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Recalling The Golden Age Of Cleveland Children’s Television

Veteran Cleveland radio and television personality Mike Olszewski found out what an impression the hosts of Cleveland children’s television shows made, during a conversation he had with a man who grew up in Northeast Ohio.

Olszewski asked the man if he could remember the name of his eighth grade principal. The man couldn’t recall it, but he knew the answer to the next question: Who is Barnaby's butterfly?

“Oh, that was Cicero,” the man quickly replied, Olszewski said.

Linn Sheldon as Barnaby [Cleveland State University/Mike Olszewski]

Barnaby, the beloved elf played by Linn Sheldon, is just one of the many figures Olszewski and his wife, Janice, profile in their new book, “From Captain Penny to Superhost: Tales from the Golden Age of Cleveland Children’s Television, 1950s-1970s” (Gray & Company). Through their work in broadcasting and writing several books about Cleveland history, the Olszewskis came to know a number of the hosts and behind-the-scenes people who created Cleveland’s kids shows during their heyday. Olszewski felt it was important to document the stories of these television pioneers before they were lost.

[Gray & Company]

“From Captain Penny to Superhost” provides insight both into the lives of the hosts and how all involved were very much inventing the new medium of television on the fly.

Olszewski said local stations were desperate for programs to fill air time during those early years.

“Linn Sheldon told me that they could not put out a TV guide, because they didn't know what they were putting on that day. Many of the shows would start, like maybe at 9:00, maybe 10:00 in the morning, with the national anthem. They might go through late-night to the ‘milk man's matinee’ at one o'clock a.m. You had no TV overnight,” Olszewski said.

Ren Penfound as Captain Penny -WEWS [Cleveland Public Library/Mike Olszewski]

These live programs were often unscripted, relying instead on the improvisational talents of the hosts. Olszewski said Sheldon would see a birdcage as he came into work, pick it up and craft a segment around an invisible parrot, or he would turn a thread found on the floor into tight rope for a pretend flea from the flea circus to walk across.

The hosts of these shows didn’t just do their programs and leave for the day. They displayed their versatility in a number of ways.

Ray Stawriaski as Franz the Toymaker WJW-TV [Cleveland Public Library/Mike Olszewski]

“Franz the Toymaker (Ray Stawriaski) was also a producer and built sets. Ron Penfold (Captain Penny) was an announcer on the ‘One O'clock Club.’ He'd do news, sports, and weather. Sometimes he was on three times a day. A lot of times that was not an eight-hour day either. You would do appearances later on, so it pretty much took over a good part of their lives,” Olszewski said.

 Clay Conroy as Woodrow and Linn Sheldon as Barnaby  KYW-TV [Dave Little Collection/Mike Olszewski]

From Gene Carroll, who hosted the first popular Cleveland children’s program “Uncle Jake’s Show,” to Marty Sullivan who was Superhost to Clay Conroy ‘s Woodrow the Woodsman, Olszewski found a commonality among the hosts.

“They all loved kids and had kids of their own. They just know how to relate to people. As we grew up there was the generation gap in the 60s, but you still found something there, whether Woodrow or Franz the Toymaker is talking to you or even Miss Barbara (Plummer, host of “Romper Room”), would give you these life lessons,” Olszweski said.

In an era of few channels and much more limited entertainment choices, Olszewski said the hosts of these shows became larger than life, often drawing huge crowds at public appearances.

“When I was a little kid, I didn't know the difference between the stature of the Marx Brothers on TV versus Barnaby versus Captain Penny versus Woodrow. I thought they were all superstars. So if there was a chance to go out to meet them, you were there. That was Hollywood to me,” Olszewski said.

While these hosts were heroes to their young viewers, they had shortcomings. In the book, Olszewski shares conversations in which the hosts and their children are candid about struggles with alcohol and viewers expectations they would always be like they were on camera. “

One thing that Linn Sheldon made clear, he said, ‘I'm not Barnaby in real life.’ You had the same foibles as people do in everyday life,” Olszewski said.

Ron Penfound being serenaded by a puppet  WEWS-TV [Cleveland Public Library/Mike Olszewski]

Children’s television in Cleveland continued to be produced into the 1990s. “Barnaby” remained on air until 1991. Conrow’s “Woodrow” was revived in 1997 and ran for three years. There were also some new shows, like WUAB’s “Liz Herman’s Kidsland,” but the golden age came to an end in the 1970s, a victim of economics.

“Children's programing went to the network. It just became cheaper to run someone else's program sadly,” Olszewski said.

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