Media-crazed kids — weaned on Popsicle-colored, flash-explosion-edited TV that leaves little room for wandering eyes and ears — would probably look at the shows collected on Shout! Factory’s new four-disc box set Hiya, Kids!! A ’50s Saturday Morning and think they’d been sent to attention-span hell: static camera shots, old people in suits, crude puppets, organ music, guys on horses — and all in black-and-white. “Was childhood some sort of prison back then?” an 8-year-old might wonder. But Boomer nostalgists, TV aficionados and connoisseurs of kiddie kitsch will love reliving or discovering these examples of a nascent medium’s initial forays into electronic babysitting. Included are episodes of everything from established classics — Lassie, Howdy Doody and Kukla, Fran and Ollie — to forgotten shows like Captain Z-RO, Juvenile Jury and The Rootie Kazootie Club.
Watching the Arizona rancher/aviator/crime-fighter action drama Sky King, you can almost sense how every Eisenhower-era moppet would hope they’d grow up to be a pilot. And watching shapely ex-model Irish McCalla scamper through Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, you can sense how often Dad conveniently decided to share tube time with the little ones during this particular show. Certain comparisons in show hosts’ personalities are fascinating: Ventriloquist/cartoon-voice genius Paul Winchell (The Paul Winchell Show) may have the comic burlesque rhythms of another age, but his shtick is still enjoyable; meanwhile, the frenetic pace of mugging sprite Pinky Lee (The Pinky Lee Show) has a closer through-line to later hopped-up kid shows — not to mention that nutty classic, Pee-wee’s Playhouse — but Pinky now feels incredibly tiresome to sit through.
To my mind, the star of the set is Dr. Frances R. Horwich, a college-ed department chair who hosted Ding Dong School, a Mister Rogers precursor that featured the Weeble-shaped, auntie-inflected “Miss Frances” patiently carrying on a one-sided conversation with her preschool-age viewers. (Yes, complete with pauses for us to respond, just like today’s Dora the Explorer.) A live one-take studio doodad of Warholian focus and hilariously quaint instruction — from Frances’ barely concealed struggle to effectively hawk Kix cereal to the loving, long close-ups of her blowing bubbles — it is a strange and wonderful little relic of a simpler education-minded past.
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