that I read.

I will now try to recreate the Sunday funnies that I read circa 1968.

On the front cover are some familiar faces. Blondie, Snuffy Smith, and Beetle Bailey. Mort Walker is still drawing the venerable soldier, but the other two have been passed on to successors.

Opening to page two, there’s Freckles and His Friends. It was popular in the 60’s, sort of an alternate Archie.

Next down is Our Boarding House, otherwise known as Major Hoople. The perennially angry fez-wearing senior citizen’s favorite saying was “Fap!”

Then there was Pogo. I never dug Pogo, its humor was over an eight-year-old kid’s head.

Dondi was a daily strip about an orphan. I don’t remember seeing it in Sunday’s paper.

Our Boarding House cartoon from the 50’s

They’ll Do It Every Time taught us a history lesson in a whimsical way. It was generally a large single panel with lots going on. You could have fun learning about real events from the past with Hatlo’s History.

Out Our Way was a single panel strip on weekdays, I don’t remember what its Sunday incarnation was. It had two looks that varied from day to day, I guess from different artists who took turns, I’m not sure. It was adventures within a family called the Willets.

B.C. is another that has been around since the 60’s, and Johnny Hart shows no sign of slowing down. His Wizard of Id that he co-writes continues to be widely popular.

Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy were hugely popular old time comics that passed on to new artists, but who failed to keep the mystique going. I haven’t seen either of them in years.

Steve Canyon cartoon

Many serial comics were featured in the Sunday funnies of the 60’s. Steve Canyon, Prince Valiant, Terry and the Pirates, Rex Morgan, M.D., Alley Oop, Gasoline Alley, and Joe Palooka were some I remember.

There were also multi-activity strips. Today’s Slylock Fox was preceded by Cappy Dick, as well as a couple of others that escape my memory at the moment. If I think of them, I’ll get them added.

Priscilla’s Pop, Nancy, and the strangely mouthless Henry close out the back page.

We have some brilliant cartoonists today. IMHO, there is no humor as cutting edge as Dilbert’s Scott Adams. Pearls Before Swine rocks, as does Overboard. And geniuses who shined for but a short time, Gary Larson and Bill Watterson, set new standards of greatness.

But I still have fond memories of those glorious Tulsa World Sunday funnies and those long vanished strips.

Cigarette Ads Everywhere

Paul Hornung hawking Marlboro cigarettes

When television was in its infancy, it may well have foundered if not for the influx of advertising dollars from tobacco companies. Thus, many early shows featured cigarette brands as part of their names.

As television got bigger and bigger, the concept of a single sponsor for shows waned. This didn’t bother tobacco companies in the least. They simply swamped the airwaves with commercials.

Thus, we Boomer kids grew up with a steady diet of catchy ads designed to put into our minds the desire to someday smoke cigarettes, just like the grownups.

The ads were quite insidious. I remember the whistled “I’d walk a mile for a Camel”, Lark’s charcoal filter, The Marlboro song (which I later learned was actually the theme from The Magnificent Seven), the fact that you can take Salem out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of Salem, and many, many more.

During the early 90’s, there was a firestorm of controversy over the Joe Camel figure encouraging kids to smoke. Cigarette ads aired during the 50’s and 60’s weren’t really aimed at us, as I recall, but they were incredibly effective nonetheless. Why? Because smoking was absolutely, positively COOL. It was something that adults did, and what kid didn’t want to be a grown-up?

During the 60’s, ads were broadcast that WERE aimed at kids, showing the bad side of smoking. One that was repeated for years was this one, known as the “like father, like son” ad. This one, as well as many more anti-smoking spots, did serve as a discouragement to me, so that by the time I made it to high school, I viewed the gang who smoked out behind the shop as decidedly UNcool.

The generation of Boomer kids who grew up in the 50’s weren’t so fortunate. What they saw were irresistible ads that made no mention of any disadvantages of having a cigarette blasting smoke into the deepest recesses of one’s lungs. Thus, many, many of those old enough to be concerned with the draft were hooked.

Of course, it wasn’t just television. Radio ads extolled the benefits of one brand over another, and big, colorful magazines of the 60’s were loaded with full-page ads.

Thus, talk among kids of the neighborhood gang was of smoking, and how we could actually score a pack for ourselves.

Benson and Hedges ad from the 60’s

I display the Benson and Hedges ad because one day a bunch of us decided to give smoking a try, and the extra-long cigarettes seemed like the best bang for the buck. It felt extremely cool, to be sure, but when the pack was gone, I don’t recall any of us tempted to try it again.

The last cigarette ads aired on TV and radio on January 1, 1971. As I recall, practically EVERY ad was for cigarettes that day. Thus, my own children weren’t exposed to grammatically-challenged spots like “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” or “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch.” Indeed, even magazine advertising has been severely clipped since then, and long-standing traditions like NASCAR’s Winston Cup have been forced to choose another sponsor.

Ads for cigarettes are rare nowadays. And even though I thoroughly despise the concept of political correctness, I have no regrets that this particular Boomer memory is now considered heinous by the Well-Informed.

I had enough headaches raising my kids without the idiot box convincing them that smoking was cool.

For lots more info on old cigarette ads on TV, check out http://www.tvparty.com/vaultcomcig.html

Children’s Highlights Magazine

Children’s Highlights magazine from 1964

I was a kid who was always sick. I was at the doctor’s office for various childhood ailments ranging from chicken pox to pneumonia. I hated going to the doctor, because it would invariably mean getting a shot.

However, there was a pleasant memory of doctor’s offices of the 1960’s. That was Children’s Highlights Magazine.

Dr. Wendlekin, our family physician in Miami, Oklahoma, had the typical waiting room of the era: semi-comfortable chairs, ash trays, and magazines in a rack with thick clear plastic covers protecting their pages. There were all sorts of different magazines to be found, but I always went for the big, friendly copies of Children’s Highlights.

Highlights was (and still is) a fun read for a kid, particularly an anxious one who is awaiting an appointment with someone who would be prodding him with instruments, checking his pulse with a big, cold stethoscope, and no doubt also sticking him with a needle.

The big, friendly pages had regular features that were eagerly sought out by their young fans. For instance, there were the hidden pictures. A page would be filled with an illustration, and your task was to locate all of the hidden items contained therein. The pen-and-ink drawing would contain some easy giveaways for the youngest, and some tough ones that only an astute eleven-year-old would have the acuity to spot.

The Timbertoes were another favorite. The wooden family would teach us gentle lessons about lightweight matters like the fun things about going to the park, playing in the snow, and other diversions. Not too much heavy learning there. That would be handled by another pair.

Goofus and Gallant got down to the hard facts of life. Do you want to be liked and respected by all? Or would you prefer to be known as a self-centered jerk? It was obvious which of the two was more likable. Goofus would shove old ladies out of the way to make his way to the head of the line, while Gallant would stop what he was doing and assist those who needed help, frequently undoing Goofus’s damage in the process.

The lesson to be learned was so obvious that I wonder why the world has approximately ten Goofuses to every Gallant among its population today.

I also remember the bears. They were a family who would face challenges and have adventures, all begun and concluded within a single page of print.

Highlights would offer subscriptions in every waiting room issue, but I didn’t know anyone who got them at home. No, they were one of two good things about going to the doctor.

The other was the sucker you would receive as your posterior was still stinging from that blasted shot.