J.P. Patches is retiring, and though he’s said as much on a few other occasions recently, this time it appears to be the real thing.
If you don’t know who J.P. Patches is, you’ve either been under a rock for the past 53 years or you just moved to Seattle this morning and haven’t yet driven past a certain statue in Fremont. Simply put, J.P. Patches is a TV clown first played by Chris Wedes on KIRO beginning in February 1958. But this doesn’t really express what Chris and J.P. have meant to this community over the years.
J.P. won the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of young viewers by giving us what we wanted every day — lots of laughs, gentle mocking of authority, and a sense of being treated as an equal in his wacky imaginary world. He also gave the grown-ups their own things to laugh at, too, which is why on the few existing recordings of the old show, you can often hear the crew laughing along with one of J.P.’s fairly innocent double entendres or other throw-away allusions that went over the heads of the kids tuned in.
The TV show went off the air on Sept. 25, 1981 — almost exactly 30 years ago — but in the past three decades, rather than fade away, J.P. got even busier doing personal appearances at birthday parties, county fairs, parades, and grand openings.
Something about Chris Wedes elevated him above the necessity to be on TV every day to have an impact and remain one of the most recognizable and popular local figures. For anyone who’s ever worked with Chris, it’s clear that he is a talented performer who could have thrived in the vaudeville era, the network radio era, and maybe even on a national TV show. Luckily for us, Chris stayed put in Seattle.
The end of J.P. as a living character after more than half a century is not just the twilight of Chris Wedes’ amazing career. The hanging up of J.P.’s rubber nose, plastic ears, and multi-colored coat signals something a little more: the official end of local television.
Back in 1948 when KRSC, Seattle’s first TV station, began broadcasting, all television, like politics, was local. The big networks, which meant CBS and NBC in those days, were still largely radio-based and raking in dollars from the audio medium, and advertisers and the audience had not yet made the leap to TV (though they both would in an alarmingly short period of time).
Rudimentary network-owned TV stations in New York and Philadelphia served their local audiences and shared some programming via coaxial cable, but it wasn’t until September 1951 that the infrastructure would be completed that would allow local stations to link up for transcontinental broadcasts and give advertisers the ability to reach most of the country via video. However, time zone differences and the absence of a practical video recording technology (other than “kinescopes” — films made by pointing a movie camera at a video monitor), meant that during most of the 1950s, it was truly local that TV flourished in big cities around the country.
And it was in this fecund local media landscape that Chris Wedes first appeared as J.P. Patches in Seattle. He’d moved the character here from the Twin Cities and the Patches show was the first program to air on KIRO TV.
The show itself was not unlike kids’ shows in probably every TV market in the country back then. The basic formula consisted of having a costumed host of an archetype easily recognized by a kindergartener — such as a clown, a sea captain, a cowboy, a train engineer — operating from a complementary-themed set. The hosts showed cartoons, brought on local zoo animals, the local police department traffic safety officer, and other guests chosen for their appeal or even educational value to kids. This was before the didactic days of Sesame Street on public TV; these shows were on commercial stations, so hosts also pitched local products aimed at kids, such as hot dogs, peanut butter, and candy. J.P. was a bonanza for KIRO and its advertisers for much of the show’s run.
Because the "J.P. Patches Show" was locally produced in Seattle, J.P. was much more than just an on-screen presence. If you were a kid in Western Washington in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s, chances are you got to meet J.P. in person several times a year and J.P. made a personal impression. The same couldn’t be said for stars of network shows for kids, such as Captain Kangaroo or Howdy Doody. Those guys occasionally toured, but you never just bumped into them the way you might bump into J.P. when you were out grocery shopping with your mom.
And this is what made local TV so magical in those first few decades and why so many kids of that era got hooked on J.P.: Your favorite on-screen star was someone who lived in your community and was someone you could actually meet and greet. It was a viewer training program that sucked us in and taught us to watch TV. And J.P. was no Mr. Hyde. The clown you saw on TV was even more friendly in person, asking you what school you went to and what grade you were in ,and seeming to pay total attention to your answers. J.P. also schmoozed the parents (pointing at my mother circa 1962, J.P. asked my then 5-year-old brother, “Is this your sister?”).
Nowadays, there is a certain interchangeable quality to much local TV talent around the country and there are no local daily shows designed for kids. Nobody is even trying to win the hearts and minds of young local viewers. With a few exceptions, many of the formats of other local shows that used to make economic sense — the local morning show, the local afternoon show, the local variety show — just don’t pencil out anymore. It’s cheaper and easier to fill non-news TV hours with syndicated national talk shows, but these programs do nothing to build “channel loyalty” the way J.P. did for KIRO in his (and its) heyday.
It is true that today’s current crop of local TV stars are also out and about in the community and meeting viewers. But, rather than goofing around in clown make-up with young viewers in a festive setting, today’s local TV folks are moderating panel discussions, judging talent competitions, or maybe emceeing charity auctions — likely with only grown-ups paying half attention in the audience. The closest any local TV folks regularly get to kids is probably when broadcast meteorologists share weather forecasting tips with elementary and middle-school students.
While the kind of local TV we have today is still profitable, local kids have moved on beyond TV to other forms of entertainment and it’s impossible to guess whether or not they’ll return as adults to watch local news. Beyond that, it’s also pretty hard to imagine some 8-year-old clamoring to shake hands with Dr. Oz.