On August 17, 2008, a bronze statute honoring Western Washington icons J. P. Patches -- Chris Wedes (1928-2012), pronounced WEE-dus -- and his faithful sidekick Gertrude -- Bob Newman -- is dedicated in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. In attendance is a large, deliriously happy crowd kept in order (and in stitches) by MC Pat Cashman, who kindly provided red clown noses. From 1958 until 1981, J. P. (Julius Pierpont) Patches hosted one of the longest-running children’s TV shows in American history, on KIRO TV in Seattle, and left an indelible impression on hundreds of thousands of Western Washington children who grew up watching him. The life-sized statute, designed by artist Kevin Pettelle of Sultan, is on the south side of North 34th Street in Fremont between Fremont and Aurora avenues N. The event, dubbed J. P. Patches Day, was organized by History House of Greater Seattle, located in Fremont.
The J. P. Patches Show
They came in droves, mostly middle-aged adults, and virtually all with smiles on their faces, to the dedication of a statute of a clown and his sidekick, paying tribute to a TV show that hundreds of thousands of Western Washington (and a few British Columbia) children grew up with between the late 1950s and early 1980s. But these weren’t just any jesters. This was J.P. Patches and his loyal sidekick, Gertrude, and their old fans were not going to miss a chance to celebrate with them once again.
Chris Wedes was born in 1928. He grew up in Minnesota, and as a young man in the 1950s assumed the role of J.P. Patches on a TV show in Minneapolis. But a better opportunity beckoned in Seattle, and the J.P. Patches Show debuted on KIRO TV in February 1958. The 45-minute show ran twice daily each weekday in the morning and late afternoon through the 1960s, and then scaled back to a once-daily morning show in the early 1970s. The adventurous show quickly became a hit, attracting more than 100,000 viewers daily during its heyday. It was a live, boisterous comedy with nary a dull moment, and left a keen impression with its legion of fans, not only entertaining them with good, clean fun (though a few scolding mothers complained in the show’s early years that it was a bit too rowdy), but also providing a happy interlude for children growing up in less than happy circumstances.
The joy J.P. and the show brought to these children -- known as Patches Pals -- stayed fresh in their minds as the decades slipped by, even as these kids grew up and morphed into middle age, and this showed in many Seattle-area blogs as the date of the statute’s unveiling drew near. One blogger, who explained that she grew up in a family split by divorce, wrote “… but I never felt alone. J.P. was always there to greet me in the morning with a smile and a story and taught me that there was beauty in and among the ugly in the world” (The Big Blog [Seattle P-I], August 5, 2008).
In 1960 J. P. was joined on the show by his steadfast sidekick Gertrude, played by Bob Newman (b. 1932). Newman also played a host of other characters, such as the nefarious Boris S. Wort, the second-meanest man in the world. Wedes and Newman worked well together and were both enormously popular, and after the show went off the air in 1981, the duo continued to entertain children of all ages in both public and private events for another quarter century.
Late for the Interurban
In 2006 fundraising began for a statue to be built in tribute of the show’s 50th anniversary in 2008. Patches Pals, local companies, and community leaders raised more than the $160,000 necessary to fund the statue. Hundreds of donors bought “Patches pavers” -- bricks engraved with a short message of their choice -- for $100 (or more), many of which were laid in an approximately 15-by-20 foot square surrounding the base of the statute. Wedes initially declined to participate in the fundraising, protesting “The only guy I could think of that did that was that Hussein guy over in Iraq” (Seattle P-I, August 18, 2008). He relented only when the project added a bronze ICU2-TV set (used by J.P. in his show to “see” his viewers -- but only the good kids) that collects money for Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center.
Sultan artist Kevin Pettelle (who grew up a Patches Pal in Bothell) was commissioned to create the life-size bronze piece. He began the project in November 2007, starting with a half-size clay model, which was then enlarged and used to make a bronze casting culminating in two six-foot figures of J.P. Patches and Gertrude, arms intertwined but running in opposite directions. The J.P. statue sported an added bonus: small bronze hooks on J.P.’s famous wacky button-covered jacket, so passers-by could also hang buttons of their choice on the jacket. The ICU2-TV set was placed a short distance behind the statue, with a small collection can (for donations to Children’s) and a sculpture of Esmerelda the rag doll tucked discreetly behind the set. The statue is located on the south side of North 34th Street in Fremont, about 250 feet east of another well-known Fremont sculpture, Richard Beyer’s (1925-2012) Waiting for the Interurban.
Dedication day was Sunday, August 17, 2008, at 1 p.m. in Fremont. At least 1,500 -- perhaps twice that many -- happy fans made the pilgrimage and waited eagerly in the warm hazy sunshine for J.P. and Gertrude’s arrival. They were joined by Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) -- a Patches Pal from back in the day -- First Gentleman Mike Gregoire, Congressman Jim McDermott (b. 1936), King County Executive Ron Sims (b. 1948), Seattle City Councilman Jean Godden, Dow Constantine, and other civic leaders, some of whom proudly wore t-shirts with J.P.’s smiling face beaming out at the crowd. Early murmurs that baddie Boris Wort might crash the party proved unfounded, and Seattle personality Pat Cashman, master of ceremonies for the event, entertained the crowd until the two featured clowns arrived at the show in a multi-colored limousine. As they alighted from their limo, the crowd greeted them with an ecstatic roar.
Let Us Always Remember with Great Fondness
Fans lined up in a line dozens deep for a chance to meet and greet J.P. Patches and Gertrude, who were attired in their traditional costumes: J.P in his yellow coat (with trademark buttons) and floppy hat, Gertrude in her topcoat and mop of red hair. One attendee described the occasion: “It was a great day. I’ve hardly ever seen such a large crowd that was so completely happy, so completely jolly. Everyone was laughing, enjoying themselves [and] trying on their red clown noses.”
But the emotional highlight of the day came when Wedes’s 16-year-old granddaughter, Christina Frost, spoke. She explained:
“He’s not just a clown or a TV show character, but there’s no way you could ever know that unless you experienced it for yourself or have come to find it out in another way such as I have. And that’s by meeting his fans. Every Patches Pal I’ve met has a J.P. story ... . [But] the ad-libbed screen plays and the slap-stick humor wasn’t really what the show was about. Not for all those Patches Pals anyway. The show was about the people it affected. I’ve seen the difference it made in so many people’s lives. I see how every time people see him they tear up and go back to a different time because really that show is indicative of a different time. A different Seattle. A different America. Really a different world.”
In 2007 Wedes was diagnosed with acute myeloma, a blood plasma cancer, and medical appointments began taking up much of his time. "I don’t like to talk about it," conceded Wedes, "but usually I say I feel pretty good…I’m not in any pain" (Seattle P-I, April 3, 2008). J.P and Gertrude continued making appearances for several years, leaving a new generation with what Governor Gregoire described as "the ultimate gift, which is that we all get to be kids forever. Let us always remember with great fondness."
Chris Wedes made his final major public appearance in September 2011. He died on July 22, 2012.