Tom Hughes
The man who played Uncle Looney

Tom Hughes was the Channel 10 personality whose talent as an actor brought Uncle Looney to life from 1956 through 1965. Tom was one of the television pioneers who launched WSLS-TV 10, and was the very first "official" voice ever heard on Roanoke television. After getting off to a disastrous attempt to put the station on the air the day before, Tom read the opening station identification announcement when programming began for the first time (and everything actually worked) on December 11, 1952. Tom performed all sorts of duties at the station over the years, including producing, directing, announcing, writing and acting. But primarily he was an actor who was featured on many programs including "Tom's Foolery" in the early 1950s, then the Uncle Looney show.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the City of Salem in 1952, a parade was held and WSLS-AM and the original radio version of "Tom's Foolery" entered a float with Tom, dressed as an old Daniel-Boone-looking mountain man. Though most credit his appearance in "Tobacco Road," others claim that this is what inspired Tom to create the Uncle Looney character.

Tom was born in Roanoke, Virginia to Dr. and Mrs. T. J. Hughes. He attended the Roanoke Elementary Schools, Augusta Military Academy, the University of Virginia and received his B.S. in Biology from Roanoke College at Salem, Virginia, from which he graduated in 1935 with a degree in Biology.

But after college, he headed for brighter lights. He attended Daykarhanova's School for the Stage in New York City on a scholarship. After further study, on another scholarship, at the Chekhov Studios in Ridgefield, Connecticut, he returned to Daykarhanova's School of the Stage to assume a teaching position. And he taught there for two years. In all, Tom spent eight years in the New York metro area, studying, acting and teaching. He appeared in many productions including Orson Welles' "Julius Caesar" and one with Van Johnson. During this time, he also did radio serials and experimental TV work for CBS.

On the Church Avenue side of the WSLS-TV building were six windows that were dressed with advertisements for various shows that were on the station. This one was used to promote "Tom's Foolery."

Tom was teaching acting in Connecticut when he was drafted just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. From 1942 on, he served four years in the United States Army. He was a 1st Sergeant.

In 1946, after getting out of the Army, Tom joined the staff of WSLS radio as a news editor. But in 1947, he became a staff announcer and disc jockey. Tom's programs included "The Sunny Side of Seven," "The Mail Bag," and a program full of light-hearted fun and mayem called "Tom's Foolery." As soon as television came to WSLS in December, 1952, Tom Hughes began work in that medium.

You never knew how Tom was going to look each day when it was time for "Tom's Foolery."

Within a month of the sign-on of WSLS-TV, Tom teamed up with fellow WSLS personality Dick Burton for a television version of "Tom's Foolery." The show became a regular feature on Channel 10 that aired Monday through Friday from 2:30 to 3:00.

"Tom's Foolery" was designed to please viewers of all ages, and featured music, interviews and special children's attractions. Each Friday, there was a birthday portion of the show, during which Tom showed pictures—sent in by viewers—of children who had birthdays that week. Tom and Dick would play current records and Tom would illustrate them or Dick pantomimed them. Every day brought thirty minutes of fun and unpredictable mayhem that was enjoyed by a small studio audience and thousands of people at home (during the days of "Tom's Foolery," WSLS boasted of serving 538,000 families in 63 counties."

Dick Burton and Tom had all sorts of fun doing the "Tom's Foolery" show. Here, it looks like they're poking fun at some of the magazines of the day.

Beginning in 1956, Tom became Uncle Looney. He also produced many other shows in the station and for many years, was also seen as the anchorman of the "Channel 10 Evening News with Tom Hughes."

During his years at WSLS Radio and TV, Tom worked with Mel Linkous, Dick Burton, Lee Garrett and with program director George Chernault, who he'd befriended while in the Army. Chernault was responsible for buying the Looney Toons cartoon package for use by Channel 10, and is believed to have been the one who thought of featuring them during a daily show hosted by a character named Uncle Looney. But from that point on, Uncle Looney brought to life by Tom.

This is a shot of the "Tom's Foolery" studio audience, as seen from the desk where Tom and Dick sat for the show. The show was produced in the original Channel 10 studios on the top floor of the Shenendoah Life building (the original one downtown, not the one that was later built on Brambleton Avenue). Tom, kneeling, is talking to his wife. Dick is in the back corner (that may be his wife as well). According to Jeff Hughes, prior to the airing of each show, cartoons were shown on a screen from that small projector so the kids would sit still while waiting for the show to begin. Jeff said that the monkeys hanging from the ceiling used to scare him when he was a little kid. This was a Friday, when it was "Birthday" time and local kids with birthdays that week were honored on the show.

And his "Uncle Looney" personna is how most people remember him. In the 1987 interview, Tom said people still asked him to do his Uncle Looney routine. "Just yesterday I was down getting X-rays at the hospital and the nurse recognized me. It's surprising, really. I enjoyed it. Of course we had a lot of crazy experiences and I got a lot of damp knees from children who would get so excited about being on television."

Chernault said in 1995 that Tom "was probably—even up to today—the most popular local TV personality ever" and he cited an event at Hotel Roanoke he attended with Tom, when a woman in her forties approached him and said "Will you please introduce me to Uncle Looney?" Longtime WSLS personality and employee, Mel Linkous, said that Tom was "the best character actor that he ever knew."

Another "Tom's Foolery" show, this time the theme was either archery or "Cowboys & Indians" or both.

Tom passed away in December, 1995. The story, and his obit from the Roanoke Times are below (you can click the pictures to see larger PDF-file versions that are easy to read. Dick Burton is still around, living near Charlotte, NC. We who do this website are going to try to arrange to visit and interview him. Stay tuned and wish us luck in our mission to keep memories of Tom, Dick, "Tom's Foolery" and "Uncle Looney" alive forever.

From The Roanoke Times, December 7, 1995
(Click each image to view a larger PDF version)

"Fans Mourn Uncle Looney Toon" - Part 1

"Fans Mourn Uncle Looney Toon" - Part 2

Tom's Obituary

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