On Monday evening, January 17, 1955, WPIX 11 became the first NYC based station to air The Our Gang / Little Rascals films on their own daily TV show for kids, The Clubhouse Gang.
The Our Gang comedies were screened against the backdrop of a neighborhood clubhouse while school kids made up a major portion of the in-studio audience watching the shorts (including one up and coming comedic talent named Billy Crystal).
The show had everything, except someone to host; WPIX's programing director wisely decided on their MC by conducting a focus group test.
The programming director's son was celebrating a birthday in January of 1955, so he threw a birthday bash at the Channel 11 studios. Along with the games, gift giving, ice cream and cake, the PD screened The Little Rascals films at the party to test their popularity with the kids.
Afterwards, he asked the youngsters if they had a good time. The kids all responded with a resounding - "Yes!" Then, the PD asked them who would they like to be the host of The Clubhouse Gang Show.
11 out of 12 children at the birthday party screamed, "the Tasteweatherman!"
The programing director was shocked that they had chosen the WPIX meteorologist to host a kid's show but that's how Joe Bolton (who had been doing the weather reports and other types of TV shows for the station) became a legendary icon in the nation's number one broadcast market.
Originally the powers that be at Channel 11 asked Bolton to host the program as a funny tramp character. Bolton balked at the idea, claiming "that a tramp is an inappropriate character" for kids to look up to.
The idea of a kid's TV host playing the tramp clown was a natural since many local and network affiliated stations already required their newscasters and local on-air talent to portray buffoons on various kid's series.
As an alternative, another executive suggested that Bolton host the show as a policeman. The idea stuck. Despite efforts from other WPIX execs to make Bolton's "Officer Joe" character a clownish version of a cop, Bolton decided early on that he would play the character straight.
On the Clubhouse Gang show, "Officer Joe" engaged his Clubhouse members (his studio audiences and viewers at home) in games, songs, stories, craftmaking, informational segments and interviews with guest performers sandwiched between the cinematic antics of the Rascals.
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One very special guest on Channel 11's Clubhouse Gang was former "Little Rascal" Jean Darling (seen left), then a successful stage, nightclub, radio & TV performer.
Ms. Darling, who made her appearance on Saturday evening May 14, 1955, entertained Officer Joe and the kids and chatted about her career as a member of the silent Our Gang comedies.
She also presented Bolton with his trademark a badge and cap with the number 11 prominently displayed on the front.
The short subjects proved popular all over the country but especially in New York City where The Little Rascals regularly beat nationwide phenomenon Howdy Doody in the ratings.
They were so popular that Channel 11 was forced to close the doors to the Clubhouse on Friday, September 13, 1957 when the TV rights to The Little Rascals film comedies were sold to a bigger outfit, WABC Channel 7.
WABC began airing the films on The Little Rascals Show twice a day, in the morning and evening.
Host/performer "Uncle Joe" Bova (who had just finished his stint as the second host of WABC's Time For Fun) entertained viewers with comedy skits, stories, song and dance numbers, craftmaking and interviews with guests between the films on weekday evenings from Monday, September 23, 1957 until Friday, September 9, 1960.
While Bova hosted Little Rascal films in the evenings, Chubby Jackson MC'd WABC's weekday morning edition of The Little Rascals Show in 1957.
Jackson had recently hosted his own Little Rascals program on WBKB TV-7 in Chicago where he once landed Spanky McFarland as a guest after he was voted the viewer's favorite Rascal. The series was honored with a TV Guide award around 1955 for the best local children's TV show in the Chicago, Ill. viewing area.
On the NYC show, Chubby Jackson performed jazz music numbers alongside a full pop music orchestra - provided by WABC's music contractor Mr. Frank Vanyone.
Director Roger Shope created and staged a kiddie talent showcase for the show called 'The Little Rascals Follies.' Gifted kids from NYC's best dance schools, high school marching bands, choruses and school orchestras would sing, dance, perform magic tricks, ventriloquism and generally clown around.
Typically, Chubby performed jazz numbers with his group and then participated in comedy bits with his talking bass fiddle puppet "Casey," a favorite character on the show who would comically put Chubby in his place.
Chubby also invited well-known jazz musicians to perform on the show and share their love and knowledge of jazz music with the viewers at home - including a memorable appearance by legendary bandleader and drummer Gene Krupa.
Unfortunately, the higher-ups at Channel 7 didn't fully appreciate Chubby's format or his talents as a kid's TV performer. They replaced director Roger Shope with Bill Beale, who had previously directed Bob Keeshan on WABC's Tinker's Workshop.
Beale was better suited to supervising educational programs and didn't see the appeal of Chubby's entertainment oriented approach. As a result, the two openly conflicted over the format.
Arguments over creative differences forced Chubby Jackson to walk away from WABC's Little Rascals Show on Friday morning, July 14, 1961; the station continued to air the films without a host until 1967.
Meanwhile, the phenomenal Sandy Becker (who has been covered extensively on TVparty) entertained NYC viewers between showings of the post-1938 MGM Our Gang films (a separate syndication package from The Little Rascals) on Sandy Becker Presents the Our Gang Comedies weekday evenings on WNEW Channel 5 from Monday, November 17, 1958 until Friday March 17, 1961.
Sonny Fox also screened the MGM comedies on his version of WNEW's Wonderama Sunday mornings from 1959 until 1960.
Herb Sheldon hosted a program that aired the rarely-seen silent Little Rascals films (filmed between 1922-1929) on his last kid's show, The Mischief Makers, weekday evenings on WOR TV-9 starting Monday, September 19, 1960.
Herb Sheldon was a real character - he opened every episode of WOR and TelePictures Inc.'s Mischief Makers Show by driving onto the set of the show in a Model T Ford automobile - sporting his trademark straw skimmer, bow tie and striped or checkered blazer.
These silent Hal Roach Our Gang comedies were part of yet another syndication package (called The Mischief Makers). They were poorly edited for TV with oddly inappropriate music and overlaid narration provided by an unknown young boy. The silent comedies never caught on; the show lasted less than a year, ending on Friday, June 9, 1961. Sadly, Herb Sheldon died on July 21, 1964.
In April of 1967, WPIX channel 11 bought back the TV rights to the Hal Roach Little Rascals from WABC to begin airing the films weekday afternoons on The Little Rascals Show hosted by "Captain Jack" McCarthy from Monday, April 3, 1967 until Friday, January 1, 1970.
"Officer Joe" Bolton was asked once again to host the cinematic antics of Darla, Spanky, Buckwheat, Porky, Alfalfa and Butch beginning in 1970 on WPIX's Little Rascals Show until protests from Peggy Charren's ACT (Action for Children's Television) and Forum, Inc. led to its demise.
Charren's organization decried what they saw as a lack of quality educational kid's TV programs and felt that too many local entertainment oriented children's shows were promoting inappropriate products. ACT successfully pressured Channel 11 into changing their children's fare - Officer Joe Bolton and The Little Rascals were dropped on Friday, June 30, 1972.
The abrupt departure of Officer Joe dramatically altered the New York City television landscape (many think for the worse) and ended daily broadcasts of The Little Rascals / Our Gang in New York City.
- PART THREE:
The Death of Alfalfa
What Really Happened?!?
Porky was replaced in 1939 by Mickey Gubitosi who would later adopt the name Robert Blake (Baretta).
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