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
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),
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.
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
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.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF JEAN SPRADLIN-MILLER
TEXT AND CAPTIONS BY TIM HOLLIS
Created 05/29/2005 - 1002 PM EDT .... updated 10/30/2005 - 1253 PM EST