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The Dick Clark of the Sandbox Set

Jack Mulqueen's Kiddie a-Go-Go, a slice of local TV history, is now available on DVD.

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"Young people come up to me at events like this and say, 'You're history!'" says Jack Mulqueen. He waits a perfect vaudeville beat, then adds, "That's also what my wife tells me when I do something wrong."

The 20 people gathered in a meeting room of the Orland Park Public Library laugh politely. Mulqueen continues his well-rehearsed presentation, crafted to promote The Golden Age of Chicago Children's Television (Lake Claremont Press), a book he cowrote last year; he's also plugging a new DVD, 5 Classic Chicago Children's TV Shows. As the 72-year-old TV veteran presents clips from classic shows like Bozo's Circus and Elmer the Elephant, the older members of the crowd murmur in recognition. But the entire audience, previously uninterested kids included, suddenly breaks into delighted laughter as the screen fills with images of dozens of small children enthusiastically dancing the pony to Mitch Ryder's "Little Latin Lupe Lu."

Such is the magic of Kiddie a-Go-Go. From 1963 to '65 Mulqueen and his wife, Elaine, helmed their own local children's show, The Mulqueens. If they had stuck to their original format of puppets and corny jokes, their work would likely have gone the way of barely remembered shows like P.J. and Patte and The Land of Ziggy Zoggo. But in 1966 they transformed their show into Kiddie a-Go-Go, a reimagining of American Bandstand as a preteen dance party.

Led by Pandora, a harlequin in mod couture played by Elaine, the kids flailed and wiggled with the sublime balance of abandon and awkwardness that's only possible between the ages of five and twelve. There were countless local dance shows at the time, but the absence of self-conscious teens posturing for the cameras made Kiddie a-Go-Go more about the joy of dancing than any of its peers. Not long after its launch, the show had nearly 250,000 viewers. "We had sponsors standing in line," Mulqueen says. "It was tremendous."

Jack Mulqueen was born in Woodlawn in 1933. Enamored of show business at an early age, he spent his youth frequenting south-side movie theaters, sneaking in to meet stars visiting for promotional appearances. At Chicago Vocational High School he became active in theater and journalism, and he used his high school newspaper credentials to get into celebrity press conferences that aired on the local ABC affiliate. After graduation he worked for two years as a page at WBBM radio. In 1953 he was drafted for the Korean war. He managed to turn even that into an opportunity.

"When I got my draft papers," Mulqueen says, "I went in and said to my boss, 'Could you write me a letter of recommendation, but don't say what I did?' So when I got to the army I presented the letter to the man who organized soldier shows and I was able to embellish it. They said, 'It's a great letter, but what did you do?' 'Well, I sang, I acted . . .'"

Mulqueen put on puppet shows for the troops, which led to the army sponsoring a children's show on a TV station in Colorado Springs, near where he was stationed. There he began to develop his old-fashioned, squeaky-clean brand of comedy. "When I decided to take a crack at being onstage I learned what we call 'planned ad-libs' by getting a book by a comedian named Robert Orben," he says. "This was the kind of book you had to buy in magic shops. For example, if you have a heckler you could say, 'Is that your hair or is it your head unraveling?' Or 'There's a bus leaving in five minutes, be under it.' Or 'Put a rubber band around your head and snap out of it.'"

When he returned to Chicago after his tour of duty, Mulqueen was hired by the Chicago Park District to work with children, eventually performing on a televised puppet show sponsored by the district. He hired several women to play his assistant, Pandora, but by 1962 the role belonged to his new wife. Local television at the time operated under a pay-to-play system, and it behooved the Mulqueens to work as a lean family operation: Elaine provided the magnetic screen presence while Jack supplied the puppets and managed production, ad sales, and negotiations with TV stations. "I'll never forget standing before the sales manager at WGN as he said to me, 'We want $1,200 on this table every week. Not $1,199,'" Mulqueen says. "And as he puffed on his cigar he added, 'Remember, we like you, kid.' That was my introduction to the real hard facts of television."

The Mulqueens bounced among reluctant sponsors and indifferent station bosses; it moved from WGN to the ABC affiliate, and at one point was whittled from half an hour to five minutes. One regular segment featured Pandora lip-synching to soft-pop hits of the day--viewers were apparently unconcerned that Elaine sang like Doris Day one week and Anna Maria Alberghetti the next--but in 1966 Jack decided to try a new musical segment that would increase audience participation. "So many of the new songs, like 'Little Red Riding Hood' by Sam the Sham, were so juvenile oriented," he says. "With dances like the Popeye, the swim, and the Freddie, a preteen dance show was a natural."

Though the show became a smash with its new name and new dance format, Kiddie a-Go-Go faced the wrath of antirock crusaders. WLS TV station manager Dick O'Leary believed the show was vulgar because it associated innocent children with the Whisky a Go Go nightclub (the LA establishment that popularized go-go dancing had a satellite club in Chicago). O'Leary canceled the show the same week Carson Pirie Scott began selling Kiddie a-Go-Go "Swinging Sweatshirts."

WCIU, Chicago's first UHF station, picked up the show and moved it to a daily schedule. For the next four years, thousands of local kids danced in the station's cramped studio on an upper floor of the Board of Trade building. Because there were so few outlets for rock musicians on television, the Mulqueens had no problems booking artists to sheepishly lip-synch for grade-schoolers: the Four Seasons, the Left Banke, the Shadows of Knight, and Jerry Butler were among the guests on the show. But the hectic schedule and WCIU's notoriously poor working conditions--Elaine had to change in a closet and sweep the set before the show--created stresses that led to her decline in health. In 1970, much to his wife's relief, Jack retired the show.

After his TV career ended Mulqueen started his own advertising agency, working with national clients and producing local ads that had the same hokey charm as the magic-shop joke books he studied. In the 80s he also launched a memorabilia convention company, and in the 90s he and a partner promoted religious tours of Israel. After increasing instability in the Middle East hurt that business, he took a sales job with a local lighting company, where he scored a deal for all the KFC restaurants in the city.

He also found time to write The Golden Age of Chicago Children's Television with Ted Okuda, a local film historian, which has led to his moonlighting gig lecturing at area libraries and historical societies, occasionally joined by Elaine. Mulqueen always manages to sell an armload of books and copies of his self-released DVD, which features episodes of Kiddie a-Go-Go and The Mulqueens. The DVD is currently available only at these appearances; his next presentation is at the Fremont Public Library in Mundelein on August 3.

Though Mulqueen is a born salesman, he feels conflicted about that talent. The business side of his career has often challenged him as a devout Catholic (every Saturday he volunteers for the Ambassadors of Mary, which lends a 40-inch-tall statue of Our Lady of Fatima to those who request one). "When I was selling the show on WGN the first time, I went to three different businesses and told each of them that we could only carry three sponsors, and that the other two had already been sold, even though they hadn't been," he says. "Later I went to confession and said, 'Father, I think I did some finagling that was wrong,' and the priest came back and said, 'Well, maybe all the sponsors did want to advertise on the show. You didn't know, you may have been telling the truth.' So what I took away from that was maybe when you withhold the truth it isn't telling a lie. The good Lord has to have some kind of sympathy for salespeople."

Mulqueen is more certain about the morality of the content he served the kiddies in the 60s. "I knew that the music was OK for the children," he says. "I really felt that the songs and the dances were extremely juvenile and that it was just kids having fun--as innocent as you can get.

"I'll never forget what Dick O'Leary said when he canceled us, that these kids are nothing but small versions of the Whisky a Go Go dancers dancing in cages. Well, Elaine and I went to that club and saw those dancers. You know, I didn't think there was anything wrong with them either."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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