It probably goes without saying that Benny Carle was the first of the Birmingham kids' show hosts. Like most early TV personalities, his background was in radio. Of his start in the broadcasting world, Benny says:
"I had played the drums in Buddy Clark's band during the war, and after I got out of the service in 1945 I formed my own little combo in Birmingham. I went straight to Birmingham-Southern College, and while I was there I got a job at WVOK radio; Joe Rumore got me a part-time job out there and I liked it so much, I wanted to be like Joe. So I worked there while I was in college and once I graduated a job came open in Gadsden, and I heard about it, got the job, and stayed there for a year -- until Lionel Baxter heard about me, came and got me out of Gadsden, and brought me to WAPI."
It was Benny's good fortune that just two weeks before he arrived at WAPI, the station had begun its television department as WABT, Channel 13. Even though Benny was supposed to be a radio personality, in those days the two stations overlapped personnel quite a bit. It was WAPI's Lionel Baxter who was responsible for getting Benny from behind the mike and in front of the cameras. Again, here is Benny's story of how it happened:
"WABT had a western program in the afternoon, and Lionel had an idea: 'You go up there, and introduce it. Before the film comes on, you tell them what it's going to be, who the stars are.' These were old features with Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele... Well, I had never thought about that. He asked, 'Do you like children?' I said, 'I love children! I plan to have some of my own one day!' He said, 'Well, go on in there and introduce this Western Theatre.' I said I didn't have any appropriate clothes. Happy Wilson was standing there, and Lionel asked him, 'Happy, can you help him out?' Happy said, 'Wal, I got this hat here, wouldja like this hat?' I said, 'Yeah, I'll use the hat. What else have you got?' 'Wal, I got one o' these cowboy shirts, but it's in the laundry.' 'How long has it been there?' 'Two weeks.' 'How much will it cost to get it out?' 'Twenty-five cents.' 'Lionel, you got twenty-five cents? I'll go down and get Happy's shirt, and if it fits me I'll go do the show.' So I went up to the station that day with that hat and shirt on, and stood there, and the camera came on. I've forgotten what I said, but I obviously said something good, because they all smiled."
The pressure of needing something to do between reels of Western film stock finally led to Benny bringing in children to act as a studio audience. "I decided this was great," says Benny, "because these children would go back home and tell everybody at their school, 'I was on TV, and YOU can be on TV.' And they would tell their friends, and everybody in the school was going to watch one child! Every afternoon, all the kids in Alabama would tune in, and their families, and their business acquaintances, all to see their child on TV! I don't know how good I was, but I was FIRST, and that means a lot."
Benny's daily Western Theatre was a mainstay of the Birmingham TV schedule. As we will see in another installment, Channel 6 did not immediately have to worry about counter-programming it, because for the first three years or so, Channel 6 did not have live studio production facilities. When WBRC did gain such equipment, the station threw some other programming against Benny, but ended up producing its own carbon copy of his show, Circle Six Ranch, with announcer Bob Bandy in the cowboy suit. Before long, WBRC had decided to hire the real thing instead of producing an imitation. Born storyteller that he is, Benny has a colorful way of describing the transfer of his new, old format to WBRC:
"When I went over, Bob Bandy was so happy to see me because he never wanted to do the thing in the first place! Channel 6 had leased just about every old Western in the library in Hollywood; just about all of them were Republic films. We showed a whole feature in one day. They were usually about 55 minutes, and the show was an hour and a half, so we would cut in and out of it with the commercials and so forth and do our show, and sometimes we had to cut part of the film off and never got back to it!
"At one time I had J. J. Newberry as a sponsor, and the camera department gave me a Polaroid camera; I would take one picture of all the children on the show that day, and send the picture down to Newberry's. They would duplicate that picture for all the kids' mothers, and that got people into the store! There were 30 kids on the show, so 30 mothers would go to Newberry's to pick up that picture!"
Benny's move to Channel 6 took place in the autumn of 1954, and Circle Six Ranch corralled the young'uns for the next five and a half years. By March 1960, the face of TV was changing; old Western films were out, and syndicated cartoon packages were all the rage. Back at Channel 13, Cousin Cliff Holman had introduced the Popeye cartoons in September 1958, and the one-eyed sailor was creaming Benny and his oaters in the ratings. Popeye was the number one cartoon in syndication, but running a close second was Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Warner Bros. cartoon package.
"When we started the Bugs Bunny show," relates Benny, "I needed a different outfit, so I went down to Mayer's Music Store and bought a hat from them. I paid 35 cents for it. We had something else new, too: it was a fake TV set, and the camera would go into it, and the lights would come on and flash, and when it got in real close the cartoon would start. I called that the Frammishlocker; someone said to me, 'Why do you call it that?' I said, 'Because it LOOKS like a Frammishlocker!'"
Benny and his Frammishlocker tuned in the Looney Tunes until 1964, when he had the opportunity to climb higher on the broadcasting ladder. "I had this great opportunity to go to Channel 31 in Huntsville, and had the same show. The Benny Carle Show was a mainstay of Channel 31; I was there about six months, then this chance to buy into Channel 23 in Decatur popped up, so I forked over a lot of money. When I saw this opportunity I went into hock and put a lot of money down to buy part of it; through the years I bought more and more stock, and we finally moved it to Huntsville where it became Channel 48, and I was still on the air doing that show in the afternoons. I did it until I couldn't do it any more, until in 1976 I finally took it off the air."
Retirement wasn't in Benny's large vocabulary, so two years later he bought a radio station in Florence, and there he continues his career (behind the scenes) today. You can catch up on his present-day enterprise at www.wbcf.com. (The call letters WBCF, of course, stand for Benny Carle, Florence.) Even though he has not been a children's host for many years now, he still has the fondest of memories of those days, and some definite opinions on the subject as well:
"It's a shame that children today don't
have a TV station that will accept them in the afternoons, a place they
can actually go BE on TV, because I'm running into people now, over fifty
years later, and they say 'I remember you on TV,' and they tell me about
the day they came to be on the show: 'I sat on the end seat, and
I was on the third row, and I said to you and you said to me...'
All of that they remember, and they've forgotten their own birthdays and
everything, but that one day they came to the station they remember!"
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF BENNY AND BENJI CARLE
TEXT AND CAPTIONS BY TIM HOLLIS
Created 05/29/2005 - 223 PM EDT