Tuesday, October 04, 2011
Childhood Inspirations: WONDERAMA With Bob McAllister
Once apon a time, there was a show that was broadcast on Metromedia stations across the country called Wonderama, and although there were various hosts through the years, probably the most popular host was the last one, a man named Bob McAllister. McAllister, like many other hosts of childrens shows in the nation, started off in local television with his own childrens show in Norfork, Virginia and as his popularity grew, was hired by a TV station in Baltimore to host The Bob McAllister Show. The success of that show, which showcased Bob's gift for magic, ventriloquism and comedy, led to an offer from WNEW TV in New York to be the New Host Of Wonderama, replacing departing host Sonny Fox. Wonderama started in 1955, with hosts changing every couple of years. Bob's tenure was the longest, from 1967 to 1977 and for good reason, he was very popular with kids. Wonderama was a three hour show that ran on Sunday mornings from 8 to 11 am and featured games, prizes, special guests, magic, humor and Warner Bros. Cartoons! Because of the popularity of the show, they were able to get some big name guests such as Jerry Lewis, Abba, The Jackson Five and Muhammad Ali to name a few. They also had guests from the world of animation and puppetry, like Mel Blanc, Jim Henson and Bob Clampett!
But make no mistake, It was McAllister's show and he was the draw. Who can forget The Fingleheimer Stomp, Have You Heard Any Good News Today?, Exercise!, or Ecology? All these songs were co written and performed by McAllister on the show. McAllister was the kids celebrity.
Wonderama was cherished by most young New Yorkers as there was a three year wait to get on the show. As a kid, I must have mailed hundreds of letters requesting tickets. Sure enough, I was thrilled to receive tickets a few years later...and continued to get them into my teens! I appeared on the show three times but was never picked to participate in the games. Drats as Charlie Brown might say, however it was a kick just being there taking it all in. Songs that he had performed on the show were compiled as a record album called Wonderama's Bob McAllister: Kids Are People Too!
Bob made appearances at May's Department Stores around the NY area promoting the album. I was one of those kids lining up outside the Mays' store in Lake Success, NY one Sunny Saturday morning in the early 70's, eagerly waiting for the store to open up at 10am. When the doors were unlocked, kids literally stampeded through the store to get where McAllister was sitting, with endless stacks of these records. All I remember was waiting on a long line to say hello to Mr. Wonderama himself and say how much I liked the show. Of course, that never really transpired as the conversation went something like this...McAllister: "What's your name?" and I replied, 'Brian'. McAllister then ripped off the cellophane and signed the album in magic marker. It's an image that has stayed with me all these years.
Wonderama ended on Christmas Day 1977, and McAllister went on to host an ABC show called, Kids Are People Too! Because of creative differences with ABC, he was replaced by a younger host named, Michael Young the following year.
Bob went on to perform magic and host the occasional special here and there, but never enjoyed the success that he had with Wonderama. He managed to put out a video called Blockbuster Magic in the 80's that was mildly successful. It's still available in some magic shops.
McAllister died of lung cancer on July 21, 1998. Sadly, his passing wasn't considered big news.
Sometimes you don't realize how special something is until you lose it...and then you recognize it as a lost treasure.
Bob McAllister made every Sunday morning feel special, kind of like Christmas. That show will always be a treasured part of my childhood; not only because the show was fun to watch, but it featured things that were of interest to me, like the worlds of animation, puppetry and television production.
There's not much left of Wonderama. WNEW erased much of the video tapes so there's not a whole lot available. Fortunately, somebody saved a few of the episodes. Above here's a clip of the snake cans game, which gives you a brief but dated taste of the show.
However, If you didn't live it, you'll never know how special of a show it once was.