BOOTLEG FILES 290: “Wonderama” (a 1955-1977 kiddie TV show).
LAST SEEN: Clips are available on numerous web sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Problems in clearing performance rights and the expense of restoration.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely in the near future.
One of the joys of growing up in the early 1970s was the luxury of enjoying classic television when it was still first-run. Among my many, many favorite TV shows – I don’t believe there was any show that I didn’t like – was a bizarre but beloved variety show/game show/dance program for kids called “Wonderama.”
If you never heard of “Wonderama,” that’s because it wasn’t widely seen. The weekly three-hour Sunday morning show originated from WNEW-TV in New York and was syndicated over the Metromedia network – albeit in a smallish syndication. Reportedly, the show only played in six major markets during its peak years – New York, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Washington, D.C. – so the majority of the country never saw “Wonderama.” And that is a major shame.
“Wonderama” began in the mid-1950 and went through a number of different hosts and formats before an affable ventriloquist named Bob McAllister took over the hosting job in 1968. McAllister stayed at the helm until the show went off the air in 1977. He wasn’t a particularly remarkable host – his comedy exchanges with guests sometimes fell flat – but he managed to keep the production on track through the various games, skits, and interviews that kept “Wonderama” in motion.
And for a three-hour extravaganza, “Wonderama” was not lacking in action. Interactive games were a major component, and nothing was more challenging than “Snake Cans.” This game featured 10 cans lined up on a long table. Nine of the cans contained a spring-loaded toy snake while the tenth had a paper flower bouquet. Kids were called up from the audience to open a can – those who found a snake were given the chance to win a minor prize by answering softball-easy trivia questions. The one who found the bouquet received a grand prize (usually some trendy new toy).
The parents of the all-kid audience were usually kept off camera, although one game called “Whose is Whose is Whose” required the matching of parents with children. A child from the audience would be asked to pair whichever of four parents supposedly resembled one of four children. I can clearly recall one game where three pairs of white mothers and children and one black mother and child were in the mix – a kid from the audience came and created matches that put the black mother with a white child and the black child with a white mother. McAllister, barely concealing his laughter, remarked in very pre-P.C. tones, “Looks like we have a little salt-and-pepper going on here!” He then urged the child contestant to rematch the groupings – and the poor kid switched the remaining white parents and children, leaving the mixed race couplings alone!
“Wonderama” also tapped into the musical zeitgeist of the era with its “Wonderama A Go-Go,” which became “Disco City” when Gloria Gaynor and company reigned on the charts. A character called The Disco Kid (someone dressed like a cowboy with a cutout of a horse around his torso) would run about while the soundtrack wailed “Ride on, ride on, Disco Kid.” The Wonderama audience would wiggle and twist to the latest AM radio hits, and a dance-off would involve the most coordinated members of the audience. Almost everyone won some sort of gift. (The show was never lacking sponsors.)
While a certain amount of amusement could be found watching my young peers having a ball on TV (including, one Sunday, a third grade classmate of mine named Erica – oh, I was so jealous that she was on TV and I wasn’t!), the real fun was having celebrity guests turn up. For a kiddie show, “Wonderama” had a remarkable track record in hooking major stars.
Among bootleg video fans, the most amazing “Wonderama” coup was ABBA. Yes, the sexy Swedes turned up in white kimonos to lip-sync “Mamma Mia” and “Fernando” and to engage in very small talk with McAllister. The Jacksons turned up, too, and their appearance was capped by having a little girl in the audience fulfill a dream by kissing Michael Jackson on the cheek. In view of Michael Jackson’s untimely death, it is difficult not to be rueful in viewing the charismatic, energetic young man in the years before bizarre behavior overtook his judgment and ruined his life.
Other celebrities of the day routinely stopped by “Wonderama” to shoot the breeze, promote their activities, or just clown around. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier made a joint appearance prior their 1974 New York bout – Ali was at his rambunctious, motor-mouthed peak while Frazier was conspicuously stolid as the duo faced off in a marbles match. Yes, marbles! And Ali won that bout (as well as the later boxing match).
Evel Knievel also showed up on “Wonderama” to discuss his motorcycle jumping shtick. Other top-line guests that I can recall included Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams (when “Laverne and Shirley” took off), a few of the Monty Python squad (I believe Michael Palin and Terry Jones turned up, but I could mistaken – I recall the kiddie audience didn’t laugh very much), Paul Lynde (who did a frantic spoof of “Hollywood Squares” by playing all nine of celebrity boxes), and Johnny Whitaker (who dressed up as Groucho and later had a bunch of pre-pubescent girls maul him). And, on occasion, there would be a guest whose presence was difficult to explain (most notably frizzy-haired comic Marty Allen, who engaged McAllister in a wrestling match).
I cannot imagine how it would be possible to stage “Wonderama” today. For starters, a three-hour production would be unthinkable on television (the show reportedly took upwards of six to eight hours to tape, with the juvenile audience getting ice cream and soda to pacify them while McAllister chain smoked between shots). Plus, getting a weekly line-up of A-list stars as guests for an audience with an average age of eight was no mean feat – imagine staging the Kids Choice Awards every week and you have an idea what it would require.
I am unaware of any complete episode of “Wonderama” being available on DVD. I assume the original videotapes still exist in some vault, but the costs of restoration and rights clearance would probably cost a fortune. Video cassette recording was not prevalent until the final years of the show, and the clips that can be found online in unauthorized reproduction – The Jacksons, Ali-Frazier, ABBA, Evel Kneviel, a game of “Snake Cans” and, oddly, Marty Allen in a wrestling match – are of a notoriously poor visual quality.
Still, snippets of “Wonderama” are better than nothing. For those who remember the show fondly, these bootleg videos offer a pleasant side trip down memory lane. And for those who never heard of the show, these bootleg goodies offer proof of a missed treasure. If any product deserves a proper rescue from bootleg into the commercial DVD mainstream, it would be this grand old TV show.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!