October 5, 2016

The hidden history of Angel Casey

Today, I'm pleased to introduce Crystal Eidson, It's About TV's first guest writer. A few weeks ago Crystal approached me with an idea about an article on Angel Casey, a pioneer of local television in Chicago. Her idea was so good I suggested she elaborate on it and present it as a guest piece, and the results are here. Take it away, Crystal! 

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Born in Middleton, Ohio, Angel Casey showed an early interest in stage performance. She danced and sang with her father in amateur minstrel shows, and by the age of 10 had also danced at a performance of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. After graduating from the Cincinnati Conservatory, she moved to Chicago and began her work as an actress in advertising, both for print and radio.

Angel on the radio at WIBA (left), in Life Magazine
(August 27, 1945) (right)  
(Estate of Angel Casey)
At one point during the late 40s, she had regular roles on six different radio shows at once, which broadcast live with no tape delay, five days a week. She was widely respected by radio colleagues, both for her work ethic and for a verbal agility which helped other performers cover up the occasional flub. By 1948, she had also appeared on WGN-TV.

By 1952, her work in radio and TV dramas included the programs Road of Life, Woman in White, Hawkins Falls, Author's Playhouse, Easy Money, Shoot the Works, and Attorney Speaks. Among the famous names with whom she has worked are Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Orson Wells, Burns and Allen, Spike Jones, Dave Garroway, Kent Taylor, and Gig Young. Her television programs included parts in Author's Playhouse, Stump the Authors, Jury Trials, Penthouse Players, States Attorney Speaks, and her own shows, Laugh Time, Hail the Champ, The Play House, and Sun Times Quiz Down.

She co-hosted the final season of Chicago station WBKB's Hail the Champ with Howie Roberts in 1952. After this, WBKB offered Angel her own show, The Play House, over which she had considerable creative control.

The Play House showcased music through songs and recordings. Angel also narrated stories and worked on projects for the "Things to Do or Make" portion of the program. And she served as a foil for a voiceless bookworm puppet named Sir Worthington Wiggle, who would whisper into Angel's ear as she related the conversation to viewers - a concept which Angel had herself created, and successfully pitched it to producers. Puppeteer Bruce Newton later created another character, Squawky Duck.

"I was on the show every day,", recalls Newton. "I don't think Angel ever missed a day either. We all contributed copy for the show, crafts, visuals, scripts, and guest suggestions. We did this from the debut on December 28, 1953 until the show went off the air on August 31, 1956."

A live remote in which Angel and puppeteer 
Bruce Newton guided kids through a mock election.
(Estate of Angel Casey)
The Play House was contemporary with other children's shows involving puppetry such as Howdy Doody and Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. But it only existed for three years, 1953-1956, during a time when local TV was broadcast live, and if taped, was immediately taped over. All we have today are TV Guide listings, press clippings, photographs from promotional shots and live remotes, and the written accounts of people who worked on or watched the show.

We know from a local news article that The Play House was apparently the first show to give children instructions on how to call emergency services - a young boy called the fire department to his house just to see if it would work. In this, in her insistence on the use of classical rather than "children's music", and in other ways, Angel showed in her creative direction that she saw children as having individual agency and the potential to learn things of real consequence.

The result of this commitment was something even her own sons did not know about until after she passed away.
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In 1956, Angel Casey did a series of promotional photos featuring a racially diverse group of children. This would have been a prelude to including children of color on the live broadcast of her show. And it was a move that was congruent with the way Angel and her artist husband, Tristan Meinecke, lived their lives. Tristan, who'd spent his first few years in Chicago playing music in predominantly black jazz clubs, would invite black acquaintances to parties at the couple's home, rent to black tenants, and respond to anyone who criticized him on the topic by essentially daring them to make an issue of it. This was a man who once threw a prominent local sportscaster down a flight of stairs for insulting his wife, so he had something of a reputation.

Angel, without bluster or fanfare, simply did what she thought was right, in the summer of 1956.

To modern viewers, these are perfectly ordinary images. But this was 1956; Brown v Board of Education, which ended segregation of US public schools, was handed down only two years prior in 1954. Chicago was experiencing the tail end of the Great Migration, in which Black American Southerners moved northward to escape Jim Crow laws and find economic opportunity. This change in the Chicago's population was not something the city's white-dominated media wished to reflect on screen. 

Thus it was that in the span of a few weeks, Angel's show was cancelled and she lost professional representation. Her son Brad recalls that even several years later, as he grew old enough to be curious, she would occasionally get a letter in the mail which she would crumple up, throw out, and refuse to describe, saying "I couldn't give a whit." When pulled out of the trash and examined, such a letter would prove to be a death threat.

Later news coverage of Angel Casey would refer in general terms to her local stardom, but focused instead on her and her husband's glamorous lifestyle. This served as a kind of rebranding that allowed her to find other, independent work, and also to promote her husband's art, which continued to be a variable but significant source of income. The public still considered her a star, but this status never again translated into a leading role in television or radio. Her later career included a few TV commercials and the occasional movie bit part, bolstered by a mix of print advertising, radio advertising, and teaching classes on topics such as fashion and nutrition at local "finishing schools" for women such as the Patricia Vance Modeling Agency and Charm School. 

Angel Casey was a terrific entertainer. She was diligent and innovative in large measure. But she took a calculated risk, tried to use her platform to make television more inclusive - and lost. Angel's local fame, along with her and her husband's financial independence meant she lost only the momentum of her career, not her life - as some of those anonymous letter writers would have preferred. The existence of The Play House was brief and its impact on later Chicago children's television debatable. Yet I believe its run would not have been so brief, nor would it have been the last major production she headlined, had it not been for the intolerance of her peers. 

With the benefit of hindsight, I believe Angel Casey deserves to be remembered, both as an outstanding Chicago actress and as a person who refused to compromise her values. She tried and failed to integrate a popular children's television show in 1956. She swung for the fences, struck out, and forged on undaunted, her integrity unmarred. And she never looked back.

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Mitchell here. Terrific article, Crystal! This is the kind of information I love to include in the blog, and if any of you out there have similar thoughts for future articles you'd like to submit, drop me an email. In the meantime, if you'd like to learn more about Angel and her husband Tristan Meinecke, check out angelcasey.com and tmeinecke.com

11 comments:

  1. This is fascinating. I had not seen anything anywhere else (and I read anything I can get my hands on about early television) about Angel or The Play House and its sudden and despicable demise. Have to imagine you will use Crystal in the future. If she has inside info on more Chicago programs, two in particular (Studs' Place and Hawkins Falls), that would be great.

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  2. So great to see this wonderful article about my mom. Thank you for publishing this. I am very moved with emotion.
    Scott Meinecke

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    1. I wrote in such a rush, I didn't see that both you and your brother had posted- your Mom has become my newest Hero- what an amazing, incredible Woman.

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    2. Well thanks. So glad you like her. She was somethin', for sure : )

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  3. When Angel Casey took her stand she was one of the few, the VERY few who would stand up for their brothers and sisters in those days. The despicable powers that were, thought they would crush her. Big mistake, her friends in the industry rallied around her -- she was always able to find work in Chicago. But the deplorables did make sure she was no longer what was called a star. As we know, sadly, this fight still goes on today, BUT the path Angel Casey followed in 1956 has been broadened and millions now walk it. We pray that America will see that her strength comes from diversity, something Angel knew in her cell structure. I'm glad the world has not forgotten this unstoppable woman, a woman the world called Angel, and my brother and I called Mom! Thank you Ms. Eidson.

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    1. Scott and Brad - thanks so much to both of you for writing! Your mother was indeed a remarkable woman. When Angel sent me the idea for this story, I knew she was on to something. It's precisely the kind of article I love sharing with this audience! I hope you'll both stop by often.

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  4. Very interesting. Being Down Under I'd never heard of Angel Casey but was a fascinating article. Great work Crystal and Mitchell.

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  5. I'm blown away, absolutely. Thank you Crystal for bringing this amazing Woman to our attention and thank you Mitchell for providing the spotlight to allow this to be seen. Mr. Meinecke, I have to say, your mother may not have been a "star" in the traditional sense after the cancelation of her show, but I'd dare say, she shines much brighter in ways traditional "stardom" could never match. I have fond memories of Chicago's local children's show hosts, but Angel Casey now trumps them all in my mind. I just read this article and already I love her. I just shared this on my facebook page; even if out of a passing glance, I hope that just that many more will know her name and life.

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    1. Thank you Tomovox -- Angel and Tristan both turned away from large monetary reward to stay true to their values. LOL And they never seemed to care. Their wealth was internal as was Angel's stardom. She was a shining light for her entire life. I know ahe would be honored by your comment.

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  6. A wonderful tribute to Angel Casey! As a young boy, I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago from 1950 to 1963 Born in 1946 I grew up watching Uncle Johnny Coons, two ton Baker, Garfield Goose, and Angel Casey. Angel Casey and her shows were my favorite. She was such a warm, charming person and so great at relating to kids. Its a tribute to her, that all these years she stills looms large as such a positve role model in my memories from early childhood. It was only today that I learned about her professional life and the career ending ill treatment she received for her outreach to minority children on her show. It was with great surprise and deep appreciation that I came across this website after so many years. My very best to Angel's children and extended family... Ron A (Seattle, WA)

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    1. Hey Ron, so great to see your comment here. I just read it today. I can't tell you how cool it is to hear from someone who saw the show. I, sadly, never saw it. I was born in 1962. Just love what you said. Thanks again.
      Scott

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Keep those cards and letters coming in!