PORT ARTHUR — The sun has long set on the Circle 4 Club’s Kiddy Show.
35 years have passed since Cowboy John, a hero bigger than any other to many Southeast Texas youths, rode off after meeting Black Bart for the last time. While 35 years of dust gathered on the duo’s hats and boots, their legacy lives on in the memories of those who watched and believed in truth and justice for the good guys.
For John Stevens, who played the part of Black Bark, 35 years hasn’t been long enough to remember what it meant to be the bad guy in the end.
“It got to where I had to wear shin guards on under my costume,” Stevens recalled, slightly wincing and reaching for his lower leg. “And I had to wear a cup.”
Giving a slight laugh of recollection, John Garner, who served as Cowboy John during the program’s duration, explains.
“John would have to wear the shin guards for all of times parents would tell their kids to run up and kick Black Bart,” Garner recalled.
The Kiddy Show, starring Cowboy John, began in Texarkana , where Garner had been working in radio following his service in Korea .
“I went into the army at an early age,” Garner said. “I did radio in the army, and when I got out, I got into television. At first, I was doing the weather, and when the station in Texarkana decided they wanted to do the Kiddy Show, nobody wanted to do it.”
Garner’s station had a national sponsor that wanted the Kiddy Show. After a trade out in advertising with a local western store, the outfit was gathered and Garner first became Cowboy John.
“I hated it at first,” Garner said. “I wanted to be on the news. That’s the only job I really ever had.”
Prior to donning Black Bart’s duds, Stevens also was enjoying a career over the air waves.
“Cowboy was in radio, and I was in radio,” Stevens said. “Early in my career I remember being told I didn’t have the voice for radio…but apparently I was the right height for TV. And you know, it’s funny, because even though they told me that I didn’t have the voice for radio here I am, nine months away from being 80, and I’m still doing radio.’
Stevens can be heard on the air at Lamar University ’s KVLU.
The Kiddy Show on KPAC’s Circle 4 Club went on the air in Southeast Texas in 1957, making the station the second between Houston and New Orleans , with the program being the first live program.
“The show was alive,” the duo recalled. “It was always running; everybody had their part and knew their job. Commercials were live back then, and for every camera we’d switch to, there were several prop men and crew members making sure, for instance, that the product labels were showing and the milk cartons weren’t upside down.”
As the programs popularity grew, advertising on television became an avenue of revenue.
“I remember one time I was doing an ad for Dr. Pepper,” Garner recalled. “I didn’t like Dr. Pepper, so during a break in the program, I stepped out into the hallway and emptied the bottle while refilling it with Coke.”
Little was Garner aware of the young lady who was escorted into the hallway to find the restroom and witnessed the entire affair.
“When the show came back on and I went to the do the spot, the little girl spoke up and said, ‘Cowboy John that’s not a Dr. Pepper, that’s a Coke!’ Garner laughed.
“It shook me up so bad; I didn’t know what to do. Remember this was all live, and I started turning red.”
In recalling the days of television in its infancy, the two also reminisced of unfortunate incidents where children were rowdy and restless, an unfortunate incident with a 14-foot guest anaconda that sent Cowboy John to the nearby St. Mary’s Hospital, and legendary run-in with a young audience member forever named “Leroy.”
“The funny thing about that,” Garner went on, “Is how many lawyers and doctors swear they were watching that day. But again, it was live and it did really happen.”
And the story didn’t end there. Apparently, according to the duo, the national network got a hold of the footage, and later that evening, when anchor David Brinkley said his daily ‘goodnight,’ to anchor Chet Huntley, he also added ‘Goodnight Leroy, wherever you are.”
“Sometimes you had kids come in who couldn’t talk, or kids who were in a wheelchair,” Stevens added. “Many times we had kids who acted up, but we really never knew what the audience was going to be like until we got there. It was a live audience; if something unexpected happened…”
“…You just had to ad lib your way out of it,” Garner finished.
Many times, the audiences were comprised of classrooms from area schools, scout troops, running from the ages of Kindergarten through the sixth grade. Along with playing out the ‘good guy/bad guy’ roles while playing games, the program also showed cartoons and films such as Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, The Little Rascals and The Three Stooges.
“And The Three Stooges was why we had such an adult audience,” Stevens said.
The show began in 1957, in black and white. As time progressed, the black and white program turned from film into video tape and when it ended 14 years later it was in color.
“The kids were fascinated by early TV,” Stevens said. “This way, they could see the entire thing from their home. This was new, because when Cowboy and I were kids, we’d spend all day at the theater watching our heroes and cartoons on the big screen. There were no computers, no video games. Again, for us, it was radio.”
As stars of the television screen, demands were also made for public appearances. According to the two, there was not a store or business opening around that did not want Cowboy John and Black Bart to be there.
“It was smart on their part,” Stevens grinned. “If you got the kids there, then you got the mothers.”
Through the show’s 14-year run, the two partnered for only 11. Looking back on an era much simpler than today’s multi-media society, the two agree that shows, like theirs, would not work today.
“It would be harder for it to work,” Garner said. “Parents these days don’t have the time for it, for one thing. They would have to get their kids from school, drop them off, stay around and watch them from inside the studio for a few hours before we let them go. Nowadays, both parents seem to be working and there just isn’t the time for it.”
“It was a life changing event for me, being on this show,” Stevens said. “I was in sales, but I really always wanted to be in radio.”
“Each generation has their own things they identify with,” Garner said. “We were a part of that one.”
PORT ARTHUR — The sun has long set on the Circle 4 Club’s Kiddy Show.
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