By Zachary Houle
Being a parent in Toronto, Canada, nearly fifty years ago must have been tough. Imagine having to explain to your kids that their favourite TV star, a peanut-shaped puppet named Uncle Chichimus, had been mysteriously kidnapped in a country better known for its royal mounted police force than violent crime.
In what became front-page news in Canada briefly during the mid-'50s, the tale of Uncle Chichimus's kidnapping is a minor blemish on the early days of Canadian broadcasting - albeit a long-forgotten one. (Ask any Canadian grown-up to name a CBC kids TV show they remember watching and you're likely to get Mr. Dressup or The Friendly Giant as answers instead.)
But Chichimus's story is one about how a little puppet could beat the odds and bounce back from a terrible ordeal, not to mention a couple of cancellations. Uncle Chichimus was the creation of Ottawa's John Conway, who came up with the off-colour green puppet around 1948, when he was first called King Chichimus The Bold. Conway and Chichimus toured around the country, and even wound up playing in front of Canada's governor-general in December 1951, back when the position actually came with some political power. (It's basically a glorified ceremonial position these days.)
By 1952, the government-run Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was about to make the leap from radio to television, and it needed something that viewers young and old could identify with. According to a Canadian Museum of Civilization Web site, "Early CBC executives favoured airing a Canadian content television puppet show, mainly because of the resounding success of the American show Kukla, Fran and Ollie."
Enter John Conway and his cranky, money-grubbing puppet Chichimus. The CBC hired Conway as a contract player in the months leading up to the flick of the broadcasting switch, and he used his time to train the new crew and directors.
The CBC put a lot of faith in the guy: Uncle Chichimus was the very first character to appear on English Canadian TV on Sept. 8, 1952. (Well, the first thing after the upside-down and backward station call letters!) Uncle Chichimus and his much more congenial niece, Hollyhock, unveiled the network's first program Let's See. Chich introduced weatherman Percy Saltzman during the show, then did the forecast with him and read that evening's line-up of TV programs - which wasn't much in those days. CBC was only on the air for a whopping three hours in 1952.
Chichimus would struggle at first, but eventually prove to become a TV hit among families. By March 1953, Let's See had been retooled so Uncle Chichimus could become a stand-alone 15-minute show airing at 6:30 p.m. (By July, it'd be re-titled yet again to Uncle Chichimus Tells A Story.)
The show was also a training ground for one of its directors, Norman Jewison, who went on to make Hollywood films like Moonstruck, The Hurricane and, well, the original version of Rollerball.
American TV myth says that Jim Henson was the first person to do away with the puppet stage on television, even though noted American puppeteers like George Latshaw, who'd once guest starred on Uncle Chichimus in 1953, claimed Conway was doing this well before anyone else. Latshaw even published this as fact in his book Puppetry, the Ultimate Disguise circa 1977, but Jerry Juhl, one of Henson's former gag writers, was still telling the usual story about his boss' foresight to one U.S. journalist twenty years later.
Still, one thing can't be argued: By early 1954, Uncle Chichimus was one of the hottest things on TV in Toronto. In fact, CBLT had started winning its timeslot at 6:30 p.m. against the much more sophisticated WBEN in Buffalo, N.Y. Everything seemed to be going just swimmingly for Conway and the CBC. That is, until the night of January 19, 1954.
Readers of the Toronto Daily Star (now known as The Toronto Star) got a nasty shock when they sat down with their papers on January 20, 1954. A headline on the bottom-left hand corner of the paper's front page simply read "Uncle Chichimus, Hollyhock Kidnapped." "Uncle Chichimus will not be presented on CBLT tonight or for the next three or four days, unless the two puppets - are returned to their owner John Conway today," said the article, which went on to note that the puppets had been taken out the backseat of Conway's car.
It'd been parked in front of his studio in downtown Toronto's King St. W., right in the heart of the city's financial district. Was it a simple kidnapping or Commie terrorist plot to deprive kids of commercial entertainment?
Well, it turned out that a very tired Conway had forgotten to take his puppets with him into his studio. Instead, he simply left them in the back seat of his unlocked car while he raced into the building for some shut-eye.
While Conway slept between 11 p.m that night and 6 a.m. the next morning, thieves simply opened the car door and took the attache case with the puppets inside. "There were a lot of winos and such hanging around (on King Street)," Conway told TV documentary producer Mike Artelle. "My theory is that some wino saw the new case in the back of the car, snatched it and dumped the contents into the garbage can some place - then sold the new attache case for a couple of bucks to get a drink."
Obviously, the situation became pretty dire at CBLT, which had to scramble to fill in the programming void back in the days of live TV. It'd take Conway three or four days to rebuild his puppets from scratch, since he'd never thought to create backups, and the station desperately needed something to fill a week's worth of material.
The solution was rather ingenious and (dare we say?) slick by Canuck standards. Conway stepped out in front of the camera for the first time, playing a detective tracking down his lost puppets. Larry Mann, the sole human starring on Uncle Chichimus, appeared as various characters that gave Conway clues as to where his puppets might have gone. The next day, Conway offered up a $300 Cdn. reward for the safe return of Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock.
Hundreds of viewers even started sending letters of support and cash to Conway, hoping that sweetening the honey pot would do the thieves in. Sadly, this didn't come to pass, and, according to Artelle, some viewers and the media were left wondering if they'd been left suckered by a publicity stunt.
Alas, it was no stunt - the puppets were gone and they have never shown up since. Though Conway made new versions of his adorable puppets (with back-up copies on hand this time, just in case), his fortunes soon went downhill. CBC cancelled Uncle Chichimus a few months after the kidnapping. It seemed that puppetry was going to jive against a more sophisticated current affairs show titled Tabloid that the network was eager to unveil - in Chichimus's time slot!
Conway was soon shown the door, probably left to wonder why he even bothered to make new puppets in the first place. Letters poured in from viewers once again, this time begging the CBC to keep Chichimus on its payroll. But the network had had its fill of the little guy.
The cancellation probably would have happened sooner or later, though: the slicker Howdy Doody (which survived a puppet kidnapping fiasco of its own) had been imported to Canada by 1954, and the wholesome charm of Chichimus was gradually wearing thin among viewers who becoming more interested in capturing better-produced shows from the U.S. with their antennas.
Uncle Chichimus seemed to be dead. Or was he?
Uncle Chichimus's Resurrection
Uncle Chichimus was revived for a 15-minute, 26-episode independent series called The Adventures of Uncle Chichimus in 1957 that was picked up the following year by the CBC. It reportedly flopped in Canada (and, yes, America), but did get broadcast in Hong Kong, the Middle East and Africa.
In what can only be described as irony, the puppet was asked, in September 1957, to guest star on one segment of the Tabloid show that he'd once made way for. He later appeared on the CBC's perennial news quiz show Front Page Challenge, too.
Amazingly, Uncle Chichimus was brought back yet again in 1961 on a new private television station in Ottawa (CJOH-TV). This time, he was part of a new show called Cartoonerville. Conway added a brand new puppet, Slimy The Frog, and a new cast of human characters, including Ottawa musician Champ Champagne, Jeannie Price and Helen Vechter as Miss Helen.
The show left quite an impression on a young John Kricfalusi, who later went on to create Ren & Stimpy.
Cartoonerville lasted until 1966, when Conway felt too burnt out to continue in his craft. He left the television jungle behind for the blackboard one, and taught high school English and math in the Ottawa area until his retirement in 1987.
Since then, the surviving puppets have been put into mothballs at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, and the collection is reputedly complete. (If you don't count the puppets that were stolen in 1954, of course.)
Conway's legacy may be a bit overlooked by the Canadian public at large, but those in the know still fondly recall ol' Chich. In 2002, the Ontario Puppetry Association screened an old Adventures of Uncle Chichimus episode from the late '50s during its first ever videoconference, and Uncle Chichimus was briefly highlighted during CBC-TV's 50th anniversary celebrations that same year, too.
Additionally, Ottawa producer Mike Artelle is working on a video documentary about the beloved puppet, which just goes to show that even a bunch of winos or network execs can't keep a good puppet out of the spotlight forever.
Uncle Chichimus just keeps trying to bounce back, no matter what you do to him.
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