All for the love of a clown named J.P.
by Jean Godden
A J.P. Patches appearance in 2009. Credit: Minette Layne/Flickr
The first Patches Pals began queuing at midnight for Saturday’s 11 a.m. tribute to the late Chris Wedes, the man they knew as J. P. (Julius Pierpont) Patches, one of the Northwest’s most beloved and enduring characters. Wedes, who succumbed to cancer in July, was host of KIRO-TV’s long-running (1958-81) children’s television show.
Although he had been off the air for decades, J. P. remained a Northwest icon. He continued to make personal appearances throughout the region and to donate time to such causes as Seattle Children’s Hospital. It was not unusual to see grown men blink back tears when they had an opportunity to shake hands with their childhood hero. Nor was it surprising to see thousands filling McCaw Hall on Saturday (Sept. 8) to remember the beloved clown they loved dearly and the television show that gave them so much happiness.
The celebration, emceed by Seattle’s inimitable Pat Cashman and engineered by local historian Feliks Banel, resurrected features from the set of the TV show, including Grandpa Tick-Tock, the animated clock that sped a generation of children off to school with clean hands, faces, and necks; the ICU2TV that supposedly allowed Patches to view his audience; and the Pal-o-Vac, the large box into which J. P. dropped children’s letters to Santa Claus to see if they’d been naughty or nice. A letter from Boris S. Wart, the Second Meanest Man in the World, gave the Pal-o-Vac a frown, an upside-down grin, and a thumbs-down buzzer.
The celebration also honored Bob Newman, who played almost all the show’s various characters, including Boris; Gertrude (J. P.’s “girlfriend”); Ketchikan the Animal Man; Ggoorrsst, the friendly Frple; and the prescient Swami of Pastrami. Newman, who now uses a wheelchair, stood tall to accept a standing ovation from the admiring crowd. Also honored was Stan Boreson, a friendly contemporary rival who hosted a KING-TV kids’ show. The 87-year-old Boreson took to the piano to play and sing the KING’s Klubhouse theme song, “Zero Dacus,” as well as a comedy song about aging (“Just Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore”). It had been Wedes’ favorite.
Indeed, music played a prominent role in Saturday’s celebration. Duane Smart, who worked behind the scenes as “Mr. Music Man,” reprised show themes such as Spike Jones’ “Dance of the Hours” and “There She Is,” Gertrude’s signature song. One of the celebration’s highpoints was a musical tribute by Chris Ballew (“Caspar Babypants”). He sang an original song: “Take Me to the City Dump,” referencing the fact that J. P. sold himself as Mayor of the City Dump.
Most precious to J. P. fans, however, were the morning’s many film clips and anecdotes. Cashman said that Wedes once lamented that he “wasn’t a very good clown, couldn’t juggle, couldn’t make balloon animals.” But what he could do, Cashman pointed out, was bring laughter and joy to audiences. Said Cashman, “He may have been the greatest clown ever.”
Certainly many in the audience, before and after the celebration, told stories of what J. P. had meant to them. Things could be chaotic at home and children could feel unloved until they tuned into the J. P. Patches’ show. And it wasn’t only tots. Adults also enjoyed the jokes that sometimes were aimed over the kids’ heads. For example, they had fun with Seattle Police Chief Moonray, a name achieved by reversing the name of then-Seattle Chief Frank Ramon.
KIRO radio show host Dori Monson confessed that he was reduced to hero worship when — out of the blue — he got a call from Wedes. He compared it to a rookie hearing from a famous pro. Later, he got a second call from Wedes saying, “You talk too much,” something that many of his interviewees would agree with. Monson reports that he protested, saying that, after all, he was a talk show host. Wedes retorted, “See what I mean,” and with that the clown hung up. The rebuke had little effect on Monson, who continues to revere the man for whom he’d scrubbed his neck — what’s a clean neck for?
The final featured speaker of the morning was a very poised 20-year-old, Christina Frost, Chris and Joanie Wedes’ granddaughter, who offered a loving tribute to her “Grampy.” She remembered that he’d taught her how to drink from a glass without smearing her lipstick (a clown talent), how to say “go to hell” in Greek (something Wedes learned from Greek immigrant parents) and how to leave your mark, but not take yourself too seriously. But, most of all, she said Wedes trained her to often tell people how you feel about them. She concluded saying, “Rest in Peace, Grampy, I love you.”
Like the hundreds of J. P. Patches’ Pals in the audience, she regretted that, when we lost J. P. Patches, we’d lost a little piece of Seattle. Fortunately, Cashman reminded everyone that, for those of us who knew him, “we’ll always have J. P.”
And here’s some good news: At his last public appearance, a fundraiser for KCTS-TV in December, J. P. Patches received a proclamation from the Seattle City Council — not his first proclamation by any means — promising that the new North Transfer Station, formerly known as the “city dump,” will name its education facility for the clown who meant so much to so many.