- SHOW: Cartoon Town, also known as The BJ and Dirty Dragon Show
- NETWORK: WFLD-TV, Chicago
- RUN: 1968-1974
We lost Bill Jackson, also known as “BJ,” this past January. He was a significant figure in Chicago children’s television because he practically single-handedly ended WGN’s dominance in after-school TV.
Bill had come to Chicago to host a couple of kids’ shows on WBBM-TV (channel 2), Clown Alley (the weekday show) and Here Comes Freckles (the Sunday morning show). He was dressed as a clown in the makeup and goofy clothes, and introduced cartoons as well as showed off his uncanny knack for drawing almost any cartoon character imaginable. One feature of his shows was a game called “Whozit?” where he would start drawing a cartoon character, all the while teasing “who could this be?” By the end of the segment, anyone on earth and many of the adjacent planets would know, “Hey! That’s Yosemite Sam!” (or whoever the character was).
My brother Kip and his class were once guests on the Sunday show (obviously pre-recorded), and Kip got the opportunity to play “Mr. Muscles,” which involved him wearing an oversized sweatshirt with throw pillows stuffed into the shoulders, chest, and upper arms to simulate muscles (I think Kip was in third grade, so he hadn’t developed those muscles yet, and for the record, still hasn’t) and walking around telling everyone “I AM MISTER MUSCLES!” in the booming falsetto that every seven-year-old possesses. Toward the end of his segment, BJ (as Freckles) asked him to demonstrate the exercises that he did, and Kip replied with some goofy exercise that ended with his making a pratfall on the stage.
Bill was eventually hired by WFLD, Chicago’s third UHF station, which early on had set its sights on WGN and their after-school programming (including Three Stooges shorts, The Flintstones, The Mickey Mouse Club, Rocket To Adventure, and The Dick Tracy Show.) Bill’s idea was pretty ambitious, a show in which he would do just about everything: design the sets, design, operate, and voice the puppets, script the show, demonstrate his artistic ability both with a crayon and modeling clay, and act as the host.
His creation, Cartoon Town, was amazing. He had brought two characters with him from his Clown Alley days: Dirty Dragon, an irascible and cantankerous dragon who was the town’s postmaster, who did everything he could NOT to deliver the mail, and Blob, a mass of modeling clay who spoke in grunts and howls (provided by Jackson) and was remodeled into something different every day, To this group he added Mother Plumtree, who ran the boarding house; the Old Perfesser, a resident of said boarding house and Mother Plumtree’s love interest; Wally Goodscout and his roommate Weird, who lived at the boarding house, where Weird would torment Wally; and The Thumptwangers, a family of singing crows.
There were, of course, cartoons, though at first they were mostly ancient ones such as “Out of the Inkwell” cartoons featuring Koko the Clown (who had been revived by Fleischer Studios in the early days of TV), because WGN held the rights to the Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers cartoons. WFLD’s big break came when WGN passed on the Underdog cartoons.
There were multiple opportunities for BJ to demonstrate his artistic prowess. “Whozit?” came with him from WBBM, as did his “I Want To Be…” feature, where he would get a note from a viewer who said what he or she wanted to be, whereupon BJ would start with the kid’s initials and draw him or her doing the job (which, for some strange reason, was never a CPA or a computer pogrammer). And there was usually time for BJ to spend a few minutes drawing whatever the background music prompted him to draw.
Cartoon Town eventually had better ratings than Garfield Goose And Friends, so naturally WFLD had to mess with it, first renaming it to to The BJ And Dirty Dragon Show, then moving it to noon to compete with Bozo’s Circus. Kaiser Broadcasting bought WFLD from Field Communications in 1972, and decided to do away with the show.
Ironically, the show was picked up by WGN for the 1973-74 season. BJ wasn’t happy when the show was scheduled for 8:30 AM, when most of his core audience had gone to school. It only lasted on WGN for the one season.
Bill stayed in Chicago and developed several more childen’s shows, all of which included some or all of the Cartoon Town characters, but eventually left Chicago for the West Coast in 1980. He taught at the California Institute of the Arts, from which he retired in 1990. He was inducted into the Silver Circle of the Chicago/Midwest chapter of The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2005, and the puppets from the show and other memorabilia are on display at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
Bill Jackson was a one-of-a-kind talent in children’s television. I’m glad I got to appreciate his work growing up.
If you want to see some of what Cartoon Town/The BJ and Dirty Dragon Show was about, check out these videos: