It is about time for another one of those “whatever happoned to Icky Twerp” articles. About every two years since I left Channel ll’s “Slam Bang Theatre” in 1972, a reporter or freelance writer has called to suggest an article on my old friend and alter ego, Icky Twerp. Also, from time to time. Icky will pop up in a trivia piece paired with Candy Barr or another local celebrity from the Fifties or Sixties.
These moments when people recognize my former persona are always gratifying, and it’s nice to see that Old Icky made a lasting impression on the youngsters of North Texas-even if it is depressing to add up the years since these bright young (and sometimes fetching) journalists “watched the show as little kids.”
But this time, I wanted to write the story myself. Not because the new wave of media writers are not good at it. They simply leave out much of the real story (as I saw it) and concentrate on their own childhood images. Kid shows (and kid stars) were not pure fun and games. It’was show biz, but it was also a business, a profit machine that is now obsolete for reasons of marketplace and regulations.
Kid shows like “Slam Bang Theatre” began with an eye on what was not yet called the bottom line, In the Fifties the major film studios released to program-hungry television stations their huge libraries of cartoons and some of their two-reel comedies (“Little Rascals,” etc.)- The stations took this odd-length (five to seven minutes) material and assigned staff “actors” to fill in the air time necessary to make the short subjects come out into television’s traditional half-hour segments.
These local cowboys, sailors, and puppets caught on with the viewing kids as familiar friends and playmates of the screen. Then the sponsors realized the possible value of these local “stars” as pitchpersons for their stores and products and their drawing power at grand openings and storewide sales, and a genre was born. Thus, the kid show became a profitable product for local stations, both in direct sales of commercials and in general audience acceptance.
Programs like ours were popular for years, combining good film product, local showmanship, and lots of audience involvement through contests and promotions. We became apart of the lives of the kids by involving ourselves in their world of school, games, and play. Consequently, the kids at home had “good friends” on their TV sets available all of their waking day. We became their playmate, their loving uncle, and their source of escape and entertainment. Shows like “Slam Bang Theatre,” originally designed to make short film come out in measured time periods, became institutions.
And how was it all done? When the youngsters watched “Slam Bang Theatre,” they saw a troupe of energetic, lively, crazy, and boisterous people bouncing about to the ragtime theme music and singing at the top of their lungs. Did we go down to the station every morning in time (and in shape) for a 7 a.m. romp? Certainly not. We taped all of the week’s shows on Tuesday night from 6 until midnight in short segments.
We were all part-time “actors” with no production budget and no outside writers (the rest of our days were spent doing our regular forty-hour per week jobs), and the people who worked on “Slam Bang Theatre” understood the necessity for no-budget production. It was our station, and anything that we could do to make it popular, we felt, was part of our job.
Let’s admit it at the outset: “Slam Bang Theatre” was not exactly Shakespeare. Scripts were flimsy at best. Only in the beginning were fairly complete scripts written (by me or any other person on the crew who had an idea), and we quickly learned to improvise. The first “take” was usually the last unless profanity crept in or one of the actors broke up completely under the pressure of an ad lib. Many of the sketches on the old tapes that are still around are basically very funny, though some look crude because there was not time for rehearsal or polish. With thirty sketches to produce in about four hours, almost everything we did got on the air.
A shooting night would find two hot cameras, about three sets, a stage crew (doubling also as apes and actors), a director, and anywhere from two to twenty “volunteers.” Sometimes these were drama students from Paschal or TCU, sometimes girlfriends and boyfriends of the staff. Everybody who wanted to “he on TV” got to. Nobody sulked in the trailer, either. A basic outline for our sketches was jotted down on a piece of paper; just a few words outlining the plot, the ultimate punch line, and a note as to any spe-cial effects constituted a script. Here’s one:
Twerp in store. Blotz sells shoes. No fit. Lavender in. Blatz sells him Twerps shoes. Twerp buys own shoes from Lavender. Blotz takes dough. They wreck store over $. Twerp exits. FOC
Yes. that’s a real script for a real routine. The term “FOC.” invented by us, means Fade On Confusion. In other words, we had no idea how to finish the bit.
Many great “running” plots and characters came to life during the thirteen years of “Slain Bang Theatre.” Phil Crow as Constable Cavendish and Lavender Louie gave us brilliant moments of unrehearsed comedy. His physical moves rival those of Dick Van Dyke. Clem Candelaria as the irascible Blotz (Merchant of Sleazy Merchandise) could grab center screen with a wry wrinkle of his mustache. Frank Benton created the maddening role of Adolph, the 200-pound kid in ruffles who knew no real words. Martin Rodriguez as Machismo, the teenaged magician was captivating with his innocent confusion (most of it caused by his unintelligible recorded mother). Lynn Bove was the perfect dingy blonde. Dave Naugle sparkled in Faugle Naugle roles. They were just a few of the dozens who walked on, created a memorable character, and moved along.
Then there were the apes. Trivia fans, pause a moment and cast yourself back to the Sixties. Got the names? Ajax, Delphinium. Caladium, Arkadelphia. and Linoleum. In the original format, they were the pit orchestra for the theater. (Yes. the idea for musical apes was blatantly stolen from Ernie Kovacs’s “Nairobi Trio” routine.) As time went on, the apes became Twerp’s companions. Probably fifty people played the primates over the years. A barrel of costumes and masks was on the set. The order to “suit up” would produce two, three, four, or five apes from among the stage crew and bystanders.
But “Slam Bang Theatre” was not just a bunch of good friends in a studio having a blast making comedy. We also made personal appoarances in the community, plunging into the real world of knee-high fans by the hundreds. It was hot, sweaty work in summer, and cold, depressing work in the winter. Kids in groups of several hundred are scary, particularly if they are all pushing, shoving, and shouting, and the little ones are in front of the advancing waves of big ones. And kids are scary in twos and threes on cold winter days at hamburger stand openings when very few people come out and the manager is mad because he paid fifty dollars for the gig. The two or three who were dropped off for the afternoon while mom went shopping considered, you their personal property.
The primary embarrassment about personal appearances came when the store manager would ask, “Well, what do you plan to do?” The answer (without a full crew to produce the show) was simple: “Just shake hands and give out pictures?” More often than not, the reply would be: “Oh! Well, don’t you do something, like tie balloons?”. . “No”.. .”Oh.” A few hours of embarrassed silence usually followed.
Some personal appearances were downright dangerous. We were always a part of the Free Show on the Dr Pepper stage at the State Fair. We were booked for the 8 p.m. show (the last one) our final year. Most of the little kids had gone home, leaving a crowd with an average age of about twenty and an average weight of probably 190. Phil Crow, Clem Candelaria, and Buddy Karr were along as apes.
After the opening dialogue, the crowd decided to take a part in the show. The air smelled funny from something they were smoking in the first few rows. Then I heard the leader shout “Hey! I want Icky’s ears!” They came up over the footlights like a wave. The four of us formed a wedge and headed for a metal implement shed behind the stage used as a dressing room. We made it in, locked the door, and huddled in fear while “the fans” clamored around the metal rooftop. The police came. We left.
I’m often asked whether it was hard to walk away from show business. Some people assume that being known to every child (and former child) in a twenty-two-county area is always a benefit. But the question should really be two. What was it like to be “famous” and what is it like now? It is apparently true that if you once achieve notoriety, you will almost always have notoriety. This is especially true if your exposure was to thousands of children. They will be alive (and remembering) for a long, long time.
A recent research project studying name recognition in North Texas included Icky Twerp in a list of well-known personalities of the Sixties (Mary Martin, Lance Rentzel, Preston Smith, etc.). More than 60 percent of the population between the ages of twenty-one and forty recalled Icky. Even after fourteen years of absence from the tube, it is still likely that any trip out of the house provides a better than even chance of recognition.
There are some benefits to this type of “fame.” Sometimes you get good service at restaurants, and (sometimes) it’s easier to get a check cashed. Still, it is almost impossible to answer the question “Why did you ever give that up?” It appears that everyone’s dream is to be on television. Hardly anyone wants to believe that there is rarely a way to earn a full living (even a small one) being a TV kid-show host. There are some things about the entertainment business that nobody wants to believe. So, they don’t.
Some things about having an “image” make life harder. Discussing serious business is complicated when someone at the conference table sees you in his or her mind’s eye with a wig and hat on your head. Credibility is tough to maintain through a haze of fond childhood memories. Your education, business experience, and other credentials are less important than their memory of a slapstick routine with a bunch of apes.
Also, you can’t mishehave in public. Over the years, a million or so kids from this area have grown up and spread out all over the country. I have run into former fans driving cabs in San Francisco, on airplanes between Washington and Miami, in Los Angeles hotel lobbies, and even in Grand Island, Nebraska. In the days when the show was on the air, smoking or drinking in public was absolutely out. I even had small business cards printed to sign and give to parents (for their kids) when asked for autographs in nightclubs. No bar napkin signatures for Icky!
Perhaps worst of all, your family becomes saturated with the TV identity. When my children were small, they were welcomed into any social circle and promptly nicknamed “Little Twerp.” People always expected them to be funny. Their loss of personal identity was my most compelling reason for leaving the role.
Despite these problems, I have reaped some real rewards in recent years when the former kids (now in their twenties, thirties, and forties) recall their days in front of the screen. Few say more than “I used to watch you when I was a kid,” but there is a fondness about the way they say it and the look in their eyes. I can tell that their hours with “Slam Bang Theatre” are treasured in their memories as good times. They tell me, in many ways, “It was good that you gave us that entertainment and we rememher it fondly.” That is what I think I hear them saying, and what I want to hear them say.