Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Kids' TV icon 'Uncle Al' dies

Al Lewis - the man known by generations of local children as "Uncle Al" - has died.

From 1950 to 1985, "The Uncle Al Show" aired daily on WCPO. The man known for his straw hat, bow tie and accordion died Saturday at the age of 84.

His show, which aired locally for most of its run, was the longest-running children's show in the nation, according to Bill Fee, WCPO vice president and general manager.

"Anyone who has lived in Cincinnati for a while realizes that Uncle Al was part of their lives growing up," Fee said. "He and Wanda were a fixture in Cincinnati. We're going to miss him very much."

The Uncle Al show debuted June 12, 1950. Al's wife, Wanda Lewis, joined the show in 1956 as the character Captain Windy, drawing pictures for the children and handling many of the educational aspects of the program.

"Many people remember Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers because they aired nationally. But they didn't last as long as Uncle Al," Fee said.

Lewis was featured on the cover of "Cincinnati Television," a book written by former WCPO producer Jim Friedman, which was published in late 2007.

"Uncle was Uncle to everybody, even his grandchildren," Friedman said. "I was on the Uncle Al show in 1959. I remember doing the hokeypokey. And then in 1979 I started working at Channel 9 and I actually got the chance to work with him. It was great fun to be able to know him."

Len Goorian, 89, of Owensville, met Lewis 60 years ago when Goorian was a producer at WCPO. He said Lewis originally came to WCPO as an art director. Television was so new at the time, when Lewis wanted to go on TV, they let him.

In the early years, shows were aired live, requiring a special level of talent that Lewis quickly demonstrated.

"He proved to be perfect for it. He was a musician, he was an artist. Anytime you were around him, it was showtime," Goorian said. "You won't see his like around again for ... I don't know when. Cincinnati has lost an icon. No two ways about that."

Jim Timmerman, 51, of Blue Ash worked with Lewis from 1981 to 1985, getting a job straight out of college. Timmerman was part of the crew, helping run cameras, doing props, and whatever else was needed for the show.

"We all had to learn how to juggle because, you know, that's what you did," Timmerman said.

Timmerman grew up in Lima, Ohio, far enough away not to know about Uncle Al.

"When I came into the station, the first day, the lobby was filled with mothers and their kids all waiting to get on the show. It was a phenomenon I had never seen before in my life," he said.

Timmerman said his fondest memory of Uncle Al was going to his 80th birthday party and seeing him play his accordion.

"He never went anywhere without that accordion," Timmerman said.

Lewis was born in Cleveland. After spending three years in the Army in special services entertaining troops, he returned to Cleveland and attended the Cleveland Institute of Art.

While there, he met his future wife, Wanda.

Lewis graduated with a degree in art in 1949. While in college, Lewis worked at WEWS-TV as an announcer and an artist. Being an accomplished musician, he also performed in nightclubs playing the accordion, banjo and piano.

He joined WCPO in 1949 as art director. Shortly thereafter, he was hosting four programs a day, and two of them became children's programs.

In June 1950, "The Uncle Al Show" originated because of Al's enthusiasm for children.

For most of its run, "The Uncle Al Show" aired locally. It ran nationally on ABC in 1959 and 1960.

After the show ended, Uncle Al continued to live in his hometown of Hillsboro, where he remained active in the community.

According to a WCPO statement, Wanda Lewis wants the community to know how happy she and Al were to be a part of children's lives for 35 years. They felt very blessed to use their talents to brings smiles to children's faces for so long.

Services will be held Saturday in Hillsboro. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati. To do so, go to www.cincinnati childrens.org/donate or call 513-636-4561.

Cincinnati Enquirer Staff Writer Eric Bradley contributed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember going on that show as a kid in the early 70s. A childhood friend of mine and I slid down the slid when we weren't suppose to and go old AL showed his mean side and screamed at us. It scared the living shit out of us and we ended up crying our asses off. What a hoot! It was truly one of my favorite shows as a young kid. He will be hard to replace. G-d speed Al!