Friday, April 13, 2018

Chuck McCann: In Tribute

For those of us who were children of the 1960s and resided in the New York City area, Chuck McCann was a familiar name. The popular television shows he hosted (Laurel and Hardy and Chuck and Let's Have Fun on WPIX-Channel 11 and The Chuck McCann Show on WNEW-Channel 5), epitomized the frenetic and raw nature of a blossoming medium. As McCann explained in his book Chuck McCann's Let's Have Fun! Scrapbook (2012):

You have to keep in mind that in those days nobody really knew television. Everybody was flying by the seat of their pants.
From his earliest days in show business Chuck had met and apprenticed with master puppeteer Paul Ashley, who was an instrumental part of many early children's and adult television shows.


   A flyer for the team of Paul Ashley and Chuck McCann, who played many venues together before teaming up on TV. Ashley's skill at both caricature (Laurel and Hardy, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton and Ed Sullivan are a few that can be seen here) and original creations left an indelible impression on this author's early years and has fostered a life-long love of the art of puppetry. Largely forgotten, Paul Ashley's work in early television deserves a critical study. Image from Chuck McCann's Let's Have Fun! Scrapbook, as are most of the other Chuck-related pictures here.   

One of Paul Ashley's puppets starred in an early TV show from 1950-1954. Rootie Kazootie was popular enough to star in several Dell comic books in that same period. Rootie Kazootie (Four Color) # 415, August 1952. Writer unknown, Dan Gormley art. Image from Comic Book Plus.      

Chuck's first foray in a starring role on television (accompanied by Paul Ashley and his puppets) was as host of The Puppet Hotel, a short-lived program on WNTA-TV, Channel 13 (precursor to what would become public television station WNET) that ran from November 28, 1959 until January 16, 1960.     

When offered a contract to work at WPIX Chuck came up with the idea for a show. A huge fan of the comedy team Laurel and Hardy since he was a child (he had been in contact with Stan Laurel since he was 12 years old) he suggested a program where he hosted their films, using segments with puppets to round-out the show. WPIX had been using the shorts in rain delays or when they had to fill time before their next program on New York Yankees broadcasts; later on they employed the Abbott and Costello Show in the same manner (many of us are familiar with the announcer stating: "We now join Abbott and Costello, already in progress.."). Laurel and Hardy and Chuck debuted on September 7, 1960 - which initiated nearly a decade of tomfoolery with Chuck at the helm.

 Chuck holding the brilliant craftsmanship of Paul Ashley in his hands. Chuck did the voices of both Stan and Ollie in-between segments of the boys films. According to Chuck, Stan Laurel was pleased that the team was being introduced to a new audience on television. 

Chuck was soon asked to host another program on Sunday mornings to compete with Sonny Fox's popular Wonderama on rival network WNEW channel 5. Let's Have Fun was first broadcast on September 18, 1960 and would run FOUR hours live, with segments featuring cartoons (Popeye, Superman); classic comedy (The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello and, of course, Laurel and Hardy) and Serials such as Flash Gordon) giving the host a break between comedy sketches and puppetry. It was a grueling work-load but Chuck was a performer up to the task and Let's Have Fun quickly became a ratings success.

A fortuitous event opened up another avenue for the comedian to experiment with, as Chuck recounts in his book:
Then, one day in 1962, I was blessed when I learned that the Daily News - which was the parent company that owned the station I was working for - was going on strike. Since the paper had the rights to use strips that appeared in the Sunday "funnies", the idea came that I could read them on the air and keep our viewers up to date on what their favorite characters were doing, just as Mayor LaGuardia had done on radio during a newspaper deliverymen's strike in 1945.     

 New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1934-1945) read the comics on his WNYC Talk of the People radio show in July, 1945, which inspired Chuck to do the same on Television almost two decades later.

Since television is a visual medium Chuck decided to dress up as some of the characters he was reading, including "Dick Tracy', "Little Orphan Annie" and "Dondi". For "Terry and the Pirates Chuck opted not to caricature the strips hero but instead parodied his femme fatale nemesis, the Dragon Lady. Well, not exactly. Chuck thought THAT would stretch credibility a little too far, so he created the Dragon Lady's mother!

      Chuck surrounded by Channel 11's line-up of kid's show hosts: Captain Jack McCarthy (top); Officer Joe Bolton (right) and Bozo the Clown (Bill Britten)
Chuck departed Let's Have Fun and WPIX in August, 1965 due to managerial interference. Without skipping a beat he moved to WNEW-Channel 5 in September of that year. The Chuck McCann Show aired weekdays and Saturdays with the same basic format until September 9, 1966. The format changed to once again spotlight Chuck's favorite comedians as Chuck McCann's Laurel and Hardy Show and ran until June 9, 1966. While he worked on other children's programs from time to time, Chuck became a versatile performer, appearing as a character actor in movies and on countless television shows, doing commercials and utilizing his mimicry and vocal skills for Saturday morning cartoons and animated features.

 In 1994-95 Chuck provided the voice of the Thing for the animated Fantastic Four cartoon, which included an adaptation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Galactus story-line. Page from Fantastic Four # 48, March 1966. Joe Sinnott inks, Artie Simek lettering.   
For over five decades Chuck McCann gave children a reason to smile and never appeared to lose the child in himself, which is an accomplishment in itself. By all accounts he was a kind and gentle soul, which came through in his on-screen persona. Chuck McCann died on April 8th 2018, at the age of 83. For the majority of those years he put on a happy face for all the world to enjoy. 

Click the link below to see the opening of Let's Have Fun and the closing segment of The Chuck MCCann show, which includes a magical moment of Chuck outside the WNEW studios greeting fans. It perfectly captures the charm and innocence of a bygone era.





Barry Pearl said...

He made me smile, he made me laugh. He will be missed. All he wanted was to have fun. Thanks for blogging.

Nick Caputo said...

Glad you enjoyed it Barry.

Michael Tuz said...

Several years ago a friend of mine was walking down a street in NYC when he spied Chuck McCann coming toward him. As they passed, my friend quickly said to Chuck, "I loved you when I was a kid!"
Without missing a beat, Chuck replied, "And I loved you when you were a kid!"

Chuck McCann was an important early presence in my life whose impact is immeasurable. "Let's Have Fun" was the first
TV show I can recall living for. He was smart, witty, brilliantly creative and compassionate to his youthful audience to a degree that I had never before encountered in an adult. I'd say that he taught me how to think outside the box, except his zaniness seemed to indicate that Chuck had no concept that the box existed.
I loved the guy.

Nick Caputo said...

Wonderful story, Mike. Chuck had quite an effect on many of our childhoods and was a very early memory for me as well.

Shivansh Joshi said...
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Shivansh Joshi said...
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