By Jeff Switzer, Herald Writer
EDMONDS — His gentle smile and happy eyes aren’t immediately recognizable. The olive skin throws you off the trail.
The voice, though, is the giveaway.
“Sometimes at grocery stores, I’ll start talking and the clerks will say ‘I think I know you.’ “
Plaster on a layer of clown white face paint, ruby red lips and a rubber nose. Add the signature smooshed black top hat and yellow coat and the shy and private Chris Wedes disappears.
In his place is that familiar icon of children’s television Julius Pierpont Patches.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of his first live television broadcast on KIRO-TV and his debut in the Northwest.
The J.P. Patches show is one of the longest running local children’s shows in TV history appearing on the air from 1958 to 1981. An estimated 12,000 J.P. shows were televised.
“I’m still amazed at the longevity of the character,” said Wedes, 79. “When I go on appearances, I get hugs, I get tears, I get laughter. The people are so in love with J.P. Patches. I can’t believe it that it has hung on that long.”
For his legion of Patches Pals, those 23 years of slapstick and zaniness are wrapped in the warm blanket of childhood nostalgia.
“It was part of the morning routine,” said Patches Pal Lori Kuehl, 53, of Mountlake Terrace. “You can’t turn on the TV until you got your teeth brushed and got dressed. You would get ready faster so you could turn it on.”
She watched the show as a kid, and later with her young daughter. Now she and Wedes are friends, after meeting one day at the city pool.
Patches Pals again are uniting behind their hero.
They’ve so far donated $110,000 of $165,000 to cast a bronze statue of J.P. Patches and his sidekick Gertrude to be placed in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. More money is still needed for the statue, being made by a Sultan sculptor and completed this summer.
The effort already was under way when in October doctors diagnosed Wedes with a blood cancer called acute myeloma.
“It’s controllable, but they’re saying as of now they can’t cure it,” Wedes said. “As long as they can control it, you know, I feel OK.”
He ducked out of the public eye for a few months, tired from his dialysis treatment three times a week.
He stepped back in the limelight a few weeks ago.
When his show was on the air, Wedes always appeared in character with makeup. He didn’t want to spoil the illusion held by his loyal fans.
“It was kind of like unmasking Santa Claus,” he said.
Soon he’ll be talking publicly about the statue, Children’s Hospital and philanthropy. Now that his fans have grown-up, he figures he can skip the makeup.
“A few years ago, I never would have consented to do it,” Wedes said. “They’re not kids anymore, they’re adults.”
And they’re everywhere.
Wedes got his start in radio and TV in Minnesota, where J.P. Patches was born. He took over the character and moved with it to Seattle when KIRO-TV got its launch in 1958.
The tiny makeshift set and props were hallmarks of the show. Gizmos and props were made out of whatever was handy or cheap at the hardware store. The show had no budget or script and relied on the imaginations of Wedes and his cohorts.
In his heyday, J.P. also was everywhere.
Besides hosting a kids TV show as “mayor of the city dump” twice every weekday and once on Saturdays, he would spend weekend after weekend through the 1960s and 1970s with his fans.
Businesses paid Wedes to appear at grand openings of restaurants and grocery stores, and the TV station took a slice of the pay.
Kids swarmed around him for photos and autographs.
“It was like he was The Beatles,” said Patches Pal Kevin Pettelle, a Sultan sculptor hired to make the bronze likeness of J.P. and Gertrude. “He was a superstar.”
J.P. also did his own commercials on the show and his likeness grinned from Darigold milk containers, Sunbeam bread bags, and Dankens ice cream lids.
Boys in buzz cuts and girls in pigtails and pedal pushers were his loyal fans, watching his improvised sketches in between cartoons.
“We never had a script, we would just ad lib,” Wedes said.
Kids glued themselves to flickering black-and-white televisions, biding their time before catching the bus to school and racing home to watch him in the afternoon.
J.P. bantered and dueled with co-star Bob Newman, who played Gertrude, Ketchikan the Animal Man, Boris S. Wart and more than a dozen other characters.
Fan mail from kids poured in by the thousands. The waiting list of Cub Scouts and Brownies waiting to appear on the show was six months long.
When their turn came, they’d watch their hero from the control booth and at the end, file onto the set.
J.P. went down the line, gently touching the children’s heads or tugging at ponytails, and give every boy and girl a prize bag.
“I thoroughly enjoyed having the kids on the program,” Wedes said. Because of the long waiting list, he went out of his way to make it a memorable day for each kid, he said.
“They all remember being on the program, what they got, what happened,” he said.
Celebrities came by, too, including comedian Steve Allen, Burt Ward, who played Robin on “Batman,” ukulele player Tiny Tim, politicians, Olympic medal winners, even Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Col. Sanders.
Reality hit Newman when he and Wedes entertained a Boeing Christmas party at the Kingdome one year.
He knew they made it when the two were “working a crowd of 55,000 and they didn’t stop clapping.”
After the show ended in 1981, Wedes worked in TV production at KIRO and later retired.
On the side, J.P. Patches became his own brand as an entertainer.
By 1988, more and more grown-up Patches Pals were clamoring for him to perform at their parties.
“It takes them back to their childhood,” Wedes said. “When they see me the love just flows out, and the tears. It’s really something.”
Fans write regularly with their favorite memories.
“I get e-mail now from people everywhere,” Wedes said. Most are happy reminiscences. Some are sad.
“Some of the e-mail you can’t believe,” Wedes said. Some kids were the products of alcoholic parents or were mistreated, he said.
“They said, ‘The only thing I had to look forward to was you in the morning and then coming home and you in the afternoon, and you became a surrogate parent,’ ” Wedes said. “It’s amazing. I never thought of that when I was doing the show. And it isn’t just a few. I get quite a few of those e-mails from adults who recount a bad childhood.”
Behind the makeup, Wedes lives a quiet life in a one-story house in Edmonds. A sitting room has only a handful of framed photos of him as the character he has made famous for 50 years.
“I didn’t want it to be a shrine,” he said.
He and his wife of 51 years, Joanie, enjoy musical theater and going to the symphony.
As J.P. Patches, he made 30 appearances in 2007, plus seven county fairs. His lines of autograph seekers at the Evergreen State Fair are the longest, he said.
Meanwhile, the effort by Patches Pals to honor J.P. and Gertrude with a bronze statue is gaining momentum.
Billboards around the region continue to draw donations.
The statue will “honor a local icon who had such a great impact on people’s lives, millions of kids lives,” said Pettelle, the sculptor. “Bronze lasts forever, and hopefully it will be a focal point for generations.”
Part of the sculpture will include a replica of the show’s magical ICU2TV set, a slapped together box that J.P. used to see his fans on the other side of the TV and wish them a happy birthday.
The bronze version will have a slot for people to donate money to Children’s Hospital, where Wedes spent years visiting seriously ill kids. He was hugely popular, and even had a play area named after him.
“We donate whenever we can,” Wedes said. “Over the years, I became attached to the personnel. It became part of me for many years. I don’t go there now, but it’s still there, embedded in my psyche. I can still see the kids I saw, and I want to do everything I can for the kids. And I think this is a wonderful way to do it.”
Pettelle is thrilled that he gets to do the sculpture.
“The ‘J.P. Patches Show’ was the thing I watched every single morning before I got on the bus, a routine I had until my high school years,” Pettelle said. “I loved it because it was a funny show and most kid shows weren’t funny.”
Wedes and Newman spent years putting on the makeup and going to appearances together while they were on the TV show. And they’ve done it ever since, although Gertrude, like J.P., says he’s slowing down.
Wedes puts on his makeup at home and drives to his appearances at parties and state fairs.
“Now with these new phone cameras, people honk and they take pictures of me,” Wedes said. “That happens all the time now.”
To see Patches Pals opening their wallets for a statue of the pair is humbling, Newman said.
“Frankly, honestly, he and I both, we’re overwhelmed that this is actually being done,” said Newman, 76. “That’s a wonderful thing. Who else has a life-size bronze statue? That’s a hell of a tribute. That’s, holy smokes, thanks a lot. We didn’t put in for this.”
Twenty years ago, doctors told Newman he had multiple sclerosis. His right hand and leg give him trouble, but he’s still feisty and as over-the-top as ever.
Besides Gertrude, he played Boris S. Wort, the second meanest man in the world, Ggoorrsstt the Friendly Frpl, Miss Smith, The Swami of Pastrami, Officer Paddy Wagon and others.
Newman lives on a boat in Seattle called Zaba Zaba — the password to the show’s secret room.
He and Wedes remain tight.
“He’d give you the shirt off his back,” Newman said. “We’re the best of friends.”
People are worried about Wedes’ fight against cancer. Newman gets e-mails from around the world asking “How’s the clown doing?”
The push for a statue was started by Carl Lovgren, a carpenter from Edmonds and Patches Pal who watched the show for about a decade.
“As a person, as the man behind the makeup, he’s incredible,” Lovgren said.
It took several years for things to get moving.
The local chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is coordinating the statue effort.
Wedes and Newman deserve the statues, said Bryan Johnston, chairman of the statue committee and a Patches Pal who co-wrote a biography on the clown that was published in 2002.
“Personally, I think J.P. has had a greater emotional impact on more people in the Puget Sound area than anybody, period, over 50 years,” said Johnston, a senior writer and producer at KIRO-TV.
Of more than 900 donations, fewer than 10 were from businesses. The rest are from everyday Patches Pals buying $100 and $125 brick pavers to be installed around the statue.
Any money raised that isn’t needed for the statue goes to Children’s Hospital.
Supporters hope to unveil it a few hours before the Fremont Solstice Parade on June 21.
Newman has his own plans for after the statue is in place and the fanfare fades.
“I’ll be selling tomatoes a buck a throw,” he said.
Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lots of J.P. Patches photos, sound and TV clips and merchandise are at www.jppatches.com.
Stan Boreson hosted KING’s Klubhouse on KING-TV and worked at other stations for more than 18 years: www.stanboreson.com. And watch Stan’s video, “I Just Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore” at www.heraldnet.com/multimedia.
Captain Puget (Don McCune) was on KOMO-TV, including a nine-year run as a children’s host from 1957 and as host of “Exploration Northwest” from 1960-1981: www.donmccunelibrary.com.