The Prize Movie and Other Tales of Local TV

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(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.

18 thoughts on “The Prize Movie and Other Tales of Local TV

  1. Yah Shure

    The Twin Cities had Bozo knockoff T.N. Tatters, plus Dialing for Dollars on KSTP-TV; Dave Lee/Popeye & Pete on KMSP and WTCN-TV was home to the long-running Lunch With Casey. Over on WCCO-TV was my favorite: Axel And His Dog, starring WCCO Radio vet Clellan Card. Axel lived in a treehouse, spoke in an over-the-top Scandahoovian accent, and displayed a sly wit that was absent from the other kids’ show hosts. His later sidekick Carmen the Nurse had the unenviable task of telling her young viewers that Axel was gone, after Card died suddenly of a heart attack in 1966.

    Minneapolis-St. Paul’s most relentless shiller was Mel Jass, the longtime Mel’s Matinee Movie huckster on then-independent WTCN-TV. Kids everywhere thought he was a hoot; the running juvenile joke was that “Mell Jass has a gel mass under his eyes.” His local notoriety even earned him a cameo role as a court reporter on a Perry Mason episode.

    Mel was most highly associated with long-term, bottom-of-the-barrel advertisers like the Furniture Barn and Muntz TV. WTCN’s graphics department had a great laugh at Mel’s expense during one of his live ads for the latter:

  2. TimMoore

    I remember Flippo the Clown , from WBNS TV in Columbus Ohio. He had a few daytime shows, but I’ll always remember him from The Early Show.He played, and often made fun of, movies in the afternoon, 4-6 pm.. and Fritz the night owl, late night movies…both were around for years

    1. Lisa Wild

      Living in the DMV area, we were lucky to have a choice between Captain 20 in DC, or Captain Chesapeake and Mondy the Sea Monster on Channel 45 since we had reception in both broadcast areas. In Baltimore on Saturday morning we had Professor Kool’s Fun School, with actual school children as part of the fun and games. We were pretty jealous of our cousins, who got to be on the show.

  3. In Rochester in the early ’80s, Ranger Bob (government name: Tim Kincaid) was the kids’ show host on the independent UHF station — big cowboy hat, fake facial hair, fake goober accent, and plenty of exciting games of TV POWW in between cueing up the Little Rascals and other low-cost, empty-calorie kids’ programming.
    A year or two ago I showed clips of him to my younger son, who is firmly a 21st-century boy. He split a gut laughing at the cheesiness of what I used to watch, and then laughed twice as hard when I showed him clips of TV POWW.
    Maybe a year ago I ran a Google search for Tim Kincaid and discovered that he’d become a priest, or something equally unlikely.

    The only overnight personality I remember came in from Buffalo via the crackly ether — a guy named Barry who did skits, smoked coffin nails, and talked through movie breaks on a show called The Cat’s Pajamas that used Raphael Ravenscroft’s soaring sax break from “Baker Street” as its theme song.
    I wrote about him (and found clips!) many years ago:

    Encore performances: Light on your head and dead on your feet.

    I am sure Rochester had daytime-type local personalities of the sort described here, and I would recognize their names from reading about them, but I suspect I am a touch too young for the full glory of the phenomenon.

  4. Leo Edelstein

    WISN Channel 12 in Milwaukee took good care of us afterschool kids with jokes from Tommy Richards on “Pops Theater.” We knew when to chime in with “Pops” by shouting at the TV “Roll ’em Lester!” …then back to the Three Stooges and cartoons.

  5. Wesley

    Here in Raleigh-Durham in the heart of North Carolina, we had two big local shows. The Uncle Paul Show ran on WRAL Channel 5 from 9-10 a.m. weekdays and featured the title star as ringleader of a circus-themed show, with a host sporting Coke bottle thick glasses and a a top hat on what I recall as being a rather chunk frame. That ran from 1961-1981. The other was At Home with Peggy Mann on WTVD Channel 11 from 1-1:30 p.m., which opened with a still shot of a plantation house before showing the hostess in the studio sporting a classic 1950s hairdo into the 1980s, a dark brunette job that appeared lacquered and crimped to act as a pressed crown around her hair. Peggy’s interviews, recipes and homemaker tips made it the perfect and popular lead-in to As the World Turns for decades, from the 1950s through the 1970s (Peggy died in 1981). Comedienne Amy Sedaris remembered the show so fondly that she created her own spoof of it later, At Home with Amy Sedaris, although Amy’s show had much livelier guests.

    Speaking of spoofs, SCTV did a really great job sending up Dialing for Dollars on one of its shows in the 1970s. We didn’t have it in our market, but when I went to visit relatives living an hour west of my family, Dialing for Dollars was a staple of the High Point station that also served Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

  6. Tim Morrissey

    Green Bay TV (WBAY-TV Ch. 2) had a morning personality named Russ Widoe (Y-dough) who played a character named “Colonel Caboose.” He dressed in railroad engineer garb and patterned his hour-long weekday morning show after the Captain Kangaroo show on CBS.

    Widoe went on to be head of NEWIST, North-East Wisconsin In School Television, a Wisconsin Public Broadcasting enterprise which beamed child-friendly content for use in the classroom.

    Over at WLUK-TV Ch. 11, they had an afternoon show called “Clubhouse POW” where the main gimmick was taking a phone call from a child (placed and approved by their significant adult guardian) where the child would say “POW!” on the telephone every time a certain image was displayed. If they achieved five successful POW’s, they won a certificate from some participating sponsor for an ice cream cone or some such.

  7. Los Angeles had kids’ show hosts like Hobo Kelly (female) and Sheriff John (male). We had teen dance show hosts who later went syndicated but started local (Lloyd Thaxton, Casey Kasem). And we had horror movie hosts—Vampira in the 50s, Seymour in the 70s and Elvira in the 80s. Elvira, of course, became nationally famous, but it was Seymour who was the subversive choice:

    That bit was enough to get him bounced from KHJ-TV. He did a couple of additional years at KTLA.

    For all-around local host, though, it had to be Tom Hatten at KTLA, hosting a kids’ show, the family movie matinee, parade coverage, you name it, from the early 1950s until 1992;

    https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-tom-hatten-obit-20190317-story.html

    1. SteveE

      I loved Hobo Kelly and Sheriff John, but once I was in junior high, I REALLY loved Seymour. I was one of his Fringees (as he called his followers). I even got to meet him in 1972 when Larry Vincent (Seymour’s real name) appeared at the opening of a car dealership. He autographed a cap that I still have. He died only a few years later.

  8. Cincinnati had two well-known talk/variety shows on the NBC affiliate WLWT: Paul Dixon in the mornings and the 50/50 Club at noon (first hosted by Ruth Lyons, then Bob Braun). Dixon died right after Christmas 1974, so I don’t have many memories of watching it, but I saw a decent amount of Braun over the years–it lasted until the mid-80s, I think. On WCPO, the CBS affiliate, there was the Uncle Al Show, a kids’ program, which ran until 1985. Accordion-playing Al Lewis and his wife Wanda were the hosts; I can’t say I saw a whole lot of it.

    I lived a little outside of Louisville when I was very young. The rough analog to Uncle Al was the T-Bar-V Ranch, hosted by Randy Atcher and Tom “Cactus” Brooks. I hazily recall appearing on the show when I was 3 or 4 (so, 1967 or 68); the kids in attendance got to parade across the set, wave, and (I believe) give shout-outs to family watching at home.

    1. Wesley

      Braun took over the 50/50 Club when Lyons retired in 1967 (she would live until 1988, dying at age 83). He previously had a top 30 hit in 1962, Til Death Do Us Part, which I’ll admit I haven’t heard yet, and he continued hosting his show until 1984, when he moved California for a decade (he later returned to Cincinnati and died there in 2001). Braun’s show was syndicated to other markets unsuccessfully in 1982.

      The same thing happened with Dixon’s show in syndication in 1973, which failed in part because it was edited down to a half hour. Paul Dixon was a huge influence on David Letterman, who saw the show in Indianapolis (WLWT was owned by a group that had several midwestern stations that carried the Dixon show live), especially a show where Dixon married two rubber chickens. I know, sounds odd, but it got incredible coverage in Cincinnati when he did it, and at last check YouTube has the whole show available for review.

      Finally, Dixon’s death at age 56 in 1974 was a real shock, as he had been in good health and went to the hospital for routine surgery before complications killed him. It was especially sad because like Ruth Lyons, he did a great deal of charity work benefitting Cincinnati and the surrounding communities.

      1. I sensed at the time that Dixon’s death was quite a loss. I’ll look for the rubber chicken wedding clip.

        “Til Death Do Us Part” is a bit-over-the-top spoken-word piece. Another of Braun’s singles wound up in my father’s 45 collection. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I wrote about Braun and that 45 earlier this year: https://musicofmylife.net/2021/03/14/dads-45s-part-10-local-legends/. The piece also includes a hyperlink to “Til Death Do Us Part” on YouTube if you are interested in checking it out.

  9. John Gallagher

    It was before my time, but locally in the late 50s-early 60s, WICU TV had the Pappy show hosted by the late Lou Letcher who worked at a few local radio stations as well. Another local station had the Ronald McDonald show. ‘Ronald’ was played by the late Bob Tupper who was also the station weatherman in the late 60s to very early 1970s. Bob was a ventriloquist and did the weather with his sidekick, Skeebert Skidaddle.

    1. In Milwaukee, WITI had a kids’ show hosted by a puppet named Albert the Alley Cat. Starting in 1965, Albert was paired with weatherman Ward Allen, and they became quite a sensation on the evening news. My wife, who grew up in Milwaukee, tells me that her church youth group once got to go to the station and watch the 6:00 news being produced, including Ward Allen and Albert. https://www.fox6now.com/news/people-were-fascinated-with-a-sock-puppet-where-is-he-whats-he-up-to-in-search-of-albert-the-alley-cat

  10. Picking up on Yah Shure’s comment, WCCO-TV in the Twin Cities also had a long-running kids show starring John Gallos as Clancy the Cop and his sidekick, Willie Ketchem, played by Allan Lotsberg. Here’s a link to a site about Minnesota kid shows (hoping it hasn’t been already posted here): https://mnkidvid.com/main/ .

  11. mikehagerty

    And one of our local TV hosts in L.A. when I was growing up has died. Sam Riddle was at KRLA and KFWB from 1959-1965, then became one of the original KHJ Boss Jocks, as well as hosting KHJ-TV’s “Hollywood A Go-Go”, “Boss City”, “Ninth Street West” and “Groovy” dance shows.

    Sam left KHJ in 1970, and did a couple of years at KDAY, then a couple at KROQ-AM before leaving radio for TV and going on to produce “Star Search”.

    https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/sam-riddle-dead-famed-disc-jockey-star-search-producer-1235021853/

    1. SteveE

      Ah, I hadn’t heard about the death of Sam Riddle. When I started listening to KHJ in summer 1968, he was the Boss Jock who counted down the new Boss 30 every Wednesday night, which I of course started writing down every week. I watched “Groovy,” too.

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