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.

Rubbery Chicken & Canadian Puppets: being home sick takes me back to childhood & Mr. Dressup

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

There’s something about the old days. I know, news flash, right?

But really, upon examination, they really weren’t all that better than today. Unless you are a miserable Luddite, i.e., someone who hates or fears technology, living is easier now than ever before. Easier isn’t necessarily better, but when virtually everything (except ‘getting away from it all’) is easier, it’s got to be better on the whole.

Still, even the worn-in feeling and familiarity of even the most uncomfortable things of our past bring us some level of comfort, especially when the going gets a little rough.

Today, I had a type of day which has been rare for me in adulthood; a sick day where I wasn’t bed bound or just too nauseous or pained to really want to do anything.

It was supposed to be a vacation day, but I have a lousy cold. The kind of day that wouldn’t normally stop me from going to work, but not a day where I’d get much more than the bare minimum done, between filling up the tea cup, blowing my nose, and generally feeling a little beat up and a little run down.

But instead of putting in a solid ‘C+’ day down in the salt mine, I sat at home with all sorts of great plans for the day.

Those plans just weren’t to be. With my sinuses feeling like they’re filled silly putty and the rest of my head slogging around like wet cotton balls, well, the cold just took the sails out of my wind. I think. When you’re not sure, without deep thought whether you’re saying it right, or quoting former Bills Head Coach and King of the Malaprop Hank Bullough, it’s time for a rest.

Home alone, and too sick to do anything good, but well enough to want to do something. Just try to remember that euphoric feeling after the bus went by, and you were assured a day home from school.

That’s really about where I was this morning. Not being one to ‘bang in’ unless there is death, vomiting, or no voice (important for me!) in the forecast, I go to work, so I’m left to think about sick days as a little twerp, and immediately it’s a thought that brings comfort between anticipated sneezes that never come.

After a nice bath ( who has time for a bath anymore!), I made a can of soup on the stovetop. Normally, the thought of all that salt is enough to raise my blood pressure, but not today. It’s incredible to me, but even that awful processed single piece of ‘chicken meat’ in the can took me back to a simpler time.

And I used the stove top for the tea kettle, too. We didn’t have a microwave until my teen years. I can survive waiting more than exactly 2 minutes and 29 seconds (I stop it before the beeps) for water for my tea.

Not even really on purpose, and not even really thinking about it, I started my vacation day just like a good ol’sick day.

MrDressupCasey&Finnegan4While I hadn’t planned it to be like that, I was thinking about now, and how nice, how comforting it would be to run through the sick day staple TV lineup. For me, it started with Jerome and Rusty on ‘The Friendly Giant,’ and then Casey, Finnegan, and the Tickle trunk on Mr.Dressup on CBC.

Then Bob Barker, Johnny Olson, Janice, Dian, and the beautiful Holly on the ‘Price is Right’ on Channel 4, before a quick switch to Channel 2 at noon for the Flintstones.

Of course, the Price is Right remains, but to me in name only. When grandmas would wear homemade t-shirts because they’d been watching Bob since he was on Truth or Consequences, and then would jump for excitement when they win a new washing machine, that was real.

Hipsters wearing too-tight t-shirts they paid to have made at a kiosk in the mall, who feign excitement because it’s ironic that they win a washing machine because they don’t bathe; that just doesn’t do it for me.

But, then there’s YouTube. Technology of today, soothing my fever induced nostalgia.

I watched ‘The Friendly Giant,’ and didn’t have to fight with my brother over who was going to get to sit in the rocking chair if we ever went to visit the Friendly Giant.

I also got to watch Mr. Dressup make a pretend clarinet out of a paper towel tube, and I got to listen back a few times to my favorite Mr. Dressup sounds: his scissors and his markers. The only way I could have had a better childhood is if my scissors made that crisp a noise as they cut, and my markers that fantastic a whine as they whizzed across the paper.

I also got a good helping of the original ‘Come on Down!!’ man Johnny Olson, and Bob Barker with a mahogany colored head.

As always, the past is a nice place to visit, but one really shouldn’t live there. It’s dishonest to live there. It’s our amazing present, with YouTube on smart phones that helps make it happen.

But still, its really amazing how rubbery chicken bits and decades old video of Canadian puppets, and the memories they rekindle can make a lousy day a little less so.

It’s too bad. I really would have enjoyed today if I wasn’t sick.

Remembering Mr. Dressup

By Steve Cichon

Steve and the Tickle Trunk
I visited the tickle trunk at the CBC museum before the place was closed after budget cuts.

As I write this, I wonder how much of my bizarre personality can be attributed to the late great Ernie Coombs, known to Canadian Children (and those like me just over the border) as Mr. Dressup.

The daily half hour filled with drawing, creating cool stuff out of things that I had laying around the house, Dressing up in costumes, and using funny voices always set my imagination into motion.

This is me at the CBC museum… Just inches away from the tickle truck. My wife and I were also able to visit Mr. Dressup’s drawing easel, and Casey’s tree house (as well as The Friendly Giant’s castle).
stevegregxmas79Mr. Dressup was a 10:30 appointment for most of my childhood. My brother Greg and I would stop fighting the moment we heard the piano open on the show (this picture is of us Xmas ’79).

And we’d sit together on a big chair and be quiet for the half hour. My sister Lynne soon joined our love for Mr. Dressup too.

In true Mr. Dressup fashion, the Cichon kids made our very own Tickle trunk… We drew flowers on an empty beer case box, and stored our dress up gear in it. It seemed that just about every other day, the show ended with either Mr. Dressup or Casey asking about lunch… which then made us start bothering my mom about lunch, too.

Included here are some stills from the Mr. Dressup special that aired on CBC after his death in 2001, as well as some from a Casey and Finnegan episode that I taped in the late 80s or early 90s.

I’m glad that even after his death Mr. Dressup lives on every day on TV (even if without Casey and Finnegan.) It’s the finest kids show I’ve ever seen. It’s fun and spurs kids to be creative and think… without being preachy.

Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com