In a lot of ways, times were simpler thirty years ago. Kids could ride their bikes to a nearby convenient store to buy baseball cards that cost 50¢ a pack. In 2010, parents are reluctant to let their kids out of sight, so instead they drive them to a department store to buy cards that now cost $2.99 a pack.
If you're a native Louisvillian or have lived here for any length of time, chances are you have heard of Presto the Clown, a fixture on WDRB Channel 41 for nearly a decade from the station's inception in 1971 until 1980. Played with ease and aplomb by Bill Dopp, Presto donned red and white face paint and wore a puffy shirt long before Jerry Seinfeld ever donned one. But Dopp was a magician not a jester. He entertained in a grandfatherly sort of way to thousands of children who watched him after school on weekday afternoons.
He performed magic tricks, read fan mail, introduced cartoons, sent out birthday greetings, and chatted with puppets Honey Bunny and J. Fred Frog. Off the air he made many personal appearances around town and become woven into the fabric of the community. But those sort of local, afternoon gatherings hosted by Presto are a thing of the past. In fact, WDRB no longer even has any children's programming. As recent as the mid-90s, the Fox Kids' Club, fueled by shows like The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, had nearly 50,000 young members.
But even in the past fifteen years, much has changed with the broadcasting industry. Since Presto's run ended, the past three decades have seen television and technology evolve by leaps and bounds. Kids now have exponentially more entertainment options than their parents had in the 70s and 80s. But kids are still kids, right? Wouldn't they watch the same type of shows that aired in the 1970s? Wouldn't the children of Louisville clamor for the same programs that were popular years ago? Not necessarily.
Few people know more about the television business and specifically about the history of Louisville television more than WDRB's Ray Foushee, who has been an on-air personality and voice-over extraordinaire since the early 1980s and is now the station's Director of Marketing, Research, & Publicity. Foushee doesn't think the conventions of the Presto show, a one-camera operation with a minimal set, translate well to today's kids.
"No, kids are so overstimulated today. It's like everything has to be overpowering; it has to be constant stimulus," said Foushee. " If you went back and watched Presto, you see him doing the sands of the desert trick. It's so quiet. It demands that you engage yourself - that a kid actually sit there and listen to what's going on because it's not a constant explosion or strobe light colors and flashes." He adds, "I think media kind of changed the kids. They kept cranking it out and cranking it out, and now it's what kids demand. It's like a drug."
Foushee, as much a TV fan as he is a TV professional, believes television has changed with the times, and while that may be a business necessity, it's not necessarily a good thing. He describes the days before and during Presto's run as a more innocent time, "I sound like an old curmudgeon, but it was a better time," he admitted, saying today's culture is so different. "It's this constant sensory overload because we can. You didn't have the technology available to do all of these wild special effects and everything back when we were kids. So there had to be content to engage you. Special effects were literally that - they were special; they didn't have them very often. But now you can make everything flash, boom, bang, and if anything is quiet for more than five seconds it's sort of like we've got to pick it up here. And there's 900 other choices on that remote, too. So, let's go where something's happening."
In 1980 when Presto left television, few would have imagined the multiple Nickelodeon and Disney channels of today. With literally offer a dozen kid-specific stations offered on most basic cable and satellite packages, the need for local children's entertainment is completely different from when WDRB signed on as one of only 34 independent stations in the county twenty-nine years ago. Then, they were an alternate choice filling a void. While the networks aired soap operas, WDRB could show children's programming and get good ratings doing so. What kid would pass up Speed Racer, Ultraman, Gilligan's Island, or even the Hilarious House of Frightenstein to watch The Days of Our Lives? One can only imagine how high WDRB's afternoon ratings were during the Watergate Hearings.
But whether a station was an independent or a network affiliate, Louisville television from the 50s through the 80s had a heavy local flavor, and these weren't always kids' programs or newscasts, either. Talk shows, teen dance shows, talent shows, Funny Flickers on WAVE, and WHAS' venerable T-Bar-V were fixtures on Louisville TV for years. But part of that glut of local programming was out of necessity. "These days there's so much stuff in syndication, so many movie packages that you can buy, so many syndicated off network reruns you can get," explains Foushee. In fact, today's broadcast business is geared toward supplying stations with programming content. Foushee sees the good and bad in this. "It's really good because that lets the station program itself fairly easily and economically. But in so doing, it takes up time during the day when you would have said, ‘Hey, we're off the air unless we come up with something' and that's where the local shows came from."
Presto was the quintessential local show. It was inexpensive to make. It was just a matter of paying Dopp, who was capably assisted by his wife June for years. Studio time, cameras, and equipment were already there as was a Warner Brothers cartoon library, which included about 400 cartoons and came with a ten-year license. That meant the station could run them as often as they wanted. These days when a station buys the rights to a program, it only gets a certain number of runs over a much shorter period of time. So unlike the Warner cartoons, there are now restrictions on showing what, when, and how often.
Foushee recalls the unlikely story of how Presto arrived at WDRB. The Dopps were traveling north and spent the night in Louisville. This happened to be shortly before WDRB was to go on the air. Dopp apparently read about the new station in the newspaper, and he saw an opportunity. "The next day before they left town, he went by and saw the general manager of the station (Elmer Jaspan) telling him ‘I know you've got a station coming on the air, and have you thought about having a kid's show?' I do this; I can do this. They basically struck a deal, saying yeah OK fine, and that's how Presto started on 41," says Foushee. Local kids had no idea of the serendipity involved in the whole casting, but it didn't matter to them. They just knew, school was out in the afternoons, and it was Presto time.
But even had Presto remained on television through the 80s, one has to wonder how long his Funsville show could have lasted with the changing times and influx of cable television. According to Foushee, there were three main contributing factors that led to the demise of local kids' programming: cable, ratings, and news. With so many kids' channels, it is tough for the local stations to compete. "Once the cable outfits branded themselves so much with 24 hours of cartoons for kids, why would they (young viewers) want to break away for two hours just to watch their local station?" Foushee points out.
Also, big ratings don't necessarily translate into big money because there has to be a large audience full of people that advertisers want to reach. You can't find too many local advertisers who are that interested in reaching kids. National spots for breakfast cereals and toys work for national shows, and the networks sell advertising to those companies. But typical local businesses like roofers and used car salesmen have little interest in hitting home with the under-12 demographic. Attorney Darryl "The Heavy Hitter" Isaacs, for instance, is probably not trying to lure the business of kids who are bullied at school.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the demise of kids programming at WDRB is the combination of the fact advertisers want news and WDRB got a news department. After going nearly twenty years with no news department and only broadcasting news briefs read by Wilson Hatcher, WDRB, already a FOX affiliate since 1987, began running their own newscasts in 1990. About a decade ago, WDRB introduced news in the afternoon. "Now it's a choice, do you want to take up your time doing a Kids' Club thing, or do you want to put on a newscast at 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon? There's no contest," says Foushee.
But despite the lack of locally produced entertainment programs, Foushee believes the station is a more valuable commodity than it was during Presto's salad days. "It's more important in the community now because of the news. Our news is one of the top rated overall in the market. Our late news is the highest rated late news in Louisville. And news is what makes the station most relevant to the community," Foushee explains. But as a TV enthusiast, he acknowledges the downside. "But on the other hand most stations in the market don't have local programs outside of the news, so to that extent, we're not having that same effect on people and kids, so it's kind of a tradeoff."
Presto, however, did have an impact on people. Although little Presto footage has survived - it was filmed in a time before VCRs and the film was taped over to save money - many local adults remember it vividly and look back fondly on their days as a Presto fan. Jerry O'Neal, Vice president of Engineering for Louisville-based QSR Automations, Inc., 43, has fond memories of one of Presto's personal appearances in the 70s. "It was in the parking lot of the old Zayre department store on Dixie Highway," he muses. "There were about 12 kids. He asked for a participant from the audience, and he chose me."
It was Presto's famous rope trick, and O'Neal recalls Presto giving him a piece of the rope as a souvenir, which he gladly took with impish glee. It was not unlike a baseball fan getting a sliver of a broken Louisville Slugger from their favorite player. The only disappointing part of the day for O'Neal was the fact that J. Fred Frog and Honey Bunny were not in attendance. The logistics of using puppets in a parking lot and not a TV studio were no concern to the young O'Neal.
Vanessa Howard, a 47-year-old entrepreneur, has lived in Louisville for over twenty tears, but as a child living in Virginia, she would often visit her grandparents in New Albany. And each visit Howard and her younger brother would make Presto viewing a must. Her recollections are both pleasant ... and chilling. "The best memory I have of Presto's shows is that every once in a while they would show safety films for us kid viewers. One safety film showed about three scenarios and the one I remember the most - like it was yesterday - is a little girl sitting on the floor cutting out paper with scissors. Her father came home from work. She ran with the scissors to greet him. She started to fall and the camera turned away," Howard recalls vividly. "That was pretty horrifying for a child to watch. However, I do not run with scissors anymore," she added. So not only was Presto's show entertaining, it was arguably educational as well.
Could a show like Presto ever air again? Foushee thinks that's a long shot, "I can't even imagine the way it would happen," he says. He adds that the closest thing WDRB did post-Presto was Foushee's Hilarity Hall program in which he would introduce cartoons with a historical, funny, and adult spin - much more detailed than Presto's exuberant, "Coming up next Chilly Willy" lead in. Hilarity Hall was created to fill a void in the station's schedule. Oh, and they used that same Warner Brothers cartoon catalog. The half hour show would last for nearly two years in the mid 80s.
But with so much news programming and the ample availability of syndicated reruns, stations don't reap the financial benefits of homegrown programs that they once did. The state of the art facilities and studio WDRB has today on West Muhammad Ali Boulevard are used for news productions, leaving little time or space for another program, especially a daily program. But before the cable explosion, WDRB was Louisville's alternative to the big three networks. It ran the quirky, the classics, and the kid-friendly shows. (They can be forgiven for airing Thicke of the Night). Even without its own news department, it was very much the community's station, and Presto the Clown was one of the main reasons for that. Chicago may have had Bozo, but Louisville had Presto.
Although there is little footage left of Dopp performing as Presto, the iconic clown remains playing in reruns in the memories of thousands of Generation X-ers and younger Baby Boomers who grew up in Louisville.
This cookie was seen on display at Mall St. Matthews Friday May 21, 2010. Intentional homage or uncanny coincidence?