Monday, November 5, 2012

So Long, Happy

Mike L. Fry died in an Indianapolis hospital Sunday at the age of 51. He was suffering from an autoimmune disease and awaiting a liver transplant. He ran his own fortune cookie business since 1988, Fancy Fortune Cookies. But most people in these parts know him best as Happy the Hobo, the host of "Happy's Place."

Starting in 1982, "Happy's Place" was already an anachronism in television: a local program with local talent produced in front of a live audience of children a la "Howdy Doody" and "Bozo" but with the ThunderCats. The show originated at Fort Wayne's WFFT then known as Super 55, as cable "super stations" were the current rage in those pre-Internet days. Chicago's WGN, the home of Bozo the Clown, had a strong presence in Northern Indiana, so Fry had to take a different approach to his character to avoid becoming a mere imitation. His hobo clown makeup revealed an inspiration owing more to Emmet Kelly, and his overall tact with the children was decidedly casual.

The show was a money maker, so when Fry retired from "Happy" in 1990 in order to pursue his fortune cookie business full-time, WFFT gamely kept the show running with a new actor playing Happy. It's not clear to me whether Fry or WFFT owned the intellectual property, but the fact that Happy appeared in Fancy Cookie Company's imaging suggests Fry owned the character. If that's the case, then the TV station had to pay Fry to use his likeness on the air. That seems only fair, but an unusual programming expense for a local station in a small market. And if my wife's opinion is any indication, the fans knew the original Happy was the best. The show soldiered on until 1997, by which time the pull of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network was too strong for "Happy's Place" to compete.

Today's children's programming is written by people with degrees in child psychology, supervised by consultants with PHD's in childhood development, and sanitized of any potentially harmful or insensitive content. Or, it's created by a toy company or comic book publisher in order to move merchandise. I think it's great how children can access quality content now through the various sources available anytime, anywhere. But I can't help but wonder if we're losing something wonderfully inappropriate and charmingly subversive without a local children's show and a Happy the Hobo.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed watching you on TV in the early 80's 84,85,86 from the FT Wayne children's home.
You brought a smile to my face on days i was not so happy.
God speed happy.
All your fans will love you forever.