Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mister Jingeling

Max Ellis
Santa Claus is the man. You can't touch Santa. And since no one owns him, no one can corner the market on his business. Yes, Coca-Cola comes close to having a registered trademark on St. Nick, and good for them. But they can't tell you or anyone else what to do with him. And he can't sell cigarettes or booze. At least not anymore. At least not in America. 

Rankin and Bass did a decent job of adding ancillary characters, though all the best ones are from the original Rudolph special (Hermie, the Misfit Toys, the Abominable Snowmonster, et al.) And there's Heat Miser. After that it gets kind of pathetic. Baby New Year? Little Drummer Boy? Really? Do you have any of those ornaments on your tree?

Before I get too far afield, I am not talking about Christmas characters in general. I am not talking about Scrooge or Jesus, I mean people who are next to Santa.

The Dutch can be reasonably proud of the delightfully shocking and offensive sidekick they have for Kris Kringle -- Zwarte Piet or "Black Peter." When my brother was working in the Netherlands he once sent me a Christmas gift in wrapping paper festooned with pictures of a joyful Santa followed by what to me appeared to be Little Black Sambo. "What the fuck am I looking at?" I wanted to know. That's Black Peter, Santa's little "helper" of African origin. But why pick on the Dutch for creepy, racist cartoons? I live in Cleveland, and we have no right to throw stones.

This one's mine, and it is a treasure.
Now, how many American cities can say they have their own, personal assistant to Santa Claus? One - that's right, I said it, Cleveland, Ohio. Mr. Jingeling is the official "Keeper of the Keys" to the North Pole. He is the guy who carries all the keys, to every single lock in Santaland. And you know what they say, the more keys you have, the more important you are.

Jingeling received this position when Santa lost his own key to the Treasure House of Toys, and fashioned a new one for the Big Man. He was created by Chicagoan Frank Jacobi as a promotional event for Halle's Department Store in 1956. He began making appearances on Captain Penny, performed by local actor Max Ellis (seen at top.) For live appearances on the 7th floor of Halle's, he was portrayed by off-duty Cleveland police officer Tom Moviel, carrying real prison keys.

He is best known, however, as played by WEWS producer Earl Keyes (nice one, huh?) who took on the role in 1965 both on television and at Halle's, and ever kept the copyright to the character when Halle's went out of business in 1982. I saw him on TV during the holiday season's of my youth, providing bumpers to afternoon cartoons on Channel 43, shilling for Halle's.

Keyes died in 2000. But his legend lives on.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Captain Penny

By far the greatest Cleveland children's television star was Captain Penny, whose program (sponsored by Bosco chocolate syrup) debuted on WEWS in 1954. Through the years the Captain (performed by Ronald A. Penfound) presented Three Stooges, Little Rascals and Rocky & Bulwinkle shorts, and was assisted by a corral of supporting characters, including Jungle Larry & Safari Jane, as well as station agent Wilbur Whiffenpoof (program director Earl Keyes) and the heard but never seen Mister Nickelsworth.

Captain Penny ended every program saying, "You can fool some of the people some of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool Mom." He also made sure to remind kids, following any Stooges short, to "not try this at home."

This is all before my time. I know of Jungle Larry from a set of View Master reels and postcards that still remains stashed away at my folks house. However, I was touched to learn about the Pooch Parade, which featured animals from the APL that were available for adoption. What a good idea!

During the 1956 holiday season, Earl Keyes would portray a new character on the Penny program, Mr. Jingeling. But more on him later.

The show lasted until 1972. Ron Penfound, a chronic smoker, died of lung cancer in 1974.

Hi There, Boys and Girls: America's Local Children's TV Shows (Hollis Tim)
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Ernie Kovacs Show

Ernie Kovacs (January 23, 1919 – January 13, 1962) was a brilliant pioneer of television comedy and of special video effects. He has no direct connection to Cleveland, but I did see a number of the packages of his work that were put together for broadcast on PBS when I was a kid. They were funny then, I think they are hilarious now.

Film began as a strictly visual medium, and so the idea of visual sight gags is not something he invented ... but he did more to play with the limitations of television, and expand on them, to create not only amusing but interesting sketches. Also, his use of unusual musical pieces as a jumping off point for brilliant physical gags was unparalleled.

My favorite, featuring Esquivel's "Jealousie" & "Sentimental Journey".
First aired 1961

In 1954 you could catch him on NBC as host of The Ernie Kovacs Show, playing what for him was a much more "normal" television host, subverting the traditions of the time by adding odd sound effects to say, fish being fed, or suddenly having a hammock near him. I remember the thrill of originally watching David Letterman turn the conventions of Johnny Carson on their head by having a big, old-fashioned (fake) microphone on his desk, or by making his banter with his sidekick Paul even more transparently inane than Johnny's was with Ed. David had nothing on Ernie, but he's always known that.

Here is a broadcast from August 13, 1956, featuring lounge exotica singer Yma Sumac performing Tumba. Unfortunately, his interview with Bela Lugosi is apparently lost to history.

For your information ... The Ernie Kovacs Show would have been broadcast in 1954 on WNBK, Channel 3, the Cleveland NBC affiliate. this was before Westinghouse took ownership of the station in 1955.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Death of Eliot Ness

Ness married sculptor Elisabeth Andersen Seaver in 1946. She was his third wife. They both drank. Since his failed run for Mayor of Cleveland in 1947, Ness' fortunes had dwindled until by the early 1950s he was accepting jobs as an electronics wholesalers, working as a clerk in a downtown bookstore (remember those?) and selling frozen hamburger patties to restaurants.

In 1949 they adopted a three year-old boy, Robert Warren Ness (July 10, 1946 - August 31, 1976) ... though his gravesite in Lakeview Cemetery reads Robert Eliot Ness. Not much is known about Bobby Ness, except what can be inferred from what we know about Ness. After failing to win the election, his drinking became a serious problem. The family lived in a rented house in Cleveland, Eliot spent too much money on a new car, too much time in hotel bars, and here he began inflating his responsibility in bringing down Al Capone to anyone who would listen.

In the early 1950s Eliot became a shareholder in Guaranty Paper Corporation - without going too much into the details, he was chosen through connections with persons who were trying to make a business out of a new watermarking process to make checks and other legal documents harder to counterfeit. They tagged Ness because of his connections in law enforcement. It was a good, regular job and supported his family.

In 1956 the operations of Guaranty were moved from Cleveland to Coudersport, PA, as a money-saving decision. The Ness' settled into a stable, middle-class existence. Bobby made friends with a boy across the street who had Down Syndrome. Coming home from work Eliot could be relied upon to play ball with the kids in the yard, and be a real sport.

Betty was less than happy to be a sculptor in rural Pennsylvania. They drank, they fought, the boy had to listen to it all.

There is a small cottage industry in Cleveland surrounding the so-called Torso Murderer. The Wikipedia entry for this unsolved murder case posits from time to time (depending on how recently it has been edited) that failure to solve this case destroyed Eliot Ness. He is referred to as "The 14th Victim" or some such nonsense.

The hit-and-run drunk driving accident Ness was involved in 1942 lost him his job as Safety Director. His ill-thought out run for Mayor in 1947 sealed his loss of reputation. He was a good cop, and a lousy businessman. He drank too much. These things happen. It's not as sexy as the myth. But myths are pat and dry and often teach us nothing. Easy, neat solutions make the world seem easy and neat. Learning how to deal with the messiness of real life is hard and unrewarding. Except for that is how we learn to deal with the messiness of real life.

Ness had a heart attack in his kitchen on May 16, 1957. He died at home, which is a fine place to die. He was 54 years old.

Eliot Ness:The Real Story (Paul Heimel)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Seduction of the Innocent (book)

Written by Dr. Frederic Wertham and published in 1954, this text draws a straight line from comic books to juvenile delinquency.

The books of EC were obvious targets, their line of horror, disaster and war comics depicted some pretty wild and grotesque images of violence and savagery, and Dr. Wertham was not afraid to point out that horrid and gruesome illustrations were printed across the page from advertisements for bowie knifes and air rifles.

However, the good doctor also liked to point out the subliminal messages present in the graphics, with disguised images of phalluses or breasts, or the to-this-day question regarding the exact relationship of Batman and Robin.

Wertham also called Superman a Fascist. He reports, you decide.
I would like to point out to you one other crime comic book which we have found to be particularly injurious to the ethical development of children and those are the Superman comic books. They arose in children phantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune. We have called it the Superman complex. In these comic books the crime is always real and the Superman's triumph over good is unreal.

Moreover, these books like any other, teach complete contempt of the police. For instance, they show you pictures where some preacher takes two policemen and bang their heads together or to quote from all these comic books you know, you can call a policeman cop and he won't mind, but if you call him copper that is a derogatory term and these boys we teach them to call policemen coppers.

All this to my mind has an effect, but it has a further effect and that was very well expressed by one of my research associates who was a teacher and studied the subject and she said, "Formerly the child wanted to be like daddy or mommy. Now they skip you, they bypass you. They want to be like Superman, not like the hard working, prosaic father and mother."

Dr. Frederic Wertham
Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency
Wednesday, April 21, 1954