Legend of Local TV, Sonny Fox Made Children Feel Less Alone

'Wonderama' and the power of a child’s interior life

Sonny Fox.
Sonny Fox on Wonderama. YouTube

“Space is as important in communicating to another person as talking. You do not have to overload the other person with words and ideas and smiles all at once. You can allow space, smile, say something, and then allow a gap, and then talk, and then space, punctuation…You do not have to be self-conscious and rigid about allowing space; just feel the natural flow of it.”

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This shimmering quote from the Buddhist sage Chögyam Trungpa may seem to have precious little application to the world of children’s television, or the noisy blurts of distraction and short-handed ideas that largely comprise millennial entertainment. But the 1960s were a very different time, and legendary children’s television host Sonny Fox was an absolutely unique presence in American television.

“One of the things I had was time,” remembers Fox, who ruled children’s television in the New York area between 1958 and 1967, when he hosted Wonderama every Sunday on WNEW.

“I had four hours, so I could watch the kid after he said his first sentence, stop talking, and keep on watching him or her, and then pause, and then the kid would start up again, and that’s when the gold would come out. You had to have time for that. Remember, when I was doing it, to change the channel you had to get off the sofa, go over to the television set, and change the bloody channel. Now the kids have the wands in their hands, and everyone is afraid that if we take a breath, click, they’re on to something else. So it has made silence, such as we had on my show, or time, such as we had on Wonderama, precious and almost non-existent.”

The name Sonny Fox is almost certainly not familiar to many of you, but almost every single person born in the New York area between 1948 and 1963 will not only know this name instantly, it will also make them smile.

“Your kid has an interior life that you’re not even listening to.”

Sonny Fox was a man who held our attention and our hearts, who understood the giant depth of childhood.

Do you remember, being 7, 8, 9, even 5, how absolutely fully human you were? You had it going on when you were 6 years old, didn’t you? Your friends were just the right height, and they all looked like perfectly normally proportioned human people. And your life was a beautiful and complicated mixture of reality and fantasy and responsibility and idle dreaming and, of course, Spaghetti O’s.

“Your kid has an interior life that you’re not even listening to,” notes Fox, who understood the depth and the little-person-ness of childhood as perhaps no other children’s television host or producer ever did.

Sonny Fox was your guide, his rich voice and sweet, glowing gaze occupies a place in your memory where there is room for nothing but joy. In an uncomplicated time, full of the silver and blue and orange of the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion, when peacocks flared their symmetrical tails in Living Color and the Theme to a Summer Place hummed happily over coloring-book sepia images of The Circle Line, he is there. He stands, strong and avuncular, as wise as a much-loved social studies teacher, in the hearts of our childhood, dispensing compassion and advice, looking us in the eye, never talking down to us. He was the Carson of our elementary school years.

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And Sonny Fox, host of WNEW’s Sunday morning leviathan and pre-pubescent habit, Wonderama, from 1959 until 1967, was so very, very much more.

Fox also hosted the pioneering live-location kids’ show, Let’s Take A Trip, on cbs from 1955 to 1958. At a time when television cameras were massive, half-automobile-sized instruments that moved with the grace of iron godzillas, it was virtually the first show on television to drag cameras outside of the studio for a live look at the spontaneous world.

Around the same time, Fox, with his leading-man looks and easygoing manner, was a go-to guy as a replacement host during the wild and wooly days of live prime time games shows. He only managed to avoid the famous Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s by a peculiar bumble of history that would have been career-crushing to many others: At the climax of an episode arc of $64,000 Challenge in 1956, instead of asking a contestant (actually, actor Vincent Price) the big-money question, Fox accidentally told him the answer.

This act helped close the chapter on Fox’s future as a quizmaster, but it opened up a whole new world to him, which made him a fixture in the heart of pretty much every baby boomer raised in the tri-state area.

And he did it without a single bulbous red nose, without the kinky orange curl of a frightwig, without a puppet, without a floppy-shoed character or rubbery truncheon.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oCKG-oASII&w=560&h=315]

“In short I had no talent,” Fox says.

“That’s true! In terms of performing, I didn’t have anything. I had four hours to fill, I had no production budget, I had very few resources. There were three other guys on the station at the same time—Soupy Sales, Chuck McCann, and Sandy Becker—all very, very talented people. Sandy did wonderful puppets, Soupy did wonderful, ludicrous burlesque comedy, and Chuck was—he was Little Orphan Annie one day, the bad ventriloquist the next—he wore costumes, he worked his ass off—they all did. As a matter of fact, Sandy, and to some extent Soupy, sort of resented me, because they didn’t have any idea why I was popular, because I wasn’t a performer! I did nothing, apparently. That’s the contrast: for them, the kids were the audience, for me, the kids were the show.”

Irwin “Sonny” Fox is still a very, very active (nearly) 92-year-old man; not only is he a legend of New York television, not only is he one of the most loved and remembered children’s television hosts in history, not only was he a remarkable witness to the dawn of American television and the remarkable era of headline-making quiz shows, not only is he a former German Prisoner of War captured in the Battle of the Bulge, but he remained active in television long after Wonderama, and helped create a unique world-wide initiative to use television as a social teaching tool in the third world nations.

The story of Fox’s absolutely unique life, from Kinescopes to Concentration Camps (and close friendships with John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy somewhere in between) is extremely well told in his compelling autobiography, But You Made the Front Page: Wonderama, Wars, and a Whole Bunch of Life. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to speak with this unique pioneer, this rich and warm and well-remembered voice from our past.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Kt-SzifHeY&w=560&h=315]

You still hold such a strong place in people’s memories and hearts.

I am as amazed as you are at the vividness of the memories. That’s both wonderful and it’s frightening; it’s frightening to the extent that we continue to put stuff out there for kids without thinking about what we’re doing without realizing what a terrific and impressive thing you are doing for kids, and how they will carry along those memories for years and well into their adulthood.

One lesson to take away from it is that we have to be pretty careful how we deal with kids in our offhand way, because we don’t respect the space that we occupy in their young, growing minds as they pass through our lives.

But what was it? I represented to them the father, the uncle, the brother, the family member with whom they could feel comfortable, respected, learn from, have fun with, not feel threatened by, but whom they knew valued them. No matter how much fun they had, the child knew that I was not going to demean them or think they were silly or foolish and play down to them.

I sort of made them come up to the level I thought they’d probably be O.K. with, and sometimes beyond that. And even when I failed, I figured, O.K., the act of reaching for that may have helped them grow. And I learned from them, and they understood that I was really enjoying being with them. And I was.

That’s what sustained me for eight and a half years. It wasn’t just a job; it was something I absolutely looked forward to every week for the challenges, the opportunities, the surprises that might come out. Every week when the kids assembled there, it was a whole new enjoyable festival for me of interacting with these young people.

“That’s the contrast [between me and other children’s TV hosts]—for them, the kids were the audience, for me, the kids were the show.”

You worked on Candid Microphone (a show on the ABC radio network in the late 1940s, which evolved into the legendary television show Candid Camera). That was the first show to do anything remotely like that. Was that the birth, as it were, of reality television?

I could say Let’s Take a Trip was the birth of reality TV. In 1955, it was the first weekly scheduled remote live television series. Not just kid series—any series. We were pioneers—we didn’t have the stuff they have today, miniature cameras and all that stuff, we trundled the studio cameras out of the studio, those big heavy cameras with the dollies on them, and the coaxial cable was thicker than a man’s thigh, and we had to snake those all over, every week was an adventure, we really were pioneers in doing this. And no tape—we were live. So when you were out on location and a camera went out, you had to work around it.

In one single week in 1958, you hosted a different show on all three networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC).

That came about because I was doing game shows a lot. I was very quick at grasping the rules and the rhythms of the show. I didn’t like doing game shows; I was not a good game show host, which I proved eventually. See, I had to play the part of a game show host, and I’m really only good at playing me. I also became the go-to guy when one of the regular hosts went on vacation, because they knew that I would not fuck up the show, yet I was not a threat to whoever was on there. I was a good utility infielder, as it were. A lot of Goodson Todman shows. I took out an ad in Variety after that which said, “Boy, Am I Tired.”

If you hadn’t been derailed by the humorous incident on The $64,000 Challenge—well, it probably didn’t seem humorous at the time—with your voice, your looks, your thick head of hair, and your ability to interact with contestants, you probably could have continued to do game shows for another 50 or 60 years.

Yes. And I never would have done Wonderama. I would have been a star of game shows, making a huge amount of money, and never, ever did anything that impacted the way Wonderama did.

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Were you ever approached to do an “adult” talk show, or one of the late-night shows?

Somebody told me that I was passed over a couple of times to fill in as the host on the Today show because they didn’t like the name Sonny, they didn’t think that had enough class. I don’t know if a late-night slot was ever considered. But the fact is, by 1970 I wanted not to be a performer any more, I really wanted to be a producer, and I deliberately removed myself from that arena.

You were involved in putting Tom Snyder’s late-night show on the air on NBC in 1973.

Yes, that’s true, I opened up that whole new slot, between 1 and 2 in the morning. There were two Tom Snyder shows—the part I produced, and the part everyone else produced. They were going after cross dressers, and people at the fringes of society—I wanted to do unique stories, but stories that were more within the fabric of America.

What projects have you been involved with for the last five years?

Aside from survival?

Yes, aside from survival.

The last thing I did was to be the consultant on a Hulu hit show called East Los High, which is aimed at Latino teenagers, and that work was an outgrowth of what we did during my time as chairman of the board at PCI [Population Communications International].

At PCI, for the last 25 years, I was dealing with how to tap into the power of storytelling to change social and health outcomes. So here I am, I started in radio in ’48 and I’m doing digitized television as late as 2014.

Now I am trying to complete the funding for what I hope will be a documentary on an extraordinary program out here [in Los Angeles] called College Match, which picks kids out of the poorest high schools in their sophomore year and gets them in a program—there were 175 kids in it this year—and after two years of coaching they get accepted into the best four year colleges, including Harvard and Yale, Wellesley and Smith, places like that, and those kids are graduating their colleges in four years at a 95 percent rate.

This is a very community bottom-up kind of thing and I want to do this documentary so that other communities get the sense that this is something they can do, too, and we will be prepared to help them set up similar programs in their communities, and that we can replicate it around the country. I only have half a million so far and I need a million more. Anybody out there with a million bucks, call me.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQnXknnCdoc&w=560&h=315]

In regard to the extraordinary work you did with PCI, it seems fairly unique to have an organization trying to impact and shape media content that wasn’t coming from a right-wing perspective.

It came in response to the population explosion. Basically, what we ended up pioneering, and then doing all around the world, still, is trying to tap into the power of storytelling to effect social and health outcomes. Once you get into that, you begin to see the incredible potency in that.

We had been doing it overseas for a few years quite effectively when I decided, well, we’re raising our money in this country yet nobody knows us here, why don’t we do something here? And that’s when I started the soap summits, which were very effective.

And I also revolutionized the way the CDC dealt with the issues in terms of outreach to the creative community. The CDC then discovered this and became very involved, it generated a model, the BBC then did it, and then suddenly USAID is doing it, so it’s become an accepted mode of operation.

When I was doing Wonderama, I kept thinking, what am I going to do with this power? One of the things we did, is I figured we could help clean up New York.

I said to the kids, meet me in Central Park, and 15,000 of them showed up, many with their parents at 9 o’clock one Sunday morning, and we swept trough the park, and I got the mayor there, I got the park commissioner there, garbage trucks and everything, and we changed the culture of New York just a little bit with that one thing.

Ever since then, I was aware of the impact this medium can have. And I have always been thinking about different ways to do that. So when this entered my life, it sort of became an extension of that.

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Considering how radically different the media environment is today for a child than it was 50 years ago, you sound surprisingly optimistic.

I was approached by some who had bought the title, Wonderama. ­I said, I don’t know what you think you bought when you bought the title, because a lot of people did a show called Wonderama, and it was different each time. I wasn’t especially impressed by their plans.

But it made me think, what would I do if I did Wonderama these days? And I thought, because I am still interested in the interior life kids have in their heads, how do we tap into that without having the time or the studio that I had?

Well, I think when the kids shuts their door and go to their computer in their bedrooms, much of the time they’re creating things: they’re creating cartoons, they’re creating poems, they are drawing, they are creating characters, whatever. So I would tap into that—I would say, let’s make a show produced by the kids, out of what they do on their own, and then have little interviews with them via Skype.

You don’t need a studio, you don’t need any of that. You just do it with kids straight out of their home. I think that’s today’s way of doing Wonderama, if I was going to do that again.

So many people would say it’s so much harder to be a child in 2017. You’re not going to that place at all.

Oh, no. I think kids have a lot more stuff available for their joy and their activities then we ever had. We had some many fewer resources. Today, kids can go anywhere in the world on their computers. They can be as fanciful as they want, they can be as creative as their want, right in their own bedroom. It’s extraordinary. The whole world is there for them. That’s not to say that’s enough, but it’s a lot more to start out with then we had.

On Saturday, April 29, Sonny Fox hosts a fundraiser at his alma mater James Madison High School, 3787 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, where he’ll speak about his time on Wonderama, show clips, and share other stories of his extraordinary life. The doors open ay 12:45 p.m., admission is $15. For further information, contact Marty Alpert, martymwa@aol.com.

Legend of Local TV, Sonny Fox Made Children Feel Less Alone