Ultra-high-frequency (UHF) television channels were born from one unexpected occurrence. When commercial TV became a big deal in the late 1940s, suddenly there were more stations trying to get on the air than there were channels to accommodate them. The FCC temporarily solved the problem by putting a "freeze" on issuing any new station licenses until the problem could be worked out.

The original very-high-frequency (VHF) channels, of course, encompassed channels 2 through 13. With the opening of the UHF band (Channel 14 and above) in 1953, there were unlimited possibilities for new stations, with one little problem -- most TV sets were not equipped to receive UHF stations. The UHF's that did get started in the early 1950s by and large died on the vine, without making much of a dent in their more powerful competitors.

UHF was helped by a new FCC rule that said that as of April 1964, all TV sets manufactured had to include the UHF band. This cleared the way for UHF's "second coming," as it were, and Birmingham got its first UHF station when WBMG, Channel 42, signed on in October 1965. (At the time, the newspapers reported that there were also applications for Channel 21 and Channel 68 in Birmingham -- but as we know, it took a couple of decades for either one of those to actually make its debut.)

Channel 42 was initially staffed largely by WSGN radio personalities, and in fact WSGN had made an aborted attempt to start its own UHF station on 42 in the 1950s. Bill Bolen moved over from radio to TV to be WBMG's newscaster, and it was announced that longtime favorite disk jockey Neal Miller would take to the Channel 42 airwaves daily for a children's program.

Miller had been in radio since before he graduated from high school, and during the 1950s had become phenomenally popular among the bobby soxer set. His on-camera experience was virtually nonexistent, and in the beginning it was obvious that he had some growing to do as a children's show host.

For a theme, WBMG decided to build the show around its purchased package of Dick Tracy cartoons, which were produced by the UPA animation studio. (Since the same studio was responsible for the nearsighted Mister Magoo cartoons, those were also part of WBMG's mix.) Since Jack's Hamburgers was already sponsoring every other kid show in Birmingham, it seemed natural that they would sign on with Channel 42 as well, and this time the burger barons had the opportunity to build a show from the ground up. Jack's founder Jack Caddell was reportedly a close buddy of Sheriff Mel Bailey, so the two of them cooked up a character they would call Sergeant Jack. The public was unaware that, in order to wear the official Jefferson County uniform, Neal Miller had to be sworn in as an actual sheriff's deputy. He always found it highly amusing that no one realized that "Sergeant Jack" could have actually performed arrests if the occasion had presented itself (but of course, it didn't).

For the first two weeks that WBMG was on the air, the station did not sign on until 6 p.m., so it was somewhere around November 1, 1965, that The Dick Tracy Show, starring Sgt. Jack, first welcomed kids into its jailhouse set. Neal Miller gradually warmed into his role, and by the late 1960s his show was the only afternoon kids' program left on the air in Birmingham.

Around the same time Miller became the sole survivor, WBMG started making attempts to draw more viewers to the program. In late 1969, Sgt. Jack began finding mysterious notes hidden around the set, all of which were signed only by the mysterious name Wilbur. After a few weeks of suspense, Wilbur was revealed as a hand puppet groundhog manipulated by WBMG staff artist Howard Cruse. Wilbur soon introduced his pal, a yellow monkey named Oscar, and now Sgt. Jack had someone with whom to banter.

Wilbur was a colossal con man in the Top Cat vein, and was forever coming up with schemes to make a million. Most of these had to be shot down as impractical, if not illegal, by the straight-laced Sgt. Jack.  When Cruse rose to the position of art director at WBMG, he oversaw the creation of a new set that ditched the old jailhouse look and went for an all-out early 1970s funky psychedelic look.

Finally, Cruse got the opportunity to go to New York and pursue his professional art career, so a bizarre storyline was created to explain Wilbur and Oscar's imminent departure. Deciding that the U.S. space program was leaving too much litter on the moon, the puppet pair built their own rocket ship to travel to the lunar surface and clean it up. After they blasted off, for several days Sgt. Jack relayed progress reports that came in by radio, until there was some unthinkable news. The rocket's engines became stalled halfway to the moon, leaving the ship and its occupants stranded in outer space, presumably forever.

After killing off Wilbur and Oscar, there was a brief period of mourning and then a new set of puppet characters moved into their window in the set. These were the creations of Ted Lowry, who let his imagination run wild with them. Over the next few months he would introduce a seemingly endless string of personalities and voices, including Sneezer the mouse (who was allergic to cheese), Reggie the mynah bird, Burt and Donna the husband-and-wife frogs, Oliver the nearsighted lion, Salvador Crago (billed as the oldest man in the world), and many others. Lowry had a penchant for topical and local satire in the radio drive-time team vein, and frequently used his characters to make fun of the mayor and other Birmingham absurdities. Through it all, Sgt. Jack remained the straight man, simply giving someone for the puppets to interact with.

I knew Ted well and worked with both he and his wife, the equally talented Kathy Shieldmeyer, at the local access studio of Alabama TV Cable. (Which, BTW, occupied the old WBMG studio, after that facility moved to its current location and, actually, the history of which is an interesting story, itself.)

It was Kathy who assisted Ted and supplied the appropriate female characters voices. In the afternoons, it was commonplace for our little group of TV wannabes, me, Fred Rains, Bill Neal, and Mike Duncan (who directed rasslin' at 42), to go over the mountain and help out Ted and Kathy (gratis, of course) with what they called the SHILOW puppets, on the Sgt. Jack Show.

Our "performances" were pretty much improvised. We each inhabited a variety of puppet personalities, but it was Fred Rains who would regularly irritate "The Sarge" by shoving Oliver the Lion onto the stage and loudly asking, "Hey! Where's Benny Carle?"

It was either me or Fred who came up with "Salvatore Crago." Salvatore was originally a paper-stuffed dummy, topped off by Fred's "old man" Halloween mask, which we used at ATVC to set up lights and cameras.

Ted Lowry went on to become a media facilities manager at UAB but, tragically, died by his own hand, in the early 1980s. 

Neal Miller probably had less actual performing to do on his show than any of his contemporaries. His invaluable asset was a pleasing personality and presence, and there was never any doubt as to who was the star of the show. Occasionally Cruse, and later Lowry, would be enlisted to make public appearances with Miller, but this had to be done sparingly because of the logistics of carrying a puppet stage along and getting it set up. Miller did practice some magic tricks for his personal appearances, but never to the extent of, say, Cousin Cliff. Miller's magic making days ended with an automobile accident that rammed his right hand into the radio apparatus in his car.  The injury to his hand made it impossible after the accident for him to properly manipulate his tricks.

The Sgt. Jack story becomes somewhat vague from the late 1970s onward. In September 1976, it was taken out of its traditional weekday afternoon spot and transferred to Sunday (and later, Saturday) mornings. The audience of children was eventually dropped, although at least one other puppeteer was brought in to fill Ted Lowry's vacated spot. No one remembered who this final puppeteer was, but his main character was a pink rabbit fashioned from a Sesame Street toy puppet marketed through department stores.

By the time the final Sergeant Jack Show aired in June 1982, it was a shadow of itself, with Miller simply sitting in front of a curtain and introducing cartoons. His TV stint over, Miller became a representative for Norris Sales Co., marketing imprinted advertising novelties, while continuing to work in radio and with his beloved gospel quartet singing. It was a shock to both his family and fans when he died unexpectedly from a massive heart attack on July 5, 2002, at the age of 69.


Created 05/29/2005 - 1002 PM EDT   .... updated 10/30/2005 - 1253 PM EST