Ventriloquist Paul Winchell won a $17.8-million verdict Wednesday in a decade-long fight against Metromedia Inc., which he claims destroyed the only remaining tapes of his popular "Winchell Mahoney Time" children's television series in a dispute over syndication rights.
Winchell, known to millions of children in the 1950s and '60s as the father of the lovable Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff dummies, called the verdict "a vindication" and a message to the entertainment industry that its irreplaceable film resources must be preserved.
"These valuable shows of the past are being destroyed in the judgment of current executives, and then you find years later they suddenly have great value," he said.
A Superior Court jury deliberated three days before awarding Winchell $3.8 million for the value of the tapes and $14 million in punitive damages against Metromedia, which produced the halfhour children's variety shows from 1964 to 1968.
However, Winchell and his attorney, Lawrence P. Grassini, said the loss to today's television viewers cannot really be measured.
"The 'Winchell Mahoney Time' tapes were very good children's shows. They were done with the idea of instilling some principles in kids and instilling some moral values, not like some of the junk that's on TV now," Grassini said.
"Winchell came out there with the idea of not talking down to children but being able through his dummies to do away with some of the fears they might have--fears of the dark, fears of strange noises, fears of going to school. . . .
"They not only hurt Mr. Winchell, they hurt the TV viewing public, because the kids of today will never have the opportunity to see those shows," he said.
Attorneys for Metromedia could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
According to Grassini, Winchell began negotiating with Metromedia in 1970 to syndicate the 305 color segments of the show but could not come to terms.
Winchell wanted to split the profits and contract with an independent syndication firm, but Metromedia wanted to syndicate the show itself, a proposal that Winchell believed would not guarantee him enough control over the budget.
At one point, Winchell offered to purchase the tapes outright for $100,000. Metromedia responded with an ultimatum, Grassini said: Agree on a syndication plan or the tapes will be destroyed.
"Winchell said, 'I'm not going to negotiate under those kinds of threats,' and they erased 'em and dumped 'em in the garbage can," Grassini said.
Winchell, now 64, who in recent years has provided the voice for cartoon characters such as Winnie the Pooh's "Tigger," said he never believed Metromedia would carry out its threat. He filed suit for breach of contract in 1974.
"The thing that was perhaps most painful to me," he said, "was that in my best days, back in the '50s and '60s, it was all live," and no tapes were made.
"All the work I had done in the past, there was no record of it," he said. "Then finally I had the opportunity to do this taped thing, and I felt that at last, I'll have some remaining record of my work that future people could see, especially children.
"Suddenly, I didn't have it anymore. It was gone forever."