When Benny Carle closed the box office of his Western Theatre on Channel 13 in the fall of 1954, and became an old cowhand on Circle Six Ranch for the competition, WABT was faced with the daunting prospect of having to fill his highly-rated afternoon time slot. Cousin Cliff Holman had been on the air for about six months by that time, but his show was created and owned by Ward Baking Company, so it was not really Channel 13's option to buck the sponsor and tinker with the format. A new afternoon host had to be found, and they didn't have to look far.
Bill Wright was a Birmingham broadcasting veteran by 1954. Here he explains how he gained the credentials for a kids' show host:
"I had done a lot of work with children back in 1949 and 1950, when I was a hot deejay on WSGN radio. At the same time, I also took over the live emcee work at the Mickey Mouse Club down at the Alabama Theatre. Plus, also on the radio, I was'Cousin Bill' on Miss Ann & the Comics, with the wonderful Evelyn Walker.
"Now, in 1951 I had an auto accident. I had always had a bum leg, because I had had a bone disease as a child, and that accident banged up what I called my good leg. My doctor recommended Florida, so I moved to St. Petersburg for a year. While I was there, Lionel Baxter, the program director of WAPI, called me and asked, 'When are you coming to Birmingham next?' I said that we'd be coming back for a week in a couple of months. He said, 'When you do, come see me.' I went to see him the first day I got back to town. Lionel said, 'I'm throwing in with a couple of other guys down in Montgomery to buy WSFA, and they've got a license to put WSFA-TV on the air.' He said he wanted me to come to Montgomery. The long and short of it was, he went to Montgomery, three months later the rest of us went to Montgomery, I signed on as a salesman at WSFA and did a couple of live shows, and we never got WSFA on the air, because the Oklahoma Publishing Company came through and offered the two previous owners of the license more money than they had ever seen -- so they just sold the thing right out from under Lionel and me."
After WSFA's aborted beginning, Bill remained in Montgomery while his would-be partner did not. This would prove to have far-reaching influence. Let's hear how Bill tells it:
"Lionel came back to Birmingham and connected
immediately with Storer, who at that time owned WBRC. That happened
to be the exact time that Benny left 13 and went to 6! I got a call in
Montgomery from a guy named Ray Furr, who was operations manager
of both WAPI radio and WABT-TV. I went up there, and you would have thought
I was the Second Coming the way they treated me. So I was hired on as Benny's
replacement as Uncle Bill the day I was interviewed, because Benny
had already been gone a couple of weeks by that time. Pretty soon, I became
the guy who made thousands of children forget about Benny Carle! Yet, Benny
was always lovely to me, and beyond the competition thing we never had
a sour word."
When Bill refers to Benny as his competition, he means it literally. The new Channel 13 show was scheduled directly opposite Circle Six Ranch, forcing kids to choose one over the other. This probably caused both shows to try harder, and produced what would come to be one of Uncle Bill's most well-remembered features:
"My show was called Uncle Bill's Fun Shop, and I had a live audience just like Benny used to do. One of my giant gimmicks had to do with the opening of the show. On Benny's opening, he used to get off a horse and go into the studio; my manager, Ralph Stanley, came in one day and said, 'Bill, I've just found a 1921 Model T Ford down on a used car lot, and what would you think of driving that around on your personal appearances?'
So we went down and looked at the car, gave the guy $300 and drove it home! That became my mode of transportation, and we had a contest to name it. Thousands of entries came in, and some kid named it Bouncalot. So we shot the same type of footage with Uncle Bill and Bouncalot, driving up the hill to the studio and faking a walk-in (I always walked with a limp, even then). When we did personal appearances, I would drive Bouncalot up to the Bruno's supermarket or wherever. When we did them out-of-town, we'd put the car on the back of a flatbed truck, drive up, and take it off at some filling station. Then I'd drive the car down the center of town, and it was as big as Roy Rogers and Trigger!"
Uncle Bill and Bouncalot became a familiar sight around town, and on the air as well:
"It's worth mentioning that they wanted to get as much exposure out of me as they could, so we almost immediately cooked up an hour at noon time called Snicker Flickers. I did the narration and Professor Huel Murphy was my piano man, wearing the checkered vest and derby hat and fake cigar. We used 'Happy Days Are Here Again' as the theme song, with new lyrics. We showed all the silent movies, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy... then, in the afternoon we ran a gamut. It was cartoons, early Little Rascals, and whatever the station could get."
After approximately two years on Channel
13, Uncle Bill followed Benny Carle's precedent and jumped ship.
As Uncle Bill indicates, he has made Philadelphia his home for almost fifty years now, but has returned to Birmingham on occasion to visit family. He donned his red-and-white striped coat once again for Channel 13's 40th anniversary special in 1989. And what happened to Bouncalot? After Uncle Bill left, Cousin Cliff finally got the coveted afternoon show slot and inherited the car as well. It was permanently parked about the time Cliff switched over to the Popeye format in 1958, and its subsequent fate is unknown ... have any of you antique car collectors out there seen Bouncalot lately?!
Channel 13 had a very few other hosts who
did not make much of a lasting impression. Chief among these was announcer
Brewer, who was host of The Balloon Goon for a brief
period in 1956. The point of this show is somewhat abstract, as Brewer
and visiting children would sit in a set filled with inflated balloons,
and pop one to signal the start of a cartoon. Brewer's sterling reputation
was based on his long career as a newscaster, not his goony balloony antics.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF BILL WRIGHT AND CLIFF HOLMAN
TEXT AND CAPTIONS BY TIM HOLLIS
Created 05/29/2005 - 940 PM EDT