Old Time Radio

Remembering Big John and Sparky Radio Show

confused-science-readerWhen computers came along, “multitasking” became an influential buzzword. It came as a shock to many of us that even simple early computers could do more than one thing at once. What was an even bigger shock was seeing how many things a kid operating a computer could do. You just haven’t been around kids lately if you haven’t seen one sitting in front of his computer, supposedly doing his homework. The homework is getting done, but at the same time he is video-chatting with his classmates, slaying alien monster zombies in a video game, downloading music (which fortunately he’ll be listening to over headphones), watching YouTube and updating his FaceBook page.

Multitasking is nothing new for kids. There was a time when kids’ favorite “media experience” was to rush home turn on the radio for the terrific kid’s programming on the air. One of the great things about the radio is that it can be enjoyed while other things are going happening. It is easy to imagine after-school chores might be done quicker while Hop Harrigan or Flash Gordon were keeping the kids company. Imagine how many rounds of the Go-Fish or Chinese Checkers got played while Little Orphan Annie did her best to get in and out of danger. Thousands of kids played catch while the Adventures of Superman came through the open living room window, and it would be a fib to say that some didn’t expect Space Patrol, Planet Man, Mark Trail and the Junior G-Men to help with their homework.

Television was not as conducive to this type of multitasking. Some kids tried to convince their parents and teachers they could get their homework done in front of the TV. Even while in a semi-darkened room, with their attention on the pictures on the box. Their claims didn’t convince parents and teachers.

Big John and Sparky
The ability to multi task was valuable on the other side of the speaker, as well. One of the best examples of this was Jon Arthur’s Big Jon and Sparkie. Arthur was an On-Air personality on Cincinnati’s WSAI, and he invented the Sparkie character as a scamp who would interrupt him while he was on the air. Sparkie’s voice, which could be irritating to anyone over the age of twelve. By recording his own speech on a reel-to-reel tape, then replaying it at a higher speed, Arthur created Sparkie’s distinctive voice. Thus, Big Jon and Sparkie would have conversations on the air. WSAI station managers liked the concept and teamed Arthur with Don Kortenkamp as a scriptwriter. The Big Jon and Sparkie Show was picked-up as a daily half hour program by ABC, along with a Saturday morning two hour long show titled No School Today.

Although Kortenkamp provided the scripts, which were a delightful combination of reality and fantasy, Arthur did most of the on-air voices and created the assortment of characters. Arthur based many of the characters on personalities from his childhood in Ohio. They included Mayor Plumpfront, Clyde Pillroller, “fabulously wealthy” widow Daffodil Dilly, taxi-driver Eukie Betcha, and Rabbit Ears McKester. Sparkie and Rabbit Ears were members of The Grand Order Of The Mysterious Secret Circle, as well as great fans of movie hero Captain Jupiter.

Big Jon and Sparkie left ABC in 1958. The program never quite made it on television. It found new life on Harold Camping’s (the same guy who predicted the Rapture on four occasions) Family Radio Network. Arthur was an announcer for the Christian network, and also kept Big Jon and Sparkie alive in syndication from 1960 until his death in 1982.

6 replies on “Remembering Big John and Sparky Radio Show”

I met Jon in 1969 during a visit to Family Radio in San Francisco as a teenager. He asked me, kind of on the sly, ‘do you want to see Sparkie?’ Sure, I said. He pointed to a nail above a studio door, and on that nail was a slender cylinder about an inch long – it was a sleeve that fit over the capstan of a reel recorder, which sped up the tape just enough to magically beckon Sparkei’s voice out of Jon’s voicetrack.

I remember listening to Big Jon and Sparky on ABC radio in NYC. I wouldn’t miss it on Saturdays. The theme song was the “Teddy Bears Picnic. Some how Jon would work classical music selections in to the show. Thus the show was entertaining and educational.

Plunk your magic twanger, Froggie! I’m Buster Brown. I live in a shoe. I’m his dog, Tide. I live in there too.

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