Remember ‘Uncle Dick’s Fun House’?
For years, Dick Johnson put smiles on the faces of hundreds of Fort Dodge girls and boys and helped many of them usher in another birthday — made all the more special by celebrating it on live television.
Those lucky kids who appeared on “Uncle Dick’s Fun House” are now in their 60s and 70s. And Johnson? He’s celebrating a special one of his own later this month when he marks his 90thbirthday on Christmas Day at his home in Great Falls, Montana.
“Those kids were the highlight of my whole life,” said Johnson. “The main focus of the whole show was kids who had a birthday. I was just there. The show wasn’t about me. It was about the kids.”
“Uncle Dick’s Fun House” was an idea conceived by Edward J. Breen, a Fort Dodge attorney and Democratic state legislator who owned KVFD radio and purchased KQTV Channel 21 in 1953. The TV station continued, with a name change to KVFD-TV, until 1977 when a tornado severely damaged its 600-foot tower. Breen planned to rebuild the transmission facilities but died in 1978 before any construction began.
Back in those early days of Breen’s ownership, Johnson recalled, KQTV was taking an “off-air’ feed from WHO-TV in Des Moines and received its NBC programming lineup, with some local time for news and its own programming. Eve Rubenstein filled an hour with her popular “Eve’s Kitchen” cooking show and a half hour opened up with nothing local to fill.
“Ed called me into his office and in his usual casual way, he said, ‘Starting next Monday, you’ll have the 5 to 5:30 slot after Eve to do a ‘kiddy’ show,” said Johnson, then a newscaster. Breen said he could get a contract for some cartoons and old “one-reelers” for such talents as Laurel and Hardy.
“We built a set, ran some promos to have parents write in to schedule a birthday party on the show which Ed named Uncle Dick’s Funhouse. We didn’t even have videotape at that time so we had to do all the promotions with slides and old fashioned ‘opaque’ cards. Fortunately, I had frittered away way too much time in my high school history and English classes doodling caricatures and similar pencil drawings, so Ed suggested I draw pictures for the kids and fill the time between commercials and film.”
The show was televised from 5 to 5:30 p.m. five days a week and it ran for more than six years.
“My favorite part was interviewing the kids,” Johnson said. “There wasn’t a day gone by that didn’t have a guest group, a birthday party. Parents would call and schedule a birthday some months ahead. I interviewed the kids and asked what their interests were, names of their pets; that was fun. I will never forget one boy who told me he used to have a dog, but that the dog pooped on his mother’s dress and she made him get rid of it. I shared that with Art Linkletter’s ‘Kids Say The Darndest Things’ and he used it.
“I’d ask them what they’d like me to draw. When Eve did some cooking, we would let the kids sample it. It was one of the most-watched shows in the territory for all the time we did it.”
Johnson grew up in Eagle Grove, where he attended high school and junior college. Blessed with a good voice, he was doing broadcasting and commercials while attending Drake University in Des Moines. He left college for a job as a disc jockey and later news director at a Spencer radio station, then worked at a Carroll radio station before coming to KVFD radio in 1953.
He married Gladys Wilson in Harcourt and they had four daughters: Karen, who died in 2015; Donna, who lives in Fort Dodge; Joan, who lives in West Babylon, New York, and with husband Bill Drewes have two girls, Grace and Amalia; and Martha, who lives in Fort Dodge with her husband Bob Kersbergen. Martha and her former husband Jim McColley had four children: Rose, Scott, Rachel and Matthew. Johnson and Gladys divorced in 1970 and she lives at Friendship Haven. He has been married to Billie Ann Johnson since 1994.
Martha recalls being on the show once: “It was NOT my birthday. As my Dad ‘interviewed’ each child asking their name, favorite subject, etc., he got to me and I said, ‘You know who I am Dad!’ Well, he was supposed to be everyone’s UNCLE and not a Dad … I blew his cover! It was fun growing up with a father who was a local celebrity!”
Johnson has been a barbershopper for 72 years, singing in such quartets as the “Chordhuskers” and the “Bunkhouse Bums.” He joined the Society for Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America while attending Drake and his 72-year tenure ranks him in the top .05 percent of the society’s 20,000 members.
Johnson moved to Great Falls when he took a job as a television newsman “and I fell in love with Montana – the fishing, the hunting, the outdoors. I had been in Montana all my life and I just didn’t know it until I got there.”
Aging has forced him to give up hunting and to sell his fishing boat and fish from shore. “The only thing I got that works anymore is my voice,” he said with a laugh. For years after he quit being on the air, he did commercials and voiceovers.
“If the truth be known, I have been the best and worst of people, the kindest and the orneriest,” he said. “I have enjoyed every damn minute of it. I hope people who know me enjoyed their time with me too.”