By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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"I said, `Then why is it two fingers for peace? You can't have peace without what?' And the kids yelled, `Love.' And I said, `Well let's add another thing,' and about five kids yelled out at once, `Happiness!' And I held out three fingers and said, `This is our new sign. Peace, love, and happiness,' and Uncle Don started playing a little song, and then someone else wrote `The Peace, Love, and Happiness Song.'" That tune, whose lyrics went "Peace, love, and happiness/Peace, love, and happiness/Peace, love, and happiness/Peace, love, and happiness," typically accompanied by the show's organist, Uncle Don, became a Skipper Chuck trademark. "I have traveled all over the world," says Zink, "and at a sidewalk cafe in Greece, I was walking by and someone did a double take and held out three fingers and yelled, `Hey, Skipper! Peace, love, and happiness.'"
When Zink wasn't singing "Peace, Love, and Happiness," he was traveling across Dade. Three times per week he visited elementary schools, holding assemblies to warn children about the dangers of drugs, and handing out buttons that said, "I can say No." This, he is quick to mention, was in the Seventies. "Before Nancy Reagan."
But the heyday of the Skipper Chucks of this world - people who went by the nicknames "Captain Kangaroo" and "Sheriff John" and "Bozo the Clown" - was ending, a victim of economics and politics. By now, with few exceptions, commercial kids' programs are "an archaic part of our entertainment industry," says Jeff Hurt, a professor of broadcasting at the University of Florida. "You don't find small grocery stores, you don't find local retailers, almost everything's a big chain. The entertainment industry and the broadcast industry have followed the same trend." Local television stations, he says, simply can't afford to produce shows like Skipper Chuck. "Not when they can get something syndicated for less money."
Like Hurt, Zink and Doris Bernhardt, the Skipper Chuck show's long-time producer, blame the demise of kids' programs on economics, but they say the shows could have survived if it weren't for a Cambridge-based lobbying group called Action for Children's Television. In the early Seventies ACT began lobbying the National Association of Broadcasters to prohibit hosts of kids' shows from acting as product pitchmen while they were on the air. "Hosts," Zink says, "became as useless as tits on a bull. I was hawking for Burger King, so I was a bad influence," he says, his words dripping with uncharacteristic sarcasm.
"Blanket disapproval was thrown on all children's programming across the United States," agrees Bernhardt. "Commercial programming did have to have commercials within their programming in order to exist," she notes, adding that Zink was so careful about the products he endorsed that he once refused to pitch a popsicle called "Rocket" because some parents might object to the violence associated with missiles.
Peggy Cherren, founder and president of ACT, says she's not familiar with Skipper Chuck, but adds that it is unfair to hold her organization responsible for the fall of kids' shows. "To blame what happened to him on me shows a certain lack of understanding of how the world works and should work," she says. "We did not say that the FCC should take Skipper Chuck off the air. We said that his show's content should be separate from his commercial content."
There is plenty of room on today's TV for kids' shows, says Cherren, as long as they convey the correct message as defined by ACT. "There's all kinds of things missing from children's television," she asserts. "If Skipper knew what he was doing, he should go to the station and say, `I'm ready with a whole new idea to make kids informed citizens in a democracy. I'm gonna talk to them about the environment or how to clean up the playground.' I have no patience for children's hosts who are crying because they can't sell to children."
A new federal law requiring the FCC to renew licenses only to stations that serve the educational and informational needs of children will reinvigorate the kids' market, says Cherren, a market that has declined since 1980, when TV stations were deregulated, and no longer were required to air informational children's programs.
Zink, who has no children of his own, agrees with Cherren on that one issue - that deregulation hurt the broadcast industry. "You know what's wrong with this country?" he asks. "It's the two Ds. Deregulation and discipline. On the show, we didn't take any crap from the children. Or from the parents. That's why things went well," he says, smiling a wide, Skipper Chuck smile. "There I am on my soapbox," he adds apologetically.
But Skipper Chuck has put in his time, and he's earned the soapbox. During his 23 years as the Skipper, he picked up two local Emmy awards and became active with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and remains a member of the MDA of America's board of directors. In 1988, after 24 years with MDA, he stopped hosting local segments of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon. "Channel 4 decided they didn't want me to do it any longer," he says sadly. "It hurt. I'd be a liar if I didn't say it hurt, but the hurt's over now."