A musical visit with TV’s first interactive cartoon star “Winky Dink” – with a little dash of Howdy Doody, too.
• NEVER-NEVER LAND (Ooh-La) / WINKY DINK AND YOU
• THE “MAKE-LIKA” SONG / MISTER BUNGLE
• WINKO / MAGIC CRAYONS MAKE MAGIC PICTURES
• WHEN WINKY WINKS AT YOU / GILLY GILLY OSSENFEFFER KATZENELLEN BOGEN BY THE SEA
Jack Barry and Winky Dink (Mae Questel)
Music Directed by Jack Pleis; Decca Records (7” 45 RPM & 10” 78 RPM / Mono / 1953)
The word “interactive” is thrown around with abandon nowadays. But seriously—back in the day, whether you used one of the actual Winky Dink magic screens, magic crayons and magic cloths or just stuck plastic wrap over your TV screen (Saran Wrap was best) and used your own crayons and Mom’s dust rag, this slice of television ingenuity was mind-blowing to the extreme.
Like the founders of Total Television and Rankin/Bass, the originators of Winky Dink and You! were real-life New York advertising “mad men.” Art Director Harry Pritchett, to demonstrate how his commercials for Benrus Watches were getting cropped as they were broadcast, put a plastic sheet over a TV screen and sketched the area that appeared all the time (similar cropping areas still appear in TV and film production to determine the actual frame).
Pritchett had fun at parties drawing mustaches over Steve Allen’s TV image and adding a stick figure between two wrestlers, but after teaming with his assistant Ed Wyckoff, the idea of a series became good enough to pitch. It was picked up by TV host Jack Barry, his producer, Dan Enright and CBS exec Ed Friendly to run on Saturday mornings. (This was before Barry and Enright’s rigging of game shows caused a nationwide scandal, though the duo reportedly also edged Pritchett and Wyckoff out of profits from their own show).
The 1950’s version was very low-tech with animatic-style cartoon adventures, comedy sketches and secret codes. Over the years, comic actor Dayton Allen joined the show (after Howdy Doody and before The Steve Allen Show and Terrytoons). Its young writers included Norm Blumenthal, who went on to produce Concentration and Wonderama, and “Giz Wiz” Dick DeBartolo, who saved The Match Game from cancellation and wrote many a funny script for Mad Magazine (hear his interviews at stusshow.com).
The Winky Dink that is closest to my heart, however, is the animated revival that appeared in syndication briefly in 1969. Slightly more animated than its black-and-white predecessor, these 65 five-minute cartoons had a charming, arts-and-crafts look to them with backgrounds that seemed little more than magic markers. All the voices were provided by unsung New York actor Lionel Wilson, who did similar duty for Gene Deitch’s Tom Terrific series. Former Terrytoon staffers Eli Bauer and Al Kouzel, along with Fred Calvert, produced the show.
There was a very ambitious attempt to revive Winky Dink as a series (and fold it into the emerging technology) at the end of the 20th century. A live-action half hour (with two 1969 cartoons) was put together by the production company that created the Jim Varney’s “Ernest” TV spots. In 1987, the Disney Channel announced plans the series, but it never materialized. The pilot was packaged in another play set with the VHS tape, screen, crayons and cloth. A few years later, select episodes of the 1969 cartoons were released on VHS and DVD, alone and in kits by Rembrandt Films (which is how we fell in love with one of the DVD bonus features, Gene Deitch’s Nudnik).
If you think that drawing simple shapes on a TV screen is hopelessly lame in this day of spectacular computer games (very much like movies themselves), all I can say is my kids still find it fun to experience Winky Dink through the recent DVD and VHS releases. There’s nothing quite like it. However, modern plasma screens don’t take well to drawing (don’t try that at home), so it requires finding a TV with a glass screen. We still have one of those small VHS-equipped sets handy when the Winky Dink muse inspires us.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Winky Dink and You”
There was no music in the 1969 cartoon series except for an edited (and pitched) version of this Decca single of the theme song, sung by Barry and Mae Questel.
HOWDY DOODY AND YOU
RCA Records EYA-41 (7” EP 45 RPM) Y-2019 (10” 78 RPM) / Mono / 1954)
Writer: Edward Kean. Musical Director: Robert A. Nicholson.
Performers: Performers: Bob Smith (Buffalo Bob, Howdy Doody); Allen Swift (Phineas T. Bluster); Bill LeCornec (Chief Thunderthud, Dilly Dally).
Songs: “Howdy Kids,” “A Brand-New Way to Say Hello,” “Save Your Pennies,” “Today Will Be Yesterday Tomorrow,” “I’m for Howdy Doody,” “Time to Say Goodbye.”
With the exception of the adults pretending to be kids, Howdy Doody and You is the closest any of the many RCA Doody records came to recreating NBC’s extremely popular Howdy Doody TV show. Each followed the typical children’s record format of the postwar period: stories that broke into sections of no more than 3.5 minutes to fit on 78 and 45 RPM discs, short ditties instead of full songs, and a series of adventures, rhymes and gags strung together in a theme.
What makes Howdy Doody and You unique is that it is very much the same kind of disjointed early-TV Vaudeville show as the series itself. The interactive “and You” conceit of this record is not really paid off except as a way for the listener to “enter” the world of Doodyville and its denizens.
Once there, it’s one little skit after another, including an audio version of the pantomime comedy of Clarabelle the Clown. Clarabelle of course does not speak, so it’s left to the others in the cast to explain the action, along with sound effects that were very much a part of Clarabelle’s schtick.
Legendary stage and cartoon actor Allen Swift voices the supporting cast. Swift was brought in after Dayton Allen—along with Bob Keeshan and two others in the cast—left the show due to several disputes including pay. Dayton Allen showed up on Winky Dink and Allen Swift then handled most of the Doodyville puppets (including Howdy when Bob Smith was away during an illness).
Howdy Doody has become a part of Americana, largely unknown by several new generations but fondly remembered by baby boomers and a handful who remember the ‘70s revival. Crude, loud, silly, it’s the children’s equivalent of Milton Berle, but it’s a cultural landmark, as well as entertainment history.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Howdy Doody and You”
Buffalo Bob, Flub-A-Dub, Mr. Bluster, Clarabelle (sort of) and a hopelessly fake Peanut Gallery join forces to bring you a taste of this mid-20th century kids’ TV extravaganza.