Other legendary figures waited patiently backstage to tender their recollections: Jerry Tracey, Bill Bolen, Rosemary Lucas, Everett Holle. “Legend” might seem a strong word to bandy about on behalf of people whose names you might know from watching television, but consider that our local TV personalities may have served the purpose for our culture that Odysseus and Siegfried and Prahlada did for ancient ones.
It doesn’t seem possible now, but there was a time when local television mattered a lot. Though broadcasts had begun as early as 1925, network TV only got rolling in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and it was considered gimmicky compared to the proven communication value of network radio. When Birmingham’s first two TV stations came on the air in 1949—WAFM on Channel 13 and WBRC on Channel 4—there frankly wasn’t a whole lot of programming available to fill a broadcast day, because there was as yet no way to connect to the national networks. That meant the local stations had to rely on their own ingenuity to create something people would be willing to watch on appliances with tiny screens and big vacuum tubes that cost an absurd amount of money.
Television, though, was literally magic in the air. Unlike radio and its theater of the mind, TV brought real pictures into your home, negating the need to patronize a movie house to watch the news of the day or some filmed entertainment.
The buzz that accompanied the advent of television—similar in many ways to the advent of motion pictures early in the 20th century and the advent of the internet later—meant that stardom transferred from the old medium to the new one, and that included whomever might be on that tiny screen in your home; even your friends and neighbors.
Cliff Holman was one of those average citizens conscripted into Birmingham television service in 1950. Well, he wasn’t drafted. He volunteered, auditioning to be a puppeteer for a syndicated live show sponsored by the old Loveman’s department store downtown. He had been bitten by the entertainment bug early, performing in a local radio play in 1942, when he was only 13, and developing a magic act he parlayed into a reasonably lucrative night club career around town. Providing the voice for “Mr. Bingle” on the Loveman’s TV show must have seemed just another gig to the busy young performer.
After doing a bit in the Army during the Korean War, Cliff returned to Birmingham and wangled a production job from Everett Holle, program director at Channel 13. Shortly thereafter another audition landed the 24 yearold his own TV show, hosting the daily “Tip-Top Clubhouse” to push the products of the Ward Baking Company and incidentally to entertain kids every afternoon. As Tim Hollis pointed out in his invaluable Holman biography, 40 Magical Years In Television, Cliff looked too young to be an uncle or a grandfather or a captain, the authority figures who ran kiddie shows in other markets across the country: “He looked more like…well, somebody’s cousin.”
Cousin Cliff he became and Cousin Cliff he would remain for the rest of his life, save a short stretch on the Vestavia Hills City Council during which he kept a straight face and was known merely as Cliff. Because of his long tenure on television in Birmingham and briefly in Anniston, there cannot have been many blocks he could have walked in North Alabama without being recognized. Luckily, he was temperamentally suited to cope with incessant recognition.
Not everyone is. Ask Charlie Sheen. Cousin Cliff shared his stardom with the children who flocked to be on his TV shows.
After “Tip-Top Clubhouse” (which had no live audience), he hosted “Cliff’s Clubhouse,” “Cartoon Clubhouse,” “The Popeye Show” and “The Cousin Cliff Show,” and on each of his thousands of broadcasts, bleachers full of wide-eyed kids became celebrities for an hour themselves.
I made the cut for “The Popeye Show” once, invited to be part of a classmate’s birthday party on the show. Celebrating a birthday with Cousin Cliff was a social apogee. There was a cake from a famous local bakery, such as Marsh’s or Elektrik Maid. There was the birthday song, sung to you by a crowd led by the biggest TV star you knew. There was your name being spoken on live television for all the world, or at least that part of it reached by antennae on Red Mountain, to hear.
In an age of only three TV channels, this imbued the occasion with an other-worldly significance. Here is what I remember of my visit: blindingly white flood lights, a free Jack’s Hamburgers card and seeing my own face on a TV monitor in the studio when the camera panned across the bleachers. I had never before seen my real-time visage outside of a mirror’s reflection. At that young age, it passed for an outof-body experience.
I wish kids today could experience something wonderfully weird like that. Back then, Birmingham’s afternoons were filled with cartoons and Stooges and all manner of goofy fun, with Ol’ Cuz on 13, Bozo and Benny Carle on Channel Six, and later, Sergeant Jack on Channel 42. Today, those time slots are occupied by Ellen, Dr. Phil and Judge Judy; scarcely fit company for a growing child.
And broadcast TV executives wonder why their audiences are shrinking every year…
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.