DVD Giveaway: Bill Jackson's "Cartoon Town" Documentary
Among the many fortunes of living in Chicago are that we had a very healthy slate of locally produced TV shows long after many other markets gave up. The torch is still carried by a local channel or two, but children's programming is sadly long gone. Certainly there are new cartoons, but gone are the golden-age animations and the local TV hosts who built whole shows around these classic syndication packages.
I've been reading a great book about the hosts of local children's TV across the US. Many smaller markets simply had an on-screen costumed host to introduce cartoons, though some were more ambitious with in-studio audiences, prizes, and puppets. In Chicago we were fortunate to have so many driven talents to push beyond simply introducing cartoons. We're known nationwide for our version of Bozo (immortalized forever in the voice of Krusty the Clown), and for the work of another man - Bill Jackson.
Though you may not have ever heard of B.J. outside of Chicago, you'd know within minutes of watching one of his programs that you are looking at the Citizen Kane of local TV puppet shows. Over his many years in Chicago, he built an astonishing ensemble cast of puppets. Puppets with real personality, fantastic voices, and a singular design. Rather than taking on the usual fuzzy Muppets look, B.J.'s puppets are unique in that they're latex rubber. His shows feature deliberately two dimensional backgrounds and buildings (a budget saving move that turned out to be a definite visual asset). Put them together with B.J. as the only human in sight, and the shows look like cartoons that have come to life.
B.J.'s classic Cartoon Town series from the early 1970's could have simply been a showcase for syndicated cartoons like Popeye and Underdog, but Jackson's talent shone through in this rich world of characters and stories that were far more interesting than the cartoon fare. The puppets mimed popular music of the day, B.J. shared cartooning and other arts, and the serialized adventures of the show's characters filled every show.
This insane ensemble is unlike any you've seen on TV before or since. There was Dirty Dragon, a letter-eating mail carrier. He cantankerously cried out "no mail!" since he'd just eaten it all. Dirty has been referred to by some as "the original disgruntled postman". How about Weird who was just... weird. Or the Lemon Joke Kid who'd drop sour jokes (written on lemons, of course) on unsuspecting pedestrians from his helicopter?
Blob gets a whole paragraph here on Retro Thing. Blob was a pile of gray clay on a pedestal. In the story of Cartoon Town, he was the town monument that B.J. would re-shape every day into something different. Not only did this show off B.J.'s artistic skills, but also his ability to ad-lib. Blob's wordless speech was a sequence of sound effects put in at random by the sound man. Jackson had to effectively carry on both sides of the conversation with ever knowing what was going to come out of Blob's mouth.
Cartoon Town footage has long been difficult to find, so B.J. recently put together a documentary of the best material from the best sources and is offering the project on DVD. I missed most of Cartoon Town's run (we revisit most of the characters on his later "Gigglesnort Hotel" which I was very fond of), but this is a great documentary. You don't have to be a Chicagoan to admire the results of all the hard work from Jackson and his production team. It's a real talent to be able to wrest such a solid show out of a meager local TV kid's budget.
I've had the good fortune to meet B.J. a handful of times, and he's always been a graceful and generous man. He is quick to share the warmth he feels for all his viewers who are now grown-ups, and equally quick to share praise & credit with all the people who helped craft his vision into an enduring Chicago television classic. When I watched this documentary, I felt a real loss that economics have forced local children's TV off the air. It is far more economical to schedule a syndicated cartoon rather than create something with local personality.
Imagine what even a modestly budgeted TV show could do today with current technology and the right imaginative minds. Lots of well meaning television for children tries to cover the same early development educational turf that PBS already covers so well. Where are the shows like B.J.'s that show teach art & kindness & that it's okay to be weird (I must admit that I often identified with the character "Weird" on B.J.'s shows)?
We were lucky to have such a singular talent here in Chicago, and even more fortunate that he has put together this documentary of rarities from his career. I heartily recommend this DVD to anyone who is a fan of local TV anywhere, or can appreciate when a production can come together in that perfect way to be unique, fun, and cherished forever. Even if you've never seen a single episode of his shows, I know that you'll get as emotional as I did by the humility of BJ's closing words of the documentary.
Check out B.J.'s website at dirtydragon.com where you can order your own copy of the documentary. We also have a special Retro Thing surprise - we have a copy to give away to one of our readers! The contest is open to any of our readers, but I have a secret hope that one of you who actually remembers the original show will win. All you have to do is leave us a comment sharing a memory you have of a local TV host in your town. Please have your entries in by August 27th at 1200 CST and we will chose a winner at random.
As always, residents of other countries are welcome to enter. We just ask that you pay for shipping and any import duties and costs of getting the disc from the U.S. to where you are.
Thanks to Bill Jackson for the DVD, and a my own personal thanks for a lifetime of memories and the inspiration to enter the wild and weird world of the television industry. Next time I have a disagreeable client, I think that I'll just eat the script and tell them there's "no mail!".