BRUCE & CLAIRE NEWTON
Eccentric, Extremely Creative, and Controversial- The Newtons are curiously a forgotten part of Chicago's television history.
Bruce Newton was born in Saginaw Bay, Michigan. His father had hoped for him to be a lawyer but Bruce had decided on a much different direction, television. Almost immediately after graduating high school, he was persuaded by his older brother to join the army. He spent a couple of years, beginning his tenure at the Great Lakes Naval Base. The Navy sent Bruce to the University of Wisconsin to study radio. At 6' 4", his mates often called him "Daddy Long Legs." An avid collector early on, Bruce collected artifacts from the bombed out city of Hiroshima but was later ordered to dispose of it all when it was determined they were radioactive.
During the time Bruce was fulfilling his patriotic responsibilities in the Pacific theater, future wife Claire Busick had grown up on a farm northwest of Aurora IL and graduated from Aurora West High School. She earned a scholarship to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1949. Two months after arriving in Chicago she met Bruce, who was also attending the school. Always interested in art, she excelled early on in commercial artwork.
Bruce's inaugural experience with television happened in 1939 when he was randomly picked to be interviewed for a traveling exhibit on the new technology of television. At twelve years of age, the young Newton was perched atop a soap box which was showered by several large extremely hot lights. The interviewer began to ask the now sweat-drenched youngster "So your name is Bruce Newton?" "Yes sir." "And you live here in Saginaw?" "Yes sir." "And you want to be on television some day?" "Yes sir." "Can you say anything besides 'Yes sir'?" And Newton returned with "Yes sir." From that day on, television was his destiny.
Bruce's start in Chicago television began as a result of "making the rounds" as a young man in his twenties to the city's then four television stations, dropping off a "personal data sheet" with each stations offices. Two items on the sheet (today known as a resume) attracted the powers-that-were at WGN-TV- puppetry and caricatures. Channel 9 at the time was putting together their first morning show, which would become "The Tom Wallace Show" after emcee Tom Wallace. The show was a joint venture between channel 9, Ivan Hill Advertising (where Newton was on staff, he would be "wholesaled to the station with the company receiving a percentage of his earnings while Bruce was simultaneously on the WGN-TV payroll), and Personality Features (which owned "Creative Cookery" with François Pope and later "Garfield Goose & Friend" with Frazier Thomas, both airing at WBKB Channel 4.)
The show premiered April 10, 1950 but without any puppets. He would appear with model Inga Borg Jorgensen (who was on staff at Personality Features), nicknamed "Inky," a beautiful fair-skinned Scandinavian, whom Newton described as being so light-skinned that the blood could be seen rushing through her veins; and emcee George Menard, who at age thirty, was considered an old geezer by Newton. The three would sit in a living room setting, read the news, chat among themselves and occasionally interview guests. The first interview was with an eighteen-year old Andy Williams. Williams was performing at the Blackstone Theater, where Newton saw him two days before the television appearance. It was Newton's job to draw caricatures of the guests. Since it was necessary to do this quickly, Newton took a picture of Williams and practiced before doing it on the show live. Not all the interviews were with up and coming celebrities. Many where hobbyists, members of civic and fraternal organizations, politicians, and even the "mothers-of-the-year."
On the air at 10 am until noon, the show would return at 1 pm for an additional hour. Once WGN-TV began airing baseball, the show would be shuffled about, often pre-empted by the ball game. The show ran almost two years. During its original run, the show was renamed "Fun & Features." In addition to Newton, Jorgensen, and Menard, the show featured home economist Betty Whitney, who also did the live commercials for Oster. Company founder John Oster would often come down and watch the commercials. Newton recalls with amusement the day Oster appeared at the station unexpectedly only to hear Whitney mispronounce his surname as "Oooster!" The enraged blender magnate could be heard screaming through the control room glass "It's Oster!" Oster proceeded to come down to the stage and correct Whitney, who was still on the air! Bruce and "Inky" would do the Sara Lee commercials, often with unplanned results, such as the time the camera panned across a competitors product. Also featured was Omega King, a rather large woman who sang. Staff announcer Spencer Allen would appear to read the news, followed by a young Jack Brickhouse, who read the sports.
It would be during this version of the morning show that WGN-TV asked Newton to do a children's segment with puppets. Bruce obliged by retrieving his collection of marionettes, which had been stored away in his parent's attic back in Saginaw. Newton, along with Jorgensen, took the marionettes to the railroad fair and presented a fifteen-minute performance which was televised live by channel 9.
The Newton's first puppet creation, made especially for television was "Garfield Goose." Frazier Thomas, who had been bounced around the channel 4 schedule, approached Newton about an idea he had about a children's program, based on a radio show and subsequent television series he had in Cincinnati. On the show was a sock puppet Thomas called Garfield Goose (after the station's telephone exchange). The Newtons designed and created the very first Chicago version of Garfield Goose (which they still have.) Designing the actual puppet from drawings Newton had made, Newton took inspiration from another of his creations, a marionette named King Magic, who wore a little crown. Newton decided to put the crown on Garfield thus creating the concept of a "goose who thinks he's king of the United States." The show was produced by Personality Features and was auditioned for WBKB as "Garfield Goose & Friend." The friend being of course Frazier Thomas, who in the show's earliest days did not not sport a prime minister's uniform.
The show premiered in the fall of '52 on WBKB. Some of the first broadcasts were actually kinescopes of the auditions done months earlier. It is about this time that Newton and Thomas would have a falling out. Feeling that both he and his wife should be compensated accordingly for their efforts in the creation and building of the first Garfield, as well as operating the puppets and other duties on the show, Bruce approached Frazier for the extra cash. Thomas refused claiming there was no budget for it.
About the same time, WBKB station manager Sterling "Red" Quinlan approached Newton with a staff job at WBKB. He accepted and walked away from the goose. When WBKB was sold to CBS (a beneficiary of the 1953 ABC-TV/United Paramount Theaters merger), Newton continued briefly on the new station working as a graphic artist for Fahey Flynn's nightly newscasts. At first, the former WBKB Channel 4 on air talent were contractually obligated to remain as part of the staff of the new CBS station, which had re-named it WBBM-TV. He would also wear the hat of studio producer (a position close to what today is known as "stage director") for newspaper columnist Irv Kupicnet's night-time talk fest "At Random" which CBS had inherited as a another result of the ABC-UPT merger. However, he soon quit the station and followed Quinlan over to the new ABC-UPT owned WBKB/ Channel 7, which had replaced the former WENR-TV. "Garfield Goose & Friend" would continue, without Newton, for a few months at the new station, eventually move to channel 7, and then finally to WGN-TV, which had purchased the series, lock, stock, and castle from Personality Features. Thomas, bitter at Newton's defection, never forgave him and never acknowledged Newton's contribution to "Garfield Goose & Friends."
Newton's first assignment as part of the new WBKB/ Channel 7 staff was to continue a children's series begun on channel 4 called "The Happy Pirates" with singer/musician Two-Ton Baker. Baker, an extremely portly piano player would sing and play on a set designed to resemble an old pirate ship that was in such a state of disrepair that it was permanently docked at port. .The show also aired cartoons, featurettes, and after a year, brought on a midget named Joe White, who appeared as "Little Oscar" (as in Oscar Meyer hotdogs, a show sponsor.). Later Art Hern joined the show. Hern, who had worked under various hats at the original WBKB even before Newton, appeared as a sort of first-mate. Newton himself worked the puppets that would appear on the side of the ship and each Monday drew pictures for the kids. Scheduled at noontime, the program didn't attract an audience and after three years was off the air. Since he was on staff, Newton simply moved from one show to another, working on such early WBKB/ Channel 7 shows as "Smile Club," "Princess Mary's Castle" (with Mary Hartline), and "Playhouse with Angel Casey."
In 1956, Quinlan approached Newton with his idea of doing a show called "Shock Theatre." Airing late Saturday nights, the show aimed at teenagers, would screen a batch of newly released-for-television Universal Studios horror movies done in the '30's and 40's such as "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy." Hosted by ventriloquist and daytime children's show host Terry Bennett as Mad Marvin, the program, aired live at first, but later kinescoped so that the cast could enjoy themselves on Saturday nights along with their fans, became a huge hit and even spawned a fan club that boasted over a thousand members. Newton would appear as "Shorty," a Frankenstein's monster type of character. Newton, Bennett, Bennett's wife Joy (who played "Dear" and who's face never appeared on camera), and a studio band dressed in white-face and black tuxedos calling themselves "The Deadbeats" performed in sketches during the commercial breaks. The segments became so popular that the show was expanded an additional half-hour after the movie was finished! Newton and Bennett would write many of the scripts.
For the last broadcast of "Shock Theatre" it was decided that the cast would reveal themselves to the television audiences. It would be the first and only time that Joy Bennett's face would be seen on the show (although during the day she appeared with husband Terry as "Pamela Puppet" on the channel 7 children's show "The Jobblewocky Place".) Terry took off his thick glasses and black turtleneck sweater and reverted from his higher "Marvin" voice to his normal voice. But when "Shorty" removed his mask, the audience did not see the face of Bruce Newton, but yet another mask! Newton recalled a few years later while performing a puppet show at an area grade school appearing once again as "Shorty" and trying the same double mask trick on the kids with disastrous results. When Newton began to roll up the first mask, the kids, who began to moan at the disappointment of having their imaginations squashed, instantly turned to panic racing to the doors when they saw the second mask underneath!
Newton first realized the power of television while riding in a Marshall Field's elevator. An eight-year-old boy, also riding the elevator, looked up at Newton and shouted to his mother "Hey Ma! There's Bruce Newton!" Since the earliest days, Bruce had appeared on camera doing commercials for Ivan Hill Advertising clients and Personality Features programs, although he was no longer directly employed by Hill. Newton would also go over to WNBQ and put together the openings and commercials for The Dairy Association on Don Herbert's "Mr. Wizard" program. Throughout all this time, Claire, who stayed home raising the couple's five children, also found time to write the copy for commercials performed live by Francois Pope and his sons Bob and Frank on "Creative Cookery."
Other series that Quinlan assigned to Newton were WBKB/Channel 7's "Facsimile," an early morning program airing around 7:00 featuring Norman Ross Jr.; a morning pre-teen aimed entry called "Clock-A-Doodle Day" starring Dale Young; and an exercise show featuring a man named Ed Allen Klump (who had appeared in the same capacity in a segment of Newton's earlier program "Fun & Features.") When Quinlan left WBKB to launch WFLD/Channel 32, Newton moved over to WCIU/Channel 26.
John Weigel, a former radio and television announcer for Northern Trust Bank (among other clients) and who also owned a Lake Street cheese shop, had launched Chicago's first ultra-high frequency station WCIU in 1964 after several others had failed to succeed on the new frequencies. Weigel asked Newton to come over, along with Two-Ton Baker, to do another children's show. Also airing on the station would be filmed bullfights with announcer Gus Chann, a particularly gory affair that Weigel spared no time leaking to the newspapers to garner attention to the station, which was suffering from a weak signal and the unavoidable fact that most televisions at the time could not receive the channel at all! The publicity usually resulted in pickets in front of the Board of Trade Building where the station's facilities were located. Newton was the third person hired at the station, involving himself with much of the station's early promotions. Wife Claire, also began working at channel 26. By this time their children were older, in high school, and Claire found extra time to work with her husband in the graphic arts department. The couple were also responsible for building some of the first studio sets the station used (often constructed at their Aurora home and trucked downtown due to the limited space the station had) including "Soul Train," the Don Cornelius- created urban dance show that eventually headed to the west coast, syndication, and television history. They still have the first set in their private collection.
WCIU would be the last Chicago television station the Newtons worked full-time, leaving in 1976 opting to semi-retire and go out on the road performing puppet stage shows, including performances with the original Chicago Garfield Goose puppet. Working out of their Aurora home under the auspices of West Park Productions (after a nearby street), the couple's eccentric lifestyle has raised more than a few eyebrows. Always garbed in black, white, and red, The Newton's home, also dressed in blacks and reds, is a virtual museum, taking visitors on a fascinating tour of Chicago broadcasting history and puppeteering. Their home, consisting of four floors and eighteen rooms features a replica of a turn-of-the-20th-Century general store. A room fashioned after an old wooden naval vessel complete with U.S. Navy memorabilia. The first floor den shines with a patriotic theme as Bruce often portrayed Abe Lincoln. The lower level even sports secret rooms and stairways.
Today, the Newtons have slowed down quite a bit. Bruce recently was recovering from major heart surgery but managed to show up (with Claire) in the audience of the Museum of Broadcast Communications 2001 spectacular event "Puppets, Pies, & Prizes" their tribute to local children's television.
copyright 2003 Steve Jajkowski