TV Show Draft: “Cartoon Town”/”The BJ and Dirty Dragon Show”

Bill Jackson, 1935-2022 (Source: Robert Feder
  • SHOW: Cartoon Town, also known as The BJ and Dirty Dragon Show
  • NETWORK: WFLD-TV, Chicago
  • RUN: 1968-1974

We lost Bill Jackson, also known as “BJ,” this past January. He was a significant figure in Chicago children’s television because he practically single-handedly ended WGN’s dominance in after-school TV.

Bill had come to Chicago to host a couple of kids’ shows on WBBM-TV (channel 2), Clown Alley (the weekday show) and Here Comes Freckles (the Sunday morning show). He was dressed as a clown in the makeup and goofy clothes, and introduced cartoons as well as showed off his uncanny knack for drawing almost any cartoon character imaginable. One feature of his shows was a game called “Whozit?” where he would start drawing a cartoon character, all the while teasing “who could this be?” By the end of the segment, anyone on earth and many of the adjacent planets would know, “Hey! That’s Yosemite Sam!” (or whoever the character was).

My brother Kip and his class were once guests on the Sunday show (obviously pre-recorded), and Kip got the opportunity to play “Mr. Muscles,” which involved him wearing an oversized sweatshirt with throw pillows stuffed into the shoulders, chest, and upper arms to simulate muscles and walking around telling everyone “I AM MISTER MUSCLES!” in the booming falsetto that every eight-year-old possesses. Toward the end of his segment, BJ (as Freckles) asked him to demonstrate the exercises that he did, and Kip replied with some goofy exercise that ended with his making a pratfall on the stage.

Bill was eventually hired by WFLD, Chicago’s third UHF station, which early on had set its sights on WGN and their after-school programming (including Three Stooges shorts, The Flintstones, The Mickey Mouse Club, Rocket To Adventure, and The Dick Tracy Show.) Bill’s idea was pretty ambitious, a show in which he would do just about everything: design the sets, design, operate, and voice the puppets, script the show, demonstrate his artistic ability both with a crayon and modeling clay, and act as the host.

His creation, Cartoon Town, was amazing. He had brought two characters with him from his Clown Alley days: Dirty Dragon, an irascible and cantankerous dragon who was the town’s postmaster, who did everything he could NOT to deliver the mail, and Blob, a mass of modeling clay who spoke in grunts and howls (provided by Jackson) and was remodeled into something different every day, To this group he added Mother Plumtree, who ran the boarding house; the Old Perfesser, a resident of said boarding house and Mother Plumtree’s love interest; Wally Goodscout and his roommate Weird, who lived at the boarding house, where Weird would torment Wally; and The Thumptwangers, a family of singing crows.

There were, of course, cartoons, though at first they were mostly ancient ones such as “Out of the Inkwell” cartoons featuring Koko the Clown (who had been revived by Fleischer Studios in the early days of TV), because WGN held the rights to the Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers cartoons. WFLD’s big break came when WGN passed on the Underdog cartoons.

There were multiple opportunities for BJ to demonstrate his artistic prowess. “Whozit?” came with him from WBBM, as did his “I Want To Be…” feature, where he would get a note from a viewer who said what he or she wanted to be, whereupon BJ would start with the kid’s initials and draw him or her doing the job (which, for some strange reason, was never a CPA or a computer pogrammer). And there was usually time for BJ to spend a few minutes drawing whatever the background music prompted him to draw.

Cartoon Town eventually had better ratings than Garfield Goose And Friends, so naturally WFLD had to mess with it, first renaming it to to The BJ And Dirty Dragon Show, then moving it to noon to compete with Bozo’s Circus. Kaiser Broadcasting bought WFLD from Field Communications in 1972, and decided to do away with the show.

Ironically, the show was picked up by WGN for the 1973-74 season. BJ wasn’t happy when the show was scheduled for 8:30 AM, when most of his core audience had gone to school. It only lasted on WGN for the one season.

Bill stayed in Chicago and developed several more childen’s shows, all of which included some or all of the Cartoon Town characters, but eventually left Chicago for the West Coast in 1980. He taught at the California Institute of the Arts, from which he retired in 1990. He was inducted into the Silver Circle of the Chicago/Midwest chapter of The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2005, and the puppets from the show and other memorabilia are on display at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

Bill Jackson was a one-of-a-kind talent in children’s television. I’m glad I got to appreciate his work growing up.

If you want to see some of what Cartoon Town/The BJ and Dirty Dragon Show was about, check out these videos:

2022 TV Draft: Bozo’s Circus

I’m participating in the TV draft being conducted with several other bloggers on Hans’s blog Slice The Life. My first pick is the Chicago noontime classic Bozo’s Circus. This is a slightly different version of that post.

SHOW – Bozo’s Circus, also known as Bozo, The Bozo Show, and The Bozo Super Sunday Show

NETWORK – WGN-TV (local Chicago TV and on cable)

RUN: June 20, 1960 to July 14, 2001

When we were in grammar school at St. Ignatius School in the ’60’s, we’d get out for lunch at 11:45 and run home from school so we’d get there and have the TV warmed up in time to hear Ringmaster Ned blow his whistle and announce to the world, “BOZO’S CIRCUS IS ON THE AIR!”

You weren’t a kid in Chicago in the 1960’s if you didn’t watch Bozo’s Circus. Dan Castelanetta, the voice of Homer Simpson and Krusty The Clown in the long-running animated show The Simpsons, based his portrayal of Krusty on Bob Bell, for many years Chicago’s Bozo.

Chicago’s Bozo’s Circus was one of many franchises sold by Larry Harmon in he late ’50’s. It started as a half-hour noontime cartoon show in 1960, with station announcer Bob Bell donning the suit and pancake makeup to provide comedy routines between the cartoons and commercials. That show took a hiatus after a few months while WGN built its studios about two miles west of Wrigley Field. When it returned, it was the hourlong Bozo’s Circus that we remember best.

This time, Bell was accompanied by Ned Locke, a veteran of Chicago children’s TV, as Ringmaster Ned, who acted as the master of ceremonies and tried to keep the clowns in line; Ray Rayner, who hosted several other WGN children’s shows, as Oliver O. Oliver, a country bumpkin clown from Puff Bluff, Kentucky; and Don Sandburg, producer and head writer of the show, as Sandy The Tramp (later Sandy The Sadfaced Clown because of the negative connotations of “tramp”), a mute clown based on Emmet Kelly and Harpo Marx. Music was provided by “Mr. Bob” Trendler and his “Big Top Band,” members of the WGN Orchestra. A host of local acrobatic and other family-oriented performers provided real circus-like entertainment. One of those local performers, magician Marshall Brodein, was eventually cast as Wizzo, a magician and fortuneteller dressed in an Arabic costume.

The clowns participated in all sorts of craziness, sketches that had been done for years and only changed to accommodate a new clown (or new ringmaster). At least once a week, the sketches included a pie fight, during which all the clowns (and sometimes the ringmaster) would end up covered from head to foot in shaving cream (I don’t think they used whipped cream). A crowd of roughly 200 spectators would witness this daily madness, and several of the children got the opporrtunity to play in one of the games played during the show.

The big one was the Grand Prize Game: two kids, a boy and a girl (chosen by “the magic arrows,” two animated arrows overlayed on a live image of the crowd), stood in front of a row of buckets, numbered 1 to 6. The object was for the player to toss a ping-pong ball into each bucket sequentially. Prizes were awarded for each bucket, which got better as the player got further. Bucket Number 6 was the big one. Each day, they would put a silver dollar in it, and the money would accumulate until someone sank the ball into #6, winning them all the money, plus a Schwinn bicycle. (The joke was that, when Bozo died, they’d cremate him and put his ashes in Bucket #6.) I never saw two kids win on the same day, though it was possible. One of the Bucket Number 1 prizes was always stockings for the kid’s mother (“Nu-Mode Hosiery with the No-Bind Top”).

The second game was always a team event, like carrying tablespoons full of water to the other end of the “tent” (i.e. studio) and emptying it into a jug, the winning team getting a slightly better prize than the losing team (but all got a prize).

Invariably, at some point in the second half of the show, they would run one of the Larry Harmon “Bozo” cartoons, and maybe one of the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons that the station used to run at dinnertime (e.g. Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Pixie and Dixie and Jinks the Cat etc.). At the end of the show, the studio audience would be led out of the studio by Bozo in the “Grand March,” which we rarely got to see, because by that time school had started again.

My brothers and I were all home with the flu, watching Bozo on November 22, 1963, when WGN News broke in with the bulletin that President Kennedy had been shot. Upsetting news, certainly, but more upsetting because we were missing Bozo…

At the peak of its popularity, there was a ten-year wait for tickets, so upon hearing that someone in the family was pregnant, families would order the tickets to Bozo so that maybe they’d be able to go before the kid went off to college.

The show changed over the years, naturally: Bell retired, touching off a nationwide search for a new Bozo, eventually going to a comedian and actor named Joey D’Auria. When Locke retired, they asked Frazier Thomas, who had created the character of Garfield Goose, a delusional bird who thought he was King of the United States, to take his place, the story being that Garfield bought the circus. When Sandburg and Rayner left, they were replaced by puppeteer and set designer Roy Brown as Cooky, “our kooky cook.”

By 1981, kids stopped going home for lunch, and the show moved from noon to 8:00 AM as The Bozo Show. Bob Bell retired in 1984, as noted above, and in 1985, Frazier Thomas had a massive stroke at work and died a couple of days later. In 1991, for the 30th anniversary show, Locke and Sandburg helped Bozo celebrate its 30th anniversary, with Adrian Zmed (from T. J. Hooker, who was also born and raised in Chicago) briefly joining the cast as an apprentice clown. After that, the show dwindled away, being an early Sunday morning show in 1994 and an educational program following the FCC’s mandate in 1997. Bozo breathed its last in July 2001.

For people who grew up in the ’60’s and ’70’s, Bozo’s Circus was a must-see. As corny as it was, it was good entertainment while eating one’s peanut butter sandwiches…