Probably no children's show host in Birmingham went through as many different formats as Cousin Cliff Holman, yet it was his own genuine, real-life personality that was the mainstay of all of them. For this reason, most of his now-adult fans remember Cliff more so than his changing series titles and features.
Cliff had been performing magic tricks since his early teenage years, and by the time he graduated from high school in 1948 he was beginning to make a reputation for himself in Birmingham's nightclub circuit. His first television experience would not be related to magic, however. Loveman's department store was going to be presenting a TV series on Channel 13 for the Christmas season of 1950. The show was to star Mr. Bingle, a character originated by Loveman's parent company, City Stores of New York. (Bingle had first appeared at the Maison Blanche department store in New Orleans in 1949.)
Cliff was employed by Loveman's to be the voice of Mr. Bingle and operate the large marionette from the top of the puppet bridge. Radio personality Dave Campbell would appear on-screen to interact with Bingle and not-so-subtly plug Loveman's merchandise as Christmas gifts. The program aired from Thanksgiving until Christmas, then Cliff had to turn his attention to other matters besides TV.
After a stint in the Korean War, Cliff
returned to Birmingham and held down a variety of jobs, including owning
a grocery store, while seeking permanent employment as an entertainer.
That opportunity came when the Ward Baking Company, makers of Tip
Top bread, cooked up a 15-minute kids' show called The Tip Top
Clubhouse and bought airtime on Channel 13 three days per week.
After many auditions, Cliff and his magic and puppeteering talents were
deemed suitable, and he was chosen as host of the new series. Because he
was only 25 years old, he did not fit the "uncle" image of so many other
kids' hosts, so to fit his youthful appearance, Ward Baking came up with
the name "Cousin Cliff."
The Tip Top Clubhouse premiered in March 1954, with the newly-named Cousin Cliff and his homemade puppet pals Kim and Corky. Cliff provided their voices while either operating the characters himself, or when he had to appear on-screen with them, having an assistant provide their movements. Kim was the smart one and Corky was the dumb one, and between the two of them and Cliff too, The Tip Top Clubhouse became extraordinarily popular with Birmingham youngsters.
After a couple of years, internal problems at Ward Baking caused them to withdraw sponsorship, and for a while it looked as if Cliff were going to be back behind the counter at the grocery store again. However, Channel 13 knew a good thing when they saw it, and in 1956 expanded the show into Cliff's Clubhouse, with a daily audience of children celebrating birthdays and a wider variety of cartoon features. This evolved into Cartoon Clubhouse in 1958, paving the way for Cliff's most popular format yet.
The Popeye cartoons had been released
to television in 1956, and Channel 13 finally took the bait and booked
them for Cliff's program. Now it became The Popeye Show,
and the unbeatable combination of Cliff's personality with the timeless
appeal of Popeye soon eclipsed anything he had done previously.
Whereas for Tip Top Clubhouse Cliff had worn an outrageous magician's outfit consisting of a battered top hat with a protruding stuffed rabbit, a swallow-tailed coat, striped shirt and giant artificial flower in his lapel, once he switched to Popeye, his attire changed to fit the occasion. Most former kids remember his yachting cap and dark blue nautical jacket, and his set painted to resemble a dockside scene. (Cliff's father, by the way, was art director at Channel 13 during this period and painted this memorable scenery, along with creating other icons such as the WAPI News logo.)
Sometimes it seemed there was hardly any
time for cartoons on The Popeye Show because of the number of sponsors.
They peaked at eighteen per hour in the mid-1960s; although their numbers
were many, the two most identified with Cliff were Pepsi-Cola and,
of course, Jack's Hamburgers.
Around 1968, WAPI made an odd move and took The Popeye Show out of its traditional afternoon slot. The show was taped in the afternoons, but then shown the next morning, when most of the kids on the program were in school. This crippled the intended audience, and soon the program was reduced to Saturday and Sunday mornings only.
Cliff was not happy with the way things were going, so when the opportunity arose for him to be publicity director for new station WHMA in Anniston, he sailed away from The Popeye Show in September 1969. He began The Cousin Cliff Show (the first time he had received star billing over the sponsor or main cartoon character) the next month, and continued until the summer of 1972. In the interim, Jack's Hamburgers decided to drop its children's show sponsorship, and Cliff had immediately switched over the rival McDonald's.
After the Anniston series ended, Cliff
worked in publicity for McDonald's for a while, then held down a number
of other positions, including playing easy listening music on radio station
acting as manager of the Parliament House hotel, and finally becoming
the local public relations man for the American Lung Association ("the
Christmas Seal people"). He did not return to television until 1985, when
he revived his magic act for public access cable, and this led to Channel
6 launching a full-scale comeback known as Cousin Cliff's Clubhouse
on Saturday mornings beginning in June 1990. This series lasted until late
1992, when Cliff and WBRC parted by mutual consent and Cliff went back
to cable TV for his longtime sponsor Jack's.
Cousin Cliff Holman, after begin stricken with Alzheimer's Disease, passed away September 8, 2008.
For a much more in-depth biography of Cliff
and his entertainment career, check out the book Cousin Cliff: 40
Magical Years in Television, available for $15 (including postage)
from Campbell's Publishing, P.O. Box 310727, Birmingham, AL 35231.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CLIFF HOLMAN
TEXT AND CAPTIONS BY TIM HOLLIS
Created 05/29/2005 - 1029 PM EDT