SEATTLE — Thousands of people attended a memorial tribute to their childhood TV hero, J.P. Patches, on Saturday morning at the Seattle Center.
They lined up outside the opera house hours ahead, admiring each other’s Patches Pals T-shirts, telling their J.P. stories and laughing with the Seafair clowns who came to entertain them. They queued up again in the lobby to sign a guest book, some writing paragraphs of thanks.
Most of those who packed McCaw Hall were born in the 1950s, when the Northwest was best known for logging and Boeing. Not Starbucks, Microsoft or even the Space Needle.
Now a bit paunchy, gray and wearing reading glasses, the baby boomer audience came to celebrate a shared part of their childhoods and another important icon of the region, their beloved J.P.
Chris Wedes, a son of Greek immigrants, moved to Seattle in 1958 to take the lead role in a children’s television show hosted by a new TV station, KIRO. His monthly salary was $600.
Wedes, who settled with his family in Edmonds, was Julius Pierpont Patches: an easy going tramp, the mayor of the city dump, the slapstick-funny guy on TV who helped kids get ready for school and who, with ad-libbed brilliance, also entertained their parents.
“J.P. never talked down to us as kids,” said Rick Mitchell, 57, of Lynnwood. “His humor was very adult. In fact, when I was in college I still thought he was great.”
Many of his fans never even thought of him as a clown, said Karen Leslie, 54, who grew up in Edmonds and lives in Everett.
“He was just J.P. He got us up in the morning and welcomed us home after school,” she said. “Later I got to know him as Chris and he gave us his home phone number. I was just about to call him to check up on him in July when my cousin texted to say that J.P. had died.”
Wedes died July 22 after years of fighting multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer.
The Emmy Award-winning “J.P. Patches Show” was one of the longest-running children’s TV shows in the country. It first aired in 1958 and had a send-off in 1981.
After that, J.P. made appearances throughout the Northwest, at Seattle Children’s Hospital, at all sorts of festivals and fairs such as the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe.
Parents and grandparents brought the younger generation out to meet him. Even the toughest of older guys would stutter star-struck greetings when they shook the hand of J.P. Patches.
Rick Mitchell said his sons never did understand his devotion to J.P. Neither did a lot of people who didn’t grow up watching the TV show, said Rick’s wife, Sue Mitchell, 56.
“You had to live it to understand it,” she said. “You feel it in your heart.”
Wedes was on hand to see life-size bronze statues of J.P. Patches and his sidekick, Gertrude, played by his friend Bob Newman, unveiled in 2008 by Sultan sculptor Kevin Pettelle. The statue, “Late for the Interurban,” was installed near the “Waiting for the Interurban” sculpture in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle.
Karen Leslie and her husband, Dan Leslie, 60, were there for the sculpture installation and at many other J.P. events. On Saturday, the couple carried with them a poster board covered with photos, including one of Karen smiling after being kissed by J.P. His clown makeup covered her cheek.
Broadcast personality Pat Cashman, the master of ceremonies at the memorial, showed off some of the elements of the J.P. Patches Show set, including the ICU2TV set and the Grandpa Tick-Tock clock that kept young viewers on schedule for the school bus.
The show’s sound effects man, Duane Smart, played some of the familiar noises and tunes from the program. Bob Newman, who also played Boris S. Wort, Ketchikan the Animal Man and other characters besides Gertrude, offered a video tribute to Wedes. Another children’s entertainer from the era, Stan Boreson of Camano Island, sang for the audience and talked about his friendship with Wedes.
Radio personality Dori Monson talked about Wedes’ influence on his broadcast career. John Keister, who included J.P. Patches in several “Almost Live” shows, told the crowd that Wedes let kids be kids. And Chris Ballew, of the band Presidents of the United States of America, offered a musical tribute to J.P. and got the audience singing along.
Most touching of the presentations, perhaps, was the one by Wedes’ granddaughter, Christina Frost.
“My grandfather taught me how to drink from a glass without smudging my lipstick, how to ride a bike and how to say please, thank you and go to hell in Greek,” Frost said. “I also observed the way he lived and I learned that we are put on this Earth to enjoy the gift of life.”
• To see a video of the event, click here.