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Authors Pen Nostalgic Look at Cleveland Children's Television

photo of Mike Olszewski, Jan Olszewski
Jan and Mike Olszewski have written extensively on Cleveland television, music, and pop culture. Their latest book is 'Tales From the Golden Age of Cleveland Children's Television.'

A new book looks back at the days when kids in Northeast Ohio could channel surf between a toymaker, a woodsman, and a Superhost.

“What we're just trying to do is provide a time machine for so many people,” says Mike Olszewski. He and his wife, Jan, have written extensively on Northeast Ohio broadcasting and pop culture.

“’Big Chuck’ Schodowski actually came up to us and said, I want to thank you for writing those books; I use them for reference books for stuff I forgot.’ We don’t want anybody to forget.”

photo of Olszewski book
Credit GRAY & CO.
Mike Olszewski -- often working with his wife, Jan -- has written extensively on Northeast Ohio's pop culture history.

The early days of TV
Their latest book is “From Captain Penny to Superhost: Tales From the Golden Age of Cleveland Children’s Television,” which looks back at the era when kids were discovering a new medium, television.

“As we point out in the foreword: ‘OK, think about your 4th grade teacher; who was it? Who was your principal?’ You’ve got to think a little bit. But then, if you ask, ‘who was Barnaby’s invisible parrot?’ People say ‘Longjohn!’ right away. But that shows the influence that these people had on our lives. With the Baby Boomer generation, we embraced these people because they dressed differently, they acted differently, but at the same time they were saying, ‘let’s love everybody.’ They were sort of like looking at the hippies to come and saying, ‘let’s embrace a lot of these values.’

'Tell them Barnaby says...'
“Barnaby was probably around the longest. He was Uncle Leslie, then he became Barnaby – I’m talking about Linn Sheldon, of course – but then you’ve got guys like Ron Penfound who played Captain Penny. And of course Superhost was the last of the great ones that came up. And let’s not forget Woodrow - - Clay Conroy – I keep saying it: if there was a Mount Rushmore of Cleveland kids’ show hosts, all of these guys would loom large.”

But as the book points out, most of these characters were just one piece of a multi-faceted career that could

photo of Linn Sheldon
Credit WKYC-TV3
Linn Sheldon portrayed Barnaby on-and-off from the 1950s until 1990 in a career that also included music and vaudeville.

include everything from vaudeville to journalism.

The Captain
“Ron Penfound started out to become a minister. But his roommate at Kenyon College was having so much fun in the acting programs, he said, ‘well maybe I should also get into showbiz.’ I should also say that his roommate was Paul Newman. But so many of them were also doing a lot of different jobs at the station. Somebody like Ron Penfound: he was Captain Penny two or three times a day at one point, but he was also a sportscaster and was the voiceover guy and they all did production."

'Gimme dat shoe'
“And it was the same thing with all of them. Like Superhost – Marty Sullivan – he was a floor director, he did voiceovers, he did news, but then he was also the guy with the red nose and the cape.”

photo of Martin Sullivan, Superhost
Credit WUAB-TV43
Marty Sullivan played Superhost for two decades on WUAB, mixing -- at various times -- old movies, Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy shorts, and cartoons. Sullivan also worked as a news anchor and floor director at the station until retiring in the 1990s.

The opening sequence for “Superhost” – with the catchphrase “gimme dat shoe” -- is still familiar to fans of Cleveland TV. The show debuted in 1969 -- the same year as “Sesame Street.” Olszewski says the availability of Big Bird, Oscar and Elmo is a small part of why local kids shows eventually died out in Cleveland. Another was simply the economics of running syndicated shows versus originating entirely new programs. But there were some brief revivals in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

“IGA, the grocers, they actually sponsored Woodrow when he came back. And it basically became a kids’ show host for adults because they all remembered the old Woodrow. And it was the funniest thing: if you looked at Saturday mornings on WJW in the early 1990s when he came back, you saw that maybe the ratings weren’t there for kids -- it was almost zero for 0-10 years old -- but the adults were all tuning in! Because this is the guy that we all remembered.”

But eventually, that went away, too. Today, there are few surviving clips available since videotape was so expensive in the 1960s and ‘70s. Most live programs were considered disposable -- whether they were kids’ shows or not. But Olszewski hopes people can still recall their childhoods with his new book.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.