From 1958 to 1981, Julius Pierpont (J. P.) Patches hosted one of the longest-running children's TV shows in American history on the Seattle-based station KIRO TV. Portrayed by Chris Wedes (1928-2012), J.P. Patches lived in the city dump, wore a black rumpled hat and a yellow patchwork coat, had a "girlfriend" who sported a 5 o'clock shadow, and became a nostalgic icon to almost everyone who grew up near Puget Sound during the last half of the twentieth century. Even as recently as 1999, J.P. and his brawny girlfriend Gertrude continue to entertain children of all ages.
From Radio to Television
Chris Wedes (pronounced WEE-dus) began his broadcasting career at the tender age of 11, with a bit part on a radio broadcast in his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Throughout high school and college he appeared in skits and community theater productions, usually in parts that allowed him to ham it up and get a good laugh.
While at Macalester College, Wedes started a campus radio station, and after graduating, spent some time at a small radio staion near St. Paul. After a brief stint in the Army in Korea, he soon moved to television as a director at WMIN-TV in Minneapolis. It wasn't long before he moved into the spotlight.
The Reluctant Clown
His first characters were Joe the Cook, a Greek-accented lunchtime guest on a children's show, and Chuckwagon Chuck, a grizzled old cuss who introduced westerns on Saturdays, regaling viewers with tales of the Old West. Another show at the station involved a clown named J. P. Patches. When the man who played him left, Wedes took over the role.
Wedes originally didn't want to play the clown, due to make-up demands and out of respect for his ex-coworker who had gone to another station to play T. M. Tatters. Management won out and Wedes found himself painting his face every morning. At first, the station was besieged with hundreds of phone calls complaining that he wasn't the "real" J. P. Patches, but within a few months Patches was beating Tatters in the ratings.
Movin' On Up to the City Dump
In 1958, KIRO-TV started broadcasting in Seattle. Fred Kaufman, one of the first directors, was hired from Minnesota. Kaufman convinced Channel 7 to hire Wedes to host the first live show for the fledgling station. Wedes accepted, and moved to Seattle without using one of those little cars that holds eight other clowns.
The J. P. Patches Show debuted on February 10, 1958. Patches introduced himself to his viewers as Mayor of the City Dump, recently retired from the Ding-A-Ling Circus. He showed them around his cluttered, wacky shack. In this more innocent era of television, many parents soon found their kids asking to go to the real landfill at Montlake to look for J.P.'s house of fun.
J.P. quickly became a hit. Whether he was falling off his bed of crates in the morning or getting hit with a baseball bat, he did it with charm and aplomb. Some mothers complained that J.P.'s humor was a bit too rough, preferring a kinder and gentler Captain Kangaroo for their young ones, but this didn't stop tens of thousands of schoolchildren from gazing at his boisterous antics every weekday.
True, J.P. was always getting into feuds. Buckets of water were thrown. Things tended to explode. Faces got splattered with pie. But in the end J.P. would point out the 10 steps to being a Patches Pal:
- Mind Mommy and Daddy
- Wash hands, face, neck, and ears
- Comb hair
- Brush Teeth
- Drink your milk
- Eat all of your food
- Say your prayers
- Share your toys
- Put toys away
- Hang up clothes
A Cast of Characters
One of the unseen characters on the show was Gertrude the telephone operator, with whom J.P. carried on one-sided conversations. One day in 1960, J.P. asked her for some soda pop and potato chips. In the spirit of the liveliness and spontaneity around the set, floor director Bob Newman (b. 1932) blurted out a falsetto "Okay dear, I'll send it right down." In that instant, he had a new job.
The lantern-jawed ex-Marine began appearing on the show as the heartsick operator, forever chasing after an oblivious J.P. Patches. Dressed in a flowery frock, combat boots, and a wig made out of a mop, Gertrude wore a red blast of lipstick that covered the bottom half of her face. This helped to conceal Newman's perpetual 5 o'clock shadow, but his hairy arms and legs were a different matter. Not that anyone cared. The lumbering Amazon, forever screeching, "Julius, will you marry me?" was truly a sight to behold.
Newman took on other characters as well. Among them were Boris S. Wort (the second-meanest man in the world), Sheriff Shot Badly (the inept Western lawman), and Ketchikan the Animal Man, who guest-hosted when Wedes was on vacation. One time as Ketchikan, Newman was almost strangled by a poisonous snake. The following day, the station received a few complaints about how the poor snake was manhandled as it was pried from Newman's throat.
Possibly the strangest character on the show was Ggoorrsstt, The Friendly Frpl. Ggoorrsstt, as played by Newman, was a towering mound of shag carpet with one big eye, that ate packing foam through its armpits. This truly was the golden age of local television.
Pratfalls and Other Assorted Shtick
Over the years, Patches Pals were shown continual gags that never became tiresome. Almost every morning, Grandpa Tick-Tock, a grandfather clock with rolling eyeballs and a cuckoo that dumped water, rudely awakened J.P, who would then crash to the floor. Almost every time J.P. climbed a ladder or leaned back in a chair, viewers could count on a great fall. He also had a knack for falling backwards into garbage cans. After most pratfalls, the camera would cut to Esmerelda the rag doll, who would giggle and titter along with the kids at home.
Although the pie-in-the-face gag was seen countless times, for youngsters it was always funnier than the last time they saw it. Once, Gertrude attempted to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records by taking 675 pies in the kisser in one half hour. Plates full of shaving cream were the "pies" used on the show.
J.P. was never one to overlook new technology. The ICU2-TV, invented by J.P. himself, allowed him to "see" his audience and acknowledge birthdays. The machine also did double-duty as a teleporter when J.P. felt the need to travel. At Christmastime, his Pal-A-Vac computer analyzed letters to determine which ones had been written by good little boys and girls.
Sometimes, his shtick got him into trouble. Once, Boris S. Wort stole some magic Twinkle Dust from the Swami of Pastrami. At one point, J.P. turned to the cameras and asked the kids if they had any Twinkle Dust out there. Days later, mail sacks stuffed with envelopes of sand, sugar, and other granulated matter flooded the station, along with postal inspectors who complained that the "magic dust" was spilling out and ruining their machinery.
In One Era, and Out the Other
Local children's shows came and went, but The J.P. Patches Show spanned more than four decades. At its peak, more than 100,000 kids watched it every day, but by 1981, viewership had declined. The growth of cable television brought more competition, and youngsters were enticed by a larger variety of things to do and to watch.
After 23 years on the air, the show was cancelled. Wedes was not happy with the decision, but he stayed on at KIRO, working in the production department. And even though the show was cancelled, J.P. and Gertrude didn't retire. There was still too much fun and goodwill to share around.
One cause that Wedes supports is Children's Hospital. Over the years, J.P. Patches has visited there quite often, cheering up those who need it the most. During J.P.'s 20th anniversary show, the hospital returned the favor by announcing that their new diagnostic play area had been named for J.P.
Since the show's cancellation, J.P. and Gertrude have made numerous charity appearances, from supermarket openings, to sporting events, to Seafair parades as recently as 1999. In 1992, at the height of Seattle's grunge mania, an unruly audience was trashing the Paramount Theater while awaiting a Soundgarden Concert. Who should appear out of the wings but J.P. Patches. He quietly calmed down the audience before the band took the stage.
J.P. and Gertrude resonate in local culture. Some say that the best way to identify a native Northwesterner under the age of 50 is to mention Julius Pierpont, Gertrude, Esmerelda, Ketchikan, Grandpa Tick-Tock, or even Ggoorrsstt, the Friendly Frpl. If the listener's eyes light up, they were probably born and raised as a Patches Pal.