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Hi, Little Neighbor: Jill Sell

Jan 09, 2024

Cleveland children's television stars Woodrow the Woodsman, Barnaby and Captain Penny pictured as part of a collection belonging to Ken and Jenny Brady that included early McDonald's Happy Meal boxes, in this 2004 file photo. (Roadell Hickman/The Plain Dealer)The Plain Dealer

SAGAMORE HILLS, Ohio -- Early local television shows in Cleveland with children's programming (think mostly the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s) were some of the most creative and popular shows of their kind on air.

Go anywhere in Northeast Ohio where boomers now congregate and someone is sure to start reminiscing about how much Woodrow the Woodsman understood them. Woodrow, aka actor J. Clayton Conroy, later became the host of a television show in Detroit that featured horror movies for more than a decade. That's a little concerning, but ….

Many people my age who grew up in Cleveland bond instantly over these TV memories. However, I have to say that not all kids’ early TV programming provided me with a happy childhood. For instance, there was that Magic Mirror that Miss Barbara Plummer (and other "hostesses") held up at the end of the "Romper Room" show. Miss Barbara would look through the frame of a mirror without glass and say, "Romper, bomper, stomper, boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. Magic Mirror, tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play today?"

Then Miss Barbara would say, "I see Kathy and Sue, Tommy and Michael." Unless I missed it, I don't think she ever saw me.

That's where my lifelong classic case of anxiety began, I swear. I’d wait just for that moment to hear my name -- Jill! Jill! Jill! -- and she just looked over my head. Bummer.

Then there was "Barnaby," host of a popular Cleveland kids’ TV show, played by a very troubled soul in real life, Linn Sheldon. Of course, we kids had no idea what personal challenges Sheldon faced, including alcoholism. (And that's another story.) But we did know about Long John, the "world's only invisible parrot" who lived in an (empty) cage. I look back now and realize you can probably attribute all kinds of symbolism to Long John and Barnaby's relationship to him.

But that's not what caused me concern as a little kid. I wanted to know why you couldn't see the food in Long John's beak and then his stomach when Barnaby gave him a treat. Was the bird getting enough to eat? How would you know if Long John was sick and needed to see a vet? But Long John could talk (thanks to some less-than-expert ventriloquism work on the part of Sheldon), so he would be able to tell Barnaby that he had a stomach ache, right?

Then there was my favorite, Captain Penny. Dressed as a railway engineer, Ron Penfound would gently guide us adoring children through life and always be there for us, right? Well, Penfound died of lung cancer at 47, but that was a few years after his last TV appearance as Captain Penny.

Actually, Captain Penny caused me the least stress and anxiety of all the TV children's show hosts I watched. But his tag line haunted me: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool Mom." (Did I get that right? I know someone will complain if I didn't.)

I wasn't a bad kid, although I did try to drown my little brother in the bathtub once. Ok, I really only thought about it …. And once I did scribble all over a closet wall with a one of those liquid shoe polish applicators and tried to blame by brother. But Captain Penny's words haunted me. Did my mother really know every mischievous thing I did?

Years later, as a grown-up and a mother, I realized Captain Penny was wrong. Kids can fool their mothers. I had no idea that my teenaged sons and their friends were jumping off outdoor public stair railings while riding their BMX bikes … at least not until someone showed me the video….

At any rate, local (and especially live) children's TV programming is pretty rare these days, having succumbed to network shows, digital animation and probably now, AI. Too bad. Where's Miss Barbara when you need her?

Jill Sell is a freelance journalist, poet and essayist from Sagamore Hills. Now instead of watching children's shows, Sell is addicted to nature programming on public broadcasting.

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