Remembering Wanda Lewis, TV's Capt. Windy, Dead At 94
Update at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 19: Retired WCPO-TV program director Rick Reeves says he learned about Cincinnati's love for the Uncle Al Show shortly after he was hired by the station. The popular WCPO-TV children's show – hosted by Al Lewis and wife Wanda – was the first telecast from the new 17,556-seat Riverfront Coliseum (now Heritage Bank Arena) in 1975.
He watched the 1989 video below on this blog about Wanda's death, and emailed me this:
"Wanda was a real lady, always looking on the positive side… It was fun to see the scenes from the show at the coliseum. We were invited to do that show as a 'shakedown' for the brand new facility. I was fairly new at the station and I worried that the (Uncle Al) show wasn’t large scale enough for the setting, so I scrambled and booked some circus acts, and convinced the Lipenzzaner horses to do a bit as well.
"I was amazed when the thousands present sat on their hands through those acts, and then screamed in delight, all participating with Al and Wanda as they did the Hokey Pokey, et al. Hokey material indeed was still popular in Cincinnati, and those audiences were loyal way beyond the time when TV moved past them.
"I was program director when the show ended, and was replaced by Regis Philbin and Kathy Lee Gifford. We thought in terms of audience flow then, from adults viewing the CBS morning news to adults with Regis, and on to adults with CBS game shows. The ratings did improve with the move, but it was certainly hard to participate in and totally agree with the decision (ultimately made by then GM Bob Regalbuto) to end an era."
Original post noon Tuesday, Aug. 18: Cincinnati TV pioneer Wanda Lewis, best known as Capt. Windy on the Uncle Al Show, has died at age 94.
Lewis, widow of longtime children's TV host "Uncle Al" Lewis, was a WCPO-TV staff artist who started her on-air career in the early 1950s on WCPO-TV's Paul Dixon Show, where she pantomimed, danced and drew pictures to popular records.
The Uncle Al Show broadcast 14,000 episodes over 35 years on WCPO-TV (1950-85), entertaining two generations of area children and providing special memories for those kids (including me) who attended a live broadcast. Uncle Al also aired one year on the ABC network, from Oct. 18, 1958 to Sept. 19, 1959, according to Alex McNiel's "Total Television."
Reflecting on her career in a 1989 Channel 9 special, Wanda said: "You're working so hard, and so busy, that the years go by, and you don't realize what a fantastic life it has been until you stop and look back, and say, 'Gee, it was fantastic. That was great. Wasn't it fantastic?' "
Wanda was always upbeat and positive when we spoke, including when I interviewed the couple at Channel 9 in December 1985 as they were retiring.
This 11-minute clip from Channel 9's Uncle Al Through The Years in 1989 by producer-director Jan Greathouse shows Capt. Windy's entrance by "flying" Superman-style with her cape blowing in the breeze. You'll also see her doing a live commercial for Mama's Cookies, lip-syncing to a Barq's soda commercial, and Wanda and Al on their 200-acre Hillsboro farm where they raised daughters Diane, Sharon, Yvonne and Lori.
Wanda joined her accordion-playing husband on the show in 1956. That would have been after Dixon left WCPO-TV in 1955 to do his show from New York on the short-lived DuMont network, and after the birth of some of some of her daughters.
Her Capt. Windy costume "was a short skirt, blouse and matching shiny cape. Many mothers would come and bring their daughters to the show wearing a duplicate of my outfit. I loved it," Wanda told the Enquirer in 1985.
Uncle Al also did holiday specials, and released a record album.
Dixon, Wanda Lewis, Dotty Mack and producer Len Goorian invented TV programming as they went along in the early 1950s. Dixon, a popular WCPO radio DJ, transitioned to TV shortly after the station went on the air in July 26,1949 as Channel 7. Dixon, Wanda and Dotty pantomimed to 78 rpm records – the first music videos! – that people also heard on the radio.
Here's a Dixon Show clip that's probably from 1951, since the three stars dance to Perry Como's "No Boat Like A Row Boat" released in 1951. Dixon also tells viewers his show will be broadcast on ABC on Wednesday nights. The Complete Directory To Prime-Time To Network And Cable TV Shows says Paul Dixon aired on ABC at 8 p.m. Wednesdays in August-September 1951.
It's a wonderful example of that prime-time entertainment looked like 70 years ago, in TV's infancy. About six minutes into the video, Wanda shows off her artistic talent. Viewers only saw her hand drawing a picture in white paint on glass to Vic Damone's "Longing For You." The rest of her was hidden behind a black curtain.
Before the song, Dixon says: "We'd like to introduce the hand of our next artist, just the hand. Because Wanda Lewis, the other member of this trio that makes up this Paul Dixon Show, you'll see just her hand on this, and then we'll bring her out in just a little while."
Wanda started by drawing a man, on his knee. Then she drew his girlfriend standing to his left. After the song, Wanda cheerfully joined Dixon on the main set.
WANDA: "Hi Paul! Hi everybody!"
PAUL: "How ya doing tonight?"
WANDA: "I'm wonderful! I'm doing great!"
Wanda and Al Lewis were inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' "Silver Circle" in 2004. Al died at their Hillsboro farm in 2009 at 84. They have 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, according to WCPO.
Services for Wanda will be private.