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Four Icons Get the Green Light to Reminisce

Television: A quartet of L.A. kiddie-show pioneers meet their gray-haired fans at the Museum of Television & Radio.


A large group of baby boomers turned back the clock on Thursday evening in Beverly Hills and became giddy, wide-eyed children again.

Sitting before them on the stage at the Museum of Television & Radio were four old friends who, 30 and 40 years ago, had gotten together with them every day to drink milk, play games, watch cartoons and just generally have a good time.

In reality, there was very little personal interaction in those days, but the crowd still embraced them as if they were long-lost family members.

And the friends responded in kind. "You were only this tall when we first met you," said "Engineer Bill" Stulla, holding his hand close to the floor as he addressed the group.

The "friends" were four of the most popular local children's show hosts from the 1950s and '60s who helped establish the identities of the stations they were on with live shows in glorious black-and-white. The men formed a loving and loyal bond with their young audience without the benefits of slime, masked superheroes, kooky obstacle courses or colored dinosaurs.

There was Stulla, recalling his "Cartoon Time With Engineer Bill" on KHJ-TV Channel 9 (now KCAL) with his trademark "Red Light, Green Light" routine that taught a whole generation of Los Angeles kids how to drink milk.

There was "Skipper Frank" Herman, talking about his days hosting various children's shows, including "For Kids Only" on KTLA-TV Channel 5, when kids on the show would play games and his conversation would often be interrupted by the cock-a-doodle-do-ing of a live rooster excited by the red lights on the cameras.

There was Tom Hatten, the host of "The Adventures of Popeye With Tom Hatten," also on KTLA, who, in between "Popeye" cartoons, worked wonders on a sketch pad with just a single squiggle to start him off.

There was Jimmy Weldon, who delighted children with his puppet pal Webster Webfoot and performed skits on his show in the early 1950s that aired on KLAC, now known as KCOP-TV Channel 13.

The four hosts talked fondly of those formative days of television, when ratings were often measured by the number of television sets sold by dealers, and of lucky viewers who were picked at random to come down to the studio for a day and play with their favorite hosts.

They had particularly pleasant memories of the endless series of weekend personal appearances at supermarkets and carnivals, where the hosts promoted their shows and their sponsors, such as Barbara Ann Bread and Gallenkamp Shoes.

"We were your friends," said Weldon, who works these days as a motivational speaker.

"What we did was was mostly ad-lib," said Herman. "We all wrote our own shows."

Stulla added: "We had a real rapport with the children. I acted like I was just talking to one child, and that made it work. I was raising my 5-year-old daughter at the time, so it was easy for me. We never talked down to the kids; we treated them like little adults."

The hosts said their brand of home-grown, mostly impromptu shows probably would not be successful today. "It really takes time to develop that connection, and stations don't take the time to do that," Hatten said.

Added Stulla: "You could reach out to kids then. You can't reach out to them so much now. The family structure has really fallen apart. You have third- and fourth-graders afraid to go to school. Can you imagine that?"

But most of the discussion focused on the good old days. Stulla said that besides the thrill of connecting with the audience, the personal appearances gave the hosts a glimpse into a world they seldom saw.

"It gave us a real picture of life," he said. "Some of these peoples' lives were so terrible, you wouldn't want to walk in their shoes for a mile. But they all came to see us."

The audience members on Thursday mobbed the hosts afterward, asking for autographs on pieces of paper and memorabilia. Said one woman: "You guys all made childhood wonderful."

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