DEAR READER: With today’s installment, do yourself a favor: Click on each hypertext link as you encounter it, crank up the volume, relax and enjoy. Each item is worth hearing in its own right, and together they form a sort of aural mélange that will make up for any deficiencies in the text.—The Author
Why does my brain swing back so often to my earliest years? Maybe it’s because I’m in my second childhood.
This morning it was Cream of Wheat. By now, I’ve learned to make it myself, that stuff which my mother used to set before me when I was five or six. This morning my Cream of Wheat steam rose through its surface rubble of berries, and it wafted me back.
It put me in mind of Big John and Sparky. I barely remember them, but I do remember them.
Out of the Magical Ether
Big John and Sparky?
“What are you running off at the mouth about now, O New Favorite Writer?” I hear you cry.
Well, to understand, you have to go back to Radio Days.
Every Saturday morning, I came out in my flannel pajamas, clutching my overnight pal, Teddy. I sat down at the kitchen table. Teddy sat beside me.
Mom brought out the steaming porridge and turned on the radio. Big John and Sparky arrived to the tune of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” sung by Ann Stephens. I could relate, because sometimes when I was tired, my own mommy and daddy would take me home to bed, just like the teddy bears in the song. And my best friend was a teddy bear.
Big John was a big man with a big voice, and Sparky was a little elf with a tiny voice—the kind of voice we would later think of as coming from chipmunks, courtesy of “David Seville” (Ross Bagdasarian) and friends Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. But I get ahead of myself.
Big John and Sparky must have had wonderful adventures together. Now, I only recall their contrasting voices, their theme song—still one of my favorites—and the smell and taste of Cream of Wheat.
“But say, O New Favorite Writer—why did you not watch Big John and Sparky on TV?”
Thanks for your timely interruption, Dear Reader. The answer is, there was no TV.
But there was no shortage of things to watch on the radio.
The Audio Dimension
After Big John and Sparky, which was only a fifteen-minute program, there came Let’s Pretend, a half-hour show in which multiple actors gave voice to classic tales like Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. However old and hoary these stories might be, they were brand-new and exciting to us children who heard them for the first time on CBS’s Peabody Award-winning program.
To make things even more perfect, it was sponsored by Cream of Wheat.
Other programs on Saturday morning included Buster Brown, hosted by “Smilin’ Ed” McConnell, and Space Patrol with Commander-in-Chief Buzz Corry and his young sidekick Cadet Happy.
The latter show put ray guns and disintegrator blasters into serious competition with cowboy pistols for toy of the year. We, of course, had to imagine what such weapons looked like. But toy designers had good imaginations, too, and soon we could purchase the genuine article at our local five-and-dime. Or we would buy it by sending away a quarter and several cereal boxtops to the sponsor of the program.
It was a great time to be a kid. Soon enough, our butts would be plunked on the living room carpet all Saturday morning as we watched TV. But for a few short years, many of the great things we saw came through our ears, while we munched our Cream of Wheat.
Teddy still remembers it, and so do I.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)