August 21, 2019

Isn't it Devine, or, I've got a Froggy in my throat

One of the pleasures that comes about from getting together with old friends after a long absence (aside from them picking up the check if they're not only old friends but also generous ones) is that you're apt to learn something new—not just what's new in their lives, but things that are new to you in general. And so, when we recently had breakfast with a friend whom we hadn't seen in six or seven years, and he found out about my interest in the minutiae of classic television, he shared his memories of a program I'd seen mentioned in TV Guides but knew nothing about: the children's show Andy's Gang.

(By the way, I know that headline above sounds like the title of a Rocky & Bullwinkle episode, and I don't even have anyone to blame for it, since, unlike writers for major publications, I have to write my own headlines. I'm not going to apologize for it, though, because to do so would undermine my confidence—and perhaps yours, too—in my ability to write headlines.)

The first year of my existence was the last year of Andy's Gang, which had begun on NBC in 1955, but actually traced its roots back much further, to 1944 and a radio program called Smilin’ Ed McConnell and his Buster Brown Gang that transitioned to television in 1951. Smilin' Ed was a genial, homespun man who'd been on radio since 1932 in a variety of roles before starting the Buster Brown Gang. As Ronald L. Smith's page on McConnell describes it, the show's format was simple: an adventure story for openers, commercials for Buster Brown shoes, a novelty song or two, and a recurring gang of human and puppet characters, including McConnell's most famous creation, Froggy the Gremlin.

Ed McConnell died of a heart attack in 1954, and in 1955 the show was reborn as Andy's Gang. The new host was Andy Devine*, the lovable, raspy-voiced character actor who served as a sidekick to Roy Rogers in the movies, Wild Bill Hickok on the radio, and Jack Benny's "Buck Benny Rides Again" Western skits. The format remained basically the same as under McConnell, with Andy seated in a large easy chair, telling a story from his giant "Andy's Stories" book. There was no live studio audience; there had been one during McConnell's first few years, but as his health failed, producers used previously filmed reaction shots from kids, which were then intercut into the studio scenes to give viewers the sensation of a live audience, and this continued throughout Devine's years.

*Interesting fact: Ken Curtis, who played Festus on Gunsmoke, sang at Andy Devine's funeral in 1977. Curtis actually had a very nice voice, nothing at all like Festus's hillbilly twang.

The show retained the large cast of characters, now known as "Andy's Gang": Shortfellow the Poet, Alkali Pete the Cowboy, Midnight the Cat, Squeeky the Mouse, Grandie the Talking Piano, Gunga Ram, and Pasta Fazooli. The star of the show remained the irrepressible Froggie, who was summoned by Andy with the magic words, "Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!" There would be a puff of smoke, and then Froggy would appear, saying, "Hiya, kids! Hiya hiya hiya hiya!" In the great tradition of children's show puppets, Froggy was the nemesis of the show's adult characters: an irreverent troublemaker, disdainful of authority, prone to practical jokes, interrupting other guests, and in general acting as a conduit of mayhem. Naturally, kids loved him, and he soon became the subject of all kinds of toys and other marketing tie-ins.

Here's what an episode of Andy's Gang looked like, complete with the Buster Brown intro.

And this is a typical scene of Froggy torturing one of his human foils, in this case Pasta Fazooli, played by the great Vito Scoti:

Andy's Gang was in the great tradition of such live-action kids' programs as Howdy Doody, Soupy Sales and Shari Lewis, certainly more anarchic than Captain Kangaroo or Watch Mr. Wizard, but no less warmly remembered by those who grew up with it. At breakfast that day, when our friend asked if I remembered it, he pulled out his cell phone and started showing YouTube clips like the one above, laughing and smiling all the time. There was, I think, a human connection between the kids' shows of then and their audiences, a connection made possible by the human host of the show, willing to lower himself to the level of a child, to allow himself to be one-upped by a child, in order to make that child feel a little taller. Not Fred Rogers, perhaps, but then it goes to show that there's more than one way to form that connection.

There aren't shows like this on Saturday morning TV anymore, because kids aren't watching Saturday morning TV anymore. If they're not spending time on the road in travel soccer leagues, they're playing video games on their phone. And what was that we were saying about human connections? TV  


  1. Our college debate coach would do quality imitations of Andy Devine and his characters for entertainment while traveling to debating tournaments across the Northeast. If we did well and he found out that we had won a round, we'd hear a loud, perfect copy of "Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy...I had forgotten about this until I read your article, Mitchell. RIP, Billy Wayne Reed...

  2. Curtis was in the seminal vocal group The Sons of the Pioneers and actually sang lead on Ghost Riders in the Sky.

    1. Just For Fun:

      Check YouTube for some of Ken Curtis's numbers from when he sang with Shep Fields's big band.
      My favorite is a patter song called "Breathless".
      Listen to that one a couple of times, and see if you can imagine Festus tossing off that intricate, high-speed lyric.
      Later on, you can catch Ken Curtis in many of John Ford's classic movies, such as Mister Roberts (Radioman Dolan, who does a mean Cagney takeoff) or The Last Hurrah ( the very well-spoken Monsignor), among many others.
      (Come to think of it, Andy Devine was in more than a few of those …)


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!