Put your toys away, don't delay! WCPO has an 'Uncle Al' retrospective on the way
WCPO-TV to air one-hour special about the beloved "Uncle Al" children's TV show Sunday, Nov. 6.
"Put your toys away, don't delay. Help your Mommy have a happy day."
If you know that song, then WCPO-TV's special about the Uncle Al Show is for you. Cincinnati's Uncle Al, a one-hour retrospective airing 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, on Channel 9, is the station's first retrospective of the popular children's TV show broadcast from 1950 to 1985.
"Uncle Al" Lewis entertained youngsters in the WCPO-TV studio and on the airwaves with songs, drawings, exercises, costumes, traffic safety lessons and a rousing rendition of the "Hokey Pokey” on his accordion for 35 years. His wife, Wanda, joined him in 1956 as sidekick "Captain Windy," in her white boots and cape.
Wearing a bow tie and straw hat, the Cincinnati TV icon hosted one of the longest running local children’s shows in U.S. television history. The Uncle Al Show also was broadcast nationally by ABC for a year on Saturday morning from WCPO-TV in 1958-59.
For Cincinnati's Uncle Al, filmmaker Billy Miossi and WCPO-TV producer-editor Jeremy Glover combine old film and video from the show with new interviews with former WCPO-TV staffers who worked on the show, historians, viewers and two of Al and Wanda's daughters, Diane and Lori. Al Lewis died in 2009at 84; Wanda died in 2020 at 94.
"I had the tremendous fortune of having access to WCPO 9’s treasure trove of Uncle Al archival material," Miossi said in the station's announcement. "Hundreds of hours of shows, most not seen since their original airing, were digitized for this film. That, combined with interviews with those who knew Al and Wanda Lewis best, including his daughters and those who worked on the show, this documentary is a nostalgic journey back into the world that was the Uncle Al Show.’”
Miossi's lineup also includes former Channel 9 employees Rick Reeves, Jim Timmerman, Mike Imfeld (who played sidekick Lucky the Clown at the end of the show’s run), organist Dave McMahan, Paula Watters (widow of General Manager Mort Watters), Mike Gall, and Gina Ruffin Moore; local broadcasting historians Jim Friedman and Mike Martin; WCPO-TV news anchor Tanya O'Rourke; former news anchor Cammy Dierking; and — full disclosure — me.
The Uncle Al Show broadcast about 14,000 episodes, entertaining two generations of area children and providing special memories for those kids (including me) who attended a live broadcast. Many parents (including mine) bought a souvenir 8x10-inch glossy photo of all the kids on the show that day with Uncle Al and Captain Windy.
On each show, the kids always sang "Put Your Toys Away," written by Mike Tangi, best known in Cincinnati in the 1970s as the Kwik Brothers (he played twin song-and-dance pitchmen for King Kwik markets). Kids cavorted around with simple cardboard cutouts of fire trucks, space ships, race cars and other things created by Lewis, the TV station art director. And when Uncle Al wanted to make something appear — or disappear, they'd all say, "Alakazam one, Alakazam two, poof!"
The kids at the show also participated in live commercials for loyal Uncle Al sponsors: Mama's Cookies, Kahn's Hot Dogs, Barq's sodas, S&H Green Stamps, Al Naish movers and Albers supermarkets.
"My fans are the ones who can get mommy to buy products," Lewis once told a reporter. "At the age I get them, they demand and receive!"
His young viewers occasionally saw celebrities on the program, too. Dick Van Dyke, Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger), Art Linkletter, Danny Kaye, Cesar Romero, and Reds greats Johnny Bench and Ted Kluszewski visited the show. Jackie Gleason did the "Hokey Pokey" with Lewis. Shirley Temple once sat in the audience.
Born Albert Lewis Slowik in Cleveland in 1924, he was hired by WCPO-TV as art director after graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1949, as Scripps Howard's WCPO-AM was starting its television station. Al met Wanda at the Cleveland art school.
Lewis first appeared with his accordion on TV at 11 p.m. on Club Midnight, where he basically performed his Cleveland nightclub act with a 16-piece orchestra five nights a week, Lewis told me when he retired in 1988.
Station manager Watters told him to "Get your accordion, get out there in the studio and do a show," Lewis said. "What I did is what I did in the nightclubs. We did music, and we took requests on the air," he said.
In the early 1950s, he hosted a weekday show called Al's Drug Store. One hot day, he opened the studio doors and invited some kids into the studio. They jumped up and down as he played accordion.
"From there on, the idea of a kiddie show just grew. It happened so suddenly I sometimes worried about running out of kids, but the kids kept coming," he said in a 1958 interview.
Uncle Al was so hugely popular that when Lewis — a pilot who owned 11 different airplanes throughout his TV career — once flew Santa into Lunken Field traffic was snarled for miles.
In 1961, after WCPO-TV switched network affiliation from ABC to CBS, the Uncle Al Show followed CBS' popular Captain Kangaroo children's show starring Bob Keeshan. In the 1950s, Keeshan "would come down many times and sit in our control room and watch our show. We became great friends," Lewis said in 1988, before retiring to his farm in Hillsboro.
In his retirement interview, Lewis explained his TV longevity this way:
"One of the successes of our show was that I got down on my knees, and I played it on their level. I wasn't an adult talking down to them. That magic of those children was so powerful. And it's out there now, but no one does anything about it."
Cincinnati's Uncle Al airs 7-8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, on WCPO-TV. America's Funniest Home Videos will be delayed until 1 a.m. late Sunday/early Monday. Viewers can also watch the documentary starting Nov. 6 by searching for "WCPO 9" on their favorite streaming device.