After only two years on the air, the UHF upstart had WGN-TV worried. After several years as the place to be for top rate children's programming, Channel 32 was striking out and to lead the battle they chose Bill Jackson...
CARTOON TOWN B.J. & DIRTY DRAGON
1966, WGN-TV was the undisputed king of kid's
TV. At the time it was the only true independent station in the Chicago
area. WBBM-TV, WMAQ-TV, and WBKB were
all network outlets with a limited amount of time for local programming;
WTTW and WXXW were
both educational/NET stations, and WCIU was a
low powered specialty- mostly ethnic programmer. Cable was still being
referred to as Community Antenna Television and found only in areas
where standard broadcast signals were difficult to receive.
There were other Kidvid shows other than what aired on WGN-TV. In the early fifties, Chicago viewers would find nothing but children's programming in the afternoons to 5:30. Frazier Thomas had just come to Chicago, and after a short stint hosting Petticoat Party, which featured a certain familiar goose brought us Garfield Goose & Friends airing over WBKB (and later for a short time on WBBM-TV); Howdy Doody with Buffalo Bob Smith (which actually originated from New York); Ding Dong School with Miss Frances (originally a locally-produced program before going network and moving to New York); Noontime Comics with Uncle Johnny Coons; and Cactus Jim could be found on WNBQ.
WENR-TV aired Laugh Time; and Super Circus with Mary Hartline. WBKB had Kids Karnival Kwiz; and famed cartoonist Bob Clampett hosted a puppet show syndicated from Los Angeles called Time For Beany on WGN-TV; WBBM-TV premiered Susan's Show starring a young Susan Heinkel in September of 1956; and Don Clayton hosted Totem Club on WTTW, which also offered its viewers Storytime With Miss Bunny, and The Storyteller, with Val Bettin. WBKB (and later WCIU) tried Mulqueen's Kiddie A Go-Go, a sort of kiddie American Bandstand. But by the mid 1960s, many of these shows were gone. All in all, WGN-TV had nothing to worry about.
That is until 1966 when Field Communications debuted WFLD on channel 32. For the first time in its existence, WGN now had a real competitor. UHF stations were slowly becoming more popular as set manufacturers were now required by law to include all 82 VHF and UHF channels on their models. It would be long time coming before UHF could stand proudly beside its big brother VHF stations but the ruling put the stations on the right road.
WFLD's first foray into kidvid was a syndicated series titled Winchell & Mahoney Time which starred veteran ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his lap dummies Jerry Mahoney, Knucklehead Smiff, and others. Winchell had starred previously on other kid's show in the 50s both on WBKB and WNBQ. This series lasted one year before going out of production.
WFLD followed up with "Cartoon Town with Bill Jackson." Now WGN-TV had something to worry about. Jackson, a talented cartoonist, writer, and producer with a stable of puppet characters (all voiced by Jackson himself) was the first person to shake up the WGN-TV kingdom. His characters are just as memorable today as any that appeared on WGN-TV. Who can forget "Dirty Dragon" and "Mother Plumtree"? "The Lemon Joke Kid" and "The Old Professor"? Not to mention "The Thumptwangers!" Arguably the most popular character on the show wasn't a puppet at all but just a mound of molding clay! "The Blob," as he was affectionately known, would rant in unintelligible (except to Jackson) outbursts, who would then proceed to mold Blob into whatever he wanted to be that day. Today more people remember "The Blob" than any other character on the series.
Jackson cut his teeth on live television in Ft. Wayne Indiana as host of a show called Popeye & The Little Rascals Club. After two years he moved to Indianapolis where he stayed for three years. It was at this station that Jackson created the character of "Dirty Dragon" fashioned after a dear friend of his. In 1965 he came to Chicago and hosted Clown Alley (as "Freckles" the clown) on WBBM-TV where "Dirty Dragon" made his first Chicago appearance. It ran for less than two years against brutal competition from WGN-TV's Ray Rayner & Friends.
An additional problem with Clown Alley (and it's weekend counterpart Here Comes Freckles) was that WBBM-TV, in all their wisdom, scheduled Jackson's show to start five minutes after the hour (at 6:35 am) and ended it five minutes before the hour (6:55 am) . Naturally no one thought to tune in because of the odd time. Jackson referred to the show as "the best kept secret in Chicago!" Interestingly, Ted Turner would try this idea starting his programming five minutes after the hour, on his WTBS super station with much better results.
In 1968, with sponsor Maurice Lenell Cookies in tow, Cartoon Town with Bill Jackson premiered over WFLD. And it's audience struggled to find it. WFLD had only been on the air for less than two years when Cartoon Town premiered. Many homes did not have sets that received the UHF channels- so the folks that did have UHF became the most popular people on the block! After awhile the series found it's audience and eventually managed to beat out WGN's Garfield Goose & Friends.
WGN-TV, aghast at being one-upped by a lowly UHF'er, moved "Garfield" to mornings. In it's place, they scheduled reruns of The Flintstones and Batman. With competition like that, a locally produced kids show didn't have a chance. Jackson then convinced WFLD to change the format to a stage revue with life size characters and a studio audience. The title was changed to The B.J. & Dirty Dragon Show. and moved to the most coveted spot for a kids show in Chicago, 12 noon, up against the mighty Bozo! The idea looked like a winner based on the success that Jackson had with his live stage shows around the Chicago area.
However the idea bombed on television and the show soon reverted back to the original format but retained the new name. The timeslot changed one more time and away from the big B. Jackson did manage to keep two of his dancers from the live show, Nancy Wettler and Ian Harris, and used them as puppeteers in the third and final version. With the new talent and a crack production crew, Jackson considers this version of the series as his favorite. It was on this series that Jackson and his crew produced the extremely popular cliff hanger serials and the MTV-like videos of "The Thumptwangers." The ratings improved but then Field sold the station to Kaiser Broadcasting. Kaiser, with it's own agenda, quickly bounced the show from it's schedule.
After a short break and moving to New York to do a show called B.J.'s Bunch at WNBC, he commuted back and forth to Chicago to do another version of Cartoon Town set in Carefree Corners for none other than former rival WGN-TV. The show aired for one year, but Jackson felt out of place and the station really didn't know what to do with him. Unwisely, his show was scheduled in the old Romper Room timeslot, but Jackson's show was not really geared for pre-schoolers and the humor went over it's audience's heads.
Jackson managed one more hurrah when he sold Gigglesnort Hotel to WLS-TV where the show aired Sunday mornings. The show, complete with all the "Cartoon Town" characters as well as a few new ones designed especially for the series, eventually was sold into national and international syndication. In it's short three years on the air (Jackson was again victim to a change in management when new management at WLS-TV cancelled the series) Gigglesnort won two (long overdue) Emmy awards as well as a program director's award for best locally produced children's show in the nation.
Jackson then left the windy city and children's television and took a job teaching at California's Cal-Arts Institute where he stayed for 11 and half years. The 78 episodes of Gigglesnort Hotel series can still be seen in several markets including at one time in the early 1990s, in South America.
For those who just can't get enough of Bill Jackson and his characters, help is only a click away! Jackson's web site offers videos of Cartoon Town and Gigglesnort Hotel as well as photos, original comics, and paintings recently done by Jackson himself. Check it all out at: www.dirtydragon.com and tell him The Video Veteran sent you!