The chairman of CBS was not happy. Delegates to the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach were preparing to name Richard Nixon their candidate for president, and William Paley, relaxing in the Bahamas, wanted news. From his vacation home, Paley could pick up CBS affiliate WTVJ, Channel 4 in Miami. But when he switched on his television one morning, he didn't see anchorman Joseph Benti and the CBS Morning News. He saw: Skipper Chuck.
Although the network's morning news show was based in WTVJ's own town during the convention, the station chose not to run it, opting instead to air the homegrown, enormously popular children's show. Even NBC's Today program, which dominated the morning slot throughout the rest of the nation, couldn't begin to compete with the balloon-drop game on Skipper Chuck's Popeye Playhouse in Miami, and WTVJ executives, delighted with the show's immense success, saw no reason to run anything else.
Until Paley picked up the telephone. "He called Mitchell Wolfson, who was the chairman at WTVJ, a little bit incensed that he couldn't follow the convention" on his own affiliate, recalls Ralph Renick, WTVJ's former news director and long-time anchorman. "So for one week the station did carry the network morning news and supplanted the Skipper Chuck show. But then it went back to the old format."
And it stayed that way. Through Vietnam and Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis, WTVJ did not carry the CBS Morning News. Instead WTVJ's hour-long morning show featured Skipper Chuck, Scrubby, the Word Bird, and Squeezix the Mouse. Through 23 years - nearly 6000 shows - 50 kids per day bounded into Channel 4's Studio B, where Chuck Zink, the Skipper himself, held court with songs and cartoons, games and lessons. And birthdays. To the Miami area's elementary-school set, celebrating a birthday on the Skipper Chuck show was cooler than ice-cream cake.
Although Skipper Chuck hasn't been on the air in ten years, the Skipper remains a South Florida institution, part of Miami's childhood. But Miami outgrew its collective childhood - urban sprawl, riots, and drugs, among other things, have seen to that - and the town outgrew the Skipper, too. In 1980, the year of the Mariel boatlift and the McDuffie riots, WTVJ canceled the program. Chuck Zink spent the next thirteen weeks at Channel 4 as a quizmaster, hosting Superstakes, a game show for youngsters, but the station discontinued the program. From there Zink moved to WCIX-Channel 6, then an independent station, where he introduced movies and provided on-air chatter before commercials. And in 1983 he retired. But retirement did not suit the ebullient Zink, so he did what thousands of other sixtysomething Americans have done: he headed for Century Village, where he recently ended a five-year stint as a celebrity spokesman.
It's a long way, Zink acknowledges, from Skipper Chuck, where he began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance and the word for the day, played games, aired cartoons, performed puppet shows, and sang songs. At Century Village, he reflects, "I was having to do too many eulogies." But ever the entrepreneur, Zink has kept his hand in the kid business, and he intends to profit from his venture into the adult market as well. He owns two Dade day-care facilities - Skipper Chuck Child Care Centers - and is also associated with American Adult Day Care, an organization that plans to open two Palm Beach sites for elderly people in early 1991. Quite a switch from the farm in South Bend, Indiana, where Charles D. Zink was born.
"I was a farm kid," says Zink, who at 65 is tanned, fit, and casual - except for the gray hair, he still looks every bit the Skipper. "All I knew was how to milk the cows and slop the pigs, but the first time my dad brought home a radio, I listened and said, `That's what I want to do.'"
He did. After a three-and-a-half-year tour as a Marine tank driver in Iwo Jima and Guam during World War II, Zink began applying for jobs at radio stations back home. "I didn't go to college, but I really majored in rejections," he says. But finally in 1946, the rejections stopped and a 44-year broadcasting career began. First stop: WHVR-AM - 1280 on your dial in Hanover, Pennsylvania.
"It was a perfect place," Zink recounts with sentimentality. "I should've never ever left there." He signed on as a disc jockey and "general personality," using his lack of formal training to his benefit. "Back then everybody talked with a dulcet tone and e-nun-ci-a-ted every word," he recalls. "I just talked to the people at the barber shop." He also hosted a Saturday-morning remote program from the Victory Restaurant, carrying on conversations with whoever happened to be there, occasionally airing people's complaints about their families and other such dirty laundry. "Forgive me," he says. "I'm an old fart now, but I see the Donahues and the Geraldos and the Winfreys. I did that stuff when those people weren't born, and I didn't create it." The plain-guy technique was a success, and after two years at WHVR, television - WGAL in Lancaster - came a-calling. "My so-called reputation spread," he says, "and a TV station - this was the beginning of TV - asked me. God, was I impressed. The general manager hired me to the dismay of the program director, and said, `All I know is that everybody in Hanover likes him.'"
At WGAL-TV Zink's job was the antithesis of what it had been in Hanover. Instead of playing the guy next door, he was the distinguished newscaster. "I did everything but wear a boutonniere," he says. "I was very successful, but God, did I long to go back to that little radio station. The only person at the TV station who was having any fun was the guy doing the kids' show."
"One Saturday I was hanging around the station - I wasn't working, I was just hanging around - and the kids'-show person was involved in an accident and they were in a panic, because this was live TV. I went into the janitor's closet and got a pair of coveralls and an old hat, pulled it over my ears, and went on the air." Zink, who can't seem to carry on a normal conversation without breaking into an assortment of funny voices, says he enjoyed handling the show, even though it caused a station scandal. "Station managements take everything very seriously," he explains, rolling his eyes. "Everything approaches the end of the world. The program manager called me in and said, `You want to do a kids' show, you can do it, but you can't do anything else.' I said, `I want to do a kids' show.'"
The decision to join the Percy Platypus show, says Zink, had an immediate economic impact. "I was making $165 a week, which was a lot of money on a local station in 1950," he remembers. "It went to $40 for one show a week. All I could think was, how will I tell my wife?"
Zink recalls that scene with perfect clarity. "She thought it was pretty stupid," he says. Here was her husband, taking a severe pay cut to don a Santa Claus beard and share the screen with a battery-operated, papier-mache dog. Zink winces at the memory. "Oh, God, it was so ba-a-ad," he says. "I wouldn't think of sitting here and telling you that it was a good show. It was so bad, it really made a lot of money."
Chuck Zink had figured a way to triple his old salary: personal appearances. People would give him money or merchandise to show up at their functions. That, he says, is how he happened to pair up with the papier-mache dog. "I told the store manager, `You give me that dog, I'll put you on TV.' Now, TV was the newest thing since the wheel. Anything to be on TV, so he gave me the dog."
In 1953 Zink hung up the Santa beard and headed for a bigger market: WCMB-TV in Harrisburg. "I did the variety shows and the beauty pageants, and was the program manager," he recalls. "Worked fifteen-hour days." And at WCMB Zink met a photographer who changed his life. Ralph Renick hired the photographer, whose name Zink can't remember, to work at WTVJ in Miami. "He came here and started opening his big mouth, and said, `You gotta call this [Zink] guy.' One day my phone rang, and I said, `If you'll pay my way down for a vacation, I'll come down and talk to you.' They brought me down," he says, sounding as if he's still amazed 35 years later. "I would've come down on my own," he says. "TVJ was outstanding."
In 1955 Zink joined Channel 4 as a "general personality," responsible for hosting locally produced programs such as beauty pageants and for representing the station in the community.
Zink says he hadn't intended to return to the kid-show business, until he met Frank Weed, a big-game hunter. "He was a cross between Randolph Scott and Gary Cooper, about six-foot-two," says Zink. Thinking the good-looking Weed would be a perfect kid-show personality, Zink told station executives that he had an idea, and the program Tumbleweed was born. "There was one small problem," Zink remembers. "Weed couldn't put three words together. He'd come out, say, `Hi, kids,' and that was it. He'd bring a bear out and you'd say, `What's the name of the bear?' He'd say, `Bear.'"
Adding to the difficulty with Weed was the unfortunate fact that every six weeks or so, he'd go off on a hunting trip. "His wife would call and say, `Sorry, Chuck,' and that would be it," says Zink.
There was no choice. "I brought out the old beard and joined the show," Zink says. "We'd start the show and I'd say, `Frank, what do we got on the show today?' He'd say, `Well,' and I'd say, `I'll tell you what we've got on the show.'"
At the same time, about 1955, WTVJ launched a new program from the creators of Howdy Doody. The Lucky Duck Show, Zink recalls, "was the worst copy of Howdy Doody you ever saw. The duck was the same kind of marionette as Howdy - which is not a very good marionette." Zink says that in order to boost the show's ratings, station executives brought in a New York actor, Merv Griffin. "Merv Griffin didn't like kids," Zink says. "He'd just sit there at a white piano, playing `I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.'" Griffin, through a spokeswoman, says he does not recall ever having worked on the show, but Zink remembers things differently. He says he became Griffin's sidekick. From 4:30 to 5:00 p.m., he says, he did Tumbleweed, and from 5:00 to 5:30, he was Merv Griffin's cohort on Lucky Duck. "They didn't use the expression in those days, but that really sucked," Zink says. "We have a guy who is never here and a guy who hates kids and sings `Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.'"
In 1957 the station dumped Lucky Duck and Tumbleweed and began airing Popeye Playhouse with War Cap'n Chuck, a kids' show that featured the Popeye cartoon. When it was decided "Skipper" sounded friendlier than "War Cap'n," station executives changed the star's moniker, and eventually changed the show's name to Skipper Chuck's Popeye Playhouse. A Miami broadcasting legend had begun.
At the outset Zink was joined on the program by First Mate Ellen, a University of Miami student; and Glumbo, a sad-faced clown. But finding the perfect second banana for Skipper Chuck was not a simple matter. "Art Carneys don't grow on trees," Zink muses, reeling off a litany of choices that didn't pan out. First Mate Ellen and Glumbo were succeeded by a midget, and when he didn't work out, by a sidekick named Salty. Next was a chimpanzee from the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers circus. "That was great," Zink recalls of the chimp's tenure on the show, "until he bit a kid."
Then came the parrot, Spin Jimmy Hardy. "He sat on my shoulder," says Zink. "Usually he would crap on the back of me, but they wouldn't see that on camera." The parrot, he recalls, used to spend a lot of off-camera time in the show's prop room, and the crew began trying to teach the bird to say dirty words. Although Spin Jimmy never actually blurted out a profanity on the air, he was forced into early retirement. "It really was a very serious thing," Zink says. "I could've killed those guys."
In 1961 the Skipper's longest-running first mate came aboard: Richard Andrews, known to hundreds of thousands of Miamians as "Scrubby." "He was this big, gawky kid from the mail room," says Zink, "and he would come in and watch us film. He started warming up the audience, and we took him on."
Andrews, 52, remembers with fondness both the show and Chuck Zink, and says his colleague was a great professional. "We were not exactly friends outside of work at all, but we could read each other's minds," says Andrews, who now owns an apartment building in Key West. "We had some great times." Aside from playing the character of Scrubby, a childlike crewman to Zink's avuncular skipper, Andrews was the voice of the show's puppets.
Scrubby also was responsible for taking pies in the face nearly every day. "We would have a contest where the kids would tell a riddle, and if I knew the riddle, they got hit in the face with the pie." The "pies," says Andrews, actually were easy-to-clean dry foam on a sponge. "If I didn't get the riddle, they got to hit me with the pie. Maybe once every twenty times I would get the riddle. I got a lot of pie."
In 1958 Dade County's population was 825,000, Soviet Premier Nikita "We will destroy America if war comes" Khruschev was the enemy, three-bedroom homes on Galloway Road were selling for $16,000, and television shows, including children's television shows, were entirely segregated.
Zink says he'd never noticed that the Skipper Chuck show didn't permit black children to appear with whites, until the day in 1958 when he overheard a receptionist taking a ticket order. "`Are you colored?' she asked the caller. When she got off the phone, I said, `Why do you ask that question?'" says Zink. "And she said, `We don't put colored children and white children on the same show together.' I didn't know how to spell the word prejudice. I said to her, `Don't you ever say that again.' She said, `I have to.' I said, `No you don't. It's my show.'"
The program integrated without fanfare, but Zink began receiving threats. "I got horrible phone calls," he recalls. "Police furnished a guard. People don't realize that Miami was the Deep South. I mean the Deep South."
The racial tenor of the time was not lost on the Skipper Chuck show's sponsor, fast-food chain Royal Castle, which was no more amused than the scores of angry callers. "They used to furnish hamburgers for the kids," Zink says. "And the NAACP wrote a letter to the chairman of Royal Castle, asking why black kids and white kids could eat their hamburgers next to each other on the Skipper Chuck show, but couldn't in Royal Castles." In an apparent reaction to the letter, Zink says, the chairman of Royal Castle telephoned the chairman of WTVJ and ordered him to segregate the show or lose the account.
"Mitchell Wolfson summoned me to his office," Zink says solemnly. "He asked me if I knew what I had done, and I said yes. He got up and walked around his desk, put out his hand, and said, `You've got a job for the rest of your life with me.' Royal Castle canceled."
The next day Zink says he received a call from two men who had just bought a foundering fast-food company called Burger King. From that day on, Skipper Chuck hawked hamburgers for the Miami-based company.
Zink turned another awkward moment into a trademark in the early 1970s, when a kid in his audience flashed a peace sign into the camera. "Uncle Don would play music and the kids would sit there and make stupid faces," Zink says, "and one kid - a little bucktooth kid - was following the camera, shooting this peace sign. I said, `Stop the music, stop the music,' and Uncle Don stopped playing. I said, `What're you doing? What does that mean?' He said, `Peace, man, peace.' I said, `What's that?' He said, `I dunno,' and I said, `Well, what are you hogging the camera for?' I said, `Does anyone know what peace is?' I said, ~`Well, peace is when you get along with your brothers and your sisters and your mom and your dad and your teachers. That's what peace is.'
"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."
The station bumped Zink because his time had passed, explains Channel 4's general manager. "It's not as foreboding as it sounds," claims Dick Lobo. "It's because we have anchor people here who we have just introduced to the market and we are trying to show to the people of South Florida. These are people whose futures are here and who need to be exposed to as many people as possible."
Zink responds in his typical aw-shucks style - with a grin. "Everything works out for the best," he says. "My mother died of Alzheimer's disease in 1973, and now I'm involved up to my ass - or much higher - in Alzheimer's. I'm really into that, too, and I'm really happy that I am. Really happy," he repeats emphatically. The Skipper - or is it Zink? - at his upbeat best, thinking positive. Peace, love, and happiness.
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