By Tom Ward
Pop Culture Contributor
On behalf 0f Golf Center of Arlington
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Bill Jackson, whom baby boomers will fondly remember from his iconic television shows “Cartoon Town”, “BJ and the Dirty Dragon” and “Gigglesnort Hotel”. Jackson is a beloved American TV personality best known to generations of children throughout the 1960s and ‘70s first in the Chicago area and later nationally where he hosted award-winning kids’ television programming acting as host, cartoonist and educator. Jackson told me that “Gigglesnort Hotel” was not only syndicated in the U.S. but also aired in Singapore, Italy, Saudi Arabia and many more countries.
“I’ll tell you, hearing me speak Italian was hilarious,” laughed Jackson. “You see, they dubbed our voices for their own countries. Hearing the Blob speak in Italian was pretty wild.” These days Jackson (81) and his wife live quietly in central California where he has just released his new book called “Kid Show: My World of Imagination”.
In 2008, Jackson published his memoir called “The Only Kid on the Carnival: An Extraordinary Childhood” which dealt with his early years being born during the mid-ground of the great depression in 1935. Jackson would spend his pre-school years on traveling carnivals with his parents before returning to his hometown of Unionville, Missouri. That book ends with his father dropping him off to attend college, where he graduated in 1957 on the Dean’s list from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Jackson’s latest project, what he calls his final book, is the perfect companion piece to his terrific memoir.
In his new book “Kid Show: My World of Imagination”, Jackson recalls in vivid details the harrowing journey he embarked upon starting out at small TV stations and getting drafted working for the AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Services). His path to success was paved with numerous obstacles at each turn. I appreciated Jackson’s candidness in describing the exhilarating highs and painful lows that he encountered along the way. He does a brilliant job in his writings by not pulling any punches in describing some devastating setbacks and nose-diving defeats that he had to overcome. Ultimately, Jackson prevailed and went on to become a local TV legend in the Chicago area, creating some of the most innovative children’s television in America. I found that reading Jackson’s new book helped to fill in the gaps for me as he ascended through the ranks becoming an acclaimed nationally syndicated TV kids’ show host.
I asked Jackson to tell me what motivated him to write this book.
“This book, and it will be my last one, begins as I’m on my way home from being in the Army, which is funny because at that time I didn’t really have a home,” replied Jackson. “I loop back and go to my first professional job which I had while I was still in school writing commercials for a radio station. My story goes from that point on and I just hope it’s an enjoyable read for people. The book took longer than people would realize as I would say about three years or more. It’s because I’m so picky. I get e-mails from CEOs at big companies that people would turn green for. I mean, these people are so kind. They have great memories and they let me know how much they appreciated my show. In effect I wrote it for them because I wanted them to know what went into the show. You can’t know how pleased I am hearing from those people.
“Probably at the very base of everything is what I’ve done as my being a writer and if I showed any skill at that in the book I’m very pleased,” added Jackson. “I wanted the book to be a real easy read and take the reader right along with me, my thoughts and whatever was going on right through the whole thing.”
“I liked how you talked in your book about that golden age of kids’ TV programming and the adjustments you had to make along the way.”
“It was an era that in the beginning stations wanted kid shows because they bought cartoon packages and had staff people like the announcer do it by putting him into a funny outfit,” said Jackson. “Then he would kind of host the cartoons and that was the kid show. Later on things shifted on the commercial stations where they wanted to make money on shows and they needed a little better incentive because the off-network stuff was becoming plentiful so that it cost them less to pay for those packages than to have someone do it for them. In my book I take readers into when it became very necessary for the most part that the program become an educational show and my adjustment to that. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been doing it because my shows to that point had decent content in it, but I decided that I would have to toot my horn to let them know I was doing this and that’s where the ‘Gigglesnort Hotel’ came in.”
“You achieved your greatest success with your shows being based out of Chicago. In the book you talked about how difficult and humbling it was to get started there.”
“As far as Chicago itself my first show was ‘Clown Alley’”, recalled Jackson. “At that time I didn’t realize I needed to be a clown. There was an auxiliary show on Sundays we did called ‘Here Comes Freckles’ which had a live audience to it. That lasted about two years. It died a merciful death. The thing is I was given an incredible opportunity by the station manager when the show was cancelled to go into the studio and cut a demo tape of what I did to peddle to other stations. He must have thought a lot of my work because you just don’t get that. I sure took him up on that. When I finished filming it, one of the stage hands came up to me and said, ‘You know, they should have just let you be you.’ That meant a lot to me.”
“What was it like going up against the powerhouse kid shows at the time in Chicago like ‘Bozo’, ‘Ray Rayner’ and ‘Garfield Goose’ with Frazier Thomas?”
“I sure had a battle on my hands because all those guys were very good”, recalled Jackson. “Jim Engel, who’s a good friend of mine, watched my show at the time growing up in Chicago and he became a great fan. He’s a great local historian of Chicago children’s television. He picked up on the fact that, in his words and I agree with him, the best children show hosts were in Chicago when I got there. I really had my work cut out for me.”
“There are some funny chapters in the book. I enjoyed how you bought an old car and had women dressed at Dragonettes as you attended a lot of parades throughout the city and suburbs. Was that part of your plan to get noticed?”
“You know, those kind of things were born out of desperation,” answered Jackson. “My competition in the city of Chicago was strong with the likes of Ray Rayner and company and others who were great talents so it was going to take a lot to get their attention and the fact that we were a UHF station, that put us at a tremendous disadvantage and how we overcame that was tremendous. That’s why early on I realized if I was going to exist in Chicago I was going to have to do some promotions that were three steps above what you would normally do.”
There were a few moments of despair that Jackson describes in the book. One that stood out to me was when he had learned that his show had been cancelled and he was getting into an elevator.
“I got on the elevator and went down,” reflected Jackson. “The doors open and this woman stepped in and looked at me and said, ‘Aren’t you BJ?’ I said, ‘I used to be.’”
Another time was early on when Jackson was still in the service.
“I was getting discharged and I decided I wanted to try for a career in children’s programming. I managed to get an interview in Sacramento, California. I drove up there and it went miserably. I wasn’t ready and I didn’t do the puppets well enough. I hadn’t written a good enough skit and it went over like a big thud and I was so shaken by it,” said Jackson.
Scattered throughout the book Jackson has some great stories on some well-known celebrities with whom he interacted and had both good and bad experiences, such as well-known actor Jack Palance, who it turns out was very unaccommodating during an interview on live TV. I asked Jackson about that ill-timed interview with Palance.
“Palance’s image on the big screen was exactly who he was,” explained Jackson. “That was it. On screen or off screen he had that manner about him. That was a great education for me. I grew on that one, having to handle such a difficult personality like him. It sure stuck out in my mind over the years.”
Another interesting encounter that Jackson writes about in chapter twelve is about the time he got to direct Raymond Burr (TV’s Perry Mason) in a promotional piece for the military. Reading that chapter I could tell it was a real thrill for Jackson to have his copy read by the acclaimed actor.
Another fascinating chapter was the story he wrote about Shari Lewis and his “Mazel Tov” moment with her.
“She hired you and then fired you and then much later on she took the time to recognize you in front of a stage crew in L.A. about your recent win for a Chicago Emmy, beating out her show in the process. Tell me about that moment.”
“She showed a lot of class there,” said Jackson. “I understood in a way why she got upset, but I didn’t expect to be fired. My feelings on puppetry was a little bit different than hers and I wouldn’t argue it as she had every right. I was just trying to add to the scene, but I was guilty of sacrilege, at least in her mind. I had upstaged the main person and you don’t do that. She was a class lady because not only did she come across the studio directly to me, but we had both been up in competition for a Chicago Emmy.”
The book is chock full of poignant moments along with some hilarious chapters about live television mishaps with little kids in the audience as well as gypsies and numerous other outlandish moments. This book will answer all those questions you might have always wondered about how a children’s TV show was developed, produced and what it took to get it on the air. I can’t recommend a book any higher than this one because it delivers on all cylinders. I found myself rooting for Jackson on his quest to turn out excellent children’s entertaining and educational programming while battling what seemed like insurmountable odds along the way.
Also, you’ll learn of the people in the business who had a great early influence in Jackson’s career like Daws Butler and Walker Edmudsen, who took him to Don Post Studios where he learned to make the puppets. There are some great life lessons stories that showcase Jackson’s fortitude and determination which I found quite admirable. Reading his book took me on a roller coaster of emotions because I think personally I wouldn’t have been able to put up with all the nonsense that Bill was able to endure.
I asked him how he was able to overcome such seemingly steep obstacles when dealing with station managers and TV executives.
“There’s a chapter where I learned a lesson that I’ve carried for the rest of my life,” said Jackson. “It didn’t do any good to pitch shows for what it would do for me so I switched that around right in the middle of the pitch and made it what I could do for them, which is what kept me there.”
I thought, “Who better to put Bill Jacksons’ marvelous career in perspective than his long-time friend Rich Koz?”Koz is a Chicago TV legend himself with his show “Svengoolie” which airs every Saturday night nationally on MeTV.
“I’ve known Bill for a very long time,” said Koz. “As a matter of fact, I just received an e-mail from him about his new book. Bill is such an amazing talent and he’s a very nice man and so modest. I’ve always told him that he’s one of the guys I always wanted to emulate, to be like, because he’s one of those great professionals who showed so much talent and really knew how to do entertaining shows and I’ve always admired the heck out of him. Just knowing him and what a decent guy he is, that’s the frosting on the cake.”
“How can people order your book?” I asked Jackson.
“I don’t stock or ship the books myself,” said Jackson. “The simplest way is to go to my website www.dirtydragon.com. You go there and it tells you all about the book and how to order it. It’s a print-on-demand format and you can determine whether you want priority mail which means you’ll get the book in about 3 days. You have options to choose from the normal postal selections. If people want the book autographed I’m honored to sign it and I never charge for an autograph. You can send the book to me with that post office box address on my website along with a mailer to return the book with postage on it. I’ll be happy to sign it and get it back in the mail for them immediately.”
If you were a fan of Bill Jackson growing up this book is a must have in your collection and with the holidays coming up this would make an ideal gift. Jackson’s creative and innovative television shows put a smile on millions of kids’ faces every day and this book, I can guarantee you, will accomplish that feat again, transporting you back to your childhood. Visit his website at www.dirtydragon.com and order your copy today.
Tom Ward can be contacted at www.teetimewithtom.com