Friday, January 12, 2018

Monday will never be the same

NOTE: This first ran in March 2009. It's running again because the man who was a big part of the life of just about every kid in Baton Rouge, La., for 35 years -- three generations of kids in some families --  died Wednesday.

It's just as well that I don't start from scratch. For one thing, I don't think I'd express myself any better now -- I said what I had to say.

For another thing, I'd be writing through tears. That just takes too damned long, frankly.

If you didn't grow up where, and when, I grew up, this story from The Advocate might give you some idea of how big a deal was "Buckskin Bill" Black:
One of Baton Rouge’s most beloved figures, William “Bill” Black, known to most as “Buckskin” Bill,” died Wednesday, according to family members.

For decades, Black appeared daily on WAFB-TV in his cowboy character, charming generations of children with his homespun, good natured presence. His children's shows, "Storyland" aired in the morning and "The Buckskin Bill Show" aired in the afternoon on the television station Monday through Friday from 1955 to 1988. At the time, it held the national record for the longest-running children's show. It shifted to a Saturday morning only show, but was canceled a year later. He retired from the station in 1990.

Black reentered the public eye in 1994 when he was elected to the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board as part of a school reform initiative, replacing most of the sitting board member. Representing the Broadmoor area, Black remained on the board until 2010.

Ed Elkins, master control operator at WAFB, remembers moving from New Orleans to Baton Rouge in 1977 to work on Black’s TV show as a cameraman and later doing audio. Elkins said he knew nothing about the legend of “Buckskin Bill,” but learned quickly. When they met other people, “I would be invisible,” he recalled.

“(Black) was the star of Baton Rouge. He was the man,” Elkins said. “Just think how many children that have grown up to be icons of the community that watched his show.”

Donna Britt, WAFB’s anchor, came to the TV station in 1981 and had a similar experience.

“He was an icon from the word go,” Britt recalled. “He carried himself with dignity. He seemed to know everyone in the world.”

A family member told WAFB that Black died after getting an infection in the wake of partial hip replacement surgery that he had after breaking his hip in November. His wife, Elma, died April 5. Black is survived by a son and two daughters.

Black’s granddaughter Megan Musso said the family is still making funeral arrangements for Black.

Though Black’s show went off the air before she was born, Musso grew up with stories of her pawpaw and watching VHS tapes of his performances, but she said he never boasted about himself.

“I had lots of teachers who would ask me to do school reports on him because they admired him so much,” said Musso. “Even though I knew how much he meant to the community, he was still just my pawpaw.”

Musso, daughter of Black’s youngest child, Ginger Musso, said Black was a true performer even with his grandkids and she grew up playing the game, “Hully Gully,” before she even knew where it came from on Black’s TV show.

What will she miss? Musso offers a quick list: “His stories, his jokes. He would sing very well. And his laugh.”
ONE MORE THING. I added the above video, from Buckskin Bill's later days on "big, booming, powerful Channel 9" because it just captures what Buckskin Bill meant to all of us Baton Rouge kids . . . kids of all ages.

As Buckskin starts his trademark Monday Morning March, we see him joined in the studio by parents and their children -- a mama and a daddy who no doubt marched in front of a big black-and-white television in their living room years before. And now here they were with The Man himself, passing down a legacy of televised love to a new generation.

At the end of every show, he'd would sign off with a little advice: "You're never completely dressed until you put on a smile."

This early morning, I'm sitting here half naked as I write through my tears. Damn.

*  *  *

I know it's not Monday morning, and Lord knows I'm not a kid anymore. But sometimes you wish it were, and you were, because you'd like to do the Monday Morning March just one more time.

See, if you're of a certain age, and if you grew up anywhere reached by "big, booming, powerful Channel 9" in Baton Rouge, La., you most certainly grew up watching Buckskin Bill.

"Buckskin" was Bill Black,
and he did his kiddie show for something like 35 years until he got canceled in 1990. For most of those years, Black donned his buckskins twice a day -- in the morning for the little kids on Storyland and then after school for the older kids with The Buckskin Bill Show.

IT WAS A Baton Rouge rite of passage for a kid to go before the WAFB-TV cameras -- to actually share the stage with Buckskin! -- on his birthday, with a Scout troop, or in a line of kids doing the "Elephant Walk."

I'm sure no one today would be particularly impressed with a never-ending loop of Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk" for a soundtrack as legions of kids filed by a barrel, dropping in their saved-up pennies to buy a pair of elephants for the city's brand-new zoo. Ah, but they forget that magic is made of equal parts simplicity and cheesiness. Yes, it is.

For his first 15 years on the air, getting a zoo for the underachieving Southern city was Buckskin's cause célèbre. For years, he signed off the Buckskin Bill Show with "Remember . . . Baton Rouge needs a zoo!"

A few miles away, the competition on Channel 2, Count Macabre, would spoof this by saying "Remember, boys and girls, Baton Rouge is a zoo!" Both statements were demonstrably true.

Anyway, my turn on the Buckskin Bill Show came in March 1965. It was my fourth birthday. I brought a bottle of Bayer aspirin for Amazon relief.

BUCKSKIN sat me on his lap and started to ask some basic toddler-level questions. The cameras were huge. The lights were bright. I was silent.

My mother was crouched on the studio floor whispering "He's four!" Buckskin, no doubt, was wondering "Who is this woman?"

Why should the fambly be the only ones scratching their heads?

I never did say a bloody word, and Buckskin sent me on my ignominious way -- the redneck equivalent of a dumbstruck Ralphie being dispatched down the Santa slide some decades later in A Christmas Story. On the other hand, he bought us all Coca-Colas after the show.

Even preschool humiliation went better with Coca-Cola. And Holsum Bread.

Why am I writing this? Beats me. I was just thinking about Buckskin Bill -- again -- and how it's sad local television doesn't bother to make magic and memories anymore. Who does?

So there you go, the wistful musings of a middle-aged Southern boy . . . and some vintage video of the Monday Morning March from sometime near my arrival on planet Earth. It seems to me that, during a time when we fear our many crises will overwhelm us, we all need us some Monday Morning March.

Even if it is Wednesday.

Oh . . . one more thing. "Remember, you're never completely dressed until you put on a smile."

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