Uncle Looney, played by Tom Hughes, hosted the kiddie cartoon show on WSLS-TV 10 in Roanoke, Virginia from 1955 through the 1965. What follows is a brief history of the show. As we're able to uncover more information we'll be adding it. This is difficult because WSLS-TV apparently does not have any information on file regarding the show. So what we have comes from our digging through old newspapers at the library, interviews with a few of the WSLS-TV "old timers" such as Mel Linkous, from Tom's son Jeff, and from memories sent in by YOU. Despite the obstacles, we're off to a good start.
Before we take up the story of the Uncle Looney show we should first provide a bit of an historic background that will set the stage. So we will now briefly tell you about early children's shows on radio, the golden age of local television and its need for programming, and how this set the stage for what evolved in Roanoke, Virginia. We promise we won't make it long and boring. Keep reading!
|From the January 23, 1956 Roanoke Times. The first ever listing of the Looney Toons show which was on after the news and opposite The Little Rascals on WDBJ.|
In his book Hi There, Boys and Girls! - America's Local Children's TV Programs, Tim Hollis reminds us that "it should come as no surprise that programming for children began in the days when television was just a crazy idea some mad scientists were working on in their secret laboratories." During the "golden age" of radio beginning in the 1920s and lasting through the breakthrough of TV in the early 1950s, radio offered a block-programmed lineup of shows—typically 15 or 30 minutes in length—targeted to various demographic groups including children. These included Buck Rogers and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. On a local basis, the first shows featured Philadelphia's Uncle Wip (named after the call letters) and New York's Uncle Don who told stories and pitched sponsors' products. By the end of the 1920s locally hosted kids' shows were heard across the country.
Television's history can be traced back to the 1800s. We'll pick up the story in 1939 when TV was demonstrated en masse for the first time at the New York World's Fair. TV broadcasting in the USA began in 1941. After WWII factories began turning out thousands of TV sets and the medium's "breakthrough year" is said to have been 1948 when NBC and CBS began offering regular news and entertainment programming. There were so many applicants for licenses that the FCC wasn't sure what to do, so they put a "freeze" in issuing new ones which lasted until 1952. During this time most of the popular network radio shows—including children's programming—migrated to television and were mostly on in the evenings. As local stations went on the air and increased their hours of operation they soon realized that they needed LOTS of locally-produced programming to fill the void.
|Tobacco Road movie poster. Tom Hughes once appeared in a Broadway production of this story and said that the role he played later was the inspiration for the Uncle Looney character. Yeah, that does sort of look like Uncle Looney down in the bottom corner there, doesn't it? And just what is he looking at and what's he doing with his hands?|
For years, those "elite" Roanokers who owned television sets watched snowy out-of-town signals from WFMY-Greensboro and WTVR-Richmond. Then on December 10, 1952, following several delays caused by late delivery of equipment and a lightning strike to the tower, WSLS-TV 10 signed on the air. It was a disaster. After a long period of showing the test pattern, the idea was to make a quick announcement then join the NBC television network. However, as the mike was opened it was realized that the network link-up had failed. So—according to legend—the first words ever uttered on television in Roanoke, VA were "SHIT! WE'VE LOST THE NETWORK!" After this, they shut it off and called it a night.
They were back the next day for another try and things worked better the second time around. The opening announcement was read by a WSLS-610 radio announcer who had moved to the TV side, Tom Hughes. The first broadcast day consisted of little more than Tom's announcement and a brief look at the test pattern which—according to a Roanoke Times article marking the station's tenth anniversary in 1962—was a "big hit" which was watched "with as much enthusiasm as some of the modern day programs." Following repairs, on December 11 the first ever program to be aired was the religious feature The Living Book which was followed by The Lone Ranger then The Dinah Shore Show.
For its first two years, WSLS operated from an upper floor of the Shenandoah Life Insurance building downtown. Two offices were remodeled to form a studio. This made for some interesting moments, such as farm reporter Glenn Howell bringing live sheep into the building and up the elevator so he could demonstrate on the air how to properly shear them. Early on, the staff wore all the "hats" and the on-air talent also took hands in operating the equipment. These included Howell, Mel Linkous, Dick Burton and Tom Hughes. There was no video tape and all the local programming originated from film or was live. This became much easier when WSLS moved to new studios on Church Avenue at Third Street downtown in early 1955.
|These ads appeared in the Roanoke Times on January 21 and 23, 1956. Note that they don't mention Uncle Looney.|
Later that same year, WSLS had some credible local competition. Though the ill-fated WROV-TV 27 had signed on a few days after WSLS (it went dark during the Summer of 1955), and WLVA (now WSET) went on in 1953, there wasn't really a battle for the local viewers until WDBJ-TV signed on the air in October 3, 1955. TV had now burst into the "mainstream" in the valley and advertising dollars were there to be had both during the evening network programming and during the local blocks—including late afternoons, while "mom" was fixing dinner and before "dad" settled down in the easy chair after eating (by saying this we aren't trying to be politically incorrect; in the 1950s that's generally how it was...).
You thought we'd never get to him, didn't you? To attract child viewers, local stations had typically been relying on filmed programming and this (especially in the South) was usually of a "Western" nature and featured the films of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry which had entertained the previous generation of kids at movie theaters and were readily available. The problem now was to find a way to include the sponsor's ads, and, according to Tim Hollis, the stations realized that "the best way to present the films would be by breaking them up with a live host who could deliver the sponsors' commercials, (and) the most common solution was to put one of the station announcers in a cowboy suit and give him an appropriately rustic setting."
|The first advertisement that featured the Uncle Looney character appeared on February 4, 1956; almost two weeks after the program went on the air. The photo used for this ad (the original is at the top of this page) is among the first ever taken of Uncle Looney.|
About this same time local broadcasters began airing cartoons. The first was Jay Ward's "Crusader Rabbit" which consisted of five five-minute segments which could be aired together as one thirty-minute show or broken up and shown across a five-day week. Wanting to hop on the bandwagon and reward ABC stations for the network's investment in Walt's new theme park in Anaheim, CA, Disney cartoons started appearing on ABC affiliates. These first made it onto WLVA-TV on an afternoon show called the "TV Kid's Klub." By the end of the year, Warner Brothers decided to release some of their cartoons into syndication and put most of their older black and white "Looney Tune" shorts into a package for TV. And in Roanoke, WSLS-TV jumped at the chance to buy the Looney Toons package and air it.
So on January 23, 1956, WSLS, who had previously tried to lure in the kid viewers with the likes of Pinky Lee, began airing a thirty-minute cartoon show at 6:30 on weekdays called "Looney Tunes" which featured Porky Pig (both the original B&W version of him when he was bigger and fatter, and the newer ones where he looked as he does today), Daffy Duck, and older staples such as Beans the Cat, Bosko, Buddy, and more. And to provide a show host for introducing the cartoons and pitching the sponsors' ads, they created the character of Uncle Looney Toon. The "Toon" surname didn't last long. Soon he was known to all as "Uncle Looney."
|A view of the left side of the set, showing Uncle Looney, the door, cracker barrel, stove and phone.|
Mel Linkous says that Tom Hughes—who had studied acting in New York and appeared in many productions there over a six-year span—was the "best character actor" he ever met. Tom had played several characters on various shows on WSLS including one called Tom's Foolery. He created the Uncle Looney character based upon a role he'd played in a New York production of Tobacco Road, a bearded, overalls-clad bumpkin who wore boots. an old flannel shirt, and a Confederate Army cap; and who spoke in a Southern colloquial style replete with "ain'ts" and "by crackies." Tom came up with the voice for Uncle Looney which he described as "a little broken up like an old man."
Mel thinks that WSLS Program Manager George Chernault may have devised the Uncle Looney character: "I'll give George Chernault credit because he bought a package of cartoons called Looney Toons. And I give George credit for this because I don't know that it was not George, he really didn't discuss it with me, the only thing that I knew was that Tom started getting together bib overalls for an old mountaineer type person. And he said 'I need some shoes that are bigger than my shoes.' And I said 'Tom I have some combat boots I'll give you.' And he put together this suit and called himself Uncle Looney."
|And on the right, Uncle Looney's shelves and counter. The shelves were usually filled with sponsored food items and toys.|
Now that they had brand new studios with adequate room to build multiple sets and store the props, it was fairly easy to construct the original Uncle Looney set which was a cross between a cabin and a country store. One "exterior" set featured an outdoor "porch" with a window and a door, presumably this was the entrance and it resembled an old country cabin.
But the interior set looked much more like an old country store. Uncle Looney's rocking chair was on the far left. Moving right, there was a door which had a small Confederate flag and nails for Uncle Looney's cap. There was another nail on the door where Uncle Looney usually hung his Western-style leather fringe vest which had an "H" on the pocket (and we have no idea what the "H" stood for). But sometimes instead of the vest, there was an Uncle Looney T-Shirt hanging there instead.
|Uncle Looney talks on his phone.|
In front of the telephone was an old pot-belly wood stove. The stove was mounted on a wooden dolly with four wheels underneath to make it easy to get it in and out of the studio (the cameras typically never aimed low enough to see the wheels, so at home we were none the wiser). And in front of the stove, to Uncle Looney's left, was the cracker barrel which provided a seat for Uncle Looney's guests. Sometimes he was visited by big name celebrities and other times, a local kid was chosen from the audience and given the honor of sitting on the cracker barrel.
Just to the right of the door was Uncle Looney's old early-1900s telephone (which today is in Jeff Hughes' basement). And on the other side of the phone was a set of shelves and a counter. The shelves were mounted on the wall and contained various products which sponsors paid to have put there, such as Campbell's Soup, Tony Dog Food, Dinty Moore Beef Stew, School Days Peanut Butter and Spam. Uncle Looney would stand at the counter and do sales pitches for these items.
|Uncle Looney had LOTS of big-name guests on his show. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (played by Irish McCalla) visited in 1957. Tex Ritter and James Drury (The Virginian) were guests in 1963.|
Uncle Looney had no teeth. According to Jeff, a local dentist crafted Tom a set of black mouthpieces which fit over his real teeth. These made it appear that Uncle Looney was toothless, while still permitting Tom to talk. In the early years of the show, Uncle Looney had brown hair. Also, as you can tell from the pictures, during the early years Tom's bald wig and fake beard were much more obvious. But due to the small television screens and the comparitively primitive state of the art of TV during the 1950s, nobody could tell.
Jeff remembers that the Uncle Looney set was built along the WSLS-TV studio wall that bordered the Master Control room. Jeff made frequent appearances on the show as Uncle Looney's grandson (though he was Tom's son, everyone figured that the Uncle Looney character was way too old to have a school-aged kid). When it was time for Jeff to go on, they'd send him out of the Master Control room, along behind the set, and he'd then walk in Uncle Looney's door.
|WSLS-TV's Kid Show Stars in the early 1960s were Little Biddy Pete, Uncle Looney, Cactus Joe and Cousin Larry.|
Over the years, many people—from local kids to nationally known celebrities—appeared on the Uncle Looney show. One of the most interesting characters to appear on the show was Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. "I accused him of stealing my grandmother's recipe for chicken. That was fun," said Tom, snickering in his Uncle Looney voice in a 1987 Roanoke Times interview. Other guests included Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and Sheena, the Queen of the Jungle. Tom recalled "I'll never forget that visit. She wore a leopard skin."
A few years into the show, Uncle Looney's hair became gray and the accompanying bald wig fit Tom much better than the original. A few changes were made to the set. Uncle Looney's phone was moved over to the left of the door and he now had a big grandfather clock to the door's right. On the other side of the door was a big stone fireplace in the corner. A table was sometimes placed on the other side of the fireplace. The cracker barrel was still there, moved around as need be.
The changes in the costume must have made Uncle Looney hotter than before, and a modification was made to one of his chairs to help cool him off. According to former Looney viewer Bud Webster, to his chair was "attached an overhead bar running from side to side, and attached to this was some kind of fringe; when he rocked, it served to fan him under the hot studio lights." The costume, in all of its incarnations, took Tom about half an hour to put on.
|The Duncan Yo-Yo Guy (remember him?) demonstrated how to use three Duncan "Bang-A-Ball" paddles at once on the revised Uncle Looney set, circa 1963, with Cactus Joe.|
Mel Linkous recalls: "Now, the program went on the air about 5 and about 3:30 you'd see Tom disappear. He'd put on his make up and he'd put on his overalls and his old shirt and his shoes and he'd sit in the dressing room, and in thirty minutes he'd come out and he was not Tom Hughes. He was Uncle Looney. It took him that long to make the transition.
"And as Uncle Looney he was one of the most perfect characters you ever saw. Because his idea was to have a good influence on the children. He wanted to tell them to be good and all that stuff. Now, Tom was not that way. (laughs) He was quite a character, but he was one of the most angelic perfect persons you ever saw as the character Uncle Looney. According to Tom, "Uncle Looney was a lovable old tale-teller. He would tell tales that were so broad that I figured kids would go along with, tales such as Uncle Looney was a personal friend of General Lee and Grant and knew them well. See what I'm talking about. Tales such as these."
|Uncle Looney had a "Toy Corner" where he pitched toys from various sponsors. Many of them came from Jennings-Shepherd Toys. Jeff Hughes said that after featuring the toys on the show, his dad usually brought them home and he got to play with them all.|
According to Mel, "the staff treated 'Looney' as the top cartoon show on the station." And indeed they should have, as early ratings services that kept up with the few television stations at the time listed "Uncle Looney" as one of the most viewed shows in the country, according to Lee Garrett.
Uncle Looney was originally on from 6:30 to 7:00, Monday through Friday. Over the years the time varied, and his show eventually moved back to 5:00 then to 4:30. But eight years is a long time to do a live television show every day and by September 1963, Tom apparently tired of the daily routine of being made-up into the Looney character and the show was cut back to airing twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays (with Quickdraw McGraw, Yogi Bear, and Huckleberry Hound on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays).
By January, 1964 the show was cut back to Tuesdays (the Thursday slot was now filled by Magilla Gorilla) and came on after Gene Rayburn's The Match Game. This continued for a year.
|Uncle Looney poses with a Channel 10 TV camera.|
Jeff says that over time, Tom's other duties made it harder for him to continue doing the show and this is why it was slowly phased out. "For a long time, he did Uncle Looney from 4:30 to 5:30 then he had to quickly go take off the Looney costume and make up and be back by 6:00 to do the Channel 10 Evening News with Tom Hughes. It got to be a LOT for him to do." And as with all good things, it came to an end.
The last episode of the Uncle Looney show was January 26, 1965. On that same day, President Johnson announced that his "Great Society" would create a one billion dollar deficit. The day before, Winston Churchill passed away, and a UFO landed and started a fire on a hill across the street from WOLD Radio in Marion, VA. Uncle Looney was replaced by Superman featuring George Reeves. There was no fanfare over the change. The only mention by the press was in an article in the Saturday "Entertainment" section mentioning that Superman "premieres Tuesday and Thursday at 4:30, replacing Uncle Looney."
Was that the absolute end of the Uncle Looney character? Did Tom ever again put on the costume for commercials, appearances, charitable events and the like? We may never know but will continue trying to find out answers to these questions as well as continue to learn more about the history of the Uncle Looney show. Uncle Looney was EVERYBODY'S uncle and we'll keep trying to learn more of the story. He deserves no less!
|The last ever mention of Uncle Looney in the TV listings, on January 26, 1965.|