Television history began in the 1940s, and children-specific programming began shortly thereafter. In the UK, a Children’s Hour of television was broadcast in 1946. In the US, Howdy Doody aired beginning in 1947. Following in the tradition of movie theaters, which showed children’s films and serials on Saturday mornings, television stations clumped their kids’ shows into one block of time when children tended to be home from school. With television’s broadcast technology came the ease of communication across time and space. Through digital technologies, children today can watch programs that originate in other countries and that first aired in another lifetime.
Some children’s shows were based on the animated cartoons that populated the movie theaters. Other programming functioned more like classrooms or stage shows, with children sitting in the audience and a host who introduced a variety show of acts and entertained between the acts. These children’s show hosts would often therefore gain a special place in the hearts of their viewers, who were eager for entertainment and for their curiosity about the world to be whetted.
Other hosts, however, didn’t necessarily seem appropriate for their audiences. Some of them were downright creepy. Certainly “creepiness” is in the eye of the beholder. Many hosts on this list may actually bring back fond memories to their fans. In other cases, the shows themselves were acceptable despite the unsavoriness of the guide who filled in the interstices between different segments.
A world’s worth of creepy kids show hosts is at our disposal (and perhaps should have been disposed of a long time ago). Here is our list of the creepiest.
15. Slim Goodbody
John Burstein created Slim Goodbody in 1975 to teach children about health and hygiene in an entertaining way. After making public appearances on his own, Mr. Goodbody (as he is also known) appeared regularly on the popular CBS children’s series Captain Kangaroo beginning in 1976. In 1980, Slim Goodbody starred in his own show, Inside Story, on PBS.
Slim wears a body suit with the human skeleton and internal organs painted on it so that from far away he seems to have no skin on his body. His head is normal. It’s just John Burstein’s head. For those who prefer their humans to have their innards covered up with flesh, Slim Goodbody would not be their cup of tea.
Both Captain Kangaroo and Inside Story are long gone, but Burstein continues to perform as Slim Goodbody in front of schools and convention audiences with his Bodyology and Lighten Up! shows. Burstein and his alter ego have kept up with the times too with a solid social media presence.
14. Uncle Bobby
Bobby Ash was one in a long line of unsettling television uncles who hosted children’s shows. In Ash’s case, his show was called The Uncle Bobby Show (later titled Uncle Bobby and Friends and Kids Corner), which aired on CFTO in Toronto from 1962 to 1979. Uncle Bobby liked to wear boat hats and loose sweaters, somewhat in the vein of Mr. Rogers, but Ash performed with a genteel English accent.
Among the recurring characters on his show were a clay artist, an accordionist, a magician, a ventriloquist, and most notably, Bimbo the Birthday Clown, a Bozo-like cardboard cut out that regularly emerged from a closet to sing “Happy Birthday” in an eerie, distorted voice. When he wasn’t shuffling across a TV studio in front of a camera, Ash drove school buses around Pickering, Ontario, wrote children’s books, and performed in magic shows. When Uncle Bobby died in 2007, Canadians lamented the loss of the iconic TV personality, and no doubt once again heard ringing through their consciousness the long-repressed sound of Bimbo’s haunting birthday drone.
13. David Liebe Hart
David Liebe Hart hosted a long-running Los Angeles show called The Junior Christian Science Bible Teaching Program. Hart usually was hidden from view, since he was the puppeteer behind the crooning critters who populated this program. Each episode featured two or three puppets belting gospel songs while guest humans read scripture in between. David Hart was inspired by Jim Henson, who, he said was a Christian Scientist like him and used to be his Sunday School teacher. Hart says that after Henson died, the spirit of Henson visited him, and from that visit he was inspired to start his own puppet program.
As far as inspiration goes, Hart’s puppets left much to be desired compared to Henson’s. Among Hart’s creations were Chip the Black Boy (actual name) and Mr. Grey Spaceman. Hart claims that he was abducted by aliens, the Korendians, to be specific, so the alien puppet is an autobiographical touch. Although the show went off the air, Hart later became a cult figure due to his appearances on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and like Slim Goodbody he has a solid, though eccentric, web presence.
12. Bozo the Clown
If you don’t like clowns, then Bozo the Clown should be the most terrifying of all these hosts. Bozo is pure clown: red hair, a white face with a red nose and mouth, big shoes, and a silly giggle. Bozo began in the 1940s in a series of vinyl records developed by Alan Livingston of Capitol Records and featuried the voice of Vance “Pinto” Colvig. Next Bozo appeared on TV in 1949 as played by Colvig. Another man, Larry Harmon, acquired the copyright of the show and subsequently started a clown show franchise across the United States. As a result, different Bozos, including the one portrayed by Harmon himself, populated the airwaves in different urban markets during the 1950s and 1960s- although they all looked basically the same. The show format was also the same. Children sat in raised seating around or behind Bozo, while Bozo introduced kid-oriented variety acts, did some entertaining himself, and gave away prizes. By the 1970s, Bozo’s popularity faded, but the image of Bozo now pretty much represents what people consider a clown to look like.
Andy Devine starred in Andy’s Gang, a children’s show that ran from 1955 to 1960 on NBC. Devine inherited the show from Smilin’ Ed McConnell, who died from a heart attack. The show changed its name to reflect the new captain of the ship, but the show changed little else. What that means is that although the show seemed to take place in front of a live audience of shrieking children with brushcuts, the shots of the audience were all spliced into the new footage of Devine. Devine taped the show on a soundstage with no audience at all. Some reaction shots of Andy would be reused too, which made the normally avuncular Devine seem unhinged.
Andy’s co-stars included a baleful piano-playing cat named Midnight and a terrified mouse musician named Squeaky who accompanied Andy when he croaked through spirituals or folksongs. Andy also shared the stage with the antiauthoritarian Froggy the Gremlin, who harrassed the hapless animal or human guests of each episode with his bitter diatribes and cruel practical jokes. For example, in one episode the chunky Andy mentioned to Froggy that he was on a diet. Froggy used his magical powers to cause a cream-puff to materialize into Andy’s hand, and he made Andy force-feed himself with the pastry.
10. Fergie Olver
Fergie Olver was the host of the Canadian game Just Like Mom from 1981 to 1985 on the Canadian Television Network (CTV). Olver joined the show in the second season and worked alongside his wife and show creator Catherine Swing. The show mimicked the truth-telling model of Ted Barris’s The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. In this junior version, a child and his or her mother would have to prove their knowledge of each other in order to get points and win the game.
For the most part, Olver was acceptable in a bland game-show host way. He did, however, like to press the little girls on the contestant panel for kisses. Perhaps at the time the kissy facing was meant to be harmless, but in light of today’s fears about child predators, some of whom are on this list (!!!), Olver’s panel side manner leaves something to be desired.
9. Pee-wee Herman
Paul Reubens has gotten a lot of mileage out of his Pee-wee Herman character. Reubens’s childlike alter-ego originally appeared as part of a 1980 stage show for adults, but he became more famous with his 1985 cult film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and its 1988 sequel Pee-wee’s Big Top. Reubens was subsequently approached by CBS to do a children’s show, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse was the result.
From 1986 to 1990, children could eat their Saturday morning cereal and watch Pee-wee and his friends Miss Yvonne (a Lawrence-Welk era diva), Chairy (a chair), Pterry (a pterodactyl), and Cowboy Curtis (the actual Laurence Fishburne in a mullet) go camping, trick-or-treating, and otherwise misadventuring in Puppetland. Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh composed the music, and guest stars included Phil Hartman and Jimmy Smits.
Pee-wee himself is not the kind of host that all parents would want to guide their children through their first hours of the weekend. He is a man-child with white paste make-up and a nervous gurgle of a laugh who encourages his young charges to scream out the word of the day (usually a rather innocuous word) at the top of their lungs. Reubens’s arrest in 1991 for sexual misconduct in an adult entertainment theater has haunted the actor ever since and perhaps tarnished Pee-wee Herman’s kid-friendly credentials as a result. Pee-wee made a comeback early in 2016 with the Netflix film Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.
8. Melanie Martinez
This is not the Melanie Martinez who was on Team Adam during the The Voice‘s third season. Rather, this Melanie Martinez hosted a Sprout Network series called The Good Night Show from 2005 to 2006.. Her on-air persona was not objectionable. She was the human host of puppet-filled transitional segments between episodes of popular children’s shows such as Bob the Builder and Dragon Tales. She cheerfully did crafts and interacted with her sidekicks in that gentle way that modern hosts of pre-school children now do.
It was her résumé that, in retrospect, proved to be creepy, at least to her show’s parent company PBS. In the early 2000s, Martinez starred in two 30-second videos that spoofed public service announcements. She lauded the use of butt plugs to allow people to experience the pleasure of sex without actually having sexual intercourse. When the videos came to light, PBS fired her. Parents complained, but to no avail. Martinez remained fired. Martinez continues to act in TV shows and, yes, in actual public service announcements.
7. Uncle Hazim
Hazim Al-Sha’arawi was also the co-creator and host of children’s television shows that appear on Al-Aqsa network, which is operated by Hamas. Al-Sha’arawi started out as a host of a children’s radio show, but he wanted to get involved in screen entertainment. After Hamas won elections in the region called the Palestinian Authority (the Gaza strip and Areas A and B of the West Bank), the network was launched early in 2006. A few (literal) battles later, Al Aqsa TV became a propaganda machine for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” which began airing in 2006, Al-Sha’arawi played the character Uncle Hazim, who appeared from time to time alongside the child host Saraa and an assortment of animal mascot co-hosts. One of the mascots, Farfour, bore a copyright-infringing resemblance to Mickey Mouse.
Uncle Hazim was not a friendly uncle figure. Uncle Hazim was more of the disciplinarian type. When Farfour was caught cheating on a test, Hazim yanked the mascot up from the desk by the ear. He showed some sympathy, however, for Farfour’s excuse, which was that the Israelis had destroyed his home and all his school materials along with it. Yes, Uncle Hazim and his animal friends regularly go off on anti-Israeli, anti-American, and anti-UN rants. Farfour and his mascot cohorts have a tendency to be shot or beaten to death by fictional Israelis, so the show has gone through a number of different cohosts. Al-Sha’arawi is currently a deputy director of the TV network, so expect more big scary things from him.
6. Mr. Wonder
In 1979 Frank John Selas III played Mr. Wonder on the TV children’s show of the same name. The show aired on KNOE-TV of Monroe, Louisiana, and became quite popular, it seemed- at least to children, who were bussed out from local schools to appear on his show. In a KNOE-TV news report from Jan 27, 2016, former staffer Susan Allain admitted that Selas “didn’t do anything to make anyone like him very much…I’ll put it that way.” Another former staffer, Ken Booth, noted that the show’s popularity didn’t have much to do with Mr.Wonder himself, who lacked “any professional polish much less ‘personality.'” Nevertheless, Mr Wonder was able to convince someone to allow him to organize camping trips for local children.
Like a select few of children’s TV hosts, Mr. Wonder had a dark side: a sexual predator dark side. He was accused of molesting children on a camping trip in Louisiana in 1979. Before he could be arrested, he vanished. Decades passed, and then early in 2016 Selas was tracked down in Bonito, California, where he had been living under an alias. According to law enforcement there, he had been banned from spending time with children by both the Boy Scouts and the Mormons, yet still he arranged to have children spend time with him by throwing free pool parties in his backyard. Selas has entered a not guilty plea and awaits trial in a Louisiana lock-up.
5. Onkel Reje
The star of the Danish children’s program Onkel Rejes Sørøvershow (Onkel Reje’s Pirate Show) started life as an avant-garde musician with the nickname Je m’appelle Mads. That’s a French sentence, yes, even though Mads Geertsen is Danish. Like I said, he’s avant-garde. Geertsen now works for the children’s network Ramasjang. Geertsen plays Onkel Reje, a bespeckled, potbellied, pipe-smoking pirate who likes to play tricks on his long-suffering sidekick Brille, who is a lankier version of Pee-wee Herman.
Onkel Reje’s show, like many Danish children’s shows, is very strange. In a recent episode I watched, a girl named Sukey sails up to Reje’s pirate ship in a bathtub and comes aboard. Reje stuffs nose plugs into Sukey’s nose, apparently because the ship stinks. He turns Sukey into a pirate and shows off his model of a three-masted ship, which is made entirely of dead fish. He goes snorkeling in a pair of pink and orange bikini bottoms. He and Sukey throw dead fish into the mouth of the god of the sea, Neptune, and deliver a fancy hat to a shirtless one-eyed peg-leg, who uses the hat to protect himself from the fallling poop of a circling seagull (pooping seagulls seem to be a recurring theme on the show). If I knew Danish, I would have more to report.
4. Sasuga Minami
Japanese television tends to creep out many non-Japanese people, so a Japanese children’s show, and the host of such a show, likely would automatically turn off a sizable segment of the population. The host of Miburi TV, Sasuga Minami, is a choreographer and dancer whose cheerful antics and loud clothing make her a type of clown figure that children supposedly are drawn to. Her purpose is to get children moving, so she follows in the new tradition of children’s TV shows that encourage mini couch potatoes to get off the couch and get some exercise. She is not to everyone’s taste, of course, which is fair enough.
Nevertheless, in one episode back in 2014, Minami wore a red-and-white checkered shirt with the phrases “I love c*ck,” “I love pu**y,” and “I love f*ck yeah.” Why? Errors in translation, she said in a press release she subsequently put out in response to the outrage of English speakers who caught sight of the outfit (among others she has worn, by the way, with similar slogans).
Minami continues to work with children. In September 2016 she entertained children in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. The clothing visible in the videos seems devoid of filthy language, so it appears that she has learned her lesson from the uproar of two years ago.
3. Vincent Price
Vincent Price once more put on the mantle of his horror film success for The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. This wacky, fantastic, Canadian children’s series aired its 13 episodes in 1971. As host, Price introduced segments of the various recurring characters, most of whom were played by the awesomely talented Billy Van. Even though all the characters were horror film staples (The Count, Igor, The Wolfman), none of the characters were particularly frightening. The exception was Vincent Price, who, although he spoke in rhyme and was not averse to say, roasting a rubber chicken with a giant cigarette lighter, managed to keep the creep factor in play, though in a good way. The opening of the show featured the disembodied head of Price reciting a Halloween-inspired ballad against a background of lightning flashes and the howl of wolves. His evil laugh cannot be matched by anyone else’s.
2. Rolf Harris
He became an English-language sensation with his goofy 1960s singalong “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” It turns out that all the jokes about that song’s sexual innuendo were not all that funny. Like Jimmy Savile, his English compatriot, Australian entertainer Rolf Harris was a serial sexual predator.
His shows on Australian and British TV included Rolf on Saturday OK! and Rolf Harris Cartoon Time, which, like many of his other TV shows, were geared towards young people. Unlike Savile, Harris’s on-screen persona was joyful and warm; he sang, danced, kicked around soccer balls, and drew cartoons. Also unlike Savile, Harris was found out before death could take him out of the law’s reach. In July 2014 he was convicted of 12 counts of indecent assault from incidents from the 1960s through the 1980s. Most of the victims were young girls, including his daughter’s friend. With a trial for eight new charges looming, the elderly Harris likely will spend the rest of his life in jail.
1. Jimmy Savile
Savile started as a DJ and night club manager but moved to radio and from there caught the attention of the ‘Beeb.’ He worked 30 years for the BBC both on radio and on television. Donating money to hospitals and children’s organizations granted him tremendous access to ill, weak, and defenseless people. His long-running TV series Jim’ll Fix It had him grant wishes to people, and his preferred subject of focus was children. The inquiry revealed that in his travels he had sexually assaulted thousands of people. His pop-eyed appearance, strange clothes, and odd mannerisms might have been a warning sign. Instead he was viewed as “eccentric” and a “star” who couldn’t be called out on his behaviour even though people in the industry had a pretty good idea of what a creep he was.
Savile was a lifelong sexual predator. He seems to have abused hundreds, even thousands of girls, boys, and women. Only after his death and after an 2011 inquiry by the BBC did the full extent of his unsuitability as the host of a children’s show come to public light, but evidence suggests that many people knew about Savile’s unsavoury interest in young people (or all people, for that matter).
Jimmy Savile found a kindred spirit in Australian pervert Rolf Harris. Reportedly the two of them once hung out together inside the Broodmoor psychiatric facility west of London, one of Savile’s favorite haunts (I mean charities), one day in July 1973 for no apparent reason that was obvious at the time. Earlier that day they had attended an outdoor fundraiser on the hospital grounds. The 2011 inquiry revealed that he and Harris had walked around Broadmoor leering at naked mental patients.