Kevin Ervin Chats It Up w/ Children’s Television Historian Jim Engel

Kevin Ervin Chats It Up w/ Children’s Television Historian Jim Engel

Kevin Ervin owner of  Franks Diner sits down for lunch with cartoonist, designer and pop culture tv historian Jim Engel to talk about Jim’s career and his upcoming sold out fundraising appearance for Kenosha Community Media “Remembering Garfield Goose” at the Kenosha Public Museum on Friday September 17th. 

Kevin Ervin: All right, here we go. I’m Kevin Ervin, and I’m here with my pal Jim Engel. And we’re going to do a quick little interview. 

Jim Engel: All right then.

Kevin Ervin: Jim is a designer. He’s a cartoonist, he’s a pop culture television historian, and an all- around fun and good guy. I got a couple questions I want to ask you here, Jim. Let’s start with this. How did you become the curator of the children’s shows section at the Museum of Broadcast Communications? How did that come to be?

Jim Engel: Well, I started going to the museum when it was in River City, because they had study booths and you could actually request tape and sit and watch them, videotapes but also audio tapes of old radio. So I used to go there and it was at that time, they had a little gift shop, I want to say. I went in there and I saw a display case that was filled with the “Here’s Geraldine” puppets. And “Here’s Geraldine” is one of my first TV memory. And they were just inside a Lucite case was no ambience around them or anything, and it just bugged me and I went back to work. And I made a big lettering thing on the front that said “Here’s Geraldine” that looked like it was made out of bamboo. And I got a bunch of Pantone paper and I cut palm fronds and different things, and made some name tags for the various puppets in a small jungle motif. And I just kind of went back… nobody asked me to do this. And I just took the cover off and I just put all this stuff in there that that I felt like should have been in there to do justice to the show.

Bruce Dumont took note of that. And then when I put out little theater screen in 1994, I was doing radio interviews, any interviews, really, but I did a couple of radio interviews. And they had a thing at the museum called the Junior Board. And it was made up of younger people whose goal it was to get kind of baby boomers interested in the museum and not just the older crowd that liked Fibber McGee and Molly and the Jack Benny show and stuff. So I didn’t know this group existed. But I was doing these interviews, and I got a phone call from a guy named Mike O’Malley at the museum who said, “You know, we’ve been hearing these interviews, and you’re very respectful of the museum.” And I should add, you know, when they would take calls or something, inevitably, somebody would say, “Well, I want to see some clips of Cartoon Town or Bozo. Where can I see them?” and I would just refer them to the museum, which really was the only place to see it. So this guy invited me to join this junior board that was the group of people trying to do more events for the museum.

And I said yes, and it was interesting. I used to go there and meet with them. There were all kinds of people, at least one woman who was on Oprah’s staff and a few other people. But one of the first things they want to know from me because it’s in the magazine was, could I get Bill Jackson to come back to Chicago? And I said, “You know, I would love that. And I will be happy to try. But I can tell you from the time I spent with him at the airport during that interview, that he’s not somebody who like trades on the path.” So I ended up calling him and kind of bringing this up to him. And he said, “You know, I don’t, you know that my past was my past. I really don’t want to trade on nostalgia and kind of like end up like one of these guys at a Hollywood show or something.” And he didn’t. And I think, this was my sense, that he didn’t really have a realistic sense of what kind of legacy he’d left in Chicago because he left shortly after Gigglesnort, after Firehouse Follies. He went to LA, he was a teacher at Cal Arts. And you know, in the meantime, as with anything, there’s a whole audience that just loved what he did. And my view was he doesn’t know that. And I’m like, I think he’s, he doesn’t want to do an event and find out — this is just my speculating, but I do believe that — he would be reluctant to do something where it would end up being an embarrassment if people didn’t show up. And I remember specifically saying to him, “Look, here’s the thing you should you remember. You left Chicago in the late 70s. And, and you’re not around to be standing in line at the local grocery store ordering a pound of ham. And somebody behind you in line goes, “Hey, your Bill Jackson.” You just kind of disappeared and the people are here.”

So I ended up talking him into it. He came to he came to Chicago. The agreement that we had was sort of we would we would produce this show together and we would try and make it like one of his actual shows with the audience doing all the different features that were in the show. Traditionally, museum events were like a kid show thing would be like Dean Richards and somebody else sitting on two leather chairs in the middle of the stage, just talking back and forth. So we plan this whole thing out, we’re going to bring the Blob back, he’s going to bring the puppets, we would do the game, we’d do all these games. It was going to be just like the show. I even went to the place where he used to buy clay to make the Blob. He gave me the name of the place and I went and bought the exact way that he used to use. Anyway, that event was like one of the best, biggest events the museum ever had. It was standing room only. Anybody that was there that night I’m sure would say it was one of the greatest nights they ever had.

And I think for him, it was like a really great night. He didn’t realize how popular he was just energized and stuff. So anyway, that that was a great event. And then I got involved with other things they did there. They did a single event with Rich Coles and also Jerry Bishop. And then when they would get into anything that was like… they had to use puppets, really what became like, the biggest thing I got involved with was in 2000, early 2001, maybe late 2000. They told me that they wanted to do a kind of like a really big exhibition on Chicago Kids TV. And he, knowing that I had a passion for this, asked me if I would, you know, curate the whole thing. Basically, like put it all together. And literally I did. I mean, he contacted with some guests, I contacted some guests. The guests were whoever was still alive from a kids show. And then I could do whatever I wanted in terms of decorating the exhibits, how it was presented, what was in the display cases and stuff like that.

So he had a really close deadline. And I just said, you know, I’ll do this, but it was sort of like the Geraldine case. And like, I don’t want to do this unless it’s something that I would want to go see myself. And it’s going to take more time than that. So he agreed to that. And that was the biggest event the museum ever had. It was people lined up outside the cultural center, down the street. The exhibit and all of the still surviving kids shows hosts like Phil Jackson and Ray Rayner and Don Sandberg, Miss Beverly Marsden from Romper Room and Jeff Conrad from Elmer the Elephant. I mean, anybody was still… Unfortunately, that very year, Roy Brown had died, Jim Stewart had died, and John Kauflin the weatherman was also a kid show hosts a show called Breakfast House and also a Popeye show had died. So that was kind of kind of sad. But this thing was huge.

And so basically, you know, from that point on a little before that, anytime there was something that they wanted to do, related to the kid stuff, I would be involved. So, you know, I got I got the name kid show curator, when people would call the museum like they always did, like, I want to know about this or that, or reporters, they would funnel all those calls to me. And you know, I did radio shows. When Bozo went off the air I interviewed by Time, quoted in Time Magazine, I mean, it was, it was just something I love, you know. And that big event, Bruce kind of introduced the program. And he just said, basically, like, I knew the only way to get this done, the way that we want it to is to really have someone who’s also a huge fan of this stuff, and has a passion for it. And so that was, you know, so after that any events, dressing up in place.

Now, when the when the museum reopened… Well, I should say, Phil Jackson donated the puppets that night in 1994. And I designed basically a free standing case for it. You know, it was probably my first, aside from Geraldine my first decorating. They never had money for anything, so like you and this event, Kevin. I spent a lot of my own money and tons of my own time. I mean tons of time to get this thing right. But you know what, it was a labor of love. So anyway, when the museum reopens and the discussion came up, I did a lot of drawings for like, what the display spaces for kids’ stuff could be like. They were constantly changing as far as how much room there was and stuff, but ultimately, when they reopened in the new building I had… well, even at the Puppets, Pies, and Prizes which was 2001 thing, I figured out how to display the Bozo costumes. I went down to WGN and went through the prop room and picked out some things I wanted to use for it and stuff.

Kevin Ervin: That’s cool.

Jim Engel: So I think the crowning thing for me was the displays that went up for the grand reopening of the museum, which was a cartoon town replica that I designed and my son Marty built, and then we both painted it decorated it. I made a kind of a jungle set for the Geraldine things well beyond that other case, and also a big display that had four or five rounds of puppets. And then just you know, ever since anytime someone comes up with kids, you know, I get it. And I say “get to do it” because I love it.

Kevin Ervin: So what do you think made Garfield Goose such a magical show?

Jim Engel: I think the whole premise of it was great. I mean, you take these things for granted when you grew up with it. But the idea was a goose who thinks he’s king of the United States. And they really show the Prime Minister Thomas who wouldn’t tell him different for the world or something to that effect. So yeah, the impression that Frasier was playing along with it. Then as the different characters appeared on the show, and Roy Brown, who I credit along with Frasier Thomas for making that show, the show introduced a great bunch of characters, but you know, everybody knows these characters. But it’s that whole weird thing about how they didn’t talk. So between the puppeteering and Frasier kind of, you know, quoting for them, it just created a great reality.

I can’t watch the few remaining clips without just feeling super, super warm about just the whole thing. All the shows, Little Theater screen, the cartoons and the entertainment things that Frazier handpicked where the show, like Journey to the Beginning of Time or Clutch Cargo or whatever. They’re just the whole package was great to me. And the other thing that I think was really great about it was it had no kids, which would have ruined it for me. A show like Howdy Doody with a bunch of noisy kids just, they don’t work for me. But Gar was sort of like an old radio show that I loved like Vic and Sade*[inaudible 11:53] fate or something, he created this whole world. And it was all through talking because it was a traditional puppet show looking out of a window. They didn’t move around or go any places. But they talked about the things that they did, or he took phone calls from people that were made up characters and stuff. And it was just perfect to me. I loved it.

Kevin Ervin: Yeah, the cartoons they showed on there were unique you know, they weren’t showing like Bugs Bunny or Popeye or anything. They had cartoons that you really wouldn’t see anywhere else. It was that was kind of cool.

Jim Engel: Yeah. Later on by the time it went off, they were showing Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Pixie and Dixie or Dog Eat Dog. But you know what, I would have liked them too. But the other ones that came in my more formative years including the, you know, the really popular like Hardrock, Coco and Joe; Suzy Snowflake; and Frosty the Snowman. But I loved, people make fun of Clutch Cargo but I love Clutch Cargo. I loved Space Angel. I loved Funny Company. 

And it’s a chicken and egg thing. Did I love them so much because they came interesting he show that I loved? I don’t know. But what I really think is that they just contributed my feelings about what a great show it was. And as a kid, all I can say, you know, I never would have articulated that as a six year old kid or seven year old kid. But there was just something about it that was so attractive to me. And I didn’t, you know, I grew up in a household that never had a color TV until I was out of the house and married. So, you know, we all saw black and white largely, but I remember getting the color postcard from the show that I wrote away for. And that was kind of how I kind of found out what colors they were even. I was going to say I have a sense of how colorful it was. But again, I was looking at it in black and white.

Kevin Ervin: What do you think is missing from kid shows today?

Jim Engel: Well, that’s such a… I mean, there’s no short answer to that. I remember when I did the interviews for Little Theater Screen and someone on WBZ said to me, if you could say what the major difference between these shows of that era, and the current those are what is it? And I would say it’s pacing and time. You watch, I mean people made fun of Mr. Rogers for the seemingly kind of slow, slow pace of the show. All old TV shows are like that. I mean, kid shows if you watched Captain Kangaroo, or any of the other Chicago shows, maybe not maybe not Bozo, but they took their time with everything. There was no rushing.

The mentality of Sesame Street kind of destroyed that because Sesame Street was designed to be in snippets so that a kid coming and going as they were getting ready for school could see enough of something to actually see it. But the result was everything was really short. It was really fast paced, I don’t think it helped at all kid’s attention span for stuff like this. So I think that’s missing but at the same time I recognize that my kids and my grandkids could never tolerate a thing like that. Everything they watches is different.

Now my grandson, my granddaughter watch shows when they’re here that are on PBS and other stuff. And one thing I’ve noticed about all of them is that, there’s even show like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, there’s very little real fun and adventure to anything. It’s always about problem solving and cooperation, getting along, whether it’s Pinkalicious or Paw Patrol or whatever. And the other thing I’ve noticed is how many shows there are about kids the age of the people that are watching the show. So like, Dora the Explorer, or Molly of Denali, or Pinkalicious, or whatever. Their show is about kids that are like that age. When I think about the stuff we watched when we were kids, there were not cartoons all about me, you know, and I don’t think I would have wanted that. I mean, that’s half the appeal of it was the fun of something else, something adventuresome or something dramatic, that didn’t have anything to do with. Now yeah, the stuff like Journey to the Beginning of Time had kids but that was one of the instances where you wished boy I would love to do that, ride through that boat and go back in time.

But everything is about, you can see this. I’ve even heard stuff like Nickelodeon and other people like when they address shows, it’s always something. They want shows. If you think about all these shows like Ed, Edd, n Eddy years ago or whatever, how many shows there are about kids the age of the kids that watch the show, it’s like, sad.

I was watching you know, I don’t know, Space Ghost or something that just was a H.R. Pufnstuf, stuff that was not totally geared to like watching myself, but you know, we live in an era, you’ll hear this expression a lot, where people say stuff like, “Well, I never saw myself on screen while I was growing up.” Now some of that has to do with people’s racial… the amount of ethnicity that was in TV and I get that. But today, if you don’t see yourself on TV you’re not watching TV. There’s nothing but yourself.

Kevin Ervin:  One of the cool things that I always liked about Garfield Goose, and I think I’ve read this in an interview somewhere, but Frasier Thomas said he didn’t want it to be about educating kids. He wanted it to be about entertaining kids because he felt that there was enough education on television and stuff happening outside of television. He wanted a show where kids could just  kick back and relax.

Jim Engel: You know, I don’t know if that quote originates with Frasier. I think it might I think it might originate with Roy Brown, but Bob Bell also said it I think Ray Raynor said. All the WGN guys said it. It’s probably least applicable, I think, to Frazier, but although Ray had educational stuff, nobody would look at Garfield Goose as an educational show. But they did have stuff like the How and Why Man or Hobby Corner, or cartoons like Max the 2000-Year-Old-Mouse and stuff like that. And you know, Ray had Professor Pencil, there were things where you could learn something. But yeah, their attitude was like, it was almost like if a byproduct of these shows is education, great. But the bozo guys will always say like a kid comes home from school or whatever. He’s just like you at night when you come home from work: he wants to relax and wants to have fun, he wants something of his own. So while they didn’t, you know, like totally eliminate the notion of learning something, it was just sort of in there.

Think of something like Funny Company, which had like an educational video in each one but packaged in a way that it was, you know that it was it was painless. Now at the end of Bozo it was way educational, because WGN was using that as a way to fulfill the hours they needed that was educational stuff. So at the end, you got Bozo doing aerobics. I’m not even joking.

Kevin Ervin: No, I know.

Jim Engel: And it’s like, and you know what I did do that interview with the Associated Press with Time Magazine, the quote they used was like, “I don’t want to tune in to see Bozo reading a book or showing butterfly collection any more than I want to turn on Mr. Rogers and get a pie in the face.” It’s not why you watched those shows.

Kevin Ervin: Well, let’s change gears here a little bit. You’re a cartoonist, have been for many years, had some famous stuff out there. So where did you get inspiration for one of your funniest creations “Dick Duck, Duck Dick”? How did that come about?

Jim Engel: I was good friends with, and still am with the guys from The Comic Reader and they also publish the Menomonee Falls Gazette and Guardian, and that’s Jerry Sinkovec and Mike Tiefenbacher, and Mike Tiefenbacher is one of my best friends to this moment. And because they were friends with Chuck Fiala and I, the question came up of like maybe doing some comic strips that were done specially for The Comic Reader. And we would them in one page installments and had a signature that was in the magazine that had colors so we put them in color. You know, submit a color guide and Jerry Sinkovec would do the color breaks on it. So, you know, Chuck and I were both funny animal cartoonists. It’s still the thing I liked the best.

I grew up reading every kind of comic and I’m a huge Marvel fan, but you know, the things that I could relate to best as a cartoonist are funny animal things like comics I had as a kid like the Disney comics, or Fox and Crow or whatever. So it was a foregone conclusion it would be a funny animal strip. Chuck and I were, we started at the same time, I think we didn’t end quite at the same time because I had a son and thing my life got a lot more complicated. He stuck with it longer than I did as a comic creator. But one thing was that this book had come out call the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper comics, like a big phonebook size book with all kinds of Sunday pages and also great strips like Barney Google, they ran a whole collection.

So actually, if you were to look at Chuck’s Bullet Crow strip, he actually stole the logos style and the format from the Captain Easy comic strip by Roy Crane. And Captain was called Captain Easy Soldier of Fortune and bullet crew is actually called Bullet Crow Fowl of Fortune. I’m not sure how I came up with a detective thing. I probably came up with the name first because I liked coming up with them. And I thought that was fun. I’ve had people, even Maggie Thomason told me it’s one of the funniest names for comics ever heard of.

Kevin Ervin: It’s a great name.

Jim Engel: I think it’s very much like, you know, anything goes kind of like the early Woody Allen movies or Airplane or whatever. I mean, I like breaking it, but Dick Duck ended up being like, like really controlled, whereas Chuck Fiala’s Bullet Crow strip felt much more like something I would do myself. I don’t know why I could never cut loose or have it be that like, fake or not real. I don’t know what to call it. It’s like the Dick Duck stuff took place within a world and then they never talked to the audience and stuff. I like it. And I was happy with it. I was proud of it. I liked that people liked it. And some people with some notoriety told me they liked it. It was just funny that it wasn’t exactly what I imagined when I started. But yeah, I liked it very much. And I was able to work in other characters that I’d always wanted to put in, even though they didn’t have huge roles. And even though in reality, I don’t know how many pages of Dick Duck there are. There were maybe 25, and then another eight or 10 for a comic book story I did for another magazine. People will say things about it that, that they fondly remember it, and I’m glad of that. I never did as much as I probably would have liked, that’s for sure, or wanted.

Kevin Ervin: Well, in that vein with around a 45 year career as a cartoonist, designer and pulp culture historian, what are you most proud of?

Jim Engel: I’m happy with the level of skill that I have. I remember in the 80s being like, I always wanted to learn to ink with a brush and I envy guy like Walt Kelly. And without blowing my horn too much I think I reached the point where I could pretty much do everything I wanted to do with a brush and inking. And that was really fun. And as far as colors of goes and getting into like digital art and stuff, and the things that allowed me to do, at this point in time, I’m really happy with the level of quality I’m able to do in my illustrations and stuff.

But if I had to really say like, the thing, if you had a legacy thing, I think it would be my sketchbook. I fell off with them a long time ago, but there’s about 22 are 23 of them. And they’re about 100 pages each, and each page has probably anywhere from you know, one big thing, on average six or seven things on a page. It’s all very stream of conciousness. It’s all done in a million different cartooning and drawing style, lots of jokes and comic strips and puns. I think that my sketchbooks are the most “me” thing that I’ve ever done. That’s not the way to say that, but they’re the things that are the most connected to me, is my sketchbooks. Because even though I’ve had great jobs and fun stuff, you know, I’d always tell people well, you find a place where you can take your talent, make a living off of it, and you’re obviously going to have to make concessions. I mean, in a perfect world I would have loved to spend my whole career drawing comic books. But in a really perfect world I would love to have just sat around and filled my sketchbooks and have some wealthy patron pay me to do that. You know that that’s what I enjoyed the most.

Kevin Ervin: Looking back at Garfield Goose and Friends, it will be celebrating its 67th anniversary next year. What is your fondest memory of the show? And do you think it’ll be remembered in 20 years?

Jim Engel: My fondest memory. I don’t, it’s hard to say, I don’t have specific memories. And unfortunately, the show had only, you know, a handful of things left from it. So of course, the few clips there are, are precious to me, and I’m probably more familiar with them than I would ever have been if it weren’t for the fact that they were the only ones. I think, I don’t know what to compare it to. Because Garfield Goose was on every day, I would say for me it was like I love continuity. I love the idea of soap operas. When I was home in the summer when I was a kid, I latched onto a few soap operas and stuff. I love a chapter a day of anything. And I think it would be hard to pull any moment and go, “Oh I remember this,” because I don’t honestly think a show like Garfield Goose had standout moments where one was so much greater than another. It wasn’t an eventful show. I think that was part of its charm. Every day you checked in with these friends of yours, and you liked spending time with them. I really don’t think by definition, a show like that has anything that stands out. I would compare it to, well I’m going to use it again, my favorite radio show of all time is Vic and Sade, a very low key show. But I think it has some similarities to Garfield Goose. And that’s I just, you know, my memory of it is just a childhood spent with it. I wish there was more of it, I would love to see more of it. What exists does not disappoint me or it shows me that my memory of it and the esteem I hold it in, it’s worth that.

But you know, then again, it’s kind of chauvinistic. Everybody loves the things they grew up with. People 10 years after me liked all this kind of stuff that I think is crap, but I understand why. As Roy Thomas famously said, the Golden Age is when you worked well.

As far as 20 years from now, no, I don’t think it will be remembered. I’m not sure… It’s remembered now, but if you go on any of these Facebook pages it’s kind of maddening the comments and the questions people ask about it. I realize that the average person didn’t devote the time that I have, or the interest in it. But you know, I think it’s unfortunate, but you know, the audience is growing older and dying. The show came on in 1952. So it’s like, you know, I’ve seen people at the museum look at some of the puppets and stuff. And sometimes I’d ask them if they remembered if I happen to be there, and I’d talk to them a little bit. And a lot of times they have no idea. They were just looking at it as physical objects and they found it interesting, which I found interesting.

But no, I don’t think 20 years is going to do much for it. And because it was local, it’s not going to even turn up much. I mean, somebody might do like a network might do a history of TV thing. And I could see where Kukla Fran and Ollie, and Howdy Doody would still be included as curiosities or artifacts of their time, but I don’t really think 20 years from now. Yeah, if I’m still alive in 20 years I’ll remember, you’ll remember it. But, you know, we’re a select group even now. If that wasn’t the case, you know, it’d be like Bozo having an eight year ticket wait, and, you know, you’d have people out the door for events in Kenosha. As it is you’ll have a group of people that are nostalgic enough to come to it, and have fond memories of it, and want to relive that.

Kevin Ervin: Well, on that note, here’s my last question. How would you like to be remembered?

Jim Engel: Oh man, I don’t know. I mean aside from all this, it’s like the question of who would you want to meet if you could meet anybody. I would want to meet Jesus Christ. You always kind of qualify that, and I will eventually, but you kind of qualify that going, “Well after that…” So obviously I’d like to be remembered as a good Christian guy, a good husband and a good father and grandfather. Artistically, I would just like to be remembered as a good cartoonist. I have had the good fortune of hearing from several people now that Facebook is a thing who, gosh bought products I illustrated in the 80s or comics I did, or whatever, and it just left a huge impression on them. It’s a gratifying thing to hear.

I mean some guy just recently spent a couple grand buying the original art to a Ninja Turtles school folder I drew in the 80s, you know? That’s putting your money where your mouth is, and that’s great. At the same time, I am exactly the same as that. I remember going to the greeting card section of a grocery store, not knowing who these artists were, and finding out what I could or learning about it. But as a kid as someone interested in cartoons, man, I didn’t care where it came from. It could be the illustrations in my reader at school or whatever, they came from anywhere. I have sort of comforted myself lately with the thought that long after I’m gone there may still be people like me at my age, either remembering or discovering stuff. And I think some of my stuff will turn up in that context, and I think that would be great.

Kevin Ervin: Why don’t you give your website a little plug before we go?

Jim Engel:  It’s called  It’s jam packed not like my Facebook page is with artwork I’ve done, but it’s broken down into different things. So there is promotional artwork I’ve done for my fulltime job. There’s retail product designs, and most of it based on popular characters. There’s curriculum and stuff I did for publishers. It’s broken down into three or four categories, so there’s more there. I’ve had a few people that I think know my stuff very well go there, and oh my gosh is there all kinds of stuff I never saw before. The average person hasn’t seen what I actually spend my day doing. So some of that is there. And there’s also sketchbooks, and there’s also a section of media so you can hear radio interviews I did on the topic or TV clips, stuff like that.

Kevin Ervin: Great, and that’s Engel is spelled E-N-G-E-L, so go there and check out all you want to know about Jim.

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Q&A by Kevin Ervin owner of Franks Diner
Concept and questions by Donny Stancato & Kevin Ervin
Photo credits – Donny Stancato, Kevin Ervin
Some photos submitted by Jim Engel
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Special thank you to the one and only Kevin Ervin for all his hard work for making the sold out Remembering Garfield Goose event a HUGE success. Also thanks to Visit Kenosha