Buffalo in the ’80s: Cross-border Canadian kids TV

By Steve Cichon

Having spent my early formative years in front of televisions in Buffalo living rooms in the late ’70s and early ’80s, at least half of the viewing choices (and most of my favorite shows) came from north of the border. We didn’t get cable on Allegany Street in South Buffalo until I was in kindergarten or first grade at Holy Family, so it was 2, 4, 7, 17, 29 and whatever the rabbit ears could bring.

Behind the scenes at the Uncle Bobby Show with Bimbo the Birthday Clown, 1976. (Buffalo Stories archives)

I was part of a generation caught between ample kids’ TV in Buffalo. Rocketship 7 closed up shop when Dave Thomas flew off to Philadelphia in 1978. Commander Tom was still a staple — but only on weekend mornings. Channel 29 offered a wide array of cartoons, but most were C-grade when they were new 20 or 30 years earlier.

“Heckle & Jeckle,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” “Mighty Mouse,” and “The Tales of The Wizard of Oz” were all in heavy rotation on WUTV, and that probably would have been fine had a little dial switching and tin foil scrunching not brought the glow of Canadian magic into our early mornings.

In the same way we look on in awe at toddlers’ mastery of smart phones and tablets, adults must have marveled at my skills in using the big clunky separate 2-13 VHF and 14-82 UHF dials and well as my ability to manipulate the foil-covered rabbit ear antennas.

Through the wavy technicolor lines and hissing audio of bad reception, we became adoring fans of programs that might as well have come from another solar system with planets named Etobicoke, Saskatchewan, Peterborough and New Foundland.

Some of my earliest TV memories involve waking up early before my parents, grabbing an apple for my brother and myself, and, in the darkness of a 1981 morning, trying to tune in Channel 9 to catch the 6:30 a.m. start of the Uncle Bobby Show.

Even with the advent of the social media and the proliferation of web-based nostalgia for just about everything, I’m fascinated by the numbers of Buffalonians within 10 years of my age either way who have no memory of “The Uncle Bobby Show” — until they watch.

And somehow, from somewhere deep inside their consciousness, they sing the “Bimbo the Birthday Clown” song along with the YouTube clip — flabbergasted and a bit weirded out by how they know it.

My memory of “The Uncle Bobby Show” was that it was on early in the morning, but it aired during the noon hour for most of the show’s run on CFTO-TV Channel 9. I’ve written extensively about Uncle Bobby and even interviewed him once, but the undisputed king of Canadian children’s television remains “Mr. Dressup.”

Mr. Dressup, Casey and Finnegan held the 10:30 a.m. timeslot on CBC’s Channel 5 through most of four decades. The show was a part of my preschool life, and like many Buffalonians, was a part of most sick days on the couch, home from school.

In my house, we had our own “tickle truck,” much like Mr. Dressup’s. It was an old cardboard case for beer bottles — Schmidt’s, I think. We drew flowers on it and filled it with hats, sunglasses and some of my ol’ man’s old ties.

The only squabble anyone in my house ever had with “Mr. Dressup” was my mother. Many episodes would end with Mr. Dressup making lunch for Casey and Finnegan. This would naturally lead to us feeling hungry and looking for lunch as well.

“Maybe they eat at 11 at Mr. Dressup’s house,” I remember my saintly mother saying, “but in our house we eat lunch at noon.” Or, in TV-speak, after “The Price Is Right.”

Since the show was around for so long, and in the same time slot, most of us don’t have much problem remembering Mr. Dressup. Not as much the case for another show with a similarly long run, which bounced around into different time slots.

“The Friendly Giant” was a low-key show that invited you to “look up … waaaaaay up,” a few different times per episode, including when the Friendly Giant himself would set out dollhouse furniture for us kids watching at home to sit in.

There was “a rocking chair for someone who likes to rock,” which lead to more than one fight in my house over who would get to sit in that rocking chair if we ever made it to the Friendly Giant’s castle.

A list like this wouldn’t be complete without a mention of CHCH-TV Channel 11’s “Hilarious House of Frankenstein.”

From what I can tell, during the time when I was watching this stuff, this show was up against Uncle Bobby, and I think I’ve made my allegiances perfectly clear.

While I don’t have clear memories of watching this show, I do have clear memories of seeing Vincent Price in Chips Ahoy! commercials in the mid-’80s and trying to ask my friends if they remember him from “that show.” I’ve long since been used to blank stares from friends.

Finally, there’s “Sesame Street” — which is about as American as it gets. But we Buffalonians were among the very few who became trilingual through Sesame Street.

When Goldie wasn’t asking us to bring our mommies to the TV, we learned to count to 10 in Spanish by watching “Sesame Street” on WNED-TV Channel 17. Many of us learned some French, too, by watching “Sesame Street” on CBC’s Channel 5 from Toronto.

Aside from “the letter ‘zed’ ” and swapping Spanish for French, there were a few other differences with Canada’s Sesame Street. For example, if you remember attempting the Japanese art of origami after watching Sesame Street, you were watching that day on Channel 5, not 17. These origami pieces were created for Canadian audiences.

It’s of little surprise, then, after having grown up on Canadian kids’ shows, that as adults we would watch more hockey and drink more Labatts than any other city in the country.

Early morning TV in Buffalo, 1976. Buffalo Stories archives.

Early morning TV in Buffalo, 1976. Buffalo Stories archives.