(Pictured: an elephant watching TV. Mouse over or click the image to read the original Getty Images caption, which is a journey.)
I wrote a few weeks ago how back in the day, before cable and streamers and YouTube, we watched whatever was on broadcast TV. I thought of it again the other morning after going down a rabbit hole involving The Prize Movie With Ione, which ran on WLS-TV in Chicago on weekday mornings from 1967 til 1975. A 1993 Chicago magazine article described it as “a live, low-budget comedy/variety/game show and fitness program with a call-in talk feature” that also featured heavily edited old movies. Its host, Ione Citrin, was up for anything—wearing odd costumes, ad-libbing with phone callers participating in contests, and/or doing calisthenics. In Chicago at that time, you had maybe six channels to choose from, and if you weren’t interested in watching Concentration on one of them or a sitcom rerun on another, Ione was a pleasant companion while you did chores, wrangled your pre-school kids, or sat on your couch smoking cigarettes.
The Prize Movie With Ione throws back to a bygone era in television: when local stations employed personalities who were not necessarily associated with the news department. They frequently hosted a movie in the morning or afternoon, and clowned around during breaks, as Ione did. Actor Tim Conway and future voice-over titan Ernie Anderson gained fame in the same role on a local station in Cleveland. (The Whose Line Is It Anyway pitchman routine, so hilariously done by Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, is a direct parody.)
Many stations aired local afternoon shows for kids. On WISC-TV here in Madison, ventriloquist Howie Olson hosted Circus 3 with sidekick Cowboy Eddie. At WKOW, Marsh Shapiro was Marshall the Marshal. (Shapiro was a sort of Renaissance man; in addition to the TV kids’ show, his main job was news director at WKOW Radio. He also anchored sports on TV and founded the Nitty Gritty, a popular local restaurant, besides.)
WKOW employed two other personalities who are remembered by a few elderly viewers today. Big John Schermerhorn (always “Big John,” never just “John”) started as a sports anchor, but was better known as the host of a locally produced polka show called Dairyland Jubilee that aired statewide, and for hosting the station’s annual March of Dimes telethon, before his death in 1974. Luella Mortenson went back even further, hosting local homemaker shows practically from the station’s first days on the air in 1953.
Local personalities would often be tasked with hosting Dialing for Dollars. Dialing for Dollars was actually a franchised feature licensed to local TV markets, although I suspect that many stations ran similar features without coughing up a franchise fee. A name and number would be drawn from submitted entries, and sometimes directly from the local phone book. The host would place a call to the number, and the person answering had to come up with a secret word announced at the beginning of the show, or the amount in a cash jackpot. If they got it right, they won. If not, the jackpot increased and rolled over to the next day. It made for compelling TV in an era when we could be compelled for less than it takes today. At my house, during summer noontimes, we would wait for the phone to ring, even though we didn’t expect it to.
Dialing for Dollars and programs like it began disappearing in the 1970s, a victim of changing times. (The Prize Movie With Ione went off the air in 1975 partly because WLS-TV needed to air a new ABC network show called Good Morning America.) Locally produced programming cost money where taking a network feed did not; it became more important to spend personnel budget on newscasts, which were flagship programs and frequently made money in crates. After that, if a station needed a “personality” for something, the job often fell to the weatherman (who was not necessarily a trained meteorologist, as most TV weather people are today). Frequently, he (and occcasionally, she) became the one who hosted the telethons, made public appearances, and participated in station stunts.
Every TV market in the country had its local personalities in the era when such a thing was popular. Let’s hear about the ones you remember.