Remembering a Chicago classic: Frazier Thomas

May 3, 2010

One of the joys of growing up here in the '60s and '70s was the common connection we shared with the hosts of our favorite children's shows. In those days, "Chicago's Very Own," as WGN-Channel 9 was called, employed a cadre of talented performers whose careers revolved around amusing, engaging and entertaining us kids. Ray Rayner, Roy Brown, Ned Locke and the greatest of all, Bob Bell, became members of our collective family. As Bob Sirott noted in his foreword to the book Chicago Television: "They greeted us, kept us company and never left without saying goodbye."


Frazier Thomas

One more personality on that list (though he differed from the others in many respects) was Frazier Thomas, whose 34 years on the air here left an indelible impression on local television --  and on the countless kids who watched him every day. Twenty-five years after his death, his name still evokes warm, nostalgic memories of afternoons in front of the tube.

Frazier was best known as the host of "Garfield Goose and Friends," in which he played prime minister to a hand puppet who wore a crown, lived in a castle and believed he was "king of the United States." Frazier conceived the character in Cincinnati, based on childhood memories of nuns in his neighborhood who'd entertain children with a puppet they called "The Hungry Goose." When Frazier came to Chicago in 1951, he brought Garfield Goose with him. Recalled chicagotelevision.com historian Steve Jajkowski:

"Right from the beginning it was evident that Thomas was not your ordinary kid show host buffoon. Television critic of the time Jack Mabley praised Thomas and the series for the use of the well-respected Encyclopedia Britannica films. With [puppeteer Bruce] Newton operating Garfield from behind a scrim, early regular features of the program were 'the magic drawing board' (another Newton creation), which was used to illustrate the stories and songs narrated by Thomas."

By the mid-'50s, Frazier and Garfield were ensconced at Channel 9 and joined by a cast of characters including Romberg Rabbit, Macintosh Mouse and Beauregard Burnside 3d, created and operated by Roy Brown. When asked why Garfield couldn't talk, Frazier once said: "If I had a talking goose, that would not be realistic."

Following the retirement of Ringmaster Ned Locke from "Bozo's Circus" in 1976, Frazier joined that long-running franchise in the role of circus manager, ending the separate run of "Garfield Goose." It wasn't an ideal fit, in part because Frazier's nature as a perfectionist seemed to conflict with the looser, improvisational style of his fellow cast members. More often than not, Frazier would distance himself from their vaudevillian slapstick, pie-throwing antics and other perceived affronts to his dignity.

Sometime during the 1961-62 season, Frazier also began hosting "Family Classics," the Sunday afternoon series created by master programmer Fred Silverman as a showcase for Channel 9's library of family films. (It actually started out airing on Friday nights.) Frazier personally selected, edited and introduced each title, hosting the show from his familiar wing chair before a faux library fireplace. In a sly homage to his other role at the station, the set included a formal portrait of Garfield Goose, painted by Roy Brown.

What brought all this to mind was a note I received recently from a reader, Tom Shanahan, reminding me of the 25th‚ anniversary of Frazier's passing. Wrote Shanahan:

"I'm sure there are many folks out there like me, who remember watching "ËœGarfield Goose' and actually feeling like Frazier was having a real conversation with those puppets. ‚ Like many, I remember coming home from school on a Friday especially excited because "Family Classics' was going to show "The Adventures of Robin Hood,' "Sink the Bismarck!' or "They Died With Their Boots On' that night. Years later, when I was in college and law school, I happened to work at a Dominick's in Evanston and Frazier Thomas occasionally shopped there. ‚ It was reassuring to discover that he was extremely nice and friendly in person."

Like the character he played on "Bozo's Circus," Frazier also could come off as prickly and irascible at times. I remember once writing something mildly critical of him -- I believe I called him "syrupy" -- for what I'd perceived as an air of unctuousness on "Family Classics." A few days later, I received a sarcastic note from him, bristling at the description. He signed it: "Syrupy yours, Frazier Thomas." I felt badly that my poor choice of words had hurt him.

On the morning of April 1, 1985, Frazier suffered a stroke and collapsed in a hallway outside his office at Channel 9 studios. He never regained consciousness and died two days later. He was 66.

Roy Leonard, the veteran WGN-AM (720) personality, was chosen to succeed Frazier as host of "Family Classics." ("It was the most flattering thing that had ever happened to me," Leonard later confided.) He turned out to be an inspired choice, maintaining the high standards Frazier had set for another 15 seasons. Channel 9 finally pulled the plug on "Family Classics" in 2001 -- just shy of its 40th‚ anniversary. In its final years, it was airing for only four to six weeks during the holiday season.

In 1987, Frazier's family donated all of the puppets from "Garfield Goose and Friends" to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. And in permanent tribute to his memory, the city of Chicago designated the 2500 block of West Bradley Place -- in front of Channel 9 studios -- as "Frazier Thomas Place."

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